A conversation with Mia Andler and Kevin Feinstein

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Heyday is thrilled to carry The Bay Area Forager: Your Guide to Edible Wild Plants of the San Francisco Bay AreaOriginally a self-published book, Bay Area Forager is the result of a collaboration between two wild foods experts, Mia Andler and Kevin Feinstein, who were frustrated by the lack of Bay Area- and even Western States-focused foraging titles. I recently spoke with Kevin and Mia about the process of writing a book together, sustainability ethics, and mending the mental disconnect of people and nature.

MC: I’m curious to know what it was like to coauthor a book with someone. Which parts of The Bay Area Forager are yours, and which parts are Kevin’s, and which parts are the synthesis of your two minds?

KF: It was great to cowrite the book. The collaboration kept each other in check, on task, and I think the book benefits from the combination of our knowledge and experience.

MA: It was wonderful to coauthor a book. Kevin and I complement each other well, I think, and I can’t say that any part belongs to just him or me. It really is all a collaboration. The way that we did it was over Google Docs.

Wow! No way.

MA: Yeah! We would write plant chapters and then the other would edit. And as far as all the other parts that are not about a particular plant, we completely coauthored them. We’d start writing something and then the other person could move it or edit it in any way they wanted to.

It really worked well. Kevin and I had worked together for several years before we coauthored the book. We knew each other’s working style pretty well. Plus, we were really excited to get to write together.

How did you two decide to write a book together in the first place?

MA: We were working with an organization called Trackers Earth, directing and designing their programs. In our conversations about programs after we were done with whatever we needed to talk about we would start talking about, “Well, what’s growing in your garden right now?” Or, “What are you finding outdoors or have you seen this plant, it’s so weird! Or have you tried this one?” We would always be talking about plants. It was easy to say, “Hey, why don’t we write all of our conversations and all of our plant knowledge down?”

KF: We both were asked often about a good local book for foraging, and we couldn’t really recommend any. So we decided that we’d write one.

Can you talk a little more about how you made the decision to include your personal knowledge of, and experience with, these plants as opposed to a more clinical presentation of the plants?

KF: There are lots of guides out there that provide “clinical” information. I knew from experience how difficult those books were for me when I first started learning, and I’m an insane nerd when it comes to these things.

MA: A lot of the books that are out there are written from such a detached perspective that they no longer even really pertain to our local area exactly. Especially here on the West Coast at that time—’cause now there are a couple new books out that are great—but back then there wasn’t a single book that we could recommend.

I guess what I’m coming to is that I find that with the traditional guidebook format because it’s not necessarily someone who’s local and interacting with those plants in that area writing it, there are actually a lot of mistakes, or a summation that’s not tangible and easy to translate into action. So it was particularly clear to us that if we were to write a guide it should be about what we know, and by “know” I mean things we have done and can touch and feel. That kind of knowledge. Not just hypothetical book knowledge.

KF: We wanted the book to useful to the person wanting to learn about local wild plants, written for them, not for academia. We had both been successful at teaching this in our classes, and really wanted the book to be like going on a wild food walk with us.

At the heart of Forager is the idea of harvesting with a sound ethic. Does that mean ecological sustainability, or does it also include values such as respect, awareness, and more?

KF: All of those things and more. I got into foraging to make the world a better place.

MA: I think all of that is tied together. An example from the book is a part about asking for permission. That is something that I learned from my teachers who learned it from their Native teachers: always ask for permission before you pick. And at first glance you’d think, well, that’s kind of a spiritual value or a cultural value. But when I practice it, it is a practical thing as well because when you stop and you ask for permission you make sure of a couple of things. You make sure that you’ve correctly identified the plant, but you also take a moment and you think, is it a good idea to harvest this plant? Not just according to some knowledge of how many of these plants there are in the world, but particularly for that spot. The answer can vary. Even the most invasive plant could be the only plant in a certain area and if you harvest it, it’s gone. So it’s not simple sustainability ethic. I think all of that, at least for me personally, links through awareness and even spirituality and cultural values.

It seems that a huge component of foraging is reading the environment for its overall health. I would love to jump into your brain when you’re outside, whether you’re looking for fern fiddleheads or just taking a hike, to see what you see when you’re walking in nature.

MA: At my best I would hope to be noticing—you know, I kind of think of things in nature, or even in life, as a big dance. So if I’m in a really good space I may walk into that in a way that I don’t create kind of this whole other dance that’s based on whatever’s going on in my mind but am able to observe how the codancers, the birds and the plants and everything, are participating with me. That’s one way to see it.

On the other hand, sometimes I do enjoy just looking at a landscape and thinking about it. Thinking, how’s this landscape doing? Actually, something that I enjoy doing is thinking about the landscape without some of the current things that are on it. I imagine the houses weren’t there, the cars weren’t there, not because I don’t appreciate cars and houses, but yeah, I do think about that as well.

KF: Everywhere I go, I look at the plants and read the landscape. Even while driving. Plants, fields, forests are not passing scenery for me. When I visit a new environment where I don’t know the plants, things are very different. I move slow and can get overwhelmed by the information I’m getting, and even have to shut off that part of my brain to take a break.

That brings up the idea of nature being fundamentally different from us, as pristine, diametrically opposed to humans. Now, the thinking has shifted: maybe that line of thinking isn’t actually so healthy for either the environment or for people. How do poisonous plants fit into your sustainable ecology? How about a sustainable human ecology?

