A Winter Forage

On the meditative gifts of foraging in this quietest season.

story by Linda Vater | photos by Courtney Waugh | styled by Courtney Ann Studio

These things: the miracle of nature’s math and symmetry in the mandala of a seed or shell; the woodsy, autumnal smoky scent of fall; the perfection of a cap-attached acorn. These were wondrous jewels to me as a child, and remain so today. A walk through my Crown Heights neighborhood invariably results in the bulging pockets of my North Face jacket, stuffed like a squirrel’s cheeks with pieces of lacy, lichen-covered bark, perfect mounds of velvety green moss, and spiked balls of the Sweet Gum tree.

Evocative, sensual things found through foraging in nature jettison me back to my childhood like nothing else.

We moved around when I was growing up more than most families. My father’s career kept us on the move: Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Oklahoma were all home. Each move coinciding with a personal, often difficult, benchmark in childhood and school. Friends, geography and the terrain of what was known frequently changing. Even family size not a constant, as older nurturing siblings went away to college.

The first move I remember was when I was six. My mother died when I was five, leaving behind a just trying to survive father and seven kids. Kindergarten for me got lost in the aftermath, and I started first grade a year after her death. A mere two months into the school year, the moving van pulled up and we were off, along with a new mother, to Knoxville.

I remember thinking back then, and I believe it still, that no matter how poor I am or how bereft I may feel, I am rich and endowed with an abundance of beauty for the taking, literally at my feet.

I am so terribly nearsighted that without contacts or glasses I am incapable of seeing much beyond the tip of my nose. My poor vision surfaced as early as the second grade, but all the change in my family meant I didn’t get glasses and have that miraculous ‘individual leaves on the trees’ epiphany until I was in the fifth or sixth grade. For those important formative years in elementary school, anything beyond the reach of my tiny arm was just an undefined, vacuous blob.

As a result, my young self was oblivious and inattentive to so much because I was, quite literally, blind to it. No point in attending to a sign that couldn’t be read or making eye contact with someone I couldn’t identify. The outer world, was safe for my squinting and the interpretive eyes of others, denied me.

But, my how the intimate natural world, up close and personal, filled that void! Books and textures and the beautiful minutia of natural objects provided the clarity I craved and filled my sensory void in miraculous ways.

Starting first grade anew, in a new place with a new mother against a backdrop of immense sadness was painful, and filled with lots of homesickness and confusion. But when playing with my siblings, building leafy forts and hiding under the canopy of the huge oak and sassafras trees in front of my new home, I was comforted by the same earthy sounds and scents and textures of nature I had known playing outdoors in Indiana. They had followed me, providing a much needed touchstone, a sense of security and continuity. Here, too, I discovered, foraging material was plentiful for fairy houses and treasure boxes.

Just before starting junior high, I bid my Appalachian home goodbye and we moved to Edmond. No more towering trees and rolling hills. This was a new kind of natural beauty. The rugged gnarliness of Cross Timber post oaks and blackjack trees. Prairie grasses and rose rocks for the cutting and collecting now. More difficult terrain to forage and navigate, not unlike my own pre-teen and teenage years. The metaphor of this did not escape me, even then, and I think of the parallels often. Though the geographic language of beauty was different, it nevertheless provided the same message of comfort and generosity and life flow.

Successful foraging requires being present enough to actually see what treasures are to be found. I seldom find that perfect branch or berry while checking Instagram, or talking on the phone. I have finally learned that the mindfulness required for the practice and art of foraging is as inherent to the beauty of what is found as the object itself.

In early winter, Mother Nature’s gifts spew out the of baskets and bowls I greedily fill with foraged finds. They’re remarkable centerpieces of the fall and winter seasons, and without expense. Such abundance dulls the melancholy of this seasonal stage in the circle of life.

As I craft my found treasures into the form of a wreath or bouquet in a vase, the foraging continues, though internal now. The quiet revery of creative moments lends itself to thoughtful rummaging—insights that are often transformative, ugly behaviors that might be banished, or at least, softened.

I moved again for the last time with my family, the summer before I graduated from high school. Back to Indiana and my senior year in a new place with new faces and new challenges. But those familiar towering trees and woods embraced me and became wondrous to me again. Between college entrance exams and graduation requirements, I would dig up forest fern and small trees to bring inside, tending them and momentarily forgetting the absence of faraway best friends and the fear of the adult unknown; brief moments to breathe and plan and reflect.

Many of my friends and family are hunters and gatherers as well, with an equally insatiable appetite for earthy offerings. They often gift me with foraged finds—a bouquet of cut branches in fall, a homemade grapevine basket for Christmas, a tiny fir tree to transplant from my native Indiana home. I like knowing that they, too, are being reflective in their foraging process, thinking of me and our mutual gratitude for what lessons nature provides.

Linda Vater teaches and inspires about gardening for KFOR and her blog, Potager at potagerblog.com.

This story was originally published in December 2016.