The photographs in this article are of wild North American ginseng roots. They are selected from Spirits of the Forest, a portfolio by Marc Kaczmarek. © Marc Kaczmarek
The photographs in this article are of wild North American ginseng roots. They are selected from Spirits of the Forest, a portfolio by Marc Kaczmarek. © Marc Kaczmarek

FORESTS INSPIRE INTENSE and intimate reactions: the feelings of peace and awe of temple groves. In mountain forests where ginseng grows, you find more unruly emotions. One evening on a hillside in the North Carolina section of the Great Smoky Mountains, I watched the last sunlight leave the tops of the maples and poplars and waited beside Lamon Brown, a park ranger on a stakeout for ginseng poachers. It was a chilly October evening. I was thankful the rain had held off. In the silence, the forest induced a mild delirium and time stretched like a clock by Dali against a slowly darkening background.

Two young oaks nearby were just dark vertical slashes. I watched a leaf tumble from the topmost branch of one, all the way down, down, down until it hit the forest floor. Fifteen seconds. Not long. And yet nowhere outside the forest was I likely to give those fifteen seconds to silent watchfulness.

In those moments, nature is clearly as much inside us as outside, beautiful and fearsome. I began to fathom the world of legend, where ginseng plants screamed in the night or changed into wild beasts. The Buddha admitted how even innocent forest sounds could be unnerving. He once confided, speaking of a night in the forest, “Either an animal came along, or a peacock broke a twig, or the wind rustled the fallen leaves. It occurred to me: surely this is that fear and dread coming.” Our relationship with the forest is a complicated intimacy, rich and unsettling.

Lamon wore a ranger hat on his shaved head and a mustache that bushed around his mouth. He explained in a whisper how the park’s main outlaws had been marijuana growers until rangers cracked down on the big patches in the 1990s and the growers switched to stovetop meth labs in their kitchens. These days, ginseng poachers far outnumbered the pot growers.

Having grown up near here, Lamon developed the eye of a ginseng collector, or ginsenger, early on. When he was a boy, his grandfather led him to a grove of walnut trees behind the house and revealed a cluster of ginseng plants that the old man had transplanted from deep in the woods. Even as a child, Lamon understood this was risky. If word got out about the plants, people would slip in and steal them. Ginseng was valuable.

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