When I was a student I discovered wild garlic. Vast green and white carpets of wild garlic in between the trees of the forest. Gathering armfuls for cooking with go-to student pasta was fun and exhilarating, and cheap. We also skip-dived and gathered waste food to binge on - it was an odd and unbalanced mix!
A different way to shop
Rush, rush, rush, grab, grab, grab. The same approach just doesn't work for foraging. Ask Miles Irving (who set up Forager Ltd, the largest supplier in the UK) and he'll tell you that grabbing everything doesn't make sense, on any level. Supplying foraged food for over 15 years, Miles and his team know that they need to look after the wild spaces they pick from. They also know that picking everything would send their business bankrupt. Picking seasonally and leaving enough wild plants to flower, not over-picking and leaving plants to rejuvenate is common sense to a good forager.
Swapping aisles for hedgerows
In 2007 I moved to Cornwall with my first foraging book by Roger Phillips, which I wrote about in How I got into Foraging. In my first year in Cornwall I foraged a lot and would spend weeks, especially in Spring, shopping in the hedgerows rather than the supermarket aisles. I loved this connection to nature and prided myself in picking amounts and in a way which was largely unnoticeable that anything had been disturbed or taken.
I chose abundant plants, common weeds and areas where they were thriving. Picking what I needed and ate well. I learnt about the seasons, benefited from nature's bounty and started to share what I knew.
It isn't really shopping
Of course, the definition of shopping is normally founded on buying and wild food is associated with 'free'. Free food! You'll find it promoted a lot in this way. Although there is no monetary exchange, it is always an exchange. Always.
As a wild food teacher it's not just the plants I'm teaching about. Just spending time in nature invites a deeper connection to our environment, a way of seeing, being, smelling, tasting and responding differently. The hands-on experience of foraging enables us to see the direct impact of our food desires and consumption. It's different from the bargain aisles, black Friday or my childhood memories of jumble sales. There's the potential for more sensitivity, for enjoying the process as much as the goal. For re-education, for a desire to have less so to widen the benefits to others, albeit person, soil, animals, birds or insect. It's not always an easy mental shift to make, nor a easy physical one. Yet with each flower, leaf or fruit there is the potential to shop, to take, to exchange in a different way.
I lead foraging courses where you can learn about edible plants, recipes and how to pick sustainably. Side-by-side with enjoying the outdoors, engaging with nature and perhaps picking up some shopping tips along the way. Follow my journey on instagram or facebook to hear from me more regularly. Or tag me with #mindfulwildforager
"I just want to run away and be outside in nature", I said.
"Can you find your nature within?" She said.
Foraging has been a delightful journey for me: an excuse to spend a lot of time outdoors and eat good, natural foods. Though these are the words that started me on parallel exploration of what my human nature truly is. The concept of my nature within got me curious about the organism of my body. I started wondering how to connect to my nature inside as well as nature outside of me. There are many ways to do this, and here I share a little of my own journey.
The Separation of Human and Nature
Earthling, earthly being, natura, natal, native, birth, humus, ground, of the earth, humble.
These are some of the origins of the word human - born of the earth. Speak to any indigenous (meaning living naturally or always lived in a place) person or tribe, and their connection to nature is innate, unquestioned and an integral part of their existence. Though for many of us living now, this connection doesn't come naturally. Instead, it can feel alien, or an 'interesting' concept, but just an idea. We have transitioned as a society from forager to farmer, from soil to concrete, from manual to mechanised, from heart to head. Our relationship to ourselves and our surroundings have changed. It's been a slow progress with many results, one of which is a sense of separation from nature.
For each of us this journey will be slightly different. Influenced by our early experiences in nature, our natural disposition and perhaps how strong we feel the heartbeat of our ancestors inside us.
