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  • Writer's pictureCalyx

Reconnecting through Wild Foods

These notes were originally presented as a Tucker Talks at Tucker&Co Bakery in Dillsburg, PA March 21, 2023.

Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata), Washington D.C. Photo by J.D. Tignor

We live in an uneasy time. 6 out of 10 adults in the US have a chronic illness, and most of them have more than one. 1 in 5 suffer from depression or another mental illness. Nearly 38 million people in this country live in poverty. We’re living through pandemics, mass extinctions, climate change, and radical pollution of our soil, water, and air. We live in a society built around and dependent on the very things that make us sick.

How did this happen? I don’t consider myself an expert historian, psychologist, economist, or politician. But I am able to see patterns in the work that I do, and I am able to draw parallels of the sickness of our people to the sickness of the lands we occupy.

I live and teach on the unceded lands of an indigenous people with no known living tribal members left– the Susquehannock. The original stewards of this land are absent, along with the many tribes who relocated to the region after being removed from their lands, only to be removed again.

The legacy that’s been left to us, the colonial mindset, is a mindset of conquest and ownership. As a culture, our relationship with the land has been abusive, exploitive, extractive, and genocidal. Acknowledging this is not just an exercise in self-flagellation or empty diplomacy. When we acknowledge the land we stand on, and the people who have been erased from it, we take a step toward understanding our current state of affairs and where to go from here. Because we’re not just acknowledging the past, we’re acknowledging the present. The actions that have formed the physical and social constructs we see around us affect each and every one of us today.

We are disconnected from our bodies; our physical bodies, but also the larger body that is our community. We have lost sight of how we fit into the ecological community, and this has had drastic consequences. We have failed to see the ways in which the poisoning of the land directly impacts our wellbeing. In many ways we have forgotten who we are.

In colonial culture, we view ourselves as something separate from nature. Nature is something we go out into, something outside of ourselves that we sometimes visit when we are seeking solitude or inspiration. We seem to believe that if we can mentally and physically quarantine ourselves from nature, then there will be no consequences to our actions. But we are nature. We are animals; keystone species who impact our environment on a global scale.

The irony is that we are a culture that prides ourselves on independence on a planet that revolves around interdependence. You are an ecosystem. You are a microbial colony walking around in human form. We have more microbial cells than human cells in our bodies. Without all those single celled organisms helping us out every day, we would cease to exist. And just as our own bodies are an ecological biome, we too are a part of the greater biome in which we live.

This disconnect to nature– meaning, to our own selves and our place in the world– is, I believe, a large part of what contributes to so many of the issues we face today. The world we live in is an orchestra. Given the chance, the orchestra members will play in perfect symphony together. But we’ve got noise-canceling headphones on playing the 1st oboe out of tune. Do you know what happens if the oboe is out of tune? The rest of the orchestra tunes to the 1st oboe. A cacophonous disaster.

I’ve done clinical herbalism and nutrition for nearly a decade. The people who come to me are usually ones burnt out with the current medical system- they’ve tried everything and gotten nowhere. Naturopathy is more effective as a preventative modality, but the reality is that we tend to be the last resort for jaded, worn out, chronically ill people. What I can tell you about all of the people who I’ve worked with, is that the ones who get better are the ones who decide to radically change their lives and their relationship to the world around them. True healing is not just a drug, or an herb, or a diet– it's a mindset shift.

I’ve spent many hours in a clinical office space and on video and phone consults, and I’ve shipped herbs all over the country to folks desperate to get well. But the healing I’ve seen in real time is the kind that happens out in the field- and I do mean, a literal field. Or forest, or brackish marsh, or city park. There is medicine out there that can’t be bottled.

Think of it this way. You have a drug– it contains an isolated chemical constituent derived from a plant. It works quickly, efficiently, but it is highly volatile- it can cause a cascade of serious side effects, and rarely addresses the root cause of the symptom being treated. In many cases, you’ll need another medication to deal with the fallout from taking the first one. This is why 40% of adults in this country are on 5 or more medications.

