I consider myself a pacifist so I will not declare war to you. However, I feel the need to warn you.
I know you want to make us feel powerless, and I must admit, you are quite good at it. But here is some news for you: we are not. We are armed with powerful guerilla weapons like the one above. And if I were you, I wouldn't underestimate them, because they are accessible to virtually anyone in the world. Despite all your dire efforts.
You want to make us believe you rule the world. I laugh at that. Nature rules the world, and it has done since before we as a species existed and it will continue to do so long after we are gone. And nature speaks to us in many ways, weeds being its most clear language.
These ads of yours... You say you offer solutions. That's quite an unique definition you have of solutions. And people as the ruler of nature? That is so last century, come on. Don't you read newspapers? Haven't you heard about people wanting to reconnect to nature? About real foods and natural medicine making being the hot new trend? About empowerment and self sufficiency? About dandelions being the new roses? What ivory tower is it that you live in? I almost feel bad for you, you are obviously very disconnected. When did you stop feeling part of nature?
You do an excellent job however scaring people with brains. The more you are in the news (and let's face it: how many times has that been in a positive way?) the more people are looking into foraging and wildcrafting as a way to get rid of their weeds. And after a while, the inevitable happens: they grow so fond of their weeds that they invite them into their garden. They swap seeds. They help spreading them. Good tactics, I like that part of the story.
I need to tell you: there is a rapid growing movement of wild nature lovers. Don't underestimate us. We will continue to swap wild and heirloom seeds. We will not stop to tell people about the powers of weeds. We will always use them as food and medicine. We will never give up enhancing their growing conditions. We will not cease to do wild guerilla gardening. We will never, ever give up.
And neither will Nature.
This was the view when I looked up from my outdoors 'office'. It's Ribes sanguineum, flowering currant. I had never tasted the berries before, and was looking forward to getting to know them. I loved sitting there, looking up, my eyes indulged with a sea of pink flowers, hearing the bees and bumblebees buzz, the scent tickling my nose.
But then the unexpected happened: the new neighbours (it was growing on their ground) removed it.
It hurt. It makes me sad when people destroy things of beauty. Especially when these things are living beings, like plants are. Some people tend to forget that.
And what made me even more sad than the view or the flowers or the berries, were the couple of blackbirds who kept coming back for two days. They had a nest with eggs in there, just above my head when I was sitting on my favourite spot in the garden. This was their home.
Over the years, I have talked with many other wild plant lovers who went through a similar situation. They came back from travel, and a friendly neighbour wanted to be helpful and had cleaned up (read: removed all the weeds from their garden). Their landlord came by with herbicides. Their rooftop garden, with more than 40 medicinal plants was referred to as junk and had to be removed. The tree nearby they harvested from, was cut down. We've all been there, I guess.
So what do you do in a situation like that?
Let's take a look at the options:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.
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Over the years, I have become a huge fan of simples. A simple herbal infusion or tea truly reveils all the flavors and properties present in a plant. Especially when I get to know a new wild edible, or when the first edible weed species of the season are ready to harvest, I love to dive into the flavor spectrum and go for the full experience.
But my two three year olds like to experiment, and they absolutely love to create their own blends, adding plant parts while we talk a little something about that particular plant. Sometimes it's a short story, sometimes we talk about the shape of the root, sometimes I tell them how it helps them with that little tummy ache they have, and at times we talk about what a nice afternoon it was, the day we harvested that particular plant. In short: we love and cherish these moments.
Here's what was in our wild edibles brew this morning:
It was really good, but in fact, they have never made an undrinkable brew. Sometimes we even keep this brewing in the teapot until late afternoon, but I always remove the roots and other bitter plants sooner (I let them infuse 15 minutes maximum), as this would turn the drink too bitter.
To me, this is a great way to introduce kids to plants and get them involved in using foragerd delights. And I encourage you all to try it ( if you don't have kids, just have fun yourself!), even if it's just some lawn daisy flower tea. There's magic in everyday weeds. And it's yours to discover.
I have a confession to make to you all. Last week I got married with my love of more than 15 years. Secretly and minimal. No guest list, no wedding dress, no stress.
And experiencing that moment made me realise how much I am also married to the plant world. It really is like a marriage: I wake up with them, sleep with them, eat with them, learn with them, they are my support when I feel sick. I breathe their oxygen.
I take them with me wherever I go and they live in my heart.
They help me grow to become a better person.
They accept me just the way I am. They don't want me to become domesticated.
They put up with my mistakes.
As for me, I am very committed to them.
I will respect and honour them, no matter what.
We are so intertwined that hurting them would be hurting myself.
~Life is the flower for which love is the honey.~ Victor Hugo
Let's not forget the true gifts of this season. The slumbering seeds beneath the soil, the lights that get their value from the darkness, the fierce winds undressing the trees, revealing their magnificent shapes. The story time that emerges from the quiet.
