After attending a very interesting edible weeds talk a few months ago I was left with the question of whether the popularisation of such edibles would be detrimental or beneficial to an Australian landscape. Would the harvest of invasive plants help to control their spread, or encourage it? How would promoting the benefits of adding weeds to your diet impact Australians’ attitudes toward the prevalence of introduced species? Does the opportunity to forage for wild plants come with certain responsibilities?
Patrick Jones of Artist as Family argues that community gardening, foraging, fishing and hunting provide a healthful and wallet-friendly means of getting fed. He and his family are currently on the home leg of their journey up (and down) the East Coast of Australia in search of wild edibles. Patrick and Meg are performance artists – challenging perceptions of ‘what is art’; they also challenge us to see how healthy and happy they are riding their pushbikes all day, eating bush tucker and rabbits caught by their Jack Russell, Zero.
Artist as Family see foraged foods as supplementary to permaculture abundance, or to get through a survival situation. At home, foraging makes up between 10 and 15% of Artist as Family’s diet. While on the road it can vary between one and 80% of a day’s nourishment. Patrick says that while foraging and hunting may not be a replacement for supermarkets. It is potentially a replacement for a lot of synthetic medicines – and this is something people need to be more open to.
One key point that Patrick emphasises is that we can become more of a biological control of weeds and feral animals rather than using harmful chemicals or culling animals on a mass scale. Patrick believes that it is important to be eating tenacious and hearty plants that don’t need rich manures, cultivated soils or lots of water, as well as hardy and adaptable species such as rabbits or even cats. In contrast to an example like irrigated rice in Australia, which Patrick says is just nonsense. There is a multitude of benefits both in consuming and in emulating these adaptable, resilient and hardy species. One such benefit is a deepening of our connection with our surrounding ecosystems. “If foraging and hunting only makes up one per cent or five per cent of your diet, it’s helping you to connect with your environment and you’re becoming an ecological creature of place”. As your knowledge expands, you become much more accountable. Foraging and hunting of feral weed species is just common sense, reiterates Artist as Family.
Artist as Family stress that there are some species, which are sensitive or threatened, that should be known as a food source by locals but only used in a survival situation. Patrick says we need to establish a foraging and hunting ethic and be accountable creatures of place that are mindful and conscious of local environments, and our roles within them.
While it is clearly important to show restraint when foraging for native species with limited numbers, how do you approach the consumption of feral species, with the ‘leave some for later’ ethic in mind? Should we really be consuming and at the same time, taking every effort to eradicate invasive species? Patrick shared his view on this. “I think that the fear of invasive species spreading is exaggerated. Invasions happen in areas that have been ripped apart or disturbed, and a small number of species get the upper hand and they go hell for leather for maybe a year, maybe five years, maybe 20 years but eventually a settling down of those species happens. We’ve seen this in our neck of the woods with blackberry, which is a massive ecological problem to certain minds. What we’ve learnt with blackberries is by beating them down to more of a ground cover, they will create moisture in the soil, they’re less of a fire hazard, they create food (for humans and non-humans) and they also build soil structure. They’ve expanded in the eroded creek beds in our area, which were damaged by gold mining settlements in the 1800s – right now blackberries have no ecological status, yet the work they do is significant in repatriating the damaged areas – and beating them down speeds this up – you’ll begin to see saplings coming up in these areas… and once this new forest becomes established, the blackberries get shaded out – because they need a fair bit of sun… Culturally these can be viewed as spaces of a kind of reconciliation, where indigenous and non-indigenous species are creating their own logic, outside of human ideology and politics”.
Meg also adds that we might need to look at just who is classifying a certain species as invasive. Who stands to gain from something being classified as a weed? And aren’t we ourselves an invasive species? Patrick says that environmental scientists and ecologists have come together to create an ideology around pre-1788 and post 1788 species. Indigenous people often don’t see it that way. They take a common sense approach and find a way to incorporate the species’ uses into their daily lives. In contrast, the white management of these species in Australia is defined by the use of a vast amount of herbicides, when we could be benefiting from the weeds’ various uses. “We are never going win the war against feral species – we say, ‘Let’s eat the weeds’”.
In Australia today, foraging and the free camping the family has been practicing brings into question notions of land access. Patrick takes us on a journey back hundreds of years to Britain where he says that it was the destruction of the commons that put in motion Australia’s colonisation.
Put simply, peasant farmers originally had common access to the King’s land to make a life on. When the commons disintegrated and many moved to the city and seek their fortunes, some wound up being shipped to Australia for stealing loaves of bread. These dispossessed peoples of rural Britain then became the dispossessors upon their arrival in Australia as convicts. For Artist as Family, much of the violence of the last three or four hundred years can be traced back to access to private property. “If indigenous Australians truly had access to their land and water rights and the oceans, they wouldn’t need this Western idea of economy” Patrick says that any culture that has their access to land and systems taken away, after many thousands of years, and is forced into a monetary economy is going to struggle.
Artist as Family sums the argument up well “What hunting and foraging does is reclaim the commons, it’s a subversive act, along with it being healthy and common sense.” Do we need further reasons?
You can follow Artist as Family’s journey as they head back to their home in Victoria on their blog at theartistasfamily.blogspot.com.au. All images kindly supplied by Artist as Family.