Posts Tagged ‘foraging’

Suburban foraging in social context – original contribution to ‘Playing For Time’

May 3, 2015

Here’s a photo I took two years ago:

Optimized-DSCN1811

Have a close look for a moment, click on it to get a bigger version if you like. Do you see something strange?

No? How about in this one, zooming a little closer in on what originally caught my eye:

Optimized-DSCN1815

Give up? Well, here it is center-stage in all its majesty:

Optimized-DSCN1813

A three-leaved nettle! Usually the leaves go up in alternate pairs on opposite sides of the square stalk, and looking at them from above gives the impression of four-sidedness, as you can see from the other specimens pictured above. However, this one particular nettle (and another sibling I later found not too far away) had leaves going up in groups of three, but also alternating so that leaves from the higher stage fit ‘in between’ those beneath, thus maximising the sunlight exposure for the whole plant.

Pretty cool, no? And I never would have noticed if I hadn’t been foraging from the patch to use the nettles in teas and cooked up in various stews and dishes. It really illustrates what Becky Lerner has called the ‘super power’ of the forager’s eye, when you begin to look really closely at your surroundings and start noticing all manner of things that remain invisible to most people. Little clues that lead to long stories – histories really – of what has happened in that particular place and how it connects to hundreds, maybe thousands of factors which make it totally unique and inform its interconnected relationship to all adjoining spaces, as well as the beings that pass through them (including you!) This particular history could almost have been evolutionary. Was I witnessing the chance mutation that could lead to a whole new subspecies of nettle, or even fundamentally alter the basic structure of the existing species, if it proved more adaptable in the long term? Call me a plant geek, but I think that’s pretty amazing.

So, with that preamble out the way, here’s something I wrote the following year for inclusion in a book that’s just been published called Playing For Time. I wanted to put the original piece up here because there’s a lot that got trimmed off for the final edit (although more went in than I expected, after the editor Charlotte Du Cann told me she and author Lucy Neal just wanted to use my burdock photo and some text as an ‘extended caption’ – so I’m not complaining!) and the overall tone came across as breathless and ‘inspirational’ rather than my usual measured, realism-infused style. Reading back over it, I see there were quite a few important points there which I want to start making more often about the social context in which activities like foraging and herbalism take place, and how these might eventually coalesce into a political movement of some kind to challenge the absurd and highly damaging ways of accessing food and medicine which have been forced upon us by the status quo and the state-corporate and proprietary powers that benefit from its ruinous continuation. Anyway, here it is (with permission):

*****

It’s been around eight years now since I started to take an active interest in wild plants and foraging. Nearly two years out of uni, living back in the old home with my parents, having quit my job in retail just after Christmas, I needed something to get me outside – out of the house and out of my overactive head. Foraging was an obvious choice because a) it wouldn’t cost any money, b) it fit with my greeny/lefty politics of sustainability and DIY self-sufficiency (which I had spent about as much time and effort developing over the course of three years as I had done studying for my degree), c) after too much time in cities it sent me back into comparatively wild places – an appreciation of which my parents had successfully nurtured during my childhood, and d) – something they definitely never encouraged – it allowed me to at least pretend that I could say ‘fuck you’ to the working world, be economically invisible, have no need to rely on capitalist modes of production, basically do a Tolstoy and choose simple menial work instead of having my intellect harnessed to the project of destroying the world. I never pushed towards these goals with 100 per cent dedication but early successes, especially with potential staples like Burdock root, acorns and hazelnuts, gave me a feeling of security with the knowledge that I could go a long way in that direction if I, personally, chose to.

Other experiences with the medicinal side of things gave me a further sense of power and control over my own life: if something went wrong I didn’t necessarily have to go straight to a medical professional to be supplied with synthetic drugs or put through complex, machine-based treatments. Instead, I could look up my symptoms, read or ask trusted people which herbs were considered suitable in treating them (or in holistic terms, suitable for supporting the body’s own attempt to heal itself), go out to harvest them and see if I could successfully treat myself. My surefire remedies so far include Bramble root tincture for diarrhea, Elderflower and Yarrow tea for colds and ‘flu, and St. John’s Wort oil for all kinds of muscular aches and pains. Again, I’m not saying that I would never go to my GP, even for something very serious, just that it was a nice feeling knowing that I had a different option available to me, and that it would grow in strength and capability if I continued to use it and learn from the experiences over time.

