When the hunt turns to stalking the wild leek

On my way home from a turkey hunt Wednesday morning, I was pondering “what does successful mean” when it comes to a day in the woods. Does it mean that we come home with what we were pursuing? Or does it mean that, like my favorite saying, “Happiness is not getting what you want but wanting what you get,” it is simply recognizing the gifts that are in front of us?

All life is sacred, not just wild game, and when we take a life to support or nurture our own, it should be done with reverence and some level of gratitude.

Photo by Bradley Carleton.
Hunting success can mean bagging a bunch of ramps or wild leeks.
Photo by Bradley Carleton.
Hunting success can mean bagging a bunch of ramps or wild leeks.

I like to joke with vegetarians that the only difference between them and a hunter is that the animals have a chance to get away. How “fair” is it to cut a wild asparagus off at the base or pluck a succulent morel from its musky earth? Shouldn’t we honor the plants as much as the animals?

In Native American belief systems, there is a deep respect for all things living. One 19th century Cheyenne named Wooden Leg said, “The old Indian teaching was that it is wrong to tear loose from its place on the earth anything that may be growing there. It may be cut off, but it should not be uprooted. The trees and the grass have spirits. Whenever one of such growths may be destroyed by some good Indian, his act is done in sadness and with a prayer for forgiveness because of his necessities.”

Many organized religions still uphold that food should be blessed before we consume it, which, in a sense is recognizing the value and energy of the food.

So, here I am, pondering the meaning and purpose of life as I am walking home “empty-handed” when it occurs to me that I am surrounded by one of the Great Spirit’s blessings. I am walking through a strange and fragrant patch of “wild leeks” (or ramps, as most colloquialisms refer to it) on the side of a hill surrounded by an oak stand.

There is a small stream of running water from a spring nearby and it nurtures these broad-leaved wild onions. All around me light filters through the newly leafed trees in pillars of warm white sunlight with swirls of morning mist rising from the musky earth. I am transfixed by the beauty. I kneel, feeling like I have found a place in the woods where the Great Spirit is watching over me and saying, “Open your eyes. You are being blessed.”

I dig my fingers into the dark black soil and smell the pungent aroma of last year’s decaying leaves and the sweet smell of over-ripened acorns. My fingers dig in around an unusually large green leaf and follow the auburn stem toward its roots. My fingernails have become the ancient digging tools of my ancestors. Several inches below the cool earth I feel the wet and solid bulb and curl the last joint of my finger underneath it. Uprooting it, I hold it up in the shaft of sunlight that is funneling down upon me and peel back its slimy skin to reveal the powerful-smelling root vegetable.

I slowly walk home with my prize and show it to my wife who loves ramps.

“There must be half an acre of them!” I tell her excitedly. She quickly runs into the house and retrieves her new ergonomic hand tools I gave her as a gift from work, and we head off back to the site.

In a mere 20 minutes we have gathered 4 pounds of the sweet wild onions and have not even come close to impacting the patch.

Back at the house I think to myself: “How can I honor this wonderful gift? What can I do to prepare it so that it will be a centerpiece of enjoyment for all who taste it?” I clean and sort them with a spray gun from the hose, separating the leaves from the bulbs with scissors.

Tonight, we will dine on roasted leeks basted with olive oil and sea salt, and after, we will pickle the remainder with honey from my next-door neighbor, Bob Giknes, and some local ginger, saving them for special occasions. And the leaves, I grind up in my Cuisinart, add raw garlic, olive oil and roasted pine nuts, blending them into a bright green pesto to be savored over cheese tortellini at a later date.

As we sit down to a meal of roast wild turkey breast (from a previous “successful” hunt), garlic mashed potatoes and roasted ramps, we toast our good fortune and bless the food with a glass of fine chardonnay.

Life is beautiful. All we need to do is open our eyes and look for the blessings.