“There’s a purple cabbage in your truck bed.” This is the kind of text message I like to receive. Sure enough, there’s a bright purple cabbage in my truck. I carry the purple gift back to my cabin, planning coleslaw for halibut tacos. You gotta love the Southeast Alaska fall season.
I’m not a gardener, so I rely on others for their generosity. I’m a berry picker, seaweed gatherer and spruce tip harvester. When others are dirt-deep in their radishes and carrots, I’m picking blueberries. Fortunately, Kaachxaana.aakw is an island full of people with sharing hearts. It’s a value that’s embedded in Haa Kusteeyí “Our way of life.”
This past summer, Wrangellites shared their gardens and berry bushes. Word typically goes out on Wrangell’s Community Group Facebook page: Come pick apples or we have too much zucchini and we have plums to share. Do you want to pick our fireweed? Our local tribe, WCA (Wrangell Cooperative Association) offered Tlingit potatoes, in a tote, on their porch with instructions to take what you need and share with others. In Wrangell, make sure you check your driver’s seat before you sit down, or you might squish the raspberries—My daughter gifted me gold and red raspberries from her garden.
I have my own small garden by the sea, which is now tucked away for winter, but my husband does the gardening. He gardens and I eat the strawberries. My tomato plants grew in buckets on a bench with a view of the sea, and the rhubarb is sheltered beneath an alder tree. My tomato plants, cabbage and zucchini plants were gifted to me from others. We grow strawberries, or rather, the strawberries grow themselves — hardy gifts from the Stikine River. They were gifted to me by a friend who lives upriver part-time.
I’m not the most attentive gardener until suddenly a flower appears, or there’s a yellow tomato dangling off the vine. My compost grew tomatoes before I figured out what they were. The celery I grew this year amazed me because it looked just like celery. We even grew potatoes and broccoli in buckets. Though there was a lot going on in my small garden, I became a bit jealous when I saw giant pumpkin photos from our state fair in Palmer.
Gardening offers a similar joy that one gets from harvesting from the bushes and beaches. When my knees are wet and my hands are cold from harvesting seaweed, when my fingers are stained blue, and there are leaves and sticks in my hair, when I’m pouring the bright, fuchsia-colored jelly into jars, a perfect blend of science and love, I’m content.
Whether it’s sharing zucchini from a garden or thimbleberries from the bushes, there’s something about sharing that makes loneliness sting less. I went out harvesting and berry picking this past summer by myself. I was covid cautious because my father was in hospice at home. This summer, though, I did manage to lead my sister through the bushes to a few favorite spots. While in the berry bushes I imagined the elder, who can no longer get out, holding a baggie of bright salmonberries. Probably gardeners feel the same way when their back is aching or there’s a blister on their hand. Maybe, while they’re pulling weeds, they’re considering that zucchini will make others happy.
Summer has faded into fall and flocks of sandhills have flown in the other direction. Zucchini was left on the picnic table outside my cabin and yesterday there were beets left in my car. By summer’s end, I have picked spruce tips and berries, and dried basketfuls of goose tongue and Labrador tea. Just as I rely on the gifting of others, many locals rely on my family for our gifting. Our fishcamp recently donated 130 plus small jars of freezer jams, cases of shelf-stable jelly and jams (made by my daughter Nikka Mork), packages of spruce tips, dried Labrador tea, and dried seaweed seasoning to tribal citizens and elders. After all the gifting is done, there’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of joy. We made this with our loving hands and dirty fingernails, our scraped arms, and our bug-bitten faces.
Although in Southeast Alaska we have a shorter growing season than the Matanuska valley, we are long on gifting, especially gifting our knowledge to the next generation. Through the act of sharing, we’re gifting generosity to our children and grandchildren. Fall gifting season is one of the best times of the year, when your hard work is gifted into the hands of others. This reminds me — I have fireweed blossoms in my freezer ready to be made into jelly.
I love holding a freshly made jar of fireweed jelly up to the sunlight. It’s a bright work of art and love. I can imagine an elder setting a table for grandkids with a plate of pilot bread and jelly. A gift for you is a gift for me. That’s about as simple as it gets. It makes swatting away the black flies attacking my face because I forgot to bring my headnet worth it. Sort of.