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Tundra cloud(berrie)s

November 28, 2018

 

 

I was first introduced to cloudberries via the name of a man-made structure. This structure was a slowly dilapidating bed-and-breakfast called The Cloudberry, located in Fairbanks, Alaska, and its wooden turrets rose up like an enchanted castle above the stunted boreal black spruce forest.

 

It was used as field housing in the rainy summer of 2014 when I received my first botany technician job. Little did I know, the Cloudberry would recur in my life, over and over — but in the form of a small plant.

 

The cloudberry; Rubus chamaemorus; bakeapple; salmonberry; is widespread across the arctic. It is a sweet, soft, dreamsicle berry, with a muted taste reminiscent of oranges, cream, tart fruit and a hint of salmon. When ripe, it fades from a bright pink to a translucent creamy orange that smears apart on your taste buds.

 

During work hours, I found myself in the bogs, fens, and tussock tundra where this tasty, low-lying forb is found. It was after work hours, in the quirky, self-sufficient, woodsy town and quiet forests of Fairbanks where my love affair with plants and their ability to connect humans with place first began.

 

My first cloudberry was eaten while sitting on the pink styrofoam seat of The Cloudberry’s outhouse toilet in mid-summer. Small cloudberries poked their way out of the thick carpets of foot-deep moss directly in front of my feet as I did my morning duties. After watching a small berry ripen in front of my face for a week, I selfishly plucked it and popped it in my mouth while seated, adding an explosion of taste to my toilet experience. All toilets should have snacks.

 

A few years later, I attended a Yup’ik event in Bethel, Alaska, where I tasted akutaq for the first time, or “Eskimo ice cream”, a chilled mixture of Kuskokwim sheefish (whitefish), Crisco (originally seal fat), and the vitamin-C rich cloudberry. Cold, sweet, savory, slightly fishy and chock full of calories – the perfect traveling food for exhausted subsistence hunters.

 

Now, as a graduate student studying arctic ecology, the cloudberry has come full-circle to haunt my thesis. I study how individual plant species are reacting to deepening permafrost thaw resulting from climate change. Specifically, whether that newly thawed soil horizon is providing plants with a new, rich source of nutrients that hasn’t been available since the beginning of the last ice age — and whether or not their little rootlets are getting those nutrients.

 

In the summer of 2017, I experienced the cloudberry in the way that only a plant ecologist can: over the course of 136 hours of hand-plucking their roots with tweezers from chunks of soil. A root pluck quantifies the amounts of roots found at certain depths below ground, and identifies which species reach those depths. We traced the smooth, branching, toasted-yellow roots of the cloudberry all the way into the deepest depths, just above the permafrost thaw boundary.

 

How this deeply exploring and delicious plant will continue to fare in the arctic as that thaw boundary moves deeper remains to be seen. Anecdotal indigenous knowledge from Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow) suggests that tundra cloudberry harvests in recent years may be bountiful in a way that hasn’t been seen in elder life-spans. The connection of this beautiful, delicious plant to the changing arctic landscape and the humans that inhabit it is fascinating. As thaw boundaries continue to deepen and arctic roots stretch into newly revealed soils, I’m fascinated to see what the arctic has in store for this deliciously creamy berry. Maybe more pies.

 

Briana Jasinski is an ecology graduate student, based out of Flagstaff, AZ, where she lives in a Casita trailer, visits hot springs, salsa dances, and looks at plants. 

 

 

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