Folks round these parts like to keep secrets. For as much as we truly are an amazing community, willing to help each other at a moment’s notice, there are some things we will not share with others. Some secrets we hold close to our hearts all our lives.
When I first moved to my farm, a local and award-winning organic veggie farmer asked me whether I had wild cress growing in my stream on my property. Untrained in the way of the secret-keepers, I gladly and proudly acknowledged I had some. I nodded enthusiastically when asked if it was a lot. I then had to navigate the awkward conversation about letting my friend come and forage some to include in his sales to high-end restaurants in the cities he delivers to weekly. I ended up recanting and saying I probably didn’t have quite THAT much, and in a thinking-out-loud way explained, “For my first season, let’s leave it, just so I can get accustomed to knowing what to expect and when.” Now several years later if you were to ask my about wild cress, I’d tell you I have some, not much. I’d be nonchalant and ambivalent, then probably change the subject.
The secret-keepers don’t just care about the wild cress; there’s the chaga on the tree, the spring morels, the chanterelles, the wild ramps, the bounty of summer blackcaps, the organic mullein flowers — folks even get cagey about the nettle patches they know of. The list goes on.
There is no acknowledged etiquette or protocol to break — feel free to absolutely ask away about these rare rewards. Folks will point vaguely in the direction of the hill they got their morel haul from, but cannot be more precise in telling you where exactly they found that many pounds of mushrooms. Or they’ll gladly let you come walk their property looking for spring’s first ramps, but they’ll shrug their shoulders and shake their head just a wee bit too dramatically when you ask them where specifically a good place is to look.
Foraging is often a solitary activity, conducted in your own special place. It’s a rare time out in nature seeking a treasure that, you tell yourself, only you can find. We foragers move calmly, in deft connection with the nature that surrounds us, and this is the behavior that interests me most. Perhaps we humans are not innately selfish; maybe we’re innately careful and considerate.
For when you know that there truly is not a vast supply of something and it must be harvested with care to ensure an ongoing abundance year after year, you don’t encourage over consumption. Maybe these sacred secrets are ours to look after for time immemorial. Maybe foraging with reverence comes naturally because we were born to be stewards. Maybe there is hope that when faced with the effects of our desire for perpetual abundance, we can become exactly who we were always meant to be.
Etienne White lives where the land meets the sky on a farm in Iowa County where she raises grass-fed, Old English Babydoll sheep, as well as pastured chickens, a happy farm dog, a wily barn cat and her two spirited children. She runs a consulting business working at the intersection of sustainability and marketing, and is a sought-after speaker on sustainability in the United States and Europe.