Happy Friday, League of Wildness!
Have you ever been out in the wild and picked an apple or a handful of berries? Did you pause for a moment and consider the connection that has existed between humans and foraging ever since we first walked the planet? 🤔For 95% of humanity’s time on Earth, we foraged all of our food. We have only been farming for about 11,000 years, and industrial farming for just over 100 years. One result is that many of us are completely disconnected from the knowledge of where our food comes from. What if you had to locate, collect, and preserve everything in your grocery cart? Most of us can’t comprehend it. Foraging has made me more aware of those details.
I grew up foraging. It was a family affair to carry buckets into the woods and collect strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. We handed our bounties over to my grandma who would make pints of jam. But my favorite way to enjoy berries was right off the plant. Not many of them made it to the bucket because I was a “9 for me, 1 for the bucket” kind of picker. These days, more of them make it to the bucket because I get to keep them all 😉
This summer has been a banner year for berries where I live: Juneberries (aka Serviceberries or Saskatoon berries), strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. Plums, chokecherries, and apples are up next. The bushes and trees are so full that they are drooping with the weight of the fruit. Last year we had a severe drought and the year before a late frost killed all the blossoms. It is a stark reminder of what our ancestors who relied on wild foods experienced. What did they do when there was no berry crop for three years? My winter will be more enjoyable with a freezer full of wild berries, but I won’t struggle to survive without them.
(photo of blueberry buckets)
👆About 2.5 gallons, or 10 pounds, of blueberries forged in one afternoon.
Aside from the delicious bounty, foraging is an excellent workout. There is a lot of squatting, lunging, stretching, climbing, and contorting to reach berries under tall ferns, fallen trees, and on rocky ledges. In the book, “The Comfort Crisis,” the author, Michael Easter, has to carry a heavy load across five miles of arctic wilderness. After returning to camp, he noted, “This experience can’t be replicated in a gym.” That is a lesson I realized last week.
One of my favorite strength moves is the farmer’s carry. You carry a weight in one hand and walk with it, requiring your body to engage stabilizer muscles to keep you upright. While berry picking, I carried milk cans full of berries across rugged, rocky terrain. Up and down small cliffs, across logs, and through mossy wetlands. Even though my load weighed only around 15 pounds, the uneven weight in each hand combined with traversing a mile of rugged terrain was more of a workout than the heavier weight I carry during workouts. Despite that most of the movements I performed while foraging are also replicated in my workouts, I was still sore the next day. No matter how much we try to replace natural, wild movement in an indoor environment, I don’t think it’s truly possible. The untamed world offers too many variables that our bodies – and minds – are required to navigate in ways we simply cannot replicate indoors. That is one of the big reasons we advocate for getting outside every day. Something as simple as changing your walk from a paved path to a grassy park can have a big impact!
You might be thinking, “Well, that’s great for you, but you live in a wilderness, what about those of us who live in the city?” Actually, cities often have spaces that people can forage in, too. Always check your local regulations, but in Minnesota, foraging is allowed in many city and state parks. There are still rules to follow, for example, you cannot dig up entire plants. Foraging is limited to the “fruiting body” which means apples, berries, mushrooms, etc.
Once you know what your local regulations are and have a place to explore, make sure you identify anything you want to eat. If you aren’t 100% sure about the identification, don’t eat it until someone can verify it for you. Most regions have field guides available to identify plants and mushrooms, and those are helpful to get started. Most bookstores should have them under the local/regional section. Another thing you can consider is that if you have a neighbor whose apple tree is about to tip over from the weight of the apples, knock on the door and ask permission to pick. Often, they are grateful that someone is going to take some so they don’t have to deal with them all. We have people here who grow apples, plums, and pears and often post on local Facebook groups inviting people to bring buckets to collect the excess fruit.
On an interesting note, most Scandinavian countries have laws that protect the right of people to explore and forage in nature. Finland, for example, has what they call “Everyman’s Right” which allows Finns and visitors to roam the forests to forage and fish (with a rod and reel, other types of fishing require permits). Time in nature is so important to them that it is built into their rights. Pretty nifty!
Once you’ve found something to collect, the sky’s the limit on what you can do with your treasure of foraged foods. Often, you can eat them as-is. You can dehydrate them, freeze them, or preserve them as jams, jellies, or syrups. You’ll need to inspect your wild foods for bugs and worm holes. I usually spread them on a dry terry towel and pick out any leaves, twigs, or under ripe fruits which also exposes any bugs.
If you choose to expand your foraging horizons, you’ll find there is a whole world of things we can utilize, whether you are interested in getting into herbalism, or just want to enjoy some fresh fruit and homemade tea.
Some things you can do to get started:
Check your local bookstore or library for field guides about the things you might be interested finding, such as mushrooms or fruiting plants. Read about what kind of environment those plants like and head out to explore your state and local parks. Make sure you check their official websites for guidance. Always know where you are and never forage on private property without permission.
Download an app such as i-Naturalist or Seek that can help you learn how to identify plants. I personally use these as reassurance. When I am foraging for new things, I ask someone to help verify the identity before I consider eating it. ⚠️Never eat anything you can’t identify with 100% confidence!⚠️ Mushrooms, for example, can have look-alikes where one is an excellent addition to your steak while the other one can land you in the ER or six feet under. State mycological groups are excellent resources for starting out in the mushroom world. Mycology is the study of fungi, including mushrooms. Their information is in-depth and reliable.
Explore online. The internet is a great resource to find groups and basic information similar to what field guides contain. Facebook is also an excellent resource for local foraging groups. Searching for phrases like “*your state/city/region* foraging” is a good place to start. Some state parks and community education offices offer foraging classes where you can learn basic identification skills.
Spend more time roaming the wild and pay attention to your surroundings. Just by being curious about what is growing where you live, you will start to identify plants and figure out what is worth picking. You can use an app like Gaia GPS and mark your location, so when you are hiking in the spring and find a nice patch of berry plants, you know where to go back in the summer. This is my Gaia map from my recently blueberry picking adventure, you can see where I labeled the bigger patches. (screenshot of map)
Don’t underestimate weeds! A lot of the things we consider “weeds” in the modern day of the “perfect lawn” are actually useful plants. Dandelion, for example, can be utilized for its flower, greens, and roots. One of my favorites is pineapple weed, which makes terrific tea. Ensure when you forage that you are mindful of pollution. I avoid picking along busy roadsides due to vehicle emissions, along with areas I know are sprayed with pesticides.
Create a challenge for yourself. See if you can find a few different things to forage and turn it into a meal.
Foraging is something I grew up with but only more recently came to appreciate it as a method of obtaining healthy foods while connecting to the natural world in ways our ancestors once did. Foraging, in my opinion, is underutilized. It offers an immense opportunity to expand your knowledge of the natural world, reap the benefits of optimally nutritious foods, and put your workouts to the test in a wild way. Get out there and let me know what you find!