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30 May, 2011

A Compendium of Gathering

Bracken and Black (High-end forager supply company, or AC/DC allusion?)

Nettles are flowering, and the time is past to gather them, but as the year rolls on new opportunities arise low and high. In among the tangles of young trees, webs of bracken rhizomes have been sending up shoots for a while now, and last week I managed to snag a few in that liminal state between tight fiddleheads and loose leaves--not ideal, but not yet deadly. (Well, maybe. Bracken contains carcinogens, but so do a lot of things. I grew up on the East Coast, where all late-20th Century children were marinated in toxins, so I'm not worried about a few ounces of fern at this point.) If it snaps off easily, I figure it's still good. 

Nicely coiled fiddleheads are a little earlier, and harder to find, having not reached up through the unraveled blanket of last year's dead fronds. On the other hand, when you see a patch of the orangey leftovers of last year's patch, you know where to poke around. It's just a question of finding a place where you don't have to reach through too many blackberry canes or branch-tangles to get at them. Long ago, it was a lot easier, since tribes burned some areas to fertilize the bracken and thin out the competition. Yet another case where "gathering" is not so passive, and tending was the order of the day.

Wait, did I just make it sound like native gathering was in the past? No, it carries on. Generations of assaults by guns and germs, assimilation by churches and boarding schools, lost land and knowledge,...none of this has completely wiped out the old cultures of the northwest. In forests around the Salish Sea, tribes have answered the call of the rising sap, congregating around cedars to get boughs, bark, and roots. 

In the Days of Yore (Last Week)

As the Plains people used all the parts of the buffalo, so do the local tribes use all of the cedar. Wood becomes houses and canoes. Roots become baskets so tight and durable that you can boil water in them. Boughs might be woven more loosely into baskets that hold clams. The inner bark can become anything: hats and clothes, ropes, mats, diapers,'s as versatile as plastic, and much more sustainable.

The practice is to take a little bit, allowing the tree to heal itself. While tribes don't depend on the tree to clothe everyone anymore, they do use the bark. The photo above is a group of kids from a tribal school, escaping their more urban home to connect with the trees and nature. Another tribe is gathering bark in preparation for hosting the canoe journey next summer, when they will need things made from the bark for themselves and for a big potlatch. To give a visiting elder a nice cedar hat in 2012, people have to be on the ball in early 2011, scouting trees, pulling bark, cleaning and curing it, and finally spending the long hours of weaving that produce the gift.

Every time a kid learns to pull the bark and transform it into gifts, she is adding a strand to the weave of culture. She is perpetuating traditions thousands of years old, and preserving knowledge that may be useful for thousands more. She adds her weft today, and becomes the warp that her kids will add to tomorrow. Every student who learns that the ferns are ready when they are ready, that gathering is governed by earth's cycles, that simple knowledge can be profound, that working with nature instead of trying to dominate it yields great rewards, is tapping into a flow that has sustained his people for millenia, and is a far greater hope for the future than our petroleum economy.

Spring arrives, the fronds stretch up and the sap rises. People who listen hear the call, and receive the treat.

NOTE!: Bracken would be hard to eliminate, but cedar bark worth harvesting is far less common. Tempting as it is to go pull some and try to making something, think twice and talk with the tribe whose territory you are in before even thinking about stripping a tree. There is a lot of spiritual and practical knowledge that governs how it is to be done, and if a bunch of people descend on the forest to gather, many trees will be needlessly damaged by the unskilled or over-harvested by even well-intentioned students of northwest native cultures. Undeveloped lands where tribes can exercise traditional and treaty guaranteed rights are becoming less common, and land managers have enough to worry about without an influx of people with no treaty rights gathering bark. 

In general, if you are going to forage, think about who will come next year, a decade from now, seven generations in the future. If you are cutting off their chance, you are not doing it right.

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