(Originally published in Spring 2022 issue of Edible Ojai & Ventura County)
By Jess Starwood
Once an outright necessity of humankind, foraging for one’s sustenance in the wild had taken a backseat to the commercial food system, fading into obscurity and lingering only in stories of past generations—all in favor of that which is fast, aesthetic and convenient. Food has become safe, predictable, and mundane for the past hundred years. For most, if you are hungry, an easy meal is never too far away.
However, with a worldwide pandemic suggesting the very real possibility of empty food shelves in addition to entire populations quarantining without much to do, folks quickly found themselves curious about how to feed themselves if the system really did shut down. For most, it was the first time they had been confronted with an empty food shelf or the near-catastrophic shutdown of the restaurant industry. Food needed to be found. Many turned to gardening, others turned to foraging. These uncertain times prompted the biggest surge of interest in foraging during modern times. Sprinkle in an dose of dopamine for instant social-media fame by posting tidbits of regurgitated factoids sidled up to a snapshot of a funky mushroom and you’ve got yourself a recipe for the latest and hottest trend circling the internet of young adults showing off their newfound hobby. Hungry not just for backyard weeds and fungi, but also for those likes, follows, and shares for their latest “discovery.”
These nascent foragers are just far enough removed from earlier generations to not be able to learn about these modest traditions of everyday life from their elders that may have harvested huckleberries and hunted morels—surprisingly, all without today’s digital fanfare. Rather, these modern foragers are garnering their knowledge (and fame) from the visually flashy video clips paired with catchy tunes on TikTok and other platforms, soaking up the sound bites and passing them on to the next follower.
With renewed interest for the little bit of nature we have left around us, are these hoards of freshly minted foragers trampling about in the woods picking every fruit, berry and mushroom in their path causing harm to the environment? Or is this practice cultivating a new perspective on how, in dire times (which we are not out of the woods from yet) that we may someday need to rely on in this fragile and shrinking natural world around us? It just as well may be opening eyes to how destructive our blind consumerist habits have been on these rich and diverse wild communities that were once seen as “empty space.” Research has shown that once people understand nature has personal value and have developed a relationship with it, they become invested in its future and see it as something worth saving.
Foraging comes at a time when a relief from the fast-paced, manufactured, ready-made virtual landscape is needed most. While the pandemic brought people outdoors, it also brought us deeper into the digital realm more than ever before as the world embraced a new way to connect in all facets of our daily lives. It’s no wonder people found respite in a walk in the woods. Finding your own food in the wild requires a much slower gait than the typical Trader Joe’s run. Foraging gets our hands dirty. It’s tactile and ever-changing. Predictable, yet often surprising, it fosters a study of nuances and opportunity. Foraging requires a discernment between that which is edible or poisonous and a real-life investigation of its growing conditions. Nothing is neatly trimmed, cleaned and packaged—just raw, natural and untamed.
Will foraging replace commercialized and ready-made foods? Most likely not. The work that goes into collecting, processing and preparing a completely wild food diet is time consuming in a modern society known best for its insatiable desire for instant gratification. But by honoring the practice for what it is and using it as a catalyst for reconnection with ourselves and the fragile yet resilient natural world around us, foraging can help people to balance the fast paced virtual landscape that is slowly taking over our lives. Modern day foraging cultivates a sense of wonder and discovery in a familiar yet strangely unfamiliar world that we live in. Will it last into the post-pandemic years? Possibly—especially as growing populations continue to increase and dwindling food choices are available, wild foods will continue to have an appeal. Will the wilds be overrun with the latest wave of social media fame-seekers trampling the fragile wildflowers and digging up native species just to make a few bucks or even more valuable—likes, shares and follows? While it may be a passing fad for some, but for others, this newly established connection with the environment will give reason to protect, support and honor the valuable land that we live in for generations to come.