If you look back far enough, all our ancient ancestors were foragers. Before domesticating animals (herding) and plants (agriculture), people hunted wild animals and ate native plants from the surrounding forests, fields, streams, and oceans.
Total subsistence on foraging has almost disappeared, though many people worldwide still regularly forage either out necessity or the simple joys of free, nutritious, seasonal food from nature’s bounty. A few of my Benedictine Sisters still enjoy foraging the wild blackberry patch every summer.
Gardening the monastery grounds with Sister Regina years ago, I learned how she prepared a remedy for spider bites from wild plantain leaves. You can find this common medicinal recipe in herbal books and on the internet. Plantain leaves, flower spikes and its seeds can also be cooked as a nutritious vegetable. At one time, all our medicines derived from wild herbs, trees, mushrooms, etc. Saint Hildegard of Bingen was (among her many talents) an herbalist who catalogued the healing properties of a great variety of plants.
Among the many books on foraging that I found in my local public library was one by Chris Bennett of Birmingham, “Southeast Foraging: 120 wild and flavorful edibles from angelica to wild plums.” At the beginning of the book, Chris offers the golden rule for ethical and sustainable foraging. Maybe you will agree with me that it’s basic life wisdom. “Never take everything.” Leave enough for the plants to regenerate, for other foragers, and for wild animals who depend on it for survival.
Greed, one of the “seven deadly sins,” is disinterested in the needs of others or the common good. Saint Benedict was determined to weed out this sin from the monastery by providing little opportunity for its seeds to take root. His monastics practiced simplicity of life with adequate sufficiency but no opportunity for hoarding. Isn’t the world a kinder place when we share with others?
The exception to the golden rule of foraging regards invasive wild plants. Invasive plants quickly take over an area, threatening the local ecosystem. Chris Bennett says that you can harvest all the garlic mustard and kudzu you wish, and then some. Saint Benedict was concerned about maintaining a respectful, peaceful “ecosystem” in the monastery. Monks who were corrosively divisive and constantly sniping and complaining could, like invasive plants, undermine the wellbeing of the community. If long attempts failed to encourage a change of heart and behavior, Saint Benedict asked that one to leave.
The last bit of foraging wisdom I’ll share has to do with distinguishing safe from poisonous wild plants. In nature, as in all of life, we can be fooled. Many wild plants have mimics that look much the same. It takes an educated, discerning eye to spot true from false. All books about foraging stress the importance of relying on someone who has mastered the knowledge. If in doubt, do not even touch it. In times past, parents and grandparents taught the younger generation these crucial foraging skills. The smallest details that distinguish edible and medicinal plants from ones that look similar but are deadly were passed down through generations. Similarly, Saint Benedict created a “school for the Lord’s service,” for passing along spiritual wisdom from one generation to the next. His Rule helps us develop discernment for truth, for what does and does not build healthy community and nourish souls.
I am grateful to our Benedictine Sisters and Oblates through the years who have been my teachers in this ever ancient, ever new path of life, and for all monastic hearts through the centuries who lived with good zeal.
By Sister Sara Aiden Burress, OSB