On Urban Foraging

This is an older SPURSE post, but it seems like a good one to revisit as we publish the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook:


As part of our Live Feeds program we have been doing quite a bit of foraging, collecting all sorts of green leafy plants found in unexpected places, from outside the huge transnational food market at Hunts Point in the Bronx to the traffic islands on Houston St. right in front of the Lab. We even picked some catmint for our cat from the Lab’s flower bed! It is summer and the bracing bitterness of dandelion is refreshing…

So why not think about “urban comfort” by connecting our appetites to what is right under our feet? Surely when we think about the massive footprint of our food systems and their toxicity — which produce such global discomfort — the seemingly simple answer would be to bypass all that and just  begin eating  as the urban rabbit does. Nothing could be simpler than foraging. You are walking along and you kneel down to pick a weed. That is it!—nothing more–and of course you can begin to eat as you continue walking…

But what is in this act? Yes, it is a convenient way to get lunch, save money, and it is wonderfully enjoyable. But more than that (and don’t get us wrong, we love this part of picking weeds!) what is going on? We started to investigate this with a group of our citizen researchers as part of our Live Feeds Fieldwork and here is some of what has interested us so much:

You cross a threshold to be of the world.

Think about it: when you pick and eat a weed on the street, you are eating all the nutrients and all the toxins it has absorbed thus far, both healthy and dangerous. Your well-being joins with another creatures well-being and your futures have become interwoven, you with this plant’s but also you with this street and so on. You are no longer able to skip over parts of your environment by choosing where is worth preserving and where is not, where is worth keeping clean and where is not; it is now much more entangled than that. Our carefully cultivated modern sense of mobility and personal freedom from being of our world becomes less tenable.

Could killing and eating something “help” it? Funny, right? What happens when we pick an apple, walk down the street eating the apple and then toss the core into the next lot? Sure, we are littering and need to be fined, but–joking aside–have we not become the propagation system for the apple? in simple terms, its sex organs? its reproductive mechanism?

And who is really “in charge” when we eat the apple in the first place? Us, because we picked the apple? Perhaps our traditional models of understanding who is in charge and how things happen are getting in the way. The apple has developed a storable, durable package of tasty goodness designed to meet our tastes and interests such that it is even ready to travel with us. It has communicated with us in such a manner that causes us to cross a threshold, break the fruit free from the tree, and eat it. Once ingested, it lets bacteria break the whole apple down except for the seed. So in reality it is more the apple that guides us and we that follow. Following this logic back into the deep history of our species you would see that it is more accurate to say that fruits made us (yes, all of us mammals) rather than we who made them.

It all begins with you and a weed sharing a future in eating.

(How does this extend to animals? We will return to this in a future post. It is an important question).

You build a community.

You might be thinking at this point that foraging from your own streets sounds good in theory, but would be quite dangerous in practice. Sadly you would be right. Our streets are toxic to plants, people and many other critters, but in re-linking your future to your local ecosystem’s future you are forming a new multi-species community with shared needs and concerns. Your concern for your own well being is interwoven with those of your ecosystem. What an interesting community it is: not only plants, animals (that includes us), insects, bacteria, but also ideas, habits, practices, environments and objects that are all co-forming and co-shaping it.

How does one recognize the shape and logic of such a community? This is the tricky and interesting thing. It cannot be done by just looking. You have crossed a threshold of action and become of a world by effecting something and that cannot be passive.  A community only recognizes itself when one part requires something of another that involves real change in the state of things. Picking a plant — eating the apple — this is what is critical.

The funny thing is that we are always part of such communities, we’ve just developed complex systems, such as shopping, to ignore their existence. When we shop at a grocery store we hop out of our local environment in preference for an alternative reality–maybe a far off forest that has been cleared for organic lettuce—and our habits of eating and shopping allow our neighborhoods to  become safely worse as we continue to colonize further and further out into our ecosystems.

