'Local Health for Local People!'
[submitted for edition 3 of the Kilfinan Forest Community Newsletter in the Spring of 2021]
Last week, there was a chap bemoaning someone bringing food into the area from out of town. What with the hungry gap soon to be over, the birch sap rising & food appearing to appear again on the wild margins; now is a good time for making a return to eating local.
Foraging, it's fair to be say, saw a resurgence in the noughties amongst the middle classes. Traditionally, gathering was a means by which our ancestors sourced much of their food for millennia; prior to being shamed by the meme that exotic fruit and vegetables should be aspirational by everyone but the destitute and the poor.
Nowadays, many folk have either inherited seasonal family traditions and continue to gather, eat, store, ferment and pickle. Others, like myself, have adopted it as a pushback against consumer capitalsm and to supplement the diet with readily available quality food. Whatever your origins, long live you all and the land, shore and waters we share.
The case for local food ... & grazing in the sunshine.
This time last year, with travel restrictions in place, & taking a precautionary approach to visiting the shops; I discovered some old friends just across the road from our home....my daughter and I would socialise with them most days throughout the spring.
Regularly & often, we'd bring these wild garlic stems home; sometimes with flowers or buds for the table. We blended the plant with a little oil and ladled it into those silicone moulds you get; to make giant green ice cubes. Once they got hard, we put the cubes in a freezer bag and repeated the process whilst the plant was in season. It lasted as vegetable stock for our household meals until the end of September.
As it turns out, gathering those tender stems was just as important for my mind as it was for my body; and we look forward to gathering again this year as we enter wild garlic festival season.
It's Life Jim., but not as we know it.
It's true to say that plants, like us, respond differently according to the conditions in which they are given. Foraged plants are uniquely adapted as a response to environmental conditions, and have grown to live in community as a part of complex feedback mechanisms in the microregion.
A good example of this are the leaves of ribwort plantain:
In healthy meadows it can taste delicious, rich, nutty and like raw mushrooms. In less healthy environments, like the car-park in Lidl; it's distinctly not something you would put in your mouth. This is because healthy soils contain many and varied mycorrhizal species;which allows the plant to become a part of greater whole, and mingle in it's flavas. Car parks; less so.
These fungal roots, known as mycelia, produce soluble compounds as plant nutrients as a by product; which are assimilated by the plantains roots. It tastes of raw mushrooms because mycelia are the roots and branches of mushrooms. The magic in all this is those soluble compounds become bio-available to the family eating the plant. Now you wouldn't get that in your salad shipped in from a sterile factory farm from god-knows elsewhere.
Some plants also contain single cell Endophytic fungi,sometimes up too 200 species in a single plant. EF's function is to help the plants strengthen it's immune system and resilience, and connect it to other plants; as well as mainlining minerals it could not otherwise assimilate.
The presence of fungal cells and compounds is also modulating and strengthening our own immune system. By ingesting it's wild plants, we become localised, entering the biological matrix we call South West Cowal.
Positive gatekeepers - Guard the wild inside.
It always used to marvel me as a boy watching our dogs graze occasionally on wild plants. I'd ask my mother what they were doing and she'd say 'it's finding what it needs for it's body love'. Perhaps it's a bit like us selecting the plantain from a particular place for our salad.
It is Fred Gillam that reminds me that, even inside us; we are hugely outnumbered by other forms of life. The role of the immune system he says, is to let good stuff in as well as keeping harmful stuff out. He describes the human organism as comprising:
“30 trillion human cells ,32 trillion bacterial cells, three trillion fungal cells and 90 trillion active virus particles inside us, This is not including parasites and archaea”.
He goes on to say that:
“The human being contains way less than 50% human cells. 90 per cent of this non human life lives in our gut and weighs about 5lbs. 50%t of the volume of that is living fungus. Theres 240g of living fungus on average walking around in each one of us. All of these living creatures interact directly with our nervous system and our immune system by signalling using compounds called chemokines & cytokines and through signalling compounds called interleukins. They communicate directly with neurones.
There is a direct feedback mechanism between the microbiome and the nervous system.”
Adam Haritan talks about eating mushrooms as ingesting the forest it came from, that mushroom is made up of the elements that built the forest. Of course, there's plenty of harmful funguses in the world, better to establish a good fungal community to suppress the proliferation of bad un's.
The organisms in our microbiome will favour certain foods, if you don't feed it; it will die and the ecosystem will break down. If you, like me, were taught to idolize processed food as a kid, it takes dietary discipline to turn a tamed belly back into a healthy microbiome. From an atrophied state, regenerating the health of the ecosystem of microbes in our gut, just as we seek to restore species diversity in the landscape; is a case of rewild or die. It's just as well food tastes good.
Professor Fred Provenza came up with the idea that:
“Palates connect humans with landscapes through flavour feedback mechanisms”.
Introducing kids to wild food from an early age, ensures an appetite for seeking out the food through the body registering the compounds it contains as 'good'. Last week, I observed the little one with this years first shoots of wild garlic. Under supervision, she recalled, ate the plant readily and registered it as 'good'; even though she has currently taken a dislike for spicy and strong flavours.
Having tried to reconcile the implications of these facts, I have a notion that the more intact the landscape, the better the health in the gut; the greater for the capacity of the body to respond and adapt. This makes for a more resilient and robust state of health.
Amazon vs Atlantic rainforest. Mental health benefits.
Evolutionary speaking, we are supposed to be addicted to finding food. This is a life affirming impulse. Putting your hand around a plant, or a mushroom and cutting the stem,stimulates a dopamine hit; resulting in feelings of satisfaction and reward.
We only have to check in with our behaviour, visit a social media feed, or check the frenzied footage of black friday; to realise that the natural biochemical release of dopamine has been co-opted by consumer capitalism.
Addiction, as a positive behavioural state; has been subverted. It's the same neural network that gives us feelings of reward associated with foraging, shopping online or knee jerk reactions on social media.
I've found during lock-down, as restraints in human relationships has been necessary or enforced, it has been easy to retreat into consumerism, processed food and social media as reward based behaviour. This is negative spiral in terms of mental and physical health. Being so, for anyone noticing similar patterning, I'm recommending a conscious emphasis on foraging. Let 2021 be a year for getting to know the edible wild plants, nuts, tubers and mushrooms.
Serotonin and melatonin has been known to be stimulated by regular non structured time in nature; which makes us far more chilled people to be around and far less likely than to have a low brain, knee jerk freak-out when we do go online.
Speaking about getting outside, we are seeking support under the canopy for tending our pilot regeneration exclosures, regular harvesting of rhododendron & bracken control on the paths; scything the meadow as well seasonal activities throughout the year. Please let me know if you'd like to volunteer.
'Do or do not' -'there is no 'try'.
Please take great care and be meticulous in your identification of wild-plants before consuming them. Putting unidentified or misidentified things in your mouth can be very hazardous; causing death in some cases. Fortunately, there will be friends and neighbours that have strong relationships with some plants as well as excellent identification books specifically tailored for foraging enthusiasts.
'Foraging for Kids' facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/21015788358876
The foragers handbook by Miles Irving: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6616813-the-forager-handbook
Or check out who knows stuff in your circle, come up with some questions and ao for a walk with them.