Four Things That Happen When Getting Intimate with Wild Plants
Four things that might just happen...
1. You will embrace your inner barbarian
We have this theory in our heads, it's a very pervasive theory, and yet it is still a theory open to disproval. It goes like this: when our long-ago ancestors discovered agriculture it spelled the end for their nomadic existence which paled in comparison to this newfound and ingenious way of living. This of course is true in some cases, but not all. It is time to embrace the counter-narrative; 'we have no warrant at all for supposing that the sedentary "givens" of modern life can be read back into human history as a universal aspiration' (James C. Scott, Against the Grain, 2017). Archaeological evidence is increasingly showing that our earlier assumptions about the progress of civilised society was in fact not as straightforward as we once supposed. And we see growing appreciation of that with studies on hunter-gatherers today:
'Contrary to earlier assumptions, hunters and gatherers - even today in the marginal refugia they inhabit - are nothing like the famished, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore. Hunters and gatherers have, in fact, never looked so good - in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure. Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad - in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure.' (Scott, 2017).
What does it mean to be a barbarian then? The term was originally used by the Greeks to signify any person who did not speak Greek; the sound 'Ba-ba' a parody of non-Greek speech. It was subsequently used in a variety of manners by many early civilisations to distinguist subjects from people outside the state's direct control.
'The barbarian zone, as it were, is essentially the mirror image of the agro-ecology of the state. It is a zone of hunting, slash-and-burn cultivation, shellfish collection, foraging, pastoralism, roots and tubers, and few if any standing grain crops.' (Scott, 2017).
Getting intimate with wild plants inherently embraces your inner barbarian; we at Forager are often found on the edges of cultivated fields, off-to-the-side or in the margins. It is not so much a mirror anymore; for we exist within the state's control like anyone else; but it is something of an inversion. An inversion of interests in the main; ours lying in the areas between what is deemed of value by our society.
The surprised, sometimes confused, look on people's faces when they discover that what we are picking is in fact - food - can make it feel like we're speaking a different language. But it is a fact that we all stem from barbarians. It's time for us to put Greek aside for a moment and embrace it (and yes, we can discuss it afterward).
2. Non-places will become places
What is a place? How foraging may lead us to redraw some of our old maps...
Marc Augé the French anthropologist, coined the term 'non-place' - whilst the original concept is related to what you might imagine is the antithesis of a forager's paradise; i.e. big shopping malls, airports, motorways, the concept relates to a forager's predicament quite well.
It is often assumed when people come out foraging with us that we will end up in a wild lush landscape untouched by human hands. This is rarely the case being in the south-east of England. We do, however, see people's eyes open to the possibility of wildness within spaces they may never have thought possible.
In Augé's theory a 'non-place' is contrasted to a 'place' as being a space where individuals have no chance of organic social interaction, they interact with the external world uniformly. In a sense a place where awareness is diminished and a curtain is drawn between you and the outside world. The space outside is 'presented two-dimensionally as a sort of theme-park spectacle.' (Think: dead-eyed airport treks.)
And this leads to a kind of solitude that is hard to describe. It is the opposite of what most people feel when they go for a walk in nature, or as the Japanese call it 'Shinrin-yoku' - forest bathing - that feeling of heartful connection.
Through foraging you will end up in some pretty odd spots. A 'non-place' underneath a huge road bridge on the coast of our home county Kent soon became a site of immense joy for this forager when large swathes of a delicious sea vegetable were found there.
Of course you're not just getting intimate with wild plants; you are interacting with the places (and non-places) of your surroundings; drawing up your own personal maps. In effect: giving 'non-places' some social and cultural significance, if only to you, and slowly making the world a little bit more three-dimensional (or more, if you can handle it!)
3. You will stop ordering the blandest thing on the menu
You may presume this title relates purely to the British; most people know of Kulvinder Ghir's character's famous line in Goodness Gracious Me; in a sketch entitled 'Going out for an English'. It is a well-worn cliche that British food is bland (however, this has indeed begun to shift in recent years with the country's burgeoning food scene). But if we extend this idea further, we see that the world entire is a little on the bland side...
Out of 30,000 edible plants thought to exist on earth, just 11 account for 93% of all humans eat; oats, corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, yucca, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, and rye. At the same time our fruits and vegetables are commonly grown with flavour as an afterthough; the main requirement being that they hold up in transit thus are bred to have tough skins and long shelf lives.
The East-West culinary divide that Goodness Gracious Me was highlighting has been studied by researchers at the Indian Institute for Technology. They found a striking trend in the 2,000 Indian recipes investigated; common was the use of lots of different ingredients with flavour molecules that don't overlap. This is quite different from the traditional European philosophy that relies on pairing ingredients that do share lots of flavour compounds.
