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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Friday 23 October 2015

Foraging vs. gardening, and our place in nature

A discussion on a facebook foraging group the other day has prompted me to write about something that I've been thinking about for some time, now. The discussion started with,

Not to open a can of worms as it were, but I thought this site was to help promote the sustainable collecting of wild produce, as well as edible plant identification. By sustainable I mean taking enough for us humans to enjoy as a treat but leaving enough for wildlife to eat as an essential to survive winter. Some of the posts though show such large quantities being collected which will quite possibly impact on wildlife survival, including birds, squirrels, mice, voles etc. Do we humans always have to be greedy at the expense of other creatures?
and towards the end included suggestions about heating up the can of worms on a bonfire, but being sure to leave some worms in the can for the blackbirds, and whether it's best for a blackbird to learn to use a can opener, or simply train a human to do it as and when required.

Chestnuts. Should I leave these for the woodland animals?

While I'm all for respecting and supporting wildlife, I have several problems with this position (the original post, not teaching blackbirds to use can openers). Firstly, while this point of view is common amongst foragers, it's very rare amongst gardeners. It may just be that there are two groups of people with very different standards, but I suspect that the concept of ownership has a lot to do with it. In my garden, where I have toiled and nurtured, the plants are mine and I'm entitled to harvest all of them, with no regard to what the wildlife might want. Indeed, gardeners go to great lengths to protect their crops from being eaten by other animals, and it's very rare to hear any disapproval of this behaviour.

Squash. How about these? Should I have left these too?

It's not just the inconsistency that bothers me; this highlights what the alternative to foraging is. Gardening is akin to farming: Deliberate cultivation of crops on land designated as being for that purpose. One viewpoint expressed in the facebook debate was that we don't need to forage if we can afford to buy our food from shops, implying that this is the default, neutral position.

Let's think about that, shall we? Food bought from shops is farmed, almost universally. There's a spectrum of farming practices, but they all involve identifying pieces of land as farmland and making efforts to keep wildlife from eating the crops on that land. People may debate the methods used, but does anyone say to a farmer, You must leave those caterpillars alone, they have as much right to the cabbages as you do!? Actually, it's possible that some people might say this, but I think you'll agree that this is an extreme point of view. It's generally accepted that farming involves keeping as much of the crop as possible for humans, not caterpillars.

If the default, neutral position involves, at the very least, displacing wildlife, what then of foraging? Taking wild food certainly deprives other animals of it, but otherwise doesn't disturb them much, unlike farming. Foraging, then, surely has a lower impact on wildlife than farming.

The next question has to be whether foraged food supplements or replaces farmed food. In other words, do we eat just the same amount of farmed food when we forage, or do we eat less? The answer to this is not straightforward. One possibility is all the food that is necessary for survival and good nutrition comes from farmed or home-grown sources. In this scenario, any foraged food is additional to this, treats and luxuries that we simply wouldn't have if we didn't forage.

Another possibility is that when we forage, we reduce the amount of food we eat from other sources. Even if the type of food we forage ends up as luxuries, for example sloe gin, we would have bought some equivalent luxury, perhaps another liqueur, if we didn't have the foraged food. This second possibility also covers cases where foraged food replaces more essential food items, such as foraged nettles or fat hen substituting for spinach or spring greens.

If the first possibility was mainly the true situation, then foraging really would be an additional impact on wildlife. There would be a simple choice between taking wild food and not taking it. However, I think the second possibility is much more likely to be true. We do not add to our diet with foraged food, we replace some of the farmed food with wild.

The person who started the recent debate, who is far from alone in this view, considers wild food to be treats for humans, but essential for wild animals. Even for those whose foraged food is only sloe gin or blackberry and apple crumble, which are certainly treats, I think this misses the point if - as I suspect is usually the case - these treats are substitutes for alternative treats. Even with treats, foraging is an alternative to farming, not additional to it.

What really bugs me about this point of view, though, was expressed by another member of the facebook discussion. It reflects a view of human beings as separate from the natural world. The bounties nature world are not for us, they are for wild animals. We have other sources of food, other than what we might forage.

This treats the farms where our food is grown as being apart from nature; as having no impact on it. Of course, people who express this view are not thinking about the farms, but that's part of the problem. When you think about it, farmland obviously has a huge impact on wildlife. Everything we do interacts with nature, because we are part of nature. Just like all the other wild animals, we have to eat, and that food has to grow somewhere.

From the point of view of being one animal amongst many, and needing to feed myself as much as any other animal does, I feel that I have as much right to nature's bounty as the next animal, especially when the next animal happens to be a slug.

One mushroom - a cep, I believe - that I didn't get to first.

Thursday 8 October 2015

Thoughts on gardening

Today marks the fifth anniversary of us buying our house here. I was going to write a post about what I've learnt over the last five years, but failed to get my thoughts in any kind of order, so here's a more focused post on gardening, that I started a little while ago.

I have gradually come to the conclusion that I'm not much of a gardener. Or, to put it in a more positive light, I'm more of a forager than a gardener. My foraging challenge was a huge success, overshooting the target of 52 wild foods by some margin, whereas my gardening challenge fizzled out after a few weeks (I just mistyped that as a a few weeds. I was tempted to leave it.) If we go back to the beginning, it was elderflower champagne that inspired me to try this lifestyle. The tree may have been growing in my garden, but those were foraged flowers, not cultivated. The part of gardening that I really like is harvesting.

