Coming Home

Finding Our True Nature

I knew that the Golden Age was all about me,
and it was we who had been blind to it,
but that it had never passed away from the world.


Why are we here?

StarTrek-Time-Travel-PortalI used to imagine, opening up in front of me for just a few moments, a time portal. Would I walk through it? Would I leave my home, my friends and family, the world I knew, all behind? Half the time, I would think, “yes.” I was pretty depressed back then. I was living in civilization.

At 21, I discovered foraging. Then foraging became a career. At first it was just about eating healthy and making money by teaching others to do it. Now, nearly thirty years later, I see that foraging isn’t just about food. It calls into question the entire course of human history.

Foraging is a time portal, a ticket to Paradise. It takes you back to before history began. And it stands waiting across the Road to Progress. The question I’d like to pose is this: has our five-thousand-or-so-year foray into civilization really been progress, or has it been one big mistake?

The answer that foraging has helped me to come to is that civilization has been one big drug addiction, and that addiction is killing us.

boogie beerA drug is anything simpler, easier, or more pleasant. To make life simpler, easier, and more pleasant is what we’ve been calling Progress. Yet this “progress” has become a cancer.

Civilization doesn’t just cause cancer; it IS cancer. Cancer is the internal manifestation of civilization. Civilization is the external aspect of cancer. These are two sides of the same coin. When an adult dies from taking drugs, they’ve been killed by our culture. When a child dies from cancer, that is not a cute overdose; it’s a chronic one.

Fortunately, humans aren’t “bad.” We’re not aliens and we are not a cancer. We just have some growing up to do.

The Elephant in the Road

I’m not the only one who has had his doubts. Today, more people in the U.S. are dying of suicide than car accidents. Nearly one in four Americans will experience depression by the time they’re 75. More than one in ten Americans is on antidepressants. What do we need anti-depressants for? Our civilized way of life.

In the U.S., one out of three women and one out of two men are getting cancer. I should mention that if you live in the U.S., this statistic includes you. In case that didn’t sink in, it means that if you are an American male, you have a 50% chance of getting cancer in your lifetime. Did you know that? If you don’t live with this awareness every day, do you think you should?

If I were crossing a road and I had a 50% chance of being hit, I wouldn’t do it with my eyes closed. Why hasn’t cancer been declared a national emergency? Maybe because, for one, the situation is not only depressing but horrifying. Even more so, it threatens our way of life.

Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are called “lifestyle diseases” or “diseases of civilization.” They are three of the leading causes of death in the world. Depression is the world’s leading cause of disability. Half of the ten leading causes of disability, in fact, are mental health problems.

Could cancer and depression be two sides of the same coin? Is our collective dis-ease a price worth paying for “progress?”

The Other White Meat

roadkill2Humans aren’t the only ones paying with their lives. It’s estimated that 100 to 400 million animals die on American roads every year, maybe even twice that. That’s three to six times as many nonhuman deaths from cars as human deaths from cancer. Were you aware of that? Do you care?

We’re all roadkill here, and we don’t even see it coming. For one thing, we ALL have cancer. Saying “that guy has cancer but I don’t” is like saying “my liver has cancer but my stomach’s doing fine.” This was literally brought home to me last year when my own partner got cancer. Her problem is my problem.

From what I can see, we are one planet dying of cancer, one way or another, and that cancer is civilization. To illustrate the matter, let’s look at the 2007 BBC documentary, The Roadkill Chef.

Off the Beaten Path

come and get it!

come and get it!

Despite the name, The Roadkill Chef is about wild — not necessarily flattened — food. It stars veteran forager Fergus Drennan. Like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the premise of the program is, “let’s try to get normal people to eat healthy food.” In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the special inspired the series. After all, Drennan used to supply Oliver’s restaurant with wild food. That’s what he tries to get the good people of Sandwich, England to sample. And yes, that includes roadkill.

I once met a mushroom hunter named Hunsucker. Like Sandwich, that’s his real name. I asked Hunsucker if he hunted anything else. He said with disdain, “I am a civilized hunter.”

Roadkill is a form of “civilized” hunting. It’s the gentler half of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, kept alive by freegans, permavulturalists, and other opportunivores. Of course cars aren’t gentle, but you can’t blame a vulture for the carcass. That’s why PETA gave Drennan an award for “ethical cuisine.”

