Gathering Connection: Foraging and the Interpersonal Self
Gathering Connection: Foraging and the Interpersonal Self
Directed by Susan D. Blum in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.
April 7, 2017
Foraging for wild foods has become a growing trend in contemporary America, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, a center of alternative food movements. Though foraging as a political act has been well studied, the impact of foraging on individuals and their relationship with the environment has yet to be adequately addressed. My research uses ethnographic methods to address the question of how and why people forage for wild products in contemporary America, paying attention to the effect of this activity on people’s relationships with nature, their environments, and communities. I look at how one learns to forage and the role of knowledge in foraging, how foragers see the practice of gathering wild foods, and how they view nature to show how foraging impacts human-environment relationships. I examine literature on human-nature bonds and the work of Martin Buber and Ulric Neisser on the interpersonal and ecological self to demonstrate the role of relationships, particularly with the natural world, in personal growth and self-conception. I argue that people forage to connect with their environment, heritage, and communities, and the knowledge and encounter with nature that foraging promotes nurtures a relationship with nature. It seems likely that the love of nature encouraged by foraging can foster concern for the environment while enriching the lives of those who forage. In conclusion, this project, by examining the personal and emotional significance of foraging for wild foods, sheds light on the ways in which people interact with nature and its impacts on their lives.
I would like to express my gratitude to all the people who have helped me: first to Professor Susan Blum, who supervised my research and gave me support and encouragement as well as helpful critiques, to Professor Alexis Torrance of the Department of Theology for his help in understanding Martin Buber’s philosophy, and to my friends who have read over my thesis, accompanied me on wilderness excursions, and more. I would also like to thank all the people who offered their stories and their time, meeting with me in their houses and in cafes, sometimes even offering to cook me lunch, and referring me to their fellow mushroomers and foragers. I also thank the kind members of MSSF who shared their delicious mushroom dishes and who let me drive around with them when my car ran out of gas. I would also like to acknowledge my thanks to the Glynn family, who funded the majority of my research. Without all the help and support I received, I could not have completed this project, and learned as much about foraging as I did!
When I began the research for this paper, I had no idea how important affect would become in the central thesis. I had thought I would be discussing the mechanics of foraging, and its potential environmental impacts. However, as I talked to the foragers the themes of surprise and delight, of gratitude and awe continued to pop up (like mushrooms). On a personal level, knowing about the plants, and knowing I could make a meal off the land if I had to made me feel much more at home there. Then, during the period I was analyzing the interviews, I happened to be reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which led me to look at human-environment relationships in a whole new light. I began to see humans and mushrooms and plants as participants in a larger human and non-human community. Thus, my thesis has been titled “Gathering Connection: Foraging and the Interpersonal Self” to emphasize the importance of relationship in our lives with nature.
Table of Contents
Abstract .......................................................................................................................................................... 2 Acknowledgements........................................................................................................................................ 3 Preface ...........................................................................................................................................................4 Table of Contents...........................................................................................................................................5 List of Figures................................................................................................................................................6 Introduction....................................................................................................................................................7 Study Areas and Methodology ....................................................................................................................10 History of Foraging in California ................................................................................................................14 Knowledge ................................................................................................................................................... 19 Connection ................................................................................................................................................... 33 Implications .................................................................................................................................................58 Conclusion ................................................................................................................................................... 60 Bibliography ................................................................................................................................................62 Appendices ..................................................................................................................................................70
Figure 1. Sutro Baths, San Francisco. (p. 10)
Figure 2. Sutro Baths hiking trail, San Francisco. (p. 14)
Figure 3. Wild oats and other grasses and sedges discussed on a wild foods walk. (p. 20)
Figure 4. Display of mushrooms gathered on a foray with the Illinois Mycological Association. (p. 24) Figure 5. Campfire, Mycological Society of San Francisco Spring Morel Foray. (p. 27)
Figure 6. Porcini Mushrooms (Boletus edulis). (p. 34)
Figure 7. Water’s Edge, Marin County, California. (p. 39)
Figure 8. Eldorado National Forest, MSSF Spring Morel Foray. (p. 55)
Figure 9. Coastline, Santa Cruz County. (p. 62)
In the agricultural systems of the United States, most individuals do not derive the majority of their sustenance from wild plant and animal products that they have gathered themselves. However, wild foods supplement the diet and income of many agricultural civilizations around the world (Scoones et al. 1992), and are also collected by individuals living in the United States, including in urban and suburban areas (Poe et al. 2014); collecting wild foods is a long-standing tradition in many regions (Emery & O'Halek 2001).
The larger umbrella category of collection and use of found objects is commonly known as foraging (Gottlieb 2013). This includes wild plant and animal parts such as flowers, mushrooms, or shellfish (Cox 2012, Brigham 2015), as well as food and objects that have been disposed of by their previous owners. The latter is commonly known as “freeganing,” and “freegans” gather food and goods from dumpsters and roadsides, often as a form of social activism (Coyne 2009; Haga 2013). A collection of personal and economic motives seems to drive the former activity (Hall 2013, Poe et al. 2013). One way to refer to it is “wild gathering,” though it is commonly known as “foraging.” Past research has emphasized urban foraging as a social and political movement (Gross et al. 2009, Galt et al. 2014, McLain et al. 2014), but recent studies have shown that wild gathering is also important to people’s sense of local community and relationship with nature (Wells & Lekies 2006, Poe et al. 2014).
Wild gathering, or the harvesting of non-timber forest products (products “constituting or derived from trees, shrubs, forbs, non-vascular plants, fungi, and microorganisms that live in forest or grassland ecosystems” (USDA Forest Service 1995)) has become a controversial topic; there is concern that it may be unsustainable in the long run (Raskin 2012). However, it has been demonstrated that wild gathering plays an important role in developing cognition of biodiversity (Chipeniuk 1995), and that wild gathering facilitates transmission of family culinary and social cultural traditions (Poe et al. 2013). Furthermore, foraging for wild foods has become a growing trend in contemporary America, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, a center of alternative food movements. It is important to ask questions about how wild gathering impacts people’s relationships with nature and community, and what may be the result of changes in societal attitudes toward wild gathering. Thus, the purpose of this study is to address the following questions: 1) How and why do people forage for wild plants? and, 2) What role does this use of wild plants play in people’s relationship to nature and their local environments and communities?
My research uses ethnographic methods to address the question of how and why people forage for wild products in contemporary America, paying special attention to the effect of this activity on people’s relationships with nature and their local environments and communities. Specifically, I look at how people learn to forage and the role of knowledge in foraging, how foragers see the practice of gathering wild foods, and how they view nature, in order to show how foraging impacts human- environment relationships. I examine literature on human-nature bonds, and the work of Martin Buber
and Ulric Neisser on the interpersonal and ecological self, to demonstrate the role of relationships, particularly with the natural world, in personal growth and self-conception. I argue that people forage to connect with their environment, their heritage, and their communities, and that the knowledge and encounter with nature that foraging promotes can nurture a close relationship with and love of nature that is personally fulfilling. It seems likely that this love of nature will motivate people to protect it, and that foraging can help foster concern for the environment while enriching the lives of those who participate in it. In conclusion, this project, by closely examining the personal and emotional significance of foraging for wild foods, sheds new light on the various ways in which people interact with nature, and its impacts on their lives, leading to the very highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. By focusing on connections and relationships, I hope to present a more community-oriented view of the world. Through relationship with other beings in our world, we can come to a fuller understanding of ourselves, our inter-relatedness with others, and encounter the transcendent.
Figure 1. Sutro Baths, San Francisco.
Research Methods Sites
San Francisco Bay Area
In California, particularly the San Francisco Bay Area, there has been a long history of gathering wild items for food. From the time of the Native Americans, the Bay Area has been a place of rich resources, and immigrants past and present have availed themselves of this bounty. Traditionally the Italians in the San Francisco area went picking mushrooms at the Presidio, and the Russians at Salt Point.
The San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California is also a region in which wild gathering has recently been increasing in both prominence and prevalence (Brigham 2015). Motives for foraging include novelty, health, and tradition. Wild food foraging classes, blogs, and food clubs have grown in popularity (Hathaway 2011). Furthermore, the San Francisco Bay Area has a diverse range of environments in which gathering can take place, from urban settings to natural spaces (Bos 2015). Thus, it is an ideal location to find individuals, who live in an urban setting, participating in wild gathering. Midwest
The Midwest is an area with a tradition of wild gathering, particularly the gathering of morel mushrooms. Furthermore, in the Midwest there are fewer restrictions on gathering wild products than in the state of California, which is notorious for its strict regulations. Thus, the Midwest serves as an expansion of and balance for the portion of the study conducted in California.
