Monday, September 5, 2011


Myriad chambers of converted sunshine resist then give way to tongue and teeth. Sweet, earthy, complex flavor rolls across my taste buds. With sudden clarity I Remember.
I've tasted this berry many times before. My small hands stained violet, darting amongst the thick, thorny stalks pulling the black caps out by the fistful.
Two in the bucket, one in the mouth. My dad nearby–plunk, plunk, plunk. He doesn't taste any.

"I've eaten this berry before! This is a black cap! At least, that's what my dad called them."
I'm standing along the roadside of San Juan Island, just outside Friday Harbor, 20 years later. Kevin has just given me a "native" blackberry. The complex and different flavor is not the same as that of the broad-leafed blackberry growing right alongside–intertwined with–it. Despite being on the other side of the continent the flavor is unmistakable. Dozens of humid, sweaty, prickly days spent in the bushes of rural Michigan can not be forgotten.
Oil City. The name comes to me as we pedal onward. My dad would take me there picking berries in the heat of summer. I always had to wear sweat pants and long sleeves. I whined and complained about how hot it was to no avail. My dad himself was covered in Dickies–navy colored pants and long sleeves–with leather boots. He never complained. The thought of rich berry pie ala mode was enough to sustain and reward.

April. A month of cold nights, foggy mornings, and blazing afternoons that made morel mushrooms spring from the earth like Jack from his box. I'd follow my dad into the woods with mesh onion bags. We'd stand in the semi-shade and stare quietly at the forest floor. Then, after an eternity of me thinking, "There aren't any mushrooms" one would appear. As I'd stoop to pick its deeply crevassed crown I'd see another, and another, and...they were everywhere. Dad and I would troop home with bulging bags. Mom would wash them in salt water, coat them in flour, and fry them to oh-so-good-ness...

Young adults these days are returning to the farm, whether in urban gardens or literally going into agriculture. Foraging is hip. Finding food from the wild is the topic of classes from community to higher education. I see the ads in my local co-op and think about signing up. The moment on San Juan Island yesterday stopped me in my tracks.

I've been a forager my entire life.

We just never called it that. I was blessed enough to grow up in a place where people have not completely lost a connection to the land. My parents grew a garden that took up half an acre. My summer evenings were spent shelling peas, snapping beans, and husking corn by the wheelbarrow load. Berry picking. Mushroom hunting. The venison steaks on the grill courtesy of my dad. We grew the trees, cut them down, cured them and heated the house in a never ending cycle. The seasons were marked by the chores and the opportunities outside. Much of our food came from the bounty of the wild, or from the hard work of my parents hands.
I now know why I have dozens of pots littering my porch, all stuffed with herbs and tomatoes. I know why digging my hands into the earth and picking berries on my daily run leaves me, not only with dirty nails, but with a sense of peace. Foraging isn't arcane knowledge. It's a way of connecting to the world you live in. There is something so innately right about stopping along the road and wading into those pickers for that One. That perfect, juicy bit of ripeness that is suspended just a tad out of reach:

It's exactly what humans are meant to do.


  1. I just read the article about your PCT hike in Backpacker where it mentioned that you were originally from Michigan. Then I read this post that mentions Oil City. Are you by chance affiliated with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe at all? I ask because my wife teaches at the tribal school in Mt. Pleasant. Thanks.

    1. The Anishnabe are the people group that the Chippewa, Ojibwa, and others are all part of.