From Forager To Citizen Scientist
As soon as there is stopping, there is happiness. There is peace. When we stop like that, it looks as if nothing is happening, but in fact everything is happening. You are deeply established in the present moment, and you touch your cosmic body. You touch eternity. There is no more restlessness, no more seeking. —Thich Nhat Hanh
Once you become a weed-forager it is hard to keep your attention away from the little greens springing up after the rains. They, too, you will notice, have a succession. The more water loving ones come up first, and then as the rain gets soaked into the soil, drying up, others spring up. At the edges of the gardens where they get some water, they may grow round the year. Wherever you look—gardens, along the puddles, the gutters, the water pipe, cracks on the footpath—wherever there is a little soil, these weeds make the best out of the present. They grow in all their mini prettiness waiting for us to discover. Only if we managed to slow down, stop, and notice we can discover a whole new world. A natural world surrounding us even in the middle of a concrete city. If we let this fact percolate our senses, it is immensely reassuring and also rejuvenating.
Noticing Is The First Step
Much of our lives now, we look at the screen while so much is happening beyond. If not the computer, surely none of us are too far, or too long, away from our cell phones, irrespective of whether we enjoy it or not. The ones for whom this is not the reality, are lucky exceptions. Glued to the screen, we start believing that it is something indispensable to remain in touch with all that is happening around us. Dr Martin Shaw, a noted writer, teacher, and a mythologist has aptly stated that the '…. actions are in the peripheries when we are looking at the center on to a screen'. Coming to think of it, we need to have this peripheral vision. If not for anything else, certainly for securing a license and driving.
Peripheries have a lot of importance in ecology. The boundaries between different biomes are called the ecotonal areas. Sometime the number of species or the population of a certain species in such ecotone is much greater than any of the biomes it interfaces. This is called the edge effect. It can be noticeable in the growth of weedy herbs also. If one must look for these volunteer herbs in a garden, the best places to look are along the edges of the flower beds, or tree bunds, or the edge where the tended garden ends and the bit of wild area remains. In addition, say, habitat created after cutting off crops or seasonal plants, or construction sites quickly get colonised by weeds. One may notice that certain types of weeds are able to take better advantage of the situation and are more prolific in their growths initially.
Noticing and being sensitised by the presence of the green herbs that volunteers everywhere, takes our attention to the periphery—away from the screen, away from the centre, at the edges—be it around a garden or a footpath. Through them our consciousness and attention get trained to go to the periphery, that we otherwise may have ignored. This singularly is, perhaps, the most amazing reward of learning to forage especially the weedy herbs.
Let's Call Edible Weeds Ultra Organic
“A flowering weed; Hearing its name, I looked anew at it” Haiku by Teji. Noticing is the first step. To be conscious of their presence, is to know a little more about them. Who are they? Are they new to the environment, or have been naturalised long back? Are they indigenous or a new exotic? What is the name? Is there any local name? Did you know having a local name often indicate that it has some use – not necessarily edible but some use? Now not having a local name does not mean it does not have some medicinal, edible, other uses. It gives a clue that the plant is relatively a newcomer in our environment. One feels like a detective as one knows the name and proceeds to unfold the mystery of its properties. Sometimes we may find the names of the plant familiar. We may not have ever seen the plant before, but we recognize it as a name of a popular herbal supplement that gets sold in bottles in capsule or powdered form. It is thrilling just to know a name and recognise and look at the plant up close and personal. Yes, many of the herbal supplements that we know, grow as weeds along our path—unnoticed.
Then maybe we find one which is edible. That is not enough. We need to know which part is edible. Is there a certain season it should be eaten and avoided in others? Can it be eaten raw or must be cooked? Before cooking is there some pre-processing one needs to do – like poaching and throwing off the water? What would be their food values we may wonder. Too many of us immediately ask what is are the medicinal properties of a herb when we find one often ignoring its edible qualities. All foods are medicinal too. That is why it nourishes and sustains us. However, to use a plant as a medicine there are strict procedures – how, when, how much for a particular person, how long or how often. One herb when taken as a medicine may help one but create difficulties for another if taken without instructions. It is wonderful to recognize purely medicinal herbs but to take them as a medicine it is best to consult a naturopath and follow advice.
Then what about the edible properties for the weedy herbs that can be eaten? Some researchers believe that simply listing nutrient content of food items does not tell a whole lot about them. It has been demonstrated that nutrient content-wise, vegetables grown organically do not differ much with those grown by other methods. However, the organic vegetable seems to remain fresh for long and tastes distinctly better. There are other differences also. In that sense, the naturally-growing vegetations of our interest can be called ultra-organics. They volunteer to grow in some of the most difficult conditions and make the best use of the available resources.
Finding Weeds For Our Plate
Weedy herbs have an innate ability to utilise whatever little resources and nurturing condition they can find at the moment. Other than microbes, and may be some ferns and moss, these weedy herbs can therefore be expected to respond to the changing climate and adapt themselves the fastest. Knowing and recognising them, therefore, is a skill for now and the future, that everyone must have as we gear up to combat the effects of climate change. Recognising healthy and nutritious herbs in the volunteer weeds that are growing around us may allow us to adapt better to the changes. Because these weedy growths are so adjustable and flexible—they may look vastly different when growing in different places. Adjusting to the available resources they can have plush vegetation or in absence of that a stunted growth. Recognising these herbs easily and comfortably is a must, before starting to use them. Referring to books, field guides, joining guided weed walks or foraging groups are all excellent ways to familiarise oneself.
My colouring book, “Edible Weeds and Naturally Growing Plants in Auroville,” contains a set of only 40, out of many such edible weeds that grow all over India, across the tropics, and even beyond. The act of colouring allows learning in slow, relaxed mode, where information percolates an individual naturally as one follows the curves of the leaves or the bent of the flowers. Later this artisanal publication can be referred to find out more details about the plants, their local names, sizes, how to use etc. Again the same book can be used as a field guide not for all but just to familiarise oneself with the 40 plants selected. It is the first step.
As information starts building up by a growing community of interested people who might start their journeys of discovering with the colouring book, more organised walks, and foraging groups will be formed—to learn, to identify and to find out more about their uses together. With the attention and focus brought to these tiny wonders—more and more people will, hopefully, start appreciating the nature that surrounds us. May be, over time, more weedy growths will be recorded, some may go beyond the weeds and put their attention on the lesser lepidoptera—the miniature butterflies and moths, the tiny grasshoppers that come to them, or the butterflies and bees that seem to prefer these weedy herbs. More people will notice and share such information, and it will become part of citizen science.
Nina Sengupta is an ecologist. She lives in Auroville and works around the globe as an independent consultant, integrating biodiversity conservation and development options. She has worked in South and South-east Asia, Africa, Finland and the USA. She is passionate about food forest, food gardening and making the life sciences active and participatory for all. She has published a colouring book for adults, the first in India, on Edible Weeds