By V. Paul Reynolds
Soon it will be time to go fiddleheadin’.
For the true gatherer, the first fiddlehead green that pokes through the sandy silt in the lowlands near brooks and streams stirs an inner joy. I count myself among the true gatherers. Finding wild things to eat that were not processed by man is a source of intense satisfaction and accomplishment.
In fact, the need to gather for nourishment — whether by planting and growing, picking, killing or catching — seems to be instinctive. Where does it come from, this atavistic yearning? Who knows. But it’s there for those of us who must go out and find wild mushrooms, grow potatoes in rich dirt or kill a majestic wild animal for its meat.
For some, spring is just a distant promise until the first robin is sighted, or the evening song of the amphibians is heard at sunset. Diane and I find spring in the first feed of fiddleheads. Out back of our place, the stream has rid itself of an ice-encrusted shoreline and the runoff has started to subside.
Our fiddlehead vigil has begun. From the field, I can see the sandy bar on the other side of the stream where it makes a bend. As the days warm, I will remain watchful, making a daily check for “conditions.”
With fiddleheads, timing is everything.
Once, while on a trout-fishing trip in northern Aroostook County, Diane and I by sheer good luck brought home a memory unmatched in our gatherer’s chronicle. On our third day of tenting and fishing, unusually warm weather for late May was forcing us to break camp early. We were out of ice and our remaining food was about to spoil. That morning, while working our way down a brook to a remote trout pond, we came upon a patch of fiddleheads. While picking some of these tasty greens for supper, we discovered some glacial ledges near the stream that still held winter ice. Long story short. Our trip back was a true gatherer’s dream. My pack basket contained freshly picked fiddleheads and four nice brookies, all cooled down by large chunks of blue ice. No charge for the ice, either.
The stream out back is a long way from Aroostook County’s trout country, and Diane and I are not alone. Here, there are other true gatherers also keeping an eye on “our” fiddlehead grounds.
There is intense competition for nature’s offerings, so late pickers may wind up scrounging for remnants. We must remain alert.
Soon the dry, tangled lowlands near the stream will take on splotches of green. Some warm, rainy days will precede the debut of the skunk cabbage. Not long after, usually following a couple of wonderful, warm spring afternoons, the first nubs of the ostrich fern (fiddleheads) will make themselves barely visible beneath the dark, beet-colored root clumps.
With a bucket in one hand and a walking stick for stability, we will forge the fast-moving stream in our waders. Then, among the skunk cabbages and the first hatch of bugs, we will bend down and snap off these green, curled ferns one by one. Clutching our pickings as if they were panned gold, we’ll head back across the stream and straight for the kitchen. After a careful cleaning, the fiddleheads will be steamed, perhaps with a piece of bacon.
Then they will be served. Maine fiddlehead greens as fresh as they can ever be. Drum roll, please. Spring is now. As we savor the unique flavor, as well as the seasonal rite for its own sake, we will know for sure that we have outlasted another long Maine winter, and that the best gathering of the year is yet to come.