For a Daughter of Immigrants, American Soil Offers Plenty to Forage
As my family tromped through the hills east of Berkeley, green with abundance, I spotted the disk of a leaf, perched on a slender stem, delicate as a lady’s parasol: miner’s lettuce?
I texted a photo to a naturalist friend to confirm my find. The excitement I felt at the confirmation might have rivaled James Marshall’s when he discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in 1849. Eureka! Lore has it that gold rush prospectors dined on the greens, high in vitamin C, to prevent scurvy, I told my eight-year-old twin boys.
It was early April, a few weeks after the world went into retreat. I’d been foggy-headed, sleepless with worry about the coronavirus and the economy, but giving this impromptu science and history lesson fired my synapses. “Scurvy causes your gums to bleed, and your teeth to fall out,” I told my sons, a ghoulish fact that had fascinated me when I was their age. Just as intrigued, they vowed to try the greens to ward off the disease.
“They look like satellite dishes,” one said, which led to a discussion about Sputnik, the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the ill-fated cosmonaut mutt, Laika.
Back at home, I nibbled it raw, the leaf tender but a bit grassy for my taste. I stir-fried the rest with garlic and sesame oil, the sort of recipe a Chinese fortune seeker might have conjured for himself in the gold fields, or later on, while toiling on the Transcontinental Railroad.
Foraging felt like empowerment and self-sufficiency — a form of resourceful thrift familiar to me as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and a small measure of control when so much has felt out of control. I’d always wanted to try foraging, which had an aura of pioneer independence, so different than my 1980s suburban upbringing, in which my working parents called upon the convenience of every canned and frozen meal to keep us fed.
A few years ago, while conducting research for my forthcoming novel, I’d wandered through botanical gardens in Hong Kong and Beijing, snapping photos of labeled greenery in an attempt to fill in my landscapes. It was like using flash cards to memorize facts I promptly forgot after the test. My understanding felt thin as a stage backdrop I could punch through, my fist meeting blank concrete.
This past spring, after trips to the supermarket became a live wire of masks, social distancing, and complicated logistics, foraging felt imperative. I wasn’t alone.
Foraging felt like empowerment and self-sufficiency — a form of resourceful thrift familiar to me as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and a small measure of control when so much has felt out of control.
After witnessing a surge in interest online in March and April, Patrick Hurley, an environmental social scientist at Ursinus College, and his colleagues abroad began working on a study of how foraging may have helped city dwellers in the United States, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom respond to the stresses of the pandemic, in terms of access to food and nature, as well as promoting general well-being and resilience.
About 18% to 28% of people forage, experts say — that’s across cultures, ethnicities, and locales, and includes those who pick the occasional blackberry while on a walk and hard-core aficionados. “It’s a whole lot more than people who play golf or go camping, and it doesn’t require an organized infrastructure,” notes Marla Emery, a research geographer for the U.S. Forest Service. Some may hesitate to try because of lack of experience and knowledge. “What’s different now is this space on social media. It wasn’t there before. And suddenly, circumstances put you into a lot more hikes. Covid-19 combined with social media took care of both those things.”
More than seven months into this crisis, spontaneity remains in short supply — harder to find than disinfectant wipes — making our discoveries outside all the more magical.
“Is this your happy place?” the elder twin asked, after he’d spotted yards and yards of miner’s lettuce. We posed for pictures with the emerald patch as if we were standing before Half Dome or the Grand Canyon, the equivalent of a road trip’s vista point in our circumscribed times.
“Everything looks like a salad now,” I joked to my husband. He laughed, then chased down the boys who’d run ahead.
Much is, I would learn. Just over the hill from where I live, a UC Berkeley research group found several thousand servings of high quality edible wild greens at individual residential addresses in parts of Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland, food deserts where residents have limited access to affordable, healthy options. The nutritional density of wild foods can be greater than in domesticated counterparts. Take, for example, the crenellated round leaves of a mallow, which has eight times as much iron as spinach.
After I started to learn the names of flora and their uses, the scenery rearranged itself in my vision and in my memory. My gaze sharpened, in a process that’s known as “breaking the green wall.” With plants, I’d had what seemed like a form of face blindness, an inability to recognize or differentiate. What I could not separate, see as individual, I struggled to remember.
