How often do you just, wander? Walk around your town and take notice? In this fascinating personal essay, Chelsey Reis from Ballarat, VIC on Wadawurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung land, explores how she has grown her relationship with place and community through the ancient practice of foraging.
It’s a chilly six degrees as I leave my house early on a winter morning. Equipped with two sturdy bags and dressed in op-shop woolens and gifted gumboots, I shut the door quietly and step out into the expectant dawn. I’m off on a foraging expedition, an activity that has grown from a childhood fascination with finding treasures from the natural world into a growing passion for sourcing sustenance from nature in my adult life.
Foraging is, according to the Collins Online Dictionary, '...the acquisition of food by hunting, fishing or the gathering of plant matter’. Across all cultures, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was held in common around the globe up until the advent of large-scale agriculture around 12,000 years ago, with variations in activity depending largely on what food sources were supported in a range of environments. In recent times, foraging has gained popularity with folk who are consciously seeking ways to reduce their reliance on money, increase well-being, step more lightly on the planet and deepen their connection to nature and place.
Living in a regional city, the scope of my urban foraging extends to what lives, grows or is freely available in my local environment. There tends to be more emphasis on the ‘gathering’ aspect of foraging. In addition to edible plants and fungi, I harvest other natural resources such as fallen timber, with due diligence and respect to the ecosystems I am engaging with and ensuring what we will use in our house or garden is non-toxic. I also source food that is growing over fences (more on the legalities and etiquette later), and access fruit, veggies, herbs, recycled jars, seeds and more from the Food is Free stalls in my hometown.
As researcher Annika C. Dahlberg and her colleagues note, ‘Urban foraging can encompass a range of situations, from occasional recreational or cultural use to subsistence use to fulfil basic needs with important health and nutritional dimensions, to harvesting for processing and sale for livelihood supplementation. In all cases, urban foraging contributes important and even essential aspects of urban well-being'.
During the recent Covid 19 lockdowns, being able to combine my exercise time with urban foraging became a vital part of my daily routine that helped strengthen my mental and physical health. One of the many reasons I am drawn to foraging is the way it seamlessly meets so many of my innate needs. Rather than spending time ‘...lifting weights that don’t need to be lifted’, my body is engaged in movement that has a deep resonance within my psyche and that energises and holistically engages my muscles, bones, senses, and synapses. Being outdoors brings multiple benefits, particularly accessing essential stores of Vitamin D from sunlight, which has been linked in multiple studies to support circadian rhythms that promote sleeping at night, reduce depression through increased production of serotonin, lower blood pressure, decrease risk of contracting bowel and breast cancer and, somewhat surprisingly, reduces risk of melanoma.
My practice of foraging began as a child immersed in nature, including hours spent beachcombing for precious shells, coral, and driftwood on a pristine back beach on the Mornington Peninsula. The activity I was immersed in transported me into what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, co-founder of positive psychology, calls ‘Flow’. Headspace, a global provider of mental health supports, describes the state of Flow as ‘...giving your fullest attention to an activity or task that you are incredibly passionate about, singularly focused on, and totally immersed in….’ As a kid, I would happily spend hours searching for a special shell, unaware of time passing, hunger and thirst or being hot or tired. And despite the increased levels of anxiety that living through the Covid pandemic generated, my daily practice of foraging embedded me in the present moment, allowing me to forget my worries through paying attention to what was in abundance in my local environment. The practice of mindfulness allows the mind to slow down and take a break from over-thinking, particularly about things outside our sphere of control.
Becoming more aware of what grows in our local environment means spending regular time in the spaces around us, which engenders a deeper connection to the places we inhabit. In his paper entitled The Rediscovery of Place and our Role within it, Nicolas Stephen Mang proposes that it is through connections to and within place, that care for place evolves. Mang quotes Zen Buddhist Kazuo Matsubayashi, ‘Caring evolves through attachment to a place. As one puts down roots in a certain location and becomes familiar with the surroundings, one begins to distinguish subtle differences in even the most ordinary landscapes.’
