Freelancing, foraging and feminist anthropology

I would like to point out my error in thinking that a modified version of this article went unpublished (as I stated in a previous version of this blog post). A version of this article was, indeed, published by Green Parent magazine in October 2018.

Foraging: An immersive way to learn about nature

On the morning of the day my younger daughter, Katie, was born, I was out amongst the hedgerows with her big sister, Lily, gathering blackberries. We ate at least half of what we gathered, Lily’s seventeen-month-old face and hands stained purple with blackberry juice, and returned home with the rest in tubs. Two days later we were once again out amongst the hedgerows, blackberry juice staining the sling in which newborn Katie slept. At two days old, this was her introduction to foraging and she’s been at it ever since. By the time she was two-and-a-half, Katie could identify and gather wild carrot, fennel and mint, and recognised a handful of inedible plants.

Besides fantastic opportunities to put healthy, organic, wild and free food on the table, foraging is an active and productive immersion in the natural world. Through foraging, children come to understand ecology and local environments, to learn from and about nature, and to develop a sense of their place in, and obligations to, our planet.

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Foraging for clams in Brittany

As a nomadic family, we foraged for food in the middle of England, along the coasts of Devon, Cornwall, Ireland, Brittany and Galicia, and in southern Spain and Portugal. From trees growing in green city spaces to rural woodlands and open countryside, we have gathered almonds, apples, apricots, carobs, figs, hazelnuts, lemons, loquats, olives, oranges, plums and pomegranates. From seashores we have gathered clams, cockles and mussels, sea beet, rock samphire and wild carrot. We have gathered alexanders, asparagus, chard, fennel, lavender, mint, nettles and rosemary from woodlands, scrubland and walking trails, blackberries from hedgerows and camomile from fields. Lily and Katie have accompanied me as I’ve picked prickly pears and their dad as he’s gathered edible mushrooms.

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As humans, we are increasingly disengaged from the natural world. And the more disengaged we become, the less we appreciate the incredible world around us, or understand our place in it and our obligations to it. Providing our children with opportunities to be immersed in the world helps them to develop that sense of appreciation, understanding and obligation. Immersion helps us to become part of the world again as we learn about the seasons, ecological niches, how plants depend on each other, and the lives and behaviours of animals. When we engage with the world, when we come to know it intimately, we are in a greater position to care for it, and to recognise our obligations to it.

Among the most ancient of ways to engage with the natural world is through foraging for food. Our ancestors have been doing it since before we were human. Until the late 1960s paleo-anthropologists believed that language, tool use and group organisation – those cultural characteristics that make us human – were developed and honed through hunting. The earliest tools, it was believed, were those used to hunt, kill and process wild animals; the earliest forms of communication were in the organisation of hunting parties. But in the late 1960s, female anthropologists began to study the previously ignored lives of women in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. And what they discovered radically altered our understanding of the development of human culture.

Rather than hunted meat being the mainstay of most hunter-gatherer diets, it is foraged foods – vegetables, tubers, fruit, nuts, eggs, honey, shellfish, grubs and insects – that are the staple and daily elements of the diet. From these observations of contemporary hunter-gatherers, a new theory of the development of human culture emerged. Rather than hunting tools being the first forms of material culture, it was foraging tools – bags for carrying foraged food, and slings and straps for carrying infants. (However, unlike stone tools, these leave almost no trace in the fossil or archaeological record.) Indeed, the organisation required to communally care for infants and young children while women foraged was most likely what necessitated the development of language and complex culture. Forget man the hunter. Human culture blossomed around woman the gatherer.

Our ancient ancestors were intimately acquainted with the world around them. They had to be. Subsisting on foraged food required a deep knowledge of edible and inedible plants, of where, when and how wild foods grew, of how their growth was influenced by the plants and animals sharing that ecosystem, of weather and seasons, and of how foraging practices protected or destroyed plants for future use.

