Born to be wild
The words ‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’ are deeply evocative, yet they are often used without any real understanding of what is meant by them. I suspect many people mean something like ‘untouched by human hands’. If so, most rural landscapes contain practically no wild places or wilderness at all, since nearly all of the habitats in this country have developed as a result of our land management practises. Before Neolithic farmers arrived here most of the British Isles was dense, impenetrable wild wood, but since then human activity has created heaths, moors, fields, non-wooded bogs, fens and marshes. Even our woodlands are very different from the original wild woods, since for thousands of years they have been actively managed every bit as much as farmland.
I prefer to think of pretty much everywhere as being in some sense wild, because living things still find a place in spite and often because of us. In areas where concrete has covered all but the tiniest spaces wild plants grow through the cracks in the pavement. Modern farmers and gardeners combat ‘weeds’ without ever considering the superior vitality of plants that grow in spite of such hostility and thrive on the disturbed ground of arable land. Most cultivars would disappear from the landscape within five years without assistance. In coppiced woodlands, heaths and meadows, all a result of human management, complex ecosystems have developed, with communities of plants, animals and micro-organisms. Even now we have little understanding of or control over these biological systems, yet they have arisen as a result of our interaction with the land and almost certainly support a greater diversity of species than existed in the original wild woods.
A good definition of wildness and wilderness ought to include rather than exclude humanity. Wildness is not the absence of human presence, but of control, coercion and subjugation. Maybe ‘wild’ humans are those who refrain from controlling everything- and manage to escape being coerced themselves…. In wild nature, living things, influence their surroundings and are themselves influenced; there is a mutual and reciprocal partnership between them and the land. For thousands of years, hunter gatherer cultures- people who fit this definition- were embedded in their surroundings, responding to cycles and seasons, searching and finding, utilising, shaping and being shaped by their environment, developing diets, tool use, building methods and clothing in response to what was to hand in their immediate environment. In stark contrast, our present relationship to the land and other species is pathological; we can’t even see let alone respond to the effects we are having because we are not involved in producing the things that we consume.
People often ask me whether large scale use of wild plants for food is sustainable. It’s a good question, but it has the wrong starting point, because it sort of presupposes that how we manage the land and produce food globally now is sustainable. It’s not a question of whether we can all live off the land. As Samuel Thayer, author of the Forager’s Harvest points out, we are all living off the land now: where else is all our food coming from? The question is whether we could do things differently, and whether wild food could be part of a more sustainable future. The present system of monoculture requires massive energy to artificially enhance one species and kill everything else in a given area. Ecosystems on the other hand support multiple species through a complex fabric of interrelationships, which need little or no input from us. We need to find ways, as our ancestors did, to obtain our resources by working with existing ecosystems. Sustainable use is all about land supporting multiple species and providing multiple benefits. Some of these benefits are not obvious, but they are essential to life: clean air, carbon sinks, clean ground water and holding the soil together to present desertification, all of which are threatened by our present approach to food production.
When lots of connections develop between lots of things, amazing things that never existed before emerge. In fact, the essence of life itself is complexity and connectivity; it was the relative complexity of organic chemicals and their relationship to one another which led to life emerging in the first place. Much later on, consciousness emerged from the multiple connections between mammalian nerve cells. Life on earth is an unfathomably complex network of chemistry, climate, geology and biology. Monoculture works against the well established tendency of our planetary life systems towards complexity and approaches resource production in terms of single outputs. If all we look at is the kg of food produced per acre, monoculture looks great: we are certainly able to produce an awful lot of wheat, soya and beef as a result. However, once deforestation, soil impoverishment, water pollution and the carbon footprint from the energy used are considered, it looks a lot less impressive.
On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for a food source which grows by itself. As the great ethnobotanist Jack Harlan once said, “wild plants thrive in the absence of human disturbance: fully domesticated races are so modified genetically that they cannot survive without human care.” Somewhere in the middle there are a lot of plants which thrive because of human disturbance but require little or no care. Many of the plants which farmers spend a small fortune trying to eradicate with petrochemical herbicides are highly nutritious wild food plants which could instead be harvested and eaten. We are beginning to persuade some of our local farmers not to spray, so that we can harvest some of these plants, although in many parts of the world this is standard practice. At Abbot’s Hall Farm in Essex, the Essex Wildlife Trust removed the sea wall and salt marsh is becoming re-established. They now have a large Samphire crop which requires no further work and is harvested to supply the local fishmongers. Nettles are another self sustaining resource, one which can be used for food, medicine and fibre (it was once the major fibre crop in Europe) as well as being a host plant to many species of butterfly.
There are plenty more wild food sources which suggest the kind of role foraging could have in the future. Wild grasses in Africa can grow in temperatures and conditions in which wheat fails, they are also capable of stabilising sand dunes and therefore recolonising deserts. As global temperatures rise they may yet be the salvation of Africa. Ecological historian Oliver Rackham points out that in Asia, cultivars of Asian rice species are grown in the equivalent of our wetlands, this is not wild food of course but it does entail working with the existing landscape and the native flora. There is at least one wild grass which has been commercially harvested in huge quantities in the past; the wetland species Floating Sweet Grass Glyceria fluitans was a traded commodity until at least 1925 in central Europe. I wonder what might have happened if instead of draining the fens in the 15th century, we had found ways to promote the growth of this wild grain? Wetlands are also full of Reedmace, with its carbohydrate rich tubers; in North America an institution was once established to explore its potential as a self sustaining crop. Hazelnut (a staple of our Mesolithic ancestor) and chestnut (a staple in many mountainous areas in the Mediterranean) are both wild trees which produce enormous amounts of food considering the space they occupy.
