A Forager’s Rolodex™

As a use of time and intellect, the forage is rigorous. When hunting for food is going badly, I see myself as one of those early humans whose genes did not persist—a dead ender. I don’t exactly feel grateful that I was born in an era of industrial food production or that I don’t have to learn whether or not urgency would lead to a sharp uptick in skill. But I do see how humanity developed such a love-hate relationship with the natural world, how our senses have developed in a very specific form of problem-solving, and how our leisure and play are still bound up with food.

In the United States, foraging is mostly a voluntary activity. I began as a child, picking blackberries at my great aunt’s farm. Little by little, I added foods to my repertoire: just call me tactile, curious, and hungry. Mulberries one year, chanterelles the next. Before I knew it, I was looking at all plant life as potential food. My husband has taught me (and this list really just skims the surface) that thimbleberries, wintergreen and wood sorrel are excellent trailside snacks, though the last should be taken in small doses as it contains an acid that can interfere with food digestion.

People sometimes purse their lips when they learn that I forage; they say, with something that is supposed to look like envy, “I wish I had time to do that.” This makes me feel like a sloth. And yet I have to wonder, like the author of a recent New York Times blog post, what the best way to spend time truly is. Foraging, in a world wildly out of touch with reality, seems like a good occupation. It reminds me of what people used to know. Trying to figure out when the black trumpets are going to flush this year has sensitized me to rainfall amounts (as full-blown drought has no doubt obsessed my neighbors in southern Wisconsin). I have also started noting the habits of other plant life, as I am always looking for signs that my favorite mushroom is out and the emergence of Indian Pipe seems to herald the arrival of trumpets.

Something Jared Diamond wrote in Guns, Germs, and Steel has stuck with me through the years. In a chapter that challenges stereotypical perceptions of hunter-gatherers, he writes, “The studies [of hunter-gatherers] generally show that such peoples are walking encyclopedias of natural history, with individual names (in their local language) for as many as a thousand or more plant and animal species, and with detailed knowledge of those species’ biological characteristics, distribution, and potential uses.” He goes on to tell a story about foraging with his research subjects in New Guinea, not as a matter of intellectual curiosity but in order to stay alive: after he expressed squeamishness about eating mushrooms they had offered, they “got angry and told me to shut up and listen while they explained some things to me.”

After years of hearing them recite the names of trees and plants, his informants wondered, how could Diamond believe they were ignorant of whether a certain mushroom was poisonous? Diamond’s description of his simple epiphany is touching for it reminds all of us that we sometimes process information in rigid and ridiculous ways. Diamond thought his informants knew only about things it occurred to him to ask them about, things which were obviously limited by the categories Diamond himself (a guy raised in Boston) applied to the world and environment. These “walking encyclopedias” were able to record and preserve information about the natural world in a way almost miraculous to those of us born in industrialized cultures. Perhaps brain studies, like those done on the Buddhist monks, should be done on foragers. My hunch is that similar patterns of brain stimulation would be revealed. Absorption is as absorption does.

But knowledge of the woods, knowledge of when and where certain plants flourish, and how to use them properly, is not miraculous. It is the product of focused effort, memory, analysis, and occasional creative verve. These are all things we peoples of industrialized economies could not see in hunter-gatherers for hundreds of years. What we need paper or electricity to maintain, others have held in their bodies. Like food itself, knowledge of food fuels cultures.

So my hunt for bergamot—a flower with notes of oregano and mint, and which makes a good infusion—may seem like a pretty filigree on a hot summer’s day. And indeed it is. But it is also part of the cataloguing, organizing, and orienting humanity has occupied itself with for ages.