Tuesday, September 4, 2012


According to the dictionary, foraging can be defined as: " The act of looking or searching for food or provisions".  Although humans have developed methods of producing food and provisions for more and more people, it remains as true today as ever that all our food and provisions ultimately come from nature.  It is also true that there are many kinds of foods and provisions potentially available in nature that we do not fully appreciate or utilize.  The problems of feeding, clothing, and sheltering humanity has not and will not ever disappear as long as there are people; the search for food and provisions is ongoing.  It is good to remember that nature is providing all the materials for our foods and clothes, energy and everything. 

I believe that foraging in its most basic sense remains a good idea that has great potential to enrich our lives here on this planet.  My own interest and experience in foraging has evolved gradually.  I would like to share the story of how I came to be interested in foraging and what I think are some of the benefits I notice in my life today that are related to having taken this interest in foraging. 

Being outdoors and spending time in beautiful natural environments has a beneficial influence on people.  My parents did me and my brother a favor by regularly taking us out into the woods when we were growing up.  However, the wonders and complexities of nature can be completely invisible when people lack the interest to observe them.

When I was younger I had a much more limited interest in my surroundings than I do now.  While hiking, I would often rush along, hitting things with sticks, thinking and talking about irrelevant things like computer games, being without any interest whatsoever in learning to distinguish between one kind plant and another.  But there was one thing that I was always on the lookout for during our hikes, and that was the skeletal remains of any animals, particularly skulls, and especially fanged skulls.  Eventually I had quite a collection of different bones.  This initial interest in collecting bones was a seed that later grew into a broader interest in nature.

My foraging career began in earnest when I learned to enjoy eating wild mushrooms.  My parents had always collected and cooked several varieties of wild mushrooms such as chanterelles, but it took me a long time to come around to liking such things.  Eventually though, I decided that these wild mushrooms were not only edible, but positively delicious.  Even before I was interested in eating them, I loved to look at the photographs of mushrooms in our copy of the classic field guide Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora.  Now that I had motivation to learn about mushrooms, I started to actually read and use that guidebook.  I began to actively search all over the woods for mushrooms and systematically identify anything I did not know the name of.         

My main goal was to find new edible mushrooms, but in order to identify each unfamiliar specimen I had to observe its individual characteristics closely.  Inevitably, I learned about all different kinds of fungi that inhabit the woods I hike, the categories to which they belong, and where and when they tend to appear every year.  In order to expand my knowledge of the edible species, I had to learn more about mushrooms in general, including the non-edible and poisonous varieties.

A word of warning concerning poisoning.  There are indeed many edible plants and mushrooms growing all over the place, but there are also a few plants and mushrooms that could kill you if you so much as tasted them.  As a forager, it is imperative to learn to recognize poisonous plants and mushrooms.  There is no need to be overly fearful of being poisoned, but in order to forage safely, you cannot just start nibbling on everything you see.  Right from the start the forager must develop the habit of tasting things only after being fairly certain of what they are and after being absolutely certain that they are not deadly poisonous.  The best way to avoid being poisoned is to simply learn, without any thought of eating, about both the edible and poisonous plants and mushrooms until you can reliably tell the difference, and THEN collect the good ones you recognize to eat.  When trying any new edible mushroom or plant for the first time, eat it in small quantity to make sure it agrees with you.  People react to foods and medicines differently.  Even if a given food is edible for most people, some individuals may have adverse reactions due to their particular constitutions. 

Understandably, my parents were initially wary about eating these unfamiliar varieties of mushrooms I would collect, but eventually, when they had been sufficiently convinced that I was correct in my identification of an edible species, they would try it.  I have my parents to thank for introducing me to wild mushrooms, and they have me to thank for expanding the number of edible varieties that we now recognize and collect.

Not only did I learn about which mushrooms were edible, inedible, or poisonous, I learned about other uses of mushrooms that I had not suspected.  For instance, there are mushrooms that have been used for tinder and as an insulating material in which a burning coal can be kept alive and carried around.  There are some that have been used as a source of dye for fabrics.  I was very interested to learn that some mushrooms I often encountered, such as Reishi and Turkey Tail, have beneficial medicinal qualities.  This discovery that wild mushrooms could be useful in surprising ways was another step in a transformation in the way in which I looked at nature. 

Several years after my mushroom hunting renaissance, I decided that I couldn't go on being completely ignorant about all the wild plants surrounding me.  I got out out Newcomb's guide to wildflowers and just tried to identify any plant that caught my eye.  I remember an incident during this period when, using my guidebook, I learned to identify the plant Dogbane, which I had previously been confusing with another plant called Milkweed.  I had a vague familiarity with Milkweed and had never heard of Dogbane.  The two plants looked quite similar to my untrained eye and both exuded a white milky sap when broken.  I had guessed that this plant I was seeing was some variety of Milkweed.  But as I scrutinized the plant's characteristics with the help of my guidebook, I was able to compare it to the Milkweeds and see that it actually was a Dogbane plant.  There really are obvious differences in their appearances, but before I made an effort to seriously examine each of them, I could not tell them apart.  Today I would never confuse them for an instant, even at a distance.

