Slide toggle

Welcome to CWIC

(the Old English word for LIFE)

By Pascal Baudar

STORY BYValerie Vande PanneTwitter

PUBLISHED ONDec 16, 2019

Wildfires, climate change, invasive species, poor air quality and hunger are big-picture structural issues that multiple cities contend with every day. At the community level are public-health challenges such as high rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, especially among the underserved and historically marginalized..

Such a wide range of problems seems not to point to a single solution. Yet in cities across the U.S., and indeed around the world, people are successfully addressing these issues, to varying degrees, with a single, ancient practice: Foraging.

No matter where your ancestors came from, chances are they foraged for food up until 100 or 150 years ago. This shared heritage of foraging — the way people have sourced their food, all over the world, for millennia — has been nearly extinguished in just a few generations.

Today, children are taught little about their natural environment, let alone how to forage for food. What has replaced it? How to get good deals at the supermarket. What holidays are best for buying which consumer goods. In Detroit, for example, children commonly ask each other, “Which gas station does your mommy shop at?” when it comes to food shopping. Kids elsewhere might learn where to find the best pizzeria or sushi restaurant. In other communities, lining up at a local food pantry or soup kitchen, or learning how to apply for SNAP benefits, may be the rite of passage.

But a growing group of practitioners is dedicated to reintroducing the ancestral knowledge of foraging. Connecting to the natural world through foraging establishes valuable ties to the past and urges an investment in our shared future. Once that connection is intimately made, the specter that a natural space may be destroyed — because of climate change, other man-made environmental catastrophe or forced erasure of knowledge — can inspire a shift in the relationship between urban residents and the natural world.

Today, in cities from New York to Los Angeles, this age-old practice has become a thoughtful lens through which some communities address contemporary urban problems — from battling diabetes to tempering wildfires, from improving air quality to managing invasive species, and more. The common thread? A veneration of the cultures that nurtured this wisdom, and a deep appreciation of the bounty that surrounds us.

IN LOS ANGELES, FORAGING INVASIVE SPECIES TO MITIGATE WILDFIRE RISK, CONNECT WITH EUROPEAN HISTORY

Pascal Baudar is an author and forager born and raised in Belgium. He’s also a self-described wild food artist who has lived in LA for most of the last 30 years. He started foraging as a child, and after a time working as a graphic artist, he came back to it in the late 1990s.

Today, he gives at least two foraging tours around Los Angeles each week, and is a guest speaker across the L.A. area, teaching anyone who is interested in how to forage for wild edibles.

“You have all this food not being used,” he says on a recent tour of a no-man’s-land corner of Los Angeles County, standing in a brownfield near a freeway, a place where private land and a horse ranch meets utility-owned land meets state and county land. Black mustard and Italian mustard are everywhere here, and Baudar shows how to harvest it efficiently.

This mustard, he explains, is considered invasive. It’s non-native. It’s highly flammable—a problem in wildfire-prone L.A. Multiple local agencies work overtime to eradicate it, dousing it with herbicides. Baudar points to a part of the field that has been sprayed, showing how to recognize and avoid the treated plants when foraging.

Other communities, in their efforts to control the fast-spreading, wildfire-feeding plants, even bring in goats to eat it.

That’s Baudar’s point: This stuff is edible. And it’s delicious.

Baudar pulls from his bag a jar of mustard he’s made from the seeds he foraged, opening it on the spot for the tour participants to taste.

To Baudar, the fact that the mustard — and many other invasive species that feed wildfires — is edible and non-native makes it a prime food source that, to his mind, ought to be harvested and put to work for the hungry, or at least harvested as food for humans simply to prevent wildfires.

Gillian Grebler, an anthropologist who teaches classes in the culture of food and sustainable food systems at Santa Monica College, agrees. Baudar is a frequent guest speaker in her classes, “blowing people’s minds” with his knowledge. Baudar has “an ongoing effect,” she says. “It sets people on a new trajectory of looking at wild plants. It’s a part of being that hasn’t entered their minds.”

“He’s developed such an interesting point of view on invasive species,” and his work influences SMC’s gardens: “Now we know [that] a weed is edible,” Grebler says with a laugh, adding they tend and harvest the dandelions and other “weeds” they now know can be used as food. “It’s such a more expansive feeling of what we can do in the garden.”

To Grebler, foraging should be part of urban agriculture or waste prevention, incorporated by the L.A. Food Policy Council, an organization working to cultivate a “local food system free from hunger, rooted in equity and access, supportive of farmers and food workers, and guided by principles of environmental stewardship and regeneration.” However, according to third-generation Angeleno and executive director Clare Fox, foraging is not something they are currently incorporating.

The idea hasn’t caught on with food policy people or those tasked with eradicating invasive species, but more people, inspired by Baudar, are asking “why not?”

Beyond Los Angeles, Baudar raises awareness of the natural world and cultivates a foraging community and a strong national and international following of like-minded wild-food enthusiasts. His magazine-quality photos of gourmet foraged food have garnered more than 50,000 followers on Instagram.

