GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — Charles Darwin had to sail halfway around the world to the Galapagos Islands to discover that his passion in life was to be a naturalist, not a clergyman or physician, careers for which he had studied.
Nicole Zempel only had to buy a house in the town she grew up in to discover her true passion. Her new home abutted a native prairie on the edge of Granite Falls, and she began exploring it to identify the plants it held.
“I didn’t realize how much fun,” she said of learning about the natural world around her. “Now it’s like an obsession.”
To say the least: Today, her entire lawn consists of native plants, hand-planted by Zempel. “I can literally eat my whole yard,” she said, laughing.
Her spare time today is devoted almost entirely to exploring the prairie and woodlands she finds close to home. She’s become a forager for mushrooms and native plants; some familiar, some exotic.
She picks dandelions and wild violets to make jellies. She collects the fallen buds of cottonwood trees to make an antimicrobial salve.
This outdoor enthusiast has her secret locations to sustainably pick the leaves or parts of wild plants such as ramps, nettles, wild onion and garlic and lambsquarter to add to the stir-fry dishes she concocts on her own. She has a secret “jelly fungus forest,” where she harvests this edible fungus to add to her dishes. And, she knows where native enoki, morel, chicken of the woods and other highly-coveted mushrooms are to be found.
It’s where they are found that matters most. For her, it’s all about getting out in the natural world, she said. “I didn’t realize how good it would make me feel,” she said. “I’ve come to crave it. It’s a mental, spiritual thing.”
It’s also something she loves to introduce to others, both through her art and through writings and in-person and virtual presentations.
It all starts with that move seven years ago to a new home. She said it was mushrooms that first caught her attention as she began exploring the natural world outside her door.
Learning to identify mushrooms is no small matter, she quickly discovered. There are over 80,000 known species, and some are lethal. There are galerina mushrooms found in this area, and ingesting one cap of the wrong one will kill you, she pointed out.
To identify the mushrooms she discovered, she began photographing them as well as making impressions of them. The color of the spores, the patterns under the cap, the plants and environment around a given mushroom are all helpful in identifying an individual species, she explained.
This pursuit soon led her to capture the imagery of the unique microhabitats, cracks and crevices in which she found many of the mushrooms. She posted her images on a blog and on social media. About two years ago, the Granite Falls Arts Council asked her to exhibit them in a public showing.
Her works have been gaining attention ever since. An exhibit of her works at the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council’s Gallery in Marshall will run through June 25.
Others are fascinated by her adventures in foraging and cooking wild foods. She is frequently asked to give presentations. “I think mushrooms initially grabbed people’s attention,” she said. “They’re mysterious. We’re taught not to touch them.”
This may explain the popularity of a current series she is offering in partnership with the Bluenose Gopher in Granite Falls called “WILDLY Unique Pairings!” Participants enjoy pairing locally crafted beer and wine along with edible mushrooms while learning about jelly fungus, slime mold and mycelium, all of which are also edible.
Many of her presentations are on the more familiar plants she forages. She has been offering a “Backyard Live” series on Facebook in which she and helpers introduce viewers to foraging and cooking with natural plants and mushrooms.
She is a student enrollment specialist with the Minnesota West Community and Technical College system, and her employer has tapped her knowledge as well. She has given presentations on foraging and cooking with natural foods for “Wellness Wednesday” and other workshops held for employees of the system.
She considers the presentations to be a way to return something to the natural world for all it provides her. By her reasoning, the more that people come to appreciate the natural world, the more they will do to protect it.
Zempel is a 1995 graduate of her local high school and earned a two-year associate degree in liberal arts at Minnesota West. She did not undertake any formal studies to be the naturalist she is today.
As was Charles Darwin, she is driven entirely by her interest in the natural world that she has discovered. “It’s like endless discovery,” she said. “I’m never going to be bored as long as I live.”
Asked how it all came to be, she answered simply: “It’s the natural evolution of where curiosity led me.”