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Gathering, the harvesting of wild plant foods and herbs for domestic and commercial use, is practiced all over West Virginia. Everywhere, one finds place names associated with gathering: Bee Knob, Walnut Gap, Grape Island, Seng Camp Run, Chestnut Flat, and the communities of Ramp and Paw Paw, among many others. The presence of the mixed hardwood forest throughout the state, with its rich canopy and understory, provides for a remarkable diversity of greens, roots, berries, mushrooms, nuts, and fruits. This diversity supports an annual round of foraging practices that together make up a considerable part of the state’s folk culture.

Gathering takes place in a complex social context, which requires both ecological and historical knowledge to navigate. Practices of gathering are informed by a concept of the ‘‘commons’’ and a strong awareness of the history of land use. American Indians living in Ohio spent the summer months in the mountains gathering food for the winter. Deemed vital for the survival of warring factions, the mountains were shared in common, a place where animosities among hostile tribes were suspended. Privatizing spaces and resources vital to human existence was unthinkable to the natives.

Today, gathering thrives where communities in the mountains have managed to maintain common access to gatherable resources on lands that may be held by corporations, the government, or neighbors, but are nonetheless generally open to all. Echoes of Indian gathering practices persist in names for gatherables such as ‘‘puccoon’’ (for blood root or red root), Shawnee lettuce, and in rumors of places and species favored by Native Americans. ‘‘The Indians liked to gather the red mushrooms that come up in the fall,’’ an elderly woman from Peachtree Creek in Raleigh County stated.

Access to wild gatherables helps communities to sustain themselves both materially and culturally. Commercially valuable roots such as goldenseal (also known as yellow root), mayapple, blood root, and, most valuable of all, ginseng, have long supplemented family incomes. Wild produce supplements mountain diets. This includes ramps, poke, creasies or wild cress, black raspberries, red mulberries, blackberries, fox grapes, huckleberries, black walnuts, white or butternut walnuts, hazelnuts, and pawpaws. Each season brings its share of wild edibles: the morel mushrooms known in various parts of the mountains as ‘‘moodgers,’’ ‘‘muggins,’’ and ‘‘molly moochers’’; the wine berries that people say are too juicy to preserve; the beechnuts that old-timers will tell you they peeled, salted, and ate on the spot as children.

Culturally, gathering fosters the sort of talk that promotes a sense of participation and continuity. Practitioners locate themselves not only in a contemporary community of like-minded people but also within a chain that spans the generations. People associate the land with those who have taught it to them. An 84-year-old woman from Boone County recalled that when she was a little girl her grandmother took her out to look for mushrooms and spring greens. Her grandmother would point out trees where Indians summering in the mountains would hang their meat to dry and the charred rocks where Indians baked their cornbread.

The practice of gathering involves people in a system of knowledge of historical, social, and ecological relationships. Morel fans insist that old apple orchards are the best places to go molly mooching. Red mulberry trees, now scarce, may be found by those who can remember where farmers penned their hogs. Don’t bother looking for wild cress in undisturbed ground, because, as one woman put it, ‘‘Creasies won’t grow unless you cultivate the soil.’’ Nut trees, not deemed worth much by loggers, become vital parts of the system. ‘‘We were taught never to cut down a nut tree,’’ said one man, ‘‘because they are good for the animals.’’ In this view, groves of pawpaws, hickories, persimmons, and patches of ramps, goldenseal, and ginseng planted near homes and throughout the mountains bear the trace of centuries of the practice of the commons.

This Article was written by Mary Hufford

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Cite This Article

Hufford, Mary "Gathering." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 01 March 2011. Web. 21 November 2017.

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