Dining on Weeds
Foraging the Urban Wilderness
By Rebecca Lerner
Lyons Press, 2013, 215 pages
In the spring of 2009, on assignment from an online magazine, Rebecca Lerner tried to live off of wild-growing food foraged from the yards, overgrown sidewalks, and parks around the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area for an entire week. No gleaning, no dumpster diving, no salt. But after four days of subsisting largely on stinging nettle, burdock root, some ant eggs, and a failed attempt to chomp down on slugs, Lerner became so weak and light-headed with hunger that she nearly blacked out the morning of Day Five. Wisely acknowledging that there’s “a thin line between badass and dumbass,” she broke her diet by chewing on a sugary energy bar.
While the readers of the blog where she was chronicling her experience were gracious about her failure, Lerner couldn’t let it go. The former newspaper journalist simply had to find out why she screwed up when an entire culture, the Indigenous Clackamas Chinook people, had survived by foraging in the region less than two centuries ago. Dandelion Hunter was born of Lerner’s quest to learn more about self-sufficiency and the hunter-gatherer life.
The book, Lerner’s first, is a wry account of her adventures as she delves into the history of the Chinook People, discovers the secrets of wild-food foraging and herbal medicines, and embraces her “inner hunter-gatherer.” Lerner is helped in her quest, and her second attempt at surviving on wild food for a week, by a zany cast of characters – from an Indiana Jones-ish archeologist, to an off-the-grid, road kill-eating homesteader, to a self-described “plant genius” – ideal members of an “apocalypse survival team.” The first lesson she learns: Respect the seasons. Be the ant, not the grasshopper. Gather when nature’s bounty is at its fullest (and if you thought that was during spring, you’ve got it wrong). And store, store, store.
With a light touch that delves into the profound without getting too New-Agey, Lerner narrates how her search also leads her to a greater understanding of herself, the natural world, and our deep, spiritual connection with it.
She realizes, for instance, that her initial view of food gathering as an individual challenge, based on all those wilderness-survival stories she’d heard, was likely a reflection of the influence of America’s individualistic culture on her thinking. “Gathering food is an energy-intensive task,” she writes. “You scout, you dig, you pull, you sweat, you pick leaves one at a time and it’s tedious; it burns lots of calories and takes hours to do.” There’s no reason the task needs to be performed alone. Human beings, she discovers anew, “are social creatures for a reason.”
Initially drawn to botany from a survivalist perspective – as in wanting to figure out what to eat when disaster strikes and food supplies run out – she soon becomes fascinated with the medicinal and metaphysical aspects of plants in general. Today, Lerner is among the best-known urban foragers in the country, as well as a practicing herbalist. These days she forages “more than anything to commune with nature” and to discover wondrous medicinal qualities of common plants.
“The Earth,” she writes, “is full of medicine for the people, and it’s available free of charge.” Except, there are often big barriers to accessing this “free” material. In the United States, for example, it’s illegal to pluck leaves, fruits, and flowers – even from plants thought to be weeds – from most parks and nature reserves, unless you are a scientist with a study permit or, in some cases, of Native American descent. Lerner challenges the assumption behind these restrictions – that touching nature is an inherently destructive practice, an idea enshrined in the Wilderness Act of 1964 that defines wilderness as an area “untrammeled by man.”
“We evolved interacting with plants. When we disturb them, it can be a good thing,” she writes. Foraging, she argues, doesn’t seem to cause forests any extra stress and that is in large part because it is in a forager’s interest to maintain a spot that she can return to for food again and again.
Dandelion Hunter isn’t exactly a go-to guidebook on urban foraging, though it is peppered with useful information on a variety of edible wild plants and has some basic wild-food recipes thrown in for good measure. This engaging book pushes us to reassess how we view the vegetative world and the natural bounty of urban landscapes that lies hidden in plain sight. It might even inspire some to wander over to a neighbor’s yard and inquire: “Can I eat your weeds?”
—Maureen Nandini Mitra