Reintegrating with Nature: Food-Foraging Edition (via WaPo Magazine)

Check out this article in The Washington Post Magazine on foraging for food that seems to have been written from a perspective of reintegration. (Brief summary below in case you can’t get over the paywall.) It makes me wonder how many other people are thinking about how to reintegrate with nature. Is this actually a growing movement?

I love the idea that I could have the opportunity to forage, but it is exotic to me. How could I dedicate myself to foraging, learning the plants and where to find them, how they grow and when? How could I ever end up on a plot of land that I could turn into a (regionally appropriate) food forest?

So far my life has been a marathon of sprints, a constant triage to meet the moment, the effort of which keeps me from much of anything else. Grad school has been… oof… whatever it’s been, it’s the choice I made; we’ll see what comes of it. But a connection to plants has always been important for me. I’m easily distracted by plants. As I wander around, seeing plants I know and those new to me, I’ve never not been aware that I’m encountering individual beings, unique existences, though it took many years for me to untangle this innate awareness from the dogma that a plant is not really ‘alive,’ not like our species is alive, not really a being but a thing.

The awareness, finally scrubbed clean of received opinion, led me to believe that any human intervention was against the will of a plant and a destructive act. To tear the limb from a tree seemed no different than tearing the limb from an animal, to trim a tree tantamount to removing human fingers, removing leaves equivalent to removing an animal’s mouth.

There’s a middle ground between exploitation and avoidance toward which I’m headed after many years of experience cultivating a particularly intelligent species (my epiphanic experience with which I might write about at some point).

In fact, plants are alive, they do have independent wills, they do respond to their environments and the changes they experience. Yet, the kind of life they experience is not independent: theirs is a life reliant on other species and natural phenomena in nearly every case. They reproduce via insects or wind, and some require forest fires (pre-climate-change fires, that is) to complete their reproductive cycle. Plants also require entities who not only breathe their exhalations but also then exhale the air they breathe.

So why wouldn’t these beings respond to human cultivation? In fact, many do. (See below for a summary of Kimmerer’s experience with sweetgrass.) While the response of some plants is clearly an attempt to salvage the season or the span of their lives, trying to do the best they can despite their losses, others respond better. But even for those that respond well to an intervention, the intervention has to happen at a specific point in their development, before or beyond which the intervention would be experienced as something detrimental to their reproductive goal.

This middle-grounded view is useful: it means I probably won’t die of starvation, or at least I won’t starve for fear of hurting a living being to feed myself. On the other hand, it means much of my life will be spent gathering and preparing wild foods. But, that’s the speed for me.

I’m worn out from trying to mask myself into the mainstream, and I’m done with the working-class ethic instilled in me from my earliest days. I’ll wear out my joints expending myself over time, not in the service of another’s profits but through the process of reintegrating myself into the natural world. The hours I’m longing to spend gathering strike me as exactly the meditative and connective practice I’ve been missing all these years as I’ve been rushing about to meet the irrelevant demands of others in an anxious blur.

Here’s a super brief summary of the important bits from the article in case you can’t get over the paywall:

The article focuses on a few folks in the Northeast/Midwest who are trying to spread foraging as a thing or are trying to create a business of it. I’m not interested in commercializing our wild foods, but Popkin comes close to specifically discussing the natural reintegration that happens when a human animal begins to forage for food, as when he says,

Foraging is hardly an efficient way to get calories, and if we were simply calorie-consuming machines, it would make little sense in the modern world. But we’re not. We’re complex bundles of needs — nutritional, yes, but also physical, emotional, spiritual and cultural.

Gabriel Popkin

Key facts from the article:

  • Our species can get nutrients from over 7,000 different plants, but WEIRDos only eat a handful of them.
  • So many plant products are blown off as inedible or, worse, maligned as ‘poor people food’
    • [Fun fact: this socioeconomic bias actually goes back many millennia: back in the day, Hesiod made allusion to mallow and asphodel as poor people foods (Works and Days 41)]
    • “Countless Indigenous people, immigrants, and rural Black and White Americans — men and women — have carried on foraging traditions, both by choice and by necessity. Often they had good reason for staying out of the spotlight.”
    • ‘Trespassing’ became a thing only after the Civil War, as part of criminalizing as much of Black life as possible.
  • If you’re into TikTok check out this account on foraging.
  • Potential of exploitation is large, obviously, if foragers do not uniformly forage responsibly.
    • Cites an article by Kimmerer on what she calls the ‘Honorable Harvest’
    • But he notes that the threat is less than it seems:

But the vast majority of wild edibles are nowhere near threatened by foragers. In fact, Thayer argues, many are in greater danger of disappearing through neglect, because without people having a reason to cultivate and care for them, they risk being overrun by faster-growing invasive plants or paved over for the next strip mall. Kimmerer writes about how sweetgrass grows better when it’s harvested responsibly than when it’s ignored, because harvesting some stems gives the remaining ones more light and space, which they quickly fill with new shoots. Similarly, research led by Cherokee Band members has revealed that traditional harvesting of sochan boosts the plant’s seed production. “The plant actually needs to be harvested in order for it to flourish,” says Kissell. “It wants to be harvested.” When we engage knowledgeably and respectfully, we can improve rather than destroy.

Gabriel Popkin

Forgeable foods mentioned in the article:

  • acorns
  • American persimmons
  • pawpaws
  • Chickweed
  • Brassica rapa
  • sochan
    • The only caffeine-producer native to North America.
  • pennycress
  • elderberries
  • pecans
  • groundnuts
  • ramps
  • white sage
  • ginseng

This year my diet has included chickweed, dead nettle, bittercress, dock, garlic pennycress, wild onion, brassica, wood sorrel, cleavers, dandelions, lamb’s quarters, day lily shoots, sochan, purslane and poke (amply boiled to remove toxins).

Gabriel Popkin

Happy foraging! Or, like me, happy dreaming of foraging!

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