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Herring on Local Knowledge and Ginseng Digging

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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.

Comments (18)

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from mad_dog9999 wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I know where some ginseng grows. But I won't tell anyone where its at. I just let it grow.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from jbird wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

Cool post, I'd love to run across some. I probably have in the past and didn't even know what I was walking over.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from CaptChuck57 wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

Fantastic article! And I couldn't agree more on hunters and fishermen being the best conservationists!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Sage Sam wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I don't know if I agree that lack of knowledge can solely be attributed to some fuzzy-headed ideal that nature must be "kept at arm's length." As someone that works in the non-profit conservation world, I would say that the lack of knowledge is far more tied to our urbanized society. The vast majority of groups are headquartered in urban areas (Denver, Salt Lake, Missoula, Tuscon, etc) where nature has either been destroyed or at least gentrified to a level of theme-park like existence. Sure, there are those misguided souls that feel that somehow humans are not part of the ecosystem, but those same people have never lived in said ecosystem, they have only lived in places where it was harnessed and then destroyed.

However, that isn't something new. It has always been the case that the people that live in nature. I know when the elk rut is peaking because I can drive 20 minutes to the high country and experience it first-hand, rather than having to drive 4+ hours from Denver. I know when there is a higher winterkill because I can look out the window and see a deer's ribs showing like slats on a fence. However, I've made a conscious choice to live in a place where the wild is a few steps outside my door, instead of having the usual amenities that modern people seek out (restaurants, entertainment, etc).

The bottom-line is that is if we want to continue to foster knowledge on a holistic level, then we need to promote a greater appreciation of nature, especially places that are still wild. That means we must also make a commitment to protecting these wild places for future generations.

+4 Good Comment? | | Report
from Bella wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I bought seed and planted ginseng, but it never came up. I was disappointed.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from shane wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

Great post. How about more often now, eh?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from apowers1031 wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

me and my buddy's have came across a clearin where about a fourth of an acre full of it. we loaded all of our arms full and went on our way. got some good cash for it. if only i could remember the spot...

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from john c. wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I detect the presence of Wendell Berry's writings and teachings in this post. Is this the case?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from hal herring wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I have read Wendell Berry all my life, so I would say that you are dead on, and I much appreciate your noting that.

Farming the way Berry has, where you just know so much about your place, all of it learned not just out of necessity, but out of the overwhelming love for what you are doing, is not much different from real hunting and fishing.

The more you know of what is there - the incredible complexity of the gift- the less you are capable of letting it be destroyed. I think tht is why Wendell Berry is such a powerful writer and thinker.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Teodoro wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I was just recalling writing up a talk by Mr. Berry. Very interesting speaker.

Sage Sam,

When Herring writes about at-arms-length conservationists, I think as much about stay-on-the-trail campaigns as I do about folks headquartered up in some big city. I go into the woods with two distinct group of people: folks who like trails, and hunters and fishermen. There's absolutely no contest who knows more about land.

Don't get me wrong, I understand why such campaigns are needed, especially since folks who aren't hunting and fishing tend to congregate at the very best views. But knowing the woods isn't just hiking along the dirt track to the overlook a few miles down. It's also turning off the trail, across the creek, up over the ridge to see the woods on the other side.

I'm nowhere near as good as I should be, but at least I'm out there enough to know how far behind I am.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from QDMGuy wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

The true distinction between conservationists and preservationists! T.R. knew it, Leopold knew it and Audubon knew it. Hopefully there will be many more like them to come!

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from 007 wrote 3 years 23 weeks ago

I don't know anything about ginseng but learned from my dad at an early age how to hunt mushrooms and tell the good from the bad so the same concept could apply. Ditto to digging ramps. A wonderful time to be in the tall timber.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from bberg7794 wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Same as 007-I have never picked Ginseng, but after seeing the picture above I think I have seen it in the woods before.

I picked a lot of mushrooms growing up (morels and others) in the pacific northwest and recently picked slippery jacks in the Arizona high country. My relatives who took me out in Arizona always slice off some of the root of each mushroom and leave it where it was picked-they say this will keep them growing for the future. We also pick some wild leeks where we now live in the northern Adirondacks.

Once again great story and post.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from bberg7794 wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

007-What are ramps?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from 007 wrote 3 years 21 weeks ago

Ramps are a wild onion that grows in darker and wetter regions of the Appalachians and come out in the spring for a short time. I'll put a picture on my profile of the little patch I planted for reference. They are commonly fried or cooked with eggs or cooked by themselves. I prefer them fried with potatoes. Local churches, fire companies, and the like go to the mountains and dig them and hold fund raiser ramp dinners around over the region. They're pretty strong. I put a big mess in one of my wife's better Tupperware containers and ruined it, never did get the smell out, so you don't eat them if you're going anywhere afterwards. Regards..........

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from bberg7794 wrote 3 years 21 weeks ago

Thanks 007-Thanks for the picture. They looked like the wild leeks in my woods and after checking Wikipedia I found out that wild leeks are also called ramps. We learn something every day. Wikipedia also noted that over harvesting can be an issue and Quebec limits personal possession to 50 harvested bulbs. Great pictures, by the way!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from 007 wrote 3 years 21 weeks ago

Thanks much, appreciated. I've got a huge stack at home to put in the albums and can't make myself sit down and do so. They aren't very common in the lowlands where we live, being found in the higher elevations of the Allegheny front. Friend of mine once bought a mess of them and forgot and left them in the back window of his car. Not good, you can just imagine. Where are you located?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from bberg7794 wrote 3 years 20 weeks ago

St. Lawrence County, NY

+1 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from Sage Sam wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I don't know if I agree that lack of knowledge can solely be attributed to some fuzzy-headed ideal that nature must be "kept at arm's length." As someone that works in the non-profit conservation world, I would say that the lack of knowledge is far more tied to our urbanized society. The vast majority of groups are headquartered in urban areas (Denver, Salt Lake, Missoula, Tuscon, etc) where nature has either been destroyed or at least gentrified to a level of theme-park like existence. Sure, there are those misguided souls that feel that somehow humans are not part of the ecosystem, but those same people have never lived in said ecosystem, they have only lived in places where it was harnessed and then destroyed.

