Coming Home

Myth #1: Foraging is too much work

This comes as a shock to many, but there isn’t any question about it: No one works harder to stay alive than the people of our culture do. This has been so thoroughly documented in the past forty years that I doubt if you could find an anthropologist anywhere who would argue about it.

Daniel Quinn, The Story of B

The amount of work per capita increases with the evolution of culture, and the amount of leisure decreases… The amount of hunger increases relatively and absolutely with the evolution of culture.

Marshall Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society

Foraging is easy. What’s difficult is not foraging.

I went to a yoga class early last spring. The instructor said, “I know many of you probably can’t wait to get working in the garden. But before you start lifting heavy bags, shoveling, and pushing wheelbarrows around, remember that you’re probably not used to working that hard.”

I’m certainly not. Foraging is so easy that in order for me to get exercise, I have to go help a friend with their garden. Foraging is not “Man vs. Wild.” It’s often, quite literally, a walk in the park.

How many hours do you work each week? Forty? Then you don’t work any more than your average hunter-gatherer. But wait, did you include cooking, cleaning, shopping, errands, maintenance and repairs? Most of spend our evenings and almost half our weekend doing all that. Hunter-gatherers do everything they need to do in about forty hours.

Working hard or hardly working?

My other lasting impression how little time they spent getting food. It appeared as though it took just a few hours a day, simple as going round a large supermarket.

Tim Spector, “I spent three days as a hunter-gatherer…

To be fair, Hunter-gatherer men have to work about forty-five hours a week. Talk about burning the midday oil! These figures have been debated, but that’s besides the point. It’s less about quantity of work than quality of life. Because what kind of “work” are we talking about? Mainly hunting and fishing: activities that the less outwardly mobile dream of doing.

A no-collar job: how about it? Where would you rather be: in an office, box store, factory, or warehouse, taking orders from someone else, or in the great outdoors, answering to no one but nature, your community, and yourself?

In the fairy tale Puss in Boots, the happy ending is that the smarty cat “was made a great lord, and wore the most beautiful clothes, and never again had to run after mice, except for entertainment.” Drennan’s first challenge, like so many contemporary cookbooks, is about ten-minute meals. But if you actually enjoy cooking and/or hunting, why would you be in a hurry in the first place?

“I would encourage you to look at it from a totally different perspective,” says Native American wild food educator Kevin Finney. “How much of your time is it worth to go see your grandmother? Think about it in that sense. This is a relationship you have with the land.” If you think Grandma’s a nice person to visit but you wouldn’t want to live with her, read on.

Myth #2: Foraging is too dangerous

Pork chops, said my father, I love pork chops!
And I watched him slide the grease into his mouth.
Pancakes, he said, pancakes with syrup, butter and bacon.
I watched his lips heavy wetted with all that.
Coffee, he said, I like coffee so hot it burns my throat!
Sometimes it was too hot and he spit it out across the table.
Mashed potatoes and gravy, he said, I love mashed potatoes and gravy!
He jowled that in, his cheeks puffed as if he had the mumps.
Chili and beans, he said, I love chili and beans!
And he gulped it down and farted for hours,
loudly, grinning after each fart.
Strawberry shortcake, he said, with vanilla ice cream,
that’s the way to end a meal!

He always talked about retirement, about what he would do when he retired.
When he wasn’t talking about food, he talked on and on about retirement.
He never made it to retirement, he died one day
while standing at the sink, filling a glass of water.
He straightened like he’d been shot. The glass fell from his hand
and he dropped backwards,
landing flat, his necktie slipping to the left.

Afterwards, people said they couldn’t believe it.
He looked great. Distinguishing white sideburns,
pack of smokes in his shirt pocket,
always cracking jokes, maybe a little loud
and maybe with a bit of a bad temper,
but all in all, a seemingly sound individual,
never missing a day
of work.

Charles Bukowski, “Retired”

Foraging is not dangerous. What’s dangerous is not foraging.

Last year, a major newspaper sent a senior travel writer to cover my wild food tours. That afternoon, a coworker left her a message saying goodbye. She had been with me all day; she hadn’t gotten the news. Over sixty senior staff had been laid off. She had been with them for sixteen years. Last we spoke, she was filing for unemployment.

I sent her an inspirational quote:

In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won’t get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.

Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid

She pitched the story to another leading daily and they accepted. I urged her to work in what happened. Just think: you can lose your job, but there’s always wild food — and bowling alleys. Maybe something about fresh produce vs. getting canned?

She declined. She wrote about how wild food is so scary, so risky, instead. So let’s see how dicey find dining really is.

Into The Wild

Every year, Michael Rich, an astronomer at UCLA, takes his two sons to Asheville to visit their grandparents. For the past seven years, he has paid me to take them foraging every time.

kidsIn 2010, the family happened to be in town for a “forage-to-feast” event at Asheville’s landmark local foods restaurant, The Market Place. Rich ordered champagne for everyone and raised a touching toast to me for introducing his family to Mother Nature.

A year later, I was taking father and sons up a mountain after a particularly windy thunderstorm. Climbing over fallen branches, I said “there’s nothing to worry about, the storm has passed.” At that moment, a tree limb fell and hit Rich on the back of the head. You could say he saw stars. He stumbled out of there and went straight to the emergency room for an MRI.

Thankfully, he was OK. He brought his kids out with me again two days later. We have continued going out every year since.

