Why We Forage

By Andrew

There’s a call to action in every season that pulls me into full participation with nature. Whether it’s harvesting fresh and rejuvenating spring water throughout the year, or a more season-specific wild harvesting of delicious yet subtly sweet maple sap in late winter. During this season, when the temptation is to stay huddled indoors and comfortable while the mid-Atlantic winter dishes out its onslaught of harsh weather, I choose to connect with the churning of my local bioregion’s unique rhythm.

For me, this is a choice to live fully. And that connection bonds me with the amazing tapestry of life outside the walls of my home and day job. Regardless of what I bring home in a paycheck or what chores lay ahead of me at home, I know that “out there” — and sometimes just outside my very doorstep — there is a new food, medicine, or unique lesson to learn. 

When foraging enters the bloodstream, there’s no turning back. It’s impossible to unplug. 

The key is understanding why this is good not just for the forager, but for nature as well. Participation is what keeps the wheel of life turning. The desire to forage is in us, waiting to be tapped into. The lion that prowls the savannah, the jaguar that stalks the jungle floor, the bear that meanders the river’s edge — these are scenes of “nature” that spill into our minds and, for good reason, they’re iconic. These animals’ participation with nature improves the ecosystems they inhabit by keeping certain species numbers in check, by altering flocks of specific animals which have an impact on the plants and systems they are a part of, in turn keeping that wheel of life rotating and rotating well.

We are no different. When we visit our roadsides, park edges, forest floors, nature trails, and backyards looking for plants and fungi to forage for, we are altering the landscape. If we’re careful, we alter it positively, encouraging the desired plants or fungi to reproduce more, keeping these areas clean of garbage and clearing invasive species from the area. We get food, and nature gets a some much-needed TLC.

But somehow foraging is also more than a built-in biological need. It’s fun, it’s a means to be creative, and it’s a way to get some really cool and really varied tastes and nutrients into our diets. Springtime has a way of making life a bit easier, and it really opens a lot of doors to foraging with a lot of great wild edibles to choose from.  

A foraging find with one of the kids

On a recent walk through the woods with the kids, I discovered that the stinging nettles were noticeably strong this year in an area I have tried to encourage their growth for the last half decade. Stinging nettles are an absolute superhero of wild edibles. They check all the boxes: an herb, a medicine, a pot herb, a sauté green, a nutritive tea. There’s not much they can’t do in the kitchen or herbalist lab. They also can be quite the pest though — if a bystander isn’t careful, they can cause quite the sting due to tiny needle-like structures that produce pain on contact. Don’t worry, though — the “needles” disappear upon heating, and there are easy solutions for a forager to get around the stings for an easy harvest. With this particular harvest of nettles, I’m making a beer. 

Before I take my harvest home, I checking a few boxes of good stewardship first. As a forager with a sense of awareness and connection to place, I always act with a philosophy to harvest sustainably. I want my children and their children’s children to know this same spot of nettles. With that intention, I take no more than the top 10% of the plant, and less than half of the available plant matter from one given area. These plants spread by seed as well as by underground rhizomes (both have medicinal and culinary uses by the way), but leaving the colony intact and strong ensures I’ll be returning next year to a good harvest. I also always rip out any unwanted invasive species that have a tendency to bully and crowd out the plants I enjoy and any other beneficial natives nearby. This time of the year, that means tearing out garlic mustard by the roots nearly every trip to the woods. Now back to that beer!

Beer used to be an overwhelming thought for me. Then I starting reading Stephen Harrod Buhner. Thanks to some insight about the history of beer-making, my simplistic mind gained major confidence when I understood beer to be nothing more than sugar, water, yeast, and time. Flavor and bitterness come from herbs, and the types of sugar used can be interchanged but the basics are what they are. 

Enter nettles. Recipes abound online, for good reason. This is a nutrient-dense beer chock-full of good-for-the-system micronutrients with just the right bitterness to make a great spring beer. I added some Douglas fir new spring growth tips for a little lemon flavor and an extra jolt of vitamin C. I always use oak bark for tannins and the rest is history, literally.

What goes in:

  • 16 ounces fresh leaves and stems of stinging nettle
  • 1 pound brown sugar (or sugar of choice)
  • 3 gallons water
  • 5 grams active dry yeast of your choosing (Flavor profiles will be different — I use Premier Blanc Champagne yeast)

What you do:

  1. Bring herbs to a boil in stainless steel pot, simmer 10 minutes.
  2. Strain into alternate stainless steel mix in sugar to dissolve and let cool.
  3. When room temp, ad in yeast and stir.
  4. Transfer to plastic beer bubbler of choice or appropriate crock.
  5. Cover how you see fit, sing a song for the beer spirits (optional), and wait 3-5 days or until most of the bubbling in the brew has subsided.
  6. Take a dozen or so resealable beer bottles, add ¼ teaspoon sugar to each fill to the neck and cap the.
  7. Wait 3-5 days in a cool part of the home out of direct sunlight then transfer to refrigeration.
  8. Enjoy the wildlife! 

Each new universal lesson learned from the natural world helps paint a fuller picture of life for me, and more importantly where I fit in the artwork. This is the heartbeat of the subsistence forager, of the forager hobbyist, or any of us who look at the wall of green along our roads and walkways and yearn to know more of what lies beyond that border.