As the months went by, what once might have been generic prettiness, lumped in my head as wildflowers, became specific in name and taste: the anise-scented wild fennel whose feathery fronds I boiled, minced, and tossed with sausage and pasta; wild mustard whose downy leaves I blanched, then stewed with lentils; and the drooping white blooms of three-cornered leeks, redolent of chives, that rounded out a potato soup.
I downloaded iNaturalist to assist with identifications. Artificial intelligence — and the app’s online community of more than a million scientists and naturalists, professionals and hobbyists alike — weighed in. In late September, iNaturalist logged more than 50 million total recorded observations worldwide, doubling in just over a year, despite months of sheltering in place. Specialized knowledge has turned collective, a modern-day twist on granny’s lore.
“Look it up!” my sons suggest, whenever we’re stumped by a new plant, flower, or tree.
Gaining this skill has made me feel more at home. Ironically, it’s at a time when we’re at home more than ever, but so much feels eerie and unfamiliar, when presidential politics and racial reckoning have roiled the country.
In a recent study of urban foraging by African Americans in southeast Atlanta, researchers found that the practice had a limited but positive influence on collective efficacy — that is, people perceive themselves to be effective agents in their community when they can exercise informal social control over neighborhood streets and other public spaces.
“People gleaning, foraging, collecting… this builds community. This has an impact on the sense of self and what they can do in the place they live,” said Cassandra Johnson Gaither, a research social scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, and lead author of the study, published in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening.
Foraging’s long-standing caveats apply. Don’t be greedy, leave enough for animals, other foragers, and for the plants to propagate, pick in areas away from pollution and pesticides, follow local laws and regulations, look for multiple characteristics to confirm a find, seek advice from a mentor; even if certain in your identification, if trying something new, taste only a bit at first to check for allergies.
I scrutinize lookalikes, such as the mock wild strawberry, which peeps out enticingly in the undergrowth, but is a disappointment, bland and harmless. Other plants have fatal side effects, such as poison hemlock, its stems bruised with telltale purple blotches.
Survival depends on knowing the difference. I’ve been thinking about the resilience of those who have foraged before me — the prehistoric ancestors who hunted and gathered for millennia; the witchy power of those who possess the medicinal secrets of the forests; the indigenous and immigrant families who carry on their cultural traditions; those suspicious of the industrialized food systems; and the impoverished who search for wild foods to keep themselves from starving.
Though the days feel shapeless, an eternal present in which none of us plan far ahead, when I forage I’m reminded about the persistence of time. Of life. The neon vibrancy of spring foliage in Northern California parched as temperatures rose. After the chickweed dried out, the plentiful green walnuts and green almonds emerged, remnants of the agricultural past in our neighborhoods. In the heart of summer, dusky plums and swollen blackberries hung heavy and ripe.
Since the smoke from West Coast blazes cleared, I’ve been harvesting bay laurel nuts, butternuts, and acorns, which have dropped from their branches. In places scorched by wildfires, birds are already feasting on pine and cypress seeds, freed from the heat. This winter, I’ll be looking for tart rose hips, ready to pick after the first frost. Come spring, when miner’s lettuce unfurls again, it will be a sign we have survived the darkest of times. Within the year, honeycombed morels will sprout among the ashes of burned-out conifers.
One of my sons told his fourth-grade class that we went on “400 walks” over the summer, “two or three times a day.” An exaggeration, but foraging has shaped these months for my family. The vast majority of what we identify, even if it’s described as edible, we leave alone. It’s the equivalent of catch-and-release, the thrill of the hunt without intending to consume.
Every stroll outside with my family feels like a game — like a greeting.
Why hello, horsetail! What a lovely day it is, silverpuff! I all but call out. My despair and uncertainty about the future lifts, and we have only what’s before me.
When hell is other people, foraging reminds me of the connections we share. The leaves, the stems, the flowers are on the map leading me back to the bestower of the names. Hare’s foot inkcap, mule’s ear, monkey flower, wake robin, we chant across time.