Starting Sunday, May 24, I'll spend a week eating wild food that I forage from sidewalks, parks, wilderness areas and yards in the city of Portland, Oregon. There will be no dumpster diving or mooching off gardens; I will be eating wild edibles only. I will be blogging about my experience here at CultureChange.org, talking about what I eat, how I prepare it and how I feel. As a city girl accustomed to the comforts of restaurants and supermarket food, I am excited to experience a new kind of luxury: interacting with the Earth the way I was meant to.
What I am about to do is something anyone can do anywhere, right now. You don't need to live in the middle of a nature preserve to forage. ...
Sheep sorrel leaves taste tangy. They're reminiscent of lemon
Today was great. I don't feel hungry at all, and I have lots of energy. I do have a very mild head ache though, and I think I was a little cranky. I started the day with pineappleweed tea, which is honestly the most delicious tea I've ever tasted! It grows along the sidewalk by a chain-link fence about 6 blocks west of my apartment. It smells like pineapple and tastes amazing.
After drinking the brew, I spent 5 hours foraging at a park near a river and then later at a mountainous forest. My herbalist friend Emily Porter (www.wildheartshealing.com) came along, and the local TV news station, KATU-ABC, filmed us for a one-minute spot on the 11 o'clock news tonight.
Emily and I dug up two wild carrots and I ate the root in front of the camera. They were tiny -- thinner than a pencil and only about two inches long -- but they tasted good. We also collected rose petals and ground ivy. Each will make a nice tea later on. Ground ivy can be used medicinally to treat respiratory problems, and occasionally they strike me, so I'll keep it on hand. Fresher is not better when it comes to medicinal tea -- drying makes them more powerful.
Nettles lose their sting when boiled -- and, as Wild Girl learned, also when audibly thanked.
The highlight of my day was harvesting stinging nettles. At first I tried to keep my distance from the plants, using a pair of scissors to snip the leaves and top portions so that they would fall into the grocery bag I was holding. When I touched them, they gave me a few mild stings. But then I remembered an e-mail I got this morning from a reader named Coral in Winnipeg, Canada. Coral wrote to say that if you talk to the plant and let it know your intentions are good, it won't sting you. I gave her advice a shot, and it actually worked. I know it sounds crazy, but when I said, "Thank you," -- whether silently or out loud -- I really was able to pluck leaves and touch all parts of the plants with my bare hands without getting stung. It makes you think differently about plant consciousness, does it not?
At home I boiled the nettles into a nutritious, tasty broth. Nettle leaves can be cooked like spinach when young, but because these were more than 5 feet tall, I decided the broth was more appealing. I did taste the boiled leaves. They were not objectionable, but the texture was, for me, a bit too tough to enjoy. ...
I wanted this to last seven days, but I hit my limit today and had to end the project early. All the foraging experts told me in advance that the last week of May would be a pretty much impossible time of year to eat only fresh wild edibles because it's an in between time -- a time after the spring mushrooms but before the summer fruits and berries -- so there are few calories available besides meat or fish, and even those are not necessarily easy to come by without much skill and knowledge. Now I can tell you from first-hand experience that they are absolutely correct about that. I ended up fasting except for herbal teas and root foods, and it turns out the roots were mainly diuretics, liver tonics and laxatives, so I was doing a real number on my body. Survival projects like this can be incredibly educational but are rarely much fun, because they push you to the limits of what you can endure.
Before this project began, I viewed foraging as a really fun way to get outside and appreciate the land around me. It allowed me to see the world in a totally different way. I started preferring unkempt lawns and less affluent areas of the city because they offered more weeds and more wild plant diversity. I liked tasting new foods and thinking about how they could compliment conventional recipes. I think that's the best way to go about introducing yourself to the wild -- a little bit at a time, gradually, and as a fun addition to your regular diet. It is fascinating to discover that most of the weeds on your street are actually ancient foods with medicinal or deeply nutritious properties that are absent from conventionally farmed foods.
So, why did I end the project early? This morning I woke up feeling awful. I could barely walk without seeing spots and holding onto a wall. My muscles felt weak and achy, and my emotional state was really bad. I found myself hungry and angry and sobbing out of frustration. I knew that I had tried all the major plant food sources in the area and that I did not have the energy to go out again today to try and find any more. I did hear about a fishing spot for bass, but it required driving 30 minutes, and I was in no condition to be behind the wheel. I also heard of someone who knows how to trap an aquatic rodent called a nutria around here, but he was out of town. And the person with the acorns did not get back in touch with me, either. Today was looking bleak, and so my choice was either to fast for two more days or to stop now and reflect. I decided that the emotional toll of prolonged fasting would be counterproductive, because it would only leave me increasingly miserable and resentful. It's one thing to fast a few days while you're at a meditation retreat, and another to be fasting while stressed out about trying to find food. I had reached my limit.
Becky Lerner eats the inner part of a thistle stem. The stems and roots of this plant are edible and have a mild flavor. The leaves and stems are covered with prickly thorns.
