Sauntering along the trail of a local waterfall gully with an armful asunder of downed and dead basswood bark for making cordage, I meet a couple and three children. The woman shows me her find: a rock that is shaped inexplicably like a human ear. She holds the shale up against the side of her head to demonstrate its caricatured likeness, and I laugh. The older girl at her side smiles when the woman tells me how they collect rocks shaped like body parts to take home and paint. “We are building a rock person,” she adds.
Gathering is an instinct from our ancestral heritage looped like longing in our DNA. Those who go shopping are gathering (with money for trade), an evolution of our natural state of being; humans like collecting stuff. Take, for instance, the spritely child with his pockets full of stones, or my own propensity to fill my pockets with acorn caps. Gathering from the Earth is cherishing her many gifts, exploring her nooks and crannies; better yet, when doing so we are full of wonder and mindfulness. Have you ever gone looking for beach glass and at first you see none, but as you tune in to the color and form you begin to find bits of green and white rounded glass everywhere?
Gathering is both an action verb (like when storm clouds gather), and a noun (as in a group of ladybugs). A gathering of crows is called a murder; a gathering of toads a knot; geese or sheep gathered are a flock. When people gather, as in “we are gathered here today,” it can be termed a mob, a congregation, a mass, an assemblage, a multitude, a constellation, or even just a gathering. But to gather is: “to convene, to collect, to obtain, to acquire, procure, or attain.” Gathering is doing; although gathering out in Nature somehow feels different. Wild gathering emanates an awareness more akin to the activity involved in meditation.
Foraging is the act of gathering wild food. Many people go stalking the wild asparagus (Euell Gibbons style) and in some parts of the country, foraging has become a hipster means of reducing one’s grocery budget. It’s free food, after all, so long as you know how to properly identify what you are looking for. I go gather to get nettles, oyster mushrooms, chanterelles, sulfur shelf, and medicinal fungi. I gather St. John’s Wort and Motherwort for making tinctures, mugwort and cedar for smudge. Picking wild raspberries and cloudberries is nearly rapturous! The wildcrafter’s rule of thumb is: for every plant harvested, leave 10 behind. I also like to look for the grandmother plant of the tribe, and in their honor, leave an offering of thanks.
But gathering anything—be it shimmery pebbles or edible cattail shoots, or empty bird nests braided with lichen, fallen feathers, or failed butterfly wings—is not allowed in public places, specifically state and county parks, without a permit, or, at the very least, permission. Broadly interpreted, anything found within a park is to be left in the park. New York City is currently having a problem with urbanites foraging food and fungi in the parks. (I have a windowsill full of illegal rocks!)
Alongside Eelpot Creek I watch small minnows swimming in place, facing the current, mouths gaping and ready. The little fish are gathering food, come what may. Birds gather tufts of my dog’s white hair to cushion their nests, worms to slurp up from my garden, bugs to devour from outside the horse barn. Some crows will even gather shiny objects of intrigue just to have them. I don’t know what stones gather, other than moss. Mosses gather water, and maybe stones; mud wasps—mud. The ash and maple and oak around my home gather sunlight. The squash in my garden gather nutrients with their roots through a delicate process of cation exchange. Turkeys gather beechnuts and acorns (called “mast,” the botanical name for seeds), nuts, berries, and vegetation for wildlife. Doing absolutely nothing, I gather oxygen, just by simply being. I’m not sure if gathering is a natural, inalienable right, but evidence in the world around me seems to elicit a say so.
In some places in our world, the gathering of basic needs such as water, or fuel to cook food, is an all-consuming daily chore. Miles are walked for water in Africa, sometimes twice a day. There is no time to gather rocks for play, or to build a rock person.
Our Little Lakes are bountiful and abundant, but gathering requires respect for public lands, private landowners, and the environment. Anyplace we foray, we should give thanks for all the blessings and gifts this region provides. It seems so natural to want to take home a great find from the outdoors, and to even seek one out, but maybe what we really need to gather from Nature isn’t the item or object that catches our eye at all? Maybe what we seek in such gathering is something far deeper than that.