Foraging: Finding Food for Free!

By , September 21, 2009

Ours is a hunter/gatherer family, with definite emphasis on the gatherer aspect. We forage or “wild craft” a lot, gathering food, herbs and seasonings, tools, even medicines from the land and sea around us. It is one of the biggest “jobs” we have on the homestead.

In their season, we harvest mushrooms, berries, seaweed, legumes and vegetables, tree buds, and medicinal herbs. Throughout the year we harvest mosses, seashells, cones, and shelf fungi. A lot of our “hunting” is actually foraging, since gathering seafood from the beaches at low tide hardly qualifies as a hunt, even though the end product is meat for the table rather than vegetables. In a wider sense, we also gather inorganic materials from the wild for food or building, such as sand and gravel. In fact, we even forage snow!

Wild foods and medicines are so prevalent that we have trouble keeping track of all that’s available, what it can be used for, and when. The list is overwhelming, the subject of many books, and every plant seems to have myriad uses. They’re all around us; many of them are literally at our feet.

This creates an interesting dilemma in garden planning. Michelle and I disagree on what should or should not be cultivated. I maintain that we needn’t grow domestic foods that can be found growing wild locally. Why grow peas when large patches of beach pea line our coast? Wild plants need not be tended, so cultivation could be focused on foods that do not appear naturally in this area. Michelle maintains a small plot of indigenous plants on the edge of our garden, both for decoration and to ensure that specific ingredients are at hand when needed. It’s her garden, I just weed there, so I can only grumble about it.

Wild crafting requires study, careful observation, and an awareness of the seasons—both in the regional sense and the local year-to-year variations. The window in which a plant is useful may be quite narrow, so timing is extremely important, as is the ability and willingness to get out and gather when the gathering’s good!

Right now, the gathering’s good for mushrooms. This is one of the last harvests of our year, until the snow falls, but that will be detailed in due time. If you follow these posts, you’ll eventually learn about a wide variety of harvests on and around our little homestead.

Foraging not only provides free food and other benefits, it has aspects that make it a part of our spiritual life. Wild crafting creates in one an awareness of the seasons, a respect for the land and its bounty, and a connectedness to nature that is sadly lacking in western society. The process of finding and harvesting wild edibles drives us outside into the weather, among our wild neighbors, many of which compete with us for the foods we seek. Foraging not only feeds our stomachs, but in many ways, it feeds our souls.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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