Sunday, July 28, 2013
Harvesting Sweet Fern in the High Sands
The morning starts off pretty cold for the end of July. It is a gentle reminder that summer can not last forever and I had best put up stock for winter. Yesterday's mist ended sometime in the night and the day starts off quite dry. It was too cold to head to the bogs to gather up the wintergreen that is dwindling in my herbal room. Instead I head up...I want to smell that spicy scent of summer, sweet fern on the high, sandy hill. The hilltops here are treeless, the sand not giving enough nutrients for such a large life form and the lightning fires burning off whatever does make the effort. The sun is warm here, warm enough to melt winter's snows sometimes. It almost always feel dry up on the tops of the sand hills, with few plants other than tansies, raspberries, everlastings, and sweet ferns surviving the heat and lack of water. It is a good place to go on a cool day after the rain.
The deer trail I follow to the top has fresh tracks since the rain stopped. A large set and a tiny one stepping over the larger one...a fawn following its mother. No bear tracks but then the raspberries aren't quite ripe yet. Once they are I'm certain I would see my sow bear's sign along the same trail I follow through the thickets as I wind my way to the top. I make a whistle call just in case to warn her I am coming. With our Wisconsin bears this is usually enough to send them on their way. I can hear the drumming of the rough grouse down in the aspens below me. He isn't drumming as crazy as he was this spring but he is still hopeful the ladies are listening.
I break out of the thickets to the balds or open area at the top of the sand hills. The predominant plant here is the sweet fern, growing in masses right up to the edge of the lower thickets. The sun has already warmed them enough to release their heavenly scent. I strip some of the leaves off a branch of one bush, crushing it to give myself even more scent, then rub it on my skin and into my hair. It's still too early for the flies to be out and biting but that won't last. Crushed sweet fern rubbed on the skin will keep them from eating me alive as the sun gets warmer. It also disguises my scent from the animals, making me smell wild. I blend in with the sense that counts, the sense of smell means more in the woods that the sense of sight. We wild ones lift our noses before we lift our eyes.
I go from plant to plant, stripping a branch here and there, never taking everything from one. When I get across the bald I look back and can scarcely see where I walked. Yet my shoulder bag is full to overflowing. The sun is growing warm against my skin and I am grateful for the northern breeze ruffling my hair. A redtail hawk screams her hunting cry overhead, waking me up from my meditation of breathing in the wonderful scent of the sweet fern all around me. It is time to go home and process my herbs, but I do so reluctantly. My wild self is not so easily harnessed. She wants to fly with the hawk, sneak through the thicket with the deer, and pound along the trails with the bear. But my healer self knows I came here for the reason of harvest and I must not let this harvest go to waste. Winter must be prepared for. My feet find the deer trail once more and head for home.