Foraging is one of those bushcraft skills that you grow to love. However I’ve run foraging courses during our Farafoot bushcraft days where people have literally moved away from me as I’ve picked something to eat, as if it might be infectious. It is true that to our sugar-addicted taste buds, the taste experience from foraged wild food can difficult to accept at first, particularly with the bitter tastes that are commonly found in wild food. An example I give is the Pheasant Berry, the berry from which to most people tastes pleasantly like burnt caramel, but to some tastes absolutely disgusting – sometimes I think because their brains have already decided that they are about to be poisoned.
If you read many general texts about hunter/gathering, whether bushcraft or foraging related, you’ll be led to believe two things; first that humans were always ‘hunter/gathers’ before the emergence of farming, and that men did the hunting and women the foraging and gathering of wild food. If things were that simple it would be great, however this over-simplifies a complex situation that is still being argued amongst the Paleoanthropologist community.
What you can argue quite forcibly is that at some time between the beginning of the hominin lineage and the evolution of Homo Sapiens i.e. between 5 million and 200,000 years ago an apelike behavioural adaptation was replaced by human behaviour – namely the hunter/gather way of life. (The eight wooden throwing spears discovered at Shoeningen in Germany which were dated at 400,000 years old, which would suggest systematic hunting was well developed by that date by Homo Heidelbergensis, (a probable ancestor of Neanderthals in Europe) and found at Boxgrove in West Sussex).
Bushcraft and the Art of Knowing Where you Live.
However I believe that foraging or gathering is probably still deeply engrained into our brains, even here in the UK where we still carry out limited seasonal foraging with the collection of berries in Autumn etc. What we have begun to lose is the huge depth of knowledge that someone needs to forage or gather effectively and that not only includes the skills needed to deal with the common toxicities that occur in many plants, but most importantly, it includes the need to have an intimate knowledge of our natural wild surroundings, since we need to know what grows where, when they come into season and probably more difficult, what part of their life cycle they are in – particularly when dealing with biennials like thistles or burdock.
It is this lack of knowledge and the threat of poisoning that makes current generations nervous about foraging, and perhaps rightly so. Hence this is the main element that we teach in foraging courses at Farafoot Bushcraft, since knowledge of plants can be ‘dug’ out of books and from the internet, however until you step out of the door and make a concerted effort to build up a mental mind map of your natural environment, then you are doomed to be always ‘at the wrong time’.
Take for instance, tapping maple or birch trees for sap – here in Shropshire we even have the eucalyptus ‘cider gum’ growing locally – when the sap begins to rise in March/April, you only have a week or so to tap the tree and it is easy to miss and waste time tapping a tree too early or too late. Since the sap rises according to temperature and daylight, it occurs at different times each year and therefore the only way to decide when the sap might be rising, is when the trees just begins to come into bud. Miss a week and you miss a year’s worth of opportunity.
You could see foraging and gathering as easier activity, certainly a safer activity than hunting and more likely to reap rewards, since plants are less inclined to run away or even worse, turn and chase you. However foraging and gathering, as I’ve said above, probably uses as much energy in planning and execution as hunting and there might be evidence somewhere to prove that to forage and gather effectively might even uses more energy.
Before we decide that foraging and gathering is ‘women’s work’, it is not a given that women and children were the primary agents in foraging and gathering, just as much as it is not a given that men were solely occupied with hunting. There are theories for women being involved in hunting, and for men to have been involved in child-care duties, but then again there are hunter/gatherer cultures where men are the sole hunters and will not eat ‘women’s food’ even in lean hunting times. Perhaps we need to focus less on the division of roles and more on the importance of food sharing that a successful hunt or forage inevitably produces, particularly for such a social animal.
What you can deduce however is that hunting does not require you to be active all the time but involves a lot of sitting around waiting, and planning. However gathering required someone to be out every day gathering and then bringing it back to camp and processing what they had gathered and therefore if you believe that women were the gatherer and man the hunter this might explain why women are more active than men and are generally more able to multi-task. However I live with a psychologist, who will tell me that I’m simply accepting stereotyped behaviour.
People forget that foraging and gathering is simply not just picking the leaves off plants and making a salad. Foraging or gathering involves a lot of processes in terms of preserving what you have collected through drying, salting, cooking, smoking or fermentation, or processing plants to remove toxins by cooking or more elaborate means.
Also it must be remembered that most plants do not want grazers - be it of the four legged or two legged variety - to eat their principle means of making fuel to live i.e. the leaves through which they photosynthesis. Therefore most plants have a defence mechanism to mitigate against those who would seek to eat them with a large number of plants containing toxins of different types and potencies and a relatively few plants that will kill you stone dead such as those contained within the carrot family (apiaceae or umbelliferae), of which Hemlock (conium maculatum) is most infamous since it contains the toxic alkaloid conium that causes paralysis of the respiratory muscles that leads to death due to oxygen starvation and only requires the eater to have ingested six leaves for this to happen.
Most toxic plants would only affect you if you ate them in large quantities and there are plants that employ defence mechanisms that don’t have fatal consequences. Grasses are one, as they employ the obvious strategy that they grow from the bottom and therefore they can survive grazing by ruminants and therefore tend to take over area which is intensively used of livestock. Another obvious defence is a sting or thorns, of which obviously the nettle and thistle are examples of these, get through these defences and the plant is safe to eat.
Other plants use taste as a defence and make themselves very bitter through the use of tannins, of which many broad leaf trees are examples. However this only occurs then the leaf has matured after the initial coming into leaf in the spring, therefore, taking the beech leaf for instance, you can pick the leaves early in spring and they can make a decent addition to a salad or even something a bit stronger by adding them to gin and making Noyau.
Lastly I would say that a wild bushcraft diet is a more natural state of affairs for humans. It has only been a relatively short time since we domesticated, first our animals and then plants to create a farming economy – from which we developed into an industrial and then consumer economy. We have had therefore, little time for our digestive systems to catch up with our ‘processed way of life’,
This may explain therefore the predominance of gastrointestinal complication, such as lactose intolerance within whole populations i.e. the inability to digest dairy products, (humans, like other mammals were only designed to drink milk during infancy), IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is a common condition in western societies and would suggest a dietary link, although it hasn’t been proven and stomach and bowel cancers.
Perhaps the biggest change that the human gastric tract has had to struggle with has been the shift of diet towards a cereal and grain based diet. This shift has been effectively argued to explain why archaeologists witness a marked deterioration in human skeletal form as populations moved from hunter/gathering to farming economies and the growing of cereal crops. Humans became shorter in stature and the instance of tooth decay grows due to the sugars in cereals. However the most serious effect from this shift to a cereal based diet was the narrowing in the pelvic canal in human females which therefore made child birth more life-threatening for both child and mother.
We have not touched on hunting yet, however it is a major source of food for humans and there is evidence to suggest, yet again, that wild meat is more suited to our hunter/gather stomachs. Therefore I will concentrate on this in part two of ‘Bushcraft Foraging: An Introduction to the Hunting and Gathering skills of Hunter/Gathers’
For bushcraft and foraging courses, please go to our bushcraft page