A week of rain, after which everything in the forest murmured. In between crevices, pale hatted fungi clustered like students. “I wonder if those are edible?” I whispered. “Brown cap boletus,” my companion answered, bending low over the glowing knot, “great with risotto, but these are young. They need to grow.” “Huh…weird to think something we pass on our hike is a food source.” “Before we farmed, this was our collective memory.” A chubby chipmunk snuffled across our path, brown nut clamped between teeth. Mist dripped from the lichen-covered boughs onto my shoulders. “Think the only wild thing I’ve had was strawberries. They grew in the woods behind our house. What about you?” “Mmm…acorns…nettle…oak moss…” “Huh…you can eat that?” “Everything has a purpose.” The landscape called to my hunger. I made some calculations. “Is it something I could learn?” “Come,” the guide invited, “come with me on my next foraging expedition.”
We met at what I thought was a fallow field neighboring a disused lumber yard. “Where are the plants,” I said, eyeing the plastic debris, the upturned dirt clods. “Here,” the guide replied, kneeling before a fluorescing rosette. “Oh, right…dandelions…heard those make good salads.” “Ever had them fried or in soup?” “N…no,” I said, toeing the crackled earth. “Look, black mustard,” the guide indicated. I eyed the drooping buttercup florets, suspicious. “Like the condiment?” “Yeah, from the seeds. But, the leaves can be blanched like spinach, the root roasted.” The guide moved to a batch of three-lobed leaves. “Um, that’s clover,” I corrected. “Right…the blossoms make for a great vanilla tea. We’ll leave these for the bees, though.” “Huh…turns out a lot of plants I ignore are edible.” My companion shrugged. “It’s easy to narrow our vision.” They heaped a bunch of bedraggled greenery into my arms. I thought of all the laundered produce wrapped in plastic under the supermarket lights.
“Don’t be fooled,” the guide said, pointing to what appeared to be Queen Anne’s lace, “this is hemlock…not parsnip. Highly poisonous.” “Useless, then?” I asked. “Just not meant for us. That doesn’t devalue it.” Our scavenger hunt shuffled us in awkward patterns across the sward. Sometimes my guide uprooted a plant, or cut a stem, or plucked a flower. Often, they left things untouched. “Wow, you really know this piece of land,” I said. “I spend a lot of time here. A space is like a person, the more you get to know them, the richer they become.” I regretted having passed moral judgement on abandoned lots, weeds scrabbling out of asphalt fissures, and naughty brambles.
We met again in the community garden across from where the guide lived — a tangled exploration of roots and branches without border paths. There were no hothouse blooms, no identifying tags, no gloves, no tools. “How do you find anything in here?” I asked. “Don’t rely on your eyes,” my mentor advised, “use all your senses.” I prodded the soil gingerly, wary of what lay in the undergrowth. “Feel the texture of the purslane.” I squished its plumpness between my fingers. “Smell the oxalis.” I sniffed powdered lemon from the sorrel. “Can you hear that?” I bent towards a tall stalk to listen to the rasp of fingernails against tiny hairs. “I’ve made a pie for our lunch.” I scoffed. “Pshh…out of what?” “Let’s eat,” the guide said.
The pie tasted of banana and citrus and forgotten summers. I got greedy. “Let’s fetch more. Make oodles of pies,” I suggested. “No. I only take what is necessary. Never the first. Never the last.” I licked my lips, clutching onto that fleeting flavor. “Well. I’ll never forget this dish. Thank you.” “You should also thank the garden.” I felt foolish standing before the vegetation. But, “thank you for your gifts,” I said aloud to the plants. “I wish I knew as much about what to pick and how to make it delicious as you do.” The guide cupped my hands and placed a few sod clumps in them. “Start by tending these.”
I mothered my fledgling cotyledons, reevaluating my commodification of food systems, public terrains, and ancestral knowledge. The buds, they were so fragile…and my appetites so substantial. How would I manage to steward these comestibles? How would I learn to share them? How could I walk the woods again in intimacy with lichen, berry, and prickly vine now the wolf in my stomach had learned to drool for them?
Foraging is one of the oldest traditions, kept alive by oral transference. Regulations in many areas deny indigenous, migrant, and food impoverished communities from learning and practicing their wisdom. I-Collective is working to return food sovereignty to these cultures.
Have you foraged and if so what foods have you gathered and prepared? What foraging guides are available for your area?