Foraging Vs. the New York Times

National Geographic reports that New York City officials publicly worried about overharvesting after a New York Times urban forager blogger encouraged her readers to harvest day lilies from Central Park. “If 15 people decide to go harvest day lilies to stir-fry that night, you could wipe out the entire population of day lilies around the Central Park reservoir,” parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe warned.

Benepe’s right. Especially in New York, cities don’t have enough wild space to support people foraging for their diets as an exclusive source of food. I agree with NYT blogger Ava Chin that we should still forage in those places, but it is hugely important to be mindful of our ecological impact. We aren’t the only creatures who eat weeds or who need them around.

A big part of the problem is that people think of food as an instant and inexhaustible resource because our experience of industrial agriculture has made it seem that way. Foraging shows the reality of sustainability up close and personal.

What do you think about the NYC parks’ reaction? Do you agree? And what has foraging taught you about food?

15 thoughts on “Foraging Vs. the New York Times

  1. Pingback: Giving Back #1 – Seed Bombs « Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground

  2. wow yeah you can give it all the fancy titles you would like but i think it comes down to the fact that without responsibility and controll of the self, knowledge is very distructive.
    because we know that foraging is a great way to connect people with nature i think it is okay to let people know that helpful plants spring up in the most unlikely places or go unnoticed…they have such vitality and lifeforce regardless of their situation that they are our best teachers in this time were we must figure out how to treat our mangled mistreated land with kindness and respect and regrow our own “culture” in better harmony with nature. i think once people are aware of this they must also become aware of how plants grow, their life cycles, germination rates, how we affect their growth with everything from the chlorine and other chemicals in our water and run off to the solar dimming from smog and pollution and politics(which also affects all animals circandian and seasonal rhythms and migration)
    once we understand all of this, this KNOWledge(or guessage, or observancage) it is then our responsibility to ask how we can help these plants grow, instead of recognizing how they help us, it is up to us to help them in this time….
    i agree there is plenty of space for each of us to grow food, medicine, and other useful plants, native and elastically adaptable and beneficial to our own regions…we do not need to take heavy eqquipment to the ground and destroy the soils ecology to do so, but gently and with our own hands til the soil, add nutrients and blessings, add water and seeds..i think the mariage of “guerilla gardening” and “urban foraging” would be beautiful, and then what if these two forces combine with the social and political “legitamacy” of community and school gardens and farms” ?
    any time the earth is healed, in any small way we all benefit
    perhaps even asking your foraging friends to bring a gallon of water, or some wild seeds with them to water and plant wha tthey have picked?
    i really appreciate what you are doing, and i appologize if what i am typing is sloppy but please accept my sincerity and respect when i say thank you for what you do

  3. For Central Park I’d agree, it’s barely wild at all. But I lived by Van Cortland and Innwood and Riverside and once you’re out of Manhattan there’s lots of foraging available that can and right now supports harvesting. The real problem is safety. I know of a places where’s there’s edibles (and a turkey or two) in Van Cortland but they’re also a “cruising” area which attracts muggers, places where kids go to party (and fight) and increasingly areas where religious celebrations are being held. If New Yorkers truly started foraging it would be different , but at least when I lived there so few people go more than a half a block in a park that over harvesting is unlikely.

    Plus on the outskirts of the city (where it borders Yonkers for example) the city itself is starting to re-wild. I’ve seen wild edibles growing out of the sidewalks, and coyotes wondering the streets. At least that’s how it was three years ago.

  4. Interesting post and discussion. Seems to me it bleeds into the question of whether & why (and to whom) to publicise the gathering/hunting of wild plants and animals. Do we want the whole population to know about this stuff as soon as possible, because as Urban Scout has argued 6,5bn hunter-gatherers would actually improve the ecology (if they were in it for the long term)? Or do we hold on to the knowledge secretly like the monasteries in the Dark Ages, preserving it in small tribal groupings ready to come into their own post-collapse?

    Also it occurs to me that the simple act of foraging can bring about these respectful attitudes automatically without any kind of educational intervention – the cultural materialism position that how you get your food defines how you view the world. I happened to learn from books and the internet about the common courtesy of replanting burdock seeds if harvesting the root, but can’t imagine it would’ve taken me long to arrive at this obvious conclusion on my own… The plants act as teachers themselves.

    Is it possible to control who gets access to this information? Would we want to? Most people don’t seem particularly keen to ‘go back’ to this kind of lifestyle anyway. I guess a common sense tactic would be to avoid publicising in places like the New York Times and other havens of Extractive Philosophy, and devote efforts primarily toward building local groups who are serious about exploring – and deepening – these relationships in the long term.


