Spring has made a few overtures in northeast Tennessee over the past few days. The pear tree in the backyard shows signs of blooming. The maple next to it is trying to bud. Dandelions push their bright yellow flowers through the damp soil.
A pair of bluebirds is evaluating the acceptability of the birdhouse they or a similar pair found adequate last spring.
Songbirds seem to trill different tunes than they did just a few weeks back, mating calls, perhaps.
A few mornings still dawn over frosty landscapes; cold winds convince me to wear a sweatshirt when I go outside.
But I can feel spring. And it reminds me of picking poke.
My aunt Allie, a short, plump woman I saw only rarely when she and my Uncle Henry came to my grandparents for Sunday dinner, got a hankering for poke salad in early spring.
Poke salad, or poke sallet, as country folk called it, consisted of the tender new leaves of American pokeweed, an abundant plant in the South Carolina foothills where I grew up.
Left alone, pokeweed reaches heights of six feet or more and produces plump, dark berries that leave blood-red stains on fingers, clothes and anything else they get mashed into (my brother's head, for instance). Birds deposit a colorful palette of pokeberry abstract on automobiles, porches and laundry left hanging on the line. But I digress.
By the time pokeweed grows large enough to produce berries, it is way beyond the use before date for poke salad. Older leaves, too, I always heard, are toxic. Only the first leaves that emerge in early spring, my aunt Allie said, qualify as salad ingredients.
The reason I know that is that she hired me on occasion to search the woods around my grandparents' house to find tender pokeweed leaves. She offered to pay.
I set out with a grocery sack and high ambition. Opportunities to earn money by walking through the woods seldom came along in the 1950s.
It was harder than it sounded. Finding the newly emerged leaves mandated close attention to the terrain. Picking only the most tender shoots demanded focus and patience, traits uncommon for a pre-teen boy.
I do recall bringing Aunt Allie a sack full of poke leaves, however, for which she paid me a quarter, after making deductions for the leaves she determined too far past prime to be edible.
She culled without mercy. By the time she eliminated the overgrown poke leaves, the grocery sack held less than half of what I had meticulously harvested.
Did I mention that my aunt could pinch a penny until Lincoln shed tears? In hindsight, I should have negotiated harder, perhaps added a clause about minimal compensation.
Still, a quarter bought a hotdog and a Coke, not bad pay for a walk in the woods.