The coronavirus crisis has forced us all to re-examine our relationship with the world, whether it’s how we do business, or how we relate with people in our community. But one thing is strikingly apparent throughout all of this: it is our relationship with food that needs to change the most in the immediate future.
People are beginning to emerge from lockdown into a changed world, and they may feel uncertain as to how that change is manifest. However, one thing they can do to transform their relationship with their food and, by extension, nature itself, is to forage for themselves.
Miles Irving is a man at the forefront of foraging. A world-renowned expert on wild food, he dedicates much of his time educating people about the hundreds of plants they can gather and eat. He has worked with some of the finest restaurants in the world, including The Fat Duck, Noma, Fäviken and Hix, but he knows foraging will have the most profound impact on humanity as a grass-roots movement.
“Every other organism does the same basic thing,” says Irving. “They all have this interconnectedness with other living things within their living space, obtaining what they need to live and grow. Mostly food, but birds will gather twigs to make nests and that kind of thing. Every other species has that participatory knowledge of interacting with other species in their environment as a result of being part of a food chain.”
At the heart of a health crisis that has claimed countless lives is the realisation that our food chain is broken. The virus seemingly originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China, which brought species from different ecosystems into close proximity and allowed a virus to mutate and jump from bats to humans. The provenance of our food plays into a much larger question about our general connection with nature and place. Our relationship with food has evolved with us, but modern food systems neglect some fundamental aspects of humanity. Like how we find sustenance from our environment.
Homo sapiens developed agricultural techniques some 10,000 years ago, but before this we were hunter-gatherers. How we found our food and fed ourselves was the defining characteristic of who we were. And according to Irving, it still is. We’ve just forgotten it.
“No wonder we are fundamentally lost,” he says. “The coronavirus is very interesting because it was only a matter of time before our sense of being lost was going to manifest in something that would bring the whole system down. You can’t continue doing something that is so out of step with the rest of nature. You can’t opt out of the natural order of things.”
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Our removal from the food chain over the centuries has alienated us from nature, and is essentially responsible for our self-destruction. How we abuse the environment, and degrade our own humanity, can be traced back to our changing relationship with food, and the disharmony this causes with nature. If Covid-19 is just the first of many viruses that we will need to get used to coexisting with, then we had better act quickly to redress that imbalance.
“Being part of the food chain means consuming other species of animals and plants, and to do that we need that intimate acquaintance,” says Irving. “You have to know how to recognise them. If it’s an animal, you have to know how to catch it. So that intimacy and practical involvement is what we’ve lost.
“You can talk about hunter-gatherers, but for me that doesn’t go far enough when you see that every other form of life interacts with its environment in an intimate ecosystem through food. It’s so basic and we are so utterly distant from that place when we eat food from supermarkets, even if it’s quite good food. There is no interrelatedness with our surroundings as a result, no connection. That intimacy is the essence of life.”
While Irving operates at the high-end of wild food cuisine, he is adamant that the practice of foraging should be for everyone. “I take people on walks and I show them many, many plants they can use. But really I say to them, just remember two or three,” he says. “Go find them near where you live and form a habit.”
“People just need to find a couple of plants that grow near where they live and start using them. Make a simple nettle soup, make a dandelion salad. If you take a dandelion, you can use the leaves for the salad, you can pull apart the flower and add some lovely colour, toss them in olive oil and put them on your pizza, throw them into your pasta sauce, there’s so much you can do. Just find something near where you are, because the important thing is you get feeling that it’s absolutely magical.”
‘Magical’ is not superlative. Foraging underscores our modern understanding of magic and spells, and perhaps the power of that shouldn’t be underestimated today as we look to heal a damaged society, people and planet.
“It’s like a doorway back in,” continues Irving. “You think you’re in a place, but you’re not really there because all of your interrelations are disconnected. You’re using things with which you have no physical relationship. So this is like a doorway back to being in the place where you are. You’re not fully present if you’re not a participant, you’re absent. It’s a doorway back to the living system, ecology.”
Foraging food is the simplest way to reconnect with our hunter-gatherer nature. For those of us feeling like the world is spinning out of control amidst a global pandemic, it is a powerful act of reclaiming our natural place in the world, and a crucial step towards healing ourselves, and our relationship with nature.
Miles Irving is the author of The Forager Handbook. His online course on Learning with Experts is aimed at an international audience, and can provide people with grounding in how and what to forage as well as the benefits, from a culinary and health perspective, to be gained by adopting the practice daily.