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While we no longer rely on foraged food to survive, the practice of foraging draws us into the world around us. My family has discovered that the more time we spend in search of wild foods, the more intimately acquainted and attuned we become with the natural world. Not only do my children remember the location of the best patches of asparagus from previous years, for example, but they have learned, through experience, the environmental conditions best suited to this plant and, thus, where and when to look for it in new places. They have grown to know the seasonal changes that plants undergo and the other plants that share and are vital to the health of that habitat.

When we forage, our senses are caressed, challenged and enriched by the landscape. We walk up and down hills, through bright sunshine and dank shade, through woods and across fields, our hearts and breaths racing with exertion, feet slipping on damp rocks as we leap across streams or sinking into muddy tidal flats. Stopping to enjoy the sound of buzzing bees, our children learn from which plants bees forage at different times of year. They learn that other animals like the same foods as we do – wasps and birds on plums and pomegranates, the snuffling marks of a wild boar that got to the delicious asparagus tips before we did, the hollowed circles of grass made by a badger amongst the blackberry brambles, or our horse friend who makes short work of carob seed pods. And they can observe how wasps, ants, bees, birds and other small animals are linked to the life of each plant.

Such observations connect children to the natural world, allowing them to indirectly observe that the wild foods they collect are part of complex ecosystems. Further, they come to understand that they themselves are part of that ecosystem, just like the badger, the ant and the honey bee. They also learn that, to a far greater extent than any of these other animals, humans have the power to nurture or to destroy the environment. We teach our children, by example, to not take more than we need and to take only a little from each individual plant or area. Our children observe for themselves the destruction caused by wanton use and thoughtless disposal of plastics, metals and other industrial products, or by the needless felling of trees.

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Lily in long sleeves and long trousers for the thorny work of asparagus hunting

Foraging is a deeply rewarding activity. We spend quality time with our children, engaged in activity together towards a common goal. The wild foods we bring home are transformed into delicious meals for immediate consumption or preserved or dried for use at some later date. When we return home after a few hours of walking, talking and foraging, we are often tired and grass or mud-stained, but our spirits soar from all we have seen and done, our bodies and minds enriched and enlivened from our immersion in the landscape. And with that immersion comes a stronger sense of care, compassion and empathy for the natural world and its many and varied inhabitants.

Productive procrastination and the tug of memory

The editing assignment I’m working on at the moment is one of the most interesting, and biggest, I’ve had in the three years I’ve worked as an academic editor. Each new editing assignment, written by academics in China, Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere, is a new and fascinating learning experience for me. But the one I’m currently working on is particularly enjoyable because it is closest to my own research interests and the suggestions I have made to the authors come from my own specific background as an environmental anthropologist, rather than from my usually broader background as a social scientist at the interstices of culture and nature. This week’s assignment is about intangible cultural heritage, about the conservation and transmission of knowledge, skill and memory.

However, despite my enjoyment of this current assignment, I find myself procrastinating. Having done the washing up after lunch today I knew I should return to my office and sit down for an afternoon of editing. Instead, I decided on the spur of the moment to make a coffee cake. I’ve never made a coffee cake before, but I have a hand-written recipe in the little recipe book I’ve been adding to and baking from for years.

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My ‘not as good as Cissie’s’ coffee cake

I’ve been craving coffee cake for weeks, probably since the end of March and what would have been my father’s 78th birthday. You see, for me, coffee cake is intimately and indelibly tied up with memories of my father and my aunt Cissie, Daddy’s oldest sister. Coffee cake does not exist in my memory and my imagination independent of those two very important people in my life.

Until I was five years old, I was the only child in a small house in rural Ireland that was home to my mother and father, my paternal grandmother, and my paternal aunt, Cissie. My uncle Tom was there most days too and each weekend, my cousins Sean, Declan and Colette and my aunt Lillie were there too. I grew up in a house filled with love and jokes and an obsession with Gaelic football. I never once questioned my place in that wonderful setting. I was grounded and protected and loved. When I was five years old, my baby sister was added to the mix, and when I was six, my beloved aunt Cissie died of breast cancer.

