Foraging for Happiness
By Grant Brown, Founder, Happy Eco News
The sun is shining in Vancouver. It’s been a long winter and a cold early spring that never seemed to end, we even got a late snowfall to seal the deal. The coldness and damp somehow seemed amplified by the global situation right now.
But it is now April and the sun is shining in Vancouver. The sky is blue, the migratory birds are making their way north, the buds and flowers are starting to open.
I’ve been fortunate to have travelled to a lot of places in the world. I’ve been all over North America and Europe, to many cities in Asia, and even a few in Africa. None have had more natural beauty than BC or my hometown near Vancouver. Ringed by rugged snow-capped mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, within 30 minutes of downtown you can be immersed in wilderness. We have mountain trails leading to lakes and waterfalls, kayak routes through rich, bio diverse wetlands, world class salmon rivers, clean public beaches and we even have orcas (killer whales) and other sea mammals. Look to the ocean from any beach and you might see a sea lion. Go a little further afield and there are hundreds of uninhabited islands, all teeming with life.
When the sun is shining, South Western British Columbia is probably the best place on earth for someone who likes being outdoors. Easter long weekend in 2020 is going to be different though. This weekend the people will stay home. Virtually all of those places are off limits now. Parks and hiking trails are closed, including boat launches. This is all for the greater good of society in order to curb the spread of Covid-19. But I for one can’t stand to spend a day like today indoors, so I will go for a walk or a bike ride, find a patch of forest that’s still open and absorb some green light (and avoid people). Or maybe I will work on the vegetable garden with my partner.
I’ve written in the past about how we like to plant a vegetable garden and reap the rewards of our hard work in the form of fresh fruit, berries and vegetables. It seems like this year a lot more people are doing the same. Anecdotal reports from friends are that they are also planting gardens this year. Some are just planting a few things directly in the ground, others are getting a jump start by germinating seeds indoors, growing them to seedlings and transplanting when the overnight temperatures are high enough. Others are building elaborate raised beds with trellises for their beans and vines. Some new gardeners will buy random seeds from the hardware store, others ordered non-GMO heritage varieties during winter for their plantings in the spring. Everyone wants to stay active and healthy right now, what better way than to plant a garden?
Well, there are alternatives to planting a garden. Take foraging for example. Foraging is truly the simplest form of acquiring food and dates back in human history to our pre-agricultural origins. It is looking for and finding food from your natural surroundings. Foraging takes physical effort (and knowledge) and will provide a healthy range of in season plant-based food that is healthy and organic. Here in the Pacific North West, we have a huge variety of edible plants, berries and mushrooms. With a good field guide in hand you can find at least 90 varieties of edible plants and berries in the local area. Some caution is in order as many non-edible plants may look similar to the edible varieties. Ethical harvesting is also important; the rule of thumb is to not take more than 10-20 percent of a plant in an area, preserving the ability of the plants to regenerate. Also make sure that foraging is actually allowed in the area you plan to visit – some parks (especially near urban areas) do not allow it.
If your favourite wild area or park is off limits right now, or you’d rather not go farther than your own back yard, take a look at this story. In “Please eat the dandelions: 9 edible garden weeds” writer Derek Markham lists and describes 9 edible so called “weeds” that most people spend a lot of resources trying to rid from their yards and gardens. If you are going to all the effort to dig them up, why not eat them as well? Maybe you could even go one step further and cultivate them. If they already exist where you live, then they obviously like the conditions!
Locally we have a non-native weed that is extremely tenacious. Himalayan Blackberry plants grow to a huge size, as high as 2-3m, and if left unchecked can take over an entire yard or lot in just a couple of years. They are full of razor-sharp thorns that will penetrate all but the toughest leather gloves. Despite the invasive tendencies of this plant, it does have a couple of benefits that should be mentioned; it provides habitat for small birds and mammals in urban or semi-urban areas that have been subjected to significant deforestation or other habitat loss, and it also provides a large, sweet berry. A berry that is delicious whether eaten fresh by the handful, baked in a pie, or preserved in jam or jelly.
One year I noticed that blackberries had somehow been established in one corner of my small city lot. It was a rental and I was obligated to maintain the yard in a reasonable manner – weed removal included. But rather than go on a blackberry removal rampage, this year I decided to cultivate them – just a little. I trimmed the bush to prevent it from impeding pathways and just started watering it. A few times that summer I pruned it back (the youngest branches grow rapidly and don’t provide fruit in the first year), and each time I watered the garden near it, I would put the sprinkler on them as well.
Because I kept it neat and tidy, the landlord didn’t even notice. By mid-summer I could see that my efforts had paid dividends. The blackberries I harvested were huge; up to 1 ½ inches long. They were fat with large juicy segments that would explode with flavour. The combination of unimpeded water and a hot summer had yielded a bounty of goodness that we consumed with complete uninhibited joy. Stained purple hands and mouths, sticky sweet, the first few harvests of berries didn’t make it to the house; they were consumed in the garden. Guilt free, sugar and nutrient rich, the berries were like junk food that is not junk. The berry patch was not large, but it provided a surprising yield and we had fresh pies and berries on cereal all summer, frozen berries for smoothies and enough jam to last all winter. To hear your kids say they are “sick of berries” invokes very mixed emotions.
I no longer live in that house and my current yard is really not conducive to a blackberry patch. We now pick from wild bushes in my neighborhood each summer. We are not alone; a good blackberry patch is like a good fishing spot – you keep it secret and some people go to great lengths to maintain the secrecy! I not only have secret spots for blackberries but also for wild red huckleberries and wild native strawberries.
Even if you live in an apartment and cannot plant a garden in the traditional sense, maybe you can look around you and find a secret spot for your own wild berry patch near you. Not only will you find a bounty of flavour and healthy food, but you might find some quiet, serenity and respite from the madness that is all around us this year.