Wild food forager Sam Thayer talks with Katy Bowman about how he began foraging out of necessity, but now his body craves the nutrition—and nutritious movement—he only gets from foraging. Plus, he runs us through
the physical work involved in making maple syrup and harvesting wild rice.
Mileage for those who want to listen on the go: This podcast clocks in at around 75 minutes… so head out for a six-miler and let Katy and Sam keep you company.
03:14:00 - Headaches! Reader Question #1. (Jump to section)
11:40:00 - Meet Sam Thayer. (Jump to section)
17:57:00 - What inspires Sam to forage now. (Jump to section)
20:11:00 - Every place is a theme park in the foraging world. (Jump to section)
24:32:00 - Foraging and Movement. (Jump to section)
37:40:00 - Shoes! Listener question #2. (Jump to section)
47:48:00 - Foraging and Squatting. (Jump to section)
52:00:00 - Resistance to Foraging. (Jump to section)
1:02:11:00 - General Harvesting Guidelines. (Jump to section)
1:10:34:00 - Foraging in Your Garden (Jump to section)
LINKS AND RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THE SHOW:
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Access all previous Move Your DNA podcasts via your podcast provider of choice (Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, or anywhere you get podcasts).
It's the Move Your DNA podcast with Katy Bowman. I am Katy Bowman, biomechanist, author of Move Your DNA and a bunch of other books about movement. This show is about how movement works on the cellular level, how to change your position as you move, and why you might want to, and how movement works in the world, also known as movement ecology. All bodies are welcome. Are you ready to get movin?
KATY: This is the third episode in a series I am doing on the Move Your DNA podcast talking to people who are changing their world: the world through movement. It’s not always clear right away that movement is a conduit to what they teach or do, but I see what they do as movement driven, or facilitated in some way by movement. So I’ve asked them to join me here to talk about the movement in what they do. I gonna start today’s show by reading a little excerpt: “There is incredible excitement in the anticipation of invisible things: ice fishing, a baby growing deep in mama’s belly. To most people, the silent winter trunks of a hardwood forest are dull blocks of frozen wood. To me, they are pregnant, powerful, delicious. There is something magical about sugar water running from a hole in a tree—the millions of gallons of sweet sap silently working its way skyward through the hard trunks of a maple grove. Sugaring turns the forager’s calendar on its head; that lull of late winter, when the woods seems to languish as it waits for spring, is for us tree-tappers the busiest and largest harvest of the year. We begin in deep snow, shoveling paths to the shack and hauling our pails and wood in sleds. We work through snow, sleet, rain, and more snow.” Uh! That was from Incredible Wild Edibles: 36 plants that can change your life, a book by Sam Thayer—who is also my guest today. He and I are going to be talking about wild plants and moving to get them, but before we begin, I'm gonna start with a listener question.
So the Move Your DNA podcast and listener questions are supported by a collective of small companies working hard to help you change your movement environment, from what you put on your feet to how you take a seat at both home or in the office: These companies are Earthrunners, MyMayu, Venn Design, Unshoes, and Softstar Shoes. I’ve been personally using these companies for years—I've been wearing these shoes and sitting, rolling and bouncing on their dynamic furniture, recommending these companies to my readers for years I believe in their products and their business approaches. They're bringing you this first listener question. Are you ready?
So again, thanks to Venn Design, Earthrunner, MyMayu, Unshoes, and Softstar shoes - you can find more about them on their websites, which you can find linked through show notes that go with each episode. And P.S. You can find show notes by going to nutritiousmovement.com. Click on listen - select podcast transcripts.
SAM: Thank you for having me on, Katy.
KATY: I could talk to you forever. So I guess for those who don't know, we'll just start with a little bit of background. And I just say that right now, everything that you're gonna talk about, even the questions that I'm asking, some of them I already know the answers to because I've already read your books and you've explained them beautifully. But I guess the podcast is an opportunity for people to, while getting something else done, maybe find portals into other life experiences that they'd like to have. So let's just talk a little bit about your journey. Why did you begin foraging for wild food when you were a kid?
