By Greg Clark, June 18, 1938
“It’s too hot,” gasped Jimmie Frise, “for trout fishing and the bass season isn’t open.”
“The song birds,” I agreed, “are too busy hunting worms for their young, to sing decently.”
“All the best of the wild flowers,” added Jim, “are through blooming.”
“So what is there to do,” I sighed, “but put on cream flannels and go, like all the rest of the saps, and sit around on wharves and verandas, looking sporty?”
“Never,” gritted Jim.
“Never, too,” I coincided. “I sometimes think that our prejudice against golf is ill-advised, Jim.”
“A man has to have some prejudices,” pointed out Jimmie. “All my life, I have found it a little difficult to form a prejudice. No sooner did I form a good one than I met the guy, or did the thing, or in some way contacted my prejudice. And lo, it vanished.”
“If we played golf,” I said, as we sat on the edge of the trout stream in the shade of a cedar tree, “we could fill up all this part of the year very happily.”
“No, the trouble with golf is,” explained Jim, “that it steals away all a man’s other recreations. Golf is a thief. Golf is the only thing there is to do in early April, so a man goes forth to this earliest amusement. And before he knows where he is, he is committed to a dozen pleasant golf engagements with friends. By the time he should be going fishing or taking his children into the wilds to hear the first songbirds or to see the first wild flowers blooming, the golf season is in full swing, and the poor devil can’t disentangle himself from its insidious meshes.”
“It’s the easiest way, too,” I agreed. “Here is a man faced with a week-end. He can either go out fishing or tramping in the woods or visit the summer resort in advance of the season. Or else he can slip out to the golf links and play golf. Of all the choices, golf appears the cheapest and handiest.”
“Never let golf get us,” said Jim, devoutly, and we sat in silence in the fragrant cedar shade, while a catbird, its bill full of pale green worms, came secretly and looked at us, on its way to some hidden nest. In a moment, we heard it mew, and knew its young were fed.
“The great thing in life,” said Jim, “is not to get entangled. Don’t commit yourself to any belief or sect or sport or business. The essence of freedom is detachment.”
“Most people,” I disagreed, “are looking for an anchor. Most people love to be moored fast to the shore, instead of being adrift on the sea, calm or stormy.”
In Tune With Nature
“Which is better?” inquired Jim, bravely, since we were safe in the sweet safety of a pleasant woods. “Which is better? To be wrecked at sea? Or to sink at the wharf, a decayed and rotted old hulk that has never even crossed the bay?”
“For,” I added sententiously, “we all sink, in the end.”
“You said it,” confirmed Jim. “I would rather be sitting right here, in this idle glade, with the limpid stream barren of trout and no cow bells, even, to be heard, and no sense of activity or industry or improvement, no birds calling that we can pretend we are studying, no flowers to make us imagine ourselves amateur botanists – just sitting here, in utter idleness.”
“Not even thinking,” I pointed out.
“I often think,” mused Jim, “that the Chinese are going to inherit the earth. They are the only race that seems in complete tune with nature. They have no great ambitions. They have only the ambitions that nature itself has, like these trees and that catbird and that stream. To live and grow and flow along. If storms come, fine. If the weather’s fine, fine. But all the powers of man, in the past centuries of trying, have never succeeded in making the weather fine, if the weather wants to storm.”
“But we’ve improved housing,” I protested proudly, “and invented raincoats and cars and trains to keep us dry on our way to work. You can’t say we haven’t done something to make our lives more comfortable than a catbird’s.”
“I was speaking,” said Jim, loftily, “in the allegorical sense. Unlike the Chinese, we have been trying for centuries to improve our physical life. With what result? That our world to-day is in greater confusion and terror and anxiety than ever before. It seems to be hovering eternally, day after day, year after year, on the brink of an immense precipice.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and where are the Chinese, may I ask?”
“Oh, they’re suffering a little storm, at the moment,” said Jim lightly. “But you know and I know and even the Japanese know, by now, that when the storm is spent, the Chinese will be there, as yesterday, today and forever, multiplying, living strangely and happily and slowly Inheriting the earth.”
