I’ve just discovered a secret about food and sustainable diets. I tasted a hint of this secret when I went to visit my mother on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the shores of Lake Superior, that mysterious, cold, dark sea, with its edge of northern woods and rock. Friends brought thimbleberry jam and frozen blueberries as gifts. We had local maple syrup and white fish caught within hours of reaching our table. All of these foods were wild and local. Returning home I flew out of Marquette into the Detroit airport and wandered through various stores. The export store for tourists had the usual designer purses, perfume, and dark glasses. But a large section had shelf upon shelf of wild caught salmon and maple syrup. These foods in the airport and the gifts from friends were whispering “this is the best of us. Take, eat. This is the Earth’s body. Share in the bounty.” What was amazing was these were all wild foods.
The secret is that wild foods are a significant part of our treasured heritage and in many parts of the country, a cornerstone of our diets.
I recently celebrated my birthday with my friend and SEHN colleague, Nancy Myers, who gave me bottles of maple syrup from trees in her family’s Indiana woods. As we sat at the dinner table, Nancy recounted recent meals she’d made of garlic mustard pesto and nettle soup. Soon, I will start hunting for morel mushrooms in the woods of Iowa. In Chicago this past week, I saw fisherman angling for fish. And in North Dakota a couple of weeks ago I stayed with dear friends who eat mostly hunted game–ducks and venison. And Facebook friends have celebrated ramps, and wild onions.
I want to explore this secret, this pattern that was invisible to me before my visit to Big Bay Mi. So I wonder, “what is the role of wild food in a sustainable diet?” Perhaps a prior question is “what is the role of the wild in sustainable agriculture?”
In the last decade sustainable agriculture advocates have tried to answer the latter question and made a compelling case for farming with the wild because wild species and intact soils add resilience to the farming operation itself. The wild is the farmer’s dance partner, not an enemy, in producing food. The National Organic Standard (the law governing organic agriculture) is clear about the critical role of biodiversity in maintaining viable farms. For instance, according to the Pollinator Partnership, “[a]t least 80% of our world’s crop plant species require pollination. Estimates as high as 1 out of every 3rd bite of food comes to us through the work of animal pollinators. Bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and more are among the myriad creatures which transfer pollen between seed plants.” The term “wild” signifies greater biodiversity because a wild ecosystem is made up of many more species than industrial agriculture can tolerate. The Wild Farm Alliance says, “In essence, we envision a world in which community-based, ecologically managed farms and ranches seamlessly integrate into landscapes that accommodate the full range of native species and ecological processes.”
We can extend the vision of farming with the wild to eating with the wild. Imagine a society where every person’s diet includes some portion of foods that have never been domesticated by humans, and are part of natural ecosystems. Wild foods. Now imagine that everyone not only ate wild foods but had the knowledge and opportunity to sustainably harvest some food from the wild. These foods could include wild fish, greens (fiddle head ferns, stinging nettles, lambs quarters), nuts, berries, mushrooms, seaweed, duck, geese, turkey and venison.
The presence of wildness indicates health. Wild places provide a range of complex functions and services that cannot be provided by simplified, human-cultivated landscapes. Aldo Leopold defined the health of the land as its capacity for self-renewal. Wild woods, prairies, rivers and oceans are reservoirs of diversity that serve as habitat for pollinators, insect-eating birds and bats, and carnivores that keep populations of smaller animals in check, while continually providing food for the entire web of life, including humans. The abundance of clean, wild human foods available in close proximity to human populations indicates both health and consciousness because the land has been purposely protected and is regenerative.
This healthy land then produces wild foods which are some of the healthiest available to humans. Whether it is wild blueberries or mushrooms, wild fish or venison, seaweed or dandelions, wild rice or hickory nuts, or maple syrup, these foods are deeply nourishing. Of course, they can be contaminated with toxic chemicals like mercury or dioxin from our industrial processes. But if they are toxic-free they are astonishingly good for you. Compared with a western urban diet that is comprised of old foods from far away, or processed and packaged foods that are nutritionally suspect, a bowl of dandelion greens or blueberries provide a suite of health benefits that are unparalleled. In addition, harvesting wild foods generally requires physical activity. The exercise provided by harvesting wild food is beneficial for people. Couple the exercise, the nutritional benefits with the mental health benefits of being in nature, wild foods are exceptionally healthy for people. The health of the land is the health of the body. The health of the body is the health of the land.
Another benefit of hunting and gathering foods from a specific place is that these practices engender a deep familiarity with the land and with our nearest non-human neighbors. Collecting morels in the spring, or black walnuts in the fall connects us to our food through the deep cord of gratitude. Gathering wild foods requires knowledge of not only the land base but of the habits and behaviors of the plants and animals. It requires understanding, respect and a land ethic. We are more likely to protect an untamed place if we know it, if we love it, if it feeds us. Rewilding our diet embeds us in the natural world in a way that nothing else can.
As the Wild Farm Alliance describes, biodiversity is essential to the resilience of the farm in that it provides redundant ecological services. Multiple pollinating species are better than a single species in the event of a population crash. Similarly, dietary diversity provides more resilience for human and public health. Adding wild foods increases the array of micro-nutrients available in a diet. Wild foods can buffer populations from hunger during agriculture shortages,
Today, wild foods are a smaller component of human diets than ever before in history. The loss of wild foods in a diet not only limits dietary diversity but represents a loss of cultural wisdom and diversity. Knowledge of harvesting, storage and preparation methods are deeply connected to place and rooted in cultural practices, language, and architecture. For generations families have harvested, stored and cooked a vast buffet of wild foods. Our survival could depend on this knowledge in a future that includes peak oil, climate change, and water shortages.
Ideally, wild foods are an integral part of a community’s food supply. They are season-extenders with early spring greens available before even the first garden spinach. Late fall nuts or wild game can be obtained after the last pumpkin is brought in from the field. As the concept of food sheds (which bring people together as food citizens to determine the most secure, sustainable food system for their own communities) emerge, we will have new opportunities to incorporate eating from the wild into every community’s blueprint to sustain itself. Sustaining in the most profound and nourishing ways.
As Scott Russell Sanders said, “[i]t is easy to feel nurtured among these ancient trees. I breathe the forest. I drink its waters. I take in the forest through all my senses. In order to survive here for any length of time, I would need to wear the forest, its fur and skin and fiber; I would need to draw my food from what lives here alongside me; I would need to burn its fallen branches for cooking and for keeping warm; I would need to frame my shelter with its wood and clay and stone. Above all, I would need to learn to think like the forest, learn its patterns, obey its requirements, align myself with its flow.
I would add, “above all, WE would need to learn to think like the forest, learn its patterns, obey its requirements, align ourselves with its flow.” Then we will have sustainable diets.
Note: This is an excerpt of a longer essay making the case for including wild food in sustainable diets. The full essay is both a what if, try-this-on-for-size thought starter, and a we-can-do-this manifesto. I welcome your ideas. Special thanks to Fred Kirschenmann and Brooke Williams for reading and contributing to the longer piece.