11/02/2009 11:49 am ET Updated 5 days ago

Where the Wild Things Grow: The Zen of Foraging

A few weeks ago, I pulled on my muddy boots and trekked around Chappaquiddick Island, following after a character named Russ Cohen with a couple dozen other food crazies. Russ is an expert on foraging for food in the wild, and I figured maybe I'd finally learn to identify the Sassafras tree, discover which seaweeds are edible, and maybe pick a few of those wild grapes from the vines I'd seen twisting through the underbrush and around split-rail fences all over Martha's Vineyard.

At the very least, it would be a great excuse to get outside on one of those seductively warm and breezy October days when the sunlight already has the cool, distant quality of winter, but the earth beneath your feet is still radiant from the waning summer heat, and the fluffy carpets of fallen leaves feel like soft bedroom slippers for your soul.

I invited along my friend Roy, who, as it happens, has a pretty good eye for wild hazelnuts, edible mushrooms, and yellow-rumped warblers (not edible). We didn't turn out to be very good group participants, falling behind repeatedly as we stopped to stuff our pockets with Autumn olives and hickory nuts or to stare at mesmerizing formations of lime-green lily pads on quiet ponds hidden by scrub oaks and stumpy pines. (This is a shortcoming of mine--straying from the pack; I've always been told to stay in the middle where it's safe, but there is something about lingering on the edges that invites adventure.)

Straggling, we almost missed the best part of the walk. We came upon the group clustered around Russ in a grassy clearing by the edge of a large pond. He'd knelt down and was ruffling a delicate carpet of tiny green leaves and wispy vines. He lifted one of the vines to reveal a plump, blushing-pink berry--a wild cranberry, as it turned out. Wild cranberries! Oh my! I was instantly charmed and thrilled. Cultivated cranberries (from bog to plastic bag) I knew; but here at my feet was something growing the same way it had grown more than four centuries ago when the Wampanoags introduced the "sour berry" - a great source of winter nutrition - to the Pilgrims.


As the rest of the group moved on to finally sample Vitis Labrusca, that wild "fox" grape (intensely musty flavored; there's a reason they don't make wine from these grapes), Roy and I lingered by the cranberries, picking a few so that I could make just a tiny batch of souvenir native cranberry sauce. I'm not sure why these berries thrilled me so much, but hovering there, I felt the same way I had felt hunched over a slippery rock harvesting mussels a few months back, and the same way I felt reaching the top branch of a wild blueberry bush to pick those summer treats. Of all the conscious efforts I've made in the last few years to get reconnected with the source of my food, the satisfaction I've gotten out of (responsibly) gathering some of it has been most surprising.

Before you think I've completely gone off my rocker, I have to say that I'm not in any way advocating foraging as a part of the physical solution to our current food problems. For me, it's a spiritual thing, just like growing some of my own vegetables, joining a CSA, picking apples at a local orchard, going fishing, or buying meat from a local farmer. It's not so much the food as it is the physical act of gathering and preparing it--sitting around the kitchen table shelling stubborn hickory nuts with a friend, sharing a loaf of pumpkin-cranberry bread with a neighbor--that feeds me spiritually.

And it's just one tiny way that I combat the angst I feel some days (like yesterday, when I started reading Eating Animals) about the severity of what I consider to be a worldwide spiritual crisis--the imbalance of the relationship of men and animals and plants in our modern life. I wonder, as a food writer, and as a citizen, what in the world I can do to help. It's not as if we can all travel to Washington and lobby against big agribusiness. But we do eat three times a day, and as Wendell Berry says, "Eating is an agricultural act." And a pleasurable one at that. Rediscovering the pleasure in gathering, growing, and preparing our own food--not to mention sharing that pleasure with others--isn't just a good way to combat stress and restore balance to our own lives; it's an acknowledgment of our place in the world, of our connection to our neighbors, and our desire to participate in the solution.