San Francisco Bay Area
To answer the research questions, 1) How and why do people in the San Francisco Bay Area forage
for wild plants? and 2) What role does this use of wild plants play in people’s relationship to nature and their local environments and communities?, I used: a) participant observation, b) personal participation, and c) semi-structured interviews, as well as drawing upon blogs and written and published sources.
I conducted participant observation on three occasions; the first was attendance at a weekend morel mushroom foray in the Sierra Nevada with the Mycological Society of San Francisco (MSSF). Because I was unable to obtain informed consent from all the participants, I only recorded general observations. The other two incidents of participant observation were attendance at two wild food walks, one in the North Bay, focusing on neighborhood plants, and one along a jetty in San Francisco. At these walks, a professional forager and fishmonger respectively discussed their own experiences gathering wild foods, and taught the participants about wild edible foods and methods for obtaining them, but without actual gathering taking place during the latter, and only covert gathering occurring during the former.
I also participated in solo wild gathering on three occasions: the first, in a neighborhood, in which I asked the house owner whether I could pick fruit on their property, the second, when I spied a thistle plant coming back from a hike, and the third, when I found two elderberry trees growing next to a bridge that I was crossing.
Interviewees were found through the use of snowball sampling, as well as by contacting bloggers, book authors, and local organizations of wild gatherers, such as the MSSF and ForageSF. I interviewed a total of 16 people using a semi-structured interview style, and 15 of those interviews were recorded. The majority of the participants hailed from more northern parts of the Bay Area, rather than the Silicon Valley. All names used in this paper are pseudonyms.
I joined and went on a foray with the Illinois Mycological Society, where I conducted participant
observation. I also joined Eat Wild, a facebook group focused on foraging in the South Bend area. I went foraging with one of its members, and I conducted 2 interviews with group members. I personally gathered mulberries and gingko nuts during walks around South Bend.
Figure 2. Sutro Baths hiking trail, San Francisco.
History of Foraging in the Bay Area
The history of food and the history of environmental change are closely interlinked. From the time it was first populated, the San Francisco Bay Area has been a place of rich resources; immigrants past and present have availed themselves of this bounty. The environment has heavily influenced where and what people have foraged.
People have been deriving their sustenance from what is now the San Francisco Bay Area for over 10,000 years, which is when the first evidence of settlement can be found (Jones et al. 2007). There is debate over how they first arrived—some scholars maintain that they came over the transcontinental land bridge, while more recently, it has been suggested that they followed a “kelp highway” along the coasts They first lived primarily off shellfish and sea mammals and settlements were most likely seasonal. As the climate warmed, a large shallow water bay formed, flooding the valley. By 3000 BC marshes surrounded the margins, and the first permanent settlements appeared in the archaeological record. Mussels and oysters were important foods, and most likely “shellfish, sea mammals, and fish of all kinds played an increasingly greater role over time” (Fagan 2011:80). Oaks became more prevalent and acorns became more and more important in the diet.
Despite the abundance of food, California was not necessarily a stable food environment; “constant severe drought cycles with dramatic short term fluctuations in precipitation and sea water temperatures” (Fagan 2011:80) added an element of fluctuation. However, the basic climate from 2000
BC until today has remained relatively unchanged. By 1542, the time of the first European landing in California (Rolle 2014), the native inhabitants had learned to work with the cycles of nature to create a thriving system of environmental cultivation, and native plants and animals were integrated into every aspect of the inhabitants’ lives. At the time of the first European contact, the San Francisco Bay Area was a place of incredible linguistic and cultural diversity (Neumeyer 2015).
Among the first colonial settlers in the Bay Area were the Spanish missionaries, who recruited the local inhabitants into the missions. Although climate change and overhunting had forced the indigenous Californians to modify their diets over time—for example, overhunting of marine mammals resulted in a greater reliance on terrestrial foods—the coming of European colonists was the beginning of dramatic shifts in the ecosystems of California.
Though Native Americans still provided themselves, and the Spanish, with wild goods for food and medicinal purposes, “California Indian medicinal knowledge was so effective and important that it was incorporated, over and over again, into Spanish mission pharmacopoeias” (Anderson 2005:74). Agriculture and ranching were introduced for the first time, and many non-native plant species such as annual Mediterranean grasses were naturalized into the landscape (Dasmann 1998).
Ranching expanded during the Mexican Era, further modifying the landscape. Livestock ate native sedges and grasses used as foods by the Native Californians, and non-native sedge and grass species, which were better able to stand the heavy grazing, took over.
Another influx of settlers came in after the Gold Rush and every resource that could be exploited was. For example:
Abalone populations were intensely harvested by the Chinese, and by 1879 annual catches were in excess of four million pounds. As stocks of black and green abalone were depleted in southern California, fishermen moved north to San Luis Obispo County. In 1900, due to population declines, county ordinances were passed that made it illegal to gather abalone from less than twenty feet of water. (Anderson 2005:168)
The Gold Rush was a new time of intense persecution of the Native Californians and destruction of the ecosystems they relied on for food and living. As the local ecosystems and communities deteriorated, Native Californians were forced more and more to adopt a new way of life. However, foraging continued, both by Native Californians and by the new settlers.
Even up to the Depression Era, wild foods such as clams, wild greens, and berries were still common supplements to the diet of Americans as seen in the Works Progress Administration files (Kurlansky 2009), and it seems reasonable to assume that this was also the case in the San Francisco region. However, as food was delocalized and standardized, and as industrial food production became more and more prevalent, foraging knowledge grew less and less. By the late 20th century, foraging was no longer a common source of food in the standard Anglo-American’s diet. Often, people who wanted to be able to forage for edible foods no longer knew how to do so. However, in the 1970s a number of popular, accessible books on foraging were published, including Euell Gibbon’s famous Stalking the Wild
Asparagus and David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified. This made foraging more accessible, and recreational foraging grew in popularity. Mushroom societies formed. Still, the main trend continued to be loss of knowledge.
Today, the ecosystems of the Bay Area are extremely altered from their states before settlement by immigrants of European descent. Though foraging is still not a part of the lives of the vast majority of those living in the Bay Area, as I experienced in my difficulty in finding contacts, especially in the South Bay/Silicon Valley, there has again been an increased interest and trendiness surrounding the idea of foraging. Foraging classes are offered, restaurants have begun advertising foraged foods on their menus, and articles on foraging occasionally pop up in local papers. Many of the species foraged including the Himalayan blackberry, wild fennel, and nasturtium are introduced, though native foods, such as miner’s lettuce and bay laurel leaves, are also commonly harvested. And though much foraging is recreational, some is done professionally (and sometimes illegally so, such as in the case of abalone poaching), and some cooks will also forage for their dishes rather than buying from a third party. Urban gathering by individuals and organizations such as the North Berkeley Harvest is also becoming more known, and mushroom societies, which were once (and are sometimes still) considered havens for oddballs, have grown in acceptability and membership.
However, this history excludes the significant foraging activity of immigrant populations. The Italians and Russians of the North Bay have long been avid mushroom gatherers, with traditional
mushrooming spots. However, as their ethnic enclaves have begun to break up (Murray 1991), it appears that this tradition may be dying out. Other immigrant groups, such as the Koreans, have been mentioned as avid mushroomers, though I have not encountered any Korean mushroom hunters.
Interestingly the foods foraged appear to be dictated more by who is doing the foraging than where the foragers live. People of European descent forage many species introduced from Europe, and Asian immigrants also forage for traditional foods, such as gingko nuts.
Native Californians continue to gather their traditional materials for food and basket weaving, but are often hindered by land restriction, pesticides, destruction of habitat of key species, and lack of cultivation of land to encourage important species to thrive.
Figure 3. Wild oats and other grasses and sedges discussed on a wild foods walk.
For some reason, whenever man sticks something in his mouth he develops a keen interest. The plant that most people would never recognize, the forager knows intimately. Edible pants take on a high profile. They become reference points in the natural world. Like old friends they welcome you to the out-of-doors. And as you become acquainted with your first plants you will be encouraged to learn even more about their environment. (Wiltens 1999:2)
The Role of Knowledge in Foraging
There are dangers involved in foraging. Poisoning (through eating contaminated food, by eating a poisonous item, or eating foods wrongly prepared) is a risk. Hazards that come with being outside include cold, dehydration, and getting lost. Other humans can also be a concern; if foraging is restricted in the area, there is the risk of apprehension by authorities. However there are also dangers to the environment. Foragers can overharvest species, or damage habitat.
