Gathering close

Taking a walk with Johanna Knox is an exercise in mindfulness. It’s slow and deliberate and one stops often to admire the greenery.

Johanna is a master forager. That is to say, she’s skilled at gathering from the wild.

She explains it better: “It’s essentially not farming, and it’s not buying. It’s gathering. It involves going out into places that are less deliberately moulded by humans and just seeing what’s there, gathering it and seeing what you can use it for.”

It might be gathering for food, for medicine, or even for use in cosmetics. But to Johanna, it’s more than that. It’s reconnecting with nature.

“It’s fundamentally a valuable thing to reconnect with the natural world. Our disconnection is what has led to everything that’s going so wrong right now. To me that seems like the root cause. Once you reconnect then the natural world, the natural world becomes your teacher.

“You observe, you listen, you keep track of what’s happening over time, you watch all the little connections and you learn. You start to understand, in a very tiny way, how systems of life are working around you in your area.”

Johanna Knox
Wellington-based forager Johanna Knox says a disconnection with the natural world is part of the issue we’re facing as a community right now, and foraging is one way we can rebuild that relationship.

In urban areas in particular, that connection has been lost. But there are places and cultures where it’s been continuous, says Johanna.

“Māori have always been both agriculturalists and gatherers. And there’s been a lot of cultural loss since colonisation but also there are places where those traditions have been maintained in an almost unbroken way. And there’s a lot of recovery of that knowledge happening too.”

Johanna learned most of what she knows about foraging through books and later online, and she eventually wrote a book herself: A Forager’s Treasury: A New Zealand guide to finding and using plants.

Despite that, she’s reluctant to call herself an expert, and likes to think she’s simply gathering information in the same way she would plants in the wild — and then sharing it.

There’s currently a wide resurgence of interest in foraging, which Johanna says is likely due to concern about climate change and the state of the environment.

“I first got interested as a kid because my dad was a really keen gardener. We had a big wild section so there was always heaps of weeds.

“It was the 70s, and there was at that time also a resurgence of interest in foraging because, within Western societies, interest in foraging seems to go hand in hand with environmental awareness.

“And that seems to go hand in hand with worrying about the state of the world. Which usually springs from some immediate disaster that makes us start thinking about that stuff.”

It was just before the 2008 global financial crisis, a time when more and more people were starting to take climate change and peak oil seriously, that Johanna started to blog about foraging. She became part of a network of women, many mothers, who started exploring, and sharing online, alternative ways of living.

“I think it sprang from this fear and desire to look after your family and also to connect with other women who were feeling the same way…

“You suddenly want to pull everyone closer and know you could make it on your own, with your family, if you had to. But it’s a simultaneous drawing in and reaching out. We were looking for more community too.”

While she admits that you can’t feed a family on wild salad greens – that’s why historically one of the reasons cultivated vegetables like kūmara and taro have been so important in Māori and Pacific cultures – you can do a hell of a lot.

Garden bounty: foraged from the weeds of one Wellington backyard.

In ten minutes in my backyard alone we find: kawakawa, which we use in tea while we talk and has myriad uses from pizza topping to a mild sedative; pūhā, good as a replacement for lettuce; nasturtium, the flowers good for salads and leaves great wraps; wood sorrel, with a lemony taste that holds in flavour in cooked foods; onionweed, chickweed, fumitory, the list goes on.

“The thing I like about foraging is that it’s this whole new pantry of ingredients that are not written about to the same degree as cultivated food. There are foraging cookbooks, but not nearly as many as others… there’s so much scope for inventing your own ideas and recipes. It’s got this palette of flavours: you’ve got onion flavour, mustard flavour, herby, sour, you’ve got your bitters as well.”

But as well as opening up your culinary world, and giving you an excuse to take a walk, it’s food that has less impact on the environment.

“You can go out and get all your greens, really easily, you don’t have to get them from the supermarket, they don’t have to be shipped from wherever, and encased in plastic.”

Johanna says you can just about forage anywhere, bush or coast, and there are really only a couple of tips to note: watch out for hemlock and other toxic or carcinogenic plants; and be mindful of whether the area has been sprayed and how close it is to a road.

“If you would be fine to plant a garden here and eat from here than you can forage from here.”

For more on foraging, get Johanna’s book A Forager’s Treasury, check out her blog Wild Picnic, or join the New Zealand Food Foraging Facebook group.

You can also join Johanna’s mailing list to get seasonal tips on foraging and hear about upcoming courses by emailing her on: johanna.knox@gmail.com

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