My Own Connection to Nature
At various points in my life, I have experienced my body as part of nature. In Kathmandu, I remember sensing the freshly carved out roads in the mountain-side as if they were scars on my own body. As a student, I remember walking all day in the Devonshire countryside and feeling at one with the trees and leaves I walked alongside. Sea swimming, I've let myself commune with the water, let my mind dissolve away and just 'be'. Be nature: together with the water, land and birds settling nearby. Foraging is also a way for me to deeply immerse myself in my home: planet earth.
These have been poignant moments for me, where distinct boundaries between me and the environment have disappeared. Where an affinity with my surroundings and myself have teetered on bliss (sometimes), oneness, and sharp reality. However, I have also had many moments when I feel like I am an observer of nature, detached and an outsider. Sometimes because I'm in a new, unfamiliar land. Though sometimes, simply because I'm a product of this time, culture and lifestyle.
Experiencing - Grounding - Going Within - Going Out
It was Linda Hartley, who's words invited me to; 'find my nature within'. It was Linda who helped birth me into a new relationship with my body and the wild surroundings I love to reside in. I spent 4 years intensely training with Linda (IBMT dip) and over 10 years in all. She created the Institute of Integrative Bodywork and Movement Therapy (IBMT) where I learnt about the substance of my own body, from fluids, organs, bones, skin to nervous system and beyond.
Nature (the outdoors, natural environment, the landscape, animals and plants) have been one of my go-to places when the **** hits the fan. When life hurts, I know that mother earth can hold what I cannot. Nature calms me, invigorates me, helps me focus, let go, get perspective and find joy again. It's good medicine for me! Yet these invitations and guidance encouraged me to find a different way.
Body and Earth
Through IBMT training I started to live more fully in the organic nature of my body. IBMT mainly teaches somatics (soma means to experience the body from within) and combines teaching through science (the new way) and experience (the old way). Hands on bodywork and movement taught me and fellow students how to fully embody the tissues, organs and layers of matter that makes up the human body. It was gutsy stuff! I found my body and awareness changing and I started to feel safer and more present in the substance of my nature.
I also trained with renown dancer Andrea Olsen and experiential anatomy teacher Caryn McHose on their Body and Earth training. It was in Penpynfarch in Wales, where Andrea reminded us that by the end of the week, the air, water and food of the land would literally become our bodies. Through simply eating the veggies in the veg plot, drinking the water from the spring and nourishing ourselves from the fresh Welsh air. The oxygen would feed our blood and cells, the water renew our blood and bodily fluids and the vitamin and minerals build our bones, hair, skin, immune systems and whole human organism. It was such a simple statement and deeply profound to me.
Being a Forager in the Landscape
So, in the words of John Muir, I now find that going out into nature, can also help me find my human nature within. I realise, more deeply, that I am made out of the substance of this earth. The teachers and venues I quote here have helped guide me through a very unique experience of my body as nature. I am eternally grateful to all of them. Previously I have written about Foraging as a Way to Feel Connected, yet here I wanted to share a slightly different angle.
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” John Muir
If you enjoyed this read you may want to follow the #mindfulwildforager on instagram. I'd also love to hear about your own experiences in nature (inside and out).
It's been two and a half decades since I started a serious (and fun) relationship with foraging. And it's been well over a decade since I've been teaching foraging (I'm writing this in 2019). Like any relationship, there's ups and downs, boredom, frustration, elation, new experiences, the same old ones and falling in love again.
We all know that long-term relationships thrive on a few basic principles and one of those is cultivating and sustaining intimacy. Not just skating over the surface with 'I know that plant', but having a sense of curiosity, interest, care and taking time. Now, I know I'm straddling between talking about people and plants here, though there are some similarities. The way I see it, all my interactions with the world are relationships; with people, food, the landscape, my work. And the deeper I go, the richer my rewards. Imagine if I'd stopped at making Nettle Soup - which I love. I'd of never been able to enjoy the sensations of Nettle and Honey Cake or discovered Nettle Pakoras. Or shared these with so many of you. I digress... Do check out the Stinging Nettles blog if you'd like to know more.