Knowledge allows humans to navigate the dangers of foraging. Not all plants are edible, and some are deadly toxic, like poison hemlock. Some are edible when they are cooked, but are toxic when raw. Some species can be eaten, but only when specific methods of preparation are used; a well-known example of this is acorns, which must be leached of their tannins. Furthermore, the species of acorn determines the amount of leaching required. One should avoid mushrooms growing on pine trees and eucalyptus trees in the Midwest, because even edible species growing on those trees are poisonous. A central principle of gathering wild food is never to eat anything one cannot identify and know with certainty to be edible. However, even mushrooms, which appear to inspire the most fear in the US
population (which mushroomers call “mycophobic”) are not dangerous as long as you “operate within your knowledge.” This is according to a mushroomer who serves on the hotline for the California poison control on mushrooms. Certainty comes from integrated knowledge—knowledge of what plants or mushrooms are edible, the ability to correctly identify a plant, and the knowledge of how to gather and process the food in a safe way.
One also needs knowledge of how to prepare for a foraging expedition and knowledge of the local environment. I found this out myself the hard way. When I attended a mushroom foray in May, I didn’t bring gloves, thinking that since it was spring, I would be fine. However, mountain weather is unpredictable, and my fingers were cold almost to the point of numbness throughout the foray, and I envied my gloved fellow mushroomers. I also neglected to fill my gasoline tank all the way before driving into the mountains. I was forced to park my car by the road and rely on the kindness of fellow foragers to drive me to other gathering spots, and I barely made it out of the mountains as it was. If not for the helpfulness of the others, I would have had to return from the foray early.
Knowledge also allows people to gather plants and mushrooms in a way that is good for the environment. For example, certain wild foods, such as mushrooms or fruits, can be taken without harming the organism. They can be picked time and time again, without endangering the survival of the organism in that ecosystem. However, other wild foods, such as limpets or ramps, can be overharvested. Because limpets reproduce by broadcast spawning, once the limpet population in any area falls below a certain
concentration, it may be years before they can return. Another example is the harvesting of elderflowers. If the flower heads are removed, the flowers will not develop into fruit. This will deprive the wildlife of an important source of nutrition (and also diminish another source of foraged food). However, if one harvests elderflowers by shaking the petals into a bag, only the petals of flowers that have already been pollinated (and can develop into fruit) will fall. Knowledge must dictate how much and what wild foods to harvest, as well as how they are to be harvested.
However, protection of humans and the environment is not the only importance knowledge has in foraging. People delight in the plants and mushrooms they harvest, and in knowing about the plants and mushrooms. Foraging appears to appeal to people of a curious nature. In the words of one forager, “the main criteria are curiosity and an interest in food.” One theme I encountered was foraging as a game, or a puzzle, a mental challenge. “[I just got] hooked into the puzzle nature of these things.” Or, “[It’s] Like a jigsaw puzzle, where your eyes have to find something blending in with environment...[morel mushrooms are] good camouflagers, look like pine cones...yeah, they’re great.”
Many foragers pursue knowledge of the plants they come across for its own sake. One woman I met at a mushroom foray collected mushrooms to eat (“for the pot”) but also just to identify. To fully ID a mushroom by photograph, one must have a picture of the stalk, the cap, and gills. To get these perspectives, one has to pick the mushroom. To further confirm a mushroom’s identity, some mushroomers bring mushrooms to labs for DNA testing.
Learning to Forage
The Illinois mycological Society conducts forays of an educational nature. The permit they forage with is strictly scientific, and none of the mushrooms collected are for eating. People collected the mushrooms to be identified and described by the professional mycologist. Many were thrown back into the woods, while the more interesting specimens were taken back to the lab and studied. Even in less academically focused forays in food-oriented California, there is a purely informational component, where the mushrooms are laid out to be identified, even if they are not edible. However, instruction-based learning makes up only a part of learning to forage.
Figure 4. Display of mushrooms gathered on a foray with the Illinois Mycological Association.
The foragers I spoke to were both life-long foragers and people introduced to it in their
adulthood. Many began with their childhood—in this context, foraging was a family activity conducted
for the purpose of finding a certain type of food. Often it was mushrooms, but people also foraged for plants such as wild onions or berries. Sometimes they didn’t forage wild plants or mushrooms, but there would be fishing or other sorts of outdoor activities in the family.
However, some people came to foraging in their adulthood. Some reasons were a love of the outdoors and a curiosity about the plants they were seeing. Others were introduced to it by friends, or came across it in the course of their studies, or read field guides for edible plants.
The process of acquiring foraging knowledge takes many forms and each person has a different path. Some rely on books, field guides, and the internet. Others attend classes or workshops. Others simply learn from people they know, from their families and friends. Most use a combination of the above. However, learning to forage is always socially and environmentally mediated.
The Didactic Model
Foraging, by necessity, is not something one can learn in a classroom. It is widely recognized that the best way to learn a wild food, to know a wild food, is to have somebody point it out to you. Never ID a plant using just pictures on the Internet; field guides caution readers that they should not rely solely on any one field guide (Wiltens 1999). Both person-person and person-plant interactions are required for transmission of foraging knowledge. There is the plant beheld, the novice beholding, and the teacher instructing. One forager expressed outrage toward people who post pictures of plants or mushrooms on the internet with the question, “Can I eat this?” Thus, there is definitely an instructional component in the
foraging community; the knowledge of a plant, as well as its use is something that is deliberately transmitted. This occurs in many situations; one can take foraging workshops, go to educational fairs, or simply ask questions at a group foray. Many forays, even those conducted for “the pot” (as opposed to educational forays) have a specifically instructional component.
Much knowledge is not directly communicated, but is deliberately learned. A new mushroomer follows the experts, seeking to glean knowledge, and hoping that they’ll get their “eyes,” or the mysterious ability to see well-camouflaged mushrooms. The more experienced one is, the better one’s “eyes” (see section on “Mushroom Eyes”). They shadow the expert’s footsteps, looking where he or she looks. Recipes are shared through magazines, through word of mouth, and by tasting others’ meals at foray or wild food potlucks.
Foraging for plants in the Bay Area appears to be more solitary and learning to forage plants seems based less on community involvement and more on instruction. Mushrooms are extremely difficult to learn out of a book, and people who want to learn how to hunt mushrooms will often join mycological societies. However, plants appear less complicated, and many people believe that plants may be less dangerous that mushrooms (though in actuality, plants can be as lethal as mushrooms). More plant foragers mentioned learning out of field guides. There are also plant foraging classes and workshops offered, and people also learn new plants to forage from people they know. Furthermore, when it comes to fruit gathering, even people who don’t consider themselves foragers of wild foods may be able to
recognize that fruits, such as plums, from city trees can be sources of food. This can be seen in online groups such as Fallen Fruit. However, fewer people than might be expected recognize and take advantage of such food sources, for even in well populated areas, the ground is littered by plums or other fruits commonly used as ornamentals.
However, mushroom hunting appears to be becoming more systematized. In Indiana, the Hoosier Mushroom Society offers mushroom identification class and certification. This qualifies a person to be able to identify a specific type of mushroom, useful especially in the restaurant business, if one wants to buy or sell mushrooms. Mushrooms are often sold in unregulated back-door purchases at restaurants, and certification would be one way of helping to regularize the transaction, possibility setting precedents for a more officially recognized and regulated market. Currently, the status of a provider’s knowledgeability and trustworthiness is up to the judgment of the buyer (the chef).
Figure 5. Campfire, Spring Morel Foray with the Mycological Society of San Francisco.
The Foraging Community as a Community of Practice
In the foraging community, a significant amount of learning is “situated learning” (Lave 1991). The taste of the morel mushroom is not something you learn through instruction. One simply eats a dish prepared with morels in it made by someone who has cooked mushrooms before. People swap favorite recipes and culinary back and forth—this is all knowledge picked up by being in the community. You gain a repertoire of mushroom hunting and foraging stories (think of the “fish tale”), and you learn how to talk about mushrooms—as quarry, and anthropomorphically; as if mushrooms had agency. This hunting
imagery is occasionally used in in describing other wild food items (“Stalking the Wild Asparagus”) but is most used by mushroomers. You also learn particular ways of thinking, such as the idea that rain is a good thing because it encourages the proliferation of mushrooms, or the idea that the government is an obstacle to mushroom hunting, or even a certain disregard for regulations on mushroom picking.
