maandag 3 maart 2014

Outlines for a History of Urban Foraging in the English Speaking world


The first image to appear when doing a Google image search for 'Urban Foraging'. Source.



- Second draft -


Foraging, the act of looking or searching for food or provisions, tends to be regarded with wary. When practiced by isolated bands of hunter-gatherers, now or in the past, it may be regarded with a certain admiration for the practical skills involved. But in our own time and in our own lives we can only associate foraging as an activity of the last resort, to be rediscovered after societal collapse or personal catastrophe has severed our ties with normal ways of producing and/or procuring food. Only when we are starving will we resurrect the almost inhuman act of foraging. That war has often provided the circumstances for a return to foraging can be demonstrated by numerous examples. The Hedgerow Harvest brochures (1943) issued by the UK government during World War II are well remembered. A technical manual like Emergency Food Plants and Poisonous Plants of the Islands of the Pacific (1943) compiled by Elmer Drew Merrill and issued to US war pilots is an obscure but fascinating predecessor to John Lofty Wiseman's SAS Survival Handbook (1986). The edible plant section in the SAS handbook is probably the best available source of information on wild foods today. The link between war and foraging is currently (2014) reinforced by news stories about the beleaguered population of Syrian Homs surviving on soup cooked from weeds.


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The mental shift that informs contemporary foraging, here called ‘urban foraging’, from more standard attitudes about food and nature is considerable. An urban forager is someone who botanizes to eat from overgrown and derelict spaces, someone who spies for weedy plants growing in the cracks of the pavement in order to cook them. Urban foraging is not done for survival but for the good of the environment, for the benefit of health, for flavour, for freshness, for the joy of the search and for more intimate familiarity with nature and ancient lifeways. For the urban forager foraging is not a matter of life and death but an opportunity to positively affirm a moral position. The urban forager is a non-agricultural locavore, someone who literally eats her or his own environment.


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It is useful to compare the attitude that informs the spirit of the SAS Survival Guide to the two classic books of urban foraging, Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962) by Euell Gibbons and Food for Free (1972) by Richard Mabey. Wiseman devotes almost as much space to edible plants as he does to poisonous ones. Gibbons and Mabey have only little to say about the dangers of foraging and restrict themselves to stating that you should never eat what you don't recognize. Statements that read as legal disclaimers. The difference is fundamental. To a forager nature is good, giving and benign, to the elite soldier nature is cruel, hostile and untrustworthy. The common sense of the forager is that you need to be extremely stupid to die from eating poisonous plants, the common sense of a survivalist is that you need to be smart and determined if you are to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of wild nature. The ‘Wild Food’ (2007) book and TV series by survival expert Ray Mears bridges the two strands with his typical a-political and anthropological-informed approach of re-enactment.


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The use of wild food has never stopped in the industrialized world but it is not something that is much noticed. There are no data and no theories. Urban foraging as an catechism of local freshness, as a half-formed ideology of nature, does only accidentally cross paths with foraging as the village folklore of home-made jam and nutting. Urban foraging was created out of thin air, through its own internal logic and need, as a consequence of the circumstances and ideas of its time. As a synthetic practise, that its proponents nevertheless have always presented as possessing total authenticity, it could only emerge after the loss of foraging skills for large numbers of people had become total. Urbanization is the most obvious cause for this loss, but certainly not the only one. One can argue about when this process of amnesia, the process of urban dwellers becoming completely dependent on purchased and imported goods, was completed. A personal theory dates the demise of foraging as a ‘normal’ activity as contemporary with the life of Jane Austen (1775-1817). This is also the time when increased literacy created the modern cooking book and rationalized the recipe.


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Starting from the 1850ties the discovery that wild plants can be eaten and that this has philosophical ramifications comes as such a surprising insight that people want to share and formalize their excitement. Henry David Thoreau began his Wild Fruits manuscript in 1859, published only in 2000, but in a lecture named Wild Apples (1862) he captured the intent behind his private and ultimately unfinished manuscript for his audience. Thoreau's tone and purpose is remarkably modern. To eat a berry straight from the bush satisfies hunger but does so in a way that no overseas plant could ever do, argued Thoreau, wild fruit liberates its eater from the shackles of polite but corrupt society. A book that was published in the late 19th century is F. Buchanan White's Edible Wild Plants of Scotland (1871) and here too we are told in messianic terms about the superior taste of wild food and their inherit message of freedom.

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Like Thoreau before them urban foragers must acquire their skills consciously and with intent. The marked exception is Euell Gibbons (1911-75) who learned his plants and their uses from his mother. Gibbons claims that during the crisis of the 1920ties he managed to safe his family from starvation by foraging for additional sources of food. After a life of many trades and failed attempts to publish his novels he acted on the advice of his literary agent to write a book on his knowledge of wild plants. Stalking of the Wild Asparagus became a best-seller and is credited with shaping urban foraging as we know it today. Gibbons was not a naïve philosopher discovering nature for the first time during a rare outing away from university. He did survive on foraging and beachcombing alone in later years but he did not recommend it. For him foraging was not done for nutrition or health but for spiritual reasons, as a method to keep your sanity in a world that was severing its ties with nature. Gibbons was not a hippie but when they came to him they would recognize him as one of theirs.