These are very urban people. These kids are glued to their iPhones. Yet on top of our national fungophobia, and despite almost getting killed — not even by a mushroom but a branch (albeit, a four-inch-thick one) — this man persists in taking his children “into the wild.” Does father really know best?

Taking Your Chances

The answer came to me three years later. I was taking out an anesthesiologist from Duke. The maintenance person at the private club we were foraging in drove up on his ATV. We showed him the mushrooms we had found. Of course, he asked how we could tell the edible from the regrettable. I explained that there are no simple rules. His conclusion: “I think I’ll take my chances at the store.” He thought that was pretty witty, so he repeated it. “I think I’ll take my chances at the store.”

Voltaire says, “a witty saying proves nothing.” Neither does an anecdote. The fact is, in the course of two decades, I’ve convinced thousands to sample rather than trample the toadstools, and I haven’t lost a customer yet. “Wildman” Steve Brill, who has been teaching foraging for over thirty years, has taught thousands of children. The only ones he knows to have poisoned themselves foraging are the ones he hasn’t taught. Of course, we could be lying. So put on your eye glaze; here comes some statistics.

In a review of mushroom poisoning records in California over the course of five years, 4,235 cases were reported for children six and under. Of these, only 6% involved symptoms of poisoning and only one — not 1%, one — showed major effects. In that period, out of 6,300 total reported exposures (i.e., including adults), one death was reported. One.

What this means is that 67% of suspected mushroom poisoning cases are young children being brought to emergency rooms or poison control centers by their parents. Of these, 94% don’t develop any symptoms and 99.97% have no major symptoms. In other words, it’s almost invariably just the parents freaking out.

from the baskets of babesThe Wild Wild East is no less dangerous. In 2006, of the 227 mushroom exposures reported to the The Northern New England Poison Control Center, 64% involved children aged five and under. Again, “exposure” does not mean poisoning. it means interaction, if only suspected, including handling, mouthing, and chewing on mushrooms. Again, the overwhelming majority of the mushrooms involved are harmless.

If a piddling 6,500 cases is not enough for you, how about 82,330 children across North America, age five and under, from 1992 to 2005? The grand total is 16 cases with major effects and no deaths. And this is from actual ingestion, not just exposure.

This is the danger of your unsupervised toddler grazing on a poisonous mushroom. Is what our children are doing and eating now that safe?

The Best Things in Life

I realized that my own children, who had the best medical care that money could buy, were no healthier or happier than the children playing in the jungle.

Dr. James Duke, author, Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Herbs

At nature’s supermarket, the produce is always local, organic, fresh, flavorful, and free. This is one place where you get what you don’t pay for. When you have to earn your daily bread, on the other hand, you bring home more than a paycheck. Cancer is second only to heart disease as the leading cause of death in this country.

Mexican cheetos

lab rat

Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are all associated with our civilized diet. The Safeway is not so safe.

These “diseases of affluence” are not due to living longer than our paleolithic ancestors because, quite simply, we don’t. Besides, that wouldn’t explain why these degenerative diseases are now afflicting children. In fact, Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona reports that:

Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

American Heart Association, “Overweight in Children

Thanks to our shrink-wrapped economy, our sedentary lifestyle, and the Standard American Diet (SAD), cancer is now the leading cause of death, after accidents, for children. Or has civilization been an accident too?

Buying the Farm

If you had one word or brief phrase to answer the question, “What causes cancer?” what might it be? You might respond with “emotions,” “toxins,” “fungus,” “stress,” or “bad terrain of the body.” Those are all great answers. But they are not my answer.

In my twenty-five years of being a doctor and thinking about food and cancer and health issues for pretty much every day of those twenty-five years, I can say — and I don’t wish to say this in an arrogant way — that I have no doubt in my mind that I know what causes cancer. I have come to the conclusion that I have this one right.

My answer in one word is “civilization.”

Tom Cowan, MD, “A Holistic Approach to Cancer

Wild food is natural food: not what we have designed, but what we’re designed for. That’s why it can be 10 to 100 times more nutritious. It’s not that wild food is so good for you; it’s that anything else isn’t.

We have been eating cultivated food for about 5,000 years. As hominids, we’ve been eating wild food for 5 million years. It’s what we ate “BC,” before Costco. A lot has changed since then — except our bodies.

Genetic modification started thousands of years ago. Not in a lab, of course, but through selective breeding. And our worldwide epidemics of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity are the cost. In 2013, Reuters reported on the growing interest in wild foods, warning that “picking mushrooms in particular requires expertise to avoid eating something harmful.” What about picking pharmaceuticals or fast foods? Foraging is primeval, not our prime evil.

About the time I started taking the Riches out, I told a friend he probably shouldn’t eat so much cotton candy. He said, “I figure if I eat it long enough, my body will get used to it.” Now he’s a millionaire. He’s also clinically obese and bordering on type 2 diabetes. Large but not in charge, I don’t think he’s going to come out grinning. There are some things money can’t buy.

Then they came for me

When Drennan takes his quickie mart survey, one bloke swooning over Swanson’s sums it up: “like a moth to a flame, you just can’t help it.” And we end up the same way. Is the price so low, really, once you take into account your health? Shop till you drop! Factor in your eventual medical bills, and that killer deal becomes just that.

In the midst of writing these words, my own partner found out she had cancer. She had a tumor the size of an Idaho potato in the center of her chest. To take it out, they had to saw open her sternum. She was 29.

The surgery, thank God, was successful. She now has a 75% chance of living another ten years. Will you take your chances at the store?

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