“That gives me an idea,” I said. “Let’s hunt ginseng. Come on, let’s walk through the woods here and hunt ginseng?”
“You mean jinsin,”corrected Jim, not getting up.
“Ginseng is its proper spelling,” I informed him.
“Say, listen,” scoffed Jim, “don’t you try to tell me anything about jinsin. I was born on the farm. Lots of my neighbors grew big covered acres of jinsin. Why, every farm newspaper carried big advertisements about the fortunes that were to be made out of growing jinsin.”
“Wild ginseng,” I informed Jim, “is the only kind with magical properties.”
The Root of Life
“Listen,” laughed Jim, “I’ve seen all around our neighborhood, when I was a boy, big yards all roofed over with boards. There were posts stuck up every few feet, and the whole jinsin field roofed over with planks, with big cracks between, to let only a little sunlight in, just like in the deep forest where the jinsin grows.”
“Call it ginseng, Jim,” I insisted. “That’s the way it is spelled in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, although the Chinese call it Jen Sheng, the root of life.”
“All right,” said Jim. “if the Chinese call it Jen Sheng and the encyclopaedia calls it ginseng, then I’ll call it jinsin, which is what everybody called it up around my old home, and they grew it. So there.”
“Jen Sheng,” I said. “The root of life. The Chinese paid fabulous prices for the root of this wild plant. They paid as much as $3,000 for a forked root.”
“They paid what?” said Jim, sitting up and almost standing up.
“They paid,” I said, clearly, “as high as $3,000 for a good big forked root. Forked roots, which the Chinese thought looked like a man, have greater magical properties than plain roots. They restore youth. They lengthen life. They were the monkey glands of the Chinese, a thousand years ago.”
“Where did you get all this?” demanded Jim, actually rising.
“In the encyclopaedia,” I informed him. “Whenever I haven’t anything else to do and it’s raining. I go down and read the encyclopaedia. You’d be surprised at some of the things I’ve read.”
“But $3,000,” said Jim, grimly, gazing off into the leafy shadows of the woods around us.
“Ordinary ginseng,” I said, “sells at around $5 a pound for the roots. They’re sort of translucent, half-transparent, brittle. It takes years to grow a good root.”
“All the years,” muttered Jim, “that I lived right amongst all those fields full of jinsin.”
“Ah, but the cultivated stuff,” I explained, “doesn’t command the price of the wild root. The Chinese find a far greater power in the wild root.”
“Do you know what it looks like?” demanded Jim. “Would you know it if you saw it?”
“Jim,” I said stiffly, “perhaps you forget that I am something of a botanist.”
“Okay,” said Jim, throwing off his creel and other useless gear. “Let’s go look. What kind of ground does it grow on?”
So as we started to explore the woods, I explained to Jim in starts and fits of how ginseng grew in the deep woods, in shade and on high humus soil. I told him some of the legends of ginseng, and how the Chinese emperor, a thousand years ago, had to forbid the Chinese to search for it, because they were exterminating it from the whole of China, and it is a vast country. Ginseng hunters pushed back the borders of the Chinese empire. Into Manchuria and northern Siberia the ginseng hunters went, seeking the green treasure. I told him how it was discovered growing wild in America and how clever Americans began to cultivate it for the Chinese market. But how the Chinese were clever enough to know the cultivated from the wild root.
I explained that European doctors and pharmacologists had studied the root and found that it had no real virtues, but that it had a psychic value, since anything you believe in is as likely to help you as anything else. Far better than epsom salts, anyway.
And then we discovered, the ginseng. At least, I should say, I found it, because Jim’s boyhood memories were pretty vague. All he could recollect were shadowy green jungles under plank roofs which the local farmers guarded with violent jealousy.
“Are you sure this is it?” asked Jim.
“Am I sure?” I scorned. “I tell you this is the genuine article. Look. I’ll pull one up and show you the root.”
I pulled tenderly, digging around the root with my fingers, and drew up out of the earth a queer, transparent, brittle root, about two inches long. And it was forked!
“Forked!” cried Jim. “My gosh, man, maybe you’ve just yanked up $3,000 by the roots.”
He knelt and began digging furiously.
