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Foraging for the Future: Rediscovering Wild Edibles in Your Backyard

June 26, 2024

Table of Contents

Foraging for the Future: Rediscovering Wild Edibles in Your Backyard

The Sweetness of Wild Strawberries

Have you ever tasted the sweetness of wild strawberries freshly picked from the forest? That experience changed my life. By engaging in the age-old practice of foraging, we can savor dishes like wild garlic pesto and fresh elderflower tea. We can also gain mental clarity, a sense of community, and a deeper appreciation of the natural world.

Foraging – the ancient practice of gathering wild plants, fruits, and fungi for sustenance and medicine – has been a part of human life for thousands of years. In fact, foraging was alongside hunting one of the primary means of food production for our ancestors, shaping their cultures and ways of life. Although it may seem outdated in today’s world of supermarkets and online food delivery, foraging still persists, offering numerous social, ecological, and economic benefits for individuals and communities.

Reconnecting with Nature

While few people today rely solely on foraging as their primary food source, it still has an important place in many indigenous communities who practice it alongside agriculture, horticulture, and pastoralism. As demonstrated by Richard Mabey’s book “Food for Free”, which identifies over 200 edible wild plants in the UK alone, picking wild berries or medicinal plants is gaining popularity throughout the world. And while foraging is unlikely to substitute other large-scale forms of food production, it still offers valuable lessons about our relationship with the wild environment and the importance of sustainable food systems.

By supporting and learning from local foragers, we can reconnect with nature, restore ecological health, and build stronger communities. In our urbanized world, it’s very easy to lose touch with where our food comes from and how it is produced. We have become passive consumers, disconnected from the natural environment and the processes that sustain us. Our society-wide indifference to plants, a keystone of every ecosystem, has even received a diagnosis: “plant blindness” or “plant awareness disparity” (PAD).

The Benefits of Foraging

So, what are the results of this disconnection between people and their food systems? From a food production standpoint, many of us willingly continue to support intensive industrial farming with little regard for the issues that come with it, such as deforestation, soil degradation, and water pollution affecting ecosystems worldwide. Our eating habits have also been impacted, with diets high in sodium and sugars but lacking fruit and whole grains being linked to 11 million deaths in 2017 alone and contributing to the rise of chronic diseases that place a significant burden on healthcare systems throughout the world.

Furthermore, many people today spend little time outdoors in nature, which can lead to a lack of appreciation for the natural world and potentially impact our mental health – a condition known as “nature deficit disorder,” first coined by Richard Louv in 2005.

This is where foraging comes in. It is more than just gathering food; it’s a way to establish a deeper connection with the natural world and become an active participant in the food system. When you forage, you’re not just passively consuming food; you’re actively engaging with it in a way that fosters a deep connection with the living world. Foraging empowers you to create a metabolic bond between yourself and the living world. You can become more attuned to the natural cycles around you and start noticing how they relate to your body’s needs. This heightened awareness becomes second nature, and you become more in tune with your environment.

Reclaiming the Wild

Foraging also offers a chance to break free from the industrialized food system and discover the beauty and diversity of the plants around us. It’s a way to realize that this world nurtures us, not metaphorically, but literally. This, I believe, is the main advantage of foraging – it can cause a fundamental shift in your mindset and allow you to imagine a different world.

On top of this philosophical aspect, foraging has some very practical benefits. It provides an opportunity to reap all the physical and mental benefits of spending time in nature. The physical activity involved in searching for wild edibles in nature provides a low-impact way to move your body while enjoying the great outdoors. And the mental benefits of spending time in green spaces are numerous and well-documented – spending time in green spaces helps reduce stress, can help people cope with anxiety and provide relief from depression, as well as improve overall mood and well-being.

The sense of accomplishment that comes with foraging adds an additional layer of satisfaction to the experience. Personally, successfully identifying and collecting wild edibles has had an incredible effect on my self-esteem. Many foragers describe the activity as therapeutic, giving us a way to escape the stress of daily life and connect with nature. It allows us to disconnect from the fast-paced, technology-driven world and reconnect with something more primal and meaningful.

Preserving Traditional Ecological Knowledge

As foraging has been used as a source of food and medicine by communities for centuries, and many continue to rely on it today, traditional foragers have developed a significant body of knowledge. In many indigenous and rural communities, foraging is still an integral part of cultural traditions and is often tied to spiritual practices. These communities have a deep understanding and appreciation for the natural environment and the plants within it, which can be used for both sustenance and ceremonial purposes.