The very practice of foraging is something that can be picked up situationally—it can be “just something that they did.” According to one forager, “I just sorta was around this...we didn’t, there wasn’t the fancy term called foraging for it..it’s like, going out, you pick berries, sassafras.” There are foraging families, and those who have to start from scratch. Those who grew up foraging are more likely to treat it as something that they “just do” rather than something they deliberately learn.
I learned about the most popular mushrooms without having read about them. Porcini, morels, chanterelles...they came up time and time again. I learned that morels are in the spring, but porcini are in the fall by hearing people in the MSSF talk about their two major forays; the one for morels in May, one for chanterelles in November.
The foraging community, especially the mushrooming community, can very much be considered a community of practice, where “mastery comes without didactic structuring and in such a fashion that knowledgeable skill is part of the construction of new identities of mastery in practice” (Lave 1991:64). Foraging is a skill, and this skill is based in great part on knowledge. Depending on differing levels of
knowledge, one can distinguish differing levels of skill and involvement in the mushrooming community, and at least among regular mushroomers, there is a definite sense of mushrooming as part of identity.
According to one member of the MSSF, “you can learn anything at any level, any aspect of mushroom knowledge, from cooking to psychedelics.”
I would sort mushroom hunters into several categories: professional, veteran, regular, casual, and beginner mushroomers. (These categories are my own, and not used by mushroomers.)
Professional mushroom hunters make a living selling mushrooms and guiding people on mushrooming tours. “Hardcore,” or veteran mushroomers consider mushrooming a way of life, if not their actual livelihood. They tend to use the Latin names of mushrooms (“Boletus edulis” rather than “porcino”), and being able to use the Latin name rather than the English one is somewhat a marker of status. Many veterans also like to push the limits on what mushrooms are edible. Then there are regulars, who restrict themselves to a few mushrooms that they know well, and casual foragers are unlike the regulars in that although they have a few mushrooms that they stick to, they are not overly involved in the mushrooming community and only participate from time to time. Finally, there are beginners, like myself, who know the bare bones of mushrooming, and stay near more experienced mushroomers on forays. A beginner would not eat a mushroom without the okay of a more knowledgeable person. Entrance into a community usually involves paying membership dues, and attending events and forays.
These levels are fluid, and are not strictly defined. Generally, the longer somebody has been involved in the mushrooming community, the more they know about types of mushrooms and finding mushrooms, and also have stronger social ties with others in the mushrooming community. Those with less mushroom knowledge ask for the opinions and advice of more seasoned mushroomers. I also observed that, with the exception of those very new to mushrooming, one likes to go with members of equivalent skill. One professional forager told me that she is “very selective about the people I go with...because I don’t want to spend my time worrying about them.” Again, another professional mushroomer, who lives mostly in the mushrooming world (“I think most of my friends at this point have some form of mycological connection”) mentioned that he has “a short list” of “people that can run with me” for he will quickly leave most people behind. However, even experienced mushroomers ask for second opinions. People learn more by attending forays and events, as well as by reading up on their own. However, most people do not become professional, and many stop short of being “hardcore.” Some dip into the community, attend a few forays or walks, but never become seriously involved in mushrooming. There are different types of hardcore, where some individuals stick to the common varieties for eating but are very interested in mushrooms scientifically, and others, who enjoy pushing the boundaries of what is edible.
There is also a wider community of foragers. One Bay Area cluster centers around ForageSF, a group that was started to help support “local foragers so that foraging could become a viable full time
profession.” The forageSF website provides links to foraging classes, as well as reservations to the Wild Kitchen, a supper club featuring foraged foods. The foragers involved in the organization, and their friends, form a community of sorts, and even foragers in the Bay Area who were not involved with forageSF were aware of the members of the community. Smaller local groups of foragers have their own communities, sometimes connected through online networks. For example, one of the women I interviewed started a Meetup to learn more about foraging. Interestingly, the mushrooming community is often viewed as an eccentric and esoteric group by some foragers whose primary focus is not mushrooms, which may reinforce their group identity. Generalist and plant foragers seem to have less of a community identity than mushroomers, who by now have firmly established associations and societies, each with their own history and community (though many people are members of more than one mushrooming group). This may be partially for the reasons pertinent to education mentioned above, and also perhaps because although “mushroom hunting” and “mushrooming” are clearly defined categories, “foraging” (as opposed to something that people “just do”) is a term that has not been as widely used, and so in the past it may have been more difficult to categorize foragers as a group.
In South Bend, a foraging community has coalesced around Eat Wild, a Facebook group started by two brothers. This community incorporates both mushrooming and other types of foraging—however, I have not observed as much kingdom-based specialization in the Midwest.
Learning from Nature
Personal experience is also an important teacher. Just as gathering wild food can be done alone or
in a group, learning to forage is also incorporates non-socially mediated knowledge. Milton (2002) tells us:
Ingold (1992) pointed out that constructionism imposes a barrier between the environment and our understanding of it...[the constructionist model] implies that learning is always mediated by social interaction...[and this] is to ignore an obvious fact: that human beings are as capable as any other animal of picking up information directly from their environment...in order to examine what kinds of experience generate what kinds of knowledge, we need to consider a human being’s relationship with their total environment, not just their social environment. (Milton 2002:41)
Although I have framed learning about mushrooms in the didactic context as a teacher-student- mushroom triad, these roles are flexible. Mushrooms are also teachers, and teachers are students. Much of foraging knowledge and skill comes from doing it; from being in contact with mushrooms and with the environment; through knowledge gleaned directly from nature through the senses. One professional mushroom hunter credited half of what he knew to the mushrooms, and the time he spend looking for them. According to him, most of what he knew came from “from the mushrooms themselves.” By becoming familiar with the mushrooms, people can gain a sense of where to look, and when to hunt for them.
Part of the process of the process of becoming familiar with mushrooms is learning to see them. One phrase I heard multiple times in the context of mushroom hunting was “getting your eyes on.”
Foraging in general but mushrooming in particular demonstrates a connection between seeing and knowing. Finding mushrooms necessitates the skill of seeing mushrooms. Seeing mushrooms requires knowledge of mushrooms. When I mentioned my lack of luck in morel hunting on a foray, I had a brief conversation about the role of skill and the knowledge that come from experience. Lauren told me:
I have to tell you it’s a real art to finding mushrooms and I know I have it now. It’s not x-ray vision or anything, but it is a familiarity with what a forest looks like and what a morel looks like..,
I have had this experience, where I will go out—I’ll take newbies that have never been, and I’ll say ‘Okay, within three feet of me there is a morel; can you find it?’ And they’re looking and they’re looking and they can’t see it! It’s funny, it’s like, how do our brains process information; that I see it because I’m, I’m tuned into it after all these years, but new people don’t see it, cause they’re not tuned into it. So it’s kind of an interesting process.
Yeah, I haven’t downloaded the program yet, for the morel recognition. (myself)
Well, you have to pay your dues a little bit, to get, to be really good at it. You know, some people are just naturally better at it than others, they—you have to be in tune, you have to think like a mushroom...‘Would I grow in the sun over there, or am I gonna grow next to this log that has extra water for me.’ It’s really trying to put yourself in, you know, think, think like a mushroom.
As one can see in this excerpt, not only does mushrooming require knowledge of mushrooms—it requires an ability to see that comes from “thinking like a mushroom.” It is a skill learned through experience and in community. One learns to see mushrooms by seeing the mushrooms that others see.
Figure 6. Porcini Mushrooms (Boletus edulis).
My love affair with nature is so deep that I am not satisfied with being a mere onlooker, or nature tourist. I crave a more real and meaningful relationship. The spicy teas and tasty delicacies I prepare from wild ingredients are the bread and wine in which I have communion and fellowship with nature, and with the Author of that nature.
-commonly attributed to Euell Gibbons
While growing in knowledge may be an important aspect of foraging, knowledge gained through foraging is not a kind of knowledge that leaves a person unchanged. People learning to forage grow in knowledge of nature, others, and themselves. This knowing creates connections with those people and things that they come to know through foraging.
