Urban Foraging in Portland
For 10,000 years, a fertile, rain-soaked valley in the Pacific Northwest fed one of the largest civilizations of hunter-gatherers in North America. Today, the land at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers is better known as the city of Portland, Oregon. Much of it is coated with concrete and asphalt, but wild food still abounds, if you know where to look.
A pair of crows watched from a telephone-wire perch as I knelt in the street and gathered handfuls of chestnuts the chilly autumn winds had swept against the curbside. I worked quickly to load them into a grocery bag before the sky grew too dim to see. November was coming, and like the other urban animals, I would be relying on them for food long after they had disappeared from the city streets.
As a kind of vision quest, I lived on wild edibles here for a week at the end of November. It was a challenging rite of passage that evoked transformative epiphanies of deep remembrance.
Wild plants have a kind of power that farmed foods lack. Not only are they more potent nutritionally and medicinally, but they exist regardless of our intervention. They struggle to live for their own sake. There is a palpable life force within them that you can merge with, and which you can choose to tune into and learn from.
This was most apparent, for me, when I ate wapato, an ancient wild root vegetable that resembles a potato in flavor. To get it, I donned a wet suit and waded neck-deep into a swamp. Using a traditional harvest technique, my friends and I danced in the mud, loosening the muck and sending wapato bulbs floating to the surface. The tubers have a unique, dainty appearance that can't help but engender affection in all those who meet it: With pretty pastel purple, pink and blue tones, they look like painted little Easter eggs. I felt that the wapato spirit must have had a soft spot for me too, because after I steamed and ate one, I noticed a subtle change in my emotional state: a calming effect, a feeling of connectedness to the universe, and a trust in the general alright-ness of the world. The effect also manifested on an energetic level, beginning with a swirl of activity in my forehead, then coursing down my spine and flowing out the soles of my feet. I felt an intuitive truth from within: wapato spirit is alive and even conscious in a way I am only accustomed to attributing to humans. It was like an equal. I feel this was a realization intended to extend beyond this particular food and out to the greater plant world.
Through mass agriculture we have separated ourselves from visceral experience, and in doing so, disconnected from a powerful source of essential knowledge. Politicians propose the destruction of the last remaining forests because they can't see nature's inherent value. Popular television shows present the wilderness as a soulless adversary that must be conquered in order for human survival. Even activists often construct campaigns on abstract notions of morality and aesthetics.
But once upon a time, we all knew our mother. Now, stretched as far from her as we have ever been, society has begun to boomerang. The intuitive longing for the return of a close relationship has finally transcended societal fringes to manifest in the mainstream. This is illustrated by the success of "green" and "natural" labels in advertising, and most poignantly by the explosive popularity of the movie "Avatar." The film's hero leaves a gray futuristic machine world and immerses himself in a beautiful jungle paradise on an alien planet. He learns how to live with the flora and fauna of this psuedo-Amazon, acquiring a deep respect for the planet's inner spirit and becoming so intimately connected with it that he interacts psychically with it, using meditation to upload and download wisdom.
Foraging offers the real-life "Avatar" experience: plugging into a new dimension you didn't know you were always a part of.
To get started, read about the ways of the indigenous people who lived in your area. Find out what plants they ate, when they ate them, how they stored them and prepared them. You can read books, but it is even better to go on plant walks with local herbalists so you can get to know the native plants and weeds in person in your neighborhood. Watch the foliage change as the seasons progress, notice the duration of each plant's life cycle. Observe the animals, too, to see what they eat and when.
As you learn, your sense of place will change. Your street will seem like a veritable food forest. Where you once saw unkempt yards and overgrown sidewalks, you will soon see incredible abundance: liver cleansers (yellow dock, dandelion), salad greens (bittercress, chickweed), tea (cleavers, pineapple weed, sumac) and many medicines (plantain). You will also discover Earth-based alternatives for other needs, from rope (yucca and dogbane) to natural dye (black walnuts). And if you are inclined, you can even find legal recreational smoking mixtures that allow you to inhale the wild for relaxation or wisdom (mullein, vanilla leaf and lemon balm).
I've often been asked what urban foraging can offer to those interested in post-collapse survivalism and sustainable living. There is a tremendous amount of food and medicine that goes unnoticed, but at the same time we don't have enough wild land to support diets made exclusively of foraged foods in most places. So I think foraging is a great hobby that can supplement a diet with free food, but is most valuable for the connection it offers us to the great Gaia.
The world is filled with opportunities to experience twinges of our more harmonious past and integrate them into the present. Our plant friends are still offering themselves as nourishment and medicine, beckoning us to rediscover our primal relationship with them, even in 2010, even amid all the concrete and the asphalt. Inside every heart is a hidden memory of the first ways. Foraging is a way to reawaken your wild self; it is also a proclamation that you remember where you came from.
I would like to see a liberation of the wilderness around us: not only more parks but also wild lawns, sidewalk strips and grassy lots intentionally overgrown with weeds and native plants. My dream, some day, is to live in a true urban jungle.
Rebecca Lerner is a journalist who writes about urban foraging and other wilderness adventures on her blog.
Image by Blair Ryan.Tweet