Today, the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge has become widely recognized. But according to Chandra Roy-Henriksen, Chief of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in an interview with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “today close to 2,700 languages are estimated to be in danger of disappearing forever. If we lose them, we also risk losing invaluable knowledge that could have provided answers to some of the world’s greatest problems.”

Indigenous communities and their traditional practices are often threatened by trends in Western culture, for example, the growing mainstream demand for sacred sage, which can lead to over-harvesting. Practicing solidarity with indigenous foragers and respectfully learning about their practices can help preserve vital ecological knowledge, keep ancient traditions alive, and promote cultural diversity while also addressing the potential impacts of cultural appropriation.

Sustainable Foraging Practices

You might have justifiable questions about the sustainability of foraging and its possible negative effects on biodiversity. However, it is not always a destructive practice that harms nature. On the contrary, it has the power to promote and safeguard local species while fighting against the damaging impact of invasive species.

In metropolitan areas like New York City, foraging for invasive plants like Japanese honeysuckle and garlic mustard can generate socioeconomic and cultural value for communities while also preventing their spread. By working together with environmental managers, foragers can target threats to local ecosystems while also benefiting from the resources they provide.

Responsible foraging practices can also support the growth and conservation of native flora. In Norway, the Norwegian Association for Mycology and Foraging, the Natural History Museum of Oslo, and LISST-Dynamiques Rurales Laboratory in France have collaborated on a transdisciplinary research project that combines local and academic knowledge to assess sustainability. According to their study, foragers consider the conservation status and local abundance of native plants and pay attention to individual plant survival after foraging to enrich forager-biodiversity relationships over time.

So, when does traditional foraging become unsustainable? Unsurprisingly, the main causes of unsustainable foraging are linked to market pressure, customs and norms promoted by states, climate change, and the marginalization of certain groups. However, by facilitating education and investment initiatives focused on gastronomy and eco-tourism, there is the potential to simultaneously boost local income, preserve biodiversity, promote cultural healing, and facilitate adaptations to climate change.

The Foraging Community

Last but not least, foraging is not just about collecting food but also about building relationships and connections with others. All plants are different, and foraging carries an intrinsic risk. Deadly look-alikes are as dangerous now as they were millennia ago, and even seasoned foragers can make a mistake. While this risk is very real, and safety should never be overlooked when it comes to foraging, the risk can also make communities built around foraging even stronger.

By openly sharing knowledge, information, and tips on how to do it safely, being involved in a foraging community can build a real sense of camaraderie and belonging. These networks, due to their closeness to nature and their need to care for their members, can also facilitate social and ecological change. During the COVID-19 pandemic, foraging networks played an important role in starting and promoting solidarity initiatives and mutual aid groups, facilitating urban adaptation despite their relatively low membership.

For many people, foraging directly provided a way to supplement lost income and improve their mental health by escaping the confines of their house during lockdown. In an age of biodiversity loss and climate change, it can be hard not to see ourselves as parasites, as inherently destructive creatures. The relationship with the living world created by foraging subverts this misanthropic view. It creates hope for a future in which taking and giving from the living world are not separate and opposite actions but part of a nourishing cycle.

Foraging as a Lifestyle

Foraging shifts our position from passive consumers, complicit in environmental destruction, to active producers that fight invasive species and propagate native flora. Foraging is by no means the one true solution to the problems surrounding modern food systems. We cannot hope to feed even a fraction of our existing population with sustainable foraging. However, that is not why I chose to speak about it.

It is a free activity in a world where everything has a price. It has wide-ranging health benefits. It can build communities and support inclusivity and consideration of all cultures. It can make you try flavors you would never have otherwise. But most importantly, by making us a part of the food system, it fuels imagination, grants a new perspective on the living world, and reminds us that we are inherently part of it, despite the illusionary barriers we try to build between the human and the natural worlds.

And while the practice itself will not fix all the issues of our broken systems, the ideas it teaches us will play a key role in this historic endeavor. So, what are you waiting for? Check a foraging calendar adapted to your area, ensure there are no dangerous look-alikes, consult a local herbalist or foraging groups if you know any, and get out foraging. My favorite wild food recipe is wild garlic pesto – what will yours be?

Thornnapple CSA is a community-supported agriculture service that celebrates the connection between people, food, and the land. By supporting our local growers and foragers, we can build a more sustainable and resilient food system that nourishes both our bodies and our souls.

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