    PS – thanks for the link!

    • Great points, Ian. It’s clear that the act of foraging itself absolutely changes the way we relate to the land and you’re right that the more people who have that experience, the better. On the other hand, the feasibility issues that come up with scarcity present a real challenge. How do we reconcile the two?

      • On the other hand, the feasibility issues that come up with scarcity present a real challenge. How do we reconcile the two?

        Good question :) I had a look at the original NYT Day Lily post and thought it looked innocent enough, not meriting the severe legal clampdown. I guess the important thing missing was some commonsense advice about not harvesting more than, say, 20% of any particular patch and leaving alone if the area looked depleted already. (I doubt that’d get past NYT filters though, as it’s not the kind of law that a centralised body can meaningfully enforce.) Most of the commenters seem to take a pretty misanthropic view of first-time foragers, but in my experience first-timers are more likely to err on the side of caution and “OMG it might be poisonous/illegal/damaging” etc. There’s no trust in the ability of people to make smart, autonomous decisions.

        Anyway, yeah. I don’t really have an answer! Maybe the thing to do would be to nudge newbies along ‘in the right direction’ by emphasising the Care side of gathering – seedballs, guerrilla gardening, fostering regrowth of foodplants etc. to ensure that they give back more than they take. But they’d have to come to that on their own terms, recognising it like a proper social ‘etiquette’ which they choose to adopt in order to be part of the community.


  5. ok, sorry to offend.

    i guess i’m talking about a wealth powerdown, a de domestication of humans in the rich countries. foraging enables this, it enables us to think away from agricultural-capital modes – agriculture created social-stratification (and the path to ecological disembodiment) in the first place. art is middle class, it comes from cultivating the soil. as an artist i need to personally ‘fess up to this.

    i know artists do it tough, esp in cities, that’s why i moved to the country. my food stamps are now the abundance of wild food plants and edible flora that informs my transition back to the wild. cities need to depopulate as much as relocalise their resources. in that way there will be many more wild spaces available.

    also, perhaps a definition of ‘wild’ should be defined here. because of anthropogenic pollution you cld say that wilderness no longer exists anywhere on earth, human-created climate change has now altered every single environment. or, you cld say that every single autonomous plant that self seeds in a city pavement, or every time we cut loose in dance wild nature is asserting itself, and in this case wilderness is every where.

    • Thanks, you have an interesting perspective. This idea that art itself is middle class is not something I would say I’ve heard before and not something I’d accept readily…I mean look at cave painting. That’s art in a context that may or may not have had class divisions. It’s been said that hunter-gatherers generally work on making a living for 4 hours a day and then have a staggering amount of free time, out of which art emerges. There are also of course prisoner artists inside the jails. So I’m not sure I can understand how art itself could belong to any one economic class.

      I agree with your latter definition of wild. At our core, we are wild animals. It’s a complicated task to try to define what is wild and what isn’t. Intuitively I would say that we know that certain patterns of thought and behavior that arose simultaneously with or from modern technology seem to be killing and poisoning everything, either through pollution or exploitation, and making it hard for people to think of Earth in a way other than the destructive “resource –> exploit for human use until empty” pattern.

      I had deleted what I said in the initial response about myself having been homeless and on food stamps, but I’m putting it in here so that others can understand your response in context. My point is, whether rich or broke, I can experience great joy in foraging because it brings me closer to the wild as it exists internally and externally. If anything that joy at reconnection comes from the distance caused by living in modern life.

      Perhaps the idea is that if you are not eating wild out of necessity, then you aren’t thinking philosophically. But I sure do think philosophically in pretty much every context and I know I’m not alone and I also know that has nothing to do with being broke or rich. I think that reflection, like hunting and gathering, is a huge part of what it means to be human.

    • Also, this is totally a tangent, but I’m wondering about your statement of needing to “fess up” to…what terrible sin exactly? Having no choice — other than complete isolation — but to be part of a vast and complex economic system that has inequalities built into it? First of all, life has inequalities built into it. Secondly, if any individuals are responsible for creating even more inequalities, those people are in Congress or they’re CEOs. The rest of us just do the best we can in a situation in which we have relatively little political capital. I am so opposed to undeserved guilt that makes good people feel badly about themselves for things they have no business feeling responsible for — it can be such a paralyzing force. It’s also rather illogical. Poor or rich, every one is part of the economic system because there is no alternative in America right now. It is strange — as if people feel bad that they’re not suffering enough, as if the suffering absolves a person of responsibility for other people’s suffering.

