Everything We Need is Here: Reconnecting to a Foraging Heritage


forest in shutesbury 

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. 

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