Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hunting and Gathering: Is it still possible?

My ancestors were professional foragers. So were yours. Before 10,000 years ago all of our ancestors were. There is no doubt that hunting and gathering food has been a viable profession for humans. But is it still? In 21st century New England can a family reasonably (and legally) subsist on wild foods gathered by their own hands?

I know of some wilderness survival teachers who have made dubious claims to have done this. Their stories are vague about the details. I don't believe many of their tales. I read the blog of a guy in the British Isles who attempted to live a full year on wild foods. He had to quit after a few months because he found that foraging was a full time job and that it took a paying job to earn enough money to live in his apartment (or house). He could not do both.

Samuel Thayer outlines a month of living on wild foods in his book Nature's Garden. It is the most thorough description of how someone might become a professional forager that I have seen. Yet it was only a month, and Sam used a lot of stored foods from his well-stocked larder of gathered foods. I don't mean to diminish the accomplishment, but what I want is to someday be able to live with the land the way my ancestors did ages ago before glass canning jars and pressure cookers.

It would be far more difficult to live as a forager in my time and place than it would have been even only 300 years ago. I've had people tell me my whole life that, "You can't go back." The reason they usually give is the staggering population increase and corresponding decrease in wild places in which to forage. But I am convinced that this problem can be overcome. I'm not really competing with anybody for wild foods (as long as oil is cheap). People just aren't interested enough. And wilderness areas while important, are not the best places to forage anyway. My best foraging is in the pastoral patchwork of farmland and woodland that comprises much of rural America. As I see it the real impediments to modern foraging as a way of life are not about population or loss of the wilds at all. Instead I think there are five things that stand in the way are things that most people never think about.

  1. The foods are gone. Chestnuts are gone. Wild rice is gone from much of its former range. The fish runs of shad are gone (or so diminished as to be practically gone). Anadromous fish, in general, are no longer abundant enough to be a staple. Gamebirds like the passenger pigeon are gone. We have certainly gained some new edible plants from Europe. In fact, much of what we experiment with on the foraging family are invasive plants that the professional foragers wouldn't have had. However, most of them are greens and herbs. They are nutritious, but low in calories. Compared to the calorie rich food sources that we have lost, these shoots, leaves, and buds hardly make up for the food sources we have lost.

  2. Access to the foods is reduced. It is a myth that native people would have had unfettered foraging access. Families, clans, and nations laid claim to land, claims that they defended against trespassers. At contact times, the native people of southern Vermont lived as semi-nomadic forager-gardeners. Family units had hunting territories of close to a five mile radius. Taboos restricted which places could be hunted at which time. Some resources, like the best fishing spots on the big rivers, were shared among larger groups. Also shared among larger groups were the best farmlands where they would grow corn. Access to land and food was limited for professional hunters as it is today. But even so, the modern day forager is restricted to significantly fewer places. Today, commonly held lands are much smaller, much farther apart, and much more restricted. Hunting seasons, bag limits, and gathering laws are our society's way of safeguarding these resources for the future. But do these restriction make professional hunting and gathering a legal impossibility?

  3. Distribution of the foods has changed. A lot of people seem to imagine the landscape of our ancestors was similar to the forests of today. This is not really so. Today's forests are different. They are the product of human disturbance of the landscape. The forests of 500 years ago, so far as can be told, were dominated by different trees, had different ecologies, and featured an abundance of different creatures. The forests of centuries past had a greater variety of species and a greater mix of trees of all different ages. There were some unique habitats that no longer exist like the New England prarie. (I'm not making this up. Check out Tom Wessels's Reading the Forested Landscape.)

  4. Traditions of food have been lost. We learn most quickly from a mixture of good teachers and lots of practice. Today's forager had few of both. My ambition to be a professional hunter-gatherer or at least a hunter-gatherer of professional level skill is stymied because of a dearth of role-models. There are folks, like us, who enjoy using wild foods to make our civilized foods more interesting. But our foods are still civilized. There is so much knowledge that is needed to live off the land. A lot of the pieces of this knowlege are readily out there. But I have not yet seen an example of anyone living with all of those peices put together in a single unified whole. The responsibilities of life in our society leave most of us with little time to make foraging anything but a hobby. The professionals of ages past would have learned from master foragers who were part of millenium-long traditions. They would have devoted many hours to the mastery of those skills. Most modern foragers are starting their traditions more-or-less from scratch.

  5. Foraging is no longer a collaborative process. What made foraging work for humans was the tribe. Foraging with a small group of compatriots in a kind of foraging co-operative was the most efficient and most productive approach to meeting foraging needs. Ooga and I have thought of this often. Two people are more than twice as productive as one. Three or four people can cover more ground and increase the odds of bringing in high yield but less reliable foods. The tribe was a kind of insurance policy. If you spent all day hunting and came home empty-handed, someone else had probably had success fishing. This, I think, is the most critical missing piece.

Whew! It's easy to get discouraged in the face of this daunting list. But I have great hope that I will someday realize my dream of being professional forager. Despite all these strikes against the would-be modern forager, there are many foraging advantages that we have today that our ancestors did not have. Stay tuned for a future post on things that our foraging ancestors would envy.

I have no answer to the question that began this post. I really don't know if hunting and gathering is a viable occupation in 21st century New England. I deeply hope that it is, and I dream of the day when someone proves that it is so--not just as some survivalists tall tale, but as a real and replicable model of the modern foraging life.

Is that dream possible?

1 comment:

  1. Great post Thag. I hope you write more on why you have this dream of being a professional forager.

    For me foraging is a pleasurable, meaningful, and spiritual pursuit. I would love to have more time to devote to it. But what I wonder is how much can I forage without sacrificing the feelings of joy and sacredness. I would hate for something so pleasurable to turn into a stressful chore. Also I wonder how much wild food I can eat and still love it. I’ve been gradually increasing the percentage of wild food that I consume. Maybe it’s about one third to one half of my diet right now during this good foraging time of year. Gathering enough wild food for the long winter would be hard. I would want to migrate south.

    I’ve been acutely aware of how much of a food I can eat and not deplete my wild resources. There are unlimited quantities of certain wild “invasive” plants. But with many plants I’m limited as to how much I can gather. It can take years to build up enough reliable spots for gathering certain wild foods.

    For me the issue of the legality of gathering wild food is a complex one. Have you read Steve Brill’s account of being arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park? I think it’s far more important to cultivate and live by a deep respect for land, animals, plants, and fellow humans. And to have one’s actions reflect that deep respect. Unfortunately we have laws that encourage greed, raping and destroying land and resources, and an overall lack of consciousness in general.