So far so good on the personal level, but lately I’ve had the persistent feeling that more is needed to release the true potential or promise of foraging as a social, even cultural activity. So far the mainstream awakening towards wild foods and medicines rather fits Dmitry Orlov’s assertion that ‘resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies’ – people with the privilege of time and independent means (eg: a family who are willing to support you and provide a roof over your head while you ‘find yourself’) to dabble with these things and maybe come up with a few successful dishes using wild ingredients which will get made more than once. This is a world away from what foraging meant, and continues to mean, to the world’s indigenous people and even our own recent peasant-farmer ancestors (wild herbs such as Nettle, Sorrel and Alexanders often went into the daily stew or ‘potage’ sustaining medieval agricultural labourers). They have a history of close association with these plants and a knowledge of how to use them passed down through the generations. Even their spiritual traditions pay homage to them, with songs being sung to encourage fruitfulness and to give thanks to the spirits for their generosity. An example of this surviving in Britain is the ‘wassail‘ tradition in which apple trees are implored to bear a good harvest:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Organised wild food walks share knowledge and create bonds between people in such a way as to foster the growth of this kind of culture, but somehow paying for access to this knowledge has always felt wrong to me (which is why I’ve only led a few myself on a free/donation basis), and there’s the danger of playing to the crowd willing to pay the most, ie: wealthy hobbyists from the city looking for a stimulating day out. A less leader-oriented ‘skillshare’ type event would seem more promising for nurturing the revolutionaries we so desperately need to reshape our whole attitude and relationship to the other-than-human world. This would not exclude the people who could benefit most from supplementing their diets with nutritious wild edibles and health-giving medicinal plants, all available for the simple energy costs of gathering and processing and often not so very far from their own front doors.

These days foraging is less something I actively set out to do so much as something that happens almost incidentally as I go about my day-to-day business. It helps that I work outdoors as a gardener, where I often experience the pleasure of being paid to harvest my own food (aka ‘weeding’ or ‘raking up debris’). But I have a little section of bridleway which go through twice a day on my commute. Usually I manage to allow five minutes or so to get off my bike and bag up a few things or even graze on them directly – Cleavers, Nettles (you can eat them raw with the right technique!), Cuckooflower, young Bramble shoots, Hawthorn and Rose leaves early in the season; haws, rosehips, blackberries, elderberries, acorns in the Autumn months… It’s amazing how much you can get from so little time, and it makes for a nice settling ritual to start and finish the day. I see all the seasonal changes, watch all kinds of wildlife, and observe the plants through their yearly cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Last Spring I noticed a nettle with leaves going up the stalk in groups of three rather than the standard alternating pair. It totally made my day, and I made sure to seek it out regularly and check on its mutant progress for the rest of the year, speaking reassuring words to hopefully aid its brave experiment.

*****

I do recommend the book, which I’ve been working through in brief sittings after receiving my copy at the launch up in London (thanks Lucy, a really pleasant evening). There’s loads of beautiful things in there, both described and photographed with essays from activists and writers, explanations from artists and reports from community organisers, mostly under the Transition Town umbrella. Charlotte Du Cann wrote a nice piece about it here, and her blog is well worth checking out too, if you click around from that link.

And the nettle? Well, it didn’t make an appearance last year, but just look who I found poking her head out the other day in near exactly the same spot:

Optimized-DSCN2131

You little beauty!

Advertisements

Springtime Stingers

April 11, 2015

Sorry, been getting away from immediate realities here lately (haha, says he typing letters into a lit up plastic box). To get us back on solid ground I’ll tell you that I’ve been watching the nettles come back up along my favourite bridleway as I walk past with my bike on the morning commute, and again later in the day going in the opposite direction. A few weeks back I remembered to bring my camera – here are some pics of the little blighters, now much bigger, emerging from under last year’s brittle, dead stems:

Optimized-DSCN2109

Optimized-DSCN2112

My favourite verse from the Tao Te Ching:

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.

(verse 76, trans. Stephen Mitchell)

How long have you been living in last year’s hollow, dried out stems? Isn’t it time you took your energy out of them and put it into the new growth instead? I’ve made two harvests already so far, taking a glove from my bag for the left hand and a penknife for the right, then holding a nettle top and snicking it off before dropping it into a plastic bag. Mostly I’ve been drinking them in morning infusions – four or five tops get taken out of the fridge, put in the teapot and covered with about 0.5l of just-boiled water, then being left to steep for 5mins or so before drinking. Here’s a bigger pot I made for H and me:

Optimized-DSCN2097

You have not drunk nettle tea until you have drunk fresh nettle tea. It’s a completely different beast from the dried form, which I find always has something of the damp sock about it. You get delicious aromas coming off it, a much brighter colour and an incredibly lively *zing* as it touches the tongue and goes down the back of the throat. I probably needn’t say anything about the astonishing array of beneficial macro- and micro-nutrients which I’m guessing are likewise more potent in the fresh herb. When you’ve drained the pot reach in with your fingers and eat the gloopy mass of nettle that remains. They’re damn tasty and won’t sting you after being submerged in hot water for any length of time.

