Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Wild Foodie Grows in Greensboro, N.C.

Brian, showing a young whippersnapper some wild foods

Since my post about Forbes Wild Foods, I have discovered that there are indeed other wild foodies out there, and one of them is within my own family! This summer I met my cousin, Brian Heagney, at a family reunion where many of us cousins were meeting for the first time. Since then we have kept in touch and I have discovered his many talents and interests, among them a passion and commitment to learning more about and promoting wild foods. Brian and I recently chatted about his wild adventures in Greensboro, North Carolina and the wild food dinners he and his friends have started sharing. Check out Part 2 of this post for an insider's look at a wild food dinner!

After the Harvest (ATH): What sparked your interest in wild foods?

Brian Heagney (BH): It really came from a desire I have always had to help solve world hunger and homelessness. Throughout high school and college I did things like volunteering at soup kitchens, tutoring homeless children, attending hunger and homelessness conferences, things like that. It wasn’t until I started reading the works of R. Buckminster Fuller that I decided that I really could help solve these large problems. Bucky was a futurist writer-engineer-architect-scientist-philosopher-artist-inventor and more. His main point was that technological advances would be utilized to help solve world problems.

Bucky, the man famous for the geodesic dome

Halfway through school I started reading more about anthropological studies of communities that existed before civilization, and how for many, every individual in their societies had the power to meet every one of their own desires on a daily basis. I started seeing that the problems that I wanted to eradicate were not something technology and civilization had to solve, but rather, I saw them as side-effects of technology and civilization.

I was also starting to try to figure out how to create a world where humanity never had to work again. I found myself working later hours and rarely had time to spend with my wife and friends, and felt this was not what being human is all about. I had studied anthropology in Undergraduate school and already knew that many gatherer-hunter societies spent an average of two hours a day “working” and so I started reading more about that to see if there were any answers to my search for how to never work again.

And it was about this same time that I started seeing guided wild edible tours through New York City parks, led by a man named Wildman Steve Brill. I went on one and was hooked. There was part of the solution to both problems. If you learned about wild food, you theoretically never had to go hungry, and there’s no work involved as there is in agricultural food production.

America's best-known forager

So my hypothesis was that wild food is abundant and ready for the taking, that we can subsist on wild food alone, and with ease, provided we make room for it in our own lives. And that’s where I am now. I’m not an expert by any means, but I am well on my way in my study of living off of wild foods.

ATH: Tell me about some of the wild foods you've been able to find in Greensboro.

BH: Well, let’s put it this way: I started to map the wild foods here in Greensboro using an online community-based mapping website. After researching, and walking, and examining the roads, parks and sidewalks, I realized the sheer impossibility of mapping all the wild foods because of their abundance and ubiquity. I don’t know the numbers, but there’s probably thousands of edible species anywhere in the world, including here in Greensboro, NC.

I can tell you the most commonly known and some of the first plants I’ve learned about. Common Plantain is one my favorite since it’s the cure for mosquito bites and poison ivy rashes. Wood Sorrel is another favorite since it’s easily identifiable, abundant, and has a great sour taste to it. Then there’s wild lettuce, mustards, clover, dandelion, chickweed, ground ivy, day lily, and milkweed.

And also in our neighbhorhood there’s lots of persimmon, acorns, and pecan trees, thistle, wild grapes, black locust and kudzu. It can go on and on, really.

L to R: persimmon, dandelion greens, violet leaves and puffball mushrooms

ATH: On your website, you talk about redefining "developed" land vs. "undeveloped" or "wild" land. In a society where material goods are valued so much and developing the land means building more and more houses and buildings, what do you think is necessary to create a shift in consciousness regarding what is valued as "developed" land?

BH: One day I was spending the evening at my friend’s cabin in the woods. I looked up into the tree tops and realized that the trees surrounding his house rose about three times as high as his roof. I started thinking of how Bucky Fuller once referred to trees as the perfect column, because a living tree utilized a natural form of hydraulics, which is how they can support their long heavy branches. So why do we cut down a perfect column to create smaller crappy columns and build our houses with those?

I figured that if we started with the tree as central column, we could build geodesic-houses within the matrix of the tree-column forests, utilizing all three dimensions, instead of plopping balloon-construction houses on a flat two-dimensional plane.

In the 3-D geodesic tree-house scenario, a lot that has just been cleared, or that has a store or 2D-plane based building on it, would be extremely undeveloped, since it takes nature years to create the perfect column called “tree”. Any lot or piece of land with many trees on it is already developed, with perfect columns.

Photo via haley morgan on Flickr

As I started learning more about wild foods, this concept continued. There’s a 6-acre lot in my neighborhood that many people claim is both “undeveloped” and “overgrown”. It’s 6 acres of wild grapes, black locust trees, kudzu, plantain, black berries, smilax, pokeweed, goldenrod, dock, and much more. It is extremely developed with food ready for the taking, and it is not “over-“ grown, but rather, “grown” quite nicely. In fact, once it is “developed” it will be completely devoid of all the food and resources that currently exist there.

So, I have a hard time with those words now, and it’s even more difficult since I work in the fields of Architecture and Planning, and we’re constantly discussing developments.

ATH: Do you have any tips for beginners going out to forage for wild foods for the first time?

BH: First step is to know never to eat anything unless you’re completely 100% sure of what it is. Then, get two or three guidebooks. Personally, I recommend the Peterson Field Guide: Edible Wild Plants for a very broad and extensive overview. But be warned that there are a few errors in it, never just accept any guide as error-proof. I would also highly recommend Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest. I would even say it’s essential reading. He writes beautifully, and in such detail that you almost feel like you’ve gone out foraging with him. He also includes wonderful color images that don’t appear in any other wild food book. I would then recommend Linda Runyon’s Essential Field Guide, since she presents the case for living in the Adirondack Mountains living completely off of wild foods. She discusses making flour from practically anything, and casually discusses how to live off of grass and sticks. I would then suggest getting any other color wild food guide.

With those books in hand, go out into your yard and examine one square foot. Count how many plants you find, and see if you can find them all in your guidebooks. Work up to studying your entire yard. Slowly introduce this backyard food into your diet. Most likely it will be dandelion greens and flowers, sorrel, mustards, small greens like that.

Once you become an expert of your own yard, take a walk through your neighborhood and see how much more there is in your wild food world. You’ll eventually come to the point where you can pick out your favorite wild foods from your car seat while driving through town. Eventually you’ll be able to spot wild edibles while speeding down the highway at 70 mph. Your brain will begin to amaze you with how well it will start helping you find this free food.

You never know who you're going to meet at a family reunion! Thanks to Brian for answering these questions and stay tuned for Part 2 of this feature: wild food dinners!

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