The Old Century's Final Spring
High up in the coniferous forest, the redwoods, with bodies as straight as a neck of ginseng, look down on me; their fragile, pale green leaves bow from stubby arms. I am humbled. This early morning, the first week of hunting season, is the same as all the other mornings. Only among the giant redwoods, some five thousand feet above my farm, am I able to push aside the worries that accompany me up from the valley below.
I slow to a hunting pace, sometimes covering less than one hundred yards in an hour. If I concentrate too hard on looking for the root, I may miss its presence one step away; however, if I allow my thoughts to disperse, like seeds of a dandelion in a soft breeze, the root will call out to me.
Moving along the path, I tread more cautiously for I know that under the forest floor the wars are fierce. What is seen on top may be serene, but beneath there is a battle for survival going on among the roots and weeds, all fighting over water and iron and copper and calcium and magnesium. Day after day. Bloodroot and jewel weed, galax and hepatica, ginger and wild yam. Ginseng must compete with all of them. It is this constant tension that gives the ginseng root its gnarled appearance — the wrinkles speaking of character more than of age. It is for this reason that every mature root I find is a celebration, a sign of survival. This is my religion: everything I take from nature must be given back, to continue the cycle of life. In the coniferous forest, the root draws energy from both the sky and the earth. Only when man ingests the ginseng root is the cycle complete.
I stop in the middle of the path, and from a half-dozen steps away I can see a plant. A foot high, it is young, less than ten years old, but more than the seven years needed to reach maturity. Finding the root leaves me as excited as when I was a boy. My routine has remained unchanged: study the plant; review how best to approach it; estimate the angle and width of the circle I must make around it in order to begin digging; and unknot a red cloth from my belt. All the while, I keep an eye on the root as if it may dart away at any moment. Then I push a small stick into the ground, near the root, and mark it with the cloth.
Sprinkling water near the plant, I knead the ground with my palms, pausing to feel its energy. The root of a mature plant stretches more than a foot in length. The leaves, with soft hair on the front, are smooth on the back. I clip them, taking care not to break the neck of the root; as with man, a broken neck spells doom. I remove the spade from my cloth sack and peer closely at the root, inches from it, and then begin to draw a circle with the spade, two feet in circumference. With each spadeful of soil, I slowly expose the head of the root, which lies at a forty-five degree angle.
Now, as I close in on the legs of the ginseng, I put aside the small shovel and begin using only my hands. The dirt is deep and porous, the kind that permits the rain to pass. Two legs take shape as I pinch away more soil from them, exposing the beard, those long hairy rootlets at the leg's end. I pause. The beard is the most delicate part of the root, and even the slightest damage to it makes the root nearly impossible to sell. My hands are calm; the rest of my body is a blizzard. Taking a deep breath, I begin to clear away the soil that surrounds the beard. I work without hurry, and from time to time, with a gentle pull on the head, I test to see where the rootlets still grasp the earth. I fall into a steady rhythm, back and forth, removing the soil and tugging the root, until at last the beard is free. I lift and examine the whole root as a fisherman might do with his catch: by the head, holding it out, turning, checking it from top to bottom. It has the strong characteristics of wild ginseng: the nice bowed legs with the long beard branching out from them; the head with strong concentric wrinkles; the beautiful long neck. Tanned by the soil, the root will be a light yellow after rinsing.
Although it is still early, there will be no more hunting today. My father taught me never to be greedy with nature, never to take more than a single root in a day. In the cloth sack, I carry the root on my right shoulder — careful not to let it collide with the backpack on my left, which holds my tools and food and water for the day — and start down the mountain. My breathing is choppy, coming in gasps. I rest often. These early days of spring, after the long winter, my body and mind are not yet ready for the hunting season. With each passing year my mind seems to stay a few more paces ahead of my body.
I hear a stream and seek it out. I give the root a quick rinse in the current, then place it in the sack, which sops up the excess water. Twice I drink from the stream, sending knives of cold through my teeth. I hang the sack on the branch of a tree, sit on a rock, and begin to eat slowly, taking the time to taste the potato cakes, pickled cabbage, and garlic cucumbers. The weather is near perfect, a little warm for early May. I open my cotton jacket and still am comfortable.
Today the hunting has been good. Although the root is not a great one, it is a good one. I know that I must find better roots to get me through the next winter, but that is in the future.
The forest is alive and the stream sounds as it did four decades ago, when I was a young boy. I eat another piece of dried ginseng, bundle my jacket into a pillow, and place it on the ground. Soon I am once again ten years old in the spring of 1960, when both the sparrows and the ginseng are plentiful.
I linger at the base of a thousand-year-old grandfather redwood, with roots splayed like giant toes. Surrounded by its ancestors — juniper, fir, cedar — it is the redwood I love; its thumb-sized cones will appear soon — cones that will drop months later and make the mountain's floor as slippery as the winter Tumen, but supply a soft and warm bed when you fall.
My father and uncle have left me here. I am alone for the first time to hunt. Scraps of red cloth, for marking the places where I find ginseng, dangle from my pockets.
I repeat my favorite names for the root. Five Fingers. Tarter Root. Red Berry. Heaven Ginseng. Earth Ginseng. Emperor's Ginseng. By the time I hear the frost melting from the trees, signaling for me to start back, I have already used three pieces of red cloth.
Both my father and uncle are leaning against the ancient redwood, grinning at me; they have already finished their lunches. Only later do I learn that they have been sitting there for much of the morning, taking the day off.
"How is our hunter?"
