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The scene of my domestication

The scene of my domestication

You may notice from the timing of the archives for this blog that things slowed down a little on the foraging front, at least with regard to writing about it. I’m still very much at it, but at the same time I’ve been domesticated. I came to own a home and it came with a modest piece of sand dune out the back, which a year and several tonnes of compost later is the start of a food garden. There are fruit trees, thriving beds of vegetables, chickens, a dog and a beehive ready to populate this spring. Some of my foraging has even turned a little domestic – like valuing foraged molluscs for the shell grit I can crush for the chooks as well as the meat for me, using kelp stems off the beach for dog chew toys, and scavenging free mulch and cow manure for the garden beds. The last time I foraged native spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides), it was to replant it in my garden – and that is entirely definitive of domestication.

My fellow domesticates: 2 Leghorn crosses, 2 Australorps, 2 Rhode Island Reds (Gallus gallus domesticus) amid a future food forest and feeding on vegie waste; and ‘Bugle’, the Brittany, hunting dog (Canis familiaris) in training

My fellow domesticates: 2 Leghorn crosses, 2 Australorps, 2 Rhode Island Reds (Gallus gallus domesticus) amid a future food forest and feeding on vegie waste; and ‘Bugle’, the Brittany, hunting dog (Canis familiaris) in training

Working away in my changed circumstances, I have come to a recent realisation of how much more foraging and agriculture have in common than either of them have in common with the lifestyle of simply buying all your food. The ‘us and them’ of the standard view is of ‘us’ as modern western society arm-in-arm with agriculture as distinct from a foraging ‘them’ of either the past or the primitive. My ‘domestication’ really has been revolutionary in one sense, but in some ways it has also changed things very little. I no longer really forage greens, but grow them instead; even the edible garden weeds get a miss, although partly because right now in winter/spring it is mostly chickweed (Stellaria media) and it is such a big hit with the chooks. I’m just as inclined towards fishing and hunting; and foraged fruit retains the same appeal or maybe more – partly because my trees are all just one year or less in the ground and give me very little. The autumn harvest of pine mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus) will hopefully always be a firm fixture. When I think about, it’s really just more like old-fashioned country foodways. The growing and the foraging are part of the same package. Regardless of who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’, the two parties in the modern western world can be divided into those who very much want to get their hands dirty while bringing in their food and those who only really trust it wrapped in plastic in exchange for money.

I’ve previously discussed (e.g. here and here) how there is the concept of a continuum of foraging to farming along which people have shifted through history, incrementally between individuals and between generations, and not always in the same direction. Perhaps this foraging-to-farming transition thing doesn’t mean so much to you; and perhaps I make too much of it because as an archaeologist it is viewed as the process that pretty much defines the transformation to human modernity. But for someone like me for whom it is kind of a big deal, it is then also a very big deal to realise that to just end up standing there at the end of the day in your work clothes in a queue at Woolies or Coles (Walmart, Aldi, Sainsburys, depending on where you are) is to exist in a world that (as far as your personal engagement goes) has left the continuum altogether. Sure, the production of the food is still obviously on it, perhaps often at the perverse end of heavily industrialised agriculture (with battery chickens as the ultimate perversity), but the individual consumer is not. I think that I embraced foraging so as to have as much of an actual engagement with the reality of food as I could, and now grow for precisely the same reason.

Opportunism is central to the success of humanity. I now have the opportunity to grow more than I ever did before, but still I will not readily pass up the opportunity for a good forage. Nonetheless, the same intrinsically human opportunism is what puts people in the supermarket queue, finding that they are able with just a small part of the cash from their labour to bring home far more food than they could possibly eat. In that context, we foragers and growers are wasting our time – what sort of fool spends ten days to save a couple of bucks on mustard? But ‘agency’, the ability and freedom to make choices, is also central to humanity.

For me, the ideal of paid working life is not to be able to buy the things that I might otherwise forage or grow, but to buy the time and the ability to be in a place to do that foraging and growing. That is my choice, and I am sure that I spend more money on it than the equivalent cost of the food. I can’t make enough mustard to get me to New Zealand to fish for all too occasional trout, but I do paid work for that (and, importantly, I enjoy it). There is also a mortgage now; and it hurts, so one thing that I need to get out of that is a garden full of veg; not to help pay the mortgage, but to justify it. And that leads to a really key thing that I have realised about domestication and the shift from foraging to farming – whether on the scale of human history or my own small personal experience: it is not just about where the food comes from, but also what people chain themselves to in order to get it. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once described foragers as ‘the original affluent society’, referring to the fact that they might easily meet all their wants and needs, partly because those needs may be relatively few; whereas someone with infinite modern wants never can, and can therefore never be truly affluent at all. I admit that it is an unresolved logic, but still not without merit, that the desire to forage and grow your own food can somehow break the loop while living in a modern world with seemingly easy supermarket options. Taking ten days to make half a cup of mustard really may be the secret to affluence after all. I may have been domesticated, I may even have hooked up to one more chain, but I’m still not quite caged yet.

