Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Recommendation: Dandelion Hunter

I was barely a few chapters into Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness when I put it down and looked online for author Rebecca Lerner's email address so I could write her and say "I think you're my long lost sister!" This is a girl right after my own heart... although I doubt I would have lasted as long on her initial "eat only foraged foods" challenge.

The book starts as Lerner accepts a challenge to eat only what she could forage for an entire week. In Portland, OR. She lasts longer than most of us would have, barely eating anything while expending a LOT of energy to look for food. By the end, she's even considering eating slugs. I'm glad for her sake she didn't eat them.

This adventure propels her into explaining many of the lessons that those of us who get our food at the grocery store (or even farmers' market) don't realize about foraging. It's seasonal, and you need to plan ahead and gather what you can in times of abundance to store it for times of scarcity.

With her newfound knowledge and the help of many friends, she plans ahead, stores up food, and tries again to eat only foraged food for a week. The second time is a success.

By using her own experiences to construct a narrative, she teaches readers valuable lessons about foraging foods. And, while the book probably won't lead you to eat an all-foraged diet, it will help you view the places around you in a different light. Pollution is more than just a bummer for wildlife when it's poisoning otherwise perfectly edible food. And green, manicured, weedless lawns begin to look like the wastelands that they are, whereas the yard teeming with dandelions becomes a valuable resource.

The book also captures the spirit of Portland - so well, in fact, that I suspect that readers who have never been to Portland will be very confused at Rebecca and the friends she describe in the book, all of whom play their parts in "keeping Portland weird." (For Portlanders, on the other hand, it will probably be refreshing to finally have a book about people you can relate to!)

Lerner also wades into the topic of herbal medicine, something hard to ignore in any discussion of foraging, since so many wild plants are also potent medicines. As she's in Oregon, a major topic is Oregon grape. This also leads into a discussion on the legality and ethics of harvesting wild foods. It's often illegal to gather wild plants, so what does the forager do? Laws are supposedly intended to protect the plants, but Lerner makes the case foragers are interested in maintaining the health of the plants they gather so that they can come back and gather more in the future.

This book is not the be-all and end-all guidebook to foraging. It won't tell you every single plant and how to identify and use it. But it is an incredibly enjoyable introduction to foraging from a very human perspective, and you will learn plenty about some of the most valuable and widely available edible and medicinal plants found in our cities. And honestly, for a beginner, that's probably more valuable than a book that lists everything under the sun anyway.

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