Playing at self-reliance takes different forms in different people, and you can probably tell a lot about a person by his choice of atavism: whether he's drawn to the patient and solitary attentiveness of fishing, the strict mathematical syntax of building, the emotional drama of the hunt, or the mostly comic dialogue with other species that unfolds in the garden. Most of us have a pretty good idea which of these jobs we'd try for if somehow a time machine were to plunk us down in the Pleistocene or Neolithic.
At least until my adventures in hunting and gathering, I'd always thought of myself as a Neolithic kind of guy. Growing food has been my atavism of choice since I was ten years old, when I planted a "farm" in my parents' suburban yard and set up a farm stand patronized, pretty much exclusively, by my mother. The mysteries of germination and flowering and fruiting engaged me from an early age, and the fact that by planting and working an ordinary patch of dirt you could in a few months' time harvest things of taste and value was, for me, nature's most enduring astonishment. It still is.
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, pages 364-365
The academic in me argues that being a "Neolithic kind of guy" does not restrict one to just gardening/farming. Plenty of "Neolithic guys", including many today, live not by hoe alone, but supplement with hunting and gathering of wild meat and plant foods.
That aside, I'm most definitely a gatherer at heart. It's a bit strange that I feel so content in that conviction, because I garden whenever I can (even in my Isolationville garage these days) and I was, for a couple years, a market gardener. I also study farming on many different levels, in many different times and places.
But still. I'm a gatherer.
The joy of feeling a hard lump in the sand, of knowing that a big, fat quahog lies there beneath my toes. The frantic sensation of standing in the middle of square miles of tundra, understanding that no matter how long I pick, I can never pick even a significant fraction of the billions of blueberries that surround me. The moment, as Pollan puts it, when I get my eye on, and morels jump out at me from the leaf litter and I can almost taste the mushroom tart they will become.
My heart also sings when I see seed leaves emerging from the soil, knowing that I put the seeds there, I gave them water and nutrients, and they grew. There is magic in agriculture.
For me, though, there is a greater magic in harvesting what no person produced. It makes me feel natural, in the same way as nursing my daughter makes me feel mammal. I was designed for this: for picking out the color and shape of the berries against the fall-purpled tundra, for kneeling amongst the hummocky wetness, using my opposable thumbs to pluck the berries from their branches, even for being able to make and carry containers to hold the berries as I pick.
It's much more than a feeling of getting something for nothing. There's an innate rightness about collecting food from nature. Gathering wild foods connects me more directly to the natural world than almost anything else I do, other than simply exist. The distance between the sun's energy and me is short, and the path it took between us direct.
For all the pitfalls of living in Isolationville, it does provide many opportunities for foraging from nature. Even the salmon are gathered here more than anything else. When there are millions of them, very literally, you don't exactly have to hunt for them. There may not be many green edible things around here, but there's plenty of protein, fat, and carbohydrates nonetheless.
Isolationville is a good place to be a gatherer (and a hunter, too, I should admit; just because I don't eat our furry friends doesn't mean they aren't here in abundance). Just lucky my avatar isn't an addicted gardener. Then, I'd be in trouble.