Elder trees also produce berries, if you don't pick all of the flowers

I've tried to embrace the idea that I should garden for the sake of the activity, not the end result, but without much success. If I'm honest, I only really enjoy gardening when I see results. Digging over a patch of ground is very satisfying because it completely transforms it (the workout is good, too). Planting out seedlings can be good, if the bed looks tidy and full of promise at the end of the job. Weeding too, to some extent, but only if the bed was very untidy to start with, and really, that's just housework outdoors, and housework is not my forte. Ultimately, though, it's all about the harvest. Try as I might, I can't see the point of sowing carrots if I don't get to eat carrots. I did sow carrots this year, but saw no sign of them. I can only assume that the slugs got them all as soon as they appeared. I find this very demoralizing.

After writing the previous paragraph, I went back and re-read Eco Cat Lady's The Mythical Land of Done (part of an earlier conversation on the subject of my garden anxiety), which puts the Do things for their own sake argument very clearly. She uses the example of doing the dishes, which is a task you can never get done because there are always more, so it's futile to think in terms of getting the job out of the way. I think I get it. The other day I chose to do a bit of gardening before going out, and reflected that I'd be enjoying it a lot more if I hadn't given myself a deadline for getting the task finished. Indeed, I have learned to stop hating the dishes, and accept the task as part of my day. Still, though, I don't do the dishes for the sake of doing the activity; I do them for the sake of having clean dishes, in the same way that I plant vegetables for the sake of eating vegetables.

OK, trying to make sense of this... There are very few things we do for their own sake; eating and drinking, singing and dancing, you can probably think of one or two others. Most things we do for the sake of the end result, be if we focus too much on the result, we risk rushing through trying to tick things off without appreciating that all that doing is what life is made of. Yes, the point of doing the dishes is to get clean dishes, but try to accept that the task is part of life and engage with it, rather than wishing is was done. How does this relate to gardening? Well, it leaves harvestable veg as the main point of growing veg. If I'm not getting a harvest I'm happy with, it's a waste of time trying to grow the plants, even if the activity is fairly enjoyable. At the same time, it shouldn't feel like a terrible chore going out into the garden. If I'm having to really push myself to do it, I should either change my attitude, or stop.

There's another thing: Slugs. They eat tiny seedlings with no regard for letting plants get bigger. If only they'd leave them to grow a bit, there'd be enough to share, but they won't. Four years after my first asparagus seedlings, there's just one plant left. The slugs ate all the spears as soon as they emerged and didn't give the plants a chance to build up their strength, so they all died. I had forty; I now have one. This upset me a lot. Even so, I will not use slug pellets. It's not a nice way to die and, whatever the manufacturers say, I can't believe they won't end up poisoning animals that prey on slugs, which I'd much rather encourage. Instead, I stamp on the slugs, which I hate doing. I really, really hate it. This does not make it pleasant to be out in the garden.

Looking back at blog posts from previous years, I see that gardening has caused me considerable anxiety from the start. Maybe I should just give it up.


No, I really don't like that idea at all. Why not?

Yesterday, I picked a few green beans and some peas, and that made me happy in the same way that foraging makes me happy. I really do like the harvesting part, and I'd be sorry to lose it. In that case, I need to find a more positive attitude to gardening so I can carry on doing it. Firstly, I have to deal with those slugs. I've tried copper wire, I've tried beer traps, I've tried ash and egg shells, and none of these have much impact. I can't bear stamping on them and the current approach of staring at them in resignation isn't doing any good at all. I went out to pick a couple of leeks this evening and found a dozen baby slugs on one leaf. One leaf! In the absence of better alternatives, I shall return to Plan A and relocate them. This time, though, I won't be assuming that a railway is sufficient barrier to stop them coming back. No, I'll relocate them just a little further away, into the stream. Just upstream of the waterfall. It may be less humane than stamping on them, but better than many of the alternatives. They may even survive (slugs don't drown. Putting them in a bucket of water has to be the worst way of getting rid of them. Zombie slugs!) but surely won't come back up a waterfall? Surely not?

OK, that's my plan for dealing with slugs, now how about the demoralizing lack of results? I think I can divide veg into three categories: A few, namely potatoes, peas and green beans, seem to grow reasonably well in my garden. I might not get a huge crop, but I'll almost certainly get something from them. Leeks, broccoli and parsnips can be nudged into this category with a bit of TLC (mostly slug defenses). These are the veg I should focus on, those that will almost certainly reward my efforts with some sort of a crop. There are others that I haven't yet managed to get a decent crop from: Carrots and onions fail consistently (I had some success with shallots, but the price of sets made that far too expensive as an alternative to onions) which are so cheap to buy that I don't mind too much if I can't grow them. More disappointingly, I've yet to get a decent tomato crop - I just can't give them the consistency of care that they need. Occasionally forgetting to close the greenhouse skylight on a chilly night does tomatoes no good at all. I've decided to stop trying to grow these crops, as it's just setting myself up for disappointment. Finally, there are those that are less predictable: Cabbages, courgettes, pumpkins, sweetcorn, broad beans. These might produce large amounts of delicious food, or might fail completely. If I'm going to grow these, I need to accept that it's a gamble. I'm not a gambler by nature, so this isn't easy for me, but I'll give it a go. These will be the ones to go by the wayside if I'm finding it all a bit much, and if I do get them in the ground, it'll be a bonus if I get anything from them.

This, then, is my plan for re-engaging with the garden. Focus my efforts on things that are fairly reliable, don't bother with things that never do well, try to accept the unpredictable nature of those in between, and throw slugs over the waterfall.