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Foraging with God

Bruce Stanley

Our hunter-gathering ancestors are often mistakenly assumed to have had lives that were 'nasty, brutish and short'. In fact, explains Bruce Stanley, they have a lot to teach us both ecologically and spiritually.


My first foraging expedition was about five years ago. It was autumn, a good time for mushrooming. It had also rained recently, which encourages fruiting, and we were in an ideal patch of mixed woodland, Leigh Woods in Bristol. But after five or six hours we returned with a sorry looking haul: a punnet half-filled with a handful of puffballs and six or seven puny amethyst deceivers. No ceps. No oyster mushrooms. No chicken of the woods. It wasn't that we weren't finding plenty - in fact we saw hundreds. But my brand new mushroom field guide put dangerous looky-likies (as my wife Sara calls them) next to the edible ones and we weren't yet confident enough in our identification to risk it.

I discovered something other than mushrooms on that first trip, however. I came back with a deep sense of wellbeing. Foraging is a flow activity: it's deeply absorbing and engages all of your senses. You're tuned into nature and brought to the present moment. And if you're someone with spiritual antenna there are fruit to find: delight in God's provision, the beauty of creation and lessons in patience and faith. All of me is used in foraging, as if it was what I was made for.

Since then, we've switched our foraging from the overwhelming variety of  mushrooms and toadstools to the relatively manageable plant world of leaves, flowers, roots, nuts and fruit. There are still some spectacularly deadly plants nestling among the edibles (avoid umbellifers unless you know what you're doing) but they are easier to identify and as for the choicest safe ones - blackberries or sloes for example - we never think twice. I've yet to catch a fish or bag a rabbit or even scrape some road-kill off the tarmac as some of my peers have done. But we can be relied on to provide a decent salad and a lovely cuppa for 11 months of the year and we've taken many groups out foraging for the same. It's deeply satisfying being able to read the landscape and spot edible plants just about everywhere we go, including city centres.

Up until a few thousand years ago, after millions of years of evolution, humans were foragers. Farming started in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago and over the next five or six thousand years the majority of the human population of the world became food producers rather than food gatherers.

In the Middle East emmer wheat and barley was the staple. In the Sahara it was sorghum. And there was rice in China, maize in Panama, beans and squash in Mesoamerica, potatoes and quinoa in Peru. In the archaeological records drawn from middens, the bones of domestic sheep and goats gradually replace those of gazelles.  

This is known as the agricultural revolution - sometimes called the dawn of civilisation and pretty much universally seen as a great step of progress. We need to question those last two claims.1

The popular take on the food gatherers, quoting Hobbes, is that their lives amounted to, 'no arts; no letters; no society; … continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'2 In fact most measures of an advanced society - communal art, music, dance, artesian crafts, and shelter making, for example - predate the agricultural revolution. But it is the final claim, that food production is a vast improvement over food gathering, that is the most interesting to unpack.

The main claim is that food production, through agriculture and pastoralism, was more efficient and less labour intensive so provided a surplus that freed people to do other things. This is vastly inaccurate. Skilled food gatherers took three hours to provide for a week, whereas food producers took two to three days - and more if they were renting their land.4  

What about health and hunger, surely the producers had it better? The fossil record actually shows a dramatic drop not just in the age of death but also in height; the first food producers were four inches shorter and died seven years younger. They also suffered from various degenerative diseases and teeth problems.

What about the land that's required: isn't food production a more efficient use of the land? Actually farming uses two to three times as much.

The food producers had it tough. Their diet decreased from a diverse range of nutritious food sources to a handful. Agriculture meant settling in one place, which introduced disease through polluted water and new diseases from domesticated animals. Soon after any area was converted to agriculture the fertility of the soil would diminish creating a demand for expansion. Farming families needed to be large to provide a work force and grain-based diets (porridge) meant babies could be weaned quicker, allowing the next to come along faster, thereby expanding the population. Grain processing meant early arthritis and skeletal deformity for those at the stone grinding quern, and poor flour contained sand and other particles that wore down teeth. And some argue that agriculture necessitated the police state to protect harvests, and expanding empires to find new fertile soils.

The food gatherers didn't experience famine in any degree to the same severity as the food producers. A good forager never goes hungry, there is always something to find and the feedback from the system, if you're over harvesting, is very quick. Within a season or two you know you're taking too much of something and it isn't too late to alter you behaviour. Whereas terrible famine is still a part of the agricultural system where feedback is slower. There were seven famines in the 15th century across Europe that reduced the population by ten to 30 per cent; 13 in the 16th, 11 in the 17th, 16 in the 18th.

The question isn't whether food production is better, it is why did humans ever make the change?

Food gatherers, then and now, knew about food producing techniques and seemed to have adopted them casually from time to time and reverted back to hunting and gathering. Raising domestic sheep and goats was rejected in favour of hunting, perhaps because one is a lot more exciting than the other - and the men had plenty of free time. (As women provided the bulk of calories, one wonders what use men actually were).

