digging ginseng

 

GRANDFATHER GINSENG
is a
A CRAFTY GENTLEMAN

digger's diary

by Lee Murray (c)1997,2000

Photo : Lee digging ginseng in late October 1997 Adair County, Kentucky

July 22 -- Hard Scratch, Kentucky

Snow Hadley was at the Hard Scratch store.
He said, "I love to go Seng digging."

Snow is a farmer who goes fishing, hunting or Seng-digging
whenever he has time.

It's a different kind of treasure hunt. More than looking in
the right place, you have to look in a certain way.
The time has to be right. The treasure must cooperate
in wanting to be found. Grandfather Ginseng is a crafty
gentleman who hides or reveals itself to you.

This year in the local woods, Ginseng is fairly abundant.
Goldenseal is seen rarely. Too early in summer to dig,
I am scouting the woods to get a notion of what's out here.

Grandfather Ginseng has been the friend of humans for a
long time. When Panax Quinquefolium was found in America,
people of distant China took notice. They had already been
using Ginseng for 5,000 years and it was getting hard to
to find in China. So the knowledge of Ginseng as an export
product came over the Appalachians with the first settlers
in the 1700s.

For 10,000 years before that, native American
people trod these same forest paths where we walk today,
and made medicine from the plants.

Seed from those same plants have come down through the
the generations to make the herbs we find growing here
in the same woods today.

You learn the craft from an uncle or grandfather.
Out cutting firewood, Dad offered us kids a nickel to
find the Ginseng plant. He could see it but we couldn't
pick it out from the mixed green of all the other plants.


July 24 -- Whose Woods These Are

A few days ago, a Seng hunter was here. He stopped at
the house to ask and Dad said okay. I've been afraid to
look, in case he may have dug my little patch.

Though the harvest season for Wild Ginseng is regulated
by the State of Kentucky and usually begins on September
1st, this law is not always strictly obeyed.

On a hot summer day, it is a fine thing to walk in
the cool green woods. The pleasure of being out in the
refreshing green forest is what tempts a few diggers
to start early.

This digger had only taken a couple of plants.
Dad says, digging in the summer before seed ripen is not
as bad as the practice of a few diggers who take every
small, young plant leaving nothing for the future.

The State Ginseng Office is part of the Department of
Agriculture. (See Appendix.) Buyers are required to keep
records. Diggers sign a statement at the point of sale,
that legal practices are followed in harvesting.

Kentucky law also specifies when a seed-bearing plant
is harvested, the seed must be replanted nearby using no
implement other than a finger poked into the soil.

Hunting Seng is an art. The magic is in the search and
discovery. Although I know these woods quite well,
for this visiting digger the woods was a new place to
explore. A place to look for possible hidden treasure.

The woods are always new unknown territory, even if
you've been there before. With so many things living
and growing, there is always more to notice and discover.
A forest is never exactly the same as it was.

Dad explains: "I've dug Seng on other people all my life,
so it wouldn't be right to stop other people from
digging on us."

Dad expresses an old traditional way of life.
For Seng diggers and squirrel hunters, the woodlands
are common property.


July 26 -- Yellowhammer Woods

Before sundown, ease through the damp forest
down a fairly steep little hollow near the upper
end of Yellowhammer Woods.

Pause by the gully at the head of the hollow
to get your bearings. Take a step downhill;
an erect 4-prong Ginseng plant appears in among
some fallen tree branches.

Now more plants become visible nearby. In the open
-- some are right underfoot: in all, 6 or 7 plants
of smaller size. Almost stepping on them.

Moving along, higher up on the hillside are 4 little
2-prong plants peeking out from under a bush.
They have a bright glow of freshness about them.

We are lucky to have Grandfather Ginseng among us.
Being grateful, we dig with honor and respect:
planting seed for the future and preserving the
forest habitat where Ginseng has been living
for many thousand years.

Most of the market today is supplied with
cultivated Ginseng. A good thing, because
there is not enough Seng in the wild to supply
the market. Cultivation is to be encouraged.

Grandfather Ginseng is glad to help humans
by cooperating in a cultivated situation. However,
the wild plant is also considered superior for
certain medicinal qualities. This is reflected in
the higher price paid for wild roots.


July 29 -- Singing Branch

An enchanted forest is Singing Branch woods.
Dad says, "Singing" but other people say
"Sinking" Branch.

The little branch of water sings as it sinks
into the ground, to emerge half a mile away on
the Brummett place. Dad and his brothers used to
dig Seng here in these woods in the 1930's.

In the dim twilight the soil is black and soft
under your feet. Here you see little patches
of young Ginseng.

Lilborn Murray stayed on at the old place.
Lilborn was well known as a woodsman. He went
barefoot in the winter time and could sneak up on
anybody in the woods.

Seng here is a distinct variety. Fat round leaves
are more deeply serrated on the edges; speartips
are more pronounced. Graceful, compact growth, low
to the ground, it resembles a strawberry plant here
in the deep shade of 75- and 100-year-old Oak,
Hickory, Maple, with occasional Pine and Cedar.

The native forest. This Ginseng is all the same size
so the seed must have fallen from larger plants that
have since been dug, or maybe someone planted it here.

Chainsaws nearby are a disturbing sound that adds
a pressure on my thoughts. The pressing question is:
how to give something back to the forest
that gives us so much.


Steep Ground and Rough Corners

Many parts of Kentucky (and other areas of eastern
North America) no longer have a Wild Ginseng
economy because of over-harvesting
and cutting of forests.

Adair County skirts the western foothills of the
Appalachian Mountain range. Here are small farms
with cleared fields on the bottom lands and workable
hills of the landscape. Steep hollows, rocky cliff
shoulders, rough banks, and sinkholes create
neglected places where trees are allowed to remain.

Forests continue to be cut down and bulldozed
everywhere except on steep and rough land.
Replacing the woods are new houses and cattle pastures.
It is rare to find forest growing on level ground.

Around the large creek valleys such as Crocus Creek,
the hills are too steep for houses or farming.
Here are extensive forests.

Despite the pressures, in Adair County we still
have a vital Wild Ginseng tradition and economy.
To keep it going requires some management of the
resource and preservation of native forest areas.

In the small, more easily accessible farm woodlots,
most of the Ginseng plants you find are 5 years
or younger. Five is a young age for Seng; 7 or 10 years
being considered "mature" depending on whom you
talk to; 20 years and older wins the most admiration.

Dad says there used to be a "headless horseman"
legend about the Singing Branch woods. Up until the
1930's, travel was mostly on foot. This shadowy
character would follow people who dared travel
the lonely forest roads by night.

The headless horseman never did catch anyone
but some people had to run fast to get away.

Here in the deepening silent shadows after sundown,
it's easy to imagine lots of things. You can feel
the ancient presence of the enchanted forest ...
the living harmony of God's Creation.
A Crafty Gentleman Online Sample, part II