KF: I once had a person in my class ask when showing a poison hemlock patch in the wild, why they don’t come and kill these plants. That is the disconnected-from-nature paradigm that I got into this field to transform in the first place. Why not level all the mountains and kill out the uncute creatures, right? Poison plants have their place in the web of life. Poison hemlock, for instance, is important to many bird species, and also provides habitat for beneficial insects.

MA: Poison is a little bit of an interesting thing. I mean, there are degrees of poisonous. Certainly every plant is medicinal if you know how to use it. Of course, a lot of people don’t know how to use it. I don’t even know how to use the more intense plants for medicine. But all of their natures are helpful to us if we know how to work with them.

There are certain plants, like poison oak for example—that’s not poisonous, but I figure you’re probably talking about hazardous, not just poisonous. Poison oak particularly has a really good role to play with humans. I think it reminds us of areas that may be more vulnerable that we may not want to step into. And it also reminds us that we need to take care of certain areas, ’cause it usually pops up in certain places that are somehow damaged.

Damaged?

MA: In the more hippie-dippy cultures up north here some places people call it protector oak because if a piece of land has been scarred by development or cattle grazing, poison oak is one of the plants that can still grow there even when other plants can no longer. And so for me it’s almost a little reminder, that this area is hurt. Let’s put this Band-Aid on that protects it and makes sure that humans don’t easily come here and do more of that. I have found, and heard from other permaculturists, that if you start tending that piece of land and kind of make an agreement with the poison oak that you’re going to be tending the land now, the poison oak doesn’t need to be there anymore if you bring the land back up to a good, healthy place. So there are all sorts of relationships. I don’t even know that I would categorize plants as just poisonous. I would say they’re all plants with certain different types of medicine. Even the so-called poisonous ones in the right context are the right medicine.

But, in a modern, more straightforward context, the real gift of the poisonous plants is even for people who may not be that aware of their landscape, if they want to forage they have to be aware that there are poisonous plants. And so it’s kind of a little reminder saying, hey! You can’t pick whatever! You’ve got to remember that some things are really bad for you.

I’m making a note right now that I would love to have a panel somewhere, sometime, in defense of poison oak. I would invite you and maybe Secrets of the Oak Woodlands author Kate Marianchild.

MA: I have a permaculture teacher, Penny Livingston, who has a great experience with poison oak where she actually spoke to the plant and really connected with it and ever since that moment she hasn’t gotten poison oak—she’s immune to it. There are lots of stories like that! Poison oak has such cool stories of people becoming allergic suddenly or people not being allergic. I’ve seen somebody eat a whole sprig of poison oak.

What?!

MA: He just popped it in his mouth! His whole house was covered in poison oak so he had to work with it. Then he just built a relationship with it and now he’s immune to it. He can eat it. It’s a really interesting plant. Very interesting.

How can city dwellers in the Bay Area, especially those who don’t have access to a car, incorporate foraging and these principles into their lives?

KF: There are many places in the Bay Area where you can walk to open space. But the way I recommend incorporating foraging into their lives is to start a garden, even if it’s a container garden on a patio. I recommend growing very productive things like nettles or chickweed to start.

MA: For foraging, lots of people forage in Golden Gate Park. I can’t recommend a lot of city foraging because I would be worried about toxins. I think that the toxins we’re absorbing through our food are a bigger deal than we sometimes like to think, probably because it’s kind of a lot to think about when you get into it. Kevin and I are very much into eating pretty consciously, I think because we know that plants can draw in a lot of toxins. But Golden Gate Park is still a good place to get to know plants. There are plenty of places in the city to connect.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to any foraging novice?

MA: Just one, huh?

I mean, top two, top three…

MA: Remember that there are poisonous plants out there. You need to be able to recognize something 110% before you eat it. That’s probably the number-one piece of advice.

KF: I recommend taking a class from a local expert such as Mia or me, and as I said before, start a garden. Grow some wild plants yourself at home. Beyond that I would start out with only a few easy to identify plants that you like or are drawn to.

MA: Don’t be afraid to go eat a plant. Go for it! As long as you know it’s edible—you’ve asked somebody, or you can definitely identify it, go for it! I find that there is actually a bit of a phobia, but gladly that’s been changing because there have been a lot of pro-gardening and pro-foraging things going on. I’d say even ten years ago, if you said, “Oh yeah, you can just eat that plant!” they’d be like, “Ew! I don’t want to eat that plant right off there! That’s probably dirty. I’m going to go to the store and buy my plants.” So, I’d say don’t let these things scare you. Go for it—but be sure you know what it is.

It hints at a very, very big topic which is how our food system runs right now in general. And I do think it is something where if we can restore some of those relationships and understand more about what it takes to grow food and how we get our food, that will heal some of the difficult things that have happened with it.

Any last words for Heyday blog readers?

MA: One thing that is a hot topic for both Kevin and me is the reason I’m not teaching a lot of walks—is that it’s very prohibitive for us to teach our walks. I’ve been called by a lot of parks and been told that I’m not allowed to teach about wild foods in the parks around here. So that’s a big topic for us. Not because [the parks think that foraging] is something bad—just because the topic isn’t in alignment with their philosophies.

I’d say that one thing that I would really want everybody in this area to do is get involved in their local landscape. Like, go to your local park and volunteer some time or garden or do something that’s hands-on with your local landscape. I think that would be my one thing to encourage all Heyday readers and authors—get out there and do something hands-on! Not just biking through it—which is awesome, I mean I love biking too. But something that really engages what you’re seeing, which gardening does, or trail restoration, or things like that that are activities that you can participate with nature in. Which foraging is, too!

KF: Happy Foraging!