Could we feed a population of 60,000,000 on such food sources alone? Maybe we could, with a lot of creative thought and experimentation put into management of our landscapes- and cityscapes. I often wonder what could be achieved if this kind of question received the kind of funding that is at the disposal of Nasa, the arms and pharmaceutical industries… But at the very least wild foods could play a much greater role in our food systems, if areas of farmland, parks and gardens, even nature reserves, city streets and rooftops, were given over to wild food plants, and people played a much more direct role in obtaining their own food. The only energy required to produce food gathered by hand from your own neighbourhood is the exertion of walking, bending and picking; no processing, packaging or refrigerated storage is needed and you even save yourself having to go to the gym…
Using wild plants is an integral part of the future of the biodiversity of the planet. The Convention on Biological diversity (CBD), a major conservation policy document ratified by most European governments, acknowledges this by making the “development of sustainable uses of genetic resources” the second of its three aims. Once we recognise the usefulness of a plant, this becomes an anchor to secure its future: if we lose a species the world is a poorer place but we in particular are poorer, not just in a spiritual or emotional sense but also in a practical sense. Rainforest destruction for example, not only means the tragic loss of a place of unspeakable beauty, but also the loss of carbon sinks, alternative food sources and potential medicines, not to mention the ancient homes of indigenous people.
The CBD maps out a framework for returning to a more ecological approach to using biological resources, including recognition of land rights and intellectual property rights of indigenous communities, under the heading “ the equitable sharing of benefits”. For many indigenous cultures, the use of wild resources is interwoven with their own sense of the interconnectedness and sacredness of all things. Ecology, which is how life apart from human hegemony organises things, is democratic and reciprocal. Every species in an ecosystem occupies a niche, a position in a network of processes and relationships in a particular place and this has much to do with how and with what it feeds itself. The way our species produces and uses food can either be a vital element of the ecology of the place or else cause the system to break down. Hunter gatherers were by necessity keenly aware of and responsive to other living things, whereas our present approach is characterised by control and subjugation.
Sadly, wild resources are presently being over harvested in many places where people have neither land rights nor a fair share in the profits from what they harvest. As a result, conservationists in developing countries consider implementing the CBD of great importance and are looking at ways of working with harvesters and markets in order to develop more sustainable practices. In developed nations such as our own however, sustainable use is almost entirely overlooked. Many nature reserves recreate past landscapes using historic land management practises, such as coppicing or grazing with particular animals, because these sustainable practises once supported a wide range of species. Others advocate areas of wilderness, with no human activity- although in reality plenty of human activity occurs in the form of reintroducing, monitoring and recreating habitats for certain species.The first approach recreates a landscape of past human presence; the second creates one with the illusion of no human presence. Advocates of wilderness often advocate reintroducing large carnivores on the grounds that healthy ecosystems only thrive when there is something occupying a position at the top of the food chain. Again they forget the ongoing presence of the most sophisticated predator of all (us) which could perfectly well hunt and eat as much wild meat as re-wilded landscapes could produce. Sadly, neither of these approaches addresses the problem of why we need to even think about conservation in the first place. Our fundamental disconnection from the landscape is not remedied by either of them, nor is the rampant consumption of resources that has followed as a result. Both treat the landscape as if it were a museum, removing all sense of vital connection with it. Both seek to protect the countryside by cordoning off areas as nature reserves, yet the fact that these places are not part of living, working landscapes involving local people just adds to the problem. On a more encouraging note, some conservation organisations, such as the RSPB (and Essex Wildlife trust, see above) are now becoming involved in farming. This provides a bit more scope for wild food plants but as yet is still mostly an attempt to limit the excesses of monoculture, rather than developing an ecosystem approach to food production.
The thinking behind the French name for regional cuisine, ‘terroire’ is a more ecological perspective on food. The word describes food that is characteristic of a particular place and of the people who produced it. Bioregionalism, a word coined by human ecologists, expresses a related idea, that ecosystems are the product of interactions between specific life forms and the climate, geology of a place. Because wild plants directly reflect the regional characteristics, even more than regional crops, developing a local food culture around wild food is perhaps the ultimate ‘terroire’. Culture, in the form of recipes, cooking methods and traditional events around particular foods is part of our biology, part of the ecology of a place, all the more so when it celebrates other life forms and gives rise to practices which ensure their survival. Terroire may well point the way for us to find our 21st century ecological niche as species. Rather than simply plundering and destroying ecosystems as we are doing now, our presence might even enhance global biodiversity as our ancestor’s did. Protectionist measures that seek to cordon off large parts of the landscape from human activities are not the answer. Our present ecological crisis cries out for integration, not withdrawal, or species apartheid. Getting our foodways right is a huge part of the answer and I can’t think of a more immediate and vital way for people to be reintegrated with their ecosystems than collecting and eating wild food.