How to keep Foraging new and Fresh
A couple of years ago I started exploring song-writing as a way to express some of the qualities of plants in new ways. I was attending an outdoor learning conference at Mount Pleasant Eco Park at the time, and thought it might be a useful exercise for the attendees. In my workshops on 'Wild Foods with Children' we explored 5 common weeds as food and I created and sung a foraging song or two as an illustration of memorable and fun directions foraging can go in. The song wasn't great, though I was brave enough to sing it and we learnt and laughed together.
Since then the concept of a Foraging Course with Plant Songs has developed. I realised I wanted to offer songs, fire and tasters. I didn't want to dilute the foraging courses I already ran, but add an additional layer to them. Sometimes the arts express something that words alone cannot do, and I hoped this creative addition had this potential.
Through sharing my foraging songs, I'm giving you a little insight into my relationship with the wild foods that I teach. Offering a doorway into the world of plants and a platform to express something of the plants' character, essence, as well as their practical uses. I open my little black book of foraging songs and sing, I invite you to sing and we sing to the plants, to the hedgerows, to each other. It's fun.
At some point, on every course I lead, I open my bag and offer handmade, wild tasters from one or more of the plants we have sung about. The recipe remains a secret, except to the participants who attend. Does this deepen intimacy with the plants? I like to think so. Tasting, smell and eating the wild foods can deepen our understanding and appreciation of the wild foods surrounding us. And that is good for building positive relationships with the world we reside in.
Sssshhh! Come along to the Foraging Course with Songs to get the secret foraging recipe. A little more insight into the songs and experience is here on the wild singing blog. If you'd like to stay up to date with what I'm up to, consider following my instagram or facebook page.
I'm sitting listening to Radio 4 (again) and the episode of the Digital Human called 'Tribe'. This particular episode includes a focus on the role of hunting and gathering as a way of working together and supporting each other. Indeed, our ancestors worked together closely to ensure that food, shelter and sustenance was provided for their community.
Alas, our reliance on each other has lessened a lot since then, yet somehow there has been a continuing interest in foraging over the last few decades. I've often pondered about our modern day fascination with foraging, despite no actual need for us to go into the forest or onto the shoreline to find food. It's all just passively sitting on the supermarket shelves waiting for us.
Over the years I've developed various theories on the role and importance of foraging for us digital humans, and I could sum it up in one sentence;
We need to feel connected
The dictionary definition of connected is; to join, link, be united, fasten together, to bind. Our increasing independence and distance from the root of our food, face to face meetings and the natural world has not, I feel, taken away our desire or need to connect, it has just side-tracked it. There's actually no way to get away from it, we are earth-born and even though we can do a fair amount to separate from this (stay indoors and not engage with others or any form of nature), the desire to belong and be part of something doesn't go away. In fact, there is some evidence which says that a sense of community and belonging is more important for our well-being than exercise or diet alone. Foraging doesn't appeal to everyone, though it is a simple and practical way to connect to both nature and food, to the source of our food and the source of our existence.
Connecting to people and nature
For me, being human means acknowledging my utter reliance on planet earth and I believe that the more I feel connected to the place I'm from, the more human and alive I can feel. There are many ways to do this; through interacting with humans that we share this planet with, with animals, with food and where it comes from, or more elementally with water, fire, earth and air. Have you ever thought about how trees and algae soak up our C02 and produce oxygen so we can breathe? Like I said, we are totally dependant on planet earth.
Being human isn't just about survival though, here in the West we left that lifestyle a while ago, even if some days can feel like a battle to get through. I like to think that feeling fully human also encompasses a sense of adventure, purpose, creativity and the spirit of joy.
We know that food brings people together, but foraging also includes a deeper, more instinctual sense of connection. A connection to the land, the seasons, to an adventure and sense of real achievement that perhaps is lacking in our digital reality.
I found, picked and ate my own food in the wild!
Simple and Good
Foraging is such a simple thing to do, yet, I believe, it sets off a series of feel-good hormones and brain connections that we share with our vital, hand-to-mouth, alive and kicking ancestors.