SAM: You know I started really because I was hungry. My mother had 5 children and she really didn't like to cook. And so she made sure we had enough calories but we didn't have a very well rounded diet. And I was craving things all the time when I was a kid. I wanted more than oatmeal and hot cereal and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So I learned to garden at a very young age. I learned to steal things from my neighbors garden at a very young age. I learned to help my neighbors their gardens and get things without stealing. And I learned to eat crab apples and plums and apples and pick butternuts and black walnuts in my neighborhood. And that grew into this hobby of foraging which to me as a child was simply eating. And didn't separate the methods of food procurement that I had. Eventually, I learned that there was books on this topic. And that opened up this whole new world to me. All of a sudden I didn't have to ask my dad or my grandmother or my teachers or somebody working in their garden what a certain plant was or whether or not something could be eaten. I could just look it up in a book. And it made it so much faster to learn this stuff. So that's kind of the process by which I got into foraging at 4 or 5 years old.
KATY: So did you have any mentors outside of your, like you mentioned your dad and your grandma, or are you completely self-taught or just picking up one thing here or there simply through books?
SAM: You know as a young child I did not have any mentors. I mentioned my father because he taught me two or three plants that he knew. He taught me butternuts, for example. But by no means would I say my dad was a forager or a mentor in that hobby. My grandmother was 600 miles away. Yet if she was closer would have taught me a lot more stuff. I didn't even realize until I was an adult how much she really knew. But she did teach me some wild edibles and I loved to visit her. Which was a once a year event, generally, when I was a child. But I really never had a mentor until I was about 15. A girl I dated in high school, her dad was a forager and he and I went out together - I think he was more of a peer than a mentor though. But he did teach me a lot of stuff and I taught him a lot of stuff and we had a lot of fun together for a few years collecting all kinds of wild stuff. But for the most part, I learned what I learned either through books or more importantly, I learned from the plants themselves. And people often forget that everything that is known about a plant that you can find in books was originally, if it is true, learned by a person observing the plant. And you can go out there and do this yourself. And the knowledge that you can acquire that way is not limited by what other people have done in the past. So most of what I do now is observing the plants themselves and trying to figure out where they grow and why they grow there and how they grow. When you're talking about food, you're relying on traditions because millions of millions of people for thousands of years have undergone these experiments to determine what is safe and how something is used. And it's very nice to stand on their shoulders when you're engaging in foraging. I'm not eating random plants and just tasting them. But there are a lot of clues that you learn that tell you that a plant it worth investigating.
KATY: So you're saying that there's more to know. Are you suggesting that there's more to know than what we know?
SAM: There is so much more to know. There is cultural knowledge that has been lost, that's disappeared. Or it's buried somewhere where very few people know it. And there's also things that are not just discovered yet. And to me, that's just so exciting.
KATY: Yeah. The reason you write books, do you think that that is in part due to the impact of books on your life?
SAM: It is partly. And it is also a pretty efficient way to reach a lot of people. I can take a group of people out on a weekend and I can have a group of maybe 12 or 16 people spend the weekend with me and I can teach them a lot of stuff but the book is just a much more efficient way to teach people and I want to put that down somewhere so that 70 years from now somebody can take that book out, as I have been doing, with 70-year-old books and see what I said about a particular plant.
SAM: It's fun. I mean the same reason that somebody wants to go for a walk in the park. The same reason someone wants to go look at the waterfall when they visit Yellowstone. I mean it's just this intrinsic draw. I don't even generally to try to explain it. If I want to think of some logical reasons that I like to gather, I could think of a lot of great reasons. I mean, I think it's the absolute best food in the world. And today because I have a lifetime of eating these foods, I crave them. So I may crave salsifying shoots. Well, there's no way I'm going to get them unless I go harvest them. You simply can't buy them. There's all kinds of things in my yearly cycle that I crave and I will never be able to get them unless I go gather them myself. I can save money, but that's a not real big part of why I forage. But at times in my life, it has been very important. I love cooking and I can cook things with top-notch ingredients that no one else gets to cook with and make really exciting and interesting and healthy foods out of the ingredients that I gather for free. So, and I also just love being in nature and doing stuff. And that's what foraging is. It's being in nature and doing stuff. The stuff that our ancestors have done for countless generations.
SAM: Foraging turns every place into a theme park. The whole world is a botanical theme park. You could go anywhere and have some interesting plants to look at. Interesting interactions to see in how the plants and the insects and the birds and the other animals are, I'm stumbling over my thoughts or stumbling over my words, but you can go anywhere and look at what's happening in nature and it's exciting. For someone into plants, every alley, every roadside ditch, every vacant lot has exciting plants to find. And that's not an exaggeration. I mean you can go to roadsides and find a plant that's never been recorded from this particular state without too much effort. So ... and foraging is good for your brain. It's what your brain was meant to do: to look very closely and carefully at the landscape in a broad scale but also at the small details that you were mentioning. Foraging gets your brain to look at all levels of your surroundings and to think about how they interact and this interaction is exceedingly complex. And that's what our brains were designed to do and that's why our brains are so good at so many things. Because this natural world that we've developed in is so complex. And is so variable.