Story time. While the water is boiling or the herbal tea is steeping. A time to share those folk stories and legends about the plants in our daily lives. I love telling them as much as my kids love hearing them. They are part of our oral culture and heritage and have so many hidden layers. They are a woven link with our ancestors. They are a specific but comprehensive language, universally understandable for those who listen. In all those years of storytelling I have yet to find a story that is meaningless. Even if it's a story that claims a certain plant can make you invisible at night, or turn itself into a toad, there's something to be said about that. Not literally of course (though some of us may want to check that themselves), but on a deeper level.
At certain times, storytelling was the only underground way to pass along herbal knowledge. Listen carefully, crack the code and they'll tell you all about medicinal and edible plant parts, toxic uses, the way they disperse their seeds, when they are flowering, where to find them, how they alter our perception. There is something about the human mind that somehow makes us remember things more easily in story-form.
Stories make things accessible for kids, who will discover new dimensions and deeper layers as they grow up. I still get new insights frequently, maybe after the 200th time I've told or heard a certain story. When the time is ripe.
Working on The Private Life of Plants project made me once more aware of how important the human factor is in spreading plant seeds. Some plants have grown very fond of our company, some thrive in urban contexts rather than in the deep forest, and some seduce us with shiny, bright coloured, sweet and juicy fruits, to make us disperse the seeds. Some hitchhike on the sole of our shoes.
Some plants travel from continent to continent, migrating together with the people who are fond of them. Like the garlic mustard that travelled to the US because the French immigrants didn't want to miss this wild edible plant. Where it became a very invasive species by the way, and in some states it's a threat to local flora.
I have pondered that, as I am a herbalist, and therefore my wisdom is very local. Drop me in a forest in Indonesia or Brazil and this wild edibles expert would be lost. What if I'd move to the other part of the world? I'd probably feel delighted to get to know some new wonderful flora, but wouldn't I also feel lost and alone, away from my trusted allies that I know and I have worked with for quite some time? I remember doing a weed walk in the US, in an area in (roughly) the same climate zone as here in Belgium, and I was thrilled and excited to be introduced to some new plants, but noticed just how relieved I was seeing all the plants I recognized and knew very well. They made me feel a bit more at home.
So yes, even though I know how hard this can be on an ecosystem, and by no means want to minimalize the effects foreign species can have on local wildlife, as I see it happening every day, I can understand that people who leave almost everything behind do want to take a trusted plant. Maybe it's a food plant they love, or a medicinal plant, or an ornamental plant, or a psychoactive plant, or a fiber plant, or a plant to dye with. Or just a plant species you're attached to for emotional reasons. Perhaps because your grandmother used it, or because it was a daily company when you walked the dog.
What about you? Can you think of a plant you would take with you when migrating? What is the one plant you wouldn't want to miss?
Foraging is so much more than harvesting edible wild plant parts. It's about a deeper connection to nature. That connection is the core of all of our lives. You may feel disconnected at times, but you aren't really. You are nature.
To be alive, we need to breathe. I don't know where you got your oxygen lately, but I get it from plants. From an ongoing dance of nature. Plants are literally giving us that what we need in order to define ourselves as being alive.
For those of you who want to reconnect to nature, foraging is a great tool. It will provide you with a lot of opportunities for celebrating that ancient relationship we have with the plant world. Foraging will not only result in wild foods, it's an ongoing process that will give you moments you could not have expected or anticipated. It's in these moments that the magic happens.
We all know these feelings from other contexts as well. What few people know of me, is that I have an avid love for overtone singing. It's like a ritual, warming up our voices, getting in the right state of mind and starting to sing our sounds, eagerly awaiting until it happens: the moment the overtones come in.
They arrive, like an invited and awaited guest, and are welcomed. Suddenlty this is are more than just people using their voices, these are sounds that clash, sounds that mate, sounds that dance in the space that is used. They lift the whole singing to a next level. I know some universities are doing scientific research on singing, sounds and what exactly these do with our bodies, and I'm sure they could give the chemical details on what actually happens there, but I'm decribing here how it feels to me. It's the moment everything falls in its place and you are able to be totally in the here and now. When you are the moment.
The same applies to foraging. And that's why I love to forage on my own, or select my companions very carefully. There's this moment when you truly connect to the plant, understand the plant, share time and space with the plant. No exceptional skills needed, just the ability to go into that space of opening up your senses and becoming the experience.
I recently read a beautiful passage about someone describing this in a book on the Sudbury Valley School, in which one of the staff members describes how we learn all the time, organically, in all directions. She explains how she had an amazing experience with a beech tree.