What if everyone started foraging in the parks and streets? Will nothing be left?  Will our parks will be stripped of every plant, tree and animal? The concern that common areas will be overused by certain individuals is classically called “the tragedy of the commons” but there is quite a bit of research and writing on how this actually rarely happens. (This research can be found if you google “the fallacy of the tragedy of the commons”, or look at the work of people like Elinor Ostrom). Following the logic of the tragedy of the commons which continues to guide top down policies everywhere, NYC Parks Department has recently banned foraging. Thus we are allowed to have public spaces but only if we agree not to be of them and “take only pictures; leave only footprints”. And here we come directly to the questions of the occupy movement and the shocking realization that public space is not a form of space open to community use and decision making. “Public” defines in actuality a very narrow set of limited ways we are allowed to use common space. (More on this below).

We often act in a way that does not understand how we have actually already become or might become a community. For example, when you are out foraging you meet someone who is curious. You explain what you are up to, and so they join in. Now the two of you are negotiating and speculating:  how much should we take? How much does this tree produce? Are there others who rely on this tree? This might not happen directly at first (perhaps you just think these ideas). But at some moment you all become guardians of this tree. If you see someone else picking you start talking with them… Slowly agreements evolve, some unspoken and some more concrete. As well, you will probably find you are not the first to forage and their are already ongoing communities of concern and agreement, even those that link across many species. A shared community is growing that helps prevent over-use, helps each other, and spreads a sense of shared values and conviviality.

You are developing a commons.

Commons are those parts of the world that are either not private, or should not be privatized. We all have some sense of this. The word itself has such a wonderful and direct sensibility: common, commons. What is common? Air and  water are examples of the commons. The use of the word goes back to directly refer to that part of a community that was a shared pasture. Most towns still have something called a “commons” — such as the Boston Commons. Ivan Illich describes the logic of a commons quite beautifully:

People called commons those parts of the environment for which customary law exacted specific forms of community respect. People called commons that part of the environment which lay beyond their own thresholds and outside of their own possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage, not to produce commodities but to provide for the subsistence of their households. The customary law which humanized the environment by establishing the commons was usually unwritten. It was unwritten law not only because people did not care to write it down, but because what it protected was a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs. The law of the commons regulates the right of way, the right to fish and to hunt, to graze, and to collect wood or medicinal plants in the forest.

An oak tree might be in the commons. Its shade, in summer, is reserved for the shepherd and his flock; its acorns are reserved for the pigs of the neighbouring peasants; its dry branches serve as fuel for the widows of the village; some of its fresh twigs in springtime are cut as ornaments for the church – and at sunset it might be the place for the village assembly. When people spoke about commons… they designated an aspect of the environment that was limited, that was necessary for the community’s survival, that was necessary for different groups in different ways, but which, in a strictly economic sense, was not perceived as scarce.    (Ivan Illich, Silence as a Commons)

The traditional idea of the commons focuses on the pasture, but we, like Illich, are interested in how everything is a type of commons. Putting aside conventional notions that delineate private and public space, let’s look at how we are really part of a shared community whose different peoples and creatures are constantly in a process of negotiation. We can start by picking and eating a weed.

(If you have a moment see our posting on the commons).

You are no longer a consumer.

You do not stop being a consumer by eating a weed on the side of the road, but foraging does come from a very different ethos than the practices of consuming. A weed growing does not have a “purpose” or a “utility” like a set of resources called “food stuffs” that have been cultivated to meet our caloric and nutritional needs. Wild plants growing on the edge of a street probably don’t seem like a resource for us in the same way that a bunch of dandelions at a farmers market or in a megastore do, being positioned in an environment that presents them as resources and products, ready to serve our desires.

We can resist the view that reduces all reality to either resources or waste (a non-resource), and distills our lives down to a reality that is driven by meeting our need for more resources. What then might comfort, beyond a logic of “needs”, “resources” and “waste” and beyond our normal habits as consumers look like? What is comfort that is of the world? These are the questions that are critical for us now.

For more on this please see the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook

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