Editor’s Note: This is the introductory post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.
If you look out your window, how many species of the plants outside can you identify? Maybe, if you live in an urban neighborhood, you cannot see any species of plants at all. After living many years in big cities myself, the humbling realization of my own ignorance about nature is what sparked my interest in being more observant of other species. Foraging as an activity – not for consumption or necessity, but curiosity – became a way for me to build up a stronger connection to my surroundings. I subsequently developed a curiosity about the environmental histories and cultural variations of how environments are seen through the act of foraging, which in turn resulted in the conception of this series.
The call for papers for Environmental Histories of Foraging framed the series with the following questions:
How do moments of engagement with the environment while foraging shape the past and future?
How are the conditions upon which we are able to engage with environments constructed, and how do they affect (or detract from) our relationships to nature?
What potentials do histories of foraging have to change current and future perspectives on nature?
Foraging has often been associated with pre-agricultural societies of hunter-gatherers. In the initial call for papers for the series, I suggested a delineation of the topic to include only plants and fungi. But during the submission process, there were many proposals that included hunting, fishing, and animals; because, in practice, environments cannot be so easily segregated into scientific kingdoms. Sometimes when one hunts one also gathers plants, if the goal is simply to find wild food – to forage. The term hunter-gatherer could be understood not only as a distinction between the ones who hunt and the ones who gather, but instead, it can conceptually indicate the correlation between two steps of the same process: hunting (finding) and gathering (keeping).1 This series looks broadly into the idea of foraging as a process of accumulating in the wild, highlighting the finders and what they are keeping.
The plethora of global concerns about biodiversity loss, ecological restoration, and conservation policies, as well as debates around collective resource usage, create a complicated backdrop from which foraging must necessarily be viewed today. These tensions are what make environmental histories of foraging so compelling.
A recent resurgence in foraging has occurred, sometimes termed a “foraging renaissance”. For five of the years between 2010 and 2021, the title of World’s Best Restaurant was awarded to the Danish restaurant Noma, which states its mission as being driven by “a simple desire to rediscover wild local ingredients by foraging and to follow the seasons”. This new perspective on foraging as a component of luxury dining is juxtaposed with experiences where foraging is used as a means for basic sustenance, protection against famine, preserving cultural heritage, crafting medicine, and encouraging environmental interaction. The concurrent existence of foraging as a practice used to craft an $800 meal and foraging as a way to access daily nutritional requirements needed for staying alive is perplexing.2 These two co-existent perspectives are exemplary of the underlying frictions within the evolving histories of wild foraging. The plethora of global concerns about biodiversity loss, ecological restoration, and conservation policies, as well as debates around collective resource usage, create a complicated backdrop from which foraging must necessarily be viewed today. These tensions are what make environmental histories of foraging so compelling. On the one hand, increased interactions with nature and connections to one’s environment have been nearly universally considered to promote human health and well-being. Criticism of ultra-processed foods and distance from knowledge about food production has influenced an interest in self-sufficiency, rising in response to many industrialized agricultural practices. Foraging, in contrast to industrial agriculture, allows the human body to be embedded in space and place, maintaining an intimate relationship with that which is collected; processed food products and pharmaceutical products, by comparison, promote consumption removed from environmental context. On the other hand, the process of accumulating natural elements on any scale has effects on ecological systems; foraging both positively and negatively affects the well-being of the places and species where resources are gathered. The balance between environmental well-being and human well-being is delicate, and foraging proves to be a valuable point of departure from which we can observe how the scale seesaws back and forth between these endpoints. These environmental histories, perhaps, can help us contemplate how we might live in a multi-species, mutually beneficial equilibrium.
The balance between environmental well-being and human well-being is delicate, and foraging proves to be a valuable point of departure from which we can observe how the scale seesaws back and forth between these endpoints.
This series brings to light questions of what is gained and what is lost in each environmental interaction. How can we assess the weight and meaning of singular human-nature interactions? Thoughtful consideration of this difficult problem – how to be connected to environments while also not negatively affecting environments – should be nuanced and variable according to specific places, cultures, and moments in time. Foraging practices exemplify a range of variabilities in human-nature relationships, through location-specific, cultural-specific, temporal-specific, and physiologically-specific reactions between different species. What might make sense in one place for one person to find and keep is not necessarily transferable to another place, another worldview, another time, another body, another ecosystem. Environmental Histories of Foraging aims to articulate the nuanced complexity of specific instances of environmental interactions and the value judgments that accompany them.
For this reason, I am particularly excited to introduce this series and its diversity of viewpoints. Ten contributions will be published over the next few months. They span geographic locales across four continents, also weaving through time and cultures to reveal localized histories of foraging, demonstrating a variety of perspectives on how environments are (and were) activated. I’m hopeful that the approaches to environments shown through this series can be fruitful for future discussions about how to balance the scales of human-nature interactions.
1 My emphasis on these two aspects of foraging is derived from an argument made by Rober Kohler. Kohler advocates for more scientific research into the process of collecting – finding and keeping – rather than the collections themselves. He states the collecting sciences are unified in their joint interest in finding and keeping, which I assert is a useful point from which to approach foraging as well.
See: Kohler, Robert E. “Finders, Keepers: Collecting Sciences and Collecting Practice.” History of science 45, no. 4 (2007): 428–454.
2 At time of writing the price for a dinner at Noma during “Vegetable Season”, excluding wine, was 3,950 Danish Kroner (approximately $775 CAD) per person, according to Noma’s website.
Featured Image by Nick Grappone
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- An Introduction to Environmental Histories of Foraging - August 3, 2023
- Call for Papers – Environmental Histories of Foraging - March 13, 2023