“Don’t waste time,” I explained, “taking the roots only. Take the whole plant and when we get an armful we can sit down and remove the roots.”
So did we ever dig? And did we ever get some forked roots, Jim getting one nearly four inches long? And did we ever have an armful each when a little dog suddenly appeared out of the underbrush and begin barking furiously at us?
And in a minute, did two little boys with fishing poles and freckles ever come out of the underbrush like groundhogs and stand staring speechless at us?
“Hey, mister,” said the forwardest little boy, “ain’t you scared?”
“Scared?” I inquired, from the kneeling position.
“Ain’t you scared of poison ivy?” asked the child.
Jim dropped his armload violently.
“This,” I said, leaping up, is not poison ivy, my son, this is ginseng.”
That ain’t ginseng,” said the little boy swallowing. “It’s plain poison ivy, mister. You’ll have spots all over you.”
“Poison ivy,” I stated firmly, has shiny leaves and the leaves have a reddish color at the base of the leaf.”
“Yeah, in the fall it has,” agreed the little boy, tenderly, “but when it’s young it hasn’t. You’ll have blisters everywhere, on your hands and arms and all over.”
“I thought it was poison ivy,” rasped Jim, his hands dangling far out for fear he would inadvertently touch his face. “I know ivy when I see it. That’s poison ivy.”
“Jim,” I said.
“Come on,” said Jim. “Let’s get to the nearest drug store, quick. We can bathe in soda or something.”
So without even thanking the little boys, we went plunging through the woods and got our tackle and hurried out the path to the car and, throwing everything in, started for town, the nearest town where there was a drug store being 11 miles.
The druggist was half asleep when we burst in but he came immediately to life when we explained that we had just submitted ourselves to serious infection from poison ivy.
“Look,” I said, pointing to my chest, where there was already a slight rash.
Too Far to Go Back
Jim examined his chest and neck, and there was not only a rash but some little red spots already showing.
“Gents,” said the druggist smartly, “step in to the back here; I’ve got a tub. I’ll fix up a bath of ferric chloride and stuff and we’ll see what can be done. But I’m afraid it’s too late to allay the infection if you actually touched the stuff.”
“Touched it?” groaned Jimmie.
And out in the back, while we peeled off to the waist, the druggist ran a tub of water in a wooden washtub and dumped ferric chloride and glycerine, and Jim and without ado plunged into the tub and slathered the stuff all over us. The druggist helped us, pouring additional little bottles of this and that into the tub as he recalled the various cures and antidotes to poison ivy. We sloshed and splashed and labored mightily, wasting no time for talk, until, as we had thoroughly saturated ourselves and had the water running down into our pants, the druggist inquired how we had got messed up with the poison ivy.
“It was ginseng we were looking for,” I explained humbly. “I thought I knew ginseng when I saw it. We picked armfuls of it.”
“There’s lots of ginseng through here,” admitted the druggist.
”Two kids came through the woods, with a little dog,” I elucidated, “or else we would have carried armfuls of the stuff up against our faces and everything.”
“Two little boys, with what color of a dog?” asked the druggist. “Whereabouts were you hunting?”
“Two concessions north and the sixth side road west,” I explained, also going into details as to the little dog and the little boys, gratefully.
“Were these kids,” asked the druggist, “freckled and did one of them do all the talking?”
“That’s them,” said Jim.
The druggist stepped forward and examined the rash on our chests and the red spots on Jimmie’s neck.
“That’s prickly heat,” he said, “and that’s mosquito bites. That’s from over-exertion in the heat.”
“Not poison ivy?” said Jim.
“No more poison ivy than I am,” said the druggist. “And that was ginseng you had. And those two kids are the biggest ginseng hounds in the whole county. And they interrupted you pulling up one of their favorite beds of it I suppose.”
“Nnnn, nnn, nnn,” said Jimmie and I.
But when we got dried up and everything, and paid the druggist for the bath, we decided it was too far to go back, and anyway the kids would be vanished by then, and besides, what could we do if we did find them?
Editor’s Notes: The “little storm” Jim mentions in the story is the Second Sino-Japanese War which began in 1937. It was the prelude to, and some say the real start of World War Two.
This story appeared in Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing (1980).