by Sandra Murphy
“…I live vicariously through the photosynthesis of others. I am not the vibrant leaves on the forest floor—I am the woman with the basket, and how I fill it is a question that matters.”– Robin Wall Kimmerer, “The Honorable Harvest,” Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)
Spring is in the air. Warming days will soften forest soils, coaxing spring ephemerals from the snow-matted duff. These beautiful and, in many cases, delicious bursts of foliage and flowers erupt with a timing written deep in the genes of each species. Here in Vermont, coltsfoot, wild ginger, and hepatica are among the earliest wild edibles to emerge in the springtime forest, followed by an abundant procession, from fiddleheads and wild leeks to bloodroot and St. Johnswort.
Have you known the deep joy of spying the first bright, spiraling fists of ostrich ferns erupting from the soil, wrapped in their papery sheathes? Have you stepped among them and carefully snapped one here and there and slid them into a basket or pocket or the fold of your upturned shirt? Then carried them home and lovingly cleaned and boiled these gifts of the forest, then slathered them with butter and salt and pepper and savored their goodness, all within hours of their living and growing?
Then you know what herbalist Ali Zimmer means when she says, as she and I walk together in the springtime woods, “Wild-harvesting plants is our birthright.” We live by the generosity and abundance of plants, in a kinship as old as humanity. When I coax a wild leek bulb from the moist forest soil and lay it in my bucket, I’m participating in a rite of spring that people have engaged in for thousands of years in this place we now call Vermont.
In the same breath, Ali adds, “But so that these plants can survive, it’s of utmost importance to sustainably wild-harvest.” She notes how coveted wild plants like American ginseng have been overharvested to the point of widespread population decline. As Robin Wall Kimmerer so eloquently puts it, how we fill our basket is a question that matters, for the well-being of the whole forest community.
During the spring of 2020, I had the honor of working with Ali to create a series of videos sharing some of her expansive wisdom on wild foraging. I coordinate community outreach for Vermont Family Forests, a forest education non-profit in Bristol, Vermont. With our in-person workshops halted by the pandemic, this 8-episode video series offered a different way to bring people into deeper connection with our home place.
In those videos, Ali describes and models ways of harvesting food from the forest that perceive and honor the wholeness of the community of life we are part of. And in Braiding Sweetgrass (p.183), Robin Wall Kimmerer offers clear guidelines for an Honorable Harvest, drawn from her Potawatomi heritage. If you haven’t had the pleasure of dipping into these two sources of wisdom, they are gems awaiting your discovery. You can find Ali’s videos on the Vermont Family Forests website, www.familyforests.org/resources.
Step into the springtime forest, among your wild kin. Know with certainty how to identify the plants you would like to harvest. Gather them with wise restraint, humility, and loving care. And savor the piquant flavors of this place we are so fortunate to call home.
Before you gather wild forest edibles, know how the forest is cared for. At Vermont Family Forests, we practice and encourage organic forestry. That means no synthetic pesticides. Vegetable-based chainsaw bar oil. Forest practices that minimize invasive plant species. More large live and dead trees and more large downed logs. Fewer roads and more stable forwarding paths. Organic forestry protects forest health, and it protects forest foragers.