Saturday, October 20, 2007

Gathering, Revisited

This morning, I picked cranberries.

It sounds so ordinary, typed plainly like that. It was anything but ordinary or plain.

Our cranberries here are tundra-dwellers, not bog cranberries, and grow close to the ground and moss. All advice suggests picking them after the first frost, so they will be sweeter. Not sweet. Just sweeter than they would have been otherwise. The advisors did not mention how much deeper the red would be -- the color of blood that has congealed slightly -- but that was an easy observation.

I didn't get to pick cranberries last year. I was gone before the first frost, and when I returned, we had snow cover until spring. I had been told you could pick the berries until April, if there was no snow cover. That didn't happen last winter. So this was my first experience. Almost. I picked a couple small batches in the last week, just enough for my oatmeal in the morning.

This morning, though, I was determined to get out there while they were still frozen from the night's frigid temperatures. I thought I had gotten used to the tundra's beauty, not immune to it, but at least comfortable enough with it so I didn't have to actively appreciate every small vista my eyes wandered to. And maybe during the day, when it is thawed, I have reached that level of intimacy.

Not this morning.

Most of the berries I picked still had a frost on them, as if nature had sugared them for me in preparation for decorating a cake. They lay nestled in frost-crunchy leaves with moss lying alongside, crisp and ice-outlined. I was unprepared for the beauty of the truly frozen tundra. I may have joked about living on the frozen tundra over the past couple years, but until this morning, I'm not sure I'd ever really experienced the tundra except when thawed. It is a different landscape below 32 degrees.

Maybe the knowledge that I will soon leave this tangled miniature jungle imbued it with a special radiance this morning. The skies were gray, so it wasn't the angle of the light or the quality of the sunshine. Or maybe knowing that my gathering opportunities will be limited in my new life in the desert made this particular foraging expedition just that much more special.

I don't know. What I do know is that the cold disappeared. My vision took in the layers of vegetation more clearly than usual. I appreciated the unfrosted berries hiding beneath icy, fall-reddened leaves as much as the sugary berries sticking up above their foliage, begging to fall into my ungloved fingers.

I will gather again tomorrow morning, before the sun warms the berries and their tundra home. I don't know if it will be as magical as this morning. I don't know if it can be. Even if it is just a typical berrying outing, I will be grateful as always that I can gather to me wild foods tended only by nature; that I can return, however briefly, to a simpler, shorter food chain that ties me so directly to the earth and its bounty.

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