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Cissie and me on the lawn in Ballygibbon, summer 1974.

Cissie was 18 or 19 years older than my father, who was the baby in a family of eight children that spanned a 22-year range. They all grew up in that house, as had my grandfather before them, who had died on my father’s first birthday. Cissie was the third oldest in the family, and the oldest girl. In what would be the final years of her life (although none of us could ever have imagined that someone so full of life could die so young), and her most important years from my young perspective, she worked as a housekeeper for a country doctor. Dr. Hill was herself an amazing woman, family doctor to all of us and a woman who had gone to medical school in Ireland in what must have been the 1930s. She and her husband, Ger, who was confined to a wheelchair, lived in a big bright orange farmhouse up a long avenue, a couple of miles from my house. Cissie worked in the kitchen, cooked the meals, baked, helped with Ger and slept in the house a couple of nights a week. I have very strong memories of sleeping in Cissie’s bed in her room at Dr. Hill’s house once and feeling simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the vastness of the house.

Back home in our little two-bedroom, five-person house, I shared a bed with Cissie and we, in turn, shared a room with my grandmother. When I go home to Ballygibbon now I can’t imagine how or where we fit two large old beds, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers in that room. But, somehow, we did (maybe the confined space prepared me for life on a boat).

Cissie’s baking was legendary. She baked all the time and everything was delicious. Cakes, tarts, desserts, she made them all. My father, despite hating coffee, loved his big sister’s coffee cake. And, despite being in his mid-30s in the mid-1970s, when I was a little girl, he was still Cissie’s adored baby brother, Cinn-bán Paddy, blond-headed Paddy, and she indulged and cultivated his sweet tooth at every opportunity.

It would be incorrect to say Daddy loved coffee cake. He loved Cissie’s coffee cake. After she died, in 1979, at a time when I was too young to appreciate the grief of those around me, he rarely ate coffee cake again. On those rare occasions when he conceded to try a slice of coffee cake, his response was always the same, ‘It’s not as good as Cissie’s’. Coffee cake never being as good as Cissie’s became, and still is, a running family joke.

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With my parents and sister at Dublin Zoo on the day of my First Communion, May 1980, less than a year after Cissie’s death.

My father died fourteen and a half years ago. Although my grief is triggered in often odd and unexpected ways, twice a year, on the anniversaries of his birth (March) and his death (September) I am usually guaranteed to feel his absence particularly acutely. This year I was less sad than usual, but was overcome by an almost madness-inducing craving not only to eat coffee cake, but to bake coffee cake. For weeks the stars have failed to align – not enough eggs in the house one day, not enough of the right type of flour the next, the gas bottle too close to empty to chance baking in the oven. But the craving to make and eat coffee cake never went away.

This morning, I took a mid-morning break from editing, as I had promised Katie I would play padel with her. Padel is a game that’s very similar to tennis, but played on a court that’s some way similar to both a squash and a real tennis court. Katie seems to be a natural at most sports and as we hit the ball back and forth across the padel net, I told her (not for the first time) how much Grandad Pat would have adored her and about all the sports they could have played together. Talking like that set me off and I had to take a little break from padel while my eight-year old daughter comforted me.

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Katie approved!

So, with my head full of ideas of intangible cultural heritage, of memory and skill and the transmission of knowledge, and with my heart full of my long-lost loved ones, my procrastination was inevitable, as I took my recipe book from its shelf. So, I’ve made a coffee cake for the first time for my blond-haired girls, and the cycle of intangible culture, love and belonging goes on.

Would Daddy like the coffee cake I’ve made? Although he would never say so, for fear of hurting my feelings, I’m sure inside he’d be thinking, ‘It’s not as good as Cissie’s’. And I would have to agree!

 

P.S. Apologies to my mother, sister and any other family members who I have made cry by bringing back these happy memories. We’re a sappy bunch.