Written by Lucy Soderstrom
It seems to have been a personal, informal mission of sorts in the last couple years to become more intimately acquainted with the abundant wild edibles the Northwoods has to offer us. It makes sense, in some ways. I have always sought understanding and connection with land in order to feel rooted in a place and a community and I have always enjoyed sharing food with loved ones. So, upon moving and choosing to stay in Ely, it makes sense that I would seek out the food that grows wild on the land.
In mid-October, I was doing a little prep-work for the Ely Folk School Thanksgiving Potluck and naturally, my mind wandered to all the delicious and care-filled dishes that people have brought to Thanksgiving Potlucks past. One of the beautiful and magical things about this Thanksgiving Meal is the successful, decentralized nature of the Potluck. EFS promises that there will be turkey and we let the spirit of community carry the rest. And somehow, there’s always a full Thanksgiving Meal. Never do we not have mashed potatoes, gravy, or stuffing. There’s always homemade bread, wild rice, ample salads, and cranberry sauce.
Cranberries! Ruminating on the thanksgiving meal made me realize that the cranberry is one local berry that I hadn’t yet collected and it’s lowbush cranberry season in the North. Well, there was a new short-term goal for me to fixate on. I already had hiking plans with a friend who has been living up here for the better part of ten years, so I reached out and asked if we could pivot our long hike to a bog walk in search of cranberries. Luckily, it was an easy ask – he was interested and even had a spot where he’s seen cranberries growing in years past.
So, just two days after I made the goal to find at least two (2) cranberries this fall, I was tucking my Chotas into my camo cargo pants (Northwoods fashion!) and traipsing after my dog out into a spruce bog.
We made our way through the swampy and uneven land until we hit some beautiful bright green mosses not far from where a creek runs through toward the lake. We slowed down and started feeling through the moss, searching for the small red berries. I found the first two. Alone, hidden under moss, and unassuming. Not very red either. I taste one – quite unripe. I leave the second in the ground and search on, not finding much. Then, a few more unripe berries. Maybe we’re just too early. Finally! A ripe one! Two! Oh, I am in it now. It’s a treasure hunt – slower, more intentional and gentler than the hunts for brightly colored Easter Eggs of my childhood, but the thrill of each discovery was the same. The cranberries are sparse and often tucked perfectly within the moss such that you don’t see the berry until you have already touched it.
As the morning goes on, I realize I’m finding the best cranberries – most concentrated, most ripe – on the tussocky, grassy mounds that make walking slow and at the base of black spruce trees – making me lay on my belly in the soft moss and reaching under the low branches, often losing my hat to the tree.
It’s a slow process, we weren’t at a terribly bountiful patch. But, I ended my first search for cranberries with a full 14 ounces collected and a warmth in my bones. I love being in that type of landscape. It’s not much like the majority of photos and videos you’ll see advertising Northern Minnesota and the Boundary Waters. It’s mucky and full of scrappy spruce and jack pine trees. Scraggly bushes are everywhere and each step you take could well fill your shoes with the standing bog water. It can be hard to walk through and is perhaps less poetically beautiful than the red and white pine groves alongside wide, clear lakes. But, it is beautiful, in a way that is raw and unapologetically honest. And it’s full of ecological diversity that is crucial to our ecosystem. And, I like to think about how ages ago, far more of the landscape surrounding Ely looked a lot more like this – back when beavers ruled North America.
I’ve used all of the first cranberries I found – savored in muffins and salads, and by the berry. But, I hope to try out a different bog this weekend and collect some more. Because how lovely would it be to bake cranberry wild rice bread for the Thanksgiving Potluck? Freshly picked cranberries and manoomin from my ricing season this fall? That is certainly a good basis for a Thanksgiving Potluck Dish.
The wild rice harvesting process is also done in environments you’re less likely to see in the magazines and commercials for Northern Minnesota tourism. Lakes and rivers where manoomin grows are shallow and mucky. The mud is thick and instead of paddling, you propel your jiimaan by using a push pole – a long pole with a duck bill that you push against the wild rice plants. This year, a friend and I went ricing in a particularly mucky place that was especially difficult to travel through. Before we collected any significant amount of rice on our first day on the water, I was drenched in mud (unfortunately for my previously unstained clothing, I mean this literally).
Harvesting both manoomin and mashkiigiminan (cranberries) is slow and takes more intention, planning, and sweat than visiting the grocery store. But boy, do I feel more connected, grounded, and home when going through these harvesting processes and during the prepping, cooking, and sharing of this food. And, very little could bring me more joy than sharing the food I harvested, from this land that we love, and sharing that with dear friends and neighbors while reflecting on the meaning of gratitude.
And, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I should tell you that I am so grateful to be here in Ely, for my relationship with the land, and for the land that is so giving of food. I’m grateful for the incredible artists and friends that I get to work with daily. Thankful for friends who share the values of eating locally and of learning how and where food grows. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be immersed in folk education – which is to say I get to live fully within the values of learning to benefit your life by sharing with others your skills and stories in a non-competitive, intergenerational environment. I can tell you confidently, it’s a recipe for a very rich life indeed.
So, perhaps I’ll see you on Thanksgiving or at a different EFS Potluck soon. All are welcome – bring some food and drink to share if you’re able. A beautiful thing about regular community potlucks is the understanding that sometimes we have the time and resources to make something to share and sometimes we don’t.