It helps us feel alive
When I forage, I am connecting to the sun, to the rain, wind, soil and to the turning of the earth. I am connecting to living plants fed by all these elements. A plant that has grown up in relationship to other plants, trees, insects and wildlife. That I've hand-picked, which connects me to my whole experience and kinesthetic memory of being out. As well as to the energy and vitality that my wild food is about to provide me as food.
Foraging helps foster a nurturing bond between people and plants, between people and people, between people and the natural world. A bond that has too often, and painfully been replaced by technology. I say painfully, for when we turn away from our home, our roots and a natural sense of belonging (to each other and to the planet that we live on), it is a loss. A loss that I believe, either consciously or unconsciously, we crave.
That is why I think we jump at the chance to forage, get excited about the ridiculous and un-necessary act of foraging; finding, collecting and eating our own food. Foraging fills a gap, a real gap in our experience that digital technology (for all its gifts) cannot replace. Foraging can connect us to what it means to feel and be alive, what it means to be truly human, and this is humbly worth celebrating.
I run foraging courses throughout the year to bring together people, plants and nature. I also offer bespoke experiences, where you can choose the people, place and time that we come together to forage.
This blog is based on the personal and subjective views of me, Rachel Lambert. I am not claiming that my views or beliefs are facts, or gospel or scientifically backed up (except in the places where I have said so). My opinions are based on personal experience, musings and hypothesis about foraging in the 21st century.
Follow the #mindfulwildforager if you want to see or read more.
Miss Blackberry, are you winking at me?
Flashing your juicy smile my way.
How can I resist your deep colouring and shiny curves dotting the prickly hedgerows.
And how can I decipher your sweetness from your sour sisters and under-ripe brothers?
It's hard to know isn't it. Hard to know which fruit is going to be sweet, which one sour. Here in the UK there was over 200 varieties of bramble, who knows, maybe they've hybridised and there is more types now, though I expect that we have lost a few, and we now have less variables of blackberries. Of course I'm not talking about the large, cultivated shop-bought ones, I'm talking about the wild ones.
Back to sweetness of the bramble fruits, this depends on 3 things; the weather, the soil and the variety. Weather we definitely can't influence, not immediately anyhow, the soil, well you can, so reach for your shovel and be prepared to wait. Though variety, well this requires memory and/or foresight.
This autumn, when you're out picking your blackberries and you come across a fantastic tasty crop. Remember. Yes, remember where they are and check this exact spot next year. If you're feeling daring you could also cut off a branch and plant it in your garden or somewhere else perhaps - though be warned they grow thick and fast.
Blackberries are our own, native super fruit, easily over-looked because they are common, though don't forget where the sweet, juicy ones are, and next autumn go foraging for your remembered crop.
All of us desire different things, though many of us desire something similar, something so simple and plain it is almost intangible. I desire freedom; freedom to be creative, to be myself and nature has become my tool to do this.
It's an initiation, I feel, an initiation into freedom that comes from spending time outdoors, time doing nothing in partiular, time that could be seen as wasted or worthless, and to me is worth more than gold.
Earlier this year I took, what felt like, a decadent afternoon off and swanned around the Tate, St Ives perusing the Virginia Woolf exhibition inspired by her writing. Musing over colours, content and snippets from this evocative novelist, it wasn't the artworks that caught my eye the most, nor the view.
I found myself buying a 'must have' expensive (though beautiful) pencil from the gallery shop and scribbling down notes from the introductory texts introducing each room of the exhibition. It wasn't the pencil which was a must have, but the memory of the words that I wanted to capture. Word for word, I wrote;
'In her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915) she directly equates nature and independence when her main character Rachel goes walking outside alone and says: "I love the freedom of it - it's like being the wind or the sea."
These two sentences were almost heart-stopping for me. As if Virginia knew me personally, or was writing my destiny decades before I was born. From young adulthood, I was consciously aware how walking and being outside took me 'somewhere else'. I didn't know what I was looking for, though I knew that being outside provided a sense of peace, a place of possibilities, and brought lightness to my, sometimes, heavy heart.
