THE PHILOSOPHY OF FORAGING
Last summer, a friend and I walked from the north to the south coast of Crete, relying only on natural navigation. As we scanned parched land for signs of water, rare sprigs announced themselves as ebullient greenery below clouds of keen insects. When peckish in Mediterranean countries, the great frustration is the abundance of olives – neither edible on the hoof, nor ours to eat. But Crete is a land rich in flavours, scents and history.
During our trek, the occasional nibble of wild mint or oregano was a welcome reminder that we walked a fragrant land. I’ll confess, there is the odd moment on these expeditions when, tired and hungry, the goats appear as more than scenery, when the thought passes through the mind that it would only take a little savagery to feast for a week. The wild idea passes with another biscuit, glug of water and sprig of wild thyme from the roadside.
The more time we spend practising and thinking about wild skills and foraging, the more our senses are reawakened. We also come to realise they are not separate but complementary, each one offering its own perspective of the natural world.
There is an adage that bridges foraging and navigation: sweet is south. Whenever we encounter a sweet fruit – and this is a great time of year for that – we are sampling nature’s sugars.
The plants get all that energy from one place: the sun. Once we know that the sun is due south in the middle of the day all year (from Europe, the US, and everywhere else north of the Tropics), we find clues in the fruits we see.
All plants growing near their northern limits have to face the sun: mangos in Spain, peaches in France, grapes in England and pears in Scotland will be growing in south-facing places. Away from agriculture, there’s a chance to darken our fingers and taste direction: the sweeter wild fruit tastes, the more likely we are to be on a south-facing spot. This makes even humdrum foraging more exotic.
Recognising that perennial favourite, the blackberry, as a compass makes local hedgerow worthy of exploration again. Although we can choose whether to pluck things from the wayside and put them in our mouths, the smells choose us.
The coconut scent of gorse is my favourite wild smell in the UK. Gorse grows in acidic grasslands, heaths and places where many other large plants struggle to grow, so if you find yourself in any wild grassy spaces with few trees around, it’s worth having a look for the yellow flowers of gorse. After grazing on some common mallow in Pembrokeshire recently, I found my way to the bijou Llangwm Literary Festival. It was here that I got to compare notes with a local forager, Julia Horton-Powdrill. She was not at all pleased with the way restaurants lump rock and marsh samphire together, using only the one word. They are different, unrelated plants with different habitats. As its name suggests, rock samphire grows along rocky coasts in the south and west of the UK but, critically, above the high water mark.
Any lore blending navigation and foraging is a treat in itself and Julia had some for me: “Shipwrecked sailors knew that once they’d scrambled up to the level of rock samphire, they were saved,” she said. Walking along the coastal cliffs the next morning, I revelled in one of those moments when five senses come together to forge a sense of place. The smell of the freshly ploughed field was joined by the sound of the gulls following the tractor. A sea breeze cooled one cheek as nettle stings warmed one leg.
I tasted bitterness in the leaf that I’d pulled from the cracks in the long, disused airfield that stretched behind me. Red Valerian is a plant that loves sunny, south-facing rocky places in the southwest and it takes delight in reclaiming our concrete for the wild.
Tristan Gooley is the author of The Natural Navigator and The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs; naturalnavigator. com