February is the hardest month. Winter is no longer refreshingly new. Days are short and cold and nights are long and cold.
February always causes memories of winters spent working in the woods to bubble to the surface like bodies in a swamp. Since most people don’t know any brush pickers, maybe it’s time to explain a lifestyle that no longer exists.
There aren’t many of us left, but we were the folks that gathered “minor forest products.” We picked ferns, salal, huckleberry brush, Oregon grape, horsetail and beargrass. In early fall we cut scarlet vine maple and as winter came on, fragrant boughs for wreaths. Most of us worked alone, moving silent and invisible through the forest. Scratch a brush picker and find a philosopher.
My mom ran a brush shed at the back of the ice plant, a collective where pickers brought their harvest to be packed for shipment to wholesale florists. She picked as well, schlepping kids along until we started school and then on holidays and weekends. When I was too little to work the only rule was I had to stay within hearing distance of a piercing whistle. Basically that meant I was confined to the Mill Creek watershed east of the highway.
Brush pickers rarely get lost like mushroom pickers. We tend to harvest the same areas, moving with the seasons, knowing the land like a rancher knows his pasture and timberland. We husband our crops and maintain trails, always preparing for the next season.
Permits to pick on private land were easy to get in the 1950s when Del Norte County had plenty of private land. Mom had the Hamilton Brothers timberland leased, and after Miller Rellim bought that land south of town, she continued to lease it for her pickers. When she died I was “grandmothered in” and kept the lease until they stripped the land clear to Highway 101 in the early 1990s.
Most floral greenery is hothouse-grown now, and most of the lands where the wild things grow are parks. During those last desperate days when I was struggling to make a living, I got arrested for picking in the park. But it was Christmas week and the ranger could see that I was carrying my weight in mud and misery. I confess I was downright pitiful at the time. He let me go, and that’s when ranger Dan Scott became my friend and I quit picking brush.
February was hellish and went on forever. In February there were days when it didn’t get light. February was cold at the body’s core. I’d dig frozen fingers down into fern stools seeking the first fiddle head, the hope that springs eternal.
But this February I have much to be thankful for. I’m not working hard all day in the cold, wet woods, packing brush out on my back. So I hike happily where the wild things are and don’t have to carry anything heavier than a camera.