Although foraging was often characterized as a solitary affair in interviews, there was also a
definite social aspect to it. Many foragers have told me that part of the joy of foraging is being alone in the woods but that they also enjoyed being out in nature with others, and sharing the bounty of nature with those they love. One woman, when asked why she went out foraging, told me that:
It’s finding food. I think, honestly, we’re hardwired for this activity. [Laughs.] Um, and, I just love being in nature, and I, when you are out mushrooming, it’s just, it gives you a feeling of happiness when you find mushrooms, and, or show them to other people that don’t know how to find them that also makes you happy. Or if you find some and others don’t find them, you can share with them; that’s also a part of it.
And according to another mushroomer:
To me that’s [sharing mushrooms] an honor and privilege I’ve afforded myself... [otherwise] the mushrooms aren’t worth as much to me; I pour value into my mushrooms by sharing them...That’s how I extract their value to me, by sharing them.
Sharing is an important component of foraging. Several foragers described hosting meals to share foraged foods with friends and family. Mushroomers especially have gathered into communities around their shared love of mushrooms, and good food. Some dedicated mushroomers have told me that most of their friends are involved with mushrooms in one way or another. Many forays are grand social and gastronomical occasions:
We used to have mussel, big , um, gatherings and feasts in the mycological society in the 70’s. We used to go out, and there’d be several people who would go out and get mussels. We’d just have this gigantic feast; it was wonderful. Yeah...and people would bring stuff, that they’ve, because there’s a culinary group in the mycological society, which I ran for years, and um, sometimes people bring in stuff that they’ve foraged, like my friend, um, who’s not around or I would call her up and tell her to come over...she went out and picked a lot of um, miner’s lettuce, and stuff like that, and made salads, salad out of it for our dinner. And there’s a guy who makes, um, beer, G-d, he’s such a fabulous...I don’t know if he was up there, he usually comes to the morel forays, really cute guy, he usually wears a jew’s harp, you know one of those ‘nyar nyar nyar’ things around his neck, and um, he makes beer, and he made mugwort beer. It was really good!...I’d sit there for five hours, knocking the barnacles off the mussels and stuff, you know, and then cleaned them up and then they’d cook them, and have this big feast, with the club. G-d, it was fabulous. They’d bring out these great big pots of them, and you’d just have a bowl, and you’d just eat all you want. And then they’d have french bread and wine, you brought your own wine. It was wonderful. It was really fun.
Though the group foraging in this instance was the mycological society, they were enough of a community to forage for non-mushroom foods and share their finds together. In South Bend, members of Eat Wild also mentioned holding group dinners. The members of Eat Wild also interact, plan outings and find people to share finds with through the facebook group. It seems evident that foraging can be a social activity, and people have formed friendships through hunting for, learning about, and enjoying wild foods together, both through institutions such as the mycological society, and individually.
Biology and Heritage
Something that I heard often in the course of my research was that foraging is a fundamentally human activity; that foraging is a “basic human interest,” that is evolutionarily engrained in us, “hardwired” as one woman said.
In The Biophilia Hypothesis, Edward O. Wilson (1993) promulgates the idea of Biophilia, or “the innately emotional affiliation of human being to other living organisms” (Wilson 1993:31) which is woven into our biological and cultural evolutionary heritage. This was in part due to material need, which was filled through foraging, and evolutionarily, we are foragers.
Foraging also appears to provide a sense of connection to a person’s heritage. Gathering food from nature has been with humans from the very beginning, and foraging for food is an activity that our ancestors, even until quite recently, have participated in. Foraging can create a feeling of connection to a person’s family and origins.
One woman I interviewed joked that because of her Russia and Polish background, mushrooms were part of her DNA. Her aunts hunted for mushrooms and her childhood was full of mushrooms. Many foragers had foraged with their families as children, and foraging is a tie to their childhood and families. Foraging can also create a sense of connection to the earlier peoples of a place. A couple of foragers, when discussing the significance of foraging, mentioned the long history of foraging in the Bay Area, and the importance of acorns in the diet of the native peoples of the region. One woman made a point of talking about the grinding stones of the Native Californians, though she never used acorns herself. However, another forager discussed how most plants foraged in the Bay Area now are actually introduced, and that most people don’t take advantage of the real natives, calling into question how real the feeling of connection with the indigenous peoples of the Bay Area might be, especially since Native
Californians still participate in gathering behavior today, and it appears that many if not most contemporary foragers do not know or engage with this culture. If foragers were to learn from native peoples to learn how to forage in ways that would benefit the habitat, or work with them to help restore ancestral habitats in initiatives similar to the Maidu Stewardship project, a collaboration between the Maidu Cultural and Development Group and the US Forest Service using traditional ecological knowledge to restore forest landscape (Donoghue et al. 2010), this primarily romantic connection to past hunting and gathering societies might become more substantial.
Foragers also mentioned the foraging traditions of immigrants. Italians and Russians are particularly known for their love of mushrooms, and certain areas in the Bay Area are considered the “stomping grounds” of particular ethnic communities, for example the San Francisco Presidio for the Italians, who traditionally resided in the nearby North Beach area of San Francisco (Murray 1991), and Salt Point, which is relatively near Fort Ross, the old Russian colonial settlement, for the Russians (Crawford 2012).
Figure 7. Water’s Edge, Marin County, California. Environment
“[Foraging is] all about connection.” One prominent theme I encountered among foragers was the idea that foraging for wild foods connected them to the land and nature. They valued the process of foraging because it allowed them to be in nature, and to experience nature in a particular way. I propose that foraging allows people to experience and recognize a relationship to nature and to the land, and that this connection can be a path to self-actualization.
Foraging achieves a particularly reciprocal connection to the environment. In eating, an object becomes part of a person’s body. It might be said that eating is the embodiment of a connection to the land. Eating leads to reciprocity between humans and nature—if humans abuse the earth, they will be affected. This is particularly true on a local scale; if the Bay is polluted, humans may be harmed by contaminants in seafood, a fact recognized by foragers. However, humans also have the power to give back; they can work to ameliorate habitat damage by participating in habitat restoration and pollution cleanup (one woman I spoke with kept an oyster garden in an effort to help clean the Bay), or by cultivating native plants—something that the Native Americans did to increase the productivity and health of the land (Anderson 2005).
In addition, foraging leads to a sense of gratitude: gratitude for the immediate find, gratitude for the bounty of the earth, and gratitude for the beauty and complexity of nature. One woman described mushrooming as “an opportunity to be there [in nature], [and be] grateful for what’s there.” Anthropologist and mushroomer Anna Tsing writes, “for the moment, it seems important to appreciate the mushroom” (Tsing 2015:9). There is a sense among foragers that foraging is like “treasure hunting” or “easter egg hunting” and an accompanying philosophy of “it’ll be there or it won’t be.” This idea of the serendipitous find, or gift, disdains a sense of entitlement that is the antithesis of gratitude. Though most of the foragers did not mention gratitude—in all my interviews, gratitude was only mentioned a few times—it was clear that the foragers did feel gratitude in the way they spoke about nature, and in their
tone of voice. As one woman described how she felt about the beauty of the world around her, “Oh my G- d, look at that, it’s beautiful.” The awe in her voice, awe at a gift that she had done nothing to deserve, and similar expressions of awe and reverence voiced by other foragers, makes me certain that gratitude, whether directed at God or some other person or persons, is an important part in the experience of foraging.
Foraging both requires and provides through experience an understanding of the foraged goods and the surrounding ecosystem. The knowledge required by foraging is gained in several ways, through field guides, through workshops, and through personal sharing. However, in Loving Nature: Towards an ecology of emotion, Milton (2002) points out that not all knowledge is socially mediated. Experience of nature, particularly foraging, can lead to knowledge of nature (Chipeniuk 1995), and foraging is a way of experiencing nature that is particularly conducive to learning about it. Though one can be taught to identify a plant, the connection between the person and the plant is as important as the connection between the teacher and student. The person must see the plant to know it.
Nature experience can lead to knowledge, and experience and knowledge of nature can lead to a deeper affective relationship with it. This relationship, of appreciation and recognition of reciprocity, leads foragers to experience and learn more about nature. When concluding an interview, one woman said to me, “I think I was able to share everything that was on my heart.” This indicates that the topic of nature
is a personal and emotional one. One professional mushroomer described a type of mushroom as his “heartthrob.” The idea of “relational epistemology” (Bird-David 1999), the discovery of knowledge through relationship, applies here. Foraging for wild food leads people to spend time outdoors and leads them to learn about their local ecosystems. Spending time outdoors, and learning about local flora induce stronger feelings of appreciation and fascination with nature, or a love for nature. A love for nature will also lead people to learn about it. Loving and knowing are connected.
