By Ila Hatter
In the early spring of 1975, Marie Mellinger, botanist and naturalist from Tiger, Ga. And Mary Nikas, Executive Director of the Hambidge Center, were on a Botanical Soc. Trip to the Okeefenokee Swamp when they began discussing possible environmental programs for the Center.
“Reading the Landscape”, a two or three day seminar based on succession study was one program that seemed perfect for the Hambidge Center. Then, almost as an after-thought, Marie suggested that a “fun” way to learn a lot of plants and their uses might be a weekend program introducing people to wild edibles as a diet supplement, not for survival necessarily.
They decided to try both programs and planned the wild edibles program not only to identify edibles in the wild, but also to give actual experience in gathering, preparing and eating them.
A dozen or so people, mostly from Atlanta and Rabun County, signed up for the first seminar in May 1975. There was a wide range of backgrounds, interests, and age… but all were interested in eating weeds, roots, nuts, berries, and the like, for their own reasons. The result was an instant success. The group enjoyed themselves immensely and much to their surprise found this wild food not only “not bad”, but really good… good enough to add some items to their diet. To really use some new foods… foods out of old fields, roadsides and fence corners.
The Center reported the weekend in its column in the Clayton Tribune and Bob Harrell picked it up for his Sunday camping column in Atlanta Journal Constitution
“And the rest is History”!
One young woman who attended one of those weekend programs, found a passion that was to set the course for the rest of her life. On the last morning, before breakfast, she walked out into the mountain mist alone, and in that sacred quiet, she uttered a prayer of thanks that she had found this group and had this experience. And that someday, God willing, she wanted to BE a “Marie Mellinger”.
It was to be many years later before I was asked to teach what I’d learned from Marie, the Incredible Edibles club, and all the other influences in my life. And many more before I felt worthy of being paid to teach. I still consider myself a student, not an expert authority.
I remember what pride I felt the first time I was asked by Marie herself to join her as co-instructor for one of her classes in Clayton, and then at her Elderhostels. One piece of advice I learned from her early on, and always gets a laugh. There was a grass I’d always wondered what it was, that was abundant on a walk I was leading with Marie. I asked her its name, and she sharply said, “Now I don’t have to tell you that, do I?” She carried on with identification with the class and finally, when we were alone by the car, I said “Marie I really don’t know the name of that grass, what is it?” She said “Didn’t I tell you the First Rule of being a good Naturalist?” “What’s that?” I answered. “Always stand on what you don’t know! I was trying to stand on it so no one would ask, I don’t know what it is either!
Marie called herself a “Purist”. But you and I know that’s just another word for
“Curmudgeon”! She could be exasperating at times, and yet instill an enthusiasm for protecting wild places that few can match. It is now finally recognized that such a thing as “Nature Deficit Disorder” really exists, and “Place Based Education” is the new buzz word. In the book “Last Child in the Woods” it is pointed out that for a child to have an experience WITH Nature, not just IN it, an adult has to arrange for the child to be there. Marie’s many years of teaching produced many adults who have done just that. I don’t think it was a total coincidence that Marie Mellinger and Foxfire existed at the same place in time and both in Rabun County, GA.
Marie was fond of quoting many of the great Naturalists, and I’d like to quote an appropriate passage from John Burroughs “Gospel of Nature”, which fits Marie well I think.
“I myself have never made a dead set at studying Nature with a note-book and field glass in hand. I have rather VISITED with her. We have walked together or sat down together, and our intimacy grows with the seasons. What I have learned about her ways I have learned easily, almost unconsciously. To absorb a thing is better than to learn it, and we absorb what we enjoy. We learn things in school; we absorb them in the fields and woods, and on the farm. When we look upon Nature with fondness and appreciation she meets us halfway and takes a deeper hold upon us than when studiously considerd. Hence I say the way of knowledge of Nature is the way of love and enjoyment, and is more surely found in the open air than in the school-room or the laboratory.”
Marie made up games for her students of the open air. One was for Mid Summer Solstice: You pass a crown of woven fern around a circle while chanting “Around the month, around the year- For better or worse, Mid Summer’s here. And he who wears the crown of Fern, shall have Good Luck at every turn!” Marie also wrote numerous plays based on Nature or Indian themes. I had no idea until she gave me a whole box of them .
Other poems I learned from her I never knew if they were hers or something she’d read.
The Pine is Chief of all the trees
The Hemlock has the power
The Oak and Ash along with these makeup the under bower
With Yellow Root and Witch’s Wood
That in the forest lives
The trees and shrubs on every side
Their gifts to mankind give.
And from the book she wrote for The Mountain Retreat Center:
“The trees upon the mountain
Make a rustling in the dark;
They speak to us in many tongues,
In leaf and seed and bark.”
From Marie I have borrowed her favorite quote from Thoreau and repeat it in all my videos and class papers: “The Woods and Fields are a Table always spread”.
One last note, which may have come from Marie herself, as I found it while searching for what to bring of my “Marie Mementos” for this Memorial. I came across an old notebook of hers filled with bits and pieces of articles, handwritten notes, etc. that she was probably collecting for use in her many “door prizes” she made. When I opened it, there was Marie’s picture in a newspaper article, and lying on the picture was a note that read.
“Since Love, once born, lives forever,
And Death is but a transition,
I need have no fear.”
And if I ever knew a woman who had no fear – it was she.. except maybe one…..of being useless.
Yet the first thing I learned from Marie the first day I spent with her – was how to be useful to my last breath. As an artist I realized the eyes could dim, the hands could cripple and fail, BUT, what I KNEW could still be useful to someone, even from a rocking chair or a couch. As I heard you say so many times Marie, in the Indian languages there is no word for a Dead Tree. It’s a tree lying on the ground…still being useful, serving a function, providing compost for hemlock seedlings, Hepatica, Lady’s Slippers. Fungi.
So I wouldn’t be surprised Marie, that like a giant tree whose shadow of influence has fallen in the forest, you have BECOME the Foxfire, providing light for the Wee Folk who dance among the Dandelions!
Now, My Friend, in the words of the Native Elders: “Touch the Sun and become a Star!”