Dig a Little Deeper to Find Your Foraging Flow!

As a lifelong plant enthusiast, I have enjoyed an interesting journey of discovery with how plants make me feel. I have grown up with a strong horticultural influence through grandfather, parents and as a landscape gardener where how I feel about a particular plant or grouping of plants is influenced by its aesthetic qualities. This can be anything from foliage shape, form or texture to flowering timings, scent or autumn colour. How a group of plants makes you feel when walking through a controlled, deliberate landscape is very different to how you feel when you walk through an ancient woodland for example.

As my interest in foraging began to take hold in Spring 2014, I found myself applying the systematic approach to plant learning that I have relied on in my horticultural work life and for some time this lens helped me to focus on building a repertoire of plants that have many bushcraft and survival uses. However, I always felt like something was missing but was never quite sure what that was, so resolved to continue my search for a deeper understanding.

When I started teaching foraging sessions as a Woodland Ways instructor, I developed my own style based on the foragers I follow, books and many online resources I use for my own CPD. It was then that my lens changed, and I glimpsed what I had been searching for in my approach.

We are sentient beings and as such we have the potential to experience feelings through our physical and sense impressions, which in turn gives us the potential to have empathy for the flora and fauna we share the land with. There is a flow between plants, people, and places if we allow ourselves to connect with it. Our lives in the outside are not static they are constantly changing with the seasons. There seems to be a dominant western view of superiority over nature, that we are separate from it and that we need to be the masters of it. This has led to the feeling of isolation, alienation and uncomfortableness in wild places. I like to think that foraging is one of the key ways to reconnect with the land and restore the vital connection of flow between people and plants.

When I enter woodland with a group on a foraging walk, I like to tune into the bird life reacting to our presence, recognizing the change in sound and behaviour is part of the process of tuning in. Personally, I also like to feel a connection to the earth by wearing my Vivo Tracker Forest Escape boots that allow me to feel the ground beneath my feet. This helps me read the landscape using my sense of touch and informs me of the texture of the ground, how wet or dry it is and when it changes. This focusing of the senses and opening them up is where flow happens and a connection begins.

I find that I can then have a deeper relationship with the plant I am observing rather than just knowing its name and how to use it. Using all my senses is the conduit to developing the connection.

During World War II, adults and children reconnected with the land by foraging for rose hips. The nation was short of vitamin C in their diet due to the lack of imported fresh fruit such as oranges, so foraging from the hedgerows was the best option. This would have been normal practice in rural communities but there was a call to action to help the war effort and a national week of collection organized by schools, boy scouts, girl guides and women’s institutes. The hips were converted into rose hip syrup and made available in chemists’ shops, mostly to be used by young children.

In modern times on our Woodland Ways foraging courses, I encourage exploring all our senses when I introduce plants. Rolling a leaf of a plant in your fingers helps to tune the senses of touch, sound and smell. What sort of texture does it have? Is the leaf crunchy? Are the edges smooth or serrated? Are the veins in the leaf prominent? Is it rough or smooth? What does the crushed foliage smell of? These senses can all be experienced without the dominant sense of sight being used. It can be very enlightening for customers to experience plants with their eyes closed or at night to enhance the less dominant senses. Sight is obviously very important and can be reinforced when learning plants by making your own little sketches. This is an excellent way to lock in the physical details of a new plant and the act of drawing helps cement the details in your memory. All this can happen before tasting a plant if that is even appropriate. So, you can see that the flow of information, by engaging in this way is more nourishing than simply being able to know a plant and what it can do for you!

In early spring I like to get out with my children and camp out in a little copse we know. One year we were setting up our tarps between the trees and noticed the birches above us were dripping birch sap from broken branches.

Enjoying the spring awakening

This was a simple example of flow between people, plants and places. The trees were telling me that their sap was rising. This was my sign to use this knowledge to gain a drink of a wonderful spring tonic. This spring awakening made me feel connected to the land. It filled me with hope and anticipation of the land waking up after a long winter hibernation.

Tapping a birch sympathetically

It was like reaching back in time to our ancestors and feeling a link in some small way. I showed my boys how to tap a birch sympathetically and we drank birch sap from the special place we love to visit throughout the changing seasons. It made us feel bonded to the place and what it could offer.

Gaining a drink of a wonderful spring tonic

We went on to harvest nettle tips for a reviving brew. This was a very funny experience with children, as I wanted a bag of nettle tips for a recipe I was cooking and challenged my eldest son to pick with me.

Harvest nettle tips

He was frightened of being stung, despite my many demonstrations and explanations of how the stinging hairs grow in a particular direction which makes them easier to pick when you go with the hairs. He eventually plucked up the courage after ten minutes, when my foraging bag was almost full to add his first nettle top to the harvest.

Plucking up the courage to harvest stinging nettles

He learnt despite his fears, that he could do it and this has inspired much nettle gathering since. By feeling his way and trusting his senses he was able to over come his fears.

Nettle tips for a reviving brew

I often try to look at plants through the eyes of a child, as I think it is a useful skill to remind me, that this is how plants can look for the first time, and helps me to gain empathy with new customers.

The techniques discussed are just some of the ways to get flow to happen, and the connection to begin. It is important to remain open to new learning opportunities, as small changes can bring about big differences and open up new ways of engaging with flora and fauna.

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