Monday, August 30, 2010

wild rice days

When I dreamed of being published, I thought I would use this as my author's photo:
From Will Shetterly - snapshots of life so far
It's a picture my sister took of me about to begin a shift parching wild rice.

But let me tell you first about what comes before parching.

Dad would fly supplies in a little pontoon plane to Ojibwe people in bush camps. (There's a picture of his plane at My Agonizing 30-Hour Struggle to Survive After My Plane Crashed Into a Lake.) During wild rice season, the people gathered wild rice much like the folks at Wild Rice Harvesting 2009. One difference: the younger wild ricers attached scoops of netting to the front of their canoes and used outboard motors to troll through the rice fields.

I would meet Dad's plane at the dock near our store and unload 100-pound bags of wild rice, load boxes of supplies, then haul the rice up to a quonset hut where we had four rice parchers.

Now, at this point, I should admit that I haven't thought about parching wild rice in decades, so any number of the details may be off, beginning with the number of parchers.

For the first part of the ricing season, we stored bags in the quonset hut. Every day or so, we would go out and turn the bags over to prevent the wet rice from molding. When the gathering of rice slowed down, the parching began.

The parchers were big iron drums, each rotating on a central shaft over a log fire for 24 hours a day. We worked in shifts, four-hours on, eight hours off. The work was incredibly hot and smokey, because we were working in a porch at the end of the quonset hut, which trapped the heat and filled with smoke despite a big electric fan.

We used a big aluminum snow shovel to toss damp wild rice into the parchers, unloading and loading a different parcher every fifteen or twenty minutes, I think. During the time inbetween, we tossed logs on the fires to keep them burning at a steady heat, and we rushed the parched wild rice in a wheelbarrow into the quonset hut where it would eventually be winnowed, then ran back into the hot, smokey porch before the next load burned.

Shoveling wild rice into a parcher called for a bit of skill, because the rotating drums had a cross-shaft: If you timed it wrong and your shovel hit the shaft, you would scatter wild rice all over the porch. Parching the wild rice called more for timing than skill: Let it go a little too long, and a drum-load of wild rice would be ruined.

At the end of a shift, you were filthy and exhausted, but the work was oddly satisfying, probably because it needed doing and would be done in a few weeks. It would be simplistic to say the work was macho, because Liz helped out sometimes. It was just hard, and it required competence and concentration, and when you were done, you had something delicious to eat. Few jobs offer that much.