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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


Wild Foraging for Food and Wisdom

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Environment, foraging, wild plants, edible plants, ecology, hunter-gatherer, invasive species, biodiversity, herbs, Our Schools Our Selves, Keith Goetzman,

Edible wild plants

Learning to find and eat wild plants is a lesson not just in survival but also in ecology, says educator David Kowaleski. In fact, wild foraging creates links to the land and serves as a healthy antidote to “prima donna environmentalism” that keeps us distant and alienated from nature, Kowalewski writes in the Canadian education journal Our Schools/Our Selves.

Kowalewski, who teaches at Alfred University in New York, imparts this lesson to his students from the start, where learning to simply walk in the woods takes on new import:

The first foraging expedition by a class can offer valuable lessons in conservation and biodiversity. Students know, of course, that treading on vegetation causes damage, but how many, including self-styled environmentalists, pay attention to how much and which plants? As herbalists say, “Plants grow by the inch, but die by the foot.” So walking needs to be done with mindfulness.

I teach students first to tread on sidewalks, roads, and bare trails for as long as possible before getting off the beaten path and onto vegetation. Then they learn to walk first on any dead vegetation for as long as possible; then, only on the most abundant live species (say, grasses); and finally, on the least abundant (say, agrimony). To prepare for the walk, they may do a preliminary survey of the area’s botanical diversity, ranking species from most to least abundant. Then they can practice walking on the most abundant, then the next most, and so on. …

Students can also experiment with various kinds of footwear. They are especially surprised at the difference in damage done by soft moccasins and hard boots, thereby gaining respect for hunter-gatherer practices, or what might be called “ethno-ecology.”

I plan the first foraging expedition through a well-trashed area, having each student pick up some garbage on the way. The lessons quickly become clear. First, irresponsible humans are dumping on our food supply. Second, if we are going to take something from the earth, we should give something back—the Aboriginal principle of reciprocity (or “circular reasoning.”

Kowalewski encourages his students not to overcollect, to favor collection of aggressive and even invasive species (“If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.”), and to avoid collecting in polluted or protected areas. He keeps returning to traditional hunter-gatherer knowledge, which he suggests his newbie foragers are literally hungry for: “Students can learn … the most about nature by actively using it for basic needs in a respectful way. In doing so, students quickly develop ‘an attitude of gratitude’ and identify with nature and the land in the deepest way possible—they physically assimilate it.”

Source: Our Schools/Our Selves

Image by KuniakilGARASHI, licensed under Creative Commons.

7leagueboots
9/24/2010 5:31:57 PM

Nice, I grew up collecting wild foods and still do. The amount of edibles available for one who looks is astounding, especially to those who have not learned to look. thom_brown - while it is true that there are always new species coming into an area, it is most definitely not true that what is happening now is jut our perception in a particular time. The rate of introduction of non-native species, has ramped up tremendously in recent times, and show no sign of slowing. This is often referred to as The Colombian Exchange. This is worst in California, Florida, and Hawaii, but no state is free of this issue.


thom browne_1
3/2/2010 1:09:25 PM

Over emphasis on invasive species,this is happening in nature evermore it is just our perception in a particular time.Less of a class room atmosphere and more of the wonders of nature, please, your are dealing with young minds and they get enough of adults fears, so wonder and delight is the order of the day.I appreciate the reference to contaminating of the nature, all plants have their part to play, erosion by traffic is appreciated but the danger is you will have children,who will be reticent of adventuring into wider environment.Thank You