Islay Summit (I): The Foragers

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As a few people might have realized I was invited this year (to my utmost surprise and joy) to participate in the Forager’s Summit on the Hebridean island of Islay, on the West Coast of Scotland. For five days we explored the faery coasts of the island, basing ourselves at Academy House at the Bruichladdich distillery, where The Botanist gin is refined and produced on the same site as some of the finest whisky the island has to offer. It is not easy to concentrate my writing about this experience, so I choose for now to discuss the people – not so much the plants – whom I encountered on the island.

Early on as I began to consciously study the art of plant identification (or orientation), it became apparent fairly quickly that, without a sense for plant families, it would be hard work finding my way around in the world of wild plants. It took a much longer time, exactly up until the Summit on Islay, to realize that, as a forager, I seem to have been working under unnecessarily lonely circumstances without the benefit of an extended community of any kind. I hope my time spent with these people will remedy that concern in the future.

Our group of foragers consisted of wild food experimentalists, teachers and enthusiasts whose geographical range spans three continents. Though it will probably read much like a contributor’s section of a publication, I think many people will benefit from reading into the activities of these dedicated foragers from around the world.

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Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods works closely with the Botanist Academy on Islay and has been foraging and hosting foraging events for over twenty years, ‘since [he] was an over-confident eighteen-year-old’. During our week stay, his enthusiasm for everything wild was ceaseless, and Mark is a forager who can get almost as excited about the presence of non-edible species as he can about a good crop of pepper dulse (Osmundia pinnatifida) (‘it’s not my favourite seaweed, not even my favourite wild edible; it’s more like my favourite thing, ever.’ Mark’s blog entry about this seaweed is the first of around 120,000 Google hits). His knowledge of and relationship with the flora celtica is deeply-involved, and he is both generous and unhurried in his manner of sharing what he has learned.

 

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Craig Worrall of Edible Leeds works all over the British Isles teaching and giving wild food workshops, and while he is enamoured with the West Coast of Scotland and its coastal abundance, he cares deeply about the wild spaces of West Yorkshire and its surrounding National Parks. As we foraged on Islay, Craig’s flights of recipe brain-storming were telling of his years of wild food experimentation.

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Liz Knight of Forage Fine Foods works in Herefordshire where she produces her range of fine foraged products. Her understanding of scent and flavour were way beyond anything I could even detect with many of the things we encountered on Islay. She is passionate about integrating organic and wild food into our lives and is sensitive to the difficulties of doing either of these things with either economic restraints or the time restraints of running a family, or both.

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Roushanna Grey grew up in Cape Town, fell in love with the flora of coastal South Africa, and divides her life between her obsession with wild plants and seaweeds and also the cultivated plants grown at her Good Hope Gardens Nursery. She was in her element on the coastal walks on Islay, down in the rock crevices of a sheltering bay, showing us the variety of ‘sea vegetables’ to be found, some of which were native to her own Cape Point.

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Ellen Zachos has worked worldwide educating groups on wild plants and has a history of roof-top gardening in New York. Her knowledge of plants is truly encyclopaedic, and several times on Islay we nerded completely out about respective non-native species that were of special interest to us both. She is the author of several books on wild plants including Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat, which includes species regularly found in the garden and even in city parks and open spaces.

As foragers are seemingly often generous with their treasures, there is a wealth of foraging literature to be had just from visiting the websites of these great people, and perhaps given the great geographic range they cover together, there will be lots of information about the flora of very specific ecosystems, especially in Roushanna and Mark’s writings.

That’s a little about the people. Coming next, some of the plants I was lucky enough to meet on Islay.

 

 

 

Gleaning for Resilience: A Lesson in Mermaid Economics

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Here in Berlin-Brandenburg I tend to judge the start of the foraging season proper by the arrival of the first tender shoots of our regionally-abundant wild leeks. Walking several new foraging routes this week it was clear that the time has come again, and as at the beginning of every new foraging year, I find myself taking stock of many of the experiences which I made last season trying to work and live mainly through foraging and its related activities.