But it didn't always use to be this way. What happened? It had something to do with the spice trade.
'It's sort of like — in fashion — for a while having more frills, more jewelry was fashionable. But then someone said that a basic black dress with some pearls is much better' - Paul Freedman, Professor of History at Yale University.
With the proliferation of spices in Europe after the 1600s serving up intensely spiced dishes was no longer the status symbol it had been. This cued up a shift in European cuisine towards what is probably best exemplified by French cuisine; the focus being on pulling out flavours already present in food.
The intensely rich flavours of wild plants signal a richness of phyonutrients; nature requires wild plants to produce chemical compounds to defend themselves against all manner of threats to their survival. They are the tough 'school-of-life' alternative to domesticated veg.
In 'Eating on the Wild Side' by Jo Robinson, Robinson contrasts wild foods with their domesticated counterparts;
'One species of wild tomato, for example, has fifteen times more lycopene than the typical supermarket tomato. Some of the native potatoes that grow in the foothills of the Andes have twenty-eight times more phytonutrients than our russet potatoes. One species of wild apple that grows in Nepal has an amazing one hundred times more bionutrients than our most popular apples; just a few ounces of the fruit provide the same amount of phytonutrients as six large Fujis or Galas' (Robinson, 2013).
It is imperative to our health that we consume a diversity of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent. Unfortunately, a western diet primarily consists of sweet and salty tastes. But of course - we decided this; many years ago we decided what to farm and what not to farm.
'For the first time in our long history on the planet, we humans no longer had to eat bitter or fibrous food or spend hours every day processing our food to make it fit to eat. We were creating the food supply of our dreams' (Robinson, 2013).
But as Robinson goes on to say; this had a detrimental effect on the phytonutrient quality of our diet as many of the most beneficial compounds have a sour, astringent, or bitter taste. This, she says, is reason to be more selective in our food choices; choosing those varieties of fruit and veg that are closest to the wild species' nutritive quality. It makes sense; who would want to have to consume ten apples to get the benefits that a half of another variety would provide?
The good news is as we accustom our body to rich flavours more; the more our body likes them. For example, Rhubarb contains 0.5% oxalic acid by weight - a chemical that can cause kidney problems - the first time a child eats rhubarb the initial response signals to the brain that the food is bitter and toxic; it should be avoided. However, as the body begins to feel the physiological and metabolic benefits of eating rhubarb it becomes more palatable.
Studies have shown mice can make links between flavour and physiological consequences within a matter of days; which they will then seek out. In effect your body will tell you: that was good, more please! This is what Professor Fred Provenza calls 'flavour-feedback mechanisms'.
Consuming a rich diversity of wild plants ensures you are getting a rich diversity of phytonutrients. Your body knows, and it will tell you when something was good - really good - for you. You just have to listen.
4. The pursuit of knowledge will take you deeper
Our brains have evolved to take in knowledge; they in fact go one step forward; they enjoy it:
‘We receive a pleasant shot of dopamine when we learn something new and again when we can classify it systematically into an ordered structure' - Daniel Levitin, The Organised Mind, 2014
This can sometimes manifest itself in deleterious ways; our propensity to take in any and all information a by-product of this adaptation.
The knowledge gained from eating wild food, however, is different. When you directly interact with something - as in with all your senses – you are taking in that knowledge in a deeper way. This is what is known as multi-modal sensation.
A lot of the elegant complexity of consuming food is still unknown to us, for example recent research suggests that the movements of the tongue in manipulating food in the mouth are more complex than the movements used in creating the sounds of speech.
We’ve talked previously about phytochemicals in plants and the breeding out of flavour as a by-product of a lot of intensive agriculture. And this loss of nutrient availability is a very bad thing, but a loss of perhaps greater significance is that of choice. By choice, I mean an individual’s ability to choose from a greater range of plants and fungi.
It has been shown in studies (by WorldWild Podcast regular guest Professor Fred Provenza) that animals, in effect, learn to see their landscape in flavour-vision. The feedback process which goes on when a rich diversity of plants are consumed informs the animal of the palatability of the locality through interactions with cells and organs and impacts on its future choices. In this way, choosing which plants to eat is actually a learned behaviour.
For this to happen; the animal requires choices; a landscape full of wondrous wild foods to peck, nibble and gorge on. The phytochemicals in these plants begins that feedback loop; this is good, this is bad.
As we interact more with our external surroundings we concurrently learn more of what is going on in our internal world. When we know more about that; well then we can start making some better choices. There is no one-size-fits-all model; studies have shown that people who have had heart transplants may take on the food preferences of the donor; but it all starts with having choices. The learning will happen by itself.