On foraging

I’m writing this in response to a recent column in the Independent on foraging. The column by CJ Schuler was prompted by destructive, commercial foraging of wild garlic at a local ancient woodland in south London. 

Any foraging, let alone commercial foraging is inappropriate in such a fragile setting. As a conservationist I’m as concerned by this kind of ignorant foraging (trampling the stock, removing too much and done for profit) as Schuler is, but I must disagree with his conclusion that ‘Foraging is not part of the solution; it’s part of the problem.’

A newspaper column like this one entails confrontational argument, which generates more heat than light. Schuler seems to think that most foragers are aiming to source their entire food supply from the wild, rather than supplementing their diet. Perhaps this is to shore up the confrontational stance, or perhaps he hasn’t met many foragers, or listened to what they have to say. No forager I know would ever entertain that thought, and would understand that on a small island like ours, with its relatively large population, mass foraging for all our food would spell environmental disaster and starvation. Foragers also know that sourcing all one’s food from the hedgerow, even if were possible, would be depressing and unpalatable.

But my real bone of contention is when he denies that foraging establishes a connection with nature ‘in any meaningful sense’. Do you have to source all your food supply from nature’s larder to establish a meaningful connection? I don’t think so. His logic is all or nothing – if it’s impossible to source 100 per cent of your food supply through foraging, it must be irrelevant and absurd at best, destructive at worst.

In my environmental education work I try all kinds of approaches to galvanise engagement with the natural world. None works so well and so consistently as food – whether it’s growing fruit and veg, herbs, or the therapeutic and edible properties of wild plants. When you talk about food, people make the connection between their bodies and those of the natural world around them. They see the reasons to protect these plants, and how they can work together with them for mutual benefit. This is instinctive conservation, and this bond is what has protected the natural world for millenia. And I would argue that we’ve only needed ‘professional’ conservationists to step in now that most of us have stopped depending directly on the land for our food, fuel and other resources.

It’s not all about harking back to some golden era of hunter gathering. Fifty years ago most  Londoners were foragers. It’s not something alien and exotic. Many kept chickens, grew peas and beans, and would pick blackberries, rosehips (encouraged during the war), mushrooms and go scrumping. And of course, as regular foragers they would know that if they wanted a good meal next year, then it made sense not to take too much.

Many of the people coming to my workshops originally come from other countries, where the responsible foraging tradition is still alive and strong, and where herbal medicine is still current. Talking about food, foraging and helping them ID British wild plants has been a wonderful way to validate their traditions and exchange cultural learning.

There’s something elitist about Schuler’s tone, which is probably just the tone he has to strike for the article. But it bothers me. Do we condemn a whole practice on the actions of an ignorant few? Do we blame those teaching and encouraging responsible foraging for the actions of a minority who’ve misunderstood? If you extend that argument then we’d have to stop teaching and start banning a lot of things. Like driving. Or media punditry.

If we want to win the battle against the impoverishment and destruction of the natural world, then we must democratise access and engagement. Encouraging people to make the link between plants and food is vital part of the process, complementing efforts to get kids playing in nature,  and other more ‘hands off’ ways to experience nature such as walking, painting, photographing, or writing about landscapes. 

Foraging does not operate in a vacuum. It’s happening in a world where profit trumps ethics and selfishness is encouraged, and where populations are transient. But that’s not foraging’s fault. I would argue that responsible foraging works against these pressures.

Conservationists and environmentalists, including me,worry that they don’t garner more support, or attract diverse audiences. I think it’s because too much of our message is ‘don’t do this’ ‘stop doing that’ and ‘look, don’t touch’, or even, ‘we know best’.

I whole-heartedly agree with Schuler’s encouragement to let the dandelions, nettles and weeds flourish in your garden – assuming you have one, of course. This is the main way that I forage, although as my communal garden was built on a former industrial site and  the land deemed ‘contaminated’ when I moved in, I tend to pick the weeds which sow themselves into empty pots.

Foraging shouldn’t have to involve travelling far and certainly shouldn’t take place in any nature reserve or protected space. For me, foraging is all about a deepening relationship, between myself, a particular spot of land, a plant and the seasons. Our fates become entwined, and I look out for the elder bush opposite my house, making sure it doesn’t get chopped down in the latest well-intentioned community clear up. After all, I’m looking forward to that elderberry cordial later this year.

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One Response to On foraging

  1. Sarah Hyde says:

    Well I guess I agree with C J Schuler’s article, and with you! People should not be commercially foraging, nor should they be taking any kind of wild plants en masse from protected habitats. That said, I forage, especially for berries come autumn time. But if everyone did it then I’m sure there would be nothing left! However I am encouraging native species in my garden. I’m planting a woodland meadow for my very shady lawn area and I have a blackberry plant that I’m training along my fence, both for security and for fruit!

    You are very right though Kirsten when you say that it’s the best way to get people engaged with nature. By tapping into what our ancestors did and our hunter-gather instincts, it helps us to make that connection between ourselves, the seasons and the need to look after our planet so that it can continue to sustain us and our loved ones. I think my connection with nature and my interest in the natural world came from those late summer/early autumn walks collecting blackberries with my parents. I remember the first time I tasted blackberry and apple crumble and it’s still my absolute favourite dessert! Definitely a big reason to conserve our countryside. (Actually, that’s a great idea for a workshop! Make foraged fruit jam – literally conserving the countryside!)

    As far as I can see it, It’s a bit of a catch 22 situation. There isn’t enough richly bio-diverse habitat to feed us all (or more realistically supplement our diets), but we’ll never get people understanding their connection to the planet and the survival of the human race without letting them “taste” it for themselves, which will make more people aware of the importance of bio-diverse habitat and so protecting it.

    Really, conservation trusts need to take a proactive approach. People should be told where they can forage and when and for what species and how much they are allowed to take. Maybe people should only be allowed to forage if they are on a guided walk. Maybe it should be like those pick your own strawberry places, where you weigh up and pay on exit, with proceeds going to the upkeep of the area. Maybe foraging should be clamped down on completely in conservation areas and only allowed in the wider countryside. Maybe you should be licensed, like fishing – you can only forage once you have taken a short course where you are told the do’s and don’ts.

    We should not forget the human race’s place in the biodiversity of habitat. By us coppicing hazel and managing woodland, we have allowed space on the woodland floor for a vast range of wildflowers to thrive and evolve. We are not an invasive species, we actually have our place in the ecosystem and we did a great job (pre-industrial revolution) increasing the level of biodiversity on the planet, just by being ourselves! Basically, it’s about finding a balance, as is the nature of nature!

    Commercial foraging (bit of an oxymoron really), and poaching are both real problems in the city. Ironically, both problems come from either end of the economic scale. More needs to be done to prosecute/deter the people that undertake both of these activities, but education is the key to prevention.

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