I fell in love with foraging when I moved to the edge of the city, with fields and woods within a few minutes’ walk. Nature walks and learning the names of birds and plants had already changed my relationship to the living world around me; foraging introduced a whole new degree of intimacy, eating of the wilderness to make it part of the substance of my body. I started to experience seasonality directly (things grow when they grow), with the attendant acceptance and relinquishing of control, and also to acquire our ancestors’ instinct for where and when to find plants. There is also the wonder of the landscape changing constantly, of flavours not available in shops, and the relationship to place.
While I’m hoping these foraging notes of mine will encourage others to venture into the woods, this is not an invitation to see all of nature as a free buffet we are entitled to. Please be sure to start with the ethics and practical advice below.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist of Potawatomi heritage, offers precious guidance for respectful foraging in The “Honorable Harvest”: Lessons From an Indigenous Tradition of Giving Thanks (also a TED talk):
The canon of indigenous principles that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest. They are “rules” of sorts that govern our taking, so that the world is as rich for the seventh generation as it is for us.
The Honorable Harvest, a practice both ancient and urgent, applies to every exchange between people and the Earth. Its protocol is not written down, but if it were, it would look something like this:
- Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer.
- Never take the first. Never take the last.
- Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
- Take only what you need and leave some for others.
- Use everything that you take.
- Take only that which is given to you.
- Share it, as the Earth has shared with you.
- Be grateful.
- Reciprocate the gift.
- Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.
To the above points, I would add:
- Err on the side of caution. Only pick plants you can identify with certainty, and let someone experienced teach you how to recognize the trickier ones. This is especially important for mushrooms! It is wise to learn about poisonous plants in your area in addition to edible ones.
- Avoid collecting from the sides of busy roads, industrial areas, near farms that spray pesticides, and other contaminated areas. Small amounts from such places may not be harmful, but the effect of heavy metals and chemicals can be cumulative and show over time.
- Refrain from collecting roots in the wild. Many are edible, of course, but when you collect the roots, you kill the plant, and the wilderness can’t afford this anymore. We have to be content with the renewable parts of a plant.
- What you need to go foraging depends on what you aim to collect. If you’re starting out and just picking what turns up at this stage, keep some paper bags on you (useful for most things) and maybe one small tupperware (for instance for poppy seeds or juicy berries). As you gain experience, you’ll know what you like and how to be prepared. A pair of snips and garden gloves are helpful for certain things..