Two years ago, I shared this piece of writing with Warren Bobrow, Food & Drink Editor of Wild Table, which is part of Wild River Review. “A Gathering of Spring” appeared in Wild Table in April 2010, and you can find that online version here.*
The Appalachian Mountains are some of the oldest in the world, and the families who’ve been here a long time tend to have a Cherokee and Scotch-Irish ancestry. Both cultures have a rich history of practicality and purpose combined with a respect for the natural world and its power to hurt or heal.
After the long winter—when the sun turns its back on the deep hollows and coves, leaving folks to shiver in the shadows—there’s a true resurgence of hope when spring arrives, bringing with it the promise of warmth and joy and an end to all the canned and pickled and salted and dried foods that nourished families through the cold, dark months. The woods and fields yield bright and bitter and peppery treasures that tease the tastes and thin down sluggish blood, sending it surging along with new energy.
Knowledge of the seasons and the lore that accompanies each root, leaf, and twig is a gift handed down through generations, passed from elder to younger along with family Bibles and photo albums. This piece is an effort to “place” these mountains—my mountains—and their people—my people—in the midst of the hope of spring. The days are, indeed, coming!
A Gathering of Spring
Ruth Walkingstick was a woman who looked both forward and back; she could tell the doings of eighty-odd years that had passed since she first opened her eyes into the world. Still, it caught her by surprise to find that silver spiders had woven their web of sparkling strands in the blackness of her hair. Had it really been so long ago, she wondered, that her skin was soft as mullein leaf and her braids, unbound, shamed a moonless, starless night?
She patted and smoothed the coil of plaits that crowned her head and put the thought of age out of her mind. It was more than time to gather bitter greens for tonic; these things would not wait for Ruth’s memories to catch up with her. She had special need, too, for cohosh and bloodroot and other herbs for healing. Ruth hummed to herself, saying each name aloud though there was no one else to hear. She longed to teach the old ways to one that had a gift for listening. And for learning.
Ruth followed the winding course of the creek, looking for early ferns that had raised but not yet unfurled their tightly bound tops. Boiled and lightly salted, the tender new “fiddleheads” played their own sweet, green tune across the tongue in early spring. Ruth would relish them until the ferns gave up their youth to the sun. Her mouth watered to think of them alongside a mess of fresh-caught trout, dredged in cornmeal and fried crispy, bones and all.
Not so sweet, now, but just as useful were the ramps she’d gather soon; she’d already seen their broad green leaves just breaking through the drifts of old leaves in several places. Like the ginseng beds she visited each fall, a ramp-patch was a faithful friend who showed up each year in its proper time and place to welcome spring. Some folks shied away from ramps, of course—the fierceness of the smell frightened timid noses and stomachs—but Ruth loved a good skillet full of ‘taters and fresh ramps fried in bacon grease. Sometimes she couldn’t wait to cook them, merely brushing the dark loam from the pearly bulbs she’d eased out of the ground before biting into them raw, letting their fierce taste wash through her, knowing the stink would seep out of her pores for days afterward.
“Draws out the leftovers from deep down in you,” her grandma had told her when Ruth was so little that the burlap sack she helped carry bumped the ground with each step. “And that stink is powerful strong ‘cause it’s full of old, dead, winter you been dragging around inside you. Ramps smells like the devil’s underarms, child, when he’s been a-choppin’ wood for his fiery furnace, but they ain’t no better way to pert up your own insides.”
She’d check for creasy greens, too; they were bound to be springing up. The sun had finally begun to stretch and yawn; its warm breath stirring all the life inside the earth that had been curled up so tight and small it barely felt the change, yet change was coming. From the first frilled dandelions unfolding or a chilly rill of snowmelt chattering its way among the rocks, Ruth could feel how the tumblers of winter’s iron-hard locks were being eased by the freshet of rising sap. They’d have to roll back soon, allowing spring its first look at a world just waking up to its own possibilities. And, oh, how hungry was that world and her children for the new green growth barely blushing through winter’s tangled remnants!
There was still dogwood winter to come, though, when it was sure-enough spring by the calendar’s reckoning, and winter buried its sharp teeth below a soft, deceptive pelt of grass scattered with tiny violets. Some things were bound to bloom before their time, raising all manner of false hopes, until the foaming white dogwood petals were bitten back by a bitter cold snap. There might even be blackberry winter after that, when thickets of vines and brambles shivered miserably in nothing more substantial than their thin, lacy finery of leaves and blossoms.
But Ruth knew the days were coming when the silvery, wintry whorls of grass would rise lush and green to her knees, and the woods and fields would burst into a patchwork of yellowbell, redbud, and crabapple buds dappled pink-and-white. She would search for morels then, too, carefully tugging them loose so as not to bruise their soft, honeycombed hides that begged to soak up the nobs of butter in which she fried them.
“The days are coming,” Ruth said aloud, knowing that the real name of spring would always be hope.
“RAMPS” was the single word spray-painted on a piece of plywood leaned up against a phone pole. An arrow on the makeshift sign pointed toward a truck parked by the side of the road.
“Help you?” a young man inquired of the couple who’d stopped for a closer look
“You selling ramps?” the man asked.
“Yeah; just picked this batch yesterday,” he said, nodding toward the cooler near his feet. “Two bucks a bunch.”
The couple raised the cooler’s lid and began to rummage among the rubber-banded bundles of leaves and bulbs. The young man watched them, thinking of his great-grandmother—she had paid him a penny for every ten ramps he brought her in the spring, back when he’d been so little the croker sack she gave him to carry them in bumped the ground with each step he took. She was the one who taught him to eat ramps raw, too, telling him the smell was just the old, dead winter clearing out of his system.
“I sure hope spring isn’t too far off now,” the woman observed, dropping three bundles of ramps in the plastic bag the young man held open for her while her husband came up with a five and a handful of change.
“Just dogwood winter,” the young man offered. “And like the old folks always say, ‘hope’s just another word for spring’.”
*I hope I have credited Wild River Review correctly, according to their policy, for having published “A Gathering of Spring.” If anything is lacking, please advise!