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Wild Food, Wild Knowledge

There is a path we walk frequently, my girls and I. Since we moved we walk that path every week or two, stopping to play in the stream or hang over the fence and chat with the donkeys. And ever since I went on a wild food walk with a new friend, local naturalist and unschooler (all titles belonging to the same lovely person), we’ve also been stopping along the way to pluck miner’s lettuce or sniff a stink currant leaf. My daughters are fascinated with the knowledge that food grows wild in the forest. “Can I eat this?” is now a frequent question on our walks. It’s a question that I’m delighted to hear.

Another question worth asking is this one: “What will I do today?” Every morning we wake up with a metaphorical blank slate, an empty gathering basket. We get up and start making choices about what will go into that basket. Many families go to work or school, where there are clearly defined expectations about what will go in your basket that day, and the security that you won’t go a day with an empty basket.

grassy meadow

Just as we might grow our own food or collect wild edibles from the forest, we can organically gather the knowledge and experience we need to grow and mature in the world. We can answer the question about what to do each day based on our own needs, not our expectations of what other people think we should do. We are free to decide what is really important to us, what we are able and want to eat or do. We are omnivores in many ways. And with the freedom of omnivory comes the responsibility to choose wisely. When we could eat anything, how do we choose to feed ourselves things that aren’t toxic? We should be asking often, “Can I eat this? Should I do this?”

Coming from the grocery store/school classroom model of nourishment, as so many of us do, it has been nothing short of a revolution for me to realize that we can feed ourselves well by eating the weeds growing cheerfully at the side of the road. And that those weeds, in fact, are often more nutritious and healing than the pop tart that comes conveniently pre-packaged in a nice, colourful box. Those weeds might look like wall lettuce, which I’ve pulled out of my garden again and again without knowing I might put it in a salad instead of the compost. Or they might look like lying in a grassy meadow while my daughter runs up breathlessly, exclaiming, “I found four different types of grass growing here mama! Look how different they are!” Instead of consuming a prepackaged science lesson inside a classroom, we’re nourishing ourselves with the wild food version.

studying meadow grass

Of course, I wouldn’t have realized that I was growing volunteer wild lettuces instead of weeds without a trusted mentor. There is something about walking along with another person who has eaten a wild food and lived to tell the tale that fine-tunes your ability to recognize and remember what the edible plants look like. Likewise, life-learning friends with kids who are just a little older light the way for those of us who are just starting out. They reassure us that it is possible to eat that plant, to learn that way, to educate our children without all the pre-washed, shrink-wrapped, processed lesson plans that are out there.

Most importantly, wild food and wild education teach us how to keep our eyes open to the things that are growing all around us. We learn to see nourishment everywhere, the wild abundance that truly springs up as a gift from nature, unbidden. We learn to be discerning about what we will eat or how we will spend our time. We eventually lose our taste for the pop tart. We learn to gather what naturally grows nearby. We also learn that some things are poisonous, and that it’s critically important to listen to those with experience instead of trying everything on our own the first time. We learn that growth takes time and follows natural cycles of birth and decay. We learn respect, and restraint.

bitter cress

How far does this analogy go? The number of things we might spend our day learning about or doing is growing and changing constantly, and at a pace we as a species have never seen before. Living and educating ourselves in the modern world is like feeding ourselves in a place where novel foods and plants are popping up all the time. There are no wise elders who can tell us the effects of living in front of a screen all day, or whether digital books are equivalent to paper ones. There’s no traditional lore about learning languages from DVDs instead of native speakers. We’re like babes walking through the woods, eating everything that looks appealing. Sure, some of those things are probably safe, but some might not be. Perhaps this is stretching the analogy a little too far, and the ways we spend our time or learn aren’t toxic to us in the same way some plants are.  Food and knowledge both nourish us, but in very different ways. What would knowledge poisoning look like? Would we even recognize it? Is it possible for there to be such a thing?

Whether or not my analogy holds up to rigorous scrutiny of every detail, it’s interesting to think about our day as an opportunity to gather what we need to grow and thrive mentally and physically. The truth is that my family still does most of our shopping at the grocery store, and I still base a significant part of our homeschooling around resources, materials and outings that I can pre-order and plan around. But I work hard to leave part of our lives open to the possibilities that come from growing our own and gathering in the wild.

What will you put in your basket today?

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  • Emily van Lidth de Jeude May 6, 2013, 12:25 am

    Michelle that made me cry.
    Thank you. My whole family is grateful to have had you appear in our community.
    And as for knowledge, I think your analogy is perfect. I think some of the media we have become accustomed to consuming (as adults, also) is toxic to our hearts and cultures in the way it desensitizes us to things that really should be offensive, and trains us to be cruel, dispassionate, and/or to trust anything pre-packaged over our own intuition.

    • michelle May 6, 2013, 10:35 pm

      Aw, crying in a good way I hope! :)

      • Emily van Lidth de Jeude May 7, 2013, 6:33 pm

        Of course. :-)