“Come here,” my father said as he stepped off the path. “I have something to show you.”
We ducked under branches and tore through brambles. He was always careful to hold the twigs and branches so that they wouldn’t swish back and slap me in the face.
We crept down the side of the mountain. The sunlight grew dimmer as we pushed deeper into the forest.
My father bent down and brushed the fallen pine needles and twigs back to reveal a stalk.
“Poison ivy?” I asked.
My father tried to teach me about the plants in the woods. He was careful to point out the poison ones. Even so, I always managed to end up brushing against something that left me doctoring my festering skin with pink calamine lotion.
Last week I had proudly showed him a cluster of pointy leaves running along the ground.
“That’s poison ivy, isn’t it?”
“No, that’s Virginia creeper,” he replied. “But it’s easy to mistake,” he continued when he saw the embarrassment on my face.
I was certain he was testing me now on my knowledge of wild plants.
“This is ginseng, Becky.”
I looked closer, trying to appreciate the importance of his announcement.
“I keep it hidden down here. If anyone else finds it, they’ll dig it up.”
My father grew up in West Virginia. He and his family depended on the land to feed and clothe them. For a time, his father worked for a mining company, taking the coal from the earth. Later he would turn to timbering, cutting down and selling the mountain trees for lumber. As a boy my father joined his brothers to hunt. The game they killed fed the family. He also trapped mink and sold the skins. But perhaps one of the tasks he enjoyed most was “senging.”
He and his brothers would roam the Appalachian countryside in search of the prized plant. They would take their catch to the local broker where it would be weighed, the boys paid, and the roots shipped off to Asia to fetch a handsome price. Apparently the market for good ginseng roots was even more lucrative (and less dangerous) than trapping mink.
Now, on his land in Tennessee, he continued his “senging.” He had a good stash, he told me. He was waiting for the plants to grow larger.
When my father died, he took his treasure trove of mountain knowledge with him. I try to remember the stories he told me, the secrets he shared, but so much is lost. I have rambled over the Tennessee property he bought and loved, looking for that hidden cache of ginseng. I’m searching still.
In memory of my father, who died November 19, 2011 and who would have been 106 this year!