KATY: Well just to go back with what you said about every lot ... So I have little kids. I know that you have little kids too. I know a lot of people listening to this are trying to figure out how to get more nature education for themselves. More plant knowledge for themselves - for their families. But not everyone lives in, you know, really close to wild areas so their access to doing this really seems shut off at the gate. Because it's like "well I don't live on a million acres of national forest" like I do. I don't own a million acres. I just happen to be butted up against it. Not everyone has this opportunity to, in their minds, engage in the natural way of moving through the natural world. But I like to point out, and I think as you just pointed out, there are so many elements of nature and of natural movement and of foraging to be found wherever you are. I mean there are community gardens. And lots. Lots full of growing things. But it does require that you change how much you pay attention -that you seek out some of these spaces. So is there anything else you can suggest for someone who is like, "I would love to do all the things you're talking about but I feel like there's no way this applies to me." Is there one thing that everyone could likely find or one way that most people could move through almost any landscape and a diverse set of financial or time constraints?
SAM: You know everybody has access to wild food that they can gather. And the landscapes may not be natural but the natural plants and animals are always trying to take back these human-disturbed places. And they're always thriving. Some of them are always thriving there. It doesn't matter how big of a city you live in or where you are. There's something to forage. And the plants that grow in urban areas tend to be quite uniform across the country. Even across the world. If you were to be in Stalingrad during the summer you are going to find some similar plants to what you're going to find in Hamburg Germany or in New York City or in Detroit. So it's, the ubiquitous weedy plants like amaranth and purslane and lambs quarters, dandelion, black nightshades. These things are found in a remarkable array of habitat and region as long as the ground is disturbed.
SAM: You know, I have a philosophy. It's that somatic energy is really important. That as soon as we abandon our bodies as a tool we make ourselves irrelevant. And it makes sense that human beings naturally try to avoid physical labor because there's this equation of calories in and calories out. So you try to get your food in the easiest possible way. So you try to get the most calories for the least caloric output. That's a way that generally animals, including humans, live by. In the modern world, we have made access to calories so easy that if we follow those instincts we will simply not give ourselves the physical activity that we need. So we desperately avoid exertion. If you look at the way that we think of physical labor, it is almost invariably considered suffering and a sign of poverty. And we need to get over this. We need to get past this. So I do a lot of things because I like the physical activity and I designed my life in such a way that I use as few machines as possible. I make maple syrup the old-fashioned way: by carrying buckets of sap. And it is hard work.And I won't lie where there's a couple times a year where I think, "man, I am exhausted. I am tired."
SAM: "And I am sick of this." But you know what? That's part of being human. You need to be hungry sometimes. You need to be tired sometimes. You need to be exhausted sometimes. And sore. And I mean the good kind of sore. So there is work but variable work. Sometimes very hard work involved in using wild food. And I think that's great. I mean, I'm a marathon runner and I love long distance running. But I don't run a lot or train much during wild ricing season because it is just as hard as running is and it takes as much out of me and so if I'm spending 6 hours on the water harvesting wild rice, then I'm probably not going running after I go ricing that day.
KATY: So this makes me think of something else I want to ask you. So, just like every, let's call it a plant. Every plant that you harvest is going to be unique in its, in the nutrients, in the dietary nutrients you can extract from it once you put it in your mouth. But could you, I don't know, three and if three's too many we can drop to two, but can you think of three different plants that have radically different mechanical nutrients or that vary in the diversity of movements required to harvest them so that someone who hasn't harvested wild foods can get a sense of ... like maple syrup is one. You could break it down into bucket hauling and then whatever else you have to do to turn the sap eventually into syrup. So you've got chopping wood and what not. If we come up with three different foods can you come up with the movements for those three foods so that the listener can get a sense of "Oh I see..." That we've been thinking of food in terms of their end: the way they affect our body after someone has done all the labor and they put it into their mouth. But if we were doing the work for our sugar and the work for our starches and the work for acorn or something, that they could get a sense of the geometry configurations and think about it in those terms.
