Saturday, August 15, 2015


Once, when I was a kid, we had a visit from the family of my mother’s uncle, a preacher who at the time was living in Macon, Georgia. For some reason, we decided to take them, including his mostly grown sons (my first cousins once removed) on a little excursion to one of our favorite spots in the foothills of the Cohutta Mountains, a place called Bear Creek, a place I’ve taken my own children many times for picnicking during summer visits back to the States. 

I only remember this little outing because, as we walked along the graveled Forest Service road deep in the woods, my brother, sister and I spotted some ripe blackberries growing on the sunny slope of the road bank. We immediately started helping ourselves to the berries, while our city cousins looked on, almost regarding us as feral children, wild people of the mountains. At least they declined to join in the berry picking themselves.

I thought of this earlier this summer when my wife and I were walking along a similarly graveled road near the little sauna-cabin we’ve been building not far from Helsinki. We spotted some ripe wild strawberries (metsämansikoita, or “forest strawberries”) on the side of the road and started sampling them. No one passing by would have batted an eye at this. 

Foraging for wild food like this is extremely typical in Finland, and one of the local customs that unexpectedly echoes a familiar way of life in faraway North Georgia. 

In the past few weeks, all along the road to our cabin we have been seeing cars parked in every little pullout or side road, a sign that the blueberry- and mushroom-picking season is well underway. With the summer so cool and rainy this year, everyone is expecting the season will be exceptionally good, and in fact we’ve already found keltavahvero (chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius) in places where you don’t normally see them. I didn't grow up foraging for fungi in Georgia, and I'm far from being an expert. Even now, chanterelles, along with suppilovahvero (winter mushroom, Cantharellus tubaeformis), are the only ones I can safely identify by myself.

My first haul of suppilovahvero, winter mushrooms.

Growing up in Georgia, we didn’t really do much foraging for blueberries, either. What we did go after was blackberries. I remember our whole family, donning boots and long-sleeve shirts in the middle of the sultry Georgia summer heat to wade chest-deep into a thicket of blackberry vines (as we called them), an almost impenetrable tangle of thorns. It was worth it. My mother would turn our haul of fruit into jellies and jams and usually more than a few blackberry cobblers that I can still almost taste.

Blackberries (called karhunvatukka, “bear raspberry”) don’t grow wild in Finland, but their cousin, the raspberries, do. The converse is true in North Georgia – raspberries are the less common of the two, as I recall.

The woods where I grew up didn’t off much in the way of blueberries. There was something we called “huckleberries”, growing low to the ground and bearing tiny, round fruit full of gritty seeds. They were probably poor specimens of what the British call “bilberries” (Vaccinium myrtillus) and basically the same thing as Finnish blueberries, only apparently not as well suited to the habitats of Georgia.

The “huckleberries” we knew as kids weren’t very good or abundant, and reaching down to pick them at ground level seemed a risky proposition in the snaky country I grew up in. It was therefore a revelation when we discovered a higher alternative.

It was on a short hike with our parents one summer day to the summit of Springer Mountain (3780 ft., 1150m), the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, literally at the very edge of my home county. On the approach trail, we noticed blueberry bushes, not at ankle level, but five feet or more in height. And they were full of large, tasty berries.

Although spending a lifetime in the woods, we’d never run across these “high-bush” blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) before, and maybe they’re not all that common in Georgia anyway. We only ever encountered them in the cooler, open forests of the state’s higher ridge tops, a fairly limited environment after all.

The much more mountainous landscape of western North Carolina is another matter, however. I used to go hiking regularly in a slice of that landscape called Shining Rock, a federally protected wilderness area of stark, 6000-foot peaks that are mostly bare of the dense forests more typical of the Appalachians. The scenery there is much more “western”, completely out of place in the Southeast.

Often on the way to Shining Rock, I would stop at a spot along the Blue Ridge Parkway where a slope of brush and grass, interspersed here and there with clumps of trees, rises gradually from a high-country stream. This place, Graveyard Fields, already a bit magical and mysterious, was also rampant with high-bush blueberries.

When the berries were ripe, the “fields” would be filled with Cherokees, from the small reservation nestled next to the Smokies, foraging no doubt in the manner of their ancestors.

You might think the berries there would also be a big draw for foraging bears. I never saw one in Graveyard Fields itself, though I know of at least one instance in which a bear got a taste of its berries.

This was on a camping trip with my parents along the Parkway one summer. We had picked some berries at Graveyard Fields that day, and my mother had used them to whip up a pie back at our campsite. Since we weren’t able to finish the pie before bedtime, we put the rest in an ice chest, which we (unwisely) left sitting on the tailgate of our truck. It didn’t sit there unnoticed for long. We awoke in the night to the sound of the ice chest crashing to the ground and a bear devouring what was left of the berry pie.

I haven’t heard of any encounters between people and bears in Finland over blueberries, but the competition between human foragers can sometimes get tense, as well, despite the fact that Finland's "everyman's rights" allow anyone to pick berries anywhere they please, including private land.

Last month, a popular tabloid asked its readers to share stories of the altercations they have experienced with other berry pickers. The resulting examples of marjaraivo ("berry rage") included tales of pickers being threatened by dogs, tractors, and a red-faced old lady, and in one instance the air being let out of a berry picker’s tires.

Normally, foraging competition is limited to keeping your favorite mushroom-picking spots a closely held secret, especially when it comes to the highly prized keltavahvero

Chanterelles from the Finnish forest.

(My parents exercised the same kind of secrecy when it came to the locations of ginseng, a slightly different kind of wild forest product that they loved to search for in the mountains of Georgia.)

Showing off the harvest from your undisclosed mushroom location on social media, is of course extremely typical. In summer, photos by Finnish friends of basketfuls of chanterelles or buckets of blueberries appear on my Facebook feed with the kind of regularity that American friends post memes praising Jesus. Foraging is that central to the Finnish way of life.

I once took an advanced Finnish-language course designed for immigrants to the country. In addition to grammar lessons, there were outings arranged with the purpose of introducing us foreigners to various aspects of Finnish life and culture. These included a visit to a Baltic herring festival, tours of a couple of national museums and, of course, a mushroom picking expedition.

Our little class assembled one autumn morning in Paloheinä, part of Helsinki’s Keskuspuisto (“Central Park”). Before we got started, our teacher briefly instructed us on which mushrooms were easily identifiable as safe, and which were obviously ones to avoid. She stressed that if there was any doubt, we should first check with her before picking something. 
Most of the class, those students from Algeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh and other such exotic places, stuck pretty close to the teacher as we combed the forest floor for edible fungi. I did likewise, since, even after over two decades of living here, mushroom picking is one aspect of Finnish culture this American has not yet managed to pick up.

One group of students, however, immediately disappeared, spreading out into the forest mostly on their own. The Russians. Well, the Russian-speakers, that is, which included Russians, Ukrainians, and one Azerbaijani. If there was one thing they required absolutely no help in, it was mushroom picking.

If anything, our boreal neighbors in Russia are even more dye-in-the-wool mushroom pickers than Finns are. I guess it’s one of those cultural things that transcends borders and languages when there are tasty things growing in the forest well worth foraging for. 

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