Last week I spent a couple of days in Teslin doing some painting for a friend in a house we used to share. The leaves were still thick on the birches, willows and aspens – bright yellow against the dark stormy blue of the lake.
The house sits at the bottom of a hill, with a small road separating it from a shallow bay. On the uphill side there is an immaculately maintained fence covered in wild raspberry bushes, sprouting up from an old hand-built rock wall.
When we moved into the house I learned that all this was the work of our neighbours, Bonar and Bess Cooley.
The Cooleys were invaluable during the two years I lived there.
Bonar was always ready to lend a hand or a tool, which often came with a story. Told over a cup of coffee, or just over the fence, these stories spanned over fifty years of life on the land around Teslin with Bess.
This is what Bonar told me about the role of wild food in his life:
We harvest lots of wild foods: fish, mushrooms, berries, moose. Bess is Tlingit and grew up with these foods – as well as others that we don’t eat anymore, like beaver and porcupine – and they are still quite important to us.
I’ve been in Teslin coming up on 52 years, and while we harvest less than we did 40 years ago, it isn’t because we don’t try. We used to get lots of grouse, ducks and geese when the kids were at home, but once we began working steady and being well paid there wasn’t a need any more. My favorite times were oh, 20 or 30 years ago, when there would be lots of Tlingit people up on the Nisutlin River at their camps, and going up the river you could smell the coffee – it was almost mandatory that we stop in at each camp.
Those were good times on the river, with the old-school, pre-highway Tlingit people, really in touch with the land. Many of those people are gone now. I think a lot of people still go up the river, but I guess we don’t get out as much! We certainly did more camping years ago, not only on the river but up towards the head of the lake, or on the Canol.
You see, both of us had something to learn from each other. I learned about Bess’s Tlingit lifestyle and way of harvesting and preparing food, and she learned mine. Back in those days it was a steep learning curve for me, I was a student, and Bess and her family were constantly teaching me.
Now in his seventies, Bonar is still very active and has his own students, myself included. One of the most important lessons I learned from these and other neighbours in Teslin is the generosity that goes along with wild harvesting.
To receive from nature is such a gift, and that gift demands to be passed on: doing so connects us to each other and to the land upon which we depend. The greatest joys I have experienced come not from gathering itself, but from sharing with those in need and those I love.