by Mark D. Connell, Sussex Society for Public Interest
In the town where I once lived, as breakup and the tumultuous floods subsided and the green of early May secretly slipped over the valleys – yellowing the floors with adders tongues discretely swelling buds of the Shadbush, a louder activity began.
Rickety, leaking creek boats were being repaired, tarred or built. These were manned by an enterprising folk from the age of ten on up – those were the ones who made up the Meduxnekeaq fiddleheading fleet.
The beat up creek boats got poled upstream day after day to Fiddlehead or Sandplum Island to watch for unfurling plunder. When enough heads pushed up through the muddy silt the boats were dragged ashore and the pickers would set to… picking, scouting, exhilarated wild browsers moving through the brush, leaving one or two on each clump but scrambling to get a sack full before others found their patches.
Those islands were located in a meandering stream bordered with intervale floodlands. They were ringed with elms, silver maple, willows and accompanied by understory tangles of chokecherry, hawthorn, red dogwood and alder. Fiddlehead patches abounded in these conditions. Little patches could keep a picker going for a few moments but a big patch could keep two or three pickers busy for a half an hour. Down on the Wulustuk River we heard of patches that extended for half a mile. These were the places young pickers dreamed of finding and when they got bolder they did.
In New Brunswick on May weekends young and old foraged up and down the banks of creeks, rivers and brooks from the Restigouche to the St. Croix. Fiddleheads were long ago shown to us by the Maliseet, Mi’Kmaq and Passamaquoddy; as they taught us maple sugaring, the working of weirs and canoeing so did they fiddleheading. These indispensable gifts from the Abenaki peoples forged links between us – for which, sadly, we have been largely ungrateful.
I remember the Maliseet, like the returning ducks and geese, running down the creek every year in their big canoes or boats filled with sacks of fiddleheads. When they arrived we raised up with a shiver, like deer and looked on in awe, captivated. Their canoes, even when driven by motors, seemed alive to the task, sensing the best landing spot, always pulling up on good fiddleheading. They exuded the presence and power of being of the land. They were of the earth; and we came to know it. They didn’t exclude us. They knew that foraging was the right of all creatures and we had a dim sense in our wonder that these people were the embodiment of a freedom not common to just themselves but to all of the wild.
Those Maliseet without instruction inducted some of us through example and our admiration into a much older tribe, a freer tribe, Clan Fiddlehead – a tribe that knew that the land is as bounteous and generous as the sun is warm. The Maliseet picked and moved in a deliberate, leisurely ease through the islands, as browsers would and left as they came, without announcement, like a school of fish turning in mid-stream, slipping down river to the next intervale, the next island, the next patch.
Fiddleheading, gathering wood, making cookfires, trout fishing, scavenging a living from the wild, connects us to what we are, the land, the earth. It links us to our deep past, to wild, resourceful, antediluvian humans; to raccoons, bears, mice, anteaters, birds, insects, and minute bacteria. Foraging ties us to the mysteries of life back and beyond the 3 or 4 million years that humans have lived, hunted, feasted, starved, danced, howled or sang as a species in this world.
On this tiny obscure planet orbiting a star in a corner of a universe the fates threw open a 1.2 billion year window to a breeze of life that mysteriously arrived, and flourished as a thin veil on its surface. The tiniest wisp of algae as important as a giant Sequoia, to its process. When we fiddlehead we weave ourselves, in the minutest way into the ancient warp and woof of that veil proceeding over the millennia; incorporating new strands into old strands year after year into its rich cloth composed of myriads of species.
Fiddleheadin’ stands large in my mind as a timeless spring ritual of renewal in our back country, and to me is of more importance than sugaring-off. Fiddleheaders spreading out through the spring woods makes a mockery of military parades, Easter Parades, tickertape parades or graduation parades. These latter day customs do not penetrate deeply into the past. By contrast, gathering fiddleheads spirals us season by season back through the ages, past the violence of mad empires into a softer prehistory, past the origins of trees, of butterflies, of flowers… beyond the dinosaurs and deep into the Carboniferous, 350 million years ago – to the lost epoch that signaled the origins of the fern. Gaia must have gasped as her cloth took on new colour, new texture new design.
Fiddleheads, through all this time, still humbly poke up through litter, branches, mud and silt. They connect us to the intricate dimensions of our senses – to the kingdom of touch and the queendoms of smell and taste. They let us know in their visceral way that humans, a strand in nature’s hair, are not flawed as our religions, our science and our cultures would have us believe, but beautiful robust, adaptable and imminently capable of survival and that we can be at one with her.
Fiddleheads in this way affirm us and induct us into the wild feast, in the here, the now, along a rattling brook or in a quiet copse, symbolizing the fluid continuity of life and its renewal as potently as the pagan Easter egg. Gatherers therefore are often brought to a state of peace and assurance of provision. In contrast to our war-weary world the peaceful interlude after the maple sugar season is graced with hope… the snow gradually disappearing, the ice breaking up, kids trout fishing, wild flowers blooming and the fiddleheadin’ season coming on.
The flip side of fiddleheading is an unconscious act of resistance to the machine, to our manic bizarre and outlandish culture of mad speed and megabytes. When you fiddlehead, you are not regulated, you pay no money, no one takes your name when you enter or leave the patch, neither ruler, bureaucrat, nor priest has any control over the unfurling fern or your ability to harvest them. It’s the Deva’s U-Pick. Her slow and deliberate dance will not be hurried, she pushes up the fiddleheads in her own time. If you follow where she leads you will feast to your heart’s content. This is the spring purge among the bloodroots and skunk cabbage – a quiet respite from the cacophony of highways, a spring gorge, a Rabelaisian celebration beside the singing freshet making its way to the mother sea.
Last Spring fiddleheaders heard rumours, news, rumblings that McCains, the Corporate food giant, wanted fiddlehead picking controlled, licensed, regulated to their own ends.
People under sixteen in this province can go trout fishing without a license, like the Abenaki peoples they are allowed a moment in their youth to experience the world of the hunter and gatherer. Fishing for these youths and fiddleheading for rural New Brunswickers is as important as the bill of rights is to urban citizens; for the Abenaki it is an inalienable right. They and New Brunswick’s Clan Fiddlehead will resist the regulation as surely as the sun will rise!
We profoundly hope that the government who so often play the role of con men for their corporate masters and the disoriented urban people of New Brunswick will just once honour the rural people of our province and the wild place in us all, where the entire universe lives, for it is that place you find when we are fiddleheading.
(This article was first published in Elements Online Environmental Magazine in April 1999.)