As I stand ankle deep in murky water, listening to the slight murmur of the “creek” as it disappears into the neighbor’s yard, I think to myself, not for the first time, “what the fuck am I doing?”
I am picking elderberries, to be specific. There is a ditch in our yard that fills with water when it rains (and all winter), and then runs down to a little creek on the other side of our neighbor’s yard. When we first moved in, we fought it, tried to mow around it, and finally gave it up for a lost cause and planted elder in it. Elder grows wild everywhere around here, mostly in ditches, on the sides of roads, and anywhere that it’s wet. For years we have harvested it by clandestinely sneaking onto other people’s properties, standing in creeks, and sneaking away again, so planting it just seemed logical. Now it’s gone crazy and is about 8’ high.
The formerly impossible muddy patch that was the ditch has blossomed into a towering spray of elder, with a thick carpet of jewelweed and some other little flower I haven’t identified at it’s feet. My juneberry is just up the slope, along with the native aronia I planted. It’s my own tiny patch of wetland. Standing in the middle of it, cutting off sprays of elderberries, I can’t help but think: why am I doing this? I should be working. I should probably clean the house. I have so much to do- but I’m standing here, getting muddy, and picking elderberries.
The current batch of elderberries will be transformed into what we call the magic stuff, which is elderberry tincture that we decant into little glass bottles with droppers and take all winter. It prevents the flu. And when I say, prevents the flu, I mean, we have never gotten sick while taking it, but we ran out one year and both got the flu, so yeah. This shit is amazing. We’ve also made elderberry wine, which we’re still aging (going on 4 years) because it was just intense but does seem to be mellowing nicely. Mostly we harvest the flowers for wine or for cooking.
This year I also harvested my aronia (common name chokecherry) for the first time. As I pulled off the berries, I thought the same thing that I thought while standing in ankle deep water harvesting the elderberries, which was basically that I’m taking all this time to harvest these berries, for no particular reason except that it makes me feel awesome. I was depressed as fuck when I woke up this morning, and I went out and picked these berries, and I felt… alive? Connected? Like a human being, which is something I struggle with at all times? It was cool and shady in my mini wetland, under the black walnut tree, and I felt like I was doing something that people have been doing for eternity. I was picking the elderberries. I am going to make them into medicine that will sustain us through the winter. Yes, I am going to use store bought brandy to make it, but one day maybe that will change.
But I think part of my wonder at standing in ditches harvesting berries is that no one taught me. We’ve been struggling lately because we want to become better at making bows, but feel like we’ve reached a point where we need a mentor. We need someone to tell us when we’re doing it wrong. You can watch videos all day, but there comes a time when you really need someone to hands on say, no, not like this, like THIS. And I feel that way with my foraging, and medicine making, and all the random little things I do. I wish I had someone to teach me aside from the internet. An actual, hands on, person. I’m lucky in that I have friends who also do these things, and we wander around the yard or go picking or have elaborate conversations about making sure there is enough acidity in your jam to prevent botulism, but I think we’re all in the same boat- we’re teaching ourselves and each other. That’s not a bad thing at all, but when I’m picking aronia berries I’m still thinking- am I doing this right? What don’t I know? Should I be cutting off the whole spray- like I do with elder- or am I doing it right by picking individual berries- like blueberries? What else could I be doing with these berries? We have wild cherries in our yard too and I got in a big debate with a friend the other day about whether or not you could use them for jam. They have stones in them that are about equal to the amount of fruit you get, and I don’t think you could use a regular cherry pitter on them as they are so small- are you supposed to individually cut out the stones? That would take forever. Is it worth trying to do anything with them aside from munching them while hiking?
My grandmother knew a lot about canning and putting up food (and raising it) as she grew up on a farm in Texas. And when I say grew up on a farm, I mean, no electric, raised everything that they ate, made their own clothes, and truly lived off their land. But somehow she never passed it along until I was older and started to get interested, and at the point unfortunately she became somewhat frail and couldn’t show me what she knew. We still talk about it when she has good days, but she can’t can anymore, and doesn’t know what I mean when I ask about making sure the jam has enough acid (maybe this is a new concept?). I feel that there is this vast gap I can’t bridge, between the generations that knew how to do things and me. Like every day I’m a child stumbling to learn how to pick up a toy, with no real understanding of how it works. I’m just making it up as I go along.
Fortunately I think there are many of us who are doing the same thing- trying to figure it out- and I suppose fortunately we have the internet to share it. I wish I had been raised to know how to properly harvest and use elderberries, but then maybe I would have resented it as a chore, instead of feeling blessed as I do now, picking elder leaves out of my hair as I type this. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt that same sense of wonder and connection, as I stood in the water, cutting the fruit that would give us health through the hard times. Maybe that is something that will be unique to this weird little generation that has decided to relearn the things people always knew until so recently.
In the meantime, here are two recipes we have used. We mostly use the top one now, as the bottom one got weirdly moldy really quickly and we ended up throwing it out. The top one we have made with both brandy (E&J) and vodka (Smirnoff or Seagrams) with very similar results. We’ve also added herbs (skullcap, licorice, Echinacea) with varying effects.