It’s almost that time again…when tender whorls of the fiddlehead (or ostrich fern) begin pushing through the sandy gravel alongside Albert County’s clear running streams. For me, gathering food from the wild – whether greens or berries– evokes feelings of authenticity. Can there be anything more basic and real?
It’s as if by plucking what is good and wise and elemental and wild from the earth, I can assimilate these qualities within myself. I breathe the wet spring smell of quickening earth and work with a steady, relaxed rhythm. My strength comes from the ground beneath my feet in so many ways. I am what I eat.
So much of the task comes through experience…recognizing which ferns are actually fiddleheads and which are not. There are often only subtle differences. Learning to feel the telltale mound of unfurled crowns beneath a careless foot, or knowing the biggest fiddleheads can often be found in hard to reach places: in tangles of alders or the dams of broken trunks and limbs washed downstream in the high water of spring freshets.
But, I resist.
Part of the joy of picking fiddleheads comes from limiting myself and setting boundaries. I have a responsibility to harvest in a sustainable manner, so we can all continue to enjoy the pleasure of the gathering. I’ve noticed in the easier-to-access places, each year the fiddleheads get smaller from reckless over-picking. Last year, most of the ferns had heads the size of marbles. We passed them by. I wondered how long the plants could survive. Research has shown that picking all of the emerged fiddleheads on a crown every year over several years will result in the decline and death of the fern.
Limiting what I take reinforces an ethic of care and of sustainability, rather than greed. I choose to leave enough for nature to replenish herself. This is the pact I make with her, so she will continue to support the wonder and enjoyment of the harvest.
This is grace.
May we always remember to walk softly and with care. To give the weak a chance to grow stronger. To gather only enough. So, none of us will lose the joy of the gathering.