Get to Know Your Neighbors
Kirsten Wise, September 19, 2015
Sean Cornell has been fascinated with foraging for wild plants since he was a kid, spending his school breaks to solely eat in the forest. In the spring of 2015 he took up that challenge by himself again, except this time was longer (ten days), he had a full-time job, and a family to take care of. Here is what he had to say about his experience:
Did you have a formal education on wild plants?
I started this stuff when I was probably in about fifth or sixth grade. I was just really interested in being able to live, get my needs off the landscape. There were a few things that got me started. My uncle showed me wild leaks when I was a kid and I was like, “So there’s just food out here?”
I thought hunting was really cool— I tried it and I realized that animals are really difficult to catch. They don’t want to be caught! So I thought, “Let’s look at plants again.”
Over the years, I have read books over the years that I’ve been really interested in. I went to ESF (State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry) and got a degree in conservation biology with a focus on vascular plants of New York.
Why did you do this challenge?
Up to that point I would mostly be using plants from books. But I didn’t feel that I had the knowledge. Then I did the experience and I was like “Wow! This really works! You can actually feed yourself.” From that point I felt like I had captured it. There is that quote, “do the thing and you’ll have the power”*. It’s real if you do it.
What were your past experiences with foraging?
I’m constantly eating wild plants all the time. The last time I did a week was probably senior year of high school in 1999. Or maybe even a little later than that.
In the past it had usually been April that I would do experiences like this and I was pretty much free of obligations. Also, I had a hunting and trapping component so I had more animal food. There were more root vegetables (carrots, burdock) because those things are more location sensitive. You have to know where a good patch of those are, you have to spend more time digging, but then it’s a good pay off time in the end – which I didn’t factor into this [recent challenge] because I didn’t have time to.
How was this experience different?
I was working 40 hour a week job at the same time. So it wasn’t like I was a teenager or in my young 20s where I was like, “I’m going to quit my job and live off plants for a while.” I have a wife, a kid, and a job. How am I going to do this? How I am going to get the calories to maintain this stuff?
When was your 10-day experiment?
It was the end of April [through the] beginning of May. It’s a great time of year for greens especially— all the greens are still coming up and are still nice and tender.
How did you choose the plants you ate?
It was very much a “what is available today?” kind of thing. My schedule changes week to week, so wherever I was for that day I had to find resources for that day. There were a few resources I knew that I had to try and hit while it’s useable.
So I didn’t specifically say, “This is the nutritional content of this, or if I eat a cup of this a day…” It wasn’t like that. I have a general sense from eating plants in the past to know what’s going to be solid enough to work with and what’s just not worth my time.
How did you go about your day foraging?
One of the things I’ve found was that I to be eating almost constantly. I was always stuffing dandelions in my mouth. Which was cool because I think humans are natural snackers and we always want to be snacking, so if the food is low in calories and high fiber it’s perfectly acceptable.
While I was doing that I was thinking what’s my next big pot of boiled greens—a stomach-filling kind of thing. I would have to get a good bowl of something steamed or boiled two to three times a day.
What plants did you choose? Any surprises?
In addition to dandelions I ate cooked and raw dandelion roots and plantains.
Clover was a surprise. I had cooked and eaten clover in smaller quantities. This time I was getting a colander full and it was very fulfilling and one of the tastier things I’ve had.
One that really was a staple and surprised the heck out of me— because up to this point I thought of it as an additive to other things— was garlic mustard. At that time of year it is really shooting up and it’s got all this growth energy going into it— bright green and fleshy, sort of succulent. They have the same presence of broccoli. It grew so quickly that two days later I could harvest from the same page. Even as if flowered I could even harvest that. I saw how quickly it started to change over the period of ten days. One of the things that really hammered home for me was the seasonal nature of doing this. You might have a food source that’s amazing, but might only be amazing for a week or 4 to 5 days even.
Another stable was silver maple. I was really concerned about animal protein. I was looking to get some eggs, but I couldn’t find anything. My luck was running out and I was feeling like I was losing blood sugar. So I gave up on animals foods. As I was walking through the same areas looking for food without seeing anything, I saw these silver maples hanging down. They were covered with the samaras, the seeds. So I collected the seeds and stuffed a whole backpack of them. I shelled them home and ended up with little bean-shaped things. I cooked those up and they were the best thing I had eaten the whole time.
How was your health?
I had a pretty mild headache for the first day or two. I hadn’t tried to adjust my body to fewer calories beforehand so there was definitely a reduction of calories. After two days the headache was gone. I never felt like “Oh no I’m falling apart.” I used to skip breakfast and feel that way.
By the end of the challenge I felt very light. I was very calm. I approached with things with the attitude, “Well, I’m not going to blow things out of proportion because I didn’t have calories to waste.” It was more like I was walking through the day instead of sprinting from one thing to thing.
How did you handle the social aspect?
It was not easy to cook for my family and not eat it. It wasn’t easy for my family because we couldn’t have dinners together like we did. I had to go to a barbeque and not eat.
You had to go to a barbeque?
There was a BBQ on the fourth day. I had worked a full day and the barbeque was in the afternoon. I was in the office, too, so that was a light day. I was foraging at the BBQ. I was eating redbud flowers from their tree.
Did you tell people about your challenge?
I was the only one in the challenge. I didn’t tell people so much when I started doing it. I didn’t want to be like “Hey, I’m doing this thing” and have it not work out or being like “Hey I’m doing this thing” and the reason I’m doing it is so everyone knows I’m doing it.
But I did share it a lot with the kids that I was working with through the period I was doing it. They helped me gather, cook, and sampled everything. It helped me plan activities for my programs and at the same time let me be more efficient in my gathering. If I wasn’t doing this particular job I would not be able to do this.
What’s your next challenge?
I would really like to do a week out of each season. I think it would be really instructional. Even in the winter week I would have to live off of stored food. It would give a more accurate idea of going through the seasons.
Would you try this experiment in another region?
That would be a really good challenge for sure. This is one of the best places in the country for foraging. I’ve lived in Texas and visited other places and one thing I’ve noticed is that plant strategies are very much the same from one place to another. The rhythms are very similar— a lot of that knowledge carries from place to place.
Do you have any advice for someone who is doing a similar challenge?
I’d say go for it and at least have good experience with the plants you’re using so you know you’re not allergic or have other reactions. You have to know how to knock out some of the minerals and medicinal qualities but retain the calories.
Why do you work in the outdoors?
For one thing, I just really enjoy it. It makes me feel really connected to something I think that a lot of people don’t have in their lives. I want to know how we lived before, and not in some nostalgic way by copying or going back. I want to know what it’s like to be a human being and feel those things. I like to go out and try to find the answers.
So get to know your neighbors. You live next to all these beings and it’s rude not to get to know them. Who are we to walk around and not feel like we should know who we are walking next to?