The Oregon woods have their own kind of magic. Anyone who has wandered the forest alone knows this: the rustle of alder, poplar, and birch leaves, the chirping of thrushes and nuthatches; the scent of clover, stinging nettle, dogwood blooms, moss; the thorny tangle of blackberry bushes and the orange-grey gleam of crawdads in cold, clear creeks. I grew up on twenty-five acres of watershed land near Philomath and still find, after living for six years in the big city of Portland, that I'm most at peace when I'm rambling aimlessly through the trees. And although I grew up chomping on sorrel during my childhood ventures, I didn't fully realize the more practical but no less enchanting layer that exists beneath the picturesque one; that of the many edible plants, roots, and fungi that carpet the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Bill Cole, however, has made this aspect of the forest his life's calling.
Bill began Nature's Wild Harvest fourteen years ago, and has been selling the wild mushrooms he forages for over thirty years. His company, based out of Vancouver, WA, sells wild and naturally-preserved foods from Washington and Oregon. All of his produce is either wild-foraged or organically grown in a sustainable manner, without the use of chemical pesticides or herbicides, and includes such items as mushrooms, berries, and various edible plants.
One of the first things Bill says to me is, "I sound like I'm from Alabama, but I'm a fifth generation Oregonian." In his pleasant drawl, I learn that mushroom picking is in the Cole family blood. His great-grandmother owned an 88-acre farm outside of Eugene, where he and his siblings grew up tending the farm's crops and foraging for wild mushrooms around the property. He knows the woods and he knows his mushrooms. His seven children were also raised knowing the woods; they helped Bill pick and sell mushrooms to wholesalers throughout the region for years, and still help with the business. His sister and brother, as well as friends, go out and forage a few times a week. His wife maintains the office side of things-bookkeeping, designing and making the labels, inventory, packaging-and helps out at the markets with his niece. Bill describes his own role as being "the guy in the woods." Sadie, his four-year-old, 105-pound chocolate lab, is right there with him, roaming the forests in search of treats. One of the few times Bill got lost in the woods, Sadie and his compass (never a GPS! The batteries could die) got him home safely.
Bill worked for the Port of Portland for thirteen years in the navigation division, dredging a pipeline for the Columbia River. It was hard, dangerous work, and he eventually moved on to open his own welding business, primarily repairing heavy equipment. About six years ago, he decided to turn what was first a lifelong hobby and then a side-business into his bread and butter. After many years at the Vancouver farmers market, he expanded into markets in Portland and the surrounding areas. Bill likes being part of the market communities and sharing information about his passion with market-goers and other vendors. The market experience is almost entirely positive, almost all good times. The next step for the business is getting a processing license from the state, so he can produce more items in his basement, where his current base of operations lies.
What appeals to Bill most is foraging, what you can gather yourself out in the woods. He learns something new every year about wild foods, and uses this knowledge to diversify and expand his wares. Wild berry jams-perhaps thimbleberry, huckleberry, red currant, or black raspberry-are currently piqueing his interest, as well as camas root (an onion-like plant that was a staple for Native Oregonians) and devil's club shoots (spiny plants that grow near creeks, whose stems can be steamed and eaten like artichokes). On the day I visited, toward the end of the market, Bill had bags of wild nettles,
boxes of unusual edible salad greens and flowers, jars of dried mushrooms, jars of wild berry jam, bottles of pure mushroom seasonings, and, to my delight, paper bags of sorrel. The fresh morels and huckleberries, his best sellers, were long gone. Bill sells over twenty-three different varieties of wild mushrooms;no two taste exactly alike. The Nature's Wild Harvest website, www.natureswildharvest.com, contains a full listing of their products, as well as the seasons when they're available.
Nature's Wild Harvest is currently at six different farmers markets, including Lloyd, St. John's, Woodstock, Milwaukee, and, of course, Hollywood. Bill also sells to small, local stores such as the Vancouver Food Co-Op. Besides the farmers markets and stores, Bill guides mushroom hunts in October, the height of mushroom season. He teaches not just which mushrooms to pick but how to find them, the subtle signs: the presence of certain shrubs, the sizes of trees, the growth of moss. He unfolds the treasure map of the forest and spreads it out before you. While Bill doesn't take people under age fourteen, he thinks mushroom hunting is good for all ages; it's a fun and healthy activity that engages all the senses. When I asked if he was ever concerned about the notorious territoriality of professional mushroom pickers, Bill said he sticks to the popular (i.e. abundant) mushrooms, such as chanterelles, and takes his hunters to the areas he knows and likes best, such as Wind River and certain parts of the Gorge.
Times can be lean on occasion, but it's worth it because Bill is doing what he loves best, with the people he loves most, and he'll be doing it until he can't anymore. "It's good to be outdoors," he says. I couldn't agree more.