I used to think wild places existed far from wherever I was, and to experience them, took great effort, expertise, and equipment to experience. I’ve hiked mountain trails, the way most people do, with heavy boots, stomping like a stormtrooper, punishing the wild earth for not being a sidewalk. Five years ago I started hiking barefoot, and have never regretted it. Even the shortest walks on the smallest trails became delicate and treacherous. Where I once crashed through brush like a steamrolling REI-sumo-donkey, I now experience every vine, flower, blade of grass, and thorn. The pace is slower, but more fluid, and much more involved. It’s a rare intimacy to no longer walk on the earth, but in it. I find birds, squirrels, and even deer no longer scatter at my approach, but linger like I am no longer an intruder. The anxiety of hyper-awareness that has no outlet in normal life, is perfectly in place amid the bushes and willow trees along the river. Every sound and movement has meaning and purpose. The wind through the cottonwood trees gives each leaf its own voice, and their swishing conversations remind me why I generally don’t give a shit what people have to say. There are no untruths here, only the true and honest melodies of life, with secret lyrics unlocked by simple interest.
The elderberry trees, called hunqwat by the Cahuilla, are ripe with fruit along the river. For thousands of years this tree has been harvested by cultures all over the world for its medicinal properties and delicious fruit, but seems mostly forgotten, or ignored. While the twigs, leaves and branches have higher levels of toxin, the berries and flowers are edible, and have historically been used to make wine and syrups. I spent the morning gathering clusters of the deep purple berries. Their ripeness is signaled by a dusty white coating, as if having been dipped in powdered sugar.
The clusters hang just overhead and out of sight of the typical trail joggers, focused on their feet, that frequent this trail. I forget sometimes how startling It may seem to the ordinary white women, trotting along in pink spandex, pony-tails flip-flopping, when they encounter a shoeless brown man standing in the bushes with a knife and a bag. I’m surprised I haven’t been pepper sprayed yet. “No, I’m just picking berries officer.”
I collected a bag full of berries in less than an hour, and have more than enough to last all year. The most difficult part is removing the berries from the clusters. A little shake will dislodge most of the berries, but any small twigs must be removed because of their toxicity and bitter flavor. I made three pints of elderberry liqueur that will be ready by Christmas, and three jars of elderberry syrup. The syrup tastes like a mix of blueberries and blackberries, and while at home on pancakes and waffles, works magic mixed with whiskey and ice. To preserve them, the Cahuilla typically dried them and stored them in baskets. I prefer the freezer bag in the freezer method.
In a few weeks the blackberries will be ripe, and hopefully I'll have time to scavenge and make something good.