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Urban Foraging: a Pathway for Conservation? By Gabriella Santini

Urban foraging has been growing in popularity in recent years. The pandemic and the dullness of lockdown life have made foraging both a novel activity to occupy ourselves with, just as it is a good excuse to stroll outside. Foraging is also a sustainable (and affordable) way to eat and a means through which to connect with the environment in a time of rising eco-anxiety.


Eager to dive into the world of urban foraging, I applied for and received a grant from ECL to attend a workshop offered by Totally Wild UK. Faye, the workshop instructor, began foraging during the pandemic to supplement her income, selling home-made muffins and cakes garnished with wildflowers and seasoned with aromatic herbs to local bakeries. She quickly learned about the laws that regulate the picking of wild plants and mushrooms and shifted her practice from commercial to personal use.



The workshop taught me how to awaken my senses — sight, touch, taste, and smell — and to uncover the many plant species that often go unseen. During a walk along Horsenden Farm, I discovered Mugwort, a hairy psychoactive plant that can help you lucid dream, I learned about Yarrow, a plant allegedly used by Romans for closing soldiers’ wounds, and ate wild Chamomile flower buds that tasted just like candy. This experience was a revelation: I live amongst these plants in the city, yet I fail to recognize their presence. If I do catch a glimpse during my walk to school, I most likely process them as weeds.


Urban foraging has been growing in popularity in recent years. The pandemic and the dullness of lockdown life have made foraging both a novel activity to occupy ourselves with, just as it is a good excuse to stroll outside. Foraging is also a sustainable (and affordable) way to eat and a means through which to connect with the environment in a time of rising eco-anxiety.


Eager to dive into the world of urban foraging, I applied for and received a grant from ECL to attend a workshop offered by Totally Wild UK. Faye, the workshop instructor, began foraging during the pandemic to supplement her income, selling home-made muffins and cakes garnished with wildflowers and seasoned with aromatic herbs to local bakeries. She quickly learned about the laws that regulate the picking of wild plants and mushrooms and shifted her practice from commercial to personal use.


The workshop taught me how to awaken my senses — sight, touch, taste, and smell — and to uncover the many plant species that often go unseen. During a walk along Horsenden Farm, I discovered Mugwort, a hairy psychoactive plant that can help you lucid dream, I learned about Yarrow, a plant allegedly used by Romans for closing soldiers’ wounds, and ate wild Chamomile flower buds that tasted just like candy. This experience was a revelation: I live amongst these plants in the city, yet I fail to recognize their presence. If I do catch a glimpse during my walk to school, I most likely process them as weeds.


“Weed is hate speech,” Faye said. “A weed is a plant that you don’t know what to do with. As soon as you know what to use it for, you won’t call it a weed.”


Today, the majority of the food that we eat derives from just 12 crops while there are 300,000 plants potentially fit for consumption. That’s not surprising given that our relationship with plants has faltered. Two out of five plants are facing extinction. We are losing plants to monocultures, climate change and other changes to land use. Promoting ever more productive crop varieties and transgenic technologies are leading to widespread plant homogenization — and loss of plant diversity makes habitats less resilient to changing environmental conditions.


Losing plant diversity also means losing flavor diversity. In his book, Eating to Extinction, Dan Saladino pursues and documents some of the rarest foods around the world, from a tall corn variety that produces its own mucus-fertilizer in Mexico to a unique lentil lost and reintroduced in Germany’s Swabian alps. Seed varieties have been replaced by their better performing competitors, and over time, our taste buds have forgotten the range of flavours one plant species can offer.


Saladino also explores the deep, personal and affectionate relationships that are cultivated through the growing of locally meaningful plant varieties. These relationships are also lost when plants disappear or are replaced with their more “productive” counterparts.


So, what can foraging teach us? Learning about local plants with edible and medical properties can make us appreciate the often-hidden faculties of plants and sensitize us to their vital character. And this newfound appreciation can help us conserve them.

Since the foraging workshop, I stroll through my local parks on the hunt for herbs, teas, salad leaves, and wildflowers to enhance my dishes. Although I cannot remember all the plant species I learned about during the workshop, I now can easily and effortlessly distinguish plants that once looked all the same. I am establishing my own intimate relationship with local flora.


Tim Ingold, in The Perception of the Environment, evokes the relationship of care and prudence hunter-gatherers maintain with the environment. It is a system of knowledge that is transmitted from one generation to the next and put into practice by novice learners, who then adapt the rules and principles based on their own perceptual awareness. “Knowledge of the world is gained by moving about in it, exploring it, attending to it, ever alert to the signs by which it is revealed. Learning to see, then, is a matter […] of acquiring the skills for direct perceptual engagement with its constituents, human and non-human, animate and inanimate” (55). Unfortunately, this kind of local ecological knowledge has been widely regarded as knowledge of an inferior kind in much of the Western world (Ingold 2002).


While I do not wish to compare my short foraging experience to those of hunter-gatherers who spend a lifetime experimenting with complex knowledge systems, I appreciate Ingold’s idea on relating to the environment, not as a backdrop for human activity, but as one world filled with living beings co-fabricating each other. This relationship is dedicated to looking after the environment and its constituents. And, as I became aware quite heuristically during the foraging workshop, it is by developing new skills and sensitivities for engaging with the manifold beings in the environment “that the world comes to be known by its inhabitants” (10). To become familiar with these beings makes me alert to their clues, revealing new knowledge and helping me learn how to better conserve them.


This way of living among plants challenges Western conservation models that seek to separate people from nature, and make compatible conservation with human participation. This shifts the focus from desiring to control the environment to answering our environment’s needs. Perhaps we could all learn from urban foragers how to maintain a dialogue with local flora.



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