While Learning the Names and Walking change our relationship to the living world around us, foraging introduces a whole new degree of intimacy, taking the very wilderness into our bodies. By the act of eating, we physically bond with nature as it becomes part of our very substance, and remove all layers of separation between us and the one provider of all nourishment. The idea is not to give up buying food and get it all from the wild, but to occasionally supplement our diet with wild things (which are both local and organic), and above all, engage in this delightful activity as a matter of relationship. To forage is to directly experience seasonality (things grow when they grow), with the attendant acceptance and relinquishing of control, and intimacy, as you acquire an instinct for where and when to find plants. It is also an activity full or surprise and wonder, the landscape changing constantly to reveal new offerings where you didn’t expect them. There is also the delight of flavours not available in shops, and the extra nutrition offered by wild plants — much higher than cultivated produce.
Before you head out with your bags, however, we need to discuss ethics. The Earth is generous, but that doesn’t mean we should go and help ourselves as if entitled. As with all topics on this website, right attitude is paramount.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist of Potawatomi heritage, offers precious guidance for respectful foraging in The “Honorable Harvest”: Lessons From an Indigenous Tradition of Giving Thanks:
The canon of indigenous principles that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest. They are “rules” of sorts that govern our taking, so that the world is as rich for the seventh generation as it is for us.
The Honorable Harvest, a practice both ancient and urgent, applies to every exchange between people and the Earth. Its protocol is not written down, but if it were, it would look something like this:
- Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer.
- Never take the first. Never take the last.
- Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
- Take only what you need and leave some for others.
- Use everything that you take.
- Take only that which is given to you.
- Share it, as the Earth has shared with you.
- Be grateful.
- Reciprocate the gift.
- Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.
I highly recommend reading the full article (or watching her TED talk) and thinking deeply of these principles, so that this activity doesn’t turn into another kind of self-indulgence that takes without giving back.
To the above points, I would add:
- Err on the side of caution. Only pick plants you can identify with certainty, and let someone experienced teach you how to recognize the trickier ones. This is especially important for mushrooms! It is wise to learn about poisonous plants in your area in addition to edible ones.
- Avoid collecting from the sides of busy roads, industrial areas, near farms that spray pesticides, and other contaminated areas. Small amounts from such places may not be harmful, but the effect of heavy metals and chemicals can be cumulative and show over time.
- Refrain from collecting roots in the wild. Many are edible, of course, but when you collect the roots, you kill the plant, and the wilderness is under too much strain nowadays to afford this. Just accept that the needs of nature are greater at the moment, and be content with the renewable parts of a plant. Or, plant wild roots in your garden so that you can harvest those!
- What you need to go foraging depends on what you aim to collect. If you’re starting out and just picking what turns up at this stage, keep some paper bags on you (useful for most things) and maybe one small tupperware (for instance for poppy seeds or juicy berries). As you gain experience, you’ll know what you like and how to be prepared. A pair of snips and garden gloves are helpful for certain things..
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