She had been working at that place for 18 years, saw the colors of the beech leaves in autumn, the structure of the tree in winter time, the new growth in spring and the luscious deep green leaves in summer. She saw generations of kids climbing that tree, she even saw some kids climbing all the way to the top, sitting there for hours.
But then, one of the kids wanted her to climb with her, which she had never done before. This girl showed her step by step how to get higher and higher, and for the first time in her life, she actually climbed the tree.
And then, she saw the tree. She experienced he tree. She was moved deeply, and tells how she can hardly describe into words the respect, honour and protection she feels.
This is why I love foraging. I do not only come home with wild edible greens or seeds or fruits, I come home with stories, with dreams, with inspiration, with a different viewpoint, with a feeling of being part of a greater all, with an experience. It's always fruitful, it's always nourishing, it's always valuable and good.
May it be as good for you too!
September is mushroom month. Though a little bit more rain would be welcomed to fully awaken the wild mushrooms here, the season has definitely started. A few years ago I wrote this article for another blog, about wild edible mushroom harvesting, and barefoot foraging. Enjoy!
Autumn and winter will soon arrive again, and usually we tend to ‘blindfold’ our feet a bit more at this time of the year than in summertime. But even during the summer I simply don’t manage to keep the sandals on my feet. Especially not when I’m in nature – how could you feel free in a natural environment when your feet are held prison?
I’ve noticed that I rarely forage for wild plants anymore without being barefoot. Honestly: it make things so much easier, it’s so simple to find out where the soil becomes more humid, or warm, or sandy. With your bare feet, it’s a piece of cake to find out where the sun exactly was half an hour ago, as you feel right away where the earth is still glowing. It might be the no.1 simplest way to look for plants, especially those that only grow in very specific circumstances. A quest for plants that becomes a total sensuous experience.
In the late summer, I was able to live wildly from whatever the land had to offer: wild greens, berries of all kinds, wild apples, and the most delicious mushrooms. The mushrooms, that was something new for me. Guided by a good friend we went mushroom ‘hunting’. Yes, hunting that is. Everyone who ever picked mushrooms in the wild, will agree: it is something quite different. They seem to hide sometimes, or it so happens that you look at a spot where you where fruitlessly passing only five minutes ago, and it turns out that all of a sudden it’s loaded with mushrooms. “Actually, the best way to look for mushrooms, is having a beer first” I heard, “as it slows you down, and fogs your mind just the tiny bit you need in order to be able to find them”. Haven’t tried the beer yet, but barefooted, I found one mushroom after another, and another, and…
Pictured above: Herb Robert, a wild edible that has green leaves in shady places, and red ones when it grows in sunny spots.
Once you are a bit familiar with the basics of botany, you'll discover there *is* indeed a thing like plant language. And that a lot of people are missing it.
In nature, it's all about survival.
Plant species that grow on forest fround, under the trees, usually form leaves before the tree buds open, and disappear under the ground, storing their energy in bulbs, as soon as the trees have leaves. Like ramsons. Other plants, that grow in shady places, grow big leaves in order to have a bigger surface able to do photosynthesis. On the other hand, plants that grow in sunny spots will make small leaves in order to prevent sunburn or dehydration through evaporation. Think about rosemary, that grows in the sun, in sandy soil. Some plants like in such exteme climates that they may even make their leaves into needles, like cacti, and make their stem multi-surfaced and green to do the photosynthesis.
Some plants have flowers that mimic insects, to attrack insects who think they found a mate. And so pollonation happens. Orchids have a splendid talent for this stategy. Others have flowers with patterns that are invisible to the human eye, but that work like a map for bees. Some flowers, like evening primrose, lighten up at night to get the attention of night butterflies for pollination.
Plants like dandelion or maple trees play with the wind to spread their seeds. Burdock and cleavers have velcro-like seeds that will stick to to fur or clothes and travel miles away. Greater celandine attaches a sweet candy on their seeds, so that ants take the candy with them, eat it and throw away the seed - pretty much like we do with apples.
They are all very different and diverse. But just by using your senses, plants already tell you a lot. They tell you how much water they need, how they like their soil, how much sunlight they love, who they like as company.
And knowing plant language may prove to be helpful in situations you'd never think of. We've been looking for a new place to live or quite a while, and on a few occasions I've heard brokers say "You can ignore the moist in the walls, it's a temporary situation, there's no stuctural problem; this is actually very dry land". One look in the yard, with willow and alder trees, and meadowsweet, told us a whole other story.
This is also the first thing I advise people to do when they move and have a new yard: the first year, just observe what grows there spontanuously. The land will speak to you through the plants. They will tell you how the soil is, rich or poor, clay or sand or anything else. You'll discover the sunny spots, the spots that only get sun in the morning or evening, and the shady spots. The plants will tell you which animals live there, how much rain has fallen recently, and how windy the place is.
Just watch closely!