It is likely that dramatic climate and temperature rise at the end of the last ice-age was the cause of the change. Temperatures warmed so much that geologists actually gave the era since 9000 BC its own name, the Holocene. Hunter gatherers in parts of the world less affected by the change - Australia for example - maintained their food gathering culture.

The story is different around the world but perhaps sea level rise drove humans inland to the plains of the Middle East's fertile crescent where the first grains were cultivated and if there is one thing that agriculture is hungry for, it is new land. If a farming area expands by ten to 20 miles in a generation, gently or aggressively, subsuming or pushing food gatherers out of the way, then it doesn't take very long to take over a continent.

It is about here that our hungry bellies affect our view of God.
Just to recap: if you were a food gatherer you would have been relatively healthy, you would have worked three hours a week to harvest the food you needed and you would have eaten from a broad range of foodstuffs. You were unlikely to ever experience famine. You travelled around a fairly small area of the world but your tribe would have been more culturally diverse. You were in touch with and intimately connected with the natural world. However, if you were an early food producer you would have worked for two to three days or more for your food. You would have been susceptible to an expanding range of new diseases. You would have been part of a big family and if you were a woman you would have had more children. You would have spent a lot of your time in menial, repetitive activities and crucially your entire harvest was vulnerable to pests, drought and disease. You needed to know how to tame and dominate nature rather than work with it.


In either case, how would you see God? How much would your lifestyle and your relationship with food affect what attributes you gave to God?

Not only did God's character change from the friend in Eden, but his/her/their location changed too. Instead of inhabiting the forests, special objects and sacred places of the food gatherers, God took off and disappeared upwards. Up beyond the clouds (so crucial to the food producers) up to the solar cycles and heavenly calendars (for seasonal timing) of the pastoralists (and some agrarians), and the people became the chosen, special people. For other agrarians God sank down into the soil and became the Earth Mother. For agrarians and pastoralists, who began to have a harder time filling their bellies, God became important in a different way, some seasons they were blessed, some seasons they faced hunger and even famine and God was behind it all. Perhaps they were being punished for wrong doing? Perhaps God needed appeasing.

Settling also affected sacred places. For the food gatherers, God would have walked with them in the forest and along the shoreline. Certain places may have been used for ceremonies or as portals to communicate with God, but as agriculture increased, one can imagine a change in these 'thin' places: from a natural forest grove to a managed clearing, and then the incorporation of solar time-telling into henges made first of wood and later stone. Humans begin to make thin places rather than simply visit them. There is a concentration of these across a line in the south of England, taking in Wiltshire where the primeval forest would have been sparse because of thin soils allowing for easier inland travel before the trees were cleared by the first food producers.5 For the most part, food gatherers would have lived nearer the coast where the biodiversity was more bountiful and travel was easier. Edges are important places; foraging nowadays, there is much more to find at the join of different ecosystems, shoreline, forest or urban edge. Are the towering stone trees and canopy seen in church and cathedral spaces actually a reference to the early groves?6

For the foragers, God was in nature. The same nature they were participants of and intimately in harmony with. The boundaries must have been very blurred. For the pastoralists, think of those nomadic herding peoples of the Old Testament: God became a sky God, who controlled the weather and guided the flocks. Farming communities had the fertile Earth Mother, or gods of the elements. For both these food producers, God wasn't in nature any more and neither were they. Nature became something they hoped God would control.

The difference between having dominion over nature and being participants with nature is one that is of vital importance today.7 Many environmental policy makers have long since tired of behavioural change campaigns that do little to shift underlying beliefs. Some even go so far as to suggest a spiritual change is necessary.

At our roots, deep in our core, we are still in touch with our food gathering past. The food gathering behaviours of savannah, forest and coast linger somewhere. Before the forest garden of Eden, deep in our ancient DNA, we dwelt in prairie and savannah - open grassland interrupted by the occasional shrub or tree - which we seem to recreate with any patch of land we have control over. As we gaze over our front and back gardens are we returning to our ecological womb and soothing our ancestral memory? Let's not forget that, if left to its own devices, the land of this and other temperate countries would most naturally become woodland - lovely, maintenance-free woodland, full of birds, insects and forageable goodies. Instead out come the lawn mowers, fertilisers, pesticides and hose-pipes and bang goes the weekend. Bill Mollison, the Australian co-founder of permaculture calls this grass green cancer.8

In fact the modern age is unique in enabling us artificially to live as both gatherers and producers. For the first time in history we're able to satisfy our genetic preference to behave as food gatherers while living with the unrealistic convenience of a food producing society. Very few of us are in touch with food production these days. Instead we behave as those original three hour week foragers and visit the virtual food forest every now and again and fill our baskets with whatever takes our fancy, out of season, hermetically sealed, cheap and easy. We're distanced and protected from the demands and ramifications of a food production system and all the slack is taken up by oil.

