It is the fairest of all possible late October days. The sun is bright and the air is still. My son helps me pick Juniper berries off of the bush. This is a slow task. The berries ripen over a period of two to three years and on each shrub there is a mix of berries in varying states of ripeness. I am after the dark blue ones. We carefully pick through the bushes the needles scratching our fingers and our wrists. When we’ve gathered enough for a small jar of tincture and a few to use as a decorative flourish on top of a loaf of handmade soap, we head out to the pasture.
My brother-in-law, my son and I are accompanied by a motley crew of six family dogs, which I think constitutes a legitimate dog pack. The creek is high. It’s been a very wet year and the dogs tromp and wallow and frolic in the water. We hike up the hill past the grove of Quaking Aspen, blazing yellow leaves gently trembling in the breeze. When we get to the top pasture we follow the perimeter of the fence. I am looking for Wild Sarsaparilla. There are giant stands of Sarsaparilla near the fence on the edge of the forest in certain places. When we aimlessly wander about looking for morels in the spring it seems there is Sarsaparilla everywhere. I lead us beneath the fence into the woods around where I think I remember finding swaths of Sarsaparilla this spring, but I don’t see any. It’s possible they have already died back to the ground, but I don’t think so. It’s more likely that I’ve entered the forest at the wrong place. For a moment, I consider leading us back out and trying again, but everything feels magical and I don’t want to break the spell so I decide to just let it go.
It’s noisy with three humans and six dogs walking through the piles of dried leaves. We don’t talk much. It is deeply satisfying to me that my newly teenage son finds pleasure in the woods and fields and that he is willing to spend his free time here with me. He is not particularly interested in herbal medicine, but he does enjoy foraging and has always helped me collect when he accompanies me. He can identify many local trees by bark and leaf and shape. He knows the Black Walnuts and Quaking Aspens, a few species of mushrooms, many of the common weeds and all sorts of edible and medicinal berries. I am happy at how bold my children are, crossing streams, fighting their way through the brush, how unfazed they are by bugs and thorns and mud and weather of all sorts. They know the pleasures that are there for the taking when you leave the house with your old shoes on.
The ravine is steep and the creek flows through the bottom. My brother-in-law has a flask of bourbon. I’ve never been much for bourbon, but I take a swig. We walk on the narrow, windy deer paths when they are available. It makes for easier walking although not always the most direct way to get from one point to another. There’s something about walking through the forest on the paths of the animals, on land that people have been walking on for who knows how long, my feet falling where the feet of so many other creatures have walked before me. It feels like it’s a thread connecting me to the rest of the living world back through time.
We exit the woods and the dogs and the boys head back across the pasture to the farm house. I stay by the creek to harvest Yellow Dock Roots. Until recently, cows have been in the pasture and they’ve eaten everything but the thistles and the Prickly Ash down to the ground. At first glance the pasture looks a bit like a lawn. Without the tall, deeply brown/red stalks visible I have to keep my eyes trained closely on the ground to find the Yellow Dock. I look for the rosettes among the many rosettes of Dandelion, Shepherd’s Purse and other mustards. They are easy to spot. The leaves are curly with bits of rusty coloration where the leaves have been bruised. It feels good to know the plants in such a way that picking them out of a crowd is easy.
I don’t like carrying around a big shovel so I make do with a simple rooting tool. The soil is heavy clay and moist and it’s a bit of work to wrest these roots from the earth. Initially, I seem to break off just an inch or two of each root I try to harvest, but with patience and greater care, I am able to get a few roots whole. People say Ginseng roots resemble a human shape. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen Ginseng in the wild and if I did, I wouldn’t collect it. But the roots of Yellow Dock have a humanoid shape too.
I take my harvest to the edge of creek, near the Crack Willows and I squat alongside the creek and wash the roots in the clear, sparkling, rushing water. My movements feel like a timeless gesture, something that has been done since the beginning of time: a woman squats by the water, washing her harvest.