Last week I spent a week exploring the woods around Witwesee near Fürstenberg (Havel), an area of the lake region of north-west Brandenburg, to find out if it might be a suitable place to practise foraging in a more sustained, immersive level. I took with me:
- three different knives (one for wood-carving, one for foraging, one for tinder and fire-lighting work)
- an axe
- a folding saw
- fire-lighting equipment (firesteel, dry birch bark, pine resin, etc)
- a 3.5×3.5m tarp
- a titanium cup modified to work also as a cooking pot
- several pouches for collecting foraged items
- a torch, a notebook, waterproofs and some maintenance stuff for the tools (grindstone, oil, etc)
To read about what I found there, skip the philiosophical preamble and look for the *.
Though I am not sure I have succeeded in doing so, I have tried hard, on each of my foraging walks (and even solo ventures) to ask two things: what does wild food mean for us sedentary, agriculturalized people, and secondly, what might it have meant to our ancestors who had never ploughed the soil?
Admittedly the latter question is more difficult to get to grips with in a short space of time; we can easily imagine a farm-worker taking a Sunday stroll into a remote bit of favoured woodland, picking some seasonal specialities (let’s say, yellow leg mushrooms) to sell at market before heading home for the evening, turning the day-off into an enjoyable earner. When we try to picture the decision-choices of our ante-agricultural forebears, the scene becomes a lot more complicated:
As hunter-gatherers, we might have asked ourselves questions such as: do I have enough calories (feel I have enough strength) to make it to the far-off woods and back to get the choice edibles? What other things will I be able to find/hunt on the way? What equipment can I afford to take to exploit these resources? To what extent will this choice affect the first question? I find the first of these concerns especially difficult for us to appreciate given our current manner of experiencing the world.
While both examples (the farm-worker the hunter-gatherer) have the same core need – that is, to maintain the metabolism essential for life – we have to admit that the farm-worker (who might as well be you and me, for this comparison) has the upper hand; what does has he lost if the favoured spot is too dry and the mushrooms aren’t there? He comes home to the farmstead in time for a consoling supper, whereas the hunter-gatherer returns hungry and exhausted if his luck isn’t with him. His very existence is bound with the successes and failures of the natural world and, to some extent, his own decision making in it.
Germany has, by comparitive standards, an excellent tradition of woodland conservation and nature conservation as a whole. The grandfather of forestry as a separate scientific institution is generally accredited to Wilhelm Pfeil, who in 1830 founded a school dedicated to silviculture, here in Brandenburg. That said, although it is certainly dedicated to perserving a certain standard of woodland quality, German woodland (and nature conservation) is neither a participative nor a democratic affair; it is something done for us by specific institutions serparate from us.
Our ancestral hunter-gatherer, as far as we can imagine, was party to some freedoms most of us have never known; he moved in a landscape whose limits were the limits of his own ability – before speculating on the details of tribal territory or sacred and forbidden lands (about which we know very little), he knew only the physical and elemental borders: great distance, treacherous routes, water-courses and impasses of rock. But there are 28 (twenty-eight) Forest Departments in Berlin alone, whose rules and regulations, while normally very sensible, must be respected. Though the modern hunter-gatherer may pass through these on a Sunday afternoon, very special permission must be acquired if he intended, for instance, to lay down overnight on any given territory, even without the luxury of any kind of fire (more about that later).
In the example we entertained the possibility that our hunter-gatherer ancestor might have made use of other possibilities on the way to or from the mushroom spot; in his place, were we to come acoss a particularly abundant lake, we might have taken the chance to try a spot of fishing. But this would involve a lot of preliminary work: for 12€ we could have applied for an angling license to be used on certain permitted ponds for the purpose of catching non-predatory fish only. If we had the intention of catching predatory fish we would have to first have completed a Fishery License, involving several days’ practical examination and a multiple-choice test with a question-pool some 42 pages long covering all elements of the fishing industry, the biological make-up of aquatic animals, waterway rights, and much more. Given that we are prepared to take the time in advance to go through this process (as I for one am) and to pay the essential fees, we are still bound by land-ownership and departmental laws, and have no essential ‘right’ to fish at a given lake.
So we opt to make the provision of an angling license and forego the Fishery stuff until later, and have caught ourselves a common rudd in order to have a full belly on the return walk home. We are miles from any habitation. A fire, except on a designated campsite, is of course completely forbidden, even outside the forest-fire months, on all land types, and there is no license or permission we can attain to solve this problem, even if cost were not in any way a factor. Choosing to ignore this edict or to feign ignorance of it, we risk serious fines and even court action, a price beyond all proportion of our intended wilderness outing.
I have thought long and hard about the dilemma of our limited freedoms as would-be new-born wildlings, and the only conclusion seems to be that we have surrendered more liberties than have been actively taken from us, whether we were aware of it or not. The reason that a concept of the Commons (Allmende in German) does not extend to our natural environment as it does, say, in Sweden (Allmänning) is ultimately because there was not enough need for it. It is a frustrating situation where we can agree with the stringent laws put in place to protect nature, while at the same time feel utterly excluded from it as a simple matter of course. The outcome of our collective ‘setting aside’ of nature is that we may now experience it in a manner ultimately proscribed, diluted, and bureaucratized. For better or worse, this is the situation we find ourselves in when beginning in earnest the search for our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
For some time now I have been attempting to find a place and permission to explore this very vital manner of living, and it seems that the immediate assumption of the farm-worker’s upper-hand might have been presumptuous. In order to experience that life which was once so unforgivingly natural we have to first satisfy these legal issues: how are we ever to feel anything like what it is to be be a free agent in the boundless natural world spreading out before us, if we have to worry about these things? If achieving this on a humanitarian scale seems daunting without the proper experience to form an argument, we need at least a haven, a place to practise the whole in part.
For now at least, I think I have found that place. From a farmer and landowner living near Rheinsberg, Brandenburg, I have been given the unique opportunity and the freedom to pursue an immersive foraging lifestyle. And so can you. Witwesee is a beautifully clean lake surrounded by mile after mile of pristine forest, meadow and moorland. As my new base of operations it is going to be something like a Foraging Camp, a Wild Kitchen in the woods, a hearth of operations for future projects and outings. I greatly look forward to bringing people to this very special place.
Imagine waking up to the smell of hazelnuts and wild pears roasting over the fire; ferrying friends or supplies over the lake in the canoe; forgetting urban time and working simply on the schedule of the sunrise and sunset, getting lost and being guided back to camp by a werewolf howl; forgetting all thoughts not conducive to you being well-fed and well-settled, having no more pressing task than perhaps to finish carving the spoon you started; seeing the glow of a fire through the dark and being able to call that home.
If you would like to be a part of this, or have any questions, please let me know. Full details of dates and activities will be posted in the Foraging Courses section of the website.