Katrina Blair carefully sidesteps a dandelion as she walks along a path to the domed greenhouse on Turtle Lake Refuge’s farm. The structure is close enough to Durango’s County Road 205 to hear the occasional passing vehicle. Still, it feels serene and almost isolated sitting as it does in the lush Turtle Lake Valley, framed by Junction Creek sandstone cliffs to the north and the green slope of Animas City Mountain to the southeast.
Blair opens the door to the greenhouse and points the gentle spray of a hose at the ground inside. Rather than neat rows of kale or trellised tomato plants, the soil here bursts with a tangled green riot of parsley, long-gone-to-seed Swiss chard, and rosemary interspersed with dandelions and stinging nettles—weeds, to most people. Suddenly, she shuts off the water, pushes up the sleeves of her moss green wool sweater, and lunges forward in her swishy black athletic pants to inspect something on the ground. It’s an outcropping of common mallow, a maligned member of the okra family known as a pesky weed for wreaking havoc on lawns and gardens. Blair smiles down at the plant’s lily-pad-shaped leaves and, turning the water back on, gives the mallow an approving shower from the hose. As she finishes watering, she pauses at the door to push her long, sun-bleached blond hair away from her face. “All right, you guys,” she says sincerely to the plants in a lilting voice. “Blessings to your day.”
Blair isn’t your typical farmer. In fact, she’s not your typical anything. The 48-year-old is best known in the Durango community as the face of Turtle Lake Refuge, a nonprofit she founded in 1998. What started as a mobile lunch cart to raise money to protect the Turtle Lake Valley’s wetlands was successful in a roundabout way; perhaps because of her omnipresence around town, a neighbor independently purchased and placed nearly 50 acres of the wetlands in a conservation easement. Since then, Blair has expanded the scope of Turtle Lake’s mission to “celebrate the connection between personal health and all wild lands.” In the process, she’s become a one-woman tour de force when it comes to sustainability in Durango’s foodshed. She serves a twice-weekly community lunch at Turtle Lake’s cafe, hawks items such as mallow rye breadsticks and thistle lemonade from a farmers’ market stall, and supplies a wild foods Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program with bundles of curly dock leaves and bags of homemade chokecherry macaroons. But over the past decade, her work has increasingly come to focus on the wild plants that need her the most: common weeds.
“Who knows what this plant right here is?” Blair asks the crowd of nearly 20 gathered for a foraging class at a rural Boulder property. Blair stands barefoot in a scrubby area beside a rushing creek, her face shadowed by a broad-brimmed straw hat. She presides over a sprawling patch of chickweed, a delicate plant with small leaves and tiny white-petaled flowers.
She instructs the students to gather up the chickweed leaves along with the thistles and dandelions growing nearby. She combines the group’s harvest, a couple of quarts of water, a few peeled lemons, and some chopped green apples in the canister of a bicycle-powered blender she hauled up from Durango. Participants take turns pedaling the mixture into green juice. Blair strains the liquid and ladles it into cups. One woman pauses, inhaling deeply as she takes a sip. “I didn’t expect it to taste this good,” she says.
Denver-born Blair has been foraging since she was a kid. Her family moved to Durango when she was three years old, and after graduating from high school there, she moved into a nearby forest for the summer, sheltering in a handmade lean-to and later, after the lean-to was washed out, in a tent. Blair spent months camping alone and educating herself on wild plants through books and trial-and-error taste tests. She got her degree in biology in 1991 from Colorado College, where her senior project, The Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants of the San Juan Mountains, emerged as a precursor to her life’s work. A master’s degree in holistic health education from John F. Kennedy University in California came next.
Blair’s two passions—the environment and personal health—can be traced back to her upbringing. She credits her late father for “opening up the doors to that outdoor wildness” for her. Thanks to his work as a geologist and interest in mountaineering, the family pitched tents across Colorado and in locales as far-flung as New Zealand. Meanwhile, her mother (who co-founded Durango Natural Foods Co-Op) taught Blair and her brother to be, as Blair puts it, “the masters of our own health.” She’s been drinking twice-daily green juices since she was two. Blair cites an influential experience at age 11 that cemented her lifelong love affair with wild plants: “I was floating on a pool mattress in Haviland Lake [in the San Juan National Forest], and I felt called over to these plants on the shore. I sat down with them and got euphoric with all this energy, and they said, You’re home. You’re going to live your life with us.”
Blair’s young self was onto something. In advance of the Telluride Mushroom Festival (August 17 to 20), Blair will prepare for a solo weeklong walkabout from Durango to Telluride, as she has every August for the past 10 years. She’ll set out on the roughly 90-mile trek with a light pack holding little more than a sleeping bag, tarp, knife, water bottle, warm clothes, and perhaps a bit of seaweed to replenish her body’s salt content. She’ll refill her bottle with unfiltered water from pristine high-elevation creeks, the same water she drinks at home. It’s the zenith of mushroom and berry season in the high country, and as she crests multiple 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks, she’ll collect enough food to feed herself and begin a produce stockpile for a ticketed dinner for 150 people at the festival; since Blair can’t forage and carry enough food for that many, a team of volunteers waiting for her in Telluride will harvest more, and some ingredients will come from local farmers’ markets too.
For even the most experienced mountaineers, this journey would be considered brutal survival training. But en route—while plucking fat king bolete mushrooms from alpine aspen groves and gathering handfuls of flavorful woodland strawberries—is when Blair says she feels most in-tune with the rhythms of the earth. As of late, however, not all of Blair’s energies have been devoted to the unspoiled wilderness. Her focus on weeds has called her down from the mountains and back to civilization.
