© 2010 Joshua Stark
When Hank and Holly accept a foraging invite from me, the only guarantee is a good time.
Some of you may recall the last big trip I suckered... er, invited Holly and Hank into taking with me, to the nearly utterly lifeless and barren Pacific Ocean. Or, at least that's what one would have thought, had their first experience of it been a fishing/foraging trip with me.
This time, I convinced the dynamic duo that we may be able to find gooseberries. I was supremely confident in their location, as I'd stumbled upon the remains of gooseberries last September while hunting the wily mounain quail (Oreortyx pictus). If you've never seen mountain quail, they are simply the most amazing upland game bird species in California. Hunters, think chukar with bramble and thick fir forest cover. Nonhunters, imagine a bird, a slate-gray breast, with brown and white bands along its sides, about 1/3rd bigger than valley quail, and with a perfect metaphor for its behavior atop its head: Instead of the apostrophe worn by valley quail, mountain quail wear an exclamation mark at a jaunty angle.
My hunting trip last year, fruitless as per usual, had me stomping through some spiny shrubbery - new growth from a fire few years back. As I poked around, I noticed red, spikey berry hulls on the ground, and dessicated berries attached to small, ground-hugging plants growing among the thorny bushes. Back home, the book identified them as sierra gooseberries (Ribes roezlii).
Later in the year, I mentioned in passing to a couple of foraging fiends, Hank and Kari (at Erratic Sewer & Crafter), that I'd found a good stand of gooseberries. They both had the same reaction - giddy excitement. Next year, they said, we'd like to have a look-see at your gooseberry spot.
This spot is in a National Forest in the Sierra Nevada (if you want more specifics, keep wantin'), which begs the question: Is this a marginal land? Well, yes and no. You see, we often treat National Forest lands like a cross between a National Park and BLM land, probably because BLM lands are often scrubby partial plots with non-native weeds and the like, whereas our National Forests are, well, forests.
However, National Forest lands are managed by the USDA, whereas BLM lands, like National Park units, are within the Dept. of Interior. Being agricultural lands, national forests are often logged and grazed. The Forest Service's mission, "to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations", makes plain the management goals of these lands.
I'm not going to get into the arguments here (maybe at Ethics and the Environment I will) over private profiting on public lands, fuels reduction, etc. I will note that the particular patch of land I was taking Hank and Holly had been ravaged by catastrophic wildfire a few years back. These reasons make me feel like this is a marginal land.
"Catastrophic" is an important distinction, too. California habitats need fire to thrive. Fires clean out dead and diseased plants, revitalize soils, change the effects of sunlight and water in places, and are even needed to open some seed pods. Native California grasses evolved with fires and moving herds of browsers, and many have developed tight structures above their roots, slower growth, a perennial nature, and less prolific seeding. A fire passing through native California habitat usually burns slowly and with low intensity, as it comes up against those tight, green bunch-grasses. It burns up forest duff (dead leaves and branches), leaving open patches of soil with light layers of ash, while leaving the upper canopies untouched and the mature trees alive. Soon after, seedlings sprout in the rich soil.
Catastrophic fires alter the landscape in far different, unnatural ways.
A catastrophic wildfire is driven by non-native invasive plants, grasses in particular. Non-native grasses, introduced with the Spaniards and others, evolved with farmed animals that live sedentary, local lives. European grasses live fast and die young, seeding quickly and browning. Oftentimes, they grow tall, too. Fires burning through these grasses find thick fuels that reach into the soil. Coupled with an effective 150 years of fire suppression, fires today in the Sierra Nevada find feet of duff, branches and entire dead trees extending up into the canopies, and dead native grasses through the open stretches. They burn super-hot, they burn deep into the soil, and they burn into the crowns of trees. When they finally burn out, they leave soils with no microbial activity, no living mature trees to cover the ground from rains and soak up water with roots. Quickly, erosion rips away soil and ash, and non-native seeds infiltrate, especially along logging roads where car tires and clearing operations bring them in.
Along our stretch of forest, where mountain springs feed little gulleys and crevices, some trees survived. Under these remaining canopies we found our bounties. Though not yet finished flowering, the gooseberries and currants are thick. The elderberries, too, have taken up some of the open spaces, though they've yet to even leaf-out.
And Hank found morels.
We picked maybe a pound of the delicious mushrooms, whose aroma out of the ground reminded me of the freshest trout. Hank also picked some fir tips for a crazy syrup experiment. Later, on some other marginal lands down the Hill, we also found wild mint, and a cloud of so many ladybugs that a couple of them mistook me and Holly for aphids. Being bitten by a ladybug is about as bad as it sounds, but it was shocking.
The mountains and foothills we covered were iconic for their landscapes: Big Country, with 10,000 ft. snow-capped peaks in the background, and a raging, blown-out river in Spring thaw far down the canyon. Many songbirds had arrived, though the squirrels were still silent and the raptors (save for a lone prairie falcon) and band-tailed pigeons must have still been in the lowlands. We didn't hit up any streams for trout, nor drop a crawdad trap in a reservoir, nor (of course) hunt anything this time. Heck, we barely scratched the surface.
We will definitely be back.
Wood and water and moving earth.
10 months ago