Our ancestors were hunters, gatherers, fishers, and farmers. There were no pilots, cable installers, computer programmers, or telemarketers. Food was either gathered, raised, or killed fresh and served in relative purity straight from Mother Nature’s pantry.

Today, most consumers live in close proximity to a large grocery store, where hunting through the butcher’s cold case or deli and foraging in the produce section is about as close to the food source as they will ever get. It has been observed with sagacity that if all meat eaters had to slaughter their own meat, there would be mass conversion to vegetarianism. Needless to say, that may never happen, but it does show how far most of us are from the real process of food foraging and/or production.

As I wander through the orderly vegetable and fruit displays in our area’s new megamarket, I hear thunderclaps and the sound of soft rain as overhead misters automatically spray the vegetables. In the egg and dairy section, I am serenaded by mooing cows and clucking hens. By the meat and fish counter I hear the sounds of the ocean and the piercing cries of seagulls. In the pet section, I am reminded to buy the kitty her cat food with the plaintive meows of hungry kitties and barking dogs. These nature recordings are more than mere entertainment or novelties. I know store managers are subtly trying to manipulate my natural foraging instincts by attempting to make me feel like a self-sufficient primitive hunter/gatherer, or at least like I’m back on the farm, filling my basket with the earth’s fresh bounty. The recordings seem to delight most shoppers and their children, but they do nothing but annoy me. I resent any form of sales manipulation, especially on the subliminal level.

As a child, I loved to traipse along ditch banks in the spring and summer to find tender asparagus stalks, fruit, and whatever else was free and edible. Today, long hikes in the canyon wetlands, desert arroyos, and mountains find me searching for pine gum, pinon nuts, strawberries, blueberries, currents, wild garlic, mushrooms, rosehips, juniper berries, wild peas, and other goodies. Amaranth, an ancient source of flour, husk tomatoes, and Jerusalem artichokes are also freely available in our southwestern area. Find out what your area has to offer by visiting the library or contacting other local sources such as nurseries, gardening clubs, and plant experts.

Given the opportunity, I prefer to forage for wild foods, but presently, I am surrounded with development and increasing population density, and must forage where I can. This translates to Farmer’s Markets, roadside stands, natural food stores, and even my neighbor’s gardens. Walking to the Post Office in my desert town of St. George, Utah, I can eat fresh apricots, plums, fresh figs from neglected bushes, pecans that litter the ground, and fresh mulberries, juicy grapes, almonds, pecans and apricot kernels. The neighbor’s apricots that hang over the wall are freely offered to us, as are my pomegranates that hang over his side of the wall. This year, a big pumpkin vine has turned the corner from another neighbor’s yard, and is developing a huge pumpkin on our lawn which our friends have generously acknowledged as ours.

One summer in New Mexico, I noticed a “For Sale” sign at a beautiful old estate. I also noticed that the trees were overburdened with ripe fruit that, except for birds and insects, would all go to waste. I wrote down the telephone number of the real estate agent and planned to ask permission to harvest the fruit. Later, when I somewhat timidly called, I was surprised at how happy the realtor was to grant us permission. Looking back, I realize a large fruit drop is unsightly and makes property look abandoned and uncared for. I learned a good lesson . . . it never hurts to ask.

Another summer, my husband and I accepted a caretaking situation from a friend who was visiting Scotland for part of the summer. When she left, her large garden provided many fresh daily offerings for a ravenous pregnant lady, whose only requirement was to water and pull a few weeds. That experience was the beginning of a serious agricultural partnership with Mother Earth. As I write these words, our current garden is offering us more than we can eat, and I am able to share with others.

The following are a few more foraging tips, some of which you might want to try in your area:

  • Put an ad in your local Thrifty Nickel/Penny Saver-type ad paper offering to help harvest organic produce or weed and tend gardens for a share of the produce. Good advice: don’t be too greedy and they might invite you back next year. This could also apply to fishing, nut gathering, or other heavily harvested food in your area.