Then you have an herb– this is a substance that contains a synergy of different molecules, in much less concentrated amounts than a pharmaceutical. These chemicals are created by the plant in response to the ecological condition it grew in. The dance of all those chemicals working together produces a therapeutic effect that is often more subtle, less prone to side effects, if efficaciously applied, and has a gradual, restorative action on the body.

When you go out of doors and you eat a wild food directly from its source, there is not only a synergy of physical molecules within that plant, but all around you. All of the volatilized compounds that plants emit are wafting through the air and suffusing through your lungs and skin. We know now that soil bacteria can trigger the release of serotonin, improving mood and brain function. And then there are the non-physical elements- the aesthetic beauty, the subtle sounds of birds and the wind.

Chinese Magnolia (Magnolia × soulangeana) in Washington, D.C. Photo by J.D. Tignor

Studies examining the differences between walking in forests vs. urban environments show that walking through a forest improves short term memory, cognition and mental focus, vigor, and positivity. All of our stress markers– blood pressure, pulse, cortisol, sympathetic nervous system (also known as- fight or flight) activation– decrease when we spend time outdoors. Even our immune system is boosted by walking through forests.

I can attest to the research that time spent in natural environments can reduce feelings of hostility, and increase empathy and graciousness. Think of the sensation you get when you see a really beautiful scenic view, or when you catch a glimpse of an owl perched in a tree. You experience a sense of wonder and inspiration that makes you inhale. You may feel a yearning to connect or a sense of peace. That is medicine.

Photo by J.D. Tignor

This layer of medicine encompasses not only the physical compounds one consumes or the physical activity one participates in, but the comprehensive effects that one’s environment, and its entire web of community members, have on a person. Reconnecting with nature is a vital healing practice. And one of the most profound ways I have found to help people make the leap from “nature is out there” and “nature is me” is through wild foods.

Foraging is an act that re-awakens the very real, very deep ancestral wisdom that is within each of us. All of us have ancestors who foraged. Some of you may even have parents or grandparents who did so on a regular basis. I remember my father talking about wild sassafras root tea.

The loss of these cultural traditions around food coming directly from the land is extremely recent. And the disconnect of food production at its source, to our consumption of it, has had devastating consequences. Many of us no longer know how to feed ourselves properly or how to listen to the needs of our bodies. Many of us have food addictions. There is a serious epidemic of gastrointestinal disease in this country, and when you come to understand how integral the health of your digestive system is to the rest of your body– that is a frightening thing.

We can continue to research medical treatments for these types of illness, but if we don’t come to understand the root cause of them, and work to remove those factors from our lives, we’re going to be headed for serious trouble.

The “Standard American Diet,” or SAD, as we call it in the nutrition world, is full of nutrient-poor foods. Despite an abundance of food, Americans are not getting the nutrients they need to be well. In a study of micronutrient inadequacies in the U.S., around half or more of the population falls short of recommended dietary intakes for calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, and vitamin C. 68% of adults and 95% of children don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids. 50% of adults are also vitamin D deficient, which points to not only a nutrition crisis but also a nature-deficit crisis- people aren’t getting enough sunlight.

Healthy food isn’t accessible to everyone. 75% of Americans do not consume the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, but even for those of us trying to eat a whole foods diet, the foods we’re eating are not the same as those of our grandparents’ time. The nutrient qualities of whole foods have been lost through modern agricultural and food industrial practices. We have designed our food system in a way that is efficient, uniform, and addictive, rather than regenerative, nutritive, and satiating.

Modern produce has been bred to meet industry standards for yield, size, uniformity, and durability. Not only do we expect produce to fit within certain packaging and avoid getting it bruised up in the process, but consumers look for uniformity too. We tend to avoid “oddball” or “ugly” produce. We’ve also bred our food to fit the American flavor preference of sweeter and milder. We’ve bred out the flavors like tart and bitter that come from potent phytonutrients. And in the Standard American Diet, we’ve replaced the flavors that our bodies crave with synthesized versions- artificial flavors designed to keep you coming back for more but don’t nourish us in any way, shape, or form.