Years later, my desire for freedom remains a strong motivator for me to be outside, in nature.
I felt open and free in nature. My mind settled, my inspiration flowed and my vitality increased while at the same time I felt more relaxed and invigorated, or satisfactorily tired. As a child this involved anything from rolling skating up and down our short driveway before breakfast, with the wind on my face enjoying speed and movement, to quiet moments picking flowers or around a campfire. In London it involved slipping into parks and sitting with the statue of Mahatma Ghandi and scanning the flower beds or watching the breeze in the trees.
Actually, it was in London that I became most creative with it. I was desperate. Wild was tame wild there, though the elements all existed and nature could not be shut out completely. I would take time to gaze out of my office window, valuing this essential dream-time and watch the clouds, I would cycle to work along the canal and hear the lions roar from London zoo. At the weekends I would walk through north London housing estates until I reached the canal and find my peace. I would plunge into Hampstead Heath ponds and swim to the edges where I saw my first kingfisher, or amble through Richmond Park and watch the majestic deer. I would sit under a tree, weary on my way home from work, craving that freedom and respite in my bones. How much was my imagination, and how much I gained from those touches of nature I do not know. Though I knew it made a difference, a small difference, and a difference that mattered.
In London I foraged elderberries in my garden, cooked the nettles creeping through the wire fences, and lay in our outdoor hammock after to-ing and fro-ing on the oppressive underground, day in, day out. I think what nature did for me was help me feel connected, connected to something greater, and, most obviously, to my ultimate home. Earth.
It can sound naff. Though it is a fundamental truth, a truth that can turn into a yearning for some of us, or a dulled, distant memory for others. Though who am I to imply that we all have these same desires of having our feet on the real, moist earth, and they are either desires felt or buried?
I could quote you scientific studies that document the benefits on the mind, body and spirit of being in nature, though really, I think you know that, really I think you know it in your bones.
This weekend I sat on the beach, idly moving sand through my fingers, I plucked wild salad leaves from the hedgerow and fed them to myself and my visiting friend. We walked over soft then firm ground, then ground scattered with dried gorse spikes, we laughed, we watched, we closed our eyes and generally got topped up with nature's cure.
I felt larger, expanded. Yes, free. As dusk arrived we scuttled into a darkened cinema, content that our pores, eyes and sense of self was saturated enough, for now, by the landscape we had immersed ourself in during the day. That for me, is wild and free.
Virginia Wolf wrote those words over one hundred years ago, she wrote from experience, from a felt-sense of how our environment shapes and effects us. More so, how we become the environment, and it becomes us. For me, spending (ideally prolonged) time in nature helps to dissolve the boundaries of me in it or you and me. Instead, I feel part of the landscape, one with the air, the grass, sand and sun. Though I have to say, those 10 idyll seconds watching a cloud out of the window are also precious to me. Wherever I am, I seek freedom through connection, a freedom of being 'home' within the environment, changed by it and whatever company accompanies me or crosses my path.
Funny that, wild and free from being connected and home. Thank you Virginia for that deep resonance, reminder and for putting it into words.
Follow the #mindfulwildforager if you'd like to read or find out more.
Despite being brought up in the city, my early memories are of nature; sitting in a field and talking an imaginary language, going down to see the ‘catkins’ on the tree at the bottom of the garden, and picking armfuls of bluebells to take back to my mother from the nearby wood.
I seemed to have an inner hunger for plants, nature and natural food
I remember the light, the small plants and insects rather than the big trees. Actually, I loved the flowers, I would learn their names, and catalysed my mum into sneezing fits, brought on by the pollen of cow parsley in the wild posies I brought back for her (yes, she was allergic!).
I went to visit that bluebell wood as a young adult, only to find that it was a tiny, small strip of woodland on the edge of Birmingham. Though as children, it was everything to us.
