Reflections on berry-picking and BC’s forests
July 3, 2020
THE FOREST AROUND OUR QUADRA ISLAND HAVEN is aglow right now with droopy white plumes of ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), ruby-jewelled salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) and huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium).
I feel so lucky to have been here through the full pandemic-infused spring as I have been able to watch and photograph each stage of these plants’ evolution from bare branches through the unfurling of their leaves, blossoming of their flowers and swelling of their berries.
The salmonberries and huckleberries are plump and juicy, thanks to copious rain over the past few weeks. I have been picking them regularly to use on my oatmeal in the morning, but now that the huckleberries are ripe, I am thinking more ambitiously about pies and preserves.
Mostly, I am enthusiastic about such kitchen production because it gives me an excuse to hang out in the forest. I find berry picking among the most calming, meditative-yet-productive things to do.
The three plants mentioned above are very common in Douglas fir forests. All were relied on by native people who lived here pre-colonization. The ocean spray has very hard wood, which, according to Pojar & MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, was used for spears and tools by First Nations. The seeds were eaten as well.
The berries of huckleberry and salmonberry, of course, were eaten fresh as well as preserved, as were those of salal (Gaulthoria shallon). Many birds, squirrels and bears in Vancouver Island forests eat the berries as well.
The red-berried huckleberry was one of the few plant species to survive on the slopes of Mount St Helens when the volcano erupted in 1980, according to Wikipedia. In local forests it loves to grow on rotting logs and old tree stumps.
Salal berries will ripen later in summer. They produce an intensely flavourful purply-black jam I love. I hear they are also really good for making fruit leather, which I might attempt to make this year. It will give me another excuse to hang out quietly, with sticky fingers, in the forest.
These plants all seem very hardy and abundant. But the forests they depend on are getting mowed down at an alarming rate. When I hike into the backwoods of Quadra Island, I see clearcut after clearcut. (Satellite images show the same patchwork look all over BC.) Up close, a new clearcut is a hell-scape, with wide roads blasted through rock, a desiccated, scraped terrain littered with “course woody debris” (former tree limbs), and stump after stump of “harvested fibre.”
Speaking of harvested fibre—or “feedstock,” see Michelle Connolly’s excellent piece on this site, “Words Hide Truth,” about the Orwellian, euphemistic language employed by BC’s Ministry of Forests et al. The government’s deliberate rebranding of natural forests as commodities helps discourage our awareness and defence of forests as complex living systems.
Unfortunately, not enough of us are able to get out and witness the contrast between a clearcut and an intact forest. On Quadra, there are many examples side-by-side, providing for a mind-bending contrast. I certainly cannot recognize a forest I’ve visited before, formerly graced with dense, towering trees, carpeted with moss and my favourite bushes, after it’s been mowed down by the industrial machinery now used. It’s a stark lesson in the rapacious, absurd behaviour of our species.
For further elucidation on the BC government’s appalling stewardship of our once-magnificent forests, read David Broadland’s recent analysis (along with many readers’ comments) of the financial realities of the forest-industrial complex. It appears the BC taxpayer is getting shafted along with the forests we love.
I think I need to get back to berry-picking…
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