Giving Thanks (Mountain Ash Sauce)

High on my favorite mountain meadow in North Carolina there’s a series of boulders raised like plates on a stegosaurus’ back. They lean a bit, and one makes a fine shelter for sleeping. On a recent windy afternoon I sat on that boulder, floating through memories of ruggedly beautiful evenings spent here with my dog Sadhu, who is now dead. He used to stand on the spine of this boulder like a sentinel in the cold wind. I’d rest a hand on his back and watch sun-gilded goldenrod blowing in the wind, unanswerable questions in my head. I’d scattered his ashes here, not because I thought he cared where his remains were, but maybe so I’d always know where to find him. When he died at my mother’s house in the mountains I’d wanted to load his very heavy body into my car and bury him up in this meadow myself. I had to ditch the idea. My brakes were going out and could be deadly on those mountain curves; my back was out too; the hike to this meadow is not easy by daylight, much less in the dark; I had to be at work in South Carolina early the next morning; and how was I going to carry his body, a pick axe and shovel all the way up here…Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. I chose to have his body cremated, casting my romanticism aside. So I’d thrown a bag of white ashes that was my dog out into the wind up here, hoping the spare ceremony of it all would be enough to ward off regret. He was such a great friend. I don’t know if he thought I was.

I turned, tangling with the word “ash”, and how to connect it with the shadow memory of the creature I knew and loved. And my eyes stopped at the sight of clusters of red berries vibrating in the breeze. “Ash”, mountain ash as it’s better known, or rowan as it’s called in Europe. I recognized this wild edible one fall day years ago the first time I took Sadhu up here, but had yet to do anything with its fruit. The berries were a bit sun dried, but would definitely work. So now I plucked bunches of the berries, imagining Sadhu following me into the brush as he always did. And imagining untold generations of white mountain people and Cherokee, or Aniyunwiya as they called themselves, picking from the ancestors of these same trees, gazing across the same flowing layers of blue mountains. The irony of a coming Thanksgiving with what’s going on in Standing Rock wasn’t lost on me. The United States wouldn’t even be here if native peoples hadn’t been so good at sharing. White settlers were doing a fantastic job of starving to death when a nearby tribe offered them a hand up and a shared feast of foraged and hunted foods the settlers had no idea how to harvest. That was a moment in time, a brief one in the bloody history of the battle to steal this continent, that people of both races maybe realized that everyone was richer when they worked together instead of against each other. That we all need each other.  I took a last look at the boulder I shared with my dog, wondering who else might have sat on it and watched the setting sun over the last ten thousand years, and headed back down the mountain.

I’d read once that mountain ash berries make a pretty good cranberry sauce substitute, appropriate with Thanksgiving upon us. They’re sweetened up by frost. You can also put them in the freezer to sweeten them. They’re actually mildly poisonous when eaten raw, but the toxicity is broken down by cooking. I searched for recipes but couldn’t find anything more than references to a traditional sauce made from it. But I don’t follow recipes well anyway. In case you find these berries on a tree near you, here’s roughly what I did with them. First, research them and make sure you know what you’re harvesting. Some holly berries, quite toxic, look much like mountain ash berries, but the leaves are entirely different. Most hollies have thorny leaves and mountain ash does not. Its leaves are opposite, compound and coarsely toothed. Hollies are evergreen while mountain ash loses its leaves in the fall. Also, as far as I’ve observed, this tree is mostly at high elevations in the south, though as you go north I suspect it’s more common everywhere.

Mountain ash berriesOnce I got the berries back home to South Carolina, I froze them for good measure (again, it sweetens them). Morgan helped me pull the berries off the stems, laborious for sure. Mountain ash berriesI covered 2 cups of them in water and soaked them for a while, then simmered them in the same water with a chopped apple and enough honey and sugar to thicken the mixture. The berries have pectin in them, so they readily thicken. I then moved it to a blender and ground it up. Back into the pan, I simmered it some more until it resembled a sauce. This all took maybe an hour, mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing. Mountain ash berriesOnce it cooled, the result was a bitter sweet sauce that went on turkey much like cranberry sauce. A friend who isn’t a fan of the cranberry stuff declared my mountain ash-apple sauce to be better, and she spread it happily on her turkey. I looked around at our table, with several dishes on it made of wild harvested foods and produce from our gardens, and at my little family and a couple friends, and felt thankful indeed.

Thanksgiving has always had so much integrity to me. It’s resisted a lot of commercialization. It’s hard to sell gratitude for abundance and for each other. It’s just something you feel, for free. And the collaboration between two groups of wary neighbors on the first Thanksgiving dinner was really antithetical to the scarcity idea that runs our capitalist economy. The notion that there’s not enough for everyone, that we have to scratch and claw our way ahead of everyone else and hoard more than we need. Nature is a give away, as anyone who has foraged for free food understands. Generosity and sharing is natural within us. We learn greed, shortly after we take in the idea that there is an “us” and “them”.

I sat down at the dinner table and imagined the Congaree people who once hunted on the very soil my house stands on. Their particular take on the world was silenced before anyone bothered to record it. Fall was no doubt the time of their harvest festivals, a time to be thankful for full bellies. I could almost hear drums, see masked dancers playing out mythologies uniquely tied to this one spot on Earth, and smell the wild berry sauces, wild turkey meat, the squash and beans from woodland gardens cooking. One dimension I love about foraging is the way a memory of a place, a particular day, a way I felt when I was harvesting, lives when I taste the wild food in my meal. The mountain meadow, that cold wind, Sadhu’s ashes swirling out of sight, all triggered by the taste of my experimental mountain ash sauce. Does the land hold some kind of sense memory of us as well, our long story rippled through it like grooves on a record? Does the soil remember the rhythm of Congaree songs, the laughter of their children? Will it remember the laughter of mine? If we could hear these echoes of the long story of the land would we be able to treat each other, or the land, the way we do? How much spilled blood must the soil swallow until we remember that working together we can do better than working against each other? That we need each other? That we can share and ensure our mutual survival? That each other is what we should be giving thanks for?

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