The Family that Forages Together
Over the course of years, surprisingly mild incidents from childhood rise as important. Not the fanfare events, like birthdays or graduations, but homelier things. One of these occurrences that, repeated over and over, became important was the simple, animal act of foraging.
Looking back now, I realize my mother consciously gave us that experience. Wherever there was an opportunity to pick fruit rather than purchase it, she would pack us in the car. We lived in Michigan, which is a good state for foraging. Down the road were orchards of apples and plums. A little further out were fields of strawberries. We foraged in these places, training grounds really, before we understood the treasures within reach out the front and back doors: chokecherry trees, wild grapes, and even wild strawberries lost in the grass of our own field. Beyond the back woods sprawled the uninhabited expanse of an abandoned blackberry farm. Each summer the whole family would make a special hike back there to raid the treasure, sometimes with neighbors as well.
As I grew older and more independent, I made my own forays, foraging for wildflowers and mushrooms to photograph rather than for fruit to eat but making a discovery of boysenberries nonetheless. Each kind of foraging enhances the other. It’s about watchfulness, accompanied by a sense that the world has something for you, something special just beyond sight, almost within reach, and that it will be yielded to you in plenty with the proper attention. So we grew up with a sense of abundance, that the earth was prosperous and giving of itself in extravagant ways.
In my teens I became aware of being fortunate in terms of foraging, that I had received berry gifts in unusual abundance. I felt gratitude but had no idea how foraging was tied to family feeling, that experiencing the abundance alone was rather flat compared to sharing. I began to get an inkling of the social roots of foraging when I was invited to a raspberry social in my thirties, yet the picking had already been done by the families who’d invited me. I’d rather have been along for the sun and the smell of warm berries and the oooo and aaahh of a giant specimen and red juice on fingers and the odd concentration that such holistic pleasure requires. I wanted to be in on the greed and the sense of being wildly blessed, blessed by the unpredictable wilds, that sense of standing in the fringe of an overflowing Giving. Not until I was sitting in a charming cabin with a civilized bowl of raspberry shortcake did I remember what I’d missed since childhood.
Even then I didn’t yet realize how much foraging meant family to me. I learned more one summer when I was living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My sister and her partner came up for a few days and I took them up on a knoll whose only green was that of low blueberry bushes. I was hoping we’d find some ripe, but if not, the view was great.
It turned out they were ripe by the handfuls. The three of us foraged, combing our fingers through Abundance and those few patches of blueberries on the bald knoll never stopped giving. We were finally full and feeling guilty about stealing from the bears yet thrilled to have felt much like bears ourselves, silently roaming the rocky bulb, one of us here, one there, all conscious of each other and the simultaneous gift we were receiving: blueberries, blueberries, and more blueberries, with the blue sky above and the great expanse of Lake Superior stretched across the north.
As we descended at dusk, I realized that nothing more perfect could have happened than foraging with my sister among low northern blueberries because it mirrored our childhood experience on vacations in the area. The only way it could have improved was if the whole family had been there.
So when my parents visited later that summer, I mourned that they were late and that my mother wasn’t in any shape, nor had she been for years, to haul herself up the steep knob that had provided such a sumptuous yield when my sister had visited. Mother was having both ankle and back problems, but she still agreed to take a stroll on the beach. And there I spotted a few ripe blueberries. Mother feigned disinterest, saying they weren’t worth the trouble of bending down, but my father perked right up and soon we were popping huge sun-warmed blueberries into our mouths. It wasn’t long before Mother became dissatisfied being fed by us and did her own foraging. A good deal of pleasure is in the finding.
Again I felt a wave of gratitude over sharing that experience with the same two people who had taught me the joys of foraging, which I had taken out of the wilds and into libraries. Even my pen has become a device for foraging. All this from a love of berries and the strangely separate yet communal experience of everyone being nourished by the same thing even when bending in different directions.
I ended that summer with a new sense of connection with my family forged by two brief periods of berry picking. I still regret that my brother wasn’t able to make it up. Much as I have elaborated here, it’s still a mystery to me why foraging should mean more than conversations shared or the long journey taken to see me--but finding berries together, and eating them straight off the plant, made all the difference.