Living in this part of the world, when good weather comes you know to make the most of it. Usually, this means scanning the seven-day forecast and plotting trips to the mountains or coast as soon as a chance of sunshine reveals itself. Currently, the geographic boundaries of opportunity are somewhat smaller- an invisible circular perimeter drawn five miles around our homes as a little bubble of safety. Gone are the summits and the sea-swims, replaced with whatever is in walking distance. Days of repeating the same walks in the same parks, looking at the same grass and trees, following the same paths.
How much do these things really stay the same though? For a species whose very survival was once inextricably tied to our natural environment, many of us have become disconnected from the subtle signs of seasonal change. The native ‘cuckoo flower’, for example, named because its flowering coincides with the time when our ancestors would hear the first cuckoo of the year, singing out its trademark tune in a local valley.
For a few years now I have been actively working to reclaim this ‘folk knowledge’ through foraging – learning about and identifying plants and fungi for food and other uses. Being forced to stay local during lockdown has focused this effort. Seeing the same places each day allows me to notice plants transforming from a few scraggly leaves into glorious full bloom, whilst others die back to make way for the next wave of growth. Over the past two months, I have baked nettle bread and wild-garlic Scottish oatcakes, made stir-fry with the aptly named ‘chicken of the woods’ fungi, and collected salads of young lime tree leaves and wildflowers.
As well as the nutritional goodness of the plants themselves- the humble nettle, for example, contains fourteen times more calcium than kale– I am also noticing other benefits. Being outside has positive mental health impacts, including closer connection to nature and a little dopamine reward when I find something tasty. We may be 21st-century humans, but we still carry the 100,000-year-old wiring of hunter-gatherers which knows how to motivate us to survive!
Next on my seasonal events list is the flowering of the elder trees. These put out beautiful sprays of fragrant white flowers in late May/ early June, and I am looking forward to a sunny morning of collecting before trying my hand at homemade elderflower ‘champagne’! For anyone interested in starting their own foraging adventure, for those in the UK, I highly recommend my mentor Mark William’s fantastic website as a starting point: http://www.gallowaywildfoods.com/.
Get curious, get re-connected, and remember not to eat anything until you are 100% on your ID of it!