Vegie garden panorama

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Fancy some foraged urchin roe (Centrostephanus rogersii)? Abundant and free when it looks like this, or more than $100/kg at the market cleaned up and not as fresh.

A recurrent theme with so many of the best of the forageable species is the frequent surprise that they remain unknown (or at least vastly underappreciated) right under our noses. Sea lettuce, weeds, kangaroo tails, urchin roe, bonito, wild mushrooms, the list goes on. The more thought I put into it however, the less odd it eventually seems. Fear of new things – neophobia – is natural, particularly as we age (and according to some, once we become parents). At the same time we have picked up a great many of our culture’s food aversions, even though we may be unaware that we have done so. We have, in Marvin Harris’ words, largely formulated and populated our concepts of ‘good to eat’ and ‘bad to eat’ (Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture being Harris’ wonderfully readable 1985 book – although not so much about neophobia as cultural food taboos). It is a fundamental way that we learn to engage successfully with our environment. It is an issue that would be useful to consider if you might be put off foraging simply on the basis of being put off a particular few foods. You can’t stomach the idea of a boil-up of the three known mucilaginous ingredients of garden snails (Helix aspersa), purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and mallow (Malva spp.), all slimy and disturbingly on the brown side of green (albeit all good in their own separate ways)? Fair enough, but that is no reason to head back to the big supermarket for a jar of ‘we’ve made it toilet-ready’ sauce.

As infants we stick almost anything in our mouth and equally then spit a whole lot of it out in a long, messy, confused session of trial and error to categorise good and bad; and we also keenly watch our parents for cues in building up these categories – going some way to explain the amount of grinning, gaping, ‘yum-yum-yum’ performance that goes into getting infants to eat some things, as well as the ‘no-no-no!’ of stopping them eating others. If an infant is offered a food that is repeatedly rejected, they might change their mind not because it has finally come in on a mimed choo-choo train but because the love and sense of safety that the mime may embody somehow tips the balance in the infant head to ‘good to eat’. And they can also easily learn avoidances, like not to eat a common poisonous berry, without having to get sick first because they are told in a firm way that gets their brain to stick the label ‘dangerous’ on it – ‘bad to eat’. Then, rather than work our way through all the species we might experience, we then tend to create a rather large grab-bag for everything that hasn’t been labelled good; the risk of something delectable ending up in it given preference over the alternative possibility that something poisonous slips through on the other side.

You may have heard tell of people and other animals having innate fears of certain species, memorised somehow genetically – the fear of snakes for example. It turns out that when tested with naïve caged monkeys, there was no innate fear, but a great capacity to learn fear from others. It took just one monkey who had already learned to fear snakes to be introduced to a new group ahead of the snake, to then go nuts when a snake arrived, for its reaction to catch on forever after. Contagious snake-phobia. Though trying to couch it in terms of avoidance rather than hatred, I have successfully taught something similar to my 3 year old son (red-bellied black snakes being common enough on the bush block to warrant it). In such cases, when a snake is a properly dangerous one if trifled with, it is a useful lesson and the ability to learn it without recourse to bitter experience, it is obviously a very useful adaptation (and such a shame for that bloke and his girlfriend with a naked carefree life in Eden on the line who lacked a predecessor to provide the warning). But if it leaves people making a mixed association and unable to grapple with the idea of eating an all-too-similar eel – like a beautiful hot-smoked short-finned eel (Anguilla australis) with a creamy horseradish sauce or freshly made unagi [eel] nigiri sushi – then it has all backfired on you.

As Australians, we tend to be told not to eat a lot of things – like weeds, snails (land and sea ones), insects. These are all ‘bad to eat’; and we keep this concept strongly even after we learn that some are quite the opposite. When beginning foraging, unlearning can be harder than learning. So we should start with small steps. I took a friend out a while ago who was interested in adding some foraged plants to his life. Ten species into it I recalled the issue described above and realised I would do him no favours by sending him home to plate them all up, season, and trust me. Instead I suggested starting with 2 or 3: Native spinach (Tetragonia tetragoniodes, what he had come asking about in the first place), chickweed (Stellaria media, snuck into salads to start) and sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca, he is a health nut, an ocean swimmer who commonly walks past the stuff, and in my view has been deprived by not knowing about dried sea lettuce as a home-made foraged condiment).