However, that isn't something new. It has always been the case that the people that live in nature. I know when the elk rut is peaking because I can drive 20 minutes to the high country and experience it first-hand, rather than having to drive 4+ hours from Denver. I know when there is a higher winterkill because I can look out the window and see a deer's ribs showing like slats on a fence. However, I've made a conscious choice to live in a place where the wild is a few steps outside my door, instead of having the usual amenities that modern people seek out (restaurants, entertainment, etc).

The bottom-line is that is if we want to continue to foster knowledge on a holistic level, then we need to promote a greater appreciation of nature, especially places that are still wild. That means we must also make a commitment to protecting these wild places for future generations.

+4 Good Comment? | | Report
from 007 wrote 3 years 23 weeks ago

I don't know anything about ginseng but learned from my dad at an early age how to hunt mushrooms and tell the good from the bad so the same concept could apply. Ditto to digging ramps. A wonderful time to be in the tall timber.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from hal herring wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I have read Wendell Berry all my life, so I would say that you are dead on, and I much appreciate your noting that.

Farming the way Berry has, where you just know so much about your place, all of it learned not just out of necessity, but out of the overwhelming love for what you are doing, is not much different from real hunting and fishing.

The more you know of what is there - the incredible complexity of the gift- the less you are capable of letting it be destroyed. I think tht is why Wendell Berry is such a powerful writer and thinker.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Teodoro wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I was just recalling writing up a talk by Mr. Berry. Very interesting speaker.

Sage Sam,

When Herring writes about at-arms-length conservationists, I think as much about stay-on-the-trail campaigns as I do about folks headquartered up in some big city. I go into the woods with two distinct group of people: folks who like trails, and hunters and fishermen. There's absolutely no contest who knows more about land.

Don't get me wrong, I understand why such campaigns are needed, especially since folks who aren't hunting and fishing tend to congregate at the very best views. But knowing the woods isn't just hiking along the dirt track to the overlook a few miles down. It's also turning off the trail, across the creek, up over the ridge to see the woods on the other side.

I'm nowhere near as good as I should be, but at least I'm out there enough to know how far behind I am.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from QDMGuy wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

The true distinction between conservationists and preservationists! T.R. knew it, Leopold knew it and Audubon knew it. Hopefully there will be many more like them to come!

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from shane wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

Great post. How about more often now, eh?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from 007 wrote 3 years 21 weeks ago

Ramps are a wild onion that grows in darker and wetter regions of the Appalachians and come out in the spring for a short time. I'll put a picture on my profile of the little patch I planted for reference. They are commonly fried or cooked with eggs or cooked by themselves. I prefer them fried with potatoes. Local churches, fire companies, and the like go to the mountains and dig them and hold fund raiser ramp dinners around over the region. They're pretty strong. I put a big mess in one of my wife's better Tupperware containers and ruined it, never did get the smell out, so you don't eat them if you're going anywhere afterwards. Regards..........

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from 007 wrote 3 years 21 weeks ago

Thanks much, appreciated. I've got a huge stack at home to put in the albums and can't make myself sit down and do so. They aren't very common in the lowlands where we live, being found in the higher elevations of the Allegheny front. Friend of mine once bought a mess of them and forgot and left them in the back window of his car. Not good, you can just imagine. Where are you located?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from CaptChuck57 wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

Fantastic article! And I couldn't agree more on hunters and fishermen being the best conservationists!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from bberg7794 wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Same as 007-I have never picked Ginseng, but after seeing the picture above I think I have seen it in the woods before.

I picked a lot of mushrooms growing up (morels and others) in the pacific northwest and recently picked slippery jacks in the Arizona high country. My relatives who took me out in Arizona always slice off some of the root of each mushroom and leave it where it was picked-they say this will keep them growing for the future. We also pick some wild leeks where we now live in the northern Adirondacks.

Once again great story and post.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from bberg7794 wrote 3 years 21 weeks ago

Thanks 007-Thanks for the picture. They looked like the wild leeks in my woods and after checking Wikipedia I found out that wild leeks are also called ramps. We learn something every day. Wikipedia also noted that over harvesting can be an issue and Quebec limits personal possession to 50 harvested bulbs. Great pictures, by the way!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from bberg7794 wrote 3 years 20 weeks ago

St. Lawrence County, NY

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Bella wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I bought seed and planted ginseng, but it never came up. I was disappointed.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from john c. wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I detect the presence of Wendell Berry's writings and teachings in this post. Is this the case?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from jbird wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

Cool post, I'd love to run across some. I probably have in the past and didn't even know what I was walking over.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from apowers1031 wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

me and my buddy's have came across a clearin where about a fourth of an acre full of it. we loaded all of our arms full and went on our way. got some good cash for it. if only i could remember the spot...

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from mad_dog9999 wrote 3 years 24 weeks ago

I know where some ginseng grows. But I won't tell anyone where its at. I just let it grow.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from bberg7794 wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

007-What are ramps?

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

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