One of the primary ways foragers experience the environment and relate to nature is through
eating. Eating something is one of the closest connections a person can have to an object. In eating, the
object becomes part of that person’s body. Eating local food is a very direct connection to the land. It
might even be said that eating foraged food is the embodiment of the connection to the land, and is an
important form or the primary form of relationship to the earth. One forager, Marisol, who lived on a
houseboat in the bay described the ocean as something “we are intimately connected with.” She further
What does it mean to live an integrated life, you know, to like, fully integrate, and to also be fully aware...I’d never be a great fisherwoman because I don’t like killing them [fish]. And I still kill them; [but] I don’t enjoy it. But I see it as (I) really having to go, this is the truth of food. This is the truth of what I’m eating, and I’m gonna do it. And so now instead of feeling guilt, I try to feel gratitude. And so that is something too...I think environmentalists make people feel guilt. And I’m an environmentalist, and I’m like, how do we expand that so people actually feel how deep their connection is, even if they’re in denial of it, or unaware of it, you know, and also gratitude. You know, just gratitude, for beauty, and how it feeds us, and the oxygen, and all of it. Because I think on a grand scale, food that’s bad for the environment is bad for your body, and food that’s good for the environment is good for your body...Ecosystem-based eating is sort of, and
ecosystem-based living is a way to fully integrate yourself in with it and see us as vitally connected, you know, and our choices as having repercussions all over the place.
This speech contains several key themes, one of which is integration. Marisol is obviously striving to live “an integrated life,” a life more integrated with nature, and does this especially through food. This is evidenced by her use of the phrases “Ecosystem-based eating” which is stated first, and “ecosystem-based living”, which is a broader statement. Awareness is another theme Marisol touches on. Awareness is a type of knowing, a knowing of your environment, a knowing of what is occurring around you. Marisol wants to know “the truth of food.” This knowledge comes through experience (killing fish, gathering food from her environment). This awareness or knowledge is also necessary for integration. Marisol wants to “fully integrate” and be “fully aware.” These states are linked; without integration, one cannot be fully aware of the environment, but without awareness, one will not be able to integrate. Ecosystem-based eating and living, which is a way to “fully integrate,” requires knowledge of the ecosystem.
Marisol asks, “how do we expand [the ideas of the environmentalists] so people actually feel how deep their connection is, even if they’re in denial of it, or unaware of it.” It is important to realize a connection, because our actions affect our environment and the health of the environment is important to our health. “Food that’s bad for the environment is bad for your body, and food that’s good for the environment is good for your body.” Here, Marisol outlines a basic connection between our health and the
health of our environment. Because of this relationship, awareness of the truth of food is key. Food is one of the most basic connections one has to the earth. Foraging, eating food from the local environment, helps to create awareness of this connection.
Marisol also touches on the idea of gratitude, “for beauty,” for food, for life. Though she does not explicitly say that she feels gratitude—rather she says that she tries to feel it, instead of guilt—it is clear that though she may not always feel the emotions of gratitude, her mindset is one of gratitude. A person is grateful to someone from whom they have received something of value; Marisol clearly acknowledges that this is the case. The idea of gratitude toward the earth implies a relationship where the earth is giving and the individual is receiving. The giving of a good forms a connection between her and the earth. Furthermore, the relationship is bidirectional. Not only does the individual receive from the earth, the earth is affected by the individual’s decisions, “our choices...[have] repercussions all over the place.”
The Human-Nature Bond
Previously, I have discussed the connections that people make with nature, but have not created a structured model for the human-nature bond. However, human-nature relations have been conceptualized in multiple ways. Flint et al. (2013) define three domains of dimension with which to evaluate human- nature relations: positionality (refering to “the hierarchical relation of humans above nature or vice versa” and the “notion of humans as part of or separate from nature”), character of the bond (which includes
distinctions such as biophilic/biophobic, connected/apathetic), and understanding of nature (whether it is fragile or resilient, predictable or unpredictable, etc.). Others formulate diagnostic tools to try to measure connection to nature, such as the Love and Care for Nature Scale (Perkins 2010) or the Connectedness to Nature Scale (Mayer & Frantz 2004). These scales may be useful in order to measure relative emotional engagement with nature in people’s lives, though this is contested (Gosling & Williams 2010; Perrin & Benassi 2009). I believe however, that it is important to remember that relationships are complex and multi-layered, and that one cannot measure the full impact and meaning of a personal relationship with a survey that allows for limited expression, reducing personal meaning to points on a scale from 1 to 5 (CNS) or 1 to 7 (LCN). For as I will discuss, it appears very clearly that foragers have a personal relationship with nature. Schroeder (2007) uses gestalt and phenomenological psychological approaches to examine place experience and the human-nature relationship, validating the need to view the “complex, experiential whole” (Schroeder 2007:296). I will now attempt to do this by exploring human-nature relationships through Martin Buber’s conception of the “I-Thou” relationship.
The Interpersonal Self
Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher known best for his work I and Thou, conceived of an “interpersonal self,” in which a person’s identity is developed in relation with another, whether it be human or non-human. “I require a You to become, becoming I, I say You” (Buber 1996:62). The search
for wild foods leads to an encounter and a recognition of a relationship with nature. The foragers I spoke with tended to be cognizant of how natural processes and objects affected them, and in turn, the potential impact of their own activity.
Buber explores relationships by characterizing a dichotomy between “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships. In an “I-it” relationship, the other in the relationship is reduced to a pure object (of domination), a thing to be exploited, whereas in “I-Thou” relationship, the other is encountered and seen, and loved, not used. Buber’s Thou is always another person, whether the person be human or non-human. However, the modes of “I-Thou” and “I-It” exists on a continuum rather than being a strict dichotomy. A person’s communion with plant and animal life need not and should not be merely an “I-It” relation with the goal being mastery. Rather, by seeing and encountering a plant, a person approaches the Eternal Thou. In Buber’s Judeo-Christian worldview, this Eternal Thou would be God, though one could also conceive of other ways to view an eternal other.
Flint et al. (2013) discuss a possible continuum of human nature relationships, from total domination to perception of self as part of nature. In The Perceived Self (Neisser 1993), Neisser describes the “ecological self” and the “interpersonal self,” two of five modes of self-knowledge. He references Buber, identifying Buber’s I-It as expressive of the ecological, remembered, private and conceptual selves, and the I-Thou with the interpersonal self. The ecological self is the sense of self that is not constructed, remembered, or imagined, but one that is directly perceived in relation to the environment;
where one perceives one’s actions in the environment and perceives affordances to one’s actions in the environment. He distinguishes this from the interpersonal self, which is the self seen as an “agent in an ongoing social exchange,” seeing oneself as “the target or focus of the other person’s attention and as cocreator of the interaction itself,” and is reserved for human-human interactions. The participants “confirm one another’s selfhood” (Neisser 1993:10).
However, in her book Loving Nature, Kay Milton identifies an ecological self who is also an interpersonal self. She argues that it is limiting to confine the interpersonal self only to human relationships; to do so precludes self-knowledge in relation to animals, spirits (such as angels) or God, and that,
...there is no dividing line between the ecological self and the interpersonal self, that an understanding of personhood, of ourselves and others as persons, develops within our relationship with our total environment, but just within our relationships with our fellow human beings. (Milton 2002:47)
This is also congruent with my observations of how foragers perceived themselves in relation to nature. Mushroomers personalized mushrooms in their conversation, giving them agency. One could argue that this is simply anthropomorphizing, but that is to devalue the real understanding and relationship that mushroomers have with mushrooms and the environment.
Gathering wild foods may facilitate the formation of a relationship between a person and nature that falls sufficiently toward I-Thou on the continuum between the I-Thou and I-It to facilitate the
development of the interpersonal self. In interviews, foragers have spoken of the wild products they gather with “you,” or “Thou” terms. For example, one recreational forager, Hannah, told me:
I feel more respectful, cause now I’ve taken the time to really learn about these things. Also I appreciate them more, you know like, yes, I’m out here walking around you and now I know that, you know, everything, I know more about you, you know, the plant, and the trees and stuff, and so I feel more respectful kind of, like, awe of them.