I also made a harvest of nettle roots from a big weeding job last month which I scrubbed and chopped up to make a tincture with 40% vodka (the strongest I could find in the supermarket):

Optimized-DSCN2114

Optimized-DSCN2115

The original idea was to use it to help lessen some swelling I’ve been getting ‘down there’, most likely from all the cycling I’ve been doing to and from work (around 50 miles per week), as I’d heard that nettle root has proven virtues in the treatment of benign prostate hyperplasia and other prostate issues*. However, after further research and consultation with my GP it now seems more likely that the issue is with the perineum on the exterior, the swelling due to constant contact and pummeling by the bike saddle (ouch!). Changing to a harder saddle with a deep groove down the middle seems to have just about solved the problem by shifting the pressure away from the central areas and out to the sitting bones, although I still get the occasional uncomfortable day. I don’t know if using this tincture as a general ‘tonic’ for that area will help get things back to normal or not, but it can’t hurt to try… At least I’ve not heard of any negative side effects and there appear to be other benefits as well. Otherwise, I know some older gents who suffer from BPH, so I’ll be offering them some when it’s ready in another month or so.

Anyway, I heartily recommend you get acquainted with nettle, the more intimately the better – and what could be more intimate than daily use as food and/or medicine? Here’s another Frank Cook video I’ve linked to before in which he suggests that English people should consider adopting nettle as a ‘national food’:

[0:27] [T]he rest of the world of people who know nettles consider it an amazing healing herb, and it’s only here and other places in Europe that it’s considered a noxious weed. And it’s really important: any noxious weed you have around you is rare somewhere, and that’s really important to remember – and that, instead of thinking of it as a noxious weed, think of it as an incredibly abundant friend who’s trying to remind you of something.

——————

* – here’s a summary of scientific evaluations

RIP Ambrósio Vilhalva

December 12, 2013

Via Vanessa and the excellent Survival International some shocking news and a reminder that, for some, counterrevolutionary activity is serious business – not a luxury or middle-class hobby* but a way of life and, ultimately, a necessity for survival. When your culture hasn’t been fully metabolised into the global monoculture this also makes it very dangerous (though arguably not as dangerous as the loss that would come from lying down and giving up your whole identity):

Guarani Indian leader and film-star Ambrósio Vilhalva was murdered on Sunday night, after decades of campaigning for his tribe’s right to live on their ancestral land.

Ambrósio was reportedly stabbed at the entrance to his community, known as Guyra Roká, in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state. He was found dead in his hut, with multiple knife wounds. He had been repeatedly threatened in recent months. (link)

I remember being impressed by his performance in the film ‘Birdwatchers‘ which poignantly depicts the struggle of one band of Guarani people to reclaim their ancestral land from a sugarcane rancher. For some reason this made his killing more incomprehensible, more appalling to me. Surely having gained some success and international recognition as an actor would offer some protection against this kind of fate? Apparently not enough to put off those who wanted to crush his personal resistance, as well as the wider refusal of his culture to give in to the encroachments of civilisation:

In the last 500 years virtually all the Guarani’s land in Mato Grosso do Sul state has been taken from them.

Waves of deforestation have converted the once-fertile Guarani homeland into a vast network of cattle ranches, and sugar cane plantations for Brazil’s biofuels market.

Many of the Guarani were herded into small reservations, which are now chronically overcrowded. In the Dourados reserve, for example, 12,000 Indians are living on little more than 3,000 hectares.

The destruction of the forest has meant that hunting and fishing are no longer possible, and there is barely enough land even to plant crops. (link)

(Yes, they derive some of their subsistence from agriculture – at the time of first contact with Europeans ‘they were sedentary and agricultural, subsisting largely on manioc, maize, wild game, and honey’ according to Wikipedia. So this isn’t a ‘pure’ agricultural counterrevolution – actually I doubt there ever was one as I think practically all human peoples ever encountered have practiced some form of cultivation – but I’m guessing vast field monocrops and total deforestation would be entirely alien to them all the same.)