Ever since those post-high-school camping days, Blair has been fascinated with weeds. Or, rather, she has been infuriated with the widespread practice of spraying potentially caustic weed-killers on our public and private lands. In 2016, the global herbicide industry was valued at almost $24 billion. Blair questions the reasoning behind—as well as the solvency of—this approach to “invasive” weed management. She’s not alone. In 2015, the U.N.-sponsored International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded in a controversial report that the world’s most commonly used agricultural chemical, glyphosate (aka Roundup, manufactured by Monsanto), is “probably carcinogenic,” and in July, the state of California added it to its list of potentially cancerous chemicals. The jury is still out on the safety of many of these herbicides, but Blair doesn’t see the point of spraying chemicals that could be dangerous pollutants on plants that are actually edible and nutritious and often help repair disrupted soil. This isn’t an entirely novel idea; Connecticut banned the use of all synthetic herbicides near schools eight years ago, and cities like Chicago and Boulder have also dramatically cut their herbicide use in parks.
In 2001, Blair decided to directly challenge the herbicide paradigm by creating a for-hire organic land-stewardship service. In 2008 and 2009, Turtle Lake Refuge volunteered its services for the city’s first organic park, Brookside Park, for two seasons. Soon after, the Organically Managed Lands Resolution was passed, and the Durango Parks and Recreation Department took over organic maintenance of eight of the town’s public parks for a three-year trial period. While the program is continuing, not everyone has been happy with the results. Cathy Metz, the town’s parks and recreation director, claims that the program is costly to maintain and that the organic parks now have more weeds than conventionally managed ones.”
Around noon on a warm day this past spring, Blair’s truck (painted with a psychedelic tableau of turtles and adorned with a “Bees Love Weeds” bumper sticker) pulls up behind Turtle Lake Refuge’s cafe. It’s located on the first two floors of a converted white house on a leafy street just a few blocks from Durango’s main drag. Blair gets out and glides through the ground level of the well-worn space, passing trays of sprouting sunflower and wheatgrass seeds incubating beneath fluorescent lamps. There’s a poster entitled the “Periodic Table of Vegetables” and a giant art installation of a green man, reminiscent of the Jolly Green Giant. Upstairs, she takes a seat at one of the round tables with the other diners. Here, every Tuesday and Friday, Turtle Lake serves a multicourse farm-to-table and wild-food-focused lunch. These days, foraged ingredients are de rigueur at the world’s best restaurants: René Redzepi, perhaps the most influential chef of the century thus far, built the legacy of his two-Michelin-star Denmark restaurant, Noma, on such found fare. But Turtle Lake’s aesthetic skews more ’70s health food co-op than fine dining. That’s largely because Blair isn’t interested in trendiness or luxury—or even plating. Blair wants to prove that much-maligned weeds such as dandelion, dock, mallow, and thistle deserve a place at everyone’s table.
Today, the menu offers green juice made with comfrey leaves from the garden; a tomato bisque; a salad of sunflower microgreens freshly snipped from a tray downstairs and dressed with dandelion-lime vinaigrette; cabbage tacos stuffed with walnut “meat”; and a free-form apple tart with a sauce made from the farm’s plums. It’s all raw, organic, local, and vegan (aside from a bit of honey from Durango purveyor Honeyville). And even in the middle of winter, the menu makes creative use of feral weeds, incorporating dashes of house-made dehydrated powders, ferments such as purslane sauerkraut, and frozen stockpiles. People come from miles away; one of the cafe’s “wild food chefs,” as Blair calls them, says the eatery frequently hosts out-of-state visitors who’ve stopped in Durango specifically to eat there. Diners drop $10 to $15 suggested donations in an honor-system-style bin downstairs, pop their heads inside the snug galley kitchen to let the staff know they’re there, and settle in for a meal that they’d be unlikely to encounter anywhere else in Durango. In fact, it’s a meal they’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else in the country.
Most of the recipes hail from Blair’s 2014 book, The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Plants for Human Survival, which is expressly devoted to eating and celebrating weeds. It features background information on 13 commonly found varieties as well as more than 100 recipes for using up your harvest—clover sprout casserole, purslane gazpacho, dock mustard pretzels, and even (nonedible) lamb’s-quarters shampoo. What’s most striking about the book is how accessible it is: You don’t need to climb a mountain to locate a dandelion, and most people can easily identify one. Blair’s chirpy prose and easy-to-follow instructions (including warnings about harvesting plants from polluted or herbicide-affected areas) demystify the process of incorporating weeds into your culinary repertoire. Accessibility is precisely the point of both the book and the bargain-priced community lunches at Turtle Lake’s cafe. If Blair can shift the cultural perception of weeds from harmful invaders to fantastic, free food sources, then she can take on what she considers the true destructive force: synthetic herbicides.
After lunch, Blair lingers at the table with friends. This is what her war for weeds looks like: a roomful of people, young and old, nursing glasses of foraged green juice and nibbling on nettle-and-oat cookies. It’s about letting the weeds speak for themselves, and for Blair, it’s about listening to them. “We need to remember how to survive on this planet as well as these plants do,” Blair says. “When we eat wild plants from the earth, it grounds us. It gets plant intelligence back into our systems.”
Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this story, we stated that Turtle Lake Refuge managed eight of Durango’s parks for a three-year trial period. In fact, the trial period was managed by the Parks and Recreation Department and not by Turtle Lake Refuge. We also stated that the organic parks program would not be continuing, when it is continuing. We regret the errors.