Elderberries like to hang out over water. In French they're called sureau, which literally means “over water.” I noticed this year, picking some of my harvest from the bushes beside the road near home and some from the bushes hanging low over the canal, what a difference water makes to them: the road berries are puny, mostly seed, which I used to think the natural condition of elderberries—but the canal berries are fat and black and shiny, and when you squeeze them you can feel the juice. I'll be making that canal trip again next year. The berries hang so low over the water that the fattest clusters tempted me right into the canal—but it turned out to be barely ankle-deep at the edge. I'm in.
There aren't that many wild foods I gather, but they're important to me. The process is important to me. There's something about the haphazardness of it, the searching—gathering rather than picking—that suits my notions of how life truly is. There's something about the wild itself, the unplanted place, whether woods or ditch or hedgerow; there's something about that unplanted place holding out food to you, for you to pick. Food out of the ground already seems a miracle to me, even when I work hard for it; I can't make a pumpkin or a raspberry, and the fact that they swell and ripen on the plants at all seems like a bounty and a gift. But foraging goes a step beyond: in the place God chooses, not in the place I choose, grows the thing I need. My only work is to search.
In my favorite psalm, Psalm 104, it says “The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God.” I've never hunted, but I can see it. Foraging is like that too, and I'm sure hunting is even more so—especially if you do it for hunger, not for fun. There's so much hope involved and so much chance. You seek for the gift, but in the end the gift is given. There is no certainty. We walk out to seek our food in a world we don't control. Even if it's only a gallon or two of berries, it's a reminder of sorts: that our food, and ourselves, are not products of our making. That the earth and the Lord are the matrix of our lives; that we are creatures and not gods.
Every year in September I make elderberry syrup. The berries are reputed to have immune-boosting properties, and I believe it; if it happens not to be true, the syrup makes a truly delicious placebo (which you'll know, if you've read much about the placebo effect, is nothing to sneeze at.) I arm for the winter with elderberry syrup and echinacea tincture, the one from the wild and the other from my herb garden. Here's the recipe I'll be using for the syrup. Please note that if you ever try elderberries for yourself, it's important to cook them in some way no matter what you're making with them (some people dry them in an oven for instance) because heat rids them of some mildly toxic properties that can cause an upset stomach.
2 quarts fresh ripe elderberries
¼ oz grated ginger root
½ tsp ground cloves
Put the elderberries in a large pot with ¼ cup of water and simmer on low heat until they're soft. Strain out the pulp and reheat the juice in the pot; add the ginger and cloves. Simmer till the liquid is reduced to half its original volume. Measure the liquid and add an equal amount of honey. Stir the hot liquid and the honey together till thoroughly combined. Let cool.
This syrup will keep 12 weeks in the fridge, or all winter in the freezer. (The great thing about the honey is, it stays runny in the freezer, so it's very easy to dole out the freezer syrup a few spoonfuls at a time.)
When you're fighting a cold or flu, take 1 or 2 tablespoons of the syrup several times throughout the day (on pancakes if desired!)