  • For the not-so-picky forager, call your local store managers to ask if they need help getting rid of damaged produce or day-old bread and pastry.

  • An unusual source for less expensive staples is your local livestock feed store. Poultry grains and horse oats are of good quality, and much cheaper as bulk animal feed. Twenty years ago, the question of whether or not animal feed was organic might raise a few eyebrows, but today, feed store owners are old hands at dealing with folks who want their chickens and even large farm animals organically fed. You don’t need to mention that you’re planning to make hot cereal or oatmeal cookies with it!

  • Recently I passed the health food store dumpster on my daily walk. I saw a big box of vitamin and herb bottles that had been discarded after an attempt to sell them for 50% off. It was an excellent brand, but evidently being discontinued. Later, after the store had closed for the evening, A friend drove me and my most athletic son back to the dumpster where he quickly hopped in and retrieved the heavy treasure box. We all felt like members of the Butch Cassidy gang after pulling out with more than $770.00 worth of nutritional products. (Not counting tax!) Not bad for five minutes worth of foraging! Several friends also benefitted from this dumpster raid as the valuable supplements and herbs were spread around according to individual needs.

  • Take a hike, cutting across foothills and forest . . . preferably with someone, and determine if there are any wild edibles that haven’t been sprayed. Forget mushrooms unless you have been taught by someone knowledgeable in the field. Puffballs are usually good, if picked fresh, and can be sliced and sauteed in Tamari (soy) sauce and margarine — a real delicacy! In the spirit of Euell Gibbons who wrote “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” learn about local plants that are often considered weeds or ornamentals.

  • Be a responsible forager, asking for permission when necessary. Be kind to the trees and plants you harvest, leaving enough behind for them to regenerate or reseed. Always leave some for the wild birds and animals that depend on them for survival. Never gather so much in one area that it looks stripped or bare . . . move along and take a little here and a little there as the animals do.

  • Ask the elderly what wild plants they used to help them survive the depression. You might learn more from them than you ever expected. Native elders and friends showed me how to gather healing herbs and other helpful plants. I still love the story my adopted Taos grandfather told about his family gathering big bags of marijuana for his grandmother to soak in for her arthritis. It was his way of telling me that there is a good use for everything the Creator put on earth.

  • The most overlooked area to forage is our own gardens, yards, and property. If you have a dripping faucet, brook, or spring, plant mint, watercress, or other water-loving plants that can take care of themselves. In our own yard, we have many plants that require little but water. These include catnip, two types of oregano, peppermint, rosemary, volunteer mammoth sunflowers, garlic, and Echinacea Augustifolia. Our garden offers foragable edibles like Lamb’s Quarters and squash blossoms, which we dip in blue cornmeal batter and fry. My most wonderful garden “weed,” however, is Purslane. My Taos Indian family taught me how to use this succulent. It can be enjoyed for its tangy taste in raw salads, or fried lightly with other vegetables. Native Peoples have always valued this super-nutritional plant, drying it on their flat pueblo rooftops for winter use as a pot herb. Traditional herb lore prescribes this lowly plant as a treatment for the “sugar” disease.

  • Finally, one might consider becoming a modern-day Johnny Appleseed. If you are aware of ditches, reservoirs, or damp areas, try planting Mammoth Sunflowers, watercress, tomatillos, or other (legal) herbs, trees, or seeds and care for them periodically during their initial growing stages. A few squash or pumpkin seeds can yield enormous amounts of food. Just don’t be too disappointed if fellow foragers discover and harvest your plants. True earth farmers and caretakers know that if we could give as freely as Mother Earth, no one would ever go to bed hungry.

2000 -Laura Martin-Bühler

“The white man knows how to make everything . . .
but he does not know how to share it."

—Sitting Bull, after giving the last of his money to a group of tattered and hungry white boys.

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