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Urban foraging as something unalienable ‘hippie’ does not begin with Richard Mabey but him “sitting cross-legged on the lawn in a kaftan” ensured that everybody understood that roadside snacking constituted a stance against the agro-industrial complex. Looking back on Food for Free Mabey regretted the “pious” tone. But we have already seen that piousness is part and parcel of the literature of urban foraging. Created from scratch, not weighted down by the accumulated baggage of tradition and spurred on by desire for transcendence over cheap materialism, the urban forager is a gullible victim to nutritional naivety. And nobody more so than the young and the novice. Rebecca Lerner, in her book Dandelion Hunter, Foraging the Urban Wilderness (2013), describes how she, as a newly converted forager, attempted to live on foraged goods alone. 48 Hours were enough to learn that a few meagre salad leaves and herb tea do not get you through the day. And that it all tastes bitter!


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There does not exist a tradition for urban foraging, but people have tried to construct one. Those in a country with indigenous people try to tap into local and presumably ancient knowledge. The Australians have their Aboriginals and the North Americans their Indians, Native Americans and First Nations. Thoreau and Gibbons paid lip service to the original people of the land and they were not alone. Biologist Perry Medsger Oliver was so enthralled by the knowledge of an Indian who temporary joined his group that he decided to learn more about the Indian tradition. His findings he reported in his book Edible Wild Plants (1939). Muriel Sweet’s often reprinted Edible Wild Plants of the West (1962) also goes into Native American plant use. In this they Americans were helped by the voluminous and detailed reports by Franz Boas, William Sturtevant, Francis Densmore and many others working for the Bureau of American Ethnology in the late 19th and early 20th century. The North-American scene has the additional benefit of proper ‘wild’ nature and the continuing existence of knowledge pertaining survival in the outdoors. Chris McCandless, as portrayed by John Krakauer in Into the Wild (1993), is the prime example of an urban forager as only America could produce them. With an Indian plant lore book in his bag pack he dies of starvation in vast and empty Alaska.


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Foraged foods may be free as in ‘freedom’. Foraged foods may be free as in ‘free beer’. But foraging is done seldom without ulterior motive. Urban foragers go foraging because they desire to do so, but in the back of their minds they are often dreaming of making it their life changer. While digging up thistle roots they are already composing paragraphs about the sensation it gives them. They have blogs or hope to write a book. They add GPS coordinates of plant locations to online forage databases, of which several are available. Or they run such a website or are developing one. Maybe they want to become forage tour guides, showing groups around like Steve Brill has done in New York’s Central Park since 1981. Perhaps they want to become restaurant suppliers and graze a few bucks in that way. Urban foragers are all industrious members of the ‘cupcake economy’.


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In the forty years since the publication of Food for Free, urban foraging has become recognizable to outsiders. But it remains without a lineage and without a shared history. It is a life style that begins anew with every person who looked through a copy of Food for Free and then tried a bramble. Urban foraging is a skill you start to learn from a book, not directly from nature because, despite all intentions, we don't really trust nature, especially when it is urban. The portrayal of urban foragers as eating from the road is almost entirely rhetoric. Foragers go to parks and forests, as these areas are deemed freer from contamination from chemical pollution both through the soil and the air. Dog shit is another worry when thinking about wild food from the street even though dog shit is often the manure that allows plants to grow in the sterile sand underneath the pavement. The actual health risks of eating self-willed urban plants are uncertain and dependant also on the specifics of locality and the nature of the plants themselves. That the urban forager as an environmentalist is already convinced that the earth is poisoned beyond remittance must create unresolved psychological dissonances.


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What are the effects of urban foraging on society? Richard Mabey claims that the now common appearance of marsh samphire on restaurant menus can be credited to its rediscovery as edible by foragers. There must be more examples on this level. Foraging has certainly received a lot of attention through a recent fad in higher-end restaurants for wild foods. There is a French wild cooking pedigree to this, but it also borrowed heavily on the knowledge of individual urban foragers, and their books. The prime example of the rediscovery of foraging by avant-garde cookery is Rene Redzepi’s restaurant NOMA that offers dishes belonging to a self invented tradition of Nordic food that relies heavily on the use of foraged ingredients. NOMA was voted best restaurant in the world in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and this visibility and prestige reinforced an already happening revival of interest in the subject. The real impact of urban foraging on society because of all this is the sudden attention paid in the news and by park authorities to overharvesting of plants. As a radical fringe amidst larger debates about the environmental sustainability of our globalized food system, the presence of urban foragers, as a conceptual category rather than as an actual movement, is providing useful alternative visions about the city as a food source. In the near future, as ideas about community gardens, food forests and other examples of so-called food commons will become more acceptable and enter the language of town planning, urban foraging may well find that its legacy will be in the way its presence challenged and changed the design of the city itself. The creation of places intended for foraging would matter little when expressed in calories or bulk volume but the symbolic impact would be enormous.

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