Feasting Wild

by Gina Rae La Cerva, 2020

A few years ago, a fellow environmental anthropologist and geographer, Gina Rae La Cerva, contacted me, having discovered my work online. She was keen to read some of my academic papers and hoped I would make some introductions on her behalf with the Hunters and Trappers Association in Arviat. She was carrying out research on the subject of wild food – gathered, hunted, foraged, trapped food – and the places in the world where wild food continues to be central to nutrition and culture.

The first part of her request was easy to fulfil and I shared my published journal articles and book chapters on the culture and politics of polar bear and beluga whale hunting in the Canadian Arctic, the role of the sea in the cultural lives of Inuit, and changing gendered fishing practices. The second part of her request was more difficult as, given that I had not, at that time, been back to Arviat in almost a decade and had lost touch with much of the politics of the village, it was difficult for me to advise her or make introductions on her behalf. Still, I hooked her up with a couple of people who I thought might be able to assist her.

I heard no more about La Cerva or her project, or whether she made it to Arviat or anywhere else in the Arctic for that matter, until about six weeks ago, when her newsletter arrived in my inbox, announcing the publication of Feasting Wild, the product of, as the subtitle attests, her ‘Search for the Last Untamed Food’. I immediately ordered a copy, not because I was curious about whether my research or Arviat had made it in, but because here was a book about a subject close to my own heart, written by a fellow environmental anthropologist and geographer. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

The book arrived some days later; a beautiful book – pleasing to the touch, cover art reminiscent of a century-old cookbook, and typeset and printed on paper that is a feast to the hand and the eye. I like the physicality of books and this one, in particular, is one that I want to keep by my bedside long after I’ve finished reading it, just to savour the look and feel of it.

If La Cerva did make it to Arviat, that part of her research didn’t make it into the book. Instead, she takes the reader on a journey (a real journey, not one of those metaphorical ‘journeys’ that people always seem to be going on these days) from ‘the best restaurant in the world’ – Noma in Copenhagen, to the forests of Poland, the bush meat trade of Congo, moose hunting in Sweden and a search for edible birds’ nests in Indonesia. The foods she writes about are enmeshed in history, politics and culture; in globalization and environmental destruction; in home and nostalgia and solastalgia.

She writes with an honesty rarely found in travelogues or food books or, indeed, anthropology. This is a ‘popular’ rather than an ‘academic’ book – if such a distinction should exist – almost completely devoid of references and footnotes and theoretical ponderings. But it is a deeply philosophical book in which La Cerva writes, at times, with painful honesty about what drives her, her own white Western privilege, her impact on the people she spends time with and learns from and, most poignantly, her love affair with one of her research collaborators. This is autoethnography at its most brutally honest, reflective and poetic.

She writes about experiences that many of us have had ‘in the field’, but which we seldom, if ever, write about. She explores the questions we ask ourselves about trying to make sense of the lives of others; about the impacts – for good or ill – on the lives of our ‘subjects’ of our presence and the research we produce. And she writes about falling in love in the field. We all know male anthropologists who have returned to academia with a wife and female anthropologists who have left a love behind. Yet seldom do the emotions and the doors that such relationships open make their way into our writing. La Cerva has written honestly about her experience with style and grace and not a little self-reflection.

Despite our discipline’s earlier claims to objectivity, we are all moved by the people we meet in the course of our research – the friends we make, the families who take us into their homes and hearts, our mundane and extraordinary experiences. As a discipline, anthropology has led the way in reflection and reflexivity. La Cerva shows how it can be done in language that is poetic and graceful.

Her descriptions of the landscapes she visits and the people she meets are rich and evocative. At times, her writing has a great urgency about it, chopping from one thought to the next, as if time is running out to describe the impact these encounters are having on her. She brings us back to her barefoot childhood in New Mexico and to a world of intimacy with nature that is disappearing all too fast.

By the end of the book, I was torn between hope and optimism for the power of such evocative observation and writing, and despair for a world of connections and relationships that are fast vanishing.