Wild Foraging for Food and Wisdom

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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.

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