I am often searching the web and other sources for information on local plants and herbal preparations. Recently I was exploring content on our indigenous Santa Barbara wild gooseberry (ribes menziesii) as a possible local analogue to the famed Ayurvedic gooseberry, Amalaki (phyllanthus emblica), which is one of the three ingredients in the Ayurvedic compound Triphala. Of Triphala it is traditionally said, “It’s ok if you don’t have a mother. As long as you have triphala, you’ll be fine.” Amla, which also means sour, is incredibly high in vitamin c, which is intertwined with tannins in the fruit that allow the vitamin c to remain even after heating and processing. Vitamin c is the most easily destroyed vitamin there is, by heat over 70 degrees, as well as exposure to water and air. I am a big fan of amla and triphala and the gifts of Ayurveda, but I am also always looking to the gifts that are provided in every land base for the thriving of the beings that live there and reaching towards localism versus imports.
As I was exploring the local gooseberry, I discovered a Santa Barbara blogger’s entry on ribes menziesii which really stuck in my craw and inspired me to write my first blog in four months (No, I haven’t been lazy, just busy with kids home for summer, work, and my recent Autumn cleanse workshop). In the inspiring blog (inspiring as in the ‘adversary’ who helps us to more deeply see ourselves), the author was discussing foraging for gooseberries and foraging in general and referred to the activity as an “eccentric pursuit inspired by a romanticized view of the past” and as a “leisure pursuit of the well off rather than an existential necessity of hardscrabble times. It’s wisdom largely rendered obsolete by the march of civilization”.
I kept thinking about his statements and how they were not, in my experience and understanding, even remotely true.
Our culture is experiencing epidemic proportions of depression, anxiety, and violence, with yet another school shooting in the news and more children every day medicated on powerful psychotropic drugs to keep them in their hard plastic seats with their eyes fixed on the flat dead screens of the ‘common core’. According to the acclaimed author Richard Louv (writer of The Last Child in the Woods) and according to my own personal experience, foraging is not outdated, obsolete, or unnecessary, rather, it is profoundly vital to our sense of wellness, connection, groundedness, and meaning.
I am an herbalist, and love the scientific and historical information about how herbs work. It’s great to learn more about the chemical compounds in herbs and which elements of the herbs have actions in encouraging our health and well being. But for me, connecting with the plants themselves through foraging and processing is as much the medicine as any pill or poultice or salve I might apply for an illness or preventative care.
Hiking in the foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains and connecting with the plants helps me to feel in harmony with ‘all my relations’, not just my human family, although I must admit it often helps me feel more in harmony with them as well.
A lack of nature connection, or what Richard Louv has called Nature Deficit Disorder, is one cause at the root of much of the suffering we are currently experiencing. Sadly, and especially, the suffering of our children.
I can gather the wealth and generosity of mother earth at any time, according to the cycles of the seasons and rain and sun. I can gather the smooth, beautiful acorns of the autumn and touch their shiny green jeweled skins, or their dark brown casings. I can soak and grind them and make bread, or drill and string them as a colorful garland for my home or Christmas tree, a garland that naturally decomposes after I use it, instead of ending up in the landfill with all the other everlasting Chinese made plastic crap after having already created it’s enormous carbon footprint through production and distribution.
When I awaken early some mornings, called by the plants themselves, and arrive on my favorite trails as the sun rises, I might catch a glimpse of brother deer, or coyote. I may see a flash of orange feather and hear the call of the flicker, or the distinctive descending song of the canyon wren. I may learn, by watching the tiny, sweet flocks of bush tits, when to harvest the juicy green seed pods of fennel, perfect for tincturing to help with digestion during holiday indulgences and heavy winter foods.
When I harvest white sage (salvia apiana), or black sage (salvia mellifera) the aromatic quality, the rasa, of the salvias, the givers of salvation, regulates my heart rate variability (HRV) as I inspire it’s essence, bringing me into health and harmony with it’s scent alone. (See Guido Mase’s wonderful book “Wild Medicine Solution” for more information on this).
When I climb trees and harvest elderberry with my son and he says to me, “Mom, this is way more fun than the play structures at the park”, and we take our berries home to make syrup for our pancakes and elixir to help ward off the flu (which has been proven to be more effective than a flu shot,without the negative side effects), I am much happier than buying a bottle of elderberry syrup at the local health food store (and definitely much happier than getting a flu shot at Rite Aid).
When I gather willow in the dry autumn creek beds, singing the willow harvesting song of the Chumash which I learned at Quail Springs Permaculture farm, while singing and gathering, I forget time, forget my sadness and worries, and find joy and peace, more than can ever be available in a bottle from Pfizer. When I weave that willow in a way a dear friend taught me, into a tower for the garden at my children’s school to support sweet peas and beans, I am happier than I ever could be buying a trellis from Home Depot.
In addition to our epidemics of anxiety, depression, and violence, we have an epidemic of obesity, a nation of overfed and undernourished individuals starving for nutrients, starving for satisfaction, in way that “hyper-palatable food like substances which create neuro-chemical addiction” can never satisfy. When I forage and wild craft, I walk and hike, instead of sitting on an overstuffed couch consuming disturbing adrenaline packed images and highly processed nutrient-free “food-like” substances.
When I forage, all my senses-sight, smell, touch, sound, taste-are nourished on a deep level as I learn the habits and rhythms of the land that loves me, births me, feeds me, and ultimately welcomes me home so that this body, in death, can become food for new life and nourishment for the next seven generations.
Gracias pachamama. I will continue to gather you in with gratitude until I am gathered in again myself and feed those with my own body who so long have fed me with theirs.
Foraging is not obsolete, it is of primal importance for recovery from the illnesses of modern civilization, and one of our great hopes for transitioning to a culture of reciprocity and abundance instead of violence and scarcity.
Try it out for yourself and your children. Forage for connection. Harvest home.
P.S. Check out United Plant Savers for info on which plants in your area are endangered and which are appropriate to harvest. Always positively identify your harvest before consuming or applying to your skin. Take a foraging workshop with me or Wilderness Youth Project or other local experts in order to learn how to properly harvest and honor the plants of our land base, our home, to keep them thriving and nurtured for seven generations. Studies have shown that harvesting helps wild plants to flourish and grow in a healthy way, just as tending a garden helps it to thrive. See books like Tending the Wild and Braiding Sweetgrass for more info on this. Happy harvesting.