I say nothing, holding up the remaining pieces of cloth. They flash me looks of surprise and exchange a knowing laugh, remembering what it's like to be fooled, understanding the way those memories — like an aged ginseng root — become less bitter and a little sweeter with time.
"Hurry and eat so we can uproot your treasures. We found nothing, not a single root."
The food doesn't go down easily. The lump of excitement makes swallowing difficult. I eat half and put what's left into a knapsack.
The two men are following me and soon we come upon the first red marker. All of us lean closer to the plant. I wait for words of praise. The longer the silence, the more uncomfortable I grow. I want to look at my father and uncle, but can't coax my head into doing so. Instead of words, it is the hands of my uncle that seem to speak. Taking hold of the five-leafed plant, he separates the leaves — three in his left hand, the other two in his right — and indicates where the leaves are attached.
"This is spikenard," my uncle tells me. "See how its five leaves are attached at two points? The ginseng's leaves are attached only at one. They are relatives, like you and I."
I feel as if I have been cheated; they never told me about this. While still holding the leaves, my uncle asks:
"Did you get close to the plant?"
"I guess not close enough."
"It's okay, we have all made the same mistake in the beginning," my father says.
"Why didn't you teach me?"
"Because now you will remember the lesson much better. Let's go and check the other two plants you found."
"Why? I made the same mistake with them."
"Maybe you didn't."
"I know I did."
"Still, we must retrieve the flags."
"I want to go by myself."
"That's fine. We will wait for you here."
"No, go home."
But my father doesn't leave the mountain; he is still sitting under the redwood when I return. He takes one of the red cloths and leads me away from the path that would take us down the mountain.
"I thought we would do some hunting together. We still have several hours before the sun sets."
I say nothing, still embarrassed by my failure. We walk for a long time before my father talks.
"You must step softly; imagine you are hunting an animal, not a plant."
"But the plants can't hear."
"No, they can't. There are many hints, though, many sounds that tell a person that a plant, ginseng or otherwise, is nearby."
I concentrate on walking lightly. Suddenly my father grabs me by the shoulder and points upward. I look, but my father wants me to listen instead; his grip is strong, without impatience.
The trees are swaying slightly in the wind, and at first this is the only sound — until I hear a bird. My father's hand tightens and he points off to the left. Again, the bird. Then it is gone and the chants of the murmuring trees become louder once more.
"That was a sparrow. Did you notice its voice?"
"Yes," I answer hesitantly. I'm not sure what the voice means.
"This is the best time to hunt ginseng, just after its tiny yellow flowers give way to the red berries on the plant. When the sparrows eat the berries their high-pitched calls become throatier. When you hear this throaty call, you only have to follow where it comes from and it will lead you to the plant. My grandfather taught me this secret."
While he talks, my father continues pointing to the left and we walk in that direction. We go a mere fifty yards when I spot the red-berried plant. I glance at my father, who is looking at me. For the first time in my life I experience the thrill of finding a root, but the feeling is quickly tempered.
"Take out your spade," my father urges.
Nervously, I open my knapsack and remove the spade, made of bone — according to superstition, ginseng is afraid of metal. It was better this morning with only the trees looking over my shoulder. Now, my father is also watching.
"Is the plant mature enough?"
"Yes," I answer.
"How can you tell?"
"It is more than a foot high and it has five leaves. Younger plants are shorter and have only three or four leaves."
Seeing my father smile, I feel more confident that I can extract the root without damaging it.
"Remember, always overestimate the length of the legs and beard. Sometimes a young root stretches out farther than you think."
I am aware of my father's presence as I work, but now I understand what he says about concentrating so hard that you don't notice anything else around you.
"You're doing fine, but move more in a circular direction. There should be no angles while you are digging around the root. Always in a circle to avoid any unexpected twists and bends of the ginseng legs."
My arms are not tired but maintaining my focus is becoming more difficult. I hear fragments of sentences: "yellow-whitish color . . . ovoid-shaped berries . . . the pearly spots on the beard."
When I finally have the root in hand, my father's words become complete sentences again.
"How old is the root?"
I examine the neck and, as I was taught, count the scars that have been left behind each autumn when the stem falls away from the neck, one scar per year; much like determining the age of a tree by its rings.
"Eight years old."
"That is a very good root to find as your first. It is nearly as old as you. Tonight, when we arrive home, we will store it in a glass jar filled with alcohol. A hunter never sells his first root."
After rinsing the root in a stream, we retrace our steps. My father has given me the root to carry. What I have yet to learn is that this first time I hunt the root by the sparrow's call will also be the last.
A few days later my father, mother, uncle, and I leave the house in the early morning carrying not the tools of hunters, but those of cooks.
Although it is the rainy season it isn't raining. My uncle's shoulders seem to slope with certain sadness, and my father's breath seems to be without its usual smell of steamed millet. I am not certain why everything feels so burdened this morning, only that it has something to do with the birds.
The night before, while lying on the heated brick kang, I heard my father speaking of Chairman Mao's orders to eliminate the sparrows, which were eating the grain before it could take root. "The villagers and farmers are to be mobilized," said my father. "Too many times we are being used to try and solve the nation's problems." I fell asleep and didn't hear my father explain the reason for the pots and pans, the ones I am carrying now for everyone to see.
I have two fry pans, my father three pots, my mother several lids, my uncle a couple of small woks. I try to carry both pans in the same hand. This, for some reason, makes me feel less self-conscious. But they make a lot of noise, smacking together, and under my uncle's silent glare, I move one of the pans to my left hand.
Excerpted from The Ginseng Hunter: A Novel by Jeff Talarigo Copyright © 2008 by Jeff Talarigo. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Publishing. All rights reserved.