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When you harvest, you choose to be in relationship.


By Silas Tikaan Galbreath (Ahtna)

s an act, it occurs one at a time. Picking berries reminds us to slow down, or things get missed. Berries hidden below the leaves. As my bucket slowly fills one handful at a time I wonder, what does it mean to preserve? Is it to persevere; to continue on; or overcome? Or maybe it is to outlast. Maybe in the act of preserving we hold onto something. Something is saved. An act, a value, culture, memories.

When I was young, we would pick berries as a family. In the rolling hills of Fairbanks, the valleys ripen first. It is a long-awaited burst of fruit that is often ready mid-July, a juicy treat after the supply from last year has dwindled and left the freezer empty. We typically picked the hills, which meant we planned our picking days for mid-August. There is a light wind that often moves through the hills, which makes the mosquitos much more tolerable. It was a family adventure; my grandmother would come too. There are statements I remember from those times: “I’ve never seen someone pick faster than your grandmother”; “Don’t use the rake, it damages the berries and the plant”; and “Be sure to look up from picking, be aware of your surroundings”. We would pick for hours, with the time measured by gallons picked.

We never planned to go home at a certain time, instead it was always a certain quantity—once the bucket was full. The more berries I ate, the happier I was and the slower I filled my container. With all of us picking the hillside, long afternoons stretching into evening, time moving at a berry’s pace.

Back then and still today, when I pick, I find myself crisscrossing through the landscape, searching for the next motherload. There is a scent I know, one that reveals itself as I walk through the landscape in the fall. My movement disturbs the willow, sage, and tundra, giving rise to a musky, rich, ripe earth scent that is linked to berries in my mind. It is a reminder of the feeling I get when searching for the berry bush just dripping with berries. The kind that roll off the plant and into my fingers with the most delicate of touch. I’ve always sought the big patches where I could just sit and pick, and pick, and pick. It is a relished reward.

If I’m being honest, I must say that I used the rake for a while. I convinced myself that I used it with enough intention, delicately enough, that I wasn’t hurting the plants. I would only rake the top bit of the plant, or strategically approach it from the underside, or by a non-invasive angle. I told myself there wasn’t damage being done, but the proof was in front of my eyes. Mixed in with a gift from the land was the evidence of my harm, bruised berries and unintended plant matter. Change took remembering my grandmother’s words:

“Our hands carry the sensitivity needed for the task.”

The feeling is familiar like the things we don’t forget, the words that stick, the gift of story to help us remember what we already know, the whispers in our memory that invite us to be who we are.

Landing in Anchorage in 2011, my then girlfriend, now wife, and I found ourselves on new land. The plants were familiar to me but what we didn’t find were the berries of my childhood. The plants dripping with orbs of blue. So, we made a point every summer to drive to Fairbanks in late July and picked there.

As the years passed and we continued to live in Anchorage we heard that there were berries in the Chugach and berries in Eureka. We hiked the Chugach regularly and had only found a few spots that we discovered by happenstance. They were mostly out of the way in our routine or interest. We drove to Eureka. There, we wandered through shoulder-high brush of willows, alders, and black spruce on the natural paths of high tundra and were delighted by the discovery of tall healthy bushes rich with blueberries.

Traveling the landscape as it directed us, we spent the whole day filling our bucket. In the end, we went home with four gallons. A good day. But still, there was something tugging at my memory, reminding me of how it could be, how it should be, in my mind. “A good day is a gallon every 15 minutes.”

Oh, how fast my grandmother must have been, or how full the plants used to be, maybe both.

Reciprocity is knowing a place, the place knowing you. Blueberry sourdough dumplings, Copper River salmon with garden herbs, birch sap straight from the tree, spruce tip short bread cookies. Recipes with Alaskan ingredients is connection to the land, plants, and animals. When you harvest, you choose to be in relationship.

Oh, how fast my grandmother must have been,

or how full the plants used to be,

maybe both.

In the depths of winter, it is sometimes hard to focus on the summer to come, which is our brief but bountiful growing season in Alaska. Yet, as freezers start to empty, the growing space, paired with the returning light, invites the start of planning. How will the freezers be filled again? A successful year of harvesting and growing looks different for every Alaskan. For some, it’s fishing at dawn or a single potted tomato plant on a deck, for others it’s a backyard garden that is full of life or a dedication to wild harvesting reflected in gallons of berries and pounds of blanched greens. I never cease to be inspired and amazed by the endless energy and passion that erupts in the midnight sun, and I am so grateful for the fact that so many people spend it on food.

