I have to admit I suffer qualms sometimes, I do. Like many slightly neurotic, over-intellectualized local foods enthusiasts, I fret about my "carbon footprint," am troubled by thoughts that my dinner might carry too many "food miles," that sort of thing. We don't eat tomatoes in winter, or buy grapes flown in from Chile; most of the meat we consume has been raised by people we know personally, and many of our vegetables we grow ourselves.
But trouble can sneak in where you least expect it, and it occurred to me this spring that some of our most local, least processed foods might actually be suspect, might in fact be not-so-green in some way, although they are utterly natural. I'm talking about the wild-foraged foods, the ramps, cress, fiddleheads, trout, and (sometimes) mushrooms that are a rite of spring for us, with which we celebrate the end of the long white winter, the greening of a new season.
Here's my problem: Yes, these foods are totally natural, grown in Great Nature's own garden. And I take care to harvest respectfully, to not take more than I need, or than the resource can sustain. But, the thing is, when I head out from Saint Paul to fish and forage in the Whitewater region of southeastern Minnesota, I burn at least a half a tank of gas on each outing. I try to stay on guard at all times against becoming complacent, self-satisfied and smug about what and how I eat, or anything else, for that matter. So I've been asking myself: Half a tank of gas for a few fish, a sack of ramps, a bunch of watercress. Does this trade-off pass the sustainability review?
Answer: I don't know. From a purely environmental view, probably not. The systems we have for transporting commercial food to market are likely much more efficient than my hopping in the Jetta (even at 35 mpg) to drive a couple hundred miles round-trip to get food for a few dinners. But then, going out fishing, or foraging in the woods, is not the same as a trip to the grocery store. That nature is not a grocery store is a lesson I should have learned by now, but I still sometimes "plan" a dinner of trout before I have even strung up my rod, and more than once I've been put in my place for my presumptuousness, coming home hang-dog and empty-creeled.
I fish for the sake of fishing, to be on the stream: Not just to put fish on the grill or in the smoker, but for sight of the forest floor bursting first into brilliant green, then a riot of wildflower color; to witness the silhouette of a turkey vulture flit across a sparkling riffle, through the soft shadows of the limbs of a tall white pine, or a pair of canada geese patiently shepherding their young, who sometimes seem to be paddling in place, across a quick current.
And I forage for the sake of foraging, to be in the woods looking for something that might not be there, the finding of which--if I find it--is always a gift and a surprise. It's an experience that borders on the mystical for me. It makes me use senses I don't otherwise employ, and sometimes I think I can smell chanterelles in the woods, or tell by the shape of a clump of brown leaves that there's a mushroom hidden there. Sometimes, spookily, I'm right.
So my conclusion is something of a non-conclusion. Whether or not driving as far as I do for these fishing and foraging expeditions is the greenest thing I could do, I'm going to do it anyway. I'd be miserable without it, and make everyone I know miserable, and shouldn't the way we use our life, our happiness, have some weight in the whole balance of things? I think it should. Is this a blatant case of self-justification? Maybe so. But I hope there's also some larger, positive trade-off, that in the process I can spread a little understanding, espouse a view of the world that takes in the great wide world, instead of tinier and tinier video screens, encourage listening, the kind you do without something stuck in your ear.
Not that I'm opposed to music. I've been listening recently to Jolie Holland's new album, The Living and the Dead. It is wonderful in many ways, and its final track seems fitting here. The entire lyric from the closing song:
"Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think.... "
(I started this writing to describe a backyard forage that had the dual purpose of producing a lovely salad and vegetable dish, and somewhat mitigating my "food miles." But I've gone on long enough here. That will be for next time.)
* Not real Latin!
Text (except the song) and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw