Marge likes to shop for groceries. I like to forage. I have to admit, though, that if our lives depended on my foraging, we’d become mighty lean. (Since almost every popular magazine has an article on dieting, maybe I could write one on the benefits of becoming a hunter-gatherer!)
Wild foraging, while free, does not necessarily offer up the best-tasting food. Yet I’m getting accustomed to the quirky taste of some of nature’s freebies. One of those is the berries of the autumn olive bush, which are just now reaching ripeness. Earlier they were, like green apples, a bit sour. As fall progresses and frosts become more frequent, they get sweeter. I like to think that nibbling on sour berries is sort of doing penance for my part in helping to make the autumn olive another invasive species in America’s upper Midwest.
Sometime in the early 80s, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources decided to do something decidedly unnatural: They attached a little packet of non-native autumn olive seeds to the small-game hunting licenses of thousands of Michiganders—asking hunters to plant them when they got into the field. The DNR said autumn “olives” would be a wonderful new food source for upland birds and promised they’d be a boon for future hunting. They were right about one thing: The birds love the berries—like kids love candy. And their nutritional value to birds is about as good as candy is to kids. Now, thanks to dutiful hunters and seedy bird droppings, these hardy bushes are spreading all over the countryside. Even vacant lots in suburban areas are filling up with this hard-to-eradicate bush. The boon for hunters has become a bane for property owners. (When will we ever stop trying to play God with our natural habitat?)
Another forager’s goodie that fruits along with the autumn olive is the wild grape. These “fox grapes,” however, are native to our region and have been around for centuries. Yet if crafters did not pull down acres of these vines for wreathes and other natural decorations, one wonders if the autumn olive and the wild grape would become, together with the invasive oriental bittersweet, the kudzu plague of the north.
The taste of the wild grape is initially like a tiny, tart Concord grape, but the aftertaste is quite astringent. It’s indeed what you’d call an acquired taste. It reminds me of a southern persimmon that is not fully ripe: It can really cause the upper esophagus to rebel! Outdoorsy kids through the ages, however, have always yielded to the temptation to nibble a few wild grapes every fall.
This activity motivated Robert Frost to write what I think is one of his most delightful poems—simply titled “Wild Grapes.” The narrator in the poem is an adult woman recalling a time when as a child her older brother bent down a birch sapling full of wild grapes so she could have a whole tree full of grapevines to herself. When the much heavier brother let go of the tree, however, it snapped back up and carried the little girl into the treetops. He eventually had to shinny back up the tree and bend it down again so she could safely detach herself from it. I love the sentiment she expresses about that time long ago when she got her new lease on life
[“the life I live now’s an extra life”].
I had not taken the first step in knowledge;
I had not learned to let go with the hands,
As still I have not learned to with the heart,
And have no wish to with the heart—nor need
That I can see. The mind is not the heart.
I may yet live, as I know others live,
To wish in vain to let go with the mind
Of cares, at night, to sleep; but nothing tells me
That I need learn to let go with the heart.