Over the last 18 months of foraging in my local green spaces, I have formed a network of connecting territories in my mind. Each morning, depending on the season, my energy levels, and what resources we are in need of, I select my route and stopping points. These change from day to day, week to week, season to season. I notice small changes over time, such as how a bud becomes a flower and then a fruit. The appearance and disappearance of a winter pond and which birds sing first from their tree-top perches in the early morning.
My route today takes me past a lone apple tree, perhaps the last remnant of a farmer’s orchard. It droops with the weight of its glossy red fruit which is, according to my kids, the sweetest they've ever eaten. I take a couple to add to the fruit bowl at home, leaving the over-ripe windfalls to nourish the birds, insects, worms, soil and ultimately, the tree itself. Surrounding the apple tree are ‘weeds’, including chickweed, oxalis, and plantain which I pick for our table, as opposed to the expensive selection of limp greens from the supermarket. I then harvest sorrel, borage and nasturtium flowers and a handful of herbs that have been planted for public use along the fence of the local community garden. This yields me fresh greens my 8-year-old loves to eat, edible flowers to decorate our salads and herbs to add flavour to our meals. On the last leg of my journey, I gently acquire a spray of Jasmine that the kids can slurp the nectar from, lavender flowers to scent the house and a lemon or two for honey-and-lemon drinks to ease a sore throat.
By choosing to use what is available in season and in abundance, we break with habitual patterns shaped by consumerism that take away both the joys and responsibilities of providing for ourselves. Foraging stretches us to be open to new possibilities, tastes and ways of being. It reinstates us as active participants in sourcing our food and directly connects us to nature as provider. As author and forager Samual Haynes, an internationally recognised authority on edible wild plants, explains, ‘Harvesting wild food is the oldest and most basic subsistence activity of humankind, but today we live in a world where these skills are almost lost. Foraging is the missing link in modern civilised cultures - it is this direct physical connection, in the form of sustenance, that brings us to our deepest appreciation and understanding of the natural world’.
When I return home laden with my foraged gifts, the looks of delight on my family’s faces fills me with joy and pride. The ability to provide both unexpected treasures - the unidentified, woody pod revealed as a cocoon of an Emperor Gum Moth, which we later had the privilege of watching emerge, unfurl and flap away - and an array of fresh, varied, locally sourced food is empowering and connects my family to the abundance of the natural world around us.
Occasionally, as I’m collecting dried twigs from under the eucalypt trees, passers-by look at me strangely, and I feel a bit awkward, like I'm stealing or so impoverished I'm forced to scrounge, rather than buy wood. More challenging is gaining skill and confidence to identify, prepare and consume plants and fungi for my family as the sheer magnitude of edible weeds and wild foods is daunting, and I currently only harvest a fraction of our food intake. Through a combination of online research, books, face to face discussions and walking with experienced foragers, I am slowly building my plant knowledge and am extending our range of trying new wild-grown plants, some of which I now harvest regularly when in season. It is heartening to know that by choosing to use what is already freely available in my community, I am taking direct action that reduces my impact on the climate and allows me to live in care of our planet. As Fergus the Forager so eloquently says, ‘By collecting just enough, just at the right time, just in the right place and with just the right company, foraging becomes an intentional act to embrace change and the eternal transition, with resilience, hope and growing wisdom.’
Please ensure you are skilled in identifying wild plants and weeds before eating, and understand what you are legally and safely allowed to harvest. If you are new to foraging, there’s a few handy guidelines to keep you healthy, safe and out of trouble. Checking in with your local council to make sure that plants growing in public spaces have not been sprayed with pesticides is a very good idea, as is learning from experts to identify which plants are edible. Plants that overhang residential fences are considered to be on public space and you are therefore legally allowed to pick fruits etc., ensuring you don’t damage the plant and take more than you need. Knocking on a neighbour’s door and asking if it’s ok to pick fruit - as we did recently after spotting a couple of crab-apple trees ladened with fruit - is also a great way to source food and make new friends.
About the author
After 50 or so years of hoarding tatty notebooks scattered with narratives, poems and ponderings, Chelsey has finally succumbed to the heart-call to cultivate her writing practice. She juggles this commitment with home educating (from birth) her two indefatigable children, multiple caring roles, living across two Australian states, daily foraging/ wanderings, enthusiastic participation in building creative and connected communities and living with joy and mindfulness.