If I were to do this project over, knowing what I know now, I would either pick a different time of year or have stored food from other seasons and focused on scavenging roadkill, fishing, and maybe hunting squirrels. I might still eat some of the same wild foods I ate this time -- especially the ones I included in those wonderful teas -- but they would be in combination with the other ones. I would also have scouted out the area in advance so I knew where everything would be. I made the mistake this time of thinking that the wild foods I had eaten in the weeks leading up to the survival challenge would still be available. I didn't realize that food you can find in the second week of May is no longer an option in the fourth.
I would love to try doing this again in the late summer or early fall when the best tasting fruits, berries and nuts and salmon and mushrooms are abundant in Oregon. I would do it with a tribe of friends and I would sleep outdoors in the wilderness instead of in the city. That would make it much more fun and much more doable -- the benefits of community, of having other knowledgeable people working together to help each other, cannot be understated. While one person might spend four hours looking for and gathering burdock root, for instance, three others can use that same time to go out and get three other kinds of foods in three other places. Together we can do so much more than one person can accomplish alone. The opportunity to share our knowledge and barter or share goods are also huge benefits. Maybe you didn't save enough acorns last fall, but your neighbor has more than she needs. Maybe you don't know where to go to catch bass, but your friend does. When it comes to naturalist skills, there is an overwhelming amount of information to grasp. As my botanist friend Jordan Fink put it, "Some of us have been doing this stuff for 10 years, but we're all beginners. Unless you were raised with ecosystems and plant knowledge, ecology is always going to be a second language. I might be fluent, but I'm always going to have an accent. I'm not going to know the deep patterns." That's good news, too -- it means you don't have to know everything to survive. You just need a community of people who are all in it together.
I'm going to continue writing about wild food for the next two days, I just will also be eating regular food too. That's really the best way to learn -- when you're not under pressure. I encourage anyone who has been reading this to go out and try foraging for something you'll really enjoy, whether that is a morel mushroom or a sun-ripened blackberry or an apple from a tree. Write down where you found it. Take pictures. Go back next season, or in a few weeks, and see what you find. Look at the weeds outside your door and think about letting your lawn go a little wild. More than anything, have fun. Get out there and be free.
If you'd like to stay with me as the seasons change and I continue to write about and photograph the wild foods I enjoy, please visit my wilderness skills blog, First Ways. And as always, I love to hear from readers at RebeccaELerner@gmail.com
I broke my wild food "fast" last night with some Cliff bars and a great meal at a Thai restaurant. I finally had a restful sleep, too, so this morning I woke up feeling fantastic. I feel totally normal today, as if the past five days were all a dream! Thank you to those who e-mailed me to express their concern about my health -- I feel great!
Violet leaf on the left, wild ginger on the right.
Today I went into the woods with herbalist Emily Porter (www.wildheartshealing.com) and gathered wild ginger, which is in the process of becoming root beer as I type this. Wild ginger is a different species from the kind of ginger you see in the supermarket, but they have a very similar flavor and the same medicinal uses -- that is, ginger is good for relieving an upset stomach, expelling gas, and stimulating circulation. Wild ginger has a heart-shaped leaf that looks similar to violets (the flowers of which are edible)
... What, then, is the value of foraging or eating wild foods today? Besides being fun, I think the benefits are both pragmatic and spiritual. Wild foods can help you survive a future crisis. And they can be a money-saving and highly nutritious supplement to a primarily agricultural diet in the present. But I think the greatest gains are of a more spiritual nature. Foraging is a way of reconnecting with our ancestral roots and showing our fellow beings that we honor them, that we still remember our place in the great Gaia.
... Today I would like to reflect on what I have learned about survival.
EAT LIKE THE FIRST PEOPLE: I made the mistake of assuming that the only difference between my conventional diet and a wild one here in the Pacific Northwest would be the foods themselves -- for instance, chickweed instead of lettuce and nettles in place of spinach -- but in fact the structure and proportions are totally different. I am accustomed to eating an almost entirely vegetarian diet with lots of vegetable protein, fruits and starchy carbohydrates like yams and oatmeal. In contrast, the indigenous diet here was heavily weighted toward meat and only lightly supplemented with greens. The calories all came from fish, aquatic animals and deer, with vitamins and minerals from the inner parts of tree bark, seaweed, the shoots of some plants and only occasionally some roots -- and according to Nancy J. Turner, author of "Food Plants of Coastal First People," meals made of roots alone probably only graced their plates for maybe 12 days per year. No wonder I was so very hungry!
The land in each region offers a limited selection. Survival means you've got to conform to what it gives you. Next time around, I will need to focus on animal protein. I must fish at the very least.
If you are interested in eating wild, it's a good idea to study not only what foods the native people ate in your region, but also in what proportions. You may have to readjust.
FIND YOUR TRIBE: It's very empowering to embark on a survival challenge solo because you learn that you can rely on yourself. But this is not nearly as efficient as having help. If you have four people in your "tribe," you can accomplish four times as much as one person in the same amount of time. ...