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Foraging & Feasting

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The urge to forage continues to spread. Prepare yourself and protect your hipster friends with this field guide and wild food cookbook.

Perhaps you consider foraging a deplorable hipster pastime. Perhaps you thought—based on principle alone—that you would never read a book dedicated “In gratitude to the plants!” It matters little, since each day the truth becomes clearer: No one will escape the weed-eating frenzy that has gripped our nation.

“I will never give in to the plant scavengers,” you vow. Alas, it is inevitable. One day you will be invited to a friend’s house for dinner. You will accept the invitation wholeheartedly, envisioning his delectable bread pudding. But when you arrive he will tell you that he’s gone gluten free. Instead of bread pudding, he will present to you a hand-woven basket, which you’ll carry though town and trail, plucking various flowers, berries, and leaves.

When that day comes, you must be ready. Though your friend will assure you that he researched wild edibles on a suspicious device called the internet, it is possible that he could mistake poison hemlock for wild carrot, or pokeweed for elderberry. Or (worse?), he might be an overzealous harvester—a scourge on the very plants he professes to love.

Foraging & Feasting coverPrepare him—and save yourself from uncertain demise—with Foraging & Feasting, an illustrated guide to common wild edibles. Organized alphabetically by common name, the authors have also included Latin names for concrete identification and further research. Further, they clearly list such necessary facts as the best times to harvest, and whether there are poisonous look-alikes of which you should be wary. Beneath the drawings, culinary uses of the plant are listed, as well as information about preferred habitat, typical size, and methods of reproduction.

The second half of the book contains brief, useful descriptions of common weeds’ medicinal uses and recipes for that dinner your friend promised. No bread pudding, regrettably, but the herbal truffles and meadow custard should suffice. Stay away from this section yourself, lest you find yourself smitten, swept up in the fad you so despise. If you cannot resist in spite of your dismal knowledge of the kitchen arts, do your loved ones the favor of starting with the basic cookery section—it covers such fundamentals as simmering whole grains and concocting soup stock from scratch. After that, beware, you’ll be well on your way to becoming as lost as the rest of them.

Living the Eco-Design Dream

Earth Odyssey Crew
Creating zero-waste systems is more than a job.

A little inspiration from someone who decided she didn’t want to play the nine to five game and stuck with that decision.

We first encountered Shayna Gladstone through her essay, “From College to Reality: A Radical Transition,” in which she explains her reasons for deciding against the cubical life. Naysayers might’ve called her musings idealistic, but Gladstone has proven herself by helping to organize Project Nuevo Mundo. The online network connects people who want to build living, ecological design systems with organizations who want those systems installed. 

Now, Project Nuevo Mundo is deep into its Earth Odyssey, as seen in the video above, building homes with natural materials, turning human “waste” into fertilizer with composting toilets, and regenerating soil with mycelium (mushroom roots).

Also by Shayna Gladstone: “How to Get Ready for the Global Eco-Village Movement.”


Five fun ways to prepare for climate change

Sixth Great Extinction got ya down? Worried about the future of humans on our planet? You’re not alone, and even though heartbreaking climate news is everywhere these days, there is a silver lining to it all. A miniscule but shimmering sliver of silver. Wait for it … Knowing the bad news can help us prepare for what’s coming. I did say it was a sliver.

While there is no way of knowing the full scope of changes we’ll face, educated guesses include drought, flooding, food insecurity, severe weather, unpredictable seasons, and ecosystem collapse. Our best line of defense for a volatile future such as this is resilience, the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Here are five (decidedly anti-prepper) ways to prep.

Cultivate Diversity

A purple carrot is not just interesting and beautiful. As John Navazio—breeder of the Dragon Carrot—knows, genetic diversity is the best bet for life to adapt and evolve through challenging times.

Strengthen Your Real-Life Community

The original social networks really acted as nets. Neighbors lent tools to one another, helped each other raise barns, and held one another in times of loss and grief. If your Dragon Carrots don’t grow, your neighbors might have some advice to share (and maybe even a few carrots). When you build your cob house, it’ll be a lot easier with extra hands. Sure, the times have changed, but real-life communities are as important as ever.

Learn a Skill to Trade or Share

Many of us work in professions with little value outside the mainstream economy. If we want to thrive outside of that economy, we’ll need a variety of skill sets between us. Luckily, a lot of these things are fun to learn and we’re naturally interested in them: basic first aid, beekeeping, brewing beer, composting-toilet installation, growing food, knitting, making herbal medicines, massage, midwifery …

Practice Sharing

Share your skill. Host a seed fair. Start a community orchard. Turns out sharing is a great way to strengthen your real-life community. How convenient.

