Although I don’t remember if it was in a history or a geography class, or perhaps both, I do distinctly recall learning in school that societies changed from hunter-gatherer societies, to agrarian societies, to (in some cases) industrial and post-industrial societies. However, in recent years gathering seems to have made a come-back under names such as “foraging” and “wildcrafting.”
News media have reported on foraging as an epicurean or “foodie” trend. Perhaps inspired by culinary heavyweights such as René Redzepi, founder of the Danish restaurant Noma1, professional chefs and home cooks alike have been venturing out into their rural and urban environments for ingredients.2 I started foraging last year, both in my own back yard, and elsewhere on Salt Spring Island.
One of my inspirations was Rachel Jepson Wolf’s book Herbal Adventures, which led me to discover, for instance, that one of the annoying weeds in my rhubarb bed was chickweed, which makes for a tasty salad green. Since then, I have foraged for miner’s lettuce (edible weed) and fir tips (for tea) in my own yard, and harvested maple blossoms (for a quick pickle), nettles (for tea), and rosehips (for syrup) while on walks elsewhere on the island.
Some have sounded the alarm about new foragers harvesting too much.3 Especially those who were not raised with careful foraging may not be mindful of the need to leave plenty in the ecosystem. However, in moderation, foraging can be a great way to learn about the ecosystems in which we live. My desire for some nettles, for instance, has made me pay closer attention to where they grow, and thus to where small streams are that I may not have noticed before. My desire for maple blossoms has made me more attentive to the changing of the seasons, as there is only a short time in spring that the blossoms are good for picking.
I am aware that, at the moment, I am not foraging for food out of necessity. Alan Pierce has written an interesting PhD dissertation in Environmental Studies, in which he used Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of different forms of capital to analyze the different reasons people had for foraging in Vermont.4 I quote from his abstract:
Interviewees from agrarian backgrounds primarily learned their gathering skills from friends or relatives, rarely used scientific names of plants or fungi, often equated gathering with work, and tended to view gathered products as economic capital. By contrast, interviewees from suburban and urban backgrounds mostly learned their gathering skills through classes or books, exhibited greater familiarity with scientific names of species, saw gathering as a leisure activity, and were more apt to use gathered products as social and symbolic capital.
At the moment, I fall squarely into his “gathering as leisure activity” category, having been raised in a small city with no agrarian background whatsoever. However, in addition to my home-made rosehip syrup being “Instagrammable”—a clear example of symbolic capital—I am genuinely learning more about, and feeling more connected to, the place where I live by looking out for edible plants. As Melissa Poe, Joyce LeCompte, Rebecca McLain and Patrick Hurley put it, foraging can be seen “as a communicative project not only between different groups of people, but also between people and more-than-human nature.”5
- Jason Tesauro, “One of the World’s Most Famous Chefs Wants to Help you Forage for Your Food,” Washington Post, June 29, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/one-of-the-worlds-most-famous-chefs-wants-to-help-you-forage-for-your-food/2017/06/29/b59a1d34-5ceb-11e7-9fc6-c7ef4bc58d13_story.html
- Elizabeth Chorney-Both, “Growing Foraging Trend Sees Local Chefs Living Off the Land,” Calgary Herald, July 13, 2019, https://calgaryherald.com/life/food/chorney-booth-growing-foraging-trend-sees-local-chefs-living-off-the-land/
- Verena Kulak, “The New Call of the Wild: Foraging for Food May Threaten Ontario’s Carolinian Forest,” The Record, April 5, 2019, https://www.therecord.com/opinion/columnists/2019/04/05/the-new-call-of-the-wild-foraging-for-food-may-threaten-ontario-s-carolinian-forest.html
- Alan Robert Pierce, The Distance from Necessity: A Bourdieusian Analysis of Gathering Practices in Vermont, Antioch University (2014), https://aura.antioch.edu/etds/73/
- Melissa R. Poe, Joyce LeCompte, Rebecca McLain and Patrick Hurley, “Urban Foraging and the Relational Ecologies of Belonging,” Social & Cultural Geography 15, no. 8 (2014): 915, https://doi.org/10.1080/14649365.2014.908232