Harvesting beach plants can teach healthy lessons for life
July 26, 2023
We're harvesting goose tongue to dry for distribution to local elders. I'm also going to experiment with pickling it. Goose tongue is a beach plant called suktéitl' in the Lingít language, hlgit'ún t'áangal in Xaad Kíl, the Haida language, and its scientific name is Plantago maritima. It's known as sea-plantain and saltgrass.
Goose tongue is found in Alaska, Arctic regions, Europe, Northwest Africa, parts of Asia and South America. There are four other subspecies of goose tongue found throughout the world, including one that grows near mountain streams in the alpine.
In Wrangell, I don't have far to go to harvest goose tongue. I ride my e-bike along the oceanfront path to meet my family at Shoemaker beach. My sister and my mother are waiting for me at a picnic table set on a small lawn. My mother is visiting from Oregon and my younger sister, who lives in Wrangell, wants to learn about harvesting goose tongue.
I park my bike and we walk down a small dirt road to the beach to greet grandson Jonah, who's accompanied his auntie to harvest. This is the first time I've spent time with him since COVID hit in 2020. I gasp - Jonah will be going into fifth grade and he's already taller than I am. Jonah has been my goose tongue harvesting partner since he was a year old.
The morning tide has swept over the intertidal zone, leaving hundreds of the salty delicious plants dotting the shore. Before we harvest, I point out how we're going to learn to identify the poisonous look-alike, arrowgrass. I walk over to the patch of goose tongue and my family follows.
"Here's the arrowgrass," I say, pointing at a big clump of beach grass. I pick a leaf of the arrowgrass and one leaf of goose tongue to show them the difference.
The arrowgrass has narrower grass-like leaves and the goose tongue blades are flatter and a bit wider. Their growth appearance and blossoms are similar. A valuable harvesting technique that I learned from Vivian Mork Yéilk', my daughter, is to take a piece of the poisonous plant with you to use as an identifier.
"Before we harvest," I say, "we thank the plant for giving itself for our nutrition."
We bend down to the plants, and I say, "Gunalchéesh suktéitl', Gunalchéesh suktéitl'." One of the reasons I say thank you out loud is to let critters know I'm in the area. One never knows what will be ambling down the beach in search of the same greens.
I reach and pinch the plant at the base, explaining how to do that gently without pulling up the plant from its roots. We can use scissors too, but they want to use their hands. I instruct them how to plant it back into the sand if you pull it out by accident. I've also instructed my family to take only a few leaves from each plant. With their bags in hand, my family heads off through to harvest.
I kneel on wet sand to pick a few more leaves, then crawl on my hands and knees to reach for another nearby cluster. My fingers pinch the base of long, tongue-shaped leaves. Beside me, blades of wide grass dampen the bottom of my cedar bark basket. I walk the beach from plant to plant like a grazing deer, sometimes bending, sometimes kneeling, and occasionally nibbling leaves. Nearby, I hear Jonah speaking to the plant: Gunalchéesh suktéitl'.
This day's adventure is a learning opportunity. It's been a few years since Jonah harvested suktéitl', and it'll be the first time my sister has harvested since she's been an adult. Learning from the ocean, the beach and forest is important to our family, and for my Tlingit grandchildren's cultural knowledge.
Here are some goose tongue lessons I've learned over the years that I'm teaching my family:
1. Take an elder; take a youth: Inviting both elders and youth is one way to perpetuate cultural activities. In Indigenous cultures, knowledge is best handed down by doing and listening to stories of life experiences.
2. Be aware: Choosing a spot to harvest goose tongue means to know the land/beach. Know its history and know its contemporary state. Is there pollution from homes, businesses, etc.? You'll want to harvest on a clean beach.
3. Be respectful: Harvesting beach greens is all about respect - you don't want to damage the area so you can continue to come back.
4. Make good memories: Incorporate language instruction, storytelling and even a picnic into your harvesting day.
5. Be prepared: Wear appropriate clothing for the weather, especially shoes or boots for the type of beach. Bring the right harvesting bag, basket, or backpack. Waterproof is good.
6. Thrive in your community: Goose tongue plants grow in groups. They're a good example of living cooperatively in a local environment.
7. Only take what you need: Don't overharvest. Leave some for the animals and birds.
8. Be tender: Sometimes children can be overzealous harvesting plants. Show them how to be tender. Goose tongue harvesting time is a good time to talk about the role of being kind in our world.
9. Enjoy the moment: Harvesting from the land teaches us to enjoy the moment the plants/berries are ripe. Goose tongue harvesting with family, friends, and community allows them to enjoy life's moments with you.
10. Tidal relationships: Incorporate traditional ecological knowledge by teaching the Raven and the old tide woman story into your harvesting day. Dolly Garza also has a great book available for free from the University of Alaska Sea Grant called "Tlingit: Moon and Tide."
We stroll along the beach, making our way through the plants, bending, picking, bending, picking. We talk story and my mother reminisces about picking goose tongue as a kid, about her first home up the Stikine River. Goose tongue is one of the plants I learned about early in life. Someone must've taught me. It was likely my grandma Ruth or my mother.
After an hour of wandering through the goose tongue patch I've picked enough. Jonah, with a shorter attention span, has already wandered farther down the beach to play on a large stump. My mother is now exploring the nearby berry bushes.
Soon, my family and I will say our goodbyes, declare it a good day, and go on our separate ways. For now, though, with a full basket, I sit on a log at the wrack line, brush a sandflea off my sleeve, and chew a blade of tart goose tongue.
Time drifts like surf scoters on waves until I sense the blanket of sea raising her head from the pillow of slack tide, then turn, flowing back to awash her wild garden with ancient brine. Gunalchéesh, suktéitl', for your lessons of knowledge, memory, community, and more, and especially the gift of family and food.
Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes "Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories" with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk'. It appears twice per month in Juneau's Capital City Weekly and is reprinted in the Sentinel.