Tim and I have joked that, if I were any nonhuman animal in this area, I’d probably be a bear. I’m grumpy and ravenous on waking, I love fish and naps in the warm sun, and I could spend hours foraging in a blackberry patch. In fact, I’ve long entertained the possibility that, on some warm autumn afternoon, I might come upon a black bear foraging in the same berry patch. We might start at opposite edges of the patch and eventually meet in the middle.
It hasn’t happened so far, but last summer I came the closest yet. I was foraging black raspberries for a get-together with friends, and I noticed that the patch I was working in, just over the rise of a small hill from our house, was rather disturbed. Someone or something had blundered through it rather gracelessly, leaving canes broken or pressed to the ground. I knew I hadn’t done the damage, since I step gingerly over the canes. Still, our land isn’t posted against hunters or hikers, so I figured perhaps some neighbors had been by, also picking the ripe berries.
I left the patch, heading further away from the house toward the woods, where there is a clearing with some wild red raspberry canes. As I was crossing the stream at the edge of the woods, I noticed an impression of four toes in the mud on the other side. I leaned over for a closer look, noting that I had to spread my fingers to mirror the width of the print. A black bear had been here.
I can’t really describe the thrill I felt upon seeing these tracks. I had always wanted to see a black bear in person, and this was the closest I’ve gotten so far. The previous fall, I’d seen black bear scat, full of chokecherries, but somehow seeing evidence of a bear foraging for the exact same berries I was foraging was about a hundred times more exciting. I was struck by the miraculousness of nature, which feeds us and black bears and a million other creatures with exactly what we need to survive.
Once upon a time, humans, like bears, ate only what we found or hunted in the wild. There were no farms, no fields, no fences or feed lots, only what the earth provided. Humans lived like that for millions of years, until, for reasons that are unclear, but which probably had to do with the way climate changed at the end of the last ice age, foraging couldn’t feed us anymore. To keep our population growing, humans all over the world adopted various farming methods, some of which worked better than others. And in most of the world, farming was able to support the burgeoning human race. But it also created an artificial separation between human beings and the rest of the animal world. To protect our livestock, we had to put up fences. We had to separate the world into good animals—goats, chickens, cattle, sheep—and bad animals—wolves, foxes, coyotes, and bears, which preyed on the animals we needed. The labor involved in making sure we had enough to eat skyrocketed, so that we started spending much more of our time in hard work like plowing and threshing, and much less time in leisure pursuits. There was less time to enjoy nature, to meander through it picking berries, and eventually, as we clear cut and plowed and grazed and built, there was less of nature to enjoy.
But Genesis remembers: “Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it.” What’s striking here is that God doesn’t make the vegetation; earth does. “The earth brought forth vegetation” all by herself (and, yes, the earth is feminine in Hebrew). It’s a partnership between God and earth, creation and evolution.
Notice, too, how the author of Genesis 1 emphasizes seeds: “plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind that bear fruit with the seed in it.” Not only is the earth active in bringing forth plants; the plants need to be self-sustaining, as well. Creation is clearly an ongoing process, and it is how God plans to feed everyone: “God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” In this vision of original creation, all animals are vegetarian, and all share the same food. This is the peaceable kingdom, where wolves do not prey on lambs and foxes don’t kill chickens and humans don’t eat meat of any kind. It is the original communion, all creatures sharing the same food, given to them by the Creator.
In my book, this makes foraging, gathering wild foods, a holy practice, because it illustrates the communion of nature. I’d like to suggest that communion is an ecological way of understanding food. To be responsible foragers means knowing how plants and fungi and animals and other creatures are related and interrelated: first, we need to know how to identify the plants and fungi that are good to eat from the ones that aren’t. And that means learning about God’s creation and the earth’s bounty, which is always a good thing. Then we’ve got to know where to look for a particular food. Morels grow well under ash trees; chanterelles like hemlocks. Blackberries grow in depleted soil, as do sumac and milkweed. Wild ramps like shaded hillsides, and parsnips like sunny roadsides. A place for everything, and everything in it place. Whatever we are foraging, there is the sustainability principle: only take what you need, never take all of a particular food. Those nuts and fruits and mushrooms are there for a reason: to seed the next generation. The balance of ecology requires respect. It requires us to know nature’s limitations. Milkweed florets are great in stir-fries, but if you take every milkweed blossom, there won’t be any delicious milkweed pods a few weeks later, and there also won’t be any seeds to make sure the milkweed comes up again next summer.
We’ve also got to take into account the fact that, if we strip the trees of all the beaked hazelnuts in the area, we’re making it much harder for our black bear neighbors to make a living. And that means we’re essentially disinviting them from the communion table. And that is not only morally wrong, both because it means we’re giving our greed free rein and denying the goodness of the created world, but it also diminishes our joy. Eugenia Bone, an amateur mycologist and mushroom collector, says, “hunting mushrooms seems like a solo sport, but it is not. It is deeply participatory, just not with other people. Instead, the hunter experiences the company of trees and mushrooms and birds. It’s a communion with the woods and the grand mosaic of nature.” And, I would add, with God. Finding wild foods is possibly the very best way to be moved to spontaneous praise of God. Coming across a wild apple tree or a patch of blackberries in the middle of a long, hot autumn hike is the closest we modern agrarians get to the unmediated experience of God’s bounty sustaining our lives, and the lives of countless others. As miraculous as agriculture is, and as thankful for it as I am, it can still make us feel like we’re in control of feeding ourselves. Foraging, on the other hand, is food straight from God’s hands to our mouths. It is the closest we can get to that depiction in Genesis of the peaceable kingdom, in which all creatures partake of the miracle of creation.
Of course, not all of us have the luxury to spend hours traipsing through the woods or state parks in search of wild berries or mushrooms, but we can, in small ways, help extend the communion table to more creatures in our communion. Simply planting some sunflowers will bring more birds to our gardens. Tim and I have an elderberry outside our house, which the bees and butterflies love in the summer, and the cedar waxwings love in the fall. Planting native flowers, berries, and nuts is one small way we can both help to remediate the damage we humans have done to our ecosystems, and increase the circle of communion in our gardens and neighborhoods.
I end with some words from Dostoyevsky that I’ve taken as a spiritual exercise prompt:
“Love all Creation.
The whole of it and every grain of sand.
Love every leaf,
Every ray of God’s light.
Love the animals.
Love the plants.
If you love everything,
You will perceive
The divine mystery in things.
And once you have perceived it,
You will begin to comprehend it ceaselessly,
More and more every day.
And you will at last come to love the whole world,
With an abiding universal love.”