By Geoff Dann
Published by Anthropozoic Books, 2021 softback, £25 rrp
Available from Bookbuster Books
Review by Tim Barton
Five years ago Hastings-based Geoff Dann authored Edible Mushrooms: A Forager’s Guide to the Wild Fungi of Britain, Ireland and Europe, which has been heralded as the best guide to mushrooms and other fungi in decades. Now he brings us his new forager’s guide, this time to the edible plants and seaweeds of Britain, Ireland and Europe.
Books on foraging are all the rage at the moment: as the blurb has it, there is a ‘wild-food renaissance’ going on, and Hastings folk seem to have a particular interest in it. This new book will be invaluable to them. It covers over 400 species and is copiously illustrated with excellent photographs to help you identify the plants you are looking at. Geoff takes the time to bravely introduce some of the ‘food security’ context to the reader in the opening pages.
‘The unconditional acceptance of limits to growth is necessary as a foundational principle for any sustainable system operating in a finite physical space’ – amen. It is compulsory reading, and only takes up the first 24 pages of a 500 page book, so bear with it! I also talk through some of the context below.
He then introduces foraging traditions, and UK law, discusses the places and times of year to look for particular foods, and introduces some basic taxonomy. After that, he introduces slime moulds, fungi, lichen, seaweeds, ferns and gymnosperms – then, we dive straight into almost 400 pages of flowering plants, wonderfully presented and chock-full of all the data you need to identify the plants you can eat. He even throws in the odd recipe.
For millennia, as populations grew, our ancestors have fought for sufficient harvest and clean dry storage to get communities through winter and natural disaster. Secure food supply was a necessity if we were to have stable communities, and our history as a people is mapped by our successes and failures in this arena, fighting both ‘nature’ and other communities to survive.
A little over 800 years ago, the peasants of England were granted a ‘charter of the forest’, which gave us all the right to subsistence on the common land. Over the centuries almost all of this has been stolen (or ‘enclosed’, as the lairds would have it), starting with William the Conqueror and his heirs, and in 1971 the tattered shreds of it were removed from the statute books and replaced with the Wildlife Act. Today, the council publishes bylaws that ban foraging in the country parks, few of the nearby scraps of woodland are not privately owned, and, unlike Scotland, we have no ‘right to roam’. No doubt, if everyone went foraging, there’d be little left, as the population is in excess of nature’s bounty. This is not just due to the artificial scarcity imposed by the establishment’s disrespect for our national rights, nor only to the degradation of our soils under modern agricultural methods. The fact is, we do not have enough fertile arable land to feed everyone, not the 176,000 of us in Hastings & Rother, nor the 56,000,000 of us in England. We rely on imports, ‘ghost acres’ as necessary arable land that lies beyond a country’s borders are known, and anyway most of us wouldn’t know where to start to even attempt to feed ourselves.
Meanwhile, we are entering a global era of increased food insecurity. For example, wheat harvests across the temperate grain belt have plummeted year-on-year for a couple of decades now, and last year the UK harvest was at a 30-year low due to unstable weather patterns. In addition, such harvests as we do have rely on a fossil fuel addiction that is also killing us, not only via a globalised supply chain that favours the ‘cheapest’ producer whilst not factoring in ‘externalities’ such as our natural life-support services, but also through artificial fertilisers used to boost crops that use significant quantities of fossil fuel in their creation (about 1.5 tonnes per tonne of fertiliser produced). We are also hamstrung by the ‘economically efficient’ disaster of ‘just in time’ marketing, with its removal of sensible food stores to weather the bad times. But this is just the beginning of a strangulation of our food supply.
So, whilst the land cannot support our populations, and as every year sees more instability in our biosphere, we urgently need to at least mitigate some of the worst scenarios for the future. A complete overhaul of our food networks is needed, localising production and doing it on smaller-scale ‘farms’ using, for example, organics, and mixed-cropping (permaculture and 7-storey planting etc.) A self-sufficient biome will be less populated than is currently the case, which is a massive ‘elephant in the room’ that no-one wishes to address. The same is true of our levels of knowledge and ability, as rural studies and horticultural studies get squeezed from the syllabus in favour of blue-sky transhumanist IT nonsense à la Elon Musk. How to get there from here is a dreadful conundrum.
Whilst foraging and allotmenting are not a solution to the overall problems, for those ‘in the know’ they aid not only varying your diet and saving a bit of money, but arm you for the recession ahead. The fact that not everyone can join in is, well, tough, but you can choose to be one who knows how to survive off the land.
Geoff’s book is, undoubtedly, a fantastic and necessary reference volume, whether you want to grow edible plants on an allotment or garden, or you wish to forage for pleasure, or if you are concerned about the bigger picture. It might even save your life! Whichever way you cut it, his excellent book should be in every household.
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