When Baudar first started to study the history of wild food in Europe, he realized much of the knowledge had been lost. “It’s a story of invasion. I have an interest in the Celtic culture. That’s where I come from. Fermentation was a part of that culture, [as well as] the knowledge of plants and herbs. A lot of the culture has been erased — the Romans brought with them modern agriculture, and they suppressed the original cultures, religions and ways of life.”

Baudar speaks passionately about a time, pre-Roman Empire, when the land we know today as Belgium was the source of wild-crafted beers, potions, and other elixirs. That knowledge, he says, was regarded as witchcraft. Men and women alike were killed for not doing things that aligned with conventional church teachings. Traditional beer recipes were either destroyed or kept under strict control by the church, which prohibited anyone outside the institution from making the brews.

Baudar looks back at the knowledge that was lost as the church marched across Europe — knowledge that can be reclaimed here in the United States because when colonizers arrived here, they brought their invasive species with them, too.

“The way we used to interact with nature has been lost,” Baudar says. “We used to be a part of nature. If you don’t understand nature, you will look at it as something not that valuable,” he says. What he sees as food, many people too often see as a nuisance to eradicate.

Baudar’s mission is to raise enough awareness about the natural world to stop the poisoning of it and start appreciating what’s there.

“Why don’t we look at solutions?” he asks, rather than, for example, dousing wild mustards with weed killer. “Why don’t we do something that will be beneficial to people, instead of killing the plant and wasting it? It can be food if you know how to prepare it properly. Foraging is really about food preservation.”

In addition to foraging, Baudar also teaches more than 30 ancestral methods that Europeans once commonly employed to preserve foods, including lacto-fermentation, pickling, jugging, potting (preserving in fat), vinegar making and others. He calls these methods “primitive,” in the sense of “relating to the earliest age or period,” and says these preparations are still highly effective.

“Most of my job is to bring back the things that have been forgotten,” says Baudar.

IN ALBUQUERQUE, DESERT FORAGING RESTORES MEMORY AND CREATES A HEALTHY FUTURE

Karlos Baca, Indigenous food activist and Tewa/Diné/Nuuciu, strolls through Albuquerque, New Mexico, pointing out amaranth, prickly pear and sumac. This is desert land, but Baca can — and does — feed thousands each year with the food he forages here. To him and other Native Americans whose families have been living in the desert for thousands of years, the desert is filled with food. Only through eyes that don’t see that abundance did the phrase “food desert” come to describe areas with no grocery stores, or to say that healthy food doesn’t exist in a place.

For those situations and power dynamics, Baca prefers the phrases “food apartheid” or “food equity.” Food sovereignty is another: How can a tribe be sovereign if they must rely on the government for food? Especially when the knowledge of pre-colonial food has been — almost — eradicated?

Albuquerque is in an environment encircled by tribes, surrounded by pueblos and Navajo Nation. Even on the reservation, there is information loss. “It’s been so drastic,” Baca sighs. The genocide of the mind that has occurred on this land since the early 1500s echoes into the present with all the subtlety of a sonic boom.

He fights this forced erasure of knowledge, and the replacement of traditional foods with highly processed, unhealthy colonizer foods — think canned fruit in syrup and processed white flour — by teaching Native Americans about their ancestral foods, how to find and forage for them, how to prepare them, and how to integrate them with modern foods. He also teaches cooking techniques new and old.

Baca’s role is to revive the pre-colonial diet for people whose ancestors thrived on it for thousands of years.

Baca leads groups of elders and young people together on foraging walks and in foraging and food preparation workshops, cultivating and reintegrating the information that has been lost, carefully and gently reminding Native Americans of their birthright to collect and care for the food of this land.

Cerese Martinez, Santo Domingo Pueblo, attended one of Baca’s educational workshops in Albuquerque in October, where Baca taught both how to forage and prepare the foraged foods. Martinez says she had no idea that the plants she thought were weeds were food that her ancestors ate for thousands of years — foods that are actually healthy for her.

“It’s really important to learn things like that, so we can teach our children, teenagers and adults about these things,” says Martinez. “There should be more people like Karlos, so they could teach other people or families that want to learn more about the plants that grow on our lands.”

“There’s an insane amount of foraging in Albuquerque,” says Baca. “But you have to know your place.” That local knowledge — what Baca calls the “intimacy of place” — must be developed: A relationship with a place, its plants, its landscape, its history. That knowledge doesn’t just happen. While Baca might be able to teach some things, people must develop those relationships for themselves. The knowledge of what a place is, what it has been and how it is changing, happens over time.

Building community and relationship with foraged food is important, he says. “What do you do when you build community?” he asks. “You go into a space, acknowledging you all carry a bit of something.” As knowledge is shared and information respected, foraging becomes a pathway to build trust and community. “We don’t go in and say hey! You need to be doing this,” he adds. “We present opportunity for people.”

Read more articles by this author 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Select your currency
EUR Euro
USDUnited States (US) dollar