Join the Resistance

There are so many cool ways to help slow the economic momentum that’s causing climate change, from 350.org’s international climate movement to local battles against fracking, mining, clear-cutting, and general destruction in the name of profit. As psychologist Mary Pipher knows, action is a healing tonic—for ourselves and the earth.

Photo by Kevin Dooley, altered from original under the Creative Commons license.

Enough Is Enough

From population to the stuff we use, when is enough enough?

When is enough enough? Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us, has an idea. In his new book, Countdown, Weisman travels the world gauging the individual decisions and social attitudes that influence global population. He analyzes ever-shifting cultural views about the number of children to have and notes, as well, that when it comes to humans’ effect on the planet, high rates of consumption are as damaging as sheer numbers.

I think a lot of us get this. Still, it takes some audacity to bring the almost-taboo topic of population control to the sustainability conversation. Weisman does because, when it comes to slowing individual consumption, he’s just as stumped as the rest of us.

So he focuses on numbers. What’s an ideal number of humans on our planet? One he submits for consideration is 2 billion. Yes, less than a third (and as population grows, closer to a quarter) of the current number.

It sounds far-fetched, but Weisman also offers a map for getting there. The gist is to educate women (because educated women typically choose to have fewer children) and make birth control widely available—free, if possible. Of course, there are cultural hurdles as well, like religious dictates commanding couples to go forth and prosper. But the formula does seem to work where it has been tried, and with time, variants of it would likely reveal themselves. Weisman doesn’t mention it, but another effective form of birth control, the Fertility Awareness Method, requires only a basal thermometer, recording device (paper and pencil will do), and a bit of effort in calculating fertility from day to day.

As for the culture of consumption, there are efforts to break it. Americans have gone beyond carpooling and driving hybrids to assemble a massive movement to slow carbon emissions and stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. People are converting lawns to vegetable gardens, while edible food forests and community gardens pop up across the country. The movement to share both skills and resources is strong, and growing. We’ve turned down the heat, insulated the attic, and are coming together to keep fracking to a minimum. Others have turned their attention toward amending the constitution, doing whatever it takes to stop money from acting as free speech, because corporate control of our government ensures that environmental destruction, wealth inequality, and war won’t stop.

People are showing a strong desire for change, and Weisman’s suggestions seem simple compared to many of the efforts we’ve undertaken. Putting it all together, we might stand a chance of returning to balance on the planet, because enough is enough.

Original photo by Vivek Jena, altered under the Creative Commons license.

A Wild Tonic for the Spirit

We need the tonic of the wild. -Thoreau

adjective \ˈwī(-ə)ld\
living in nature without human control or care : not tame

Like the disappearing wilderness itself, we’ve managed to hollow out the meaning of wild, the word. I offer as evidence: Wild Cherry Pepsi.

As a kid I drank this fruit-flavored cola whenever it was on offer, as long as my mother wasn’t there to stop me. It was my top choice partly because it was strictly off-limits (caffeine, sugar), and partly because it was “wild.” I had a vague notion that the word signified some extreme essence within the can (caffeine, sugar). And while my mom was never around to see me drink it, she was right in guessing it would bring out an extreme essence within her child.

One thing’s for sure: I did not understand that it was the cherries that were supposed to be wild. Who did? Perhaps I had never heard of a wild cherry outside the flavor offerings of soda and cough drops. It hardly matters, since there was not a molecule of actual cherry in any of it, wild or otherwise. And that’s the point. We’ve emptied this word of meaning. We’ve domesticated it.

Still, wild is one of my favorite expressions—no longer because it denotes some forbidden fruit (well, maybe a little bit), but out of reverence for the untamed spirit I suspect is buried in all of us. Herbalists have long said that a wild plant makes more potent medicine than a domesticated one. The explanation for its powerful essence is that in the wild, where no human waters or weeds away competitors, plants need a stronger life force and will to survive.

“We need the tonic of the wild,” writes Thoreau. Tonics invigorate, they refresh and tone body and mind. Wilderness—where life force is strong, where not a day is taken for granted—is a tonic for the spirit as well. Now, as the human species sets out to pave, farm, and extract every last resource; as rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide rise; as the economy falters, the rich getting richer while the rest struggle to survive, I wonder: Do we even really know what living is? Now more than ever, we need to learn from that which can’t be tamed, the life force that refuses to give up.

