I am standing on the edge of a forest, my gumboots wedged in mud, the sun dappling the ground before me. There, standing in a warm mist, is the object of my foraging quest—spring nettles. But I’m not here because nettles currently grace the Instagram pages of every hipster from Portland to Copenhagen. Nor because these ‘weeds’ are so packed with nutrients—they are a literal medicine. No. I’ve trudged over bracken and fallen logs because I want to reconnect with my most primal relationship to the earth—the gathering of food.
Truth is, I’ve become so dulled by a steady diet of mono-crops and processed pseudo-foods and the rhetoric of “nutrition-ism” that I’ve lost touch with my instinct for nourishment. Between counting calories, tallying nutritional components, or choosing foods that are sustainable, ethical and organic, my relationship to food has become an abstract, even disembodied affair.
I agree with food activist and author Michael Pollan that we’ve become obsessed with the idea that nutrients are the sole and deciding factor as to whether food is life-sustaining. This, Pollan writes, has replaced “common sense with confusion” because whether it’s low-fat, no fat, low carb, vegan or high protein, thirty years of nutritional advice has only left us “sicker and fatter” than ever before.
So I’m here in this dank redolent grove to bypass food experts, to remember a time before the ownership of land and crop, a time when food was provided freely by fields, trees, rivers and oceans, a time before ‘weeds’.
And as I begin to very gingerly pinch off the top velvety leaves (concealing a thicket of spiny stingers) I think of the Salish and Nuuchanalth women who once cooked the nettle’s fresh tender tops for eating and dried its leaves for tea. And it’s no small point that the introduction of our modern diet led to a radical decline in their health, opening the door to the “modern diseases of civilisation”–such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and osteoporosis to name but a few.
We’ve forgotten this is exactly what happened to all our ancestors when they first made the switch from hunting and gathering approximately 12,000 years ago. Growing research conducted on archaeological records clearly demonstrate the introduction of agriculture marked a general decline in height, weight, bone density and dental health.
While farming seems enshrined as a golden ideal, a given, a pastoral archetype of communion with mother earth, we forget that it subdued, subdivided, stripped and slash-burned her. And as we’ve tilled the soil, we’ve destroyed the original humus and eliminated away whole bioregional food systems. Today it’s estimated we’ve lost 75 percent of plant diversity to a handful of genetically uniform, high-yielding, nutrient depleted mono-crops. (i.e. corn, soy and wheat)
Agriculture may have fed more of us, but let’s face it, it also left ownership of the food supply in fewer hands. And this has led to a conglomerate of multinational corporations which not only control our food system, they’ve traded our health for their wealth in the process.
According to agribusiness and their food experts, it doesn’t matter if food is grown in pesticide and insecticide soaked soils. Nor does it matter that it is then processed, preserved and fumigated with more toxic chemicals, before being nuked with radiation. These interventions, we are assured, are necessary for food productivity and “safety”—i.e. maximum shelf life. Meanwhile, food corporations receive government subsidies to churn out junk food so depleted of nutrients (that as food activist Raj Patel points out) even if we stuffed ourselves with it, we could literally starve.
Consider how in the light of Kirlian photography processed and irradiated “food” possess no “aura” -the ghostly emanation of light energy (bio-photons) that normally surrounds living food, like raw carrots or broccoli. And while food scientists cannot agree these Kirlian photographs mean anything, I nonetheless ask you to envision for a moment, how an auric picture of these nettles might reveal them ablaze with light and energy.
So I’m here, basket in hand because this small patch of nettles provides me with a rare opportunity to eat outside a monopolised system that has us convinced it’s normal food is produced not for nourishment, but profit. That food is no longer a gift of mother nature but a commodity to be earned by the sweat of our brow. And today if growing your own food is considered the most radical of acts, one that can and will overturn the powers that be (as a popular food activist slogan states)–isn’t foraging truly subversive?
Doesn’t it challenge the unconscious notion that nature is somehow separate from us, that it’s cold, hard and dangerous–that you could starve “out there”? But the fact is, here on Vancouver Island nearly everything outside our front door is not only edible but nutritious, even medicinal in its appropriate time and season. So it’s no wonder that the indigenous people, buoyed with such abundance, enjoyed such a prosperous and leisurely lifestyle–well at least till the colonisers and their farms came along.
By filling my basket with free abundant produce, I am reclaiming my right to pure unadulterated food–and who knows, maybe even some vital “force” no longer available in the food supply. And as I begin the long muddy trudge back to civilisation, I am already imagining how after chopping and sautéing these nettles (they’re like fresh baby spinach in flavour and texture) with leeks, mushrooms and pasture-raised butter, I will bake them into a crispy golden pie.
Tonight when I dine on the wildness of this green forest grove, I will be fed with more than nutrients. I will hold on my tongue and my heart the temple of blue sky, the birdsong filled trees, the trickling stream of spring run-off. I will remember how despite standing tall and supple, their heart-shaped leaves trembled in the wind as I bent down before them. And to that deeper mystery which drives life from the ground miraculously fusing sunlight, water and stardust into sustenance–I will remember to give thanks.