October 27, 2010
Herring on Local Knowledge and Ginseng Digging
By Hal Herring
I’ve been drifting some this late summer and fall, roaming the mountains of Alabama where I grew up. When I was in high school, ages ago, I used to dig and sell ginseng for pocket money in the early fall, carefully replanting the ripe red berries, never taking all the plants from any one place. I still remember walking through the door of the root and fur dealer, and that powerful smell of the roots, ginger and black mountain earth, and the strange twisty roots themselves, laid out on tables, and filling burlap bags that hung from hooks on the walls.
Nowadays, I don’t dig ginseng anymore (there’s just not enough of it left, and yep, I’m partially responsible) not even for the old tonic that I still believe in, which is a root from a four leaved (pronged) or larger ginseng plant soaked for a few months in a pint of vodka or pure grain alcohol.
I thought of one ginseng digger that I would occasionally see in the woods (this was thirty years or more ago), a tall, gaunt old man in overalls, snuff-stained lips, a long hickory walking stick in his hand, tote slung over his shoulder. I’d see him far away from any trails or roads, and we’d exchange hellos and talk a little about rattlesnakes, or how hot it was. I never knew his name, or which cove or hollow he lived in. I thought about what he’d say, if somebody asked him how to find ginseng here, provided he’d talk to them at all. I imagined it would go like this:
“Well, it won’t grow in the sun. And it don’t like limestone much, so if you are in hickory trees, or red cedar, you’re in the wrong place. It likes big yaller poplar, or they like the same things- deep dirt, north faces, northeast faces, sometimes east, I guess, if ever’thing else is in place. You can tell you’re gettin’ close because you’ll see spice bush, and cohosh growing, sometimes Solomon’s Seal and goldenseal. Them red berries on Jack in the Pulpit will fool you, but if you’re seein’ them, you might want to look closer, ‘cause that’s a shade- and deep-dirt plant like ginseng, and sometimes they’ll grow together. If you are in a lot of poison ivy, that means somebody logged that place or let the light in for some reason, and you won’t find ginseng there, usually. Maybe it was there, but it’s not anymore. And remember, if you’re on some old hot rocky ridge, maybe a west-running ridge, some pocket of it has to face north, and you might go down on that side and find a patch that nobody’s ever thought would be there.”
That is the kind of knowledge of the land that ginseng diggers had. It’s a deep local knowledge. It belongs to people who have a an extremely close relationship with land and plants and animals and I simply do not find it in most modern environmentalists, who seem to believe that nature is best observed at arms’ length to keep from destroying what is left. And you can’t observe it arms’ length and really know it. I meet real hunters and fishermen who still have that kind of knowledge, and I think that is why hunters and fishermen have been so effective as conservationists, and why so much of the most powerful energy behind conservation still comes from the people who study what is really there, on the land and in the creeks, in their pursuit of fish and game.