Vilhava is not the first Guarani Indian to be murdered in these circumstances. From SI’s page again we hear of a story strikingly similar to the plotline of ‘Birdwatchers’:

The killing of Guarani leader Marcos Veron in 2003 was a tragic but all too typical example of the violence that his people are subject to.

Mr Veron, aged around 70, was the leader of the Guarani-Kaiowá community 
of Takuára. For fifty years his people had been trying to recover a small piece of their ancestral land, after it was seized by a wealthy Brazilian and turned into a vast cattle ranch. Most of the forest that once covered the area had since been cleared.

In April 1997, desperate after years of lobbying the government in vain, Marcos led his community back onto the ranch. They began to rebuild their houses, and could plant their own crops again.

But the rancher who had occupied the area went to court, and a judge ordered the Indians out.

In October 2001, more than one hundred heavily armed police and soldiers forced the Indians to leave their land once more. They eventually ended up living under plastic sheets by the side of a highway.

While still in Takuára, Marcos said, ‘This here is my life, my soul. If 
you take me away from this land, you take my life.’

His words came 
prophetically and tragically true early in 2003, when, during another attempt to return peacefully to his land, he was viciously beaten by employees of the rancher. He died a few hours later.

What do these happenings tell us about the stirrings of counterrevolutionary thought and action in the modern centers of Empire, where traditional peoples were overrun centuries, millennia ago? Should I be worried about the local rapeseed farmer killing me in my sleep because I harvest acorns, nettles and hawthorn berries from around ‘his’ land? Probably not, so long as my foraging remains mostly a solitary endeavour merely supplementing my main subsistence which comes via the wage economy and the global food supply systems. Also I should be ‘safe’ while I don’t challenge the unjust pattern of land ownership in this country† – ie: stick to quietly paying rent for my small flat and be thankful I get a tiny garden, a half-size allotment to play with, and a few parcels of common land to forage in (with whatever’s left of my spare time after I’m done earning enough money to pay all the bills) while those who have claimed ownership of the vast tracts of land continue to wreck them with impunity and thereby cement their fortunes and positions in the hierarchy. If I were to set up camp with a tribe of like-minded types keen to attempt to recreate a full-time foraging subsistence culture I would soon run into a whole series of challenges and obstacles thrown up by the land-owners with the full weight of the law behind them. It would be a struggle similar to that facing the Diggers 2012, who, against the odds, appear to still be holding on to their spot near Runnymede.

Hounded by police and bailiffs, evicted wherever they stopped, they did not mean to settle here. They had walked out of London to occupy disused farmland on the Queen’s estates surrounding Windsor Castle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn’t work out very well. But after several days of pursuit, they landed two fields away from the place where modern democracy is commonly supposed to have been born.

At first this group of mostly young, dispossessed people, who (after the 17th century revolutionaries) call themselves Diggers 2012(1), camped on the old rugby pitch of Brunel University’s Runnymede campus. It’s a weed-choked complex of grand old buildings and modern halls of residence, whose mildewed curtains flap in the wind behind open windows, all mysteriously abandoned as if struck by a plague or a neutron bomb. The diggers were evicted again, and moved down the hill into the woods behind the campus: pressed, as if by the ineluctable force of history, ever closer to the symbolic spot. From the meeting house they have built and their cluster of tents, you can see across the meadows to where the Magna Carta was sealed almost 800 years ago.

Their aim is simple: to remove themselves from the corporate economy, to house themselves, grow food and build a community on abandoned land. (George Monbiot, ‘The Promised Land‘)

It has been said that those who resist effectively will face the full repressive power of the state. Can I call my small scale foraging subversive if the worst I’ve suffered as a result was a few cases of people telling me I was ‘trespassing’ and implying they would call the police if I didn’t go away? Perhaps the powers-that-be just don’t recognise it for the existential threat it truly poses?? Or maybe it’s a sign that I’m not doin’ it right… I’m certainly not in the position right now where I could say and truly mean the words of Marcos Veron: ‘This here is my life, my soul. If 
you take me away from this land, you take my life.’ I would be sad if forced to leave this place where I grew up and learned so many things about the nonhuman world, but I know it wouldn’t kill me. I’m in the same position as the farmer in Birdwatchers who has the nerve to lay claim to the Indian’s ancestral land on the basis of a three generation occupation, a statement which Vilhava’s character and his supporting cast treat with appropriate contempt and a powerful gesture indicating their indivisibility from the land (see video below).

The Indians portrayed in the film appear to have a longstanding connection to the specific area of land they are attempting to reclaim but it seems that there is a tradition among the Guarani people as a whole of searching far and wide for what they call ‘a land without evil’:

For as long as they can remember, the Guarani have been searching – searching for a place revealed to them by their ancestors where people live free from pain and suffering, which they call ‘the land without evil’.

