Coming Home

Where’s the Beef?

Nature’s abundant treasures, the heart’s treasures as well as the infinite wealth of time — both everywhere and nowhere, throw up a reality at once both as rich in meaning and significance as in the solidified phantoms of an anxious mind.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner: what will they be? Where will they be found? How long will it take — today, tomorrow, the next day, next week, next month? Relentless! Relentless! Relentless!

Fergus Drennan, “Catch 22

This perennial philosoforaging is all well and good, but does it put food on the table?

With only three days to go, Drennan hasn’t found any roadkill for the feast. Here we come face to face with the essence of our perception of the hunter-gatherer vs. agricultural way of life: uncertainty vs. predictability. Drennan ponders whether not knowing whether you are going to find food the next day is exciting or nerve-wracking. His answer is, “a bit of both.”

Someone on one of my foraging tours once complained afterward that “sadly, informative tidbits would be followed by platitudes like, ‘sometimes the nourishment you get is from seeing, not eating.’ Presumably because we were all going home empty handed?”


I remember when I first got into what my mother calls scavenging. I had so little money that at one point, I found myself searching for change under the car seat. The world was not my oyster mushroom. I didn’t have a job, I was Job. My parents thought I was crazy until I got on TV. I can hear them now:

We’re glad the five years at Princeton we paid for allows you to pontificate so beautifully. Now MAKE SOME MONEY.

It’s nice that you want to help the world. MAKE MONEY first. Then you can help the world.

That kid who invented Facebook, you could have been him.

You want to help the environment? Why don’t you become an environmental lawyer?

And so on. It reminds me of the story about the Jewish dog:

A man walks into the synagogue with a dog. The shamus comes up to him and says, “pardon me, you can’t bring your dog in here.”

“What do you mean,” says the man, “this is a Jewish dog. Look.”

And the shamus looks carefully and sees that just like a St. Bernard carries a brandy barrel around its neck, this dog is wearing a tallis bag.

“Ira,” says the man, “daven!

“Woof!” says the dog, stands on his hind legs, opens the tallis bag, takes out a yamecha, puts it on and starts chanting.

“That’s fantastic,” says the shamus, “absolutely incredible! You should take him to Hollywood, get him on television, get him in the movies. He could make a million dollars!”

“Just my luck,” says the man. “He wants to be a doctor.”

I could have been Rustam. What was I thinking?

Uncertainty or predictability: which do you choose? It’s a deeply religious question. In fact, it’s been said that the most important question we have to answer is, is the universe friendly? Is life a dangerous predicament or a fun adventure? This is what No Taste Like Home is all about.

Castor Diem

In the famine through which we passed, if my host took two, three, or four beavers, immediately, whether it was day or night, they had a feast for all neighboring savages. And if those people had captured something, they had one also at the same time; so that, on emerging from one feast, you went to another, and sometimes even to a third and a fourth. I told them that they did not manage well, and that it would be better to reserve these feasts for future days, and in doing this they would not be so pressed with hunger. They laughed at me. ‘Tomorrow we shall make another feast with what we shall capture.’

Jesuit missionary, 1634

Clearly, foraging can be a profound spiritual practice. What would Jesus do?

Do not worry about your life, about what you will eat or drink… Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

To live from land to mouth is to trust that you will be provided for, that you will be taken care of, that things are going to be OK. When you have that kind of home-land security, you don’t see the world as a trap or a battlefield. You don’t say, “we’re not out of the woods yet.” You can’t wait to get in.

Keep in mind that uncertainty vs. predictability is our perception of the difference between foraging and agriculture. But is agriculture really more reliable? As we have seen, both archeological evidence and recent experience suggests that agriculture may not only be worse for us but less dependable as well. Do we really want more of it? It reminds me of the Bazooka comic in which a school child complains that the cafeteria food is awful — and the portions aren’t big enough.

Can we have our cake and no cavities too? Exactly three centuries after the beaver famine, Walt Disney retold the story of The Grasshopper and the Ants. We all know where that story goes.

Today, a natural life doesn’t mean you don’t have to work or plan ahead. Like The Prophet says, “trust in Allah and tie your camel.” Or like my friend Ahmed says, “Nature’s not your buddy, but she’s not your enemy either.” In other words, the solution lies in partnership: neither foraging nor agriculture but permaculture, a “bit of both.”

Pack Your Lunch

Another day goes by and Drennan still hasn’t found any fresh road kill. Not that he’s praying for it (like in this other great documentary). Finally, Fergus spots a good-looking, albeit flat, rat. But debris ratatouille is going too far, even for Drennan. Not for some people I know!

all you can eatIf you’ve ever watched television, you’ve probably seen survival shows in which people get dropped in the woods without supplies, and sometimes, without even any outdoor skills. That makes for good drama; but thankfully, living off the land is not that challenging. Contrary to popular belief, you’re not “naked and afraid.” With a little preparation and common sense, you’re about as likely to starve while camping as you are apt to get attacked by a shark while swimming. Don’t believe the hype!