A person who is a really knowledgeable naturalist sees a very different landscape than someone who cannot identify anything.  Once you really internalize the characteristics of a plant, a mushroom, a skull, a stone, a bird, or a certain kind of anything, and you really know what it looks like, you will be able to discern that object at a glace, anywhere.  It is not uncommon for me to be walking, riding a bike, or even driving along when I suddenly see some edible mushrooms out of the corner of my eye, even though they may be off in the distance or partially obstructed.  When you are tuned into something, it will just jump out at you.  And if you know something about a subject's role in the ecosystem and whether it has any particular uses for humans, that makes looking around all the more interesting. 

The motivation of finding edible mushrooms led me to discover that mushrooms and plants potentially have many interesting uses.  I was then not content to simply learn the names of things, but started to use my identification guide as a jumping off point to learn about the possible uses of wild plants.  The internet is a great resource for both learning to identify things and learning about their uses.  There are many knowledgeable foragers and naturalists who maintain excellent blogs and websites.  There is also a wealth of photography available on the internet that can be very helpful in learning to recognize the characteristics of anything you want to be able to identify. 

I was a little disappointed to read in the guidebook that this was an inedible, poisonous plant.  But I was still curious, hoping that the plant had some other use.  Most guidebooks do not give much information on the uses of plants, so I headed to the internet to find out more.  I was surprised to learn that Dogbane (which is apparently poisonous to dogs) turns out to be a very good source of plant fiber.  I read that the Native Americans used the long fibers found in the stem of this plant to make exceptionally strong cordage and thread, from which they crafted an amazing variety of useful things.  Then I went to Youtube, and sure enough there were many videos demonstrating how to collect fiber from Dogbane and twist it into cordage.  I actually tried this out myself, and although I never put in the time to master this skill,  I was able to learn to make some basic cordage and see for myself the impressive strength and potential of Dogbane fiber.

If I had not looked Dogbane up on the internet, then probably today I would have less respect for this inedible, poisonous plant that looked to me like a shabby Milkweed.  There is truly a multitude of plants, mushrooms, and other substances in nature that have potential uses and benefits that are largely unknown to us today.  But even if a plant has no particular use for humans, that does not mean it is useless.  It is probably useful to other lifeforms who in various ways benefit other lifeforms, and so on.  Thus, indirectly it benefits humans.  If I had not learned about how Native Americans were so skillfully able to utilize the Dogbane plant, I would have thought it was useless and called it a weed.  The more we know about nature, the more we see that there is nothing there that is really useless.

The ancient Native Americans knew a great deal about how to use what they found in nature and they were much more able to live harmoniously with nature than we are today.  We have gone very far away from having simple lives close to nature.  I believe that foraging, to practice which increases our knowledge and appreciation of nature, can be a way to help us get a little more in touch with nature in this modern time of alienation. 

A few more tips about foraging:

You should not harvest plants or mushrooms to eat from places that are very polluted, as they are likely to have absorbed harmful chemicals.  Examples of such places are: the sides of busy roads, drainage ditches or places that obviously collect polluted water, manicured lawns or any such places routinely sprayed with chemicals. 

Another important issue that should be addressed is over-harvesting.  A lot of things that can be foraged are abundant, but if people take all of them without replacing them or allowing them sufficient time and numbers to reproduce themselves, they will become rare and maybe even disappear altogether.  Some relatively recent examples are Ginseng and Goldenseal.  These two very useful medicinal plants used to be common here in West Virginia, but they are rare now because people irresponsibly over-harvested them to make money.  Don't be greedy, and don't harvest things that are already rare.

To give another example, Ramps are a very popular wild edible here in West Virginia and some other eastern states.  Every year there are Ramp festivals in early spring, when the Ramps appear.  Lately, Ramps have gained in popularity at fancy restaurants around that nation.  There is only one Ramp farm I know of in West Virginia.  Most of the ones that are sold are taken from the wild, without much of an eye to making sure that Ramps are not depleted.  A fact that I only recently learned about that most people probably don't know is that it takes five years for a Ramp plant to grow to maturity, but every year people dig them up in large quantities.  It is possible to just harvest the leaves of the Ramp plant, and then the plant can come back the next year from the bulb.  Now that I know how long it takes for a Ramp to grow, that is how I prefer to harvest them.  But people usually dig up the bulb, because it is considered the best part, and because they don't give much thought to the possibility of over-harvesting.  Every Ramp forager thinks his own harvesting won't make a difference, but it will matter if each year the Ramps are being harvested faster than they are growing back.

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