Foraging: Finding the Wildness in our Food
Fall is surely here, as the leaves shift from green to gold and the light sparkles against the dew in the cool mornings. Most years, activity tends to drop off a bit when Autumn sets in, but it has been a surprisingly busy season this time around. Somewhere between the steady stream of guests, more and more students, kitchen remodeling, harvest time and book design, it often feels as if we have barely enough time to sleep. And really, who wants to sleep with this much bounty surrounding us, just waiting to be tasted? It’s been great fun to wade through the piles wild herbs and food we’ve been gathering in order to create some tasty new concoction. Just yesterday I spent my morning in the kitchen with Loba coming up with a new variation on chutney that involved peaches, olives (green, kalamata and spicy cracked green olives), apples, green chiles, cardamom and even chardonnay. It was so incredibly good that we made a huge pot to can along with the freshly made salsa (with green chiles and chipolte). We stood over the wood stove for hours tossing in pinches of this and that, tasting and retasting until it was just perfect. Today Loba is making applesauce with feral green apples we found in the mountains and I’ve been sorting through my still drying raspberry and peach leaves before settling down to immerse myself in student work. The Medicine Lodge and kitchen are both overflowing with the goodness of the season, and the smells of roasted green chiles, lemon balm, wild mint, apples and berries waft out of our doors.
While I unabashedly love all good food from anywhere in the world, there’s nothing like the wild foods we gather from right here at home. The water we drink is mountain rainwater, our greens are watercress from the river and our favorite nuts are the small acorns of the evergreen oaks and rich pine nuts from the piñons so prevalent here. When we eat meals made of mostly canyon foods, we can taste the river, the wind and sunlight of this magical place. The native plants here are tenacious and vital – full of the qualities we most need, and rooted in the earth in a way we daily aspire to emulate. And foraging is a primal activity, something that our bodies remember from forever. Everytime we pluck a berry we re-enact the primary ritual of the first humans, and of every animal.
While gardens are both beautiful and useful, I like to hunt/gather as much of our food as possible. One reason for this is purely practical in that the SW doesn’t generally support farming practices without a great deal of added water and hyperviligence (and sometimes armed warfare) to keep the crops from critters. The Southwest is a delicate eclology in many ways, easily disturbed by overgrazing, human ideas of water management and a growing population. It’s simply not ethical or sensible to use gallons and gallons of our precious rainwater to grow thirsty foreign vegetables when there’s free food to be had from the woods and meadows. There’s water in the river of course, but most vegetables are easily outcompeted by native plants, become invasive or get eaten up by the bugs and beasts. We prefer to attempt to work in cooperation rather than competition with our neighbors, both human and otherwise.
Another reason is more philisophical and has to do with avoiding the change in relationship and power dynamic required to shift from hunter/gatherer to agricultural. Our experience is that, here at least, this works better for the land and for us. We don’t spend valuable time chasing off hungry raccoons and bears that would have been better utilized gathering abundant greens and berries, and we get the benefits of mineral rich, easily sustained wild plants. I don’t prescribe this for all people in all places, but it’s what works for us and what we choose to do. We do make a point to actively encourage useful wild plants near the houses by spreading seeds and some transplanting and every year we cultivate a few small patches of herbs and easily grown veggies. Whatever grows and thrives is welcome as long as it doesn’t do so to the exclusion of other flora. We support diversity above all.
There’s an amazing variety of wild foods to be had in this supposed desert we live in, from blackberries to nettles to acorns to watercress to rabbits and turkeys and elk. The vitality and nourishment of these foods and medicines are exceptional and in so many ways, connect us ever deeply with the land they’re rooted in and born from. Our whole family loves wandering through the canyons, mountains and riversides of the Gila searching for each season’s abundance. We each have our favorite personal special spots as well as places we all gather from each year like the particular dip in the big arroyo that acts as a stone bowl to catch piles of falling acorns from the great oak that grows over it. With every sun-warmed brown nut I place in my gathering basket I feel my actions as an echo of the indigenous peoples of this place, and of my ancestral mothers harvesting with the same motion and intent. Walking with the same barefoot steps, carrying food back to my family.