Sacred snacks: Foraging in an urban setting

Foraging

Foraging helps create a better relationship between people and food. (Max Pixel)

History is full of our efforts to defend what we love: from secret societies to holy wars, we go to great lengths protecting the things we call sacred. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have granted that title to our planet.  Rather than safeguarding the ecosystems that support us, we’re wreaking havoc on environments around the world.

We don’t have to continue with this destruction, however. According to Sam Thayer, a forager and author from northwestern Wisconsin, the key to better stewardship of the environment may be reconnecting emotionally with the natural world.  He believes it’s time we viewed the earth as sacred, like many indigenous cultures do.

“I think that sacredness is a way in which culture speaks to individuals about what is important,” Thayer said.

If we view the ecosystems that surround us as sacred, we might just realize how much we rely on their support. When we acknowledge that relationship, appreciation will likely follow, and from appreciation could stem the action our ailing planet needs: a major change from how we’re treating it today.

Seeing the sacredness

So how do we transform the “ordinary” Earth into something so special, so sacred? If you look at the stories that pepper our past, you might think it takes a legend, maybe a war.  But Thayer thinks there’s an easier way, no violence involved: if you want to make something sacred, all you have to do is eat.

It may sound ridiculous, but Thayer’s not suggesting we munch on the stones beneath our feet: he’s urging us to see the sacrality in the plants we already consume. According to Thayer, modern humans have forgotten how important the plants that feed us really are, because we spend little time on basic needs like finding food.

“So many people don't know that cotton is a plant, or that potatoes have leaves,” Thayer lamented.  And if you’ve never witnessed your food sprouting up from the soil, it’s hard to see that soil is sacred - it’s not just dirt.

Sam’s experience has taught him that it is through direct interaction that we develop a sense of sacredness. Physical connections to the environment will become emotional the longer they last: from objective knowledge to subjective feeling, our bond grows stronger over time.  Eventually the connection strengthens into “a spiritual relationship, and a feeling of deep responsibility to our landscape and our descendants,” Thayer said.

The problem is that in today’s culture very few people have any direct contact with the plants that provide them with food: as urbanization continues, more people spend their lives in the concrete jungle of cities instead of the “real” jungles beyond.  That means many people lack the physical connections to the environment from which a sense of sacredness might sprout.

Dandelion foraging
Dandelions can be used for tea, salad, and scores of other tasty snacks, and you can find them pretty much anywhere you go! (Flickr)

A scrumptious solution

Thayer knows there’s a way to reverse this trend: interacting more with nature is the solution to our woes.  And this is far from an arduous, difficult task, because that interaction can take the form of a meal.

“I believe that gathering and eating food directly from nature is the easiest and most effective way to build an appreciation for plants and the ecosystems they create,” Thayer said.  “It fosters gratitude. It creates sacredness… It is better for us and better for the Earth.”

If Thayer is right - and there’s evidence he is - we should snack on berries and nuts, not burgers and fries. But just shifting our diets won’t solve the whole dilemma, because how we obtain our food is what really needs to change.  “Gathering and using a plant is the process that makes it sacred,” Thayer explained. “Look at the plants considered sacred by Native peoples--they are all plants that were extensively gathered and used.”

If this sounds over-the-top, don’t run away yet, we don’t have to return to our primitive past.  “We need to create, maintain, foster, and reinforce those physical relationships that lead to an attitude of sacredness,” Thayer said, but that doesn’t mean abandoning modern life!

By taking small steps to explore wild food, you’ll build relationships with the land outside your door.  Even in cities, there are plenty of opportunities to sample a few wild plants in your salad and connect to the ecosystems from which they come.

Building that relationship isn’t a chore either, it can be a pleasure. “I tell people to forage because it is fun, first and foremost” Thayer said. “The rest grows naturally and automatically from that.”

The more you get to know local ecosystems (including the urban ones so many of us now inhabit) the more fun you’ll have.  But it’s not just you that will benefit. As you grow closer to plants you once passed without a thought, your attitude towards the earth is likely to improve as well.

“The act of gathering builds and compounds gratitude,” says Thayer. If we all tried foraging, our collective gratitude could grow.  We could learn to see the Earth as sacred, worth our time and effort to protect.  As this attitude spreads and begins to gather strength, we could radically shift the way we treat our planet.  The more plants and places we really get to know, the less likely we are to replace them with a parking lot.

The environment would certainly benefit from this shift, and we might notice our own bodies changing as well. By replacing processed foods with nature’s nutrient-rich fare, foraging would do our health a favor too.  But even more than the planet, your body, or your tastebuds, Thayer believes foraging is good for the soul.  “I think a connection to Nature is a vital part of what it is to be human,” he explains; in other words, our human nature could be more natural than we know.

What Thayer is implying is truly profound: foraging is about more than gathering food. It is a way of reminding ourselves how sacred life is – human life, and all other forms in the world. So why not just try it: give gathering a chance! There are more edible plants out there than you might think, and many are growing in the abandoned lots, sidewalks, and gardens that surround you even in the concrete world of the city. So grab a foraging guidebook, and pull your friends out the door, as well: as you connect with each other and the planet, you’ll be defending our sacred Earth.

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