You may think “The Longest Yard” is the title of a movie, but Tom and I spent a recent afternoon gathering spruce root, and gathering spruce root is really the longest yard. Read on and you will learn why!
Yesterday I wrote about gathering birch bark. If you use birch bark in making a home, or a canoe, or a basket, you need to sew it together with something. And the root of the black spruce tree is the perfect sewing material: it is very strong, flexible when wet, and as it dries it shrinks.
Black spruce trees are found in bogs and marshes where they grow very slowly. So we headed into a bog on the Grand Portage reservation. I can honestly say I have never walked in a bog before and it was a pretty neat experience. As soon as you step into the bog you are swarmed by mosquitoes, so we were liberally covered with mosquito netting and sprayed with DEET. I was really thankful for the netting because, despite the DEET, the mosquitoes flew in clouds around my head. The bog floor is like a mat on top of water made of grass, roots, and sphagnum moss which absorbs water like a sponge. If you were careful where you stepped, you could keep your feet dry, but there were a few times when I stepped on what I thought was the moss mat, only to have my foot sink through into the water.
The black spruce root grows very close to the ground surface. It wasn’t hard to find the root – just lift up some moss. Then you follow the root, being careful to disturb other roots as little as possible. So I would find a root and follow it along, inch by inch, pulling it under and over other roots, following its branches, freeing the ends, and then cutting off the root when I got to a place where it was too tangled or went too deep. As long as you don’t harvest too many roots from the same tree, you will not hurt the tree.
Gathering spruce root is very labor intensive. We had eight people and we spent about two hours in the bog. The longest piece I gathered was about three yards long and it took me close to half an hour to get it all out of the ground, pulling through small holes and feeling with my fingers under the moss. By the end of the two hours my knees and fingers were tired. I was pretty proud of my little stack of root until I saw how much the men had gathered. Walker, especially, is the king of gathering spruce root. His focus, concentration, and strong fingers allowed him to gather a lot of root. I really enjoyed being in the bog but gathering the spruce root was hard work.
The spruce root still needs the bark stripped off and the larger parts of the root will be split to make a more uniform thread. It takes a lot of root to sew a canoe together! A lot of root – and each yard of it is, in my estimation, the longest yard.