Some, who see the challenge of urban foraging as a challenge of learning how to eat weeds they don’t really want to, may find themselves rejecting foraging altogether on the basis of a disinclination towards (quite frankly) some of the most boring parts. For all that weeds are the ignored opportunity that always surround us, foraging writing seeking to engage novices tends to focus disproportionately on weeds rather than the potential delicacies out there. I think that is a shame; when people might have more easily and gradually come in on the delights of wild berries (mulberries, blackberries), feral herbs (rosemary, fennel) as a flavouring in cooking but not itself eaten, or just one easy weed (amaranth, native spinach) backed with its specific background knowledge and easy-cooking utility rather than the whole book of weeds. Whatever you do (In Australia at any rate), don’t start with dandelions (perhaps the most discussed edible weed) – you are too likely to be bittered back into the corner and give up.

To not like a food because it is unknown is different to a food aversion that comes about from a personally experienced negative reinforcement. You ate a dodgy pie, spewed for 2 days, and cannot face another pie no matter what is in it. The aversion needs only have a cause, it does not need to be rational. Although that is not to say that a food aversion can never be rationally undone. My points with food aversions and foraging are twofold: 1) You may want to avoid a wild food because you are actually avoiding something different but can gradually reason your way to sense; but also 2) you don’t want to go so far as to force yourself to eat something that you fear, however irrationally, if that is only going to reinforce the aversion.

The things that your brain is doing when it pulls you up before some foods are adaptations that have probably saved the life of an ancestor somewhere along the way, so without them you mightn’t be here; but the thing that your brain is doing when it challenges itself to experiment with new foods is undoubtedly an adaptation that has saved the lives of many more. Food neophobia is worth acknowledging, perhaps a nod or even a tip of the hat, as you walk on by towards more interesting experiences. If it won’t let you past, here are some tips for knocking it on its arse: 1) Start with foraged food that you may already know and love (like blackberries in autumn, mulberries in spring, roadside plums in the country); 2) mix the foraged food in with known and loved ones (like starting with a mild wild green like amaranth in with spinach, kale or familiar Asian greens); 3) chop it, mince, hide it (like sea snails or watercress soup); 4) nibble at first (a few leaves of chickweed, purslane or nasturtium flowers browsed here and there or (see point 2) sprinkled in a salad; and 5) perhaps most potently, do it with someone who you know and trust on the matter – Diego Bonetto uses the term a ‘foraging uncle’. You are not trying to actually fool yourself and you are not being timid, you are just giving yourself time for your normal food psychology to adjust the categorisation of a food from ‘bad to eat’ to ‘good to eat’.

You are being just as human to resist foraging as to undertake the adventure of it, the difference being a choice about what you are in the world and who you choose to be as a person. With experience and knowledge, the environmental engagement can become sublimely rewarding in the appreciation of yourself as a natural creature; the nutritional rewards in a world of processed food might induce you; or perhaps the delicacies far exceeding shop bought imitations that may await. The urchin roe polishes up alright in the end and could never taste better than salted with the sweat of your brow.

They say it was a brave man who ate the first oyster, or in this case, urchin roe. It was then a foolish man who chose not to be the second one.

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In Britain, if you want to have an allotment of common land to grow vegetables, theoretically you can have one. There is a long history of legislation that comes out of very old commoners rights (and to some extent compensation for their loss with large scale enclosure of land in the 18th and 19th Centuries) and the ‘Dig for Victory’ response to the food crisis of the Second World War. I had one once, a plot of absolute Thames River waterfront in Oxford where I could sit drinking cider and trapping crayfish while the spuds and onions grew.

Osney allotments in Oxford, a few down from my old one – they flood most years but come with crayfishing and a view (© Derek Harper)

In Australia, while we also have some strong and culturally diverse traditions of home-grown veg, it has tended to centre on an assumption that you can come up with the land yourself amid all of our space, most likely in your own garden. But that doesn’t work so well for a lot of us in the cities now, jammed into apartments or houses whose extensions have taken up all but a paved courtyard. This space issue, combined with forceful trends about how we value food, its freshness, origins and ancillary impacts, has come together to do a lot of the fuelling of the recent rise of community gardens. You might call it a ‘movement’, but that implies a direction away from the mainstream, whereas what is happening with vegie growing these days is precisely the opposite. Community gardens are ‘in’; while perhaps not the ‘new black’, they are certainly a far more fashionable shade of green.