It takes time and dedication to undo the damage that these types of additives do, and to re-invite the diverse flavors of whole foods. Someone brought up on a diet of highly processed foods has to now rewire their brain to recognize and enjoy the flavor profiles of healthful ingredients.

We’re also harvesting a lot of produce before it fully ripens so it can be transported to market shelves (sometimes thousands of miles away). Some foods, like bananas and apples, are artificially ripened, resulting in reduced nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Even our top-tier health foods, like kale, are less nutrient dense due to the mineral depletion in the soil they’ve been grown in - a result of decades of unsustainable farming practices.

But we have super foods all around us, plants that our ancestors built intimate cultural relationships with over centuries or millennia. Many of these foods exist because humans tended them. Wild foods often have hundreds to thousands more phytonutrients per pound than modern cultivated foods– and the price tag is that we appreciate them and steward them through sustainable harvest.

Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodium album)

We have nettles, pokeweed, and bilberries. Wild mustards and sassafras. If you’re fortunate enough to have a garden, you might pull out the “weed” called lamb’s quarters to plant your spinach, not realizing that lambs quarters contain significantly more protein, more vitamins, and more minerals than spinach. Dandelion greens, the victim of a multi-decade long biological lawn-warfare campaign, have 8x more antioxidants, 3x more Vitamin A, twice the vitamin C, and 5x the vitamins K and E than spinach. We consume, on average 3-5 lbs of plant and animal matter every day. What we eat matters. When you look at nutritional epidemiology and compare the nutrient composition of modern diets to the traditional diets of our ancestors, it’s no wonder we’re sick.

But food itself, our connection to food, and the way food brings us together, all have a tremendous power to heal. No matter who you are or where you come from, everyone has to eat, and we still have for the most part hung onto the cultural practice of using food as a way of expressing our care for others and as a tool for celebration.

Food is mundane. Food is sacred. Sharing a meal in community with each other and with the land is the ceremony we all need in our lives.

My teacher, Lisa Ganora, who’s a biochemist and herbalist, defines molecules as “a pattern of energy in relationship– a physical manifestation of an energy pattern.” E=mc². The world we live in exists because of dynamic relationship.

Daily, we are incorporating parts of our environment into our body, and then giving parts of ourselves back to it, becoming our environment. This is not just happening on some pie in the sky, spiritual level. This is happening on a chemical, physical, molecular level. The phrase “you are what you eat” is literal. The nutrients we choose to bring into our bodies will become our bodies, and our bodies are not merely physical– food can feed us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually– because these are all just words in our fragmented language to describe a whole human being.

And to feed our communal bodies– the ones which extend outward into the community of human and more-than–human beings, outward to those plant, animal, and microbial beings that feed us in return, we have to step into our role as caretakers of the land.

Sharing a Magnolia snack with an urban D.C. friend. Photo by J.D. Tignor

Kincentric ecology, as Dennis Martinez calls it, is a worldview that reconnects us with the web of life that sustains us. When you consider that the plants and animals that fed your mother when you were growing in her belly are what literally formed your cells, you may come to recognize those plants and animals as your ancestors.

This is not a worldview you can learn fully from books, or even from other people. It’s a living knowledge embodied by interacting directly with more-than human kin. It’s a worldview in which you see the strands of subsistence, and follow them all the way from our day-to-day life, back to the plants and animals and fungi and microbes that nourish us. It’s to have not only awareness of these things, but also gratitude.

Robin Wall Kimerrer talks about seeing the world as a gift– and when we see that we ourselves are part of that world, we understand that we have to give the gift back as well. How can we give and receive the gifts of the earth if we don’t know our neighbors? Richard Louv said, “We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see.” How many of you know what type of trees grow next to your place of work? What are the names of the birds who sing to you when you get into your every morning? These are gifts– all around us. They are our kin, our friends, here to sustain us and help us heal. All we have to do is notice them.

Photo by J.D. Tignor

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Catherine Tomasi
Catherine Tomasi
Mar 25, 2023

Beautiful and intensely thought-provoking

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