Monday, June 1, 2009


Denali and I dropped the kids off at the bus the other day and hiked the Magnetic Rock Trail.

I’m smitten with the blueberry plants…wanted to see how the blossoms were holding up to some frosty nights. They’re looking great!

Also, I’m pretty fond of the little jack pines in there, no longer baby trees, coming along like hearty toddlers.

But I kept seeing these red berries. At first, I thought they might be just fluky left-overs from fall—but then there were entire patches. Berries in the spring? Spring is flower come berries in May?

I’ve spent plenty of time with people who can name every plant in the area, and I admire that very much, but….most of the names don’t stick with me. My eyes must glaze over, and the all leaf shapes blur. It’s like when my grandpa used to take us around the old Welsh cemetery in Wild Rose, full of the graves of our relatives. Wasn’t it cool that he had all the stories and my sister listened so attentively? But suddenly, I'd be really tired..wanted to lay down and take a little nap right there on the gravesites. And so it seems with plants. It took me a year and a half to realize that I wasn't a college biology major as I'd dutifully memorize ….kingdom phylum class order family genus species….but…I wasn’t actually connecting the knowledge with anything..

All these excuses mean I really don't know many plant names around here. But, I know the bunch berries, you can eat them, but they’re kind of seedy. These mystery berries were sort of like bunch berries, but not. I also know enough that toxic bitter BWCAW berries would likely make me throw up before they killed me.

So- these particular red berries….were they bitter? I fed one to Denali and she wanted more. So I tried them too. EUREKA!!! Wintergreen! They tasted exactly like gum. It was pure Lewis-and-Clark fun. Or maybe a little like the first indigenous person who discovered maple syrup must have felt. We had to eat a couple more to celebrate. Then my gag reflex said enough.

Apparently the wintergreen berries last all through the winter. And the oils are used to flavor gum, toothpaste, mints, pepto-bismol.

At lunchtime, I was sort of excited to share my story with the staff. Cass wondered if I should tell my kids that I just ate unknown red berries? On the one hand, she had a good point. On the other hand, the simple wintergreen surprise moments are what I want them to experience.

I know next to nothing about wild mushrooms--just that the deadly ones don't taste remarkably different from the safer ones. Although the fresh morels that Jim Colbert brings us from Iowa every spring are to die for! (figuratively) In the woods, I know just enough to stay away from tasting mystery mushrooms.

My kids---in middleschool, already face many mushroom-moments without me. More and more, I can only trust that they can separate the mushrooms from the berries as they make their choices, and I hope we stay tapped in well enough as parents to intervene when they don't.

Assessing risk, yet taking advantage of experiences holds major value for me. I remember holding Shelby at one of my niece's dance recitals...listening to a song about children. The lyrics said something to the effect..."when given the chance to sit it out or dance---I hope you’ll dance. " Not a particularly noteworthy song…except that it expressed exactly what I really wanted for my kids; the urge to dig in to life.

I used to take youth groups on canoe trips—a couple of times with a guy named Bob Snodgrass. He ate black ants. They were surprisingly good. No kidding. A distinct lime sweet-tart taste, if you can get over the legginess and the exoskeleton crunch. They have formic acid that makes the twang. There's another thing---it's my opinion that a person shouldn't go through life without trying a black ant, at least once. Hey! There must be a song to go with that one too.

So, it was a good day for a walk, and a great discovery. Pretty sure I won't forget how to identify the wintergreen berry now. Maybe there is yet hope for me and plant identification. At any rate, I'm glad that I nibbled.

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