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.

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