That’s me on the left, digging for lotus tubers with my feet in the Mississippi River. (photo by Mike Krebill)
How badly do I want those linden flowers?
How delicious is that cattail pollen?
Will that branch hold my weight while I reach for those oyster mushrooms?
Am I going to run into mama bear and her cubs in the blueberry patch?
Do I really need those elderberries?
Maybe you don’t ask yourself these questions on a regular basis, but I do. And the answers are almost always: a lot, very, I don’t know but I’m going to try it anyway, I hope not, and yes.
I am not a brave person. There may have been a college escapade walking across the almost frozen Charles River, but that was stupidity, not bravery. I run away from bees (I tell people I’m allergic but I’m really just afraid), I cringe every time I pull a tick off me (I get a lot of ticks), and I fear the blisters of poison ivy as much as the next person.
But certain things are worth a risk, a stretch, a reach. Certain things that taste wonderful, those unbuyable flavors that can only be enjoyed when achieved by your own commitment and dedication.
Foraging has made me a braver person, and I believe risk makes the harvest more delicious. It’s impossible to separate the experience of gathering from the wild flavors we pick. I can’t let the wineberry sorbet melt on my tongue without remembering the park ranger who told me I couldn’t pick them in the National Forest. (Even though I can; he just didn’t know the rules.) What could make a food more precious, more delicious, than risking something, be it Lyme Disease or your dignity, to claim it?
When I see heavy, perfect clusters of elderberries, then notice they’re surrounded by poison ivy, I step carefully and wash my poison ivy pants as soon as I get home. When the cattails with the best pollen are in the middle of a pond that’s deeper than my boots, I shrug and wade in anyway. And when the linden flowers I plan to soak in gin are being probed by more species of bee than I knew existed, I gently reach in among the bees to collect what I need.
Yes. Need. I’ve realized in the past two years that I need to forage. Not just because I crave the unbuyable flavors, but because It’s part of who I am. When I can’t forage I feel aimless, non-productive, depressed. When I do forage, I feel creative, energetic, and connected. So I try to do a little every day. And if I can’t, then I try to work (or play) with something I have foraged. Because that’s who I am. I am a forager.