Our paddling partner, Fred, has been Travis’s close friend since the two of them were in fifth grade together in Anamosa, Iowa. They’ve been exploring the wilds together for the same amount of time. As kids they sloshed through the Wapsipinicon River and roamed the woods around Anamosa, dreaming up Dungeons and Dragons adventures. I’m a late-comer to this duo, having only been around for the last five years, but our newly formed wilderness trio works well. Fred is one of the most intelligent and inquisitive people I’ve ever known, and it’s difficult not to feel incredibly interesting around him. He approaches the world as a mystery to be solved. It is impossible not to like him.
Fred is also a permaculture and edible forest garden adherent, and he founded a nonprofit organization to promote such landscapes in Iowa City, where he lives. His entire yard is devoted to edible landscaping, and every time we visit him we tour his property, stepping over young raspberry plants and tasting herbs and berries and the occasional cultivated vegetable. Fred would prefer not to expend energy and resources coaxing life out of plants that don’t want to be where he puts them. He prefers instead to follow the wisdom of the plants themselves, letting them decide whether they want to be in a particular spot. His edible forest is a mutually respectful negotiation with plants and the elements of nature.
So as we paddled our way through this big wilderness, while Travis and I were looking for animals, Fred was looking for plants.
He would lean over the edge of the canoe, investigating wild rice stalks and other grasses in the middle of the river. When we beached the boats, he was drawn to the woods, examining mushrooms, blueberry bushes, and other ground covers that I’d never before had the urge to examine. While searching for a spot to place his sleeping bag one night, he declined a location because there was a mushroom growing there, and he didn’t want to disturb it.
Early in the week, he emerged from a brief incursion into the woods and announced, “I think I found wintergreen!” in the same tone I would have used in announcing that I’d spotted a bear or a cougar. Travis and I cocked our heads like confused dogs, and issued him a blank stare. “Really?” I asked in the uncertain voice you use when someone you care about is excited about something you don’t completely understand. If he’d announced that he’d seen a badger, or a porcupine, or some other animal, I would have been able to display the appropriate reaction. He disappeared back into the woods before explaining.
I promptly forgot about the wintergreen, but Fred didn’t. At our last campsite – which he named Camp Slant because of the dire skew of the topography on which we were expected to sleep – he went to the top of a rock to cook our dinner. When dinner was ready and we arrived at the top of the rock, he gestured to a plant next to the camp stove and exclaimed, “It IS wintergreen!”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I tasted one of the berries. And it’s definitely wintergreen,” he replied.
I was interested now. I don’t make it a practice to sample unidentified berries – or anything else – in the wilderness for what I feel are self-evident reasons. I won’t even take a bite of a morel, perhaps the most easily identifiable mushroom in the forest, until some other, more reckless person (usually Travis) has sampled it and stayed upright for a sufficient period of time. But Fred apparently felt confident enough in his identification to take the plunge.
“Is there any left?” I asked as I followed him to the plant, which had glossy green leaves and red berries, and reminded me a bit of holly with more smoothly-shaped leaves. He picked one of the berries and handed it to me. I weighed the risks. It had been about twenty minutes since Fred had consumed the berry and he had not yet dropped dead, nor did he appear to be afflicted in any way. And he had assured me of the unmistakable essence of wintergreen in the berry. That was enough for me. Uncharacteristically, I tossed the berry into my mouth and began to chew.
“It might not be ripe yet,” he warned.
It wasn’t. The berry was hard and chewy, but it instantly flooded my mouth with the cool, fresh taste of wintergreen – the taste of the wilderness.
Wintergreen is great, Fred explained, because it’s an edible ground cover. You can use it in place of mulch, and have both beauty and something tasty at your fingertips. I set about photographing the plant. He was eager to record the conditions in which it would thrive, and noted that it was growing in conifer litter near a low-lying blueberry bush.
When you mash up the leaves of wintergreen, it turns out you get something called methyl salicylate, which is the foundation chemical in aspirin. This probably explains why Native Americans and European colonists used wintergreen medicinally. The kicker, however, is that too much wintergreen oil can be lethal, like popping an entire bottle of aspirin at once.
What I did not find out about wintergreen until I returned to civilization is that it is triboluminescent. In other words, if you crush it, it glows. (Remember your youthful experiments with Wintergreen Lifesavers?)
This seems like a missed opportunity for our last night at Camp Slant. Maybe next year.