      Not that you said any of that…just a tangent I went off on there based on class-related insults I’ve seen slung around.

      Nice blog, btw.

  6. I know this a controversial stance, and I appreciate everyone’s perspective here, but I encourage people to see urban foraging not as a food source but instead as a way of connecting to the few wild spaces that remain.

    There simply are not enough foragables in cities to make them a viable food source for the masses, especially as interest increases.

    The idea of taking over the wild land and dominating it and dividing it up and giving it to “the needy” strikes me as, while certainly well-intentioned, in conflict with the freedom of access and right of every person to connect with nature at his/her/etc whim. The lack of an individual connection to nature is the major problem underlying our ecological dementia in this culture. And fixing that would be more valuable than anything.

    Let the wild stay the wild. Even in the city. Let’s not rush to exploit yet another resource.

    • if we don’t connect our food supply systems with reconnecting to wild nature we will continue to create systems that generate anthropogenic culture. in other words, if we rely on transporting essential resources to cities, cities will continue to be nonsustainable suck holes of essential resources without producing anything biophysical to put back in return, and thus continue to exploit the world’s poor and far away ecologies; thus cities will continue to champion pollution culture, continue to be the trigger for ecological crisis. as the cuban permaculturalist, roberto perez, says: ‘the food has to be walking distance’. everyone has to relocalise their resources or suffer the consequences of climate change and peaking oil supplies. it’s no longer a question of getting in touch with nature in a privileged middle-class sense, its about reconnecting with natural systems for all our essential resources. this will autopoetically reacquaint us with wild systems. but this all takes a transition, which i think your blog recognises.

      • Patrick,

        I agree that we need very local food, I don’t think wild food ought to be domesticated or that the wild spaces we do have should be dominated. There’s plenty of lawn space to turn into local agriculture with organic food crops. I think we can have both local food and wild food.

        I think we can feed ourselves without trampling the Earth’s need to be respected.

  7. Very good response, Penelope.

    In particular:

    “I have been trying to get my local authority to see food crops like fruit and nuts as a natural existing resource to enrich the impoverished diets of local people by organised gathering and preserving and thoughtful municipal planting in parks gardens, estates and new developments.”

    I’ve had very similar thoughts lately. Public lands and parks should whenever possible be planted with native edible plants. Fruit and nut trees should be common, too.

    Foragers need to take caution not to over harvest. While our numbers are small this isn’t such a big of problem. But as foraging becomes more popular it will be. I try not to take more than 1/3 of what’s available in a given location, and I leave the best specimens to reproduce the next harvest.

    Increasing the volume of forage-able food can also help local food banks, with volunteers gathering, storing and donating the food to the needy.

  8. urban foraging requires consideration and care. there is a code of conduct. unfortunately there are scallys out there whose sole ambition seems to be to deprive everyone else of the fruit that grows in public areas. they damage trees and plants, and strip plentiful crops. i have been trying to get my local authority to see food crops like fruit and nuts as a natural existing resource to enrich the impoverished diets of local people by organised gathering and preserving and thoughtful municipal planting in parks gardens, estates and new developments. Foraging and preserving otherwise wasted food is a carbon neutral way of utilising local produce. good food, local, seasonal and wild but no ludicrous prices. This is not a survivalist pastime for those folk interested in eating weeds and woodlice even though they dont have to (yet!), my advice to them is ‘have a lie down’. this is about not wasting the yummy and useful stuff thats growing all around us. we should be aiming to involve locals who have an interest, to be part of the creative process of harvesting, preparing and preserving what we can gather. A kind of peer support project with preserves that can transcend cultural and social barriers, encourage independence, and bestow a sense of belonging and purpose in a positive, healthy way. it reduces isolation by establishing positive bonds with the community and the local environment.
    This is an opportunity to utilise existing local facilities at low cost, for the purpose of educating and enriching the impoverished diets of local people and to lobby for better thought out planting, harvesting and use of food in our parks and estates by demonstrating what can be done with local crops even in the deep urban jungle. i hope to encourage an awareness of the seasons in the local environment and an interest in plants so that we see them in a new way, learning and sharing meaningful practical skills and passing them along to our children and to others. Planting metaphorical seeds as it were, because it only takes a tiny thing, someone to show you a fascinating flower. Digging up potatoes when you were five. The smell of fresh thyme bringing back a childhood memory, is all it takes to grow an abiding hobby that cannot be beaten for its eco credentials, economic and health benefits and therapeutic value.

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