And yet, there’s this fact that gets shared a lot, handed off between presentations, articles, and conversations, that “Alaska imports 95 percent of its food”. This both shocks and scares me, and leads me to the question of, why? Why is this a fact that is okay? Is it okay? I don’t think it is. In fact, I know a lot of people don’t think it is and fortunately there is great effort to affect change in relation to this statistic.

What I am starting to see, but want to see so much more of, is Alaskan-made food, and food products on the shelves of every home. Specialty products like herbal vinegars, hot sauces, teas, jams and ice cream, commodities like salt, milk and flour, and produce like cabbage, carrots, lettuce, herbs, and potatoes, and proteins like caribou, moose, salmon, whale, seal, crab, oysters, clams, chicken and pork. We should be eating, meals of moose and caribou seasoned with Alaskan salt and herbs, paired with Alaskan potatoes and salad greens; salmon over Alaskan barley with wild harvested morels and a lingonberry sauce; or whale with beach asparagus and a salmon berry chutney. When a meal is all Alaska grown, it connects us. Through the food we grow, harvest, catch, hunt, share, give, cook, and eat we know our neighbor.

As my wife and I began our new journey as parents we were embraced by our community with homemade meals filled with the abundance of local foods. With the meals came a reason to visit and connect, to share in our journey of loving and learning from our daughter. We rejoiced in those moments, we laughed, we cried, and we embraced as we expressed our thanks for the love that was shared with us.

Then, a few short months later, right as we were finding our new normal, the world turned on its head as a global pandemic mandated a new and less connected reality. In a time of fear people bought more than they need, it created scarcity. With a dependence on the Outside, threat to Alaska’s food security is just one supply chain interruption away. The bare shelves in our communities are a too frequent reminder of our vulnerability as a state.

There’s this thing that happens when you’re ready to see something.
When our daughter chose us as her family, Anchorage was no longer a place that we landed. It wasn’t just where our house and friends and jobs were. It was our home. Respecting the recommendation for social distancing, we found ourselves grateful to live in a place with incredible access to the outdoors. With countless hikes out our back door, literally hundreds within a thirty-minute drive, we took solace in the unknown of covid by intimately exploring the the Chugach Range. In that summer of covid, the blueberries of those mountains revealed themselves to us.

There’s this thing that happens when you’re ready to see something. It’s usually just one at first, it stands out, bright and shiny. The, awareness shifts, everything is different. The berries are literally everywhere. Millions of blueberries and crowberries are endlessly present on all the mountains. With the arrival of our daughter, they showed themselves to us.

She was walking at nine months, and after first learning to pick strawberries and then raspberries in our garden, our daughter took to picking blueberries for herself on the mountain side. On high tundra she would crawl, walk, pick, eat, and roll. We all moved together across the steep terrain, buckets slowly filling. We decided to spend her first birthday picking berries.

As we started up the hill, the temperature was brisk, and the clouds were full of moisture. It was a dark grey contrast to the clear deep blue of the morning sky. As we made our way to the top, we climbed through changing ecosystems, as the clouds shifted overhead. The clouds looked of rain and had become heavier and darker, filling the sky. With the change, came the wind. We persisted. Finding nooks behind rocks, and small valleys to pick in we gathered berries in the wind on until our containers were full. We shared a cupcake and hundreds of berries between the three of us, and let the wind be our chorus as we sang happy birthday.

It is a community event to put up food; and when we build relationships around our food, they become rich and healthy, full of life. It is now our tradition, wife, daughter, and I, to hike and pick and play, but I can only guess at what she will remember. Will remember our days on the land moving in rhythm with all that is around us, listening to the song of the wind. What stories will she tell? Will she be able to tell them while picking berries? I hope so.

Whether it is harvesting from the land, buying food locally produced, or sharing a meal with friends or family, food builds community. Know where it comes from and sharing the gifts given by the land creates stronger, healthier relationships. Those relationships are built around shared values, cultures, and identities. My grandmother has always said, “When you have more than enough, share with those in need.”

Silas Tikaan Galbreath is a tribal member of the Mentasta Traditional Tribe, who are known as the headwaters people, or Taa’tl’aa Denaé in the Ahtna language.