Becky Lerner’s foraging education kicked off with a failed, week-long challenge to eat only what she could find around her Portland home. A few days into it, hungry and exhausted, having burned more calories than she’d taken in, Lerner accepted defeat and ordered a Thai dinner. Lucky for us, this was just the beginning and not the end of her foraging career. Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness is her account a wild odyssey amidst the bustle and clamor of the city, in which she would eventually become known as “the neighborhood herbalist,” her office looking “more like an apothecary.” In a series of vignettes that follows the arc of her learning curve, she details the many plant species she would learn to find and cook, along with her growing interest in medicinals and even the divine. “Everywhere we look, we see useful plants,” she writes. “The Earth is full of medicine for the people, and it’s available free of charge.” Lerner and I recently talked about foraging, her new book, and the good qualities of Oregon grape.
FOTL: There’s an element of Portlandia that runs through the book: we meet all kinds of eccentric characters—slackers, artists, seekers, people off the beaten path. Is this the new face of foraging, or is there a place at the table for the 9-to-5 office worker from Poughkeepsie?
Becky Lerner: I think foraging is for everybody. The reason my book has such colorful characters is because that’s my world—I myself am kind of a colorful character, and like attracts like. I’ve always been drawn to unusual people, even when I was living in the very 9-to-5 world of suburban New Jersey. But it’s true there is a higher density of eccentricity here in Portland, probably because this is a city that embraces uniqueness. That’s a lot of why I moved here. I felt like I could fully be myself.
FOTL: Does it seem weird that foraging has an “alternative” vibe?
Lerner: It may be that people who are into alternative ways of relating to the world are more likely to try something adventurous and unusual, but certainly people of a broad range of ages and interests forage, from conservative country folks in the South to punks in Philly.
FOTL: Of course, foraging used to be mainstream. You write about the extensive foraging skills of native tribes in the Pacific Northwest, reminding readers that 25 percent of the pre-contact population was enslaved, and that the slaves did a lot of the heavy lifting. Do modern-day foragers tend to idealize the past?
Lerner: Foragers have a broad spectrum of beliefs, with maybe the only commonality being a respect for nature and an inclination toward adventure, so I wouldn’t want to generalize. That said, I can tell you certainly I started out romanticizing hunter-gatherers and idealizing the past, and I have encountered some of the Pacific Northwest’s radical ideologues, some of whom would identify themselves as anarcho-primitivists, who seem to do that, too. But then I started researching this book and learned that things are a lot more complicated than they might seem. Anthropologists have concluded that hunter-gatherers do tend to be healthier, happier, and less stressed than we agricultural people, and certainly it seems they have a more balanced and respectful and far less destructive relationship with nature, too. But food acquisition is only one aspect of a society. It doesn’t tell you how it treats women, distributes resources, or resolves conflicts. People are complex and wonderful and imperfect all at once, and our societies reflect that.
FOTL: You say “it’s easy to see why people evolved to be such social creatures.” I’ve had this same light bulb go on during bouts of labor-intensive foraging, yet I routinely field questions or comments from those who I would categorize in the “survivalist” camp. They’re more interested in going it alone and leaving society behind. What do you have to say to these folks?
Lerner: I notice that people tend to have different skills and talents, and that we tend to gravitate toward being in community and helping each other. I know a guy who loves making kayaks. I know someone else whose passion is sewing shoes. And I know another person who is an amazing chef. And I have met enthusiastic fisherwomen. And then there’s me, and I really like being a storyteller, teacher, and healer. And you know, together, we all make a pretty great team. Why not embrace our natural proclivities? It may be less glorifying for the ego, but it’s more fun, less stressful, and more efficient than trying to be a human Swiss army knife.
FOTL: We make preserves from Oregon grape, which my kids love on a classic PB&J, but after reading about your experiences using the root in a tincture, I’m ready to dig some up. Can you tell us a little more about the medicinal properties, the berberine in particular?
Lerner: Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, has many medicinal properties, from stimulating digestive secretions to supporting liver detoxification. It’s also a powerful herbal antibiotic that works against strep throat, staph infections, Giardia, E. Coli, pink eye, and many other common ailments, when taken internally or applied externally.
FOTL: What other medicinals do you recommend for the new initiate?
Lerner: Usnea lichen tincture works exceptionally well for respiratory ailments—I’ve seen it work wonders on people who had symptoms of pneumonia—and bearberry for urinary tract infections, which I have seen work miracles on people and dogs. Other medicinals to consider would be elder and yarrow flower for cold and flu and fever.
FOTL: What’s next for you, in terms of both foraging and writing?
Lerner: Thanks for this question. I really enjoy teaching and speaking, and I’d like to travel around the country to do that. And I definitely see myself writing more books, but I don’t yet have a subject in mind. As of the past year I’ve been on a Reiki journey and exploring more deeply the world of plant spirits, so it could go in that direction. Whatever it is will need to be an adventure! And an unusual one at that.
Lerner will be at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on May 8, 7 pm, to read from Dandelion Hunter and sign copies. To find out more about Lerner and book events near you, check out her blog, First Ways.