Oil fertilises our crops and the feed for the animals, runs the machines and enables the distributions. A gallon of petrol can do in an hour what it would take a horse two days to do - or one person a week or more.9,10 It is truly remarkable. When the agricultural system went pear-shaped in the 1970s, oil came to the rescue and just when we might have thought that the population of the earth was climbing too fast it shot up like a rocket.

There are a number of possible outcomes when the oil runs out. Firstly someone might discover a techno-fix: a super engineered nano-bot to sequester carbon, that will solve the problems. Or there might be an eco-fix, an amazing bioengineered algae or high yielding plant. Or the third option, society might collapse. You're never far from someone who's either nervous of this option or eagerly preparing for it - I once stumbled across an online forum discussion on a US board arguing the merits of guns over clubs for defence against the marauding hordes because with a gun, you had a club there as well when you ran out of bullets. If you're of this persuasion you'd better learn foraging and seed saving - and there are people in our foraging groups who are convinced this is happening. Who knows, they might be right. I'm not so pessimistic. I forage because it's delightful to do and allows me to return to that participatory relationship with nature.

Another option to consider, post peak oil, might be a planned, considered, gradual change to a wholly sustainable, local system that not only answers the food question but also addresses related issues such as fuel, energy, travel and so on - something the transition towns movement is pioneering.11

Permaculture is a related discipline providing practical solutions. It is a serious attempt to come up with a sustainable, and better still, regenerative and permanent agriculture. One solution is forest gardening. It is the strategy of mimicking what nature is doing by selectively planting and tending a young woodland - it is, after-all what the land is trying to do.

We caught the bug when living in Bristol. We did a Permaculture Design Course and settled in mid-Wales with a not-yet-converted barn and 17 acres with mountain views (for less than a three-bed semi back in Bristol). We're creating a forest garden on three acres of our holding. At the high canopy level are trees selected for edible fruits, nuts and leaves including things like Sichuan pepper, June berries and figs and plants like alder that aren't edible but provide nutrients, like nitrogen, to the other plants. From the canopy down through the shrubs, herbs, ground cover, roots and climbers - every layer of the system is providing multiple uses and has its needs met from within the system. A closed loop with a harvest far in excess of what the same area would provide through a monoculture.

In our forest garden we're specialising on plants that can make tea ingredients, most of which are native wild plants like nettle, rosebay willow herb, birch, elder, yarrow, fennel and scented mayweed. Sara's background as a new product developer in the food industry means we transform what we find into delicious samples for our business Fine Pluck (wild and herbal teas for the locavore)12.

Forest gardens are possible at different horticultural scales from a suburban garden to a many acre holding. We've visited a mature forest garden at the agroforestry research trust in Dartington and it is like the grownup's version of Willy Wonka's edible landscape. And they're a good option for the lazy gardener. Mature and well designed forest gardens need very little maintenance but can provide perennial versions of many vegetables from onions, kale and salad ingredients to tubers, beans and nuts. Where annual veg are susceptible to pests and diseases, perennial veg grow with the resilience of weeds.

And now that we've gained some experience and confidence, we've also revisited mushroom foraging. Five minutes from our home we've found ceps, one of the choicest of mushrooms, the size of dinner plates - enough to fill baskets. And my personal favourite, cauliflower or brain fungus - not much to look at but the most amazing flavour.

My focus now is to work with people, through nature awareness, foraging, natural navigation and just being in the wild, to get back to that place of participating with nature.13 It is a better foundation for more earth friendly lifestyles. Participating in nature - sometimes called the second book of God - delights us with awe, tells us something about ourselves and God but also changes us and hopefully our behaviours so that living lightly might come more naturally to us.

For more information on foraging, forest gardening and permaculture, see here.

1  Tudge, C, So Shall We Reap (Penguin, 2004).
2  Hobbes, T, Leviathan (Oxford World Classics, 2008).
3  Hemenway, T, lecture at Duke University: 'How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Planet', 2010.
4  Bulliet, RW, et al, The Earth and Its Peoples (Wadsworth, 2011).
5  Vince, I, The Lie of the Land (Pan, 2011).
6  Walsham, A, The Reformation of the Landscape (OUP, 2011).
7  Kockelkoren, P, 'Ethical aspects of plant biotechnology' from Agriculture and Spirituality (Wageningen Agricultural University, 1995).
8  Mollison, B: 'The Permaculture Concept' (YouTube).
9  Laughton, R, Surviving and Thriving on the Land (Green Books, 2008).
10  Whitefield, P, The Earth Care Manual (Permanent Publication, 2004).
11  Hopkins, R, The Transition Handbook (Green Books, 2008).