If you’ve never seen a man swim on land you should watch my neighbor Harlan Adkins. He knows the mountains around Pike County’s Greasy Creek so well that when he steps into the forest it’s like he’s easing his way through a thick gel of instinct and ancestral knowledge that nobody else can sense. He is an old man. In his 70s. He moves slowly, leaving little trace, and he does it with such grace that it makes you wonder if the best people aren’t the ones immortalized in marble but the ones who can make themselves disappear.
Foraging is farming
And he can grow anything. If he planted a brick it would probably bear fruit. Harlan Beans. Harlan Corn. His stuff is so good that the people on Greasy Creek who are lucky enough to get it inevitably attach his name to it because it’s like he invented it. Like tomatoes weren’t even tomatoes until he grew them. Now they’re Harlan Tomatoes. See? Whatever you’re buying at the grocery store might be red and it might be round but next to what Harlan coaxes from the earth it might as well be a billiard ball.
He’s all the time saying something like, “Well, buh, if I’d knowed you was comin’ I’d cut you a mess of them good ol’ muuuuuuustard greens.”
All these qualities make him the ideal “sanger”, a forager for the wild ginseng root that grows throughout Kentucky. He understands that foraging is farming. The oldest kind. He knows you can’t just indiscriminately reap what you didn’t sow like those contrived dumbasses on TV who raid the hills like copper thieves. You have to attune your mind beyond the human rhythms of heartbeats, of sunrises and sunsets, of the four seasons. You have to make your brain like a cast iron skillet. You have to think in lifetimes.
He’s going to teach me how to do it. Paul Hopkins is going to help.
Paul is one of Harlan’s best friends. He possesses most of the same qualities as Harlan but with an added bonus. He has that exotic combo of preternatural mountain mysticism and an extensive formal education. He’s the meta Greasy Creeker. In it and above it at the same exact time, he’s the type of guy that must elicit a silent “Oh shit” from every coal company land man and highway department hustler sent to knock on doors with lowball offers. He knows the real value of where we stand can’t be quantified in dollars and cents.
What we’re looking for is Panax quinquefolius, North American ginseng. It’s easiest to spot in late September and early October when its leaves turn yellow and its berries bright red. We hit an area near a place called Wolfpit first, and right away it’s obvious to Paul and Harlan that other sangers had already been there. They could see their tracks and the occasional patch of disturbed dirt. From the looks of things they were most likely poachers, those who dig before the season officially starts on September 1. The dealers who pay cash for the roots aren’t supposed to buy them until then, but most experienced sangers dry their own roots and sell them later in the year when the price goes up anyway.
Right now a pound of dried wild ginseng root will get you about $350. It’s been known to fetch $1000. Almost all of it gets exported to China where it’s primarily used as a sort of herbal Viagra. They particularly like the roots that are shaped like people, the ones that look like they have arms and legs and a head. They call it “man root” and guys like Harlan think it’s some nutty hocus pocus.
“I heard they wear the bigguns around their neck like a necklace,” he says. “Why you’d do a thing like that I couldn’t tell ya.”
One time Harlan found a root so big it looked like two sweet potatoes. He had his picture taken with it.
But there’s more to these hills than ginseng if your interests extend beyond cash money, tons of things with medicinal and culinary uses. There’s bloodroot, black cohosh, wild ginger, wild yam, pawpaws, morel mushrooms, huckleberries, autumn olives and slippery elm. There’s wintergreen and sassafrass. Plus there’s the fun of it. Snap off a twig of sweet birch and chew on it. It tastes like a root beer. Wander around without a bunch of wireless frequencies irradiating your spirit. Bitch about your significant other.
That last one’s real important. You’re not sangin’ properly if you’re not cussing your wife behind her back. Harlan’s a master at that, too. He’s about as laid back as they come, a little too laid back for his “old woman” Della. She’s famous for her icebox pickles. She makes them by the gallon in these big used buckets of Strawberry Ripple sherbert. She’s also famous for semi-jokingly busting Harlan’s balls on a near constant basis. One time she took every stitch of clothes he owns and threw them in the trash because he was slacking off on the laundry.
It made Della a hero to all the ladies, but Harlan’s still a little shellshocked.
“A man can’t hardly do nothin’,” he says, swimming through the hills in his dirty white T-shirt and Bass Pro Shops hat. “Can’t even die. If I die she won’t have nobody to quarrel at.”
One of the plants Harlan and Paul both put a lot of stock in is goldenseal, or yellowroot as it’s usually called around here on account of its electric ochre nest of hairlike roots. Taken as a tea, they say it’s good for a ton of ailments and overall wellbeing.
It’s also way more abundant, partly because fewer people dig it, and Harlan goes to work on a big patch he’s found high on the hillside in the ancient, almost tropical environment where these things like to grow.
“You find some sang?” Paul yells down at him.
“Nope. But I come into some nice looking yallaroot.”
And he expertly uproots the plants with the specially made digging tool that he’s really proud of. It’s like a doubleheaded axe with one blade twisted horizontally and pounded round like a platypus bill. It’s sharp enough for the soil but dull enough that it won’t accidentally cut the roots.
He knocks the root ball against his hip to get some of the dirt off and then sticks it into a padded camouflage bag on his waist.
It takes two separate trips and probably five hours of hunting before we come across any ginseng. It’s just getting harder and harder and harder to find. People dig it too young, too early in the season. Valleys are filled. Roads are built. The market wavers with the whipsawing Chinese economy.
“Ain’t that pitiful,” Harlan says when Paul points out some litter left behind by the new breed of amateurs.
Weather permitting, Harlan will head to the hills about every day this season. He puts the day’s ginseng haul on his porch in pie tins to dry. By fall’s end he will have around $2000 worth, enough to buy the supplies he needs to tend his garden and preserve its produce for the winter. Maybe he’ll buy something nice for Della.
Paul will just go out occasionally for the fun of it. He puts his wild herbs in shadowboxes and takes them to the local museum so people can appreciate a bit of Kentucky’s unique magic.
They both, however, share the belief that the best sangers aren’t measured by how many pounds of roots they dig, but by how many seeds they put back in the ground.
They preach the importance of treading lightly, of minding every footfall, because what’s gone is gone and what’s changed can’t be unchanged.
And things are always changing.
That’s why a real sanger knows not to bother with map making or memorizing this spot or that. It will be new in no time.
You’ve just got to take it as it comes and leave a little in your wake.
It’s like Harlan says: “No matter where a fella goes in these hills he won’t ever make it that way again.”