Randwick Community Organic Garden

At the community garden where I am a member, the interest in membership, the time it takes waiting for a plot to become available, and the conditions of use for retaining one have been subject to consistent and continuing growth. Around the corner from me, a community plot started up a couple of years ago that was initially something of a ‘guerrilla garden’ in that some perfectly civil and upstanding members of the local community appropriated some Council land without permission. It then became something of a Council darling – something they could get behind with little effort but with positive effect. The common impression is that had they been asked, Council would have said no if only because of bureaucracy and liability-phobia. But with it appearing almost overnight, the same local government inertia would have made opposing it the path of most resistance.

Clovelly Verge Garden

In Sydney’s Inner West, traditionally our more alternative area, community gardens big and small have been founded and continue to grow. There also, as described by Kirsten at Milkwood, a street in Dulwich Hill has gotten together and done a lot to communally take over the verge for vegies. Back in the East, a North Bondi community verge garden has become the best known of all because it is run (and regularly televised) by  Costa Georgiadis, host of ABC’s Gardening Australia.

Costa’s Verge Garden

Costa’s Verge Garden

…and down the road from Costa’s

… and around the corner

It is some very public gardening, and that seems like unmitigated good, right? I would say so, mixing things up in the continuum between public and private, between communal and exclusive. But it is important that we are clear about what sits where. The land ownership, the idea and much of the aesthetic value is public, but the gardening and its produce is necessarily private. Food production is inevitably a calculation of return versus effort. It is owned; it might be by a community, an individual or a corporation, but it is owned.

Sitting somewhere in that continuum up in Randwick, Barrett House tends a vegetable garden on the verge that actively invites people to forage from it. But notably it is explicitly a trial, calling on anyone who might take them up on the offer to only do so cursorily. And notably, these public fruits are coming from a community body, such that we shouldn’t ignore the real start and end of investment and return. Were you to pop along to Costa’s verge and knock off a head of broccoli, let’s not pretend that anyone involved would not view it as theft. These aren’t lemons over the back fence we are talking about, they are vegies, carefully tended crops, the fruits of labour.

Barrett House ‘Forager’s Garden’

Out of all of this, something that interests me a great deal is the fact that everything described above involves the assertion or allocation of some kind of right. And with this it is interesting that a lot of community vegie growing doesn’t really have any particularly sensible framework that we manage those rights in. Usufruct (‘a right of enjoyment enabling a holder to derive profit or benefit from property that either is titled to another person or which is held in common ownership, as long as the property is not damaged or destroyed’ according to Wikipedia), a word I have used before with only a passing attention to accuracy, is something that exists in our legal heritage, although not specifically in our law. I am not suggesting that governments should regulate our rights at different levels of community as entitled usufructuaries (holders of specific rights); but the long term sustainability of the social and political structures of community gardens cannot be secured by simply leaving well enough alone to keep moving forward much as we are somehow doing now. We think that these things are ‘democracies’ but ignore the fact that democracy is not a way of managing things, but a way of creating accountability amongst our managers.

My community garden has actually alienated some public land behind a locked gate beyond which only vetted and paying members can enjoy benefits. In it, although I do spend a lot of time just on the community side of things with that involvement itself being the return, my major food focus is on getting my plot to provide for my family on what is essentially your land. On the other hand, our contribution at the start of the local verge garden always left me uncertain of my entitlement to harvest, so I never did and now just enjoy the fact of its existence as a passer-by. My feeling is that it now works with a small enough group to run quite well. But for me it often turns out that there is too much inequality (and/or inequity) in the passive organisation of many community gardens that wrongly supposes some kind of communalism is at work rather than what is strangely best described as oligarchy. Bunches of left-leaners ironically come together and choose a community structure where laissez-faire free-market governance reigns at the expense of socially equitable returns.

Strangely enough, community gardens are actually privatised public land

At home I tend a small strip of herbs and greens with variable productivity in the common grounds of an apartment block. It is still not exclusively mine, but I certainly know where I stand with it. Personally, and quite reasonably, I prefer to make my investment knowing the conditions attached to the return.

Most recently, two workmates and I had a tiny version of a permablitz. We have made a salad garden, the explicit intention that it will provide lunchtime salad greens (lettuce, rocket, cress, etc), raw veg (radishes, carrots) and fruit (tomatoes, strawberries) for any and all of the ten people in our office (based in an old house and therefore with a garden). The company contributes most costs and as for the other inputs, the opportunity to duck out from some mind-scrambling report-writing to water some seedlings or attend to some weeds is a lot more of a personal return than an investment. I like this, my newest of gardens, the most likely of any that I know to have only winners.

