Foraging to find yourself (Anonymous)
The happiest and calmest times of my life, I am at my great grandmother’s, Memaw’s, house.
The first thing you hear when you step into her house is the beep of the microwave, she can’t hear it and forgets that she had been trying to reheat her coffee. You heat it and bring it to her and she’s surprised and grateful, saying “oh, did I forget about that?” Memaw is a 93 year old woman, who moves silently and slowly the entire time I’ve known her, who smells like baby powder and flowers, and always has the biggest smile on her face when she’s with you. My brothers and I would work in her yard all day long, the lawn mower blowing the smell of freshly cut grass, sweat and dirt covering our skin, but I don’t think we ever seemed to mind. If we needed a break, we’d hop on top of the six foot wooden fence along the back of her yard to reach the mulberry trees for a sweet tart snack. After helping her during the day, we’d go out into the backyard once again, walking slowly and gingerly at her pace this time, to pick vegetables to make dinner: tomatoes, lettuces, cucumbers, rhubarb, beans, radishes, herbs. Her backyard was my happy place that smelled like a summer day, with the wind blowing through the trees and the birds singing. She’d always make whatever we wanted for dinner, but no matter what, she’d make the best salad on the side.
Back at home, I was surrounded by health fads and dieting culture from my mother, who thought that having the slightest bit of fat on your body was the worst thing imaginable. The idea of healthism* significantly affected our lives, because of how much it affected my parents lives, and the thought that one of us could be fat was always seen as a personal failure that you needed to be defensive about and try to change. The idea that we needed to eat a very specific way, and not eat much was unintentionally ingrained into us at a young age and led to a lot of unhealthy relationships with food as my siblings and I got older and became increasingly more responsible for making our daily meals. My mom raised us alone, and not only healthism, but food insecurity really limited what we could eat and how. Most days, we’d eat frozen pizzas because you could buy them cheap, and they didn’t take much effort, but the stigma from childhood friends who knew we ate the same thing everyday, and who knew we got free breakfast and lunches at school was difficult to handle. Even more so when there was the underlying fear that the food we were eating was unhealthy, but we had no control over it.
Comparing being home with being at Memaw’s, her house felt like a refuge where everything was fresh, sweet, and refreshing.
I moved out of my house for boarding school in my early teens, and beginning then I became increasingly passionate about exploring nature. My interest piqued when I took a field botany class where I learned to identify all the native trees in Indiana. I slowly began to learn more and more about the life around me and it made me even more excited. Going into college,
I began to read field guides and books on mycology and found myself spending the majority of my time in the woods looking for and identifying various mushrooms among the dark damp underbrush and partially rotted leaves. This place became where I was most alert and relaxed:
the stillness of everything around me, the warmth of the sun, and the quiet rustle of the trees brought me back to feeling grounded and happy.
As I became more interested in plants and fungi, I began to remember all the time I spent with Memaw. I was more interested in foraging because I knew there were foods around me that nobody noticed, but my great grandmother told me stories of how when she was young during the Great Depression, they had to go around picking plants so that they had something to eat for dinner. Learning about how they would forage for vegetables, greens, herbs, berries and mushrooms made me appreciate nature even more and helped me feel connected to something that I felt like I had been missing. It made me more passionate about indigenous issues because I recognized that indigenous knowledge is something that we should know because it would help us survive with the things around us, but this knowledge has been lost and relegated to a realm for people who are poor, or just generally weird.
Much like how the capitalist economy has encouraged people, especially Native Americans, to be disconnected from their
food systems, my family each generation became entirely disconnected from where their food came from, and Memaw is the last relic of a time where everything they needed came from their own backyard, or their neighbors’.
I desired to get back to that mythical place in time, where I didn’t have to worry about the caloric content of prepackaged foods and didn’t struggle to find fresh foods in my diet.
By foraging and growing food for myself, I'm not only saving money because plants are free, but it gives me autonomy and control in my food choices for once, and gives me power to choose to avoid the health fads, avoid the capitalist ideology that requires me to purchase all the same foods from the store everyday, and choose things that make my body feel good.
As a means to reclaim what food means for myself, and in a way to honor Memaw, I try to grow and forage as much food for myself as I possibly can.
People may be daunted by the task, but with a simple field guide you’d be surprised at how much you can find around you. I’ve
made a plan for myself to learn one new edible plant or fungi everyday. If everyday is too much, try to learn one new thing every week.
It isn’t about being a genius and knowing every plant on earth, it’s about learning a little more about the environment around you and connecting to it in beneficial ways.
You might not have a huge garden, but if you have a small porch or a sunny window and some pots you can at least grow something small and easy, maybe some tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, anything that you’d eat the most of and isn’t terribly hard to grow. All these activities have made me feel closer to and respect nature more, and the physical feeling of going outside for these activities in the warm sun always leaves me feeling refreshed and energized both mentally and physically. A lot changes throughout life, and it continues to fluctuate and becomes easier or harder as more time passes, but being able to find somewhere that brings you true happiness and makes you feel like home makes it easy to navigate all those changes. I found my home and happy place among the dandelions and mulberry trees in the sunshine, and it made me appreciate the beauty of everything around me, and the beauty that is in the fact that it is designed to support and keep alive all other beings.
Rather than having a food story that concludes in a recipe, my food story is a guide on how to survive with what you already have around you, a guide to growing and foraging food for yourself, and it is a guide to find your own place in nature by acknowledging what brings you the most happiness and reducing your reliance on systems that only care about money, not your health.
* Healthism, as defined in our class, is the idea of health being a personal responsibility, ignoring the systemic and community-wide issues that limit individual capacity to live optimally (note by Dr. Alcantara).