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a first foray into foraging

Megan Betz

 The closing image from Robert McCloskey's  Blueberries for Sal  ( source )

The closing image from Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal (source)

I first started eating mulberries on the walk to our local ice cream shop. We'd leave our apartment after dinner for an ice cream, & my husband would wait awkwardly as I grabbed berries from the branches dipping over the sidewalks. He'd finally have to urge me to keep walking. The beds of my finger nails would be stained blue for the next two days, even just from the palmful I'd managed to grab.

I can't even remember how I learned what mulberries were--no doubt from walking around town in the summer with a member of the Bloomington Community Orchard community I'd immersed myself in. The started moving me out of plant blindness; enlivening the landscape around me; teaching me I could eat the petals of my neighbor's lilies, the dandelions in our yard, the wood sorrel running through the community garden grounds, the serviceberries in the public library's landscaping.

So, this year, I tried to scale up on my foraging. Moving from recognizing or snacking to gathering & attempting to work with "wild' foods at a larger scale. When I asked Facebook who had mulberries trees I could harvest from, more people than I expected responded. Some offered up their yards. Others offered up the tree dipping over a lot still for sale, or one just off the bike trail that cuts through town.

I ended up at a friend's house while she was away on vacation. Her neighbors were sitting out front. I took my toddler with me, & I made a point of talking loudly to her about the fact that our friend had invited us, wasn't that nice of her? How we were helping our friend clear out berries, so her deck could stay clean. The house was in a subdivision, on a cul de sac. I knew I wasn't a known entity here, that people I could and couldn't see were watching. That what I was doing wasn't our shared cultural norm. 

I quoted Blueberries for Sal, currently my daughter's preferred bedtime book, as we picked, & we filled her small bucket half way, deciding to turn the berries into muffins when we got home. I held the book's final image in my mind for most of our harvesting--aware that I was grasping at a a "simpler" time, but also wondering what motivated the foraging done by the mother-daughter duo in the story. What drove the mother to the hillside? Was she as leisurely as I when harvesting, able to buy fruit & maintain nutrition if the buckets didn't fill? Was canning a hobby, or an economic & nutritional necessity? And how did the berry hills feature in their lives--common backdrop, public land, a transgression, or a trespass by law but not by cultural norm (where much of my own foraging falls)? 

Even on such familiar & invited territory, I was surprised by how much work I was doing to keep myself & those within earshot safe.How I was both worried about my daughter's safety & using her to make us all feel safer--I was less of a threat, just a young white woman & her toddler. How many questions I had about the use of these trees, now fallen out of favor. (Even in our Tree City-designated town, the mulberry now falls on the Tree Commission's list of undesirable species for their "messy fruit" and "somewhat invasive" growth habits--despite the fact that they were native to this region.)

These transgressions are what make foraging--and community-based agriculture, particularly those projects on public land--so fascinating to me. I'm excited to dive into these transgressions & how they are guarded or shared in my next post, in which I finally get access to a grassroots-built foraging map of our town after years of trying to track this resource down.