At their 95-acre forest farm and camp near the Greene County town of Cairo, Justin Wexler and Anna Plattner are re-creating the landscape as it was known to the native inhabitants of the region. Each weekend throughout the summer, they invite visitors to the property, Wild Hudson Valley, to learn about edible plants, medicine, folklore, history, and both ancient and modern forest farming practices.
Guided nature walks and workshops are geared toward all ages. Programs for families help kids and adults connect with nature. For an even more immersive experience, visitors can stay overnight at one of four eco-campsites.
Unlike most nature education programs, Anna and Justin emphasize the role of native peoples in relating to the land. Justin’s fascination with the natural world began when he was a child growing up in the Hudson Valley.
“I realized by time I was eight or nine that the people who would know the land best were the people who lived here for generations but were driven out of their homeland,” he said. By his teens, he was trying to visualize the life of the Lenape, who inhabited the area before they were displaced by European settlers.
As he researched the history of the Hudson Valley and its occupants, Justin made connections with descendants of the Lenape, now dispersed to communities in Ontario, Wisconsin and Oklahoma. After befriending residents of those communities, he hosted Lenape people who came to visit their homeland. He continues to make links with organizations that would help represent their culture and history.
Anna also grew up in the Hudson Valley. With a degree in natural resources from Cornell University, she went on to work in agroforestry and became the general manager of the largest wild-simulated ginseng farm in the world, American Ginseng Pharm.
“Ginseng is picky about where it will grow,” said Anna. “It has a history of being overharvested and exploited, but you can cultivate it by planting seeds in the wild.” Stewarding ginseng habitat, part of returning the land to its pre-colonial state, involves removing invasive species and planting other species that would have flourished before settlers brought European plants to this continent.
“Without a time machine, we won’t know exactly what it was like in those times,” Anna said. “But going through historical records, plus the details of Justin’s research, we’ve been learning which plants would have been here. We can’t do large prescribed burns the way native people would have done, but we do have a diversity of habitats,” including forest, meadows and wetlands. Burning sections of forest in a controlled way, native people used to create open spaces that were followed by growth of white oaks. The acorns nourished an abundance of deer, which the people hunted as a source of food, clothing and tools.
The goal of Wild Hudson Valley is to inspire learning and build connections through shared experiences in nature, history, and wild foods. “When we lead a walk through the woods,” said Anna, “we talk about the trees and plants, how they might have been used by native people, and what they mean in the landscape. Each one tells something different about ecology and the wildlife it supports. If a plant is edible or medicinal, we talk about how you might harvest and prepare it.”
On Memorial Day weekend, Wild Hudson Valley will hold a mushroom walk and farm tour, including their mushroom cultivation area, along with a workshop in mushroom identification. From Memorial Day through October, the eco-campsites are available for weekend-long experiences, accessible even to people who are not experienced campers.
Each of four campsites is equipped with a four-person canvas tent and beds on platforms. At a covered dining area with picnic table, storage cabinet, grilling utensils and plates, visitors cook over a fire — with firewood provided. There’s also a communal area with nature-centered games, books, displays, historical artifacts, pictures. Weekend programming includes a bonfire with stargazing and storytelling, a guided nature walk and farm tour, hiking on the trails, and leisure time to observe nature.
Wild Hudson Valley offers a bird-watching walk that not only teaches how to identify birds but also focuses on native folklore surrounding birds. Justin, who has studied several Algonquian languages, explained that the names for birds often describes their calls, such as for the song sparrow, with its lilting, articulate melodies. In each language, the word for “waterfowl” refers to the call of a common local species, showing where a particular tribe is from.
Justin was 15 when he began to study the languages of the region, unearthing vocabulary that was lost in the tribes’ exodus west. The only surviving native person who speaks Munsee is a woman living in Ontario. Through his research, Justin has found words that he shares with university language scholars, helping to revitalize and preserve language and culture.
As a college student, Anna learned to read the forested landscape by developing a deep understanding of trees. “They tell you so much about the ecosystem where they’re growing,” she explained. “A tree will grow in a spot because of the soil or the way the hillside is facing, how much sun it’s getting. Then the tree will alter that landscape by creating places for wildlife and other plants to grow. Learning trees helped me understand how everything is connected.”
One of her goals is to help people witness nature’s balance and see what a healthy landscape is. A disturbed landscape reduces biodiversity. “It starts with learning to identify and relate to plants and animals.”
Another way for adventurous cooks or people curious about foraging to learn about native wild edibles is through Wild Hudson Valley’s food box subscription, which costs $15 to $20 a month. Subscribers receive a monthly assortment of foods that are either wild-harvested or grown on the property where Justin and Anna cultivate traditional native crops of corn, beans and squash.
Changing with the seasons, varieties include ramps (wild leeks) and other greens, mushrooms, berries, nuts, and more. The box contains a description of each ingredient, recipes, identification tips, and information on their historic value for native people. Pickup locations are in Catskill, Cairo and Hudson.
As Anna explained, “We’re trying to cultivate a passion in people for learning what’s out there in their own back yard.”
For information on Wild Hudson Valley’s programs visit https://www.wildhudsonvalley.com.