To Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, winter was traditionally a season rich with feasting, song, dance, storytelling, and reflecting. Little food gathering was required during the dark, wet winters since the diverse landscape provided ample sustenance throughout the preceding seasons. These past years as I have tried to tune my needs to the abilities of the environment to provide, I similarly find myself with little that is new on my foraging to do list and happy to share food and stories during this sodden season. Now with winter here, the Christian holiday of giving fresh in our memories, and a new year upon us, I reflect on my year’s foraging and the meaning of it all.
Never before has my larder been so full. Twelve cases of canned food sit beside my desk, the freezer is stuffed to the gills, and dried goods are overflowing the shelves to fill odd nooks throughout the house. Two years ago, I was happy to say we ate a wild food item every day, but now our diet is more than half wild, and I am beginning to conceive, at least to some degree, what is required to collect a year’s worth of food. The foraging fantasy is becoming palpable and my appetite for it is stronger than ever. For meat we have 50 lbs of frozen, canned, or smoked salmon, and 100 pounds of frozen and canned venison. Our starch supply consists of at least 200 lbs of Wild Rice and 15 pounds of acorns; for fruit we have 5 gallons of huckleberries, 10 gallons of blueberries, 5 gallons of Blue Elderberry juice, 8 gallons of apple sauce, 5 gallons of plums, 2 gallons of Salal, and small amounts of various other fruit leathers, powders, and preserves. Vegetable and oil are not so well represented. Beyond 20 servings of frozen stinging nettle, 6 gallons of green beans, and a dozen pints of canned tomatoes, we rely heavily on the grocery store for veggies, but next year we hope to expand our garden production and I want to experiment with canning wild vegetables, like the stalks of Cow Parsnip. Our wild sugar supply just dried up today, when I rinsed the last drops of our maple syrup into a smoothie, but I just tapped a few Bigleaf Maples and was pleased to see the sap running, so we needn’t starve our syrup cravings for long. What’s more, we’ve enough homemade sea-salt to season our meals, and ample home-brewed cider to wash them down. Surrounded by so much excellent food, every meals has the spirit of thanksgiving as we can’t help but recall with each dish, the landscapes that fed us and the adventures we had while foraging our favorite foods.
The only thing better than eating nature’s bounty, is sharing it. This holiday season we have been blessed with a rich social calendar of family dinners, potlucks, and year-end socials with community organizations. Long gone are the days of grabbing something quick at the grocery store. Last week when a long time member of our local Native Plant Society chapter hosted a Holiday potluck, we shared our Wild Rice, acorn bread with Crabapple Butter, and a wild berry pie. Making the pie really got me thinking about the point of all this harvesting.
When I go to the pantry to put together a meal, it is a journey into a mystical place where space and time are blurred. What is a wild berry pie, but a filling made of hot August sun on lakeside salal and the first September frost on ripe mountain huckleberries, and a crust made of an island oak grove infused with salty October air? Reaching for ingredients is a reflection on the harvest to produce a meal in the fourth dimension: The early Salal was good but the late berries dried up. The Garry Oaks hardly produced this year but the Red Oaks did well. I’ve long believed that the ease with which these details are recalled is evidence that we are specifically designed for the tasks of growing intimate with our environment. This year, however, the lesson has extended even further. In feeding others, I’ve come to see that the stories these foods evoke are perhaps the most natural means of transmitting meaningful ecological information about the land we inhabit. In some societies it is a constant reminder of the importance of stewardship. We hope that in our society—so long divorced from the wild world—that a taste of nature and the story of its path to the plate will at least arouse a curiosity to reconnect.