Stalking the Wild

Nicole Burisch

 

 

Why bother with wild food plants in a country which produces a surplus of many domestic food products? With as much reason, one might ask, why go fishing for mountain trout when codfish fillets are for sale in any supermarket? Or why bother with hunting and game cookery when unlimited quantities of fine meat can be purchased at every butcher counter?

 

I’ve always been interested in being able to identify plants, a skill that goes along with the others like birdwatching, mushroom picking, knowing the names of the types of clouds, and using a compass. Years of family camping trips, Girl Guides, and working as a camp counsellor means that I am equipped with a whole roster of “survival” skills, none of which I am currently using to survive. I can start a one-match fire, build a lean-to, and steer a canoe, but have had months when I can barely afford to pay the rent. In the camping and outdoors training I did when I was younger, the lesson seemed to be that an enjoyment of nature requires some knowledge of how to survive in nature. This notion of “survival” depends on a conception of the land as wild, threatening, unpopulated, or somehow unknowable, the message being that you can learn to get by, but will always be separate from. The landscape painter similarly encounters the land from a distance – and in the Canadian tradition is perhaps not so much concerned with the details of individual species, but instead with the forms and shapes they create, their ability to represent a particular version of empty available wilderness and solitude.

 

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Why do millions of Americans desert their comfortable and convenient apartments and split-level houses for a time each year to go camping under comparatively primitive conditions in our forests and national parks? For that matter, why does anyone go for a walk on a woodland trail when one could be speeding along a superhighway in a high-powered automobile?

The last time I went car camping was with my sister, over 5 years ago. I was struck by how much money and effort had gone in to making ourselves as comfortable as we would be at home: special camping stove, special camping mats, special camping tools to replicate a provisional version of the essentials. We had everything we needed; it just took longer to set up. The slower pace of camping -even car camping- is supposed to make us feel calmer or more connected to nature, but in our case resulted in boredom, frustration, drinking, a bad night’s sleep and a fight the next day that I feel is somehow related to the fact that we don’t talk as often as we used to.

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The questions above are from a book called Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and still seem remarkably prescient when taking up the assignment of reflecting on the legacy of landscape in Canadian art and identity. This book, as I have to come learn, is a landmark publication for books of its kind. It marked the beginning of a renewed interest in foraging and harvesting wild plants in the mid 60s, and sales have increased steadily since its first publication. Written by Euell Gibbons, it was originally published in 1962 and has 50-odd chapters describing plants that grow in North America, as well as the ways to identify, cook, and prepare them.

 

My interest in this book, and in foraging in general, only partly comes from the days when well-meaning adults ensured that I was equipped to lead wilderness excursions. It developed in earnest during several recent trips to a cottage in Southern Ontario, after the discovery of a large patch of edible wild berries on the path down to the lake. None of the available field guides could provide a definitive identification, but once the guides were in my hands, led to hours of poring through pages, crashing around in the bush and emerging to say things like “Look at this! Did you know that you can eat this?” The cottage belongs to my aunt and uncle, and while my cousins are content to spend most of the afternoon lying in the sun by the water, I have a tendency to sunburn and need to find things to do in the shade. My interest was perhaps provoked more by boredom than a by need to survive.

 

My cousins are not especially interested in my new hobby, but my aunt is definitely game and together, with a couple of new books we have started identifying more and more of the edible and medicinal plants on the land. The year that we found the berries (we still aren’t sure what they are, something in the blueberry/huckleberry family), was also the year that my uncle and cousin-in-law failed to catch any fish. I was struck by how, without even thinking about it, we had adopted very traditional and gendered approaches to hunter-gatherer food provision. I secretly started thinking about what we were doing as Feminist Foraging, and was quite smug when for dinner we ate chocolate berry pie, but no fish.

 

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Every man secretly believes that if he were an Adam set down in a virgin world, he would not only be able to survive but could also provide well for his Eve and any number of little Cains and Abels.

 

In his characteristically outdated language, Gibbons offers one answer to questions around how we value our somewhat-distant relationship to wilderness: the conceit of believing in one’s own unique ability to survive in the case of disaster. I would be leaving something out if I didn’t confess that my interest in foraging is certainly linked to thoughts about how I might fare if I did have to survive. Although, in my case, it's more likely to be in a post peak-oil or environmental apocalypse scenario, a far cry from Gibbons' virgin world and its naive and colonial implications. I wonder a lot about how present economic conditions, along with uncertainty, precarity, and looming environmental calamity are fuelling my desire to (re)learn these things? How much of this interest is about individualistic fear, rather than an actual sense of responsibility or engagement? 

 

As I’ve been reading this book and others, and learning to identify more and more plants, I’ve also been learning to “read” the land, and to look more closely. Where before it was mostly possible to think of wilderness or trees as an abstract whole, now my brain won’t stop recognizing and labeling individual parts. Like the difference between being able to ignore a language you don’t speak at all, and having the only words you do know jump out at you in a language you are just learning. It’s no longer a tree, now it is Sumac. I can’t un-know that this plant is Sumac and this other one is Milkweed, and the more I know, the more I can’t help but read the forest through the trees. It also reveals how much there is left to learn. The land is not distant, uncharted, empty, wild, barren, or boring – but overfull of things to know.

 

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Postscript

It is mid-September and I am writing from Houston, where it has been almost 40 degrees Celsius or hotter every day since I've arrived. My relationship to nature here, or what I have come to think of as The Outside, is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. It is possible to spend days or weeks rarely deviating from a cycle of home-car-work-car-home, staying inside the air-conditioned bubble as long as possible. To step outside is to be nearly knocked over by a wall of humid heat, walking more than 5 minutes is brutal. The boundaries between so-called civilization and nature have never felt so drastic to me before, even in the harshest of Canadian winters.

 

The few times it has cooled down enough to walk, I've started to pay attention to the plants here. They are strange, but some are strangely familiar - they are the wild versions of house plants I know from home and can identify for their decorative properties or ability to withstand particular light conditions. The plants we carefully encourage as fragile specimens in little pots on the windowsill grow wild and huge in the ditches and on the boulevards here, up through the cracks in the pavement and over the sidewalks that no one walks on.

All italicized text borrowed from Euell Gibbons' 1962 book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus.