Experiencing the world through our senses can be a rewarding and healthy way to engage in the world .
In this blog post I share a wild conversation between myself (forager and somatic educator) and Miles Irving (founder of Forager Ltd). We discuss nature, the body, what it means to be whole, human and how to find our way back to the things that really matter.
We finish with a rambling conversation about foraging songs and me sharing/singing a few.
NOTES and general timings of themes
(Timings are approximate).
- 0:00 Introduction from Miles Irving
- 7:05 Podcast begins - Polyvagal nervous system, the importance of relating and 'tend and befriend'
- 16:35 The wisdom of the body, anchoring in the body, felt-experience of nature verses an objective experience of nature and how to relate to nature.
- 25:50 Free food verses and a sense of wonder, benefits of nature (Richard Louv - Last Child in the Woods)
- 30:00 Sensing through the body, movement verses stillness, intuition and instinct
- 40:00 Body intelligence, risk and moving through trauma
- 55:00 Instinct and intuition, the intelligence of breaking down in order to become more whole.
- 1:05:00 Vulnerability, the importance of play and pleasure and how to THRIVE
- 1:13:00 How time outdoors supports the biology of our body and the value of relational living
- 1:19:40 What is wildness? Is it scary or predictable and how does it relate to living fully and trusting life?
- 1:31:17 Foraging, nature and connection. Navigation and maps verses interrelating with the landscape (Tristan Gooley)
- 1:40:17 Creating support, brain and body plasticity. Stuck verses movement, choices verses limits, being verses change.
- 2:01:00 Foraging songs - non-verbal communication, learning through music and expressing something 'else' through songs
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
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.