Every place has its own bright flavors, its sugars, its staples.
“Every place has its own bright flavors, its sugars, its staples. It has just been in the last five centuries that we’ve decided to take the most concentrated products from each category around the world and consolidate them into the western market. This process may have had an incremental benefit at first in the nutritional or aesthetic interest of the consumer, but its imperial-colonial origins have ultimately extended into the modern day, robbing people of the rightful and necessary knowledge of place.”
This is my friend Russell speaking. He’s responding to my wonder at having eaten my first fresh winterberry in the forest behind Shutesbury town hall. We’ve been harvesting acorns from the leaf litter, and I am so surprised to find a gorgeous soft-pink berry amidst the amber hues of autumn in the woods. Initially thinking that it’s a poisonous ornamental fruit – like all the berries I grew up with in my family’s backyard – I show it to Russell and remark on its beauty. He laughs and says that if it “smells like gum,” it’s edible. Incredulous, I raise it to my nose. Wintergreen! It smells like wintergreen. But wait. Wintergreen has never been something I could find in nature. Wintergreen’s a product that people make in a factory somewhere to ship to 7/11 where it sits for months on counter-shelves before a middle-schooler buys it for his backpack gum stache.
I put the berry in my mouth and chew. Wintergreen. There’s no mistaking it. It’s sweeter than the gum, and pink! Delicious; it’s growing right beneath our feet, there next to the mountain laurel and American chestnut stump sprouts.
A Heritage of Seasonal Foraging
There was a time, not too long ago, when every group of people around the world had to reconcile themselves to the land in order to survive. This was a time of hunting, foraging, and crafting in which people living in the forest knew that their lives depended on the health of a greater natural system. On the east coast of North America, Native people tasted the flavor of winterberries in seasonal foods and medicinal applications, gathered acorns to leave in baskets woven from bark to leach out into the rushing water of clear rivers, and tapped sap from the sugar maples for sweetness. When these people died, they didn’t die in a system that was bent on keeping them alive at all costs, as “unusable ‘by-products’...[of] industrial cycles [that] are never complete…” (Wendell Berry in “Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems”). They died knowing that their role had been fulfilled, that they’d tasted of the forest’s bounty, that they’d taken and they’d managed, and that the coming of death meant it was their time to give back and go back to the earth that had grown for them all the material products of life.
Now, here on the east coast, we get our menthol from processed eucalyptus that came from half a world away, our meat from animals fed on trash and raised and slaughtered in the dark. Our sugar comes from the sweetest product we could find and package cheaply: processed sugar cane. Acorns are for the squirrels, and all wild berries that don’t look like those we’ve engorged and herebye “perfected” in our chemical tradition of agriculture are considered poisonous. Worst of all, the bountiful and giving forest, the place where humans lived and worked for our first thousand years on this good earth, is constructed as a dark and dangerous place that is to be avoided and – nowadays especially – managed for extractive resource use by a few powerful individuals, rather than celebrated and treated as a home for everyone. Examples of this modern construction abound in everything from Harry Potter (see: the “Forbidden Forest” just outside the doors of Hogwarts) to the most famous German and Italian folk tales (see: “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood") to our very own country’s popular media and history of forest management.
Reconnecting with Forest Products
So here I am, a 21-year old who has been systematically distanced from the forest all his life, enjoying a refreshing pink berry amidst ticker-tape leaves, hearing the birds signal to one another that “the humans are coming.” Their evolutionary intuition tells them that Russell and I have come to hunt. They know nothing about the endless rows of readily-accessible, processed chicken meat at the grocery store just down the hill, and for a moment it’s nice to imagine that I don’t know, too. That this is my place.
"...for a moment it’s nice to imagine that I don’t know, too. That this is my place."
Before we leave the forest with our backpacks full of acorns, Russell suggests that we bury some of our harvest in a nearby hollow to mimic a stache forgotten by a local squirrel that might produce a sapling. At the root of this idea there is a seed. It is the seed of celebrating a people who did not see themselves as scourges of the earth – as many so-called “environmentalists” see humans nowadays – but rather agents in the ecological cycle that governed their lives, drawing empowerment from a spiritual sense that they were a part of it and not, somehow, removed. We’re no less a part of this cycle. The only difference is that they were humble enough to see it and not reach beyond their given role. Now that we can see it, too. Let’s grow this seed and share it.
Jonny Malks is a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Connect with him on Facebook and read all of Jonny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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