For those of you who aren’t in the mood for long-winded reflections on the purpose and problems of foraging in today’s day and age, just know that foraging walks will be resuming as of March, and up-to-date information is available via the Facebook page. Furthermore, this year, Grunewald Foraging will be hosting a range of workshops, with guest co-ordinators from a host of different backgrounds, geared towards exploring wild food in the kitchen, and also experimenting with wild natural materials, an area that tends to get overlooked when concentrating only on the edibility and not the (at least from a humanistic point of view) holistic usefulness of plants. More information on foraging walks and workshops, cast an eye this way towards the end of the month.

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Painting of Haenyeo, with catch-nets and floats. Most modern Haenyo are considerably older than those depicted here

While visiting my friend the poet Dan Marshall late last year on Jeju Island (South Korea) I caught sight of a mermaid. When I say mermaid I am using the affectionate name for the Haenyeo or sea-women of Jeju, a kind of modern hunter-gatherer matriarchy persisting on a volcanic island having grown, in little over seventy years, into a beloved tourist hotspot replete with Western-style guest-houses amongst the leek and cabbage fields, 7-11s opposite the fishmongers, and several barista-style cafés and craft ale bars down by the waterfront.

The Haenyeo, as said, are the female sea-foraging people native to Jeju Island, specializing in diving for prized shellfish, sea-snails and seaweeds, both for the family’s benefit and for trade. Their incessant hard work (diving for six hours between subsistence farming) and the high price their goods (abalone, conch, oysters) fetch at market afford them now, as in earlier times, an elevated and contrary position in the traditionally patriarchal society of South Korean culture.

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An hour sat with a palm leaf, letting the form of a coastal foraging bag present itself to me

Quite a lot of research on the Haenyeo can be found easily online, so I don’t want to repeat ineptly what can be found with a quick search. What I want to say is that, even with the number of Haenyeo dwindling, the reluctance, as everywhere else, of new generations to take up the trade, the attempts by ethnophile photographers to fetishize the culture, their foraging model is still in itself a resilient one.

The Haenyeo have supported their families during times of unemployment for the usual bread-winning fishermen to whom they were often married. Instead of being manipulated or pushed out by the arrival of tourism to their island, they have secured trade co-operatives with restaurants to deter ‘cashing in’ on their cultural heritage. They have traditionally resisted the temptation, during the Japanese occupation, of becoming merchants and seafood farmers, instead choosing to remain essentially a highly-productive maritime peasantry (Gwon, Gwi-Sook (2015). “Changing labor processes of women’s work: the haenyo of Jeju Island”. Korean Studies.).

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Black bean paste soup with wild greens and foraged limpets

Though I am wary of romanticizing their undoubtedly laborious life, I feel a great sense of respect for the way the Haenyo ‘make their living’, in the truly creative sense of the phrase.  While I was on Jeju Island I dared to feel a connection to them: almost every day for a few hours, I foraged the land; they foraged the sea. What amazes me more than their ability to dive six-hours in the winter sea and hold their breath for three minutes, to invert the inevitable patriarchal model of their culture (which resembles ours), is the fact that their manner of living, where it matters, down at the marketplace and around the family dinner table, is still viable, regardless of how long that may or may not persist. They have chosen, albeit perhaps subconsciously, to be integral in providing the essential means for their existence.

When contemplating how my attempts to make a living from foraging may or may not parallel theirs, I see that they have at some point found a niche and, in the face of much outward influence, have clung to its essential boundaries: the uninviting but abundant depths of the sea. I don’t want to paint their lives as some triumph over globalization or project virtues and mind-sets upon them that stem from my lack of such, and do not belong to them. Still, what they share with the mermaids is that their very way of life seems to belong more to the world of myth than to the reality of South Korea’s most beloved tourist destination. It is difficult to find suitable and relevant comparisons with their foraging culture, and I have no desire to labour the point in trying to do so.

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Another wild green I never thought I’d see in situ: New Zealand spinach or tetragon

So as the year begins I try to remind myself of the niche of my native forager: the man or woman who trades in the wares of the woodland and the hedgerow and the knowledge of the whereabouts and the particulars of these goods. But he or she also charges a price for essentially foregoing the security of the day wage of the farmer/worker, in order to bring home something that will fetch a price at market, and something more: the work and the wares have in one sense already paid for themselves, in the pleasure and freedom of going out and gathering them in. I think somehow that pleasure and freedom is essentially what keeps a few mermaids still diving off the rocks of Jeju Island.