Over hundreds of years, the Guarani have travelled vast distances in search of this land.

One 16th century chronicler noted their ‘constant desire to seek new lands, in which they imagine they will find immortality and perpetual ease’.

This permanent quest is indicative of the unique character of the Guarani, a ‘difference’ about them which has often been noted by outsiders. (SI ibid.)

How much this stems from the brutality, enslavement and genocide meted out to them by European colonialists since first contact in 1537 isn’t clear but it brings their struggle a little closer to the experience of colonised people in the West, particularly those among us who are attempting to decolonise our minds, souls, our whole existence. Orphaned and homeless, we don’t have strong ties to anywhere. Rootless, but only until we find a new place to settle down, as the Runnymede Diggers appear to have done. For now. I wouldn’t call it a privilege – in fact I understand many indigenous, place-based people have found the thought of living like that unbearably sad, if not inconceivable – but it does offer some flexibility and the possibility of preserving life, albeit in an impoverished, insecure way, until conditions become more favourable. Like the ‘resurrection plant‘ of the Sahara desert which blows about in the winds apparently dead for decades, even centuries until it finds water and finally drops its seeds.

So rest in peace Ambrósio Vilhalva. Meanwhile the struggle continues for the Guarani. Follow the links on the SI pages to see how you can offer your support, but as the Zapatistas said perhaps the best support would be to follow their example in your own country.

***UPDATE 13/12/13***

I missed this obituary which shows that Vilhava was basically acting out scenes from his own life:

Ambrósio’s life typified that of so many Guarani. His community, Guyra Roka or ‘Place of the Bird’, was expelled from their tekoha (ancestral land) in the 1940s and 50s by ranchers and farmers, and dumped in a tiny reserve already overcrowded with hundreds of other Guarani refugees. Violence, suicide and malnutrition were soon rife.

[…]

Like many, Ambrósio and his community dreamed of returning to their tekoha. In 2000, led by Ambrósio and his father Papito (the rezador or religious leader) the community moved out of the reserve to camp on a roadside near their land, now cleared, fenced off and filled with endless fields of sugar cane. Life here was grim too – their rickety tarpaulin shelters were permanently enveloped in clouds of dust from the trucks thundering past day and night. Children were malnourished, and adults were forced to seek work on the ranches occupying their land.

Tired of waiting for the government to take action, Ambrósio and Papito led three attempts to reoccupy their land, finally succeeding in 2004. Avoiding the ranchers’ pistoleiros, the community settled on a tiny piece of land where they planted crops amidst the sugar cane. Largely thanks to Ambrósio’s tireless and passionate advocacy, the Minster of Justice finally recognized Guyra Roka as Guarani land in 2009. But it was a victory in name only – the landowners vowed not to move, and occupy the area to this day. The largest and most powerful is Zé Teixeira, a state congressman.

Ambrósio was catapulted into international stardom in 2008 when he played the lead role in Birdwatchers, an award-winning feature film that highlighted the bitter conflict between the ranchers and the Guarani. With his love of language and powerful, brooding presence, Ambrósio was a natural. The film’s director later said he tore up the script and let the Guarani speak their parts as they saw fit.

Read more about the Diggers 2012 and their 1649 forebears in this superb article by historian Dr. John Gurney. Sample paragraph:

It was in April 1649 that the Diggers, inspired by the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied waste land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. For Winstanley, the earth had been corrupted by covetousness and the rise of private property, and the time was ripe for it to become once more a ‘common treasury for all’. Change was to be brought about by the poor working the land in common and refusing to work for hire. The common people had ‘by their labours … lifted up their landlords and others to rule in tyranny and oppression over them’, and, Winstanley insisted, ‘so long as such are rulers as calls the land theirs … the common people shall never have their liberty; nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings’. The earth was made ‘to preserve all her children’, and not to ‘preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful land’ – everyone should be able to ‘live upon the increase of the earth comfortably’. Soon all people – rich as well as poor – would, Winstanley hoped, be persuaded to throw in their lot with the Diggers and work to create a new, and better society. To Winstanley, agency was key, for ‘action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.

—————————–

* – h/t Dmitry Orlov: ‘resilience and sustainability are often little more than middle-class hobbies, while the overwhelming trend throughout the world is toward a different kind of steady state, one characterized by something called durable disorder

† – those figures again: ‘70% of land is still owned by less than 1% of the population’, and ‘nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population’