Every year, sometime around the 24th of August, the other minor concerns in my life get put on hold for a few weeks so that I can lean an aquatic grass over the side of a boat and hit it with a stick. I don’t need a calendar to know when it’s ready. The Chokecherries droop with plump fruit, the tips of the Hazelnut husks begin to darken. Loose flocks of nighthawks, slowly meandering south, drift around the evening sky. Wild Plums soften, Elder berries darken, and hungry birds pluck off the last Blackberries. Every year, for the rest of my ablebodied life, I know where I’ll be when this time comes. I have trouble explaining to people why I do this. It is very strenuous work— perfect cross-training for marathon runners, only it is a decidedly uncomfortable kind of strenuous. The firsttime ricer is often incredulous, flabbergasted, by the rice worms and the spiders. I’ll ask him ahead of time if he has a problem with little creepy things, and he’ll say no. But he has no idea what he’s getting into: a boatful of inchworms with fierce little jaws and a propensity to ascend the tallest object around —namely, the guy standing with the pole. Not that they bite often—it only takes one misbehaving moth larva trying to chew through your groin to bring cuss words upon the other 400 inching across your body. The several thousand spiders that clamber around the boat trying to catch rice worms are notably less troublesome. Maybe they’re just full. And then there are a million or two miniscule rice hoppers—I don’t even know what they are, or what they eat. They leave me alone, I leave them alone. But none of these arthropods is really worrisome; the dangerous part of ricing is the rice itself. Each kernel is protected by a barbed husk and an awn— like a brittle porcupine quill—designed specifically to deter hungry mammals. These poke, itch, scratch, and sometimes puncture various parts of the human body—and if they get into your mouth or eyes, they can mean serious trouble. Combine that with heat, sunburn and fatigue, and you can see why most
people assume that I would only do this for the money. But that’s not the case. I rice because I like to watch turtles basking on the piles of rice stalks that muskrats cut and pile on old logs. I rice so that I can look for muskellunge lurking under the logs, waiting for perch that circle around hoping to engulf a fallen rice worm. I like to hear mink frogs chirp an occasional clackety-clack while resting on a fallen clump of rice, to see otters bob and dip in search of crayfish and shiners, to marvel at trumpeter swans paddling in and out of the rice. If I didn’t rice, I wouldn’t get to see soras, bitterns, or least bitterns, and I’d never shudder at the thundering wingbeats of three thousand blackbirds exploding in unison from the dense grass. I rice so that I can eat the most n u t r i t i o n a l l y, spiritually, and ecologically health-giving food in the world—and so that I can share it with others. So that I can dream of a distant time when the world eats more of this magic. Yes, I harvest wild rice for money. And on a good day, it’s pretty good money. When I used to pile lumber for a living, I could occasionally make as much money ricing on Saturday as I earned all week in the sawmill. But that doesn’t explain it; I only started selling rice because I loved ricing so much that I accumulated way more than I could possibly eat. One day it dawned on me that all of this gourmet grain was a commodity with substantial value, which gave me the opportunity to do something that I loved for a part of my living. That’s how I became one of a handful of commercial wild rice harvesters in Wisconsin. I riced like crazy, sold my extra rice, saved my money, and eventually used it to print a book called The Forager’s Harvest. I still harvest Manoomin for money, but I also go to conferences and workshops focusing on wild rice, set aside some of my rice for seeding projects, and compromise many of my best harvesting days to initiate new ricers.