Original photo by epSos.de, altered under the Creative Commons license.

The Life of a Patterned Skull

 Myranda Escamilla Collaged Skull Myranda Escamilla doesn't know exactly why she collages animal skulls, but her work dwells on life, death, and our culture’s disconnect from the wild. 

A little over a year ago, Myranda Escamilla walked into an antique shop in Port Isabel, Texas, a beach town near her home in Brownsville. Inside, she happened upon two deer skulls that have altered her work as an artist—and likely her life as well.

“My intrigue with skulls came from seeing my father collect them when I was a child,” she explained in an email. “He tried his hardest to keep most activities outdoors. Although admittedly I could never appreciate our adventures at the time, I now miss the fragrant smells of nature—the beach mist, dry and wet sand, young trees, their sap and the feel of flower petals running through my fingers. 

Myranda Escamilla Collaged Deer Skull

The stillness and calm it brings is overwhelming in the best way. Life is dull when it is spent mostly inside, encased and enclosed. The erratic nature of wildlife as opposed to our way of living—as humans, with our emails and texts, faxes, game boys, and laptops—is mysterious, beautiful, boundless, and colorful.”

Escamilla accepted the skulls “as they were—blank and natural,” but was intrigued by the thought of changing them. “How could I alter an already interesting and beautiful specimen to make it more beautiful? I was challenged and that was enough to prompt me to take my wallet out. And so they went home with me.”

She embellished the first skull with small cuts in a napkin, the second she painted to look distressed, “as if it was being reborn or taking on a new soul.” Over time, her collages have become increasingly intricate.

When asked where the impulse to collage animal skulls comes from, at first she can’t explain. “It just happens and perhaps it is my subconscious, but if that is the case I cannot help but ask—what is it saying, what does it mean? Those questions drive me nuts. I do not think about it often and I try not to ... too knotty.”

But when I admit that they first struck me as a reminder of the way humans have sought—and in many instances found—ways to control the natural world, that I find her skulls both beautiful and ominous, she has more to say.

“I suppose the skulls can be something of a reminder of what has been lost and what should be held near our hearts. Many times, I have obtained skulls that were either going to be thrown away or left outside to wither. In adding ‘a human touch’ I am ultimately giving it a piece of myself, honoring its forgotten existence, if you will.

Myranda Escamilla Painted Skull 

“Perhaps they seem ominous and haunting because they are in fact, no longer living. We tend to associate skulls with death, the macabre, fear and the unknown. Death strikes immense curiosity in me, I cannot fathom it—how we live and live and live and then ... all is gone. What should you make of your life if it is bound to cease at any moment?

“Working with skulls helps me to become more comfortable with the inevitable final stage of life, to accept it. The juxtaposition presented by the skulls is so striking because you are instantly caught between life and death.” 


Score One for the Food Justice Activists

 Barclays Protest 

After news reports and books raised awareness about the link between commodities trading and starvation, food justice advocates took action and big bank Barclays responded.  

This morning I opened my email to a note from journalist Fred Kaufman that read, “Yes, a book can make a difference!” Attached was a report that Barclays, a large UK bank, had announced that they would stop trading in food derivatives markets.

This was good news. Fred and I had spoken last fall about his new book, Bet the Farm, which exposed the connection between agricultural derivatives markets and price spikes on staples like wheat—with impacts around the world ranging from starvation to riots. In the interview, I picked his brain on topics from deregulation in commodities markets to what everyday people can do to stop unethical trading schemes. I wrote about it all in “Spinning Wheat into Gold,” but one big takeaway was that rallies and political action are going to be the most successful way to get banks to change and to get tougher governmental regulations back. Looks like he was right.

After activist campaigns in the UK raised awareness about the human cost of speculation on food, Barclays chief Antony Jenkins announced today that the bank would stop doing it, writes Miriam Ross for the World Development Movement.

Until now, Barclays has been the UK’s biggest bank to buy and sell on the food derivatives market. While the bank’s agreement to end such trading is a victory, one campaigner with the World Development Movement emphasized that it is not enough for banks to opt out of agricultural commodities markets. There must be increased regulation so that they don’t start again.

Here in the states—where wheat speculation was born and the commodities index was invented—we have yet to see a strong movement emerge to end such trading.

Image: Street theatre at a Barclays protest rally, photo by World Development Group. 

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