These early memories shaped me, unknowingly directing my life steps. Through family camping trips, sailing trips and weekend walks, my path with nature was forged.
My path with foraging took longer to form. It was a non-descript day in my early twenties and I was walking in Devon with a couple of friends. One pointed out pennywort growing in a stone wall, he simply said; ‘you can eat that’, handing it to me to nibble, and I was hooked. Till then I had smelt the woodland floor of wild garlic and picked – one for me, one for the pot – plastic pots full of blackberries with my sisters, though that was basically the extent of it.
Nature, despite its harshness at times, felt magical, safe and trustworthy
I’m not sure I know exactly how it happened, though I seemed to have an inner hunger for plants, nature and natural food. I’d been brought up on homemade food, thought gardening was boring (carrots take forever to grow when you’re a child!) though knew that nature provided a peace and tranquillity that I craved. People didn’t feel easy to me, though nature, despite its harshness at times, felt magical, safe and trustworthy.
Fast forward 10 years from that life changing moment in Devon, I found myself living and working in London – teaching about food and nutrition and growing food in small boxes with young, inner city families. Ooh, those growing food, picking, cooking and eating sessions were the highlight of my week – having our fingers in soil and the delight of children discovering potatoes, real potatoes for themselves, in the ground – was priceless. Yet my heart was yearning for more. Cycling, growing, outdoor swimming and enjoying our wild London garden – I’d seemed to have outgrown it all. My heart wanted the wild.
I loved learning about the plants again – like a child
A year and a half later, I was on my bicycle again, waiting for a herd of sheep to pass on the road up to my cottage. Surrounded by plants, clean air, sheep (did I mention I love sheep?) and the sea just over the hill, at last I had the time to dedicate to learning foraging. I’d moved with a car load of ‘stuff’, my bicycle on the roof and my one and only foraging book; Wild Food by Roger Phillips.
Funnily enough, I met Roger for the first time this year, and now this book is signed by this fantastic and knowledgeable man.
My first wild food book
In addition, I quickly acquired two versions of Wild Flowers of the British Isles and began scouring the hedgerows, beaches and fields. I loved it.
I loved learning about the plants again – like a child. I loved discovering new tastes. I loved experimenting in the kitchen – even if I didn’t always like what I’d created. On the verge of exploding bottles of Elderflower Champagne were handed to neighbours, visiting friends were fed laver bread and my kitchen started filling with sprigs of wild mints, drying nettles and bunches of yarrow.
I seemed to have an eye for spotting plants. Distinguishing their shapes, colour and texture. My training in art and seeing, of drawing plants, and sketching the faces of patient relatives, had held me in good stead.
Teaching foraging was another matter, and stage.
I never moved to Cornwall thinking I’d become a foraging teacher. I moved to Cornwall because I wanted to, and I didn’t have a plan B. I searched for like-minded people, met up with bushcraft teachers, foragers and joined wildlife walks. My pot of money I’d arrived with was running low, and I was starting to think about work.
At the time, Ray Mears and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had been on the TV for a while – in a small but significant way, foraging was starting to hit the mainstream. In my veins it felt like the right time – bringing together my love of plants, teaching, foraging and food – I decided to jump on the opportunity.
One poster and one caravan park were my humble beginnings. A chance meeting and good timing meant I started to teach foraging at The Lost Gardens of Heligan and slowly my experience, knowledge and confidence grew.
I could go on, though really that is it. What one loves, remains, like a close friend, evolving and morphing into different guises – foraging books, photographing plants and foraged dinners, collaborating with chefs, and just simple walks and good food. Foraging can be a simple walk in a park, or a life-long love affair. For me it is both, I no longer know or think about how often I eat wild food, it is just part of me now.
Photographs courtesy of; Hannah Nunn.blogspot.co.uk (catkins), jimmylemon.co.uk (bluebell wood), Graeme de Lyons (photo of me) and gallery.hd.org (cow parsley) - thank you.