SAM: Sure. Sure. So I mean, I'll take the examples I already mentioned. I could start with wild rice. One of the physical things I'm doing that really feels great is I lift that canoe up, carry it on my shoulders and carry it to the lake. And that may be anywhere from 100 yards. Sometimes it's 3/4 of a mile from where I park my vehicle. And then there's hauling my finished bags of rice back. They're usually about 60 pounds a bag after I unload them from the canoe and I hoist them on my shoulder and carry them back one at a time. So there can be a lot of walking there. When I'm actually out on the water, I harvest rice, sometimes with a partner. Usually my wife or her father or sometimes alone but this involves standing in the canoe which is great for your balance. And of course, when you're balancing standing in a canoe you're using your lower leg muscles and your feet muscles in variable ways to keep your balance.
KATY: It's like stand up paddling. Stand up paddling would be the athletic equivalent to one element of rice harvesting.
SAM: Yeah. Except instead of paddling I'm using a pole.
KATY: Right. Ok.
SAM: And the mechanics and the motions of pushing with that pole are too complex to explain over the phone but it's a difficult skill. It's like riding a bicycle. It takes people a while to get it. So you know you have a 14-16 foot pole and you are pushing the canoe forward with it and trying to at the same time control where the canoe goes to get it exactly where you want it in the proper position in the rice. And you know, there's a lot of upper body work and a lot of mid-body work to adjust how you're transferring the energy from your pole through your body to the canoe to get it to turn a particular way and to move it forward. And the act of knocking the rice, which is what we call getting the wild rice into the canoe, if I'm ricing with a partner and I'm only knocking rice at a particular time, you're reaching out with one arm to draw the rice closer to the canoe. You have a cedar stick about 30 inches long in one hand and then you have a cedar stick in your other hand that comes in behind it and swipes the rice so that it knocks the ripe and lose kernels off of the stalks into the canoe. And it's very much a dancing like motion. You're making this knocking motion about once every second to a second and a half. It depends on how thick the rice is and how tall the rice is. But you'll do that for, say an hour and forty minutes and then switch places. So this is an aerobic, fairly intense aerobic exercise that's using different muscles than running but the breathing is heavy. Like long-distance running. So that's most of what's done for the harvest of rice, but then we have the processing to get the rice out of the hulls, where we parch the rice, usually about half a bushel at a time in a 30-gallon copper kettle and you're stirring that while you're parching it. So that's another different motion in your body. And the most physically demanding part of it is what they call dancing the rice which is getting the hulls off by rubbing them with your feet. So after the rice is parched enough to make the hulls brittle and to burn off the very tips of the awns which are sharp and dangerous, then you put that in an oak barrel. It's a 13 to 15-gallon barrel typically - at least the way that I dance the rice. And you have some deer hide leggings, they're like moccasins with a long top. You place your feet, you kind of alternate pressure from one foot to the other. You twist your body so that the rice is twisted under your foot in between your foot and the bottom of the barrel. And you do that repeatedly at a fast pace. And it's one of these things where the energy you put in directly corresponds to the work you get done. So the faster and harder you work the sooner you get the hulls rubbed off your rice.
KATY: Actually earning your food through your movement.
SAM: Yes. And after that, you winnow the rice which is, takes a lot of hand/eye coordination and is not physically very strenuous but you're moving around. But there is no extremely difficult activity to it but it's kind of a more relaxing motion. So typically this was a social activity and maybe one person out of eight or ten would be dancing the rice at any one time and might do that for 20 minutes, 25 minutes, whatever it takes to get that batch ready. And then they would take a rest and then take a turn at winnowing the rice or stirring the rice in the kettle. So there's a whole bunch of stuff to getting your wild rice ready to eat. I don't know, was that too long or?
KATY: No. I think that's helpful. There's just a lot of information coming out now about the strengths of I think European women 5000 years ago and looking at their bones and accessing their strength from the shape of their bones and the connective areas of their muscles. These women here just through the processing of their food, had stronger bones than athletes now simply because the amount of work is so intense and also I don't think it's too long because I'll write a lot and try to explain a lot about the work of food and the diversity of motions for food, but I don't, I've never harvested and made rice. So it's all very theoretical. I understand the motions. But I think, again, you are living in a way that gives you first-hand knowledge and I guess more credibility to explain it. So that's exactly what I was after. What would be, I would say, if we're looking at the nutrients, the movement nutrients, of one. What other plant would be the compliment to that one in terms of using your body much differently?