Extreme Cuisine

Can Drennan find enough locals to fill a restaurant for a special wild foods dinner — including roadkill? He begins by posting flyers around town:

Fergus the Forager
invites you to dinner.
I am a wild man and I love wild food.
I have a dream.
I want to get you, the people of Sandwich,
thinking about what you eat, and through eating foraged food,
to get you back in touch with nature.

Sound good? Fergus takes a poll and everyone is pessimistic. One chef tells him, “people are lazy… and we’re going to end up as big as the Americans if we’re not careful.” Apparently, “for the people of Sandwich, the idea of swapping roast beef for badger is a step too far.” One woman says, “quite frankly, I’m frightened to death.” Another says, “for God’s sake, don’t give me horse.”

Drennan uses a key word in addressing this visceral aversion: taboo. Any food that’s not “normal” is considered not only bizarre but dangerous, somehow wrong. “Bizarre Foods” and “Taboo” are just two examples of programs about peculiar diets and other deviant practices. We may not be willing to try something new, but we sure like to watch!

Eventually, Drennan finds a chef willing to try roadkill. They set out in the morning, “before too many cars have run over it.” (WARNING: this review contains spoilers. But then, so does the film.) They soon find a fender-bent fowl that’s not too foul. An hour later, their goose is cooked. The butchering is a bit graphic, but it doesn’t last long. For more gore, see here.

Outside the Box

The next day, Drennan asks people at a grocery why they eat the way they do. The answer is convenience and price. One fast food aficionado sums it up with, “I can’t be bothered.”

There’s no accounting for taste, but no one with a taste for accounting can deny that fast food saves time. Or does it? Does wild food really take longer to prepare than a TV dinner?

cookoffTo settle the matter, Drennan challenges a new, normal-yet-open-minded friend to a race. And the winner is… a tie. While Mr. Normal simply nukes his mac n’ cheese for nine minutes, Drennan has to “work” the whole time. But then, let’s consider how long would one have to work at a job to pay for a dinner like the one Drennan prepares:

In a restaurant, i.e., with the work done for you, a meal like Drennan’s would cost you at least $15. To make $15 in nine minutes, you’d have to be making $100/hr. That means that unless you’re making $100/hr at work — after taxes — you’re better off “working” on cooking your dinner yourself.

I didn’t cook the books on this one. Similar conclusions were reached in the late 1920’s by back-to-the-land advocate Ralph Borsodi. His School of Living still exists today.

The Real Deal

Contrary to what is often assumed, a significant proportion of wild foods come from agricultural areas or from around the home.

Bronwin Powell et al in Food Security

When studying the economics of “self-catering,” you also have to figure in the time it takes to gather the food, whether at the grocery or in your own yarden. Shopping in nature’s supermarket might take longer, but not necessarily.

Whole PaycheckMy father frequently spends two hours at the grocery to get the cheapest and freshest ingredients. He’s shopping in the wrong store. He needs to go where the food can’t be fresher and you can’t beat the prices. He needs to cut out the middleman.

Wherever you are, even in a concrete jungle, there’s enough wild food to feed you and your family, free for the taking, at most a few hundred yards away. Dandelion, violet, chickweed, and onion grass are just a few of the “weeds” that thrive in urban environments, along with mushrooms like chicken of the woods — or rather, of the ‘hood. The only “food desert” is a pristine lawn.

The truth is, there is more wild food in the city than there is in the country. Any county park, suburban yard, or empty lot will have more edible and medicinal plants than the most pristine woods. If you live in suburbia, you know that the population of deer is exploding. These are the real people in your neighborhood. It’s time to eat the neighbors!

Eden Disorder

JS: We live in an unbelievably marvelous Garden of Eden… kept alive by a mysteriously interwoven, self-replenishing support system that with all our scientific “breakthroughs” we still do not understand. And yet, as favored as we are by all this real wealth, we somehow perversely prefer to spend almost all our waking hours interpreting the sum total of this reality… in terms of the narrow and distorted, strictly human-centered concept of money…

Civilization… is just another word for “lunatic asylum.”