For one, foragers don’t wait on a daily dole of manna. If I’m going hiking, I carry jerky. Basically, when you live off the land, you spread your odds. You know you can’t always get what you want, but sooner or later, you get what you need. In other words, foragers can’t be choosers. Pay dirt doesn’t hit you like a paycheck. You don’t dictate the day you’re going to win the jackpot, but sooner or later, you will.

Foragers know all too well the salesman’s motto: when one out of every ten people is buying, every “no” is a tenth of a yes. That means nine times out of ten, you may not get a thing. Actually, anytime you spend time in nature, whether it’s exercise, sunshine, or woods healing, you always get something out of it. That’s pretty good odds, but you’ve got to play to win.

United We Sandwich

As we’ve seen, self-reliance also doesn’t mean doing it alone. That’s the real takeaway for the grasshopper from the ants: the key to preparedness is community.

When you forage for the long haul, you spread your odds across both time and space. You do what Drennan does next: he gets people to literally look out for each other. He recruits a “possum posse” to help scour the roads. The teamwork quickly pays off: several causeway casualties are collected.

I once had a production company over from England with one day to shoot roadkill — figuratively speaking. They didn’t do their homework! I called up nine more opportunivores and… bingo! One prize feeds all. True insurance, uncommodified, is community. Twenty eyes are better than two.

Despite popular images of the reclusive trapper or the secretive mushroom hunter, one of the most important lessons about living off the land is that successful foraging is a communal enterprise. It doesn’t take a village but it does take a band. We get by with a little help from our friends.

Back in college, I used to play a sport called “hashing.” A bunch of people race through an area trying to follow a series of markers. There’s a prize at the end, but the whole thing is fun. There is only one team. The game is structured such that everyone has a chance to contribute and to keep up. That’s because the fastest people encounter the most set-backs, kind of like the tortoise and the hare. Nature is like that too. If the human races against Her or each other, nobody wins.

Die and Let Live

I said, “Oh no! Help me!”
And that Oh No! became a rope
let down in my well. I’ve climbed out to stand here
in the sun. One moment I was at the bottom
of a dank, fearful narrowness, and the next,
I am not contained by this Universe. If every tip of every hair on me could speak,
I still could not say my gratitude.
In the middle of these streets and gardens, I stand and say
and say again, and it’s all I say,“I wish everyone could know what I know.”

Rumi

There’s a lot of talk these days about sustainability. But what are we trying to sustain? You can’t save the ecosystem without changing the economic system. As long as we are exploiting each other, people will exploit nature. The foundation of The System is individualism.

Individualism is the part thinking it is separate from the whole. This is the essence of cancer. It is the illusion of separation from Nature, from the real world, including the environment, each other, and our own bodies. It is the basic problem with civilization. It’s the reason for our dwindling physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Individualism is no less than the original sin, our Fall from Grace. It is the opposite of being present: it is the ego. It’s the thought of not good enough. When we see ourselves as particular people, we want particular things. The irony is that as long as we are trying to sustain our egonomic system, we will fail. Ain’t no bootstrap long enough.

The word ego means “I, myself.” The word eco, on the other hand, means “house.” In this culture, we are all homeless. We will never feel at home until we realize that we’re not just on the Earth; we are the Earth. We’re not renters; we are the HOUSE.

There’s an early taoist tale of the hermit Liu Ling. At the time, taoism was still a philosophy, not a religion. It wasn’t something to capitalize — or to capitalize on. It was the “hippie” movement of its day, the countercultural, back-to-the-land answer to Confucianism, the state religion at the time.

Ling was once visited by a Confucian delegation. The monks arrived to find him stark naked. To their astonishment (and admonishment), Ling replied, “gentlemen, this world is my house. These walls are my britches. What then, good sirs, are you doing in my pants?”

The story appears in Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. The word ecstasy means “to stand outside (one’s self).” The more stuck we are in our little houses, in our own heads, the more we need drugs to escape them. What we really need, ultimately, is not medication but meditation.

Medication can be comforting; meditation is often the opposite. Ironically, as Andrew Weil points out, the two words have the same root: medi-, meaning thoughtfulness, or rather, mindfulness. Mindfulness means being present, not lost in thought. And facing reality is the deepest medicine.

If, on the other hand, we choose comfort over truth, then inevitably, our life becomes a nightmare. Sooner or later, we cry out for help, and that’s when we finally wake up: to who we really are.

