Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Foraging in Crow’s Backyard

The fermenting smell of Concord grape takes me back to one of my earliest childhood memories. The wild grape vine on the property line between our home and the neighbors’ opened doors to the adventure and abundance of late summer in Northern California. I remember walking around the block, visiting with neighbors, and gleaning fruits such as plums, pomegranates, lowquats and crabapples, and exploring the morphology of acorns and walnuts that had fallen to the ground, never quite figuring out how to process them for their promise of nutmeats. I come from a family of sporadic foragers, shellfish harvesters, and dumpster divers. Many of us doIn fact, it may be a very long line of foragers and hunters.

a feral & hearty 50+ year old grape vine behind our house on Beacon Hill, Seattle WA

To my child’s mind, it made little sense for food to waste on trees, or on the ground for that matter. Foraging was a way to explore my environment and engage a sense of wonder. It still is. Edible plants like wild mint and lemony sorrel offer the adventurous tastes of nature. Reclaiming wild, neglected and discarded food is my family ethic; and I hope it might also once again become a wider species ethic.

Perhaps more subversive than simply diverting edibles from the wasteshed back into the foodshed, however, I’m interested in foraging as a way to more deeply embed ourselves in the environments where nearly 80% of Americans now live: cities. What’s so subversive about urban foraging? First, it pushes us to consider that anthropogenic landscapes (such as cities) are also natural landscapes where wildness thrives. Second, it challenges tired narratives about modernization and human evolution that make ongoing subsistence invisible.

This is where the idea of Crow’s Backyard comes into greater perspective. Crows are emblematic of this wildness and our interconnectedness with urban nature. The habitat perhaps most closely associated with this native corvid species is the urban habitat. Crows are birds of the city. They’re adaptive, inventive, and resilient. In her book Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, Seattle naturalist Lyanda Haupt writes (p. 13):
Crows remind us that we make our homes not in a vacuum, but in a zoöpolis, a place where human and wild geographies meet and mingle.
The idea that modern post-industrial cities are devoid of wildness, and furthermore that people who live in cities are disconnected from nature, may well be based on a myth that allows us to ignore the intricate dimensions of wildness in cities, and the ways in which human dwellers engage with plants, mushrooms and diverse urban habitats through the gathering, tending and consumption of wild foods. 
Any landscape marked by human intrusion is, in ecological parlance, disturbed, and as a habitat-type, the urban landscape can only be called highly disturbed. The word disturbe has a Latin root, turbare, which means “to agitate” or “to confuse,” “to pour together,” “to mix utterly.” How fitting! Wild and domestic. Native and introduced. Rare and invasive. Pavement and pathway. Human and wild. The extraordinary and the commonplace. (Crow Planet, Haupt, p. 177)
Urban foraging forces us to reconcile with another myth: that the lifeways of so-called hunter-gatherers were either long ago sealed in some cave, or else relegated to isolated human populations who have yet to evolve into modern “homo economicus” –the hominid species who supposedly gave up inefficient and suboptimal foraging for the convenience and cheapness of agroindustrial food. What I know from my family experience, and confirmed in greater detail and complexity through my work as an anthropologist and ethnoecologist, is that foraging is an ongoing and thriving contemporary practice that brings great meaning to people, connecting them with their homelands –whether urban or remote– and to one another.

borderlines of industry & healing plants 

Gathering wild foods, medicines and craft material in “Crow’s Backyard” connects people to the wildness of the urban landscapes in ways that bring us more fully into nature. Urban foraging deepens our relationships with plants and ecosystems in the city. In doing so, it breaks down the false dualisms that separate humans from nature, and nature from cities. 
All living things together. All eating, breathing, drinking, spawning their seed, raising their young, leaping, crawling, questioning, thriving, just ever so barely getting by. No wonder most of us are mystified about our proper relationship to wild life, when our substrate itself is so thoroughly confounded. No wonder we are unprepared for this remarkable banquet. No wonder we close our eyes, toss birdseed, and hope for the best. (Crow Planet, Haupt, p. 177)
Like crows, people are adaptive, creative and resilient. And the nature in cities, where many of us make our homes, offers a tasty, nutritious, and in some places abundant, wild buffet.

from wasteshed to foodshed

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