MEN: I never thought of it that way. Hell, I don’t think anybody thinks of it that way.

interview, John Shuttleworth, founder, Mother Earth News

One time a forager friend was going through a rough patch (not of mushrooms). She didn’t have the support she needed, so she checked herself into an institution. This place, like drugs and civilization in general, was a lot easier to get into than out of. If you left before they dismissed you, your insurance wouldn’t cover it: you’d have to pay for the whole thing. At several hundred dollars a day, few people can afford to be “noncompliant.”

At this not so funny farm, there was a patient who couldn’t afford to leave. In her case, though, that might have been for the best. Among other things, she would hear voices saying they were going to hurt her children. She had to go to group therapy every day, and she would sleep through it. She would wake up, say a word, then go back to sleep, kind of like the dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

So there she was, and here was my friend, the new kid in gown. People were asking my friend what she eats, where she shops, etc. She said she eats organic food and that she sometimes shops in the woods. At that, the sleeping woman picked her head up and said out loud, “what the HELL??

In our great institution, who’s the crazy one?

Lies My Culture Told Me

A deep critique of development quickly leads to territory so radical as to make the critic sound like a half-wit who has never considered ‘the benefits of education’ or ‘the benefits of modern medicine’ or ‘the progress we’ve made in alleviating poverty and feeding the hungry.’ In fact, development is wedded to deep assumptions that we take for granted about human nature, the nature of reality and the nature of existence itself. It is, in other words, an integral part of the defining mythology of our civilization.

Charles Eisenstein, “Development in the Ecological Age

It’s not as if we can turn back the clock and restart as hunter-gatherers… calling the shift to agriculture a “mistake” overlooks the fact that farming societies were able to specialize, leading to written languages, new technologies, and art—all things we value today.

Bill Gates, “How Did Humans Get Smart?

There’s no doubt that in our high-tech society, foraging has an image problem. If you recommend it to Native Americans, it’s an insult. Tell it to an African-American, even one that eats weeds herself, and she’ll say, “my folks will not look in the ground for healthy food, though this is where our ancestors planted everything. For folks to go down to the ground is saying, ‘I’m broke, I don’t have, I’m less than.’”

It’s so ironic, then, that among the moneyed, foraged ingredients are considered “a great way to elevate a dish.” In fact, many rich folks are more than happy to gather them.

This is why pride is the deadliest sin. It’s why the meek, who stoop so low as to pick their food up off the earth, shall inherit it. It’s what the word humility means.

Pride aside, if you suggest to the average person that they might want to try foraging — and they give it a moment’s thought — their reply would probably go something like this:

Are you kidding? That sounds like a pain in the ass. There’s a reason we invented farming, you know. For one, I’m sure I’d kill myself. Even if I knew what I was doing, I’m sure there’s not enough out there to live on. And if we all tried to do it anyway, I’m sure we’d annihilate any woods we have left.

If that’s what you’re thinking, you get a gold star: you are totally civilized!

The word civilized, as in citizen or civilian, literally means “made into a city dweller.” You don’t need a civics class to know that people who live in cities eat cultivated food and that we have to work to pay for it. That is what it means to be “civilized.”

As civilized people, one of our most cherished foundational beliefs is that the life of “savages” is vastly inferior. After all, “if we are to believe in the notion of linear, unending ‘progress,’ as we are taught to from an early age, then we must equally disbelieve in the integrity of the past.”

But what if it isn’t true? What if we’ve been fed a fabrication? When we take off the window dressing, does the emperor really have any clothes?

Before The Matrix

Joachim Wtewael, The Golden Age

Joachim Wtewael, The Golden Age

The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Is the Garden of Eden just a myth?

Imagine walking through a maze with green walls. This is how most of us spend our lives. To most people today, even those who regularly hike or walk through the woods, nature is just a big green wall. We don’t need city walls anymore to keep nature out; the wall is in our heads.

The civilized view of hunting and gathering can be summed up as follows:

1. Foraging is too much work.

2. Foraging is too dangerous.

3. Foraging would destroy the woods.

4. There’s not enough wild food for all of us anymore.

These four beliefs form our collective cultural myth of progress. But is it really true that the further we get from The Garden, the closer we get to paradise?

The word paradise literally means “walled garden.” These four myths, all in all, are all just bricks in the wall. If you’d like to see what lies beyond it, read on.

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