Dirtier Than Dirt

When I was about seven years old, I clearly remember either thinking or stating out loud that when I grew up, I was going to the Garden of Eden. I knew it with absolute certainty. I’m sure that was one of those moments when my parents thought I was a “weird” child.

I do sometimes wonder if my dream will pan out literally or just figuratively, because I am in pursuit of both that original co-existence with nature and world travel with an anthropological bent.

The funny thing is, when you visit other cultures, “plant walks” are not a special thing — they are a given part of daily life. They’re just part of the tour. Nature is not something that is separate from life. On a Bahamas commercial tour of some caves, the native tour guide talked about the plants we passed along the way and told us about their medicinal uses. In Korea, wild mushrooms are assumed by the general population to be food and medicine — not recreational drugs or poison.

Jennifer Stogner-Lee, personal communication

The tension builds toward the final climax, the big event. One skeptic puts the issue in familiar terms. Are wild food and roadkill “fit for human consumption?” Fergus calls in a health inspector to assess the street meat. The voice of reason vetoes the badger but leaves the rest to Drennan’s discretion. Let the diner beware!

One time I was helping a friend move. I stopped to pick up one of the apples “littering” his front yard. He said, “what are you doing? That touched the ground!”

Years later, I went foraging with some middle schoolers from inner city Asheville. If you’ve been to my rather small town, you might laugh at the oxymoron. But visitors to “Foodtopia” don’t realize we have one of the worst childhood hunger problems in the country. Here’s why:

We passed some feral apple trees and one boy picked one, for the first time, right off the tree. “Are you sure these are safe to eat?” he asked. “I thought you had to wash them first.”

“It’s the ones from the store,” I told him, “that need washing.” It’s the grocery that’s gross.

One girl was afraid of worms. I asked her whether she’d rather eat a worm or the poison used to kill it. You know the joke about what’s worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm? The answer is usually “finding half of one.” What’s worse is finding out that you have cancer five years later. Like I told one parent afterward, “you can sue me if a child eats a poisonous mushroom, but who can you sue for using chemicals approved by the FDA?”

If you’re worried, like most people, about germs, know that fully cooking roadkill sterilizes it. That’s Pasteurization. Any bacteria or parasites are toast, no matter how long your cadaver has been kissing the pavement. I actually think a little rotten food here and there might actually be good for you, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

Biophobia aside, when you eat off the road more traveled, pollutants are another concern. In sprayed or otherwise contaminated areas, it’s not the edibles you have to worry about but what we’ve done to them: specifically, what might be on or in them. In the city, detritus far more deleterious than dog pee can taint your erstwhile edibles.

Fortunately, like dog mess (and unlike pesticides and GMOs), the dandruff of humanity will wash off. And while it’s true that mushrooms and watercress in particular soak up heavy metals, they are the exception, not the rule.

Imagine that: plants don’t just blindly slurp up whatever they’re growing in. If only humans were as discerning. If you’re eating out— and by that I mean not really out — or you’re loading up at your local pharmars market (where a USDA “organic” stamp hardly helps), bon crapetit!

Even if you wildcraft in the most remote reaches of the planet, pollution is something none of us can escape. Here’s just one example. Besides, if you’re not focusing on the big picture, you’re just perpetuating the problem.

Come to Where the Flavor Is

Finally, it’s dinner time, and the first course goes over fairly well. One woman says the chickweed soup tastes “like spinach rolled in mud.” I can imagine that. Wild greens can have strong, earthy flavors, the vegetable equivalent of gamey meat. After all, this food is wild, not tame.

Wild meat can also be tough. One guest speculates that this is because it’s been hit by a car too many times. I’m with this reporter who thinks a good pounding would tenderize it!

Another diner darts her first bite into her mouth quickly — so she doesn’t barf first. The verdict? Not only does it stay down, but she likes it! Tasting is believing.

No Taste Like Home

I still believe in paradise. But now at least I’ll know it’s not some place you can look for because it’s not where you go, it’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something. And if you find that moment, it lasts forever.

John Hodge, The Beach

Even as they enjoy their feast, the guests continue to wonder why they should believe that foraged food is safe. Why should they trust a man they just met? They assume that it’s safer to trust the establishment: people they’ve never met. This brings us back to the basic question: do we trust civilization or nature?

The answer, I believe, is neither — and both. Ultimately, we need to trust ourselves, for nature and human nature are inseparable. We are made in God’s image, and it’s our destiny to complete the picture.

If you want to be told what to do, the choice is obvious. But like the Buddha said, “three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” If you want to see for yourself, consider a forage-to-table experience. Drennan’s diners unanimously pronounced theirs to be “eye-opening.” What more can you ask for, a time portal?

We all know home when we see it. All who seek shall find it, for it’s been there all along.

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