A natural enough question to ask nowadays, and as good a one as any to get the ball rolling.
Really, though, why do anything we don’t have to do? The need to make an effort to prolong our own existence has in many ways been taken out of our hands in the modern era. Sure, we still need to do something in order to survive – whether it is to work a 9 to 5 or simply go on the dole. Neither of which, to be honest, is usually much fun. Nor does it create a sense of engagement or excitement in our minds, having replaced those desirable states with a world-weary awareness of mundanity and toil. In both cases, the direct relationship between our work and our sustenance has been largely removed, replaced by a system of exchange based on pieces of paper. Fairly quickly on, the process of learning and changing and growing each season or each day in order to provide for ourselves becomes merely a matter of maintaining the status quo. Challenging our assumptions has been taken off the menu, so to speak.
The short answer to the question why forage? Because it is engaging, and it is exciting. It represents a contrast. The effort of procuring food from ones’ environs is far more interesting than your average trip to the supermarket. Walking in the woods or scanning the perimeter of an abandoned field is a dynamic, stimulating activity. Cruising supermarket aisles is just never going to be that interesting, no matter how colorful or unique the produce. And truth be told, most of the time we’re not looking at produce. We’re picking up boxes and wondering, can I eat this? Is this… real? The short answer to that is that it isn’t. And the effort involved in creating that type of food-like product places demands on our environment that we really have yet to fully comprehend. Even the whole foods that we rightly tout such as grains and vegetables have often been flown or shipped at great expense, not to mention harvested using questionable gas-burning machines and chemicals and equally questionable labor practices.
The long answer to the question why forage? Well, it’s long. Let’s break it down.
1) Foraging is what we have always done. You might not remember, but your mother remembers. And if she doesn’t than your grandmother remembers. And if she doesn’t… well you can’t go too far back before you come across someone in your family who did. They might not be around anymore, but nearly everyone did one kind of foraging or gathering in the era before refrigeration. It is a tangible connection with our past, as real as looking through old photos or visiting ancestry.com. And one doesn’t need documents on paper to establish this connection. Simply put, if you know where your ancestors lived then you can figure out in pretty short order what they grew and gathered and ate. And guess what? It’s the same stuff you can grow and gather and eat today, maybe even if you don’t live in the same place (one thing we can thank the modern era for). Now that’s a real connection.
2) Foraging is educational. I know, I know, learning things is supposed to be boring. That’s what our society keeps telling us. We parrot a notion of education being important but we constantly treat those who seek after knowledge with a kind of disdain. I’ve never been able to comprehend it–for me learning has always been exciting, and the idea that I would ever know all the “answers” is a foreign one. One of the most exciting things about plants and mushrooms is that NO ONE will ever know everything about them. Not even in the narrowest sense. The incredible diversity of plants and fungi even within small geographical area is nothing short of staggering. The thought that as intensely as I have studied these matters, I will NEVER run out of new things to learn is a constant inspiration to me. Rather than making me feel like it renders the whole endeavor pointless, it is precisely this that keeps me going. I will never know everything, but perhaps one day I will have a real comprehension of how deep my ignorance is. It’s a humbling and fascinating process.
3) Foraging is free (mostly). Anybody else seriously sick of paying money for every damn thing? I know I am. I’ve never been a serious breadwinner, preferring to concentrate on things that make me feel happy and fulfilled rather than ones that fill my bank account. Nine times out of ten when I leave the house these days I return having not spent a dime. This doesn’t please me for any miserly reason, in fact the money I’ve saved usually ends up being given to local farmers or artisans, plunked down in exchange for vegetables that I can’t or don’t grow, or fine local cheeses or honey or craft goods. Supplementing what I grow or forage with local, responsibly farmed goods is one of the big plusses that keeps me on the trail, in the garden, and–most importantly–out of the supermarket.
4) Foraging opens your eyes. Most people unfamiliar with forage think that it involves a lot of time spent in the woods and wilderness, being rugged and outdoorsy and climbing up trees for berries and so on. It really doesn’t. Most of what we gather comes from our own backyards, literally and figuratively speaking. It’s one of the first things you learn, especially if you begin by walking with a local expert or trustworthy enthusiast. Edible plants are EVERYWHERE. Humble, delicious wild plants are especially most abundant where human activity has left a deep mark–what we planties usually refer to as “disturbed ground.” And this eye-opening doesn’t extend to just knowledge of edible plants. After all, knowing what is edible means knowing what isn’t. And the knowledge of plants becomes very quickly the knowledge of trees, of fungi and mosses, of stone and soil types, in short the knowledge of ecosystems. People who focus on ecology are quick to hammer home the complexity and variety of the systems that they study, but they rarely seem interested (typical bane of the specialist) in communicating how ABUNDANTLY CLEAR many of these systems are. It doesn’t take a genius to understand how a transition forest grows and changes, and what the native and invasive plants are, and what kinds of relationships emerge. It only takes someone who is willing to look at the world with open eyes, filled with wonder and free of preconceptions. And the more you look, the more you forage, the more you will see.
5) Foraging is healthy. Not only does it quite often involve good exercise, it also means collecting plants which are nutritional powerhouses. The simple, oft-cursed stinging nettle delivers a level of vitamin content that should have commercially-grown spinach quaking in its’ chemically-enhanced boots. Even without really getting involved in the true medicinal plants or the medicinal aspects of wild edible plants, the pure nutritional content of this free and abundant food should be enough to stimulate the interest of anyone who would like to live more healthfully. Of course, our society likes to steer those people towards expensive supplements and vitamins, in short, manufactured goods. Unfortunately, most of what you will pick up at health food stores is just as manufactured and processed as regular dry goods, only sold at even more of a premium to enchant those who think good health comes with a hefty price tag. In fact, the humble violet (which grows rampantly in both yards and woods in my area every spring) contains four times as much Vitamin C in its leaves and blossoms as an orange and a full complement of Vitamin A to boot (over 100% of our daily need in one half-cup of cooked greens). This is but one of a multitude of examples, most of which are probably a lot closer to your neighborhood than the remote locales in which many medicinal botanical ingredients are grown.
There are an abundance of reasons to forage. There are also some reasons not to, but I don’t mean that in a categorical sense. Rather, there are times when one needs to know when to leave well enough alone, for reasons of pollution, law or ecology. That concept will be addressed in another article, for now it is enough to say that there are a multitude of pros and most of our cons are the result of habituation. Foraging seems strange and unnecessary to most modern Westerners, but a hundred years ago our own ancestors would have found our attitudes puzzling. In fact, many moderns in cultures outside our own and outside of the large mega-cities would simply shake their heads and carry on supplementing their lives with free and abundant healthful plants.