As I write this column in mid-May the Serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.) along the north side of my building are just beginning to set. If all goes well, these berries will begin to ripen as this is published, living up to their other common name, Juneberry. As they deepen from red to a dark purple, they will become some of the first of our shop’s very local foraging efforts.
We will, however, have already enjoyed other spring foraging, through the efforts of farmers connected to the Twin Lakes Community Supported Agriculture farms. Ramps, nettles, morels, cress, and other wild grown delicacies will have been gathered for us to enjoy while we await the more domesticated vegetables and fruits we have adapted for our gardens.
Foraging is our earliest form of farming. Before humans could imagine settling down in a place long enough to tend to a plant from its beginning as a seed until its maturity, we roamed the land looking for anything that we could consider edible at whatever stage it was in at the time. Most likely this included following animals and observing what they were eating, realizing that those plants probably weren’t poisonous.
As we found ones that were actually tasty, it became more important to help those plants survive and to protect them from animals’ appetites. Stories were created to help pass along knowledge of these plants to future generations, to know when to look for them, where to find them, and how to care for them.
Even though we’ve moved quite far away from the time when we depended upon foraging to survive, stories such as “Blueberries for Sal” were a favorite for my children. But, to the native peoples of this area, the stories of the land are stories the land told them. In this relationship, people and land co-existed.
When the “settlers” of a new America came upon this relationship, they totally misunderstood it. Free land was free because it could be taken without payment. Free lumber from forests to create new American cities destroyed a complex relationship between humans and nature that had been formed over centuries.
Without the stories, without the connection to the land, these new settlers had to create a new way to feed themselves through large-scale agriculture and factory production. In the process it destroyed a people and its culture. Can our “white” America reach a point where it will accept the damage it did, repent, and find a way to make amends?
Perhaps we can. By reconnecting to the land and its stories, finding ways to be more aware of what it can and does provide for us, and by appreciating the native foods of our region, we can honor those who lived here before us.
Instead of trying to find easier ways to grow “wild” rice in the irrigated fields of California, we should become more familiar with the stories of Manomin and the water spirits that sustain it. And maybe by knowing these stories, we can become people who protect the genetic beauty of this wild grass and say no to its imposters.
When we support family farms, we also find a way to restore that relationship. Families have stories that continue from generation to generation, developing a respect for the land that is lost when ‘business’ tries to own the land and reap a profit from it.
We also can learn to share our natural abundance. We create a form of local foraging through the practice of planting fruit trees in our yards, since this often leads to a bit of sharing amongst neighbors.
Who hasn’t wandered past an apple tree during the early fall, and just, well, picked just one for the walk? The same might be said for wandering along a back alley where raspberry bushes hang over a back fence. One or two ripe berries? Oh, my yes, thank you. Sorry, I guess that’s just the way nature talks to me. Would I tell a bird to stop enjoying one our Juneberries at the café? Certainly not.
Here at the café, we’ve gone a bit farther by planting our own vegetables and berries right in the middle of the boulevard and along our parking lot, where walking along the sidewalk will offer anyone the opportunity to pluck a ripe cherry tomato or strawberry for nibbling.
It is our plan that the greens and beans, the squash and peppers, might find many homes among our neighbors. Stop by and see what’s growing and what’s ready for harvest. Come June, the Juneberries will be gathered for muffins and scones and pie filling. And certainly there will be rhubarb and early strawberries, which ripen at the same time as if to say, try us together!
What a story plants can tell, if we’re willing to listen as we make this walk along the green path! I look forward to sharing these stories with you as we seek to restore our earth and build connections to the land and each other right here in our neighborhood.