by Sarah West
In the forest this time of year there is a quiet frenzy. Animals are searching for provisions, gathering and storing—on their bodies or in caches—the calories needed for winter. These creatures have finely tuned senses, intuitive knowledge of what they must find and how to find it. Their whole day is spent this way, covering and recovering ground, in a perpetual hunt.
Not so long ago, our species was out there with the best of them, hunting, fishing, and collecting our food. Until the last century, foraging was a commonplace supplement to the produce of a garden, the occasional goods from a store. All ecosystems yield a unique bounty. Each village and tribe carried the knowledge of its preferred wild foods through generations. As our cultures have shifted in the wake of modern technology, this sort of wisdom is falling out of sight, marginalized to the realms of old ways or hobby.
As a species, we have succeeded brilliantly in securing dependable sources of nourishment through agriculture and food science, but we have never let go of the wild ones. Foraging is our oldest and most basic food tradition, and in the fabric of our beings we know this. Many children may first experience the thrill of foraging as a hunt for dyed eggs. They know what to do, and although unintended, this simulation teaches foraging’s basic narrative: strategy, deftness, secrecy and delight.
Food procured this way is imbued with a charge of life. My first true foraging experience was for morel mushrooms in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. We had no strategy or deftness, just a tip from a coworker for where to go looking. We walked through the woods for two hours, becoming unsure, in the process, of everything we thought or hoped we knew about morels. We started to give up, quicken our pace, make tails for the road back to the car, when my foot nearly crushed the first wild mushroom I ever harvested.
I knelt down quickly, as if it could run away, and sliced it free from its anchor. As I looked up to continue on, I spotted another a few feet away. I paused to take in my surroundings and saw that the little clearing where I crouched was filled with morels, poking out of grassy banks, perched amidst conifer roots. They sat perfectly still, trying to get my attention with their silent, piercing stare. And I felt suddenly that they had been watching me this whole time, never lowering their gaze until I met it. It was an inviting feeling, one of connection, as if receiving a blessing.
Two things about foraging are counter-intuitive to contemporary American culture: going off trail and eating from the forest. Wild foods come without labels, as raw as food can be. Until the forager has picked and eaten enough to know these foods as friends, there is always ambiguity—hours spent flipping through field guides, debating ID features.
It was leaving the comfort of the trail, though, that startled me the most. I grew up in the Midwest, a place short on wilderness. Although I spent my early days wandering the fields and forests at the edge of a small Wisconsin town, I had never encountered the vastness of a place like eastern Oregon. As we hiked trails in the Wallowa and Blue Mountains, I peered into those wild forests as one would animal enclosures at the zoo.
When, lured by mushrooms, I took a bold step into them and began learning their patterns and landmarks, I was transformed—my ears were always perked, my eyes scanning the forest floor, my mind busy cataloging everything it saw with a pleasing rhythm. I found in those woods a quiet space that cradled any thought I put into it, and in the practice of foraging, a kind of meditation. Now when I step off the trail, it is like diving into a pool: a place that stretches and strengthens parts of me that go underused elsewhere.
We no longer require wild foods to sustain ourselves, but that is no excuse to lose these skills, to let those inexplicable flavors go untasted, to forget what sort of place the wild pantry is or what richness we live amongst. Find a friend who will take you. Read as much as you can. Start small; be safe and treat the forest with care, but go! Teach your children, share with your neighbors. Help our species keep hold of this gift.
(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, November 15, 2012)