Here, Hannah talks of the plants as “you” and expresses a respect and awe. In an earlier excerpt, Susan puts herself into the mind of a mushroom—‘“Would I grow in the sun over there, or am I gonna grow next to this log that has extra water for me?’ It’s really trying to put yourself in, you know, think, think like a mushroom.” And mushrooms really do grow according to those ideas.
Furthermore, as discussed earlier, gratitude is a significant part of the relationship between foragers and nature. Gratitude is inherently relational—one is grateful to someone. The presence of gratitude in foraging is further evidence toward a relational conceptualization of foragers and nature.
Factors that can affect this Relationship
Foragers encounter the environment directly and through the mediation of others; however, other factors also affect these interactions, among which include governmental regulations and guidelines, and broader societal ideas can affect how and when foragers experience nature.
The Role of the Government
Government regulations, depending on whether or not they are based on good knowledge can promote or hinder harmony and connection between individuals and their environment.
For example, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s regulations are well regarded for their soundly based ecological principles. Foragers agree on the necessity of regulating the number of mussels taken, the number of crabs taken. Otherwise, these creatures would quickly be overfished. Likewise, seaweed is reasonably regulated. These regulations set bounds for amateurs but still allow them to experience the bounty of the sea. The poaching of abalone, which has devastated abalone populations, proves that some regulations may be necessary. One of my interviewees when asked about seafood regulations stated, “The only thing that’s really tightly controlled is abalone, and it should be.” For example, you can take up to 35 sea urchins a season, as opposed to 12 abalone (CDFW 2017).
Furthermore, health advisories and restrictions on seafood gathering help protect foragers from poisoning by toxic algal blooms, can contaminate seafood and cause illness or death. (California Ocean Science Trust 2016). These regulations help keep both gatherers and the environment safe. Preserving the
environment and protecting people ensures that the connection between humans and their environment through foraging can be sustained in a manner that is mutually benign.
However, in other cases, it appears that regulations are not based on sound knowledge, and hinder the human-environment connection. A frequently repeated statement was that the regulations were biologically unfounded. In California, mushroom picking is forbidden in local parks, and California law does not allow mushrooms to be harvested in regional and state parks in the Bay Area (with the exception of two locations: Point Reyes National Seashore in the North Bay, and Salt Point State Park, a little further north. Other types of foraging are still forbidden there. These places experience heavy traffic by all sorts of mushroom aficionados). However, mushrooms are merely the fruiting bodies of the organism, the mycelium, and picking them has no effect on the organism (Miles & Chang 1997). Since the organism is the mycelium, the mushrooms themselves are only the fruiting body of the underground plant. Picking a mushroom is like picking a fruit off a tree; overharvesting mushrooms is a non-issue (Egli 2006, Norvell 1998). As long as the habitat is preserved, the mushrooms are safe. And because mushroom hunting is so curtailed, the few locations that are allowed are more heavily trafficked, potentially increasing the possibility of habitat damage (Hammitt et al. 2015). Preventing people from picking mushrooms altogether merely impedes their ability to connect to nature through foraging.
The most contentious area of regulations is almost certainly regarding mushrooms. The relationship between foragers, especially mushroomers, and the local laws and regulatory bodies can be
fraught at times. Indeed, mushroomers in particular seem to view government ignorance as the enemy. They believe this leads to a stigmatization of mushrooms, and a lack of appreciation for what they have to offer, both in terms of food and scientific interest. California mushroomers are especially frustrated by what they view as ecologically unfounded limits on mushrooming.
The mushrooming activities of the avid amateur mushroomers are severely curtailed. Multiple mushroomers admitted that they do not go mushroom hunting as much as they would like due to regulations that make it too difficult. Two mushroomers admitted to foraging for mushrooms illegally, and many of the other mushroomers acknowledged that the mushrooming laws are seldom obeyed. Even a forager who grew up foraging for abalone, who thinks that “nothing but jail time” is appropriate for abalone poachers, has admitted to picking mushroom in locations where it is not permitted.
Most concurred that the current state of affairs was unsatisfactory. According to one mushroomer, “[the] restrictions make us crazy, Maya!” However, there were varying levels of dissatisfaction. One mushroomer declared that no regulations would be better than the current regulations. Another said that the current regulations were still preferable to a blanket ban on mushrooming, and that they may serve a purpose, if they prevent the overharvesting of public areas by commercial pickers.
In national forests mushroom picking is allowed to a certain extent, but still the laws are not seen to be ideal. Not only is there the scientific misconception of the effect of taking mushrooms on the
sustainability of the species, many districts adopt laws from Oregon, which has a completely different climate, many mushrooms, and many commercial pickers.
Another significant problem that the mushroomers had with the regulations was their arbitrariness, a “ridiculous California thing.” One mushroomer described the different regulatory districts (parks, counties) as “fiefdoms,” all having different regulations and quotas.
It was interesting to notice that although the regulations most inconvenience amateur pickers, the people who most protested current regulations were the professional mushroomers, who decried their “mean-spiritedness” and “stupidity” and “ineffectiveness.” According to one mushroomer, the main reason that mushroom hunting was restricted is not for good ecological reasons; it is “just easier to say no.” One mushroomer also complained that the enforcement of the regulations is not even-handed; rather rangers “make an example” of one person in order to deter others, while hundreds of mushroomers go unmarked. He told an anecdote of a friend, who had gone out with other friends with licenses, but had forgotten his at home. The friend was almost fined, and was told that mushrooming licenses were important for determining how many mushrooms were being taken out of the woods—however, since most mushroomers do not obtain licenses, this could not have been a real concern. Another of my informants has described an “ongoing battle” between the Sonoma County Mycological Association and the local regulatory bodies, where the mycological association tries to educate and persuade the local government to rethink its ordinances. However, government regulations are influenced by more than
biological findings; ideas of wilderness and proper human attitudes toward the environment also have an affect.
Ideas of Wilderness
For many Americans, the idea of wilderness connotes pristine, untouched nature (Cronon 1995). This idealized conception of nature has its origins in John Muir and the formation of the National Park system, which attempted to preserve America’s landscape from exploitation and degradation by commercial and private enterprises.
Since then, environmentalists and government agencies have attempted to preserve natural space by cordoning it off or by limiting human use of the land.
However, there are other ways of conceptualizing nature. Native Americans also have the idea of wilderness as untouched land. However, for many of them, wilderness holds a negative connotation (Anderson 2005). Good land is land that is cultivated, though not necessarily farmed. Similar ideas are seen in other cultures throughout the world.
The goal of preserving wilderness as pristine and untouched is part of the romanticized American idea of it. However, the land found by the European settlers was the way it was due to the careful cultivation by Native Californians for generations. Much of California was never untouched in the first place, since it was made that way by humans. Furthermore, rangers in national parks work hard to preserve the look of the land—is this still wilderness?
If the natural landscape that we are trying to preserve is in great part the result of human labor, and indeed not natural at all, what are they trying to preserve? If untouched wilderness is not what is meant by natural, what is meant by natural?
This raises further questions. Is the idea of wilderness antithetical to the health of an ecosystem and benefiting from our natural resources? What benefits might there be from human use of land, and human interaction with land?
The California Natives have demonstrated that with knowledge and care there is a way to use the land to benefit both the people using the land, and the land being used. The land for them is sacred, but they gain “deeper intimacy with nature by using it” (Anderson 2005:257). One wonders whether this can apply to foraging by the descendants of immigrants as well.
Figure 8. Eldorado National Forest, MSSF Spring Morel Foray.
Self-Actualization and Connection to the Transcendent
Though foraging is important in the formation and deepening of relationships, it also appears as a path toward self-actualization of the individual. The concept of self-actualization as we know it originates in A.H. Maslow’s “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature” (Maslow 1976) where he lists a human hierarchy of needs, with self-actualization being the capstone. In it, he describes self-actualization as a characteristic of mature, successful and extra-ordinary individuals. In particular, it involves being involved in something greater than oneself—meeting a need for the transcendent, a “metaneed.” These include the classical transcendentals such as truth, beauty, goodness, or being.
In certain definable and empirical ways, it is necessary for man to live in beauty rather than ugliness as it is necessary for him to have food for an aching belly or rest for a weary body. In fact, I would go so far as to claim that these B-values are the meaning of life for most people, but many people don’t even recognize that they have these metaneeds. (Maslow 1976:43)
Biophilia, the affinity for and need of living things, may be categorized with needs lower on the hierarchy of needs, such as needs for sustenance and belonging, but it also appears that going into nature and gathering wild products meets a need beyond the material and verging on the transcendent, and that through either the development of the interpersonal self and/or through meeting a need for transcendent values, wild gathering can help a person achieve a fuller self-actualization.
