What We’ve Gathered: A Conclusion to Environmental Histories of Foraging

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Editor’s Note: This is the concluding post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.

One of the aims of the Environmental Histories of Foraging series has been to approach foraging from a multitude of perspectives to see what kinds of histories might surface. In this concluding post we will take a look at what we’ve gathered. An underlying theme evident in the series was the means through which the environment is valued through foraging and how those value systems shift. Many contributions made it apparent that the process of assessing environmental value is in a constant state of flux, changing according to time, location, and events. It is also evident that the histories that circulate about foraging are actually highly influential on these recurring value shifts.

Elija Chara described the paradox of wanting to find the elusive and now rare Kuroh lily and then being torn, as many people are, about whether to appreciate its beauty or to appreciate its taste. Favoring the latter has led to a decline in the prevalence of the species. Matteo Sartori and Julia Prakofjewa similarly detailed the relatively unknown history of cat-eating in Italy. An interest in foraging cats and eating cat meat actually led to stronger protections for animal rights. Conservation and protection of species in both cases is intricately related to how, when, and why foraging is done.

cat in a plaza in Italy
The cat in the picture is Romeo, the “sindagatto” (“cat major”) of Vicenza. From 2015 to 2021, he lived in the palazzo Trissino, the seat of the city council. Photo: Marianna Zampieri. Permission for use obtained from the creator.

Chloé Duteil introduced us to the historical pastime of seaweed collecting in 19th century Britain, which also demonstrated how appreciation of different species was cultivated through the process of natural history collecting. This in turn also promoted value in exploring coastal ecosystems. Treasures of the changing tides not only gave a historical background for seaweed foraging but showed how a sense of wonder for the environment could arise from foraging practices. Wenrui Li’s visual essay on learning to collect mushrooms in Finland spawned a similar sense of environmental engagement and wonder. Foraging as a practice offers an opportunity to make emotional connections while learning about new environments.

seaweeds of different colors
Seaweeds foraged by Chloé Duteil. Photo: Chloé Duteil, 2022.

Matteo Sartori and Julia Prakofjewa examined the Soviet Union’s centralized infrastructure for foraging which attempted to mobilize citizens, including children, to become educated and active in picking useful medicinal plants which were then sold to the state. Jonathan Robins traced the storytelling behind chaga, showing how history played a part in marketing the popular superfood to a new audience. This storytelling, even if not based on historical accuracies, was influential in shaping a desire to consume a particular species. Similarly, in Sweden, I’ve looked at how the chanterelle has become a popular mushroom to collect and consume, rising out of relative obscurity. These three pieces reveal how education and history work hand in hand to shape perceptions of the environment. Which species are considered valuable is tied to cultural promotion of those species, and which histories become prominent influences future behaviors.

harvested chaga
Part of a chaga conk harvested from a yellow birch. Photo credit: Jonathan Robins

Olufemi Olaleye discussed how musical narratives in Southwest Nigeria are embedded in a historical tradition of foraging for the Yorùbá. Those narratives provide evidence of which plants were gathered and how their collection is experienced. Yet a push for conservation regulations creates a conflict with these practices. Benoît Henriet argued that hunting and foraging, portrayed as a novelty in colonial expeditions, were actually a means to defy a capitalist system and exercise resistance in Central Africa through self-sufficiency. The need to better understand the contexts around foraging, what it means, and the positionality of storytellers becomes evident in this instance. In both of these cases it is noticeable how colonialism and the imposition of “modernity” can be intricately related to judgments made about environmental usage that then must be navigated by people preserving traditional cultural practices.

plants used for poison arrows
Plants used to make poison arrows. “Plantes dont le suc sert à empoisonner les flèches – Mamvu (Dongo) “, photograph taken by Armand Hutereau, Uele, Belgian Congo, 1912 (Africamuseum, Tervuren, Photographic collections, inv. nr. AP.0.0.11768). Used with permission of The AfricaMuseum in Tervuren.

Jeremy St. Onge addressed one of the issues that may be dwelling in the back of many minds when considering foraging. It is not immediately apparent how someone living in an urban environment could benefit from foraging or even incorporate it into their life. During the Big Wild Year he explored what it would take to live in Canada, work, and simultaneously eat only wild foraged foods for a year. His dietary changes led to notable physiological effects. The contrast between modern living and living in connection to one’s food was made readily apparent both through bodily changes and when the measures undertaken for such a project were extremely time-consuming and very distant from typical urban habits. The initial incompatibility of these ideas – self-sufficiency and “modern” living – brings us to the question of how foraging and its many histories might have a place in the future. 

herbal tea on a woodstove
A pan of tea made on a woodstove was part of the daily winter morning drink during the Big Wild Year.  Photo: Jeremy St. Onge, 2019.

Environmental histories of foraging show us not which species are good or bad, but how perceptions and value judgments can be shaped and practices can be altered to navigate around complex interconnected systems of people, forests, cats, dogs, plants, mushrooms, governments, and more. There is some evidence from these histories to suggest that our storytelling about the relationship between modernity and nature has room to be reconsidered, revised, and rewritten. What we value and how we should use the environment can and will continue to shift. And those shifts will be influenced by which histories we share and how we choose to tell them. 

Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.

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Nicole Miller is an artist and visual anthropologist based in Sweden working at the intersection of art, philosophy, and environmental history. Her research interests include: the interplay of photography and archives with environmental engagement, collecting as a process that encourages new perceptions of one’s environment, and new possibilities for multi-sensory historical, environmental research. She also is project coordinator for the Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (IHOPE) International Research Network.

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