The office salad garden – before

The office salad garden – with a token planting at the start to make it real

The office salad garden 6 weeks in and providing lunches

At our monthly community garden working bee, I would typically spend perhaps a couple of hours tending the communal plot from which I very rarely harvest, really just gardening for the hell of it and the social engagement. I then generally come home with less food than I took there. Instead of communal harvests (an exception here) we have common rights to harvest; the difference being that the former would involve shares divided out and the latter involves shares taken – in the process tending to reward takers over dividers. To be honest, the process has alienated me and I increasingly eschew involvement with the communal vegetable plots in favour of areas where I feel more equitably engaged (or personally engaged, as with the aquaponics). Conveniently enough the oligarchy is benign and this can still work.

Community gardens in Australia are, in my view, in their youth; and as is often the way of youth, they are heady with ambition, socialism, fashion following and limited attention spans. And perhaps most importantly, with that insistence of making its own mistakes to learn from. There is no great need for them to get a haircut, or a real job, or settle down and start worrying about just how much gets brought home after tax. There is a good argument for staying young, having fun and not bothering about efficiency. But youth is also capable of philosophy and organisation; and it is important if community gardens want to have long term sustainability, that rights, responsibilities and entitlements are made clear, or at least structures made to allow for this. As people (or just as animals), we are backed up by a hell of a lot of evolution hard-wiring us to appreciate food returns against effort.

These youthful gardens properly enough think that they are going to change the world; educate their communities, challenge corporate agriculture, set up local food systems and feed a brighter future. But they won’t do it meaningfully unless they do it with long-term sustainability, and they won’t do that unless there is some kind of structured understanding of usufructuary rights and firm efforts to build the returns side of the equation to match investments. Which isn’t to posit a dire prognosis – in the meantime they are social clubs, community hubs, hobby centres, and those are good things. Were I to posit a successful future for community gardens, it would be where the very core of society and its history, inclusive of those with no interest whatsoever in personally growing their own veg, was in majority favour, and laws existed to support (or at least defend) them. As it happens, this is the British allotment system in many ways.

So this I know: Community gardens are a fantastic thing in the fabric of Australia’s big cities, and its most recent history; but the time has come for allotments.

Osney allotments in Oxford, UK

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On Survivalism

Let’s call foraging a hobby, take it down a notch or two, a pastime in which the forager engages in an intellectual, physical, and largely recreational engagement with the natural world that feeds into a love of the outdoors, ecology and food. With some precious time off a job that is not as a forager, he or she heads off to gather this or that, a happily anticipated outing, solo, with family or friends, both applying and building knowledge. Living. Tapping into something more basic to our human nature than any other urge. Yes, any other urge, because foraging has its roots as the mainstay of existence, something upon which even reproduction is predicated. OK, so we are back up a notch or three, the forager is not just passing time, they are immersing themselves in the essence of their humanity, revealing it to be bigger than themselves, finding a perspective that reduces the inanities of society to an appropriate miniaturised perspective. Foraging is optimistic; it is good.

Let’s call survivalism what it is, take it down a notch or four, and leave it there. An unformalised creed of bunker-builders, canned food hoarders, weapons-cachers, kook-politics-militiamen, violent home-defenders who might be found wearing military green all too casually and leaning on some paranoid construction of an Old Testament style vengeful tribal god to validate a fear and hate of those beyond the walls. Survivalism is a paranoid exercise, too often a skill-build for an anticipated apocalypse predicated on the breakdown of society and embracing the arrived potentiality that your relationship with what was your community is now adversarial. Survivalism embraces an idea of the survival of the fittest as if that were something other than a community proposition for human beings, a fundamentally social species; not realising that the Darwinian theory alluded to condemns anything but a sizeable group of creatures like us to extinction. Survivalism is selfish, ill-informed and pessimistic; it is bad. Genuinely, witch-burningly, bad.

In my view of the wild food gathering world, foraging and survivalism are almost polar opposites, joined only by some coincident knowledge. Sure, I might be better placed as a forager than some, should the end of oil, catastrophic war or the mutant pandemic plague leave me battling for survival along with everyone else when the food trucks stop rolling into town and the supermarket shelves go bare. But if that were the case, I trust that I would take my speargun to the sea and bring the fish back to my neighbourhood rather than the other way around. The sort of utter end to civil society fear-mongered by survivalists  is a ridiculous hypothetical shit-spin in my view – paranoid, conspiracy-theory-like mental diarrhoea out of the faces of fearful sociopaths.

I am not a survivalist. I am a forager.

So that’s that off my chest.

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