Maslow puts forth eight steps or behaviors leading to self-actualization, which I summarize as: flow, choice-based living, mindfulness, taking responsibility, self-awareness/courage, actualizing one’s
potentialities, peak experiences, and giving up one’s defenses. One defense that Maslow focuses on is desacralization; giving up the defense of desacralization would result in the resacralization of our lives. In conversations with foragers, it appeared that many of these steps are seen in foraging.
In my interviews, one idea that figured prominently was that the encounter with nature, especially when out gathering wild products, gave foragers a sense of being part of something greater than themselves, and that this was an important part of their experience of nature.
One way of finding meaning in foraging is in encounter with something/someone who is other than oneself, as discussed earlier. However, it appears that in addition to self-realization through relationship, foragers also find paths to self-actualization individually. When foragers discuss their foraging experience, the concepts of mindfulness, responsibility, and skill are present. For example, one forager told me “a certain sense of stewardship [i.e. responsibility] comes along with mushroom knowledge.” Mushrooming is a skill that people can pursue mastery in, or actualize their potential in. Furthermore, foragers definitely feel a sense of the sacred.
Sean Blenkinsop argues that Buber believed that moments of insight given in relation to the natural world can awaken consciousness of “...oneself in relationship with God through His temporal immanence” (Blenkinsop 2005). He writes,
The ecstatic moment [seeing the piece of mica] and the I/Thou and I/Eternal Thou implicit therein provide the insight that is able to propel the individual into the process of ‘turning’ into the conscious process of becoming oneself. (Blenkinsop 2005:288).
This description of insight, where the insight “propels” a person to become himself or herself, sounds very like Maslow’s idea of a peak experience. The intimacy of an I-Thou relation implies a dropping of defenses, and an acceptance of common existence. Furthermore, the idea that “each human has the ability and responsibility to connect with the more than human temporal world and make it sacred by raising it into the eternal” (Blenkinsop 2005:287) may be seen as a resacralization. Indeed, one man explicitly stated this:
I find a lot of peace and I find a lot of connection, um, through the outdoors. Connection not just to other people but to whatever higher being exists out there. Um, and, you know, I tease my dad, who is a very Catholic man, that I go to church every day, why do you only go once a week?
The beneficial impact of being outdoors on bodily health and psychological well-being has been by now clearly established (Mao et al. 2012; Russell et al. 2013; Song et al. 2016). Foraging is an activity that encourages people to spend time outdoors and produces enjoyable and memorable experiences, enhancing their health and enjoyment of life. Furthermore, foraging creates a connection to nature and to others. Humans are relational beings, and relationships, with people and with the natural world are vital for full expression of human fulfillment. Foraging can also lead to experience of the transcendent, helping to address human needs for a meaning beyond their own existence and for a participation in something greater than themselves, such as the workings of the ecosystem, or the sacred as found in nature.
Foraging also often leads to a greater love of nature, and thus has implications for conservation as well as for individuals. It seems clear that foraging is an activity that brings people closer to nature, and experience and knowledge of the workings of surrounding ecosystems and organisms can lead to a stronger sense of connection with and love for nature. When a person loves and cares for something, he or she is more motivated to fight for it and protect it. In recent years, the ecosystems services model (Ehrlich & Mooney 1983)—a conceptualization of ecosystems and wildlife in terms of the benefits they provide to humans such as timber, air purification, etc.—and other such market-based models of conservation have been heavily emphasized (Peace et al. 2012), but it is not clear that these are the most effective or only means to motivate people to conserve natural resources or to protect the environment (Cetas & Yasué
2017; Nilsson et al. 2016; Redford & Adams 2009). The foods available to foragers and the locations in which those foods can be found draw attention to the effects of climate and human activity on the environment, causing a greater awareness of environmental issues. Foraging also creates an affective tie to nature, and at its best, leads to a sense of responsibility toward the environment.
Aldo Leopold, in his seminal essay “The Land Ethic,” characterizes conservation as “a state of harmony between man and land” (Leopold 1949:207), and argues that to promote conservation purely on the basis of self-interest is to fail:
Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything worth-while? It defines no right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current philosophy of values. In respect of land use, it urges only enlightened self-interest... No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial. (Leopold 1949:207-208, 209-210)
The knowledge and love of nature inspired by foraging would seem to help address this lack of personal investment and personal obligation that Leopold describes. In addition, by making foragers more aware of the connection between the land, and what they put into their bodies, foraging may lead to more sustainable food choices, with possible effects on the sustainability of our food production systems today.
Though foraging carelessly and without concern for sustainability can result in concerns for individual safety and habitat health, foraging with the open-minded and respectful mindset that I
encountered with most of the people I interviewed can be greatly beneficial to both people and the environment. Because of this potential for good, it is worth examining ways that foraging knowledge and practice may be incorporated into environmental education and in the larger society, and to add nuance to restrictive policies on wild gathering.
While it seems unlikely—and unhelpful—for Americans to try to fill all their nutritional needs by foraging for wild foods, it is clear that foraging can have great personal meaning for those who participate in it, and can help satisfy a need for beauty and community as well as enriching their diets. Knowledge and experience of nature developed through foraging, alone and in community can lead people to have a closer sense of connection with the environment, and a deeper recognition of their interconnectedness with other living creatures. Foragers are better equipped to know, love and protect nature, and in this relationship of knowing and loving, foragers may even encounter transcendence. By framing foraging in the context of human-environment relationships, I attempted to present a more relational, community- focused alternative to a simplistic Man-object worldview that divides the world into humans and inanimate objects to be controlled. Through acknowledgment of and entering into relationship with other beings in our world, we can come to a fuller understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and deeper meanings of life.
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A: Foraged Items
Mushrooms are commonly regarded as belonging to Phylum Basidiomycota of Kingdom Eumycota (Kingdom Fungi), but are of rather contentious taxonomy. According to Miles & Chang (2001), “A mushroom is a macrofungus with a distinctive fruiting body, which can be found either above ground (epigeous) or below ground (hypogeous), large enough to be seen with the naked eye and to be picked by hand” (Miles & Chang 2001:xix). The “mushroom” collected by foragers refers to the fruiting body, which contains the spores subsequently distributed. Mushrooms are a popular wild food, and the most widely known. Often, wild mushrooms will feature on menus of more upscale restaurants.
Seaweed is a type of marine algae, and is photosynthetic. Its taxonomic classification is fairly ambiguous; most seaweeds, such as nori (green algae) or Gracilaria, are part of the kingdom Plantae. However, there are exceptions, i.e. giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, which is a protist, or bull kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana, which is part of Kingdom Chromista. Seaweed is one of the easiest types of wild food to forage, because none of the seaweeds growing along the California coast are poisonous to humans (Roos- Collins 1990).
This category contains all land plants, from trees to herbs to grasses. Berries and herbaceous plants such as miner’s lettuce are particularly popular wild plant foods.
Shellfish, such as mussels, limpets, and abalone are also popular wild food items. People forage, rather than fish, for shellfish—it is more gathering than hunting or fishing because the foraged items are (mostly) stationary. Abalone in particular is in high demand, and there are strict restrictions on the collection of abalone.
B: Non-food uses of Foraged items
The overwhelming majority of foragers that I spoke to collected plants and mushrooms for food. However, people mentioned a few additional purposes. One of the mushroomers at the foray created seasonal “decorative mushroom arrangements” out of mushrooms and ferns, to display as a centerpiece or in the kitchen or foyer. Another woman I interviewed used mushrooms to dye fabric, and oyster shells to make tiles.
There was also some hearsay about using mushrooms for “recreational purposes.” However, almost nobody I spoke to listed one of their uses of foraged items as intoxicants, although one of the people who I spoke to mentioned collecting a wild lettuce for a friend, who enjoyed its opiate qualities. I
once asked a mushroomer,”Do you gather mushrooms that aren’t edible?” I was thinking of mushroom sculptures or mushroom dyes. However, he responded, “Well, that’s a way of saying psychoactive mushrooms, no I don’t do that.” His response seems to indicate that psychoactive mushrooms are at least a moderately well known use of mushrooms. This is supported by a couple of hints that I received in the course of my interviews, of mushroomers being “wacky?” and not averse to experimenting with the various properties of non-eating mushrooms.