SAM: Well certainly with maple syrup there's almost none of the same motions. This time of year, usually one day a week, I'm making firewood to get ready for syrup season. And I cut with a chainsaw. That's pretty hard physical labor even though people think the saw is doing all the work but there's still a lot of work to operate that saw.
KATY: I've never chainsawed anything if you think it's easy.
SAM: People that haven't used a chainsaw are often shocked at how physically strenuous it actually is to operate a chainsaw for a while. And then I'm hauling that wood. Usually in a sled, pulling it behind me. Splitting it and stacking it and that's all pretty hard work but very different motions. And then of course during sap season, I'm - after I get the whole sugar bush set up by drilling the trees - tapping in the spigot, hanging the buckets. Then it's fairly regular carrying buckets which is probably the most physically strenuous part of my year ... during that intense part of maple syrup season because there's times when I work 16 or 18 hour days and half of that is carrying buckets. So I might walk the equivalent of 16 miles in a day with two full or nearly full 5-gallon buckets half of the time. So very different muscle groups. And when I'm doing that type of intense work I have to really think about the ergonomics of what I'm doing or I'm going to get sore or I'm going to get repetitive motion injuries which is a fact of life that I don't think the motion injuries but that you have to think about them when you're really exerting yourself. And I'm not saying that anybody needs to do this to the extent that I do it. I make maple syrup and harvest wild rice as part of my income. It would be the same type of activity just less of it if I was just making it to feed myself.
So, for those that don’t know, the elements, the elements of a shoe and this is all covered in Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief. That book goes may more into shoes, as opposed to Whole Body Barefoot which goes way more into feet. So for Simple Steps, the elements of a minimal shoe are: A zero-rise heel which means that the back of the shoe is at the same height as the front of the shoe, flexible sole, and flexibility can be determined in multiple directions. So if you pick up your shoe, you might be able to bend it front to back, but it might not twist as well. So there's multiple planes that you can evaluate for flexibility, Wide tox box, which means the front of the shoe, can you spread your toes away from each other. A fun way to do this is to put your foot on a piece of paper, spread your toes as far away from them as they go, trace your foot and then put your shoe over on top of it. I just did this with my daughter the other day. And she thought it was hilarious because I was showing her in her favorite pair of dress-up shoes that she swears are not too small. It's like, "Don't take my word for it. Use the math." Full upper; so the upper is the part of the shoe that connects the foot to the bottom of the shoe. So if you're putting on a trainer, a boot, a shoe, that where your whole foot is encased, that's a full upper. That being said, so is a sandal that maybe wraps around your heel and over your toes as well. So it doesn't have to - a full upper doesn't mean that it has to be fully covered or protected from the sun or the wind, it's that the work that your foot has to do is minimal in keeping the shoe on. So again, in Simple Steps, I talk about a flip-flop only has two thin straps that come over, thus it's a pretty minimal upper. But to keep the shoe on, you have to flex, you have to contract all of your toes while you are walking to keep it from slipping off. So that is not an upper that connects your foot very well to the shoe. You have to put in a lot of geometry changes and muscular force to keep the shoe on while you're walking. It's like extra movement and movement in a way that over time can actually create lots of tensions and a shortening of those toes. Hammertoes, you can google a picture of what I mean by kind of creating a rigidity of shape because you're recruiting that way of walking over and over again. Take that same flip-flop though and add a strap that goes around your ankle, so again the mass that you're adding to the shoe isn't very much but because of the engineering, now doesn't require that you grip your toes. Meaning your foot can stay completely relaxed for just that little bit of mass added. And you can have a relaxed foot. Now you have a fuller upper. You could even be considered a minimal upper, or an upper that qualifies for minimal shoe status because you don't have to do any work to keep your shoe on. And then one more, a lack of toe spring. So if you put all of your shoes on a table and measured the height of your toe box above the ground. If you see that that's rising up - a lot of shoes have a little swoop in the front - that's called toe spring. We would not want to have that. We would want the front of your foot to be able to rest on the ground and not be permanently elevated. I only used to have four elements of minimal shoe for those of you who read the first edition of Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief but Dr. Ray, a podiatrist, who created Correct Toes, he has this toe spring, and wrote me about toe spring as an element that he uses. And I was like yes, of course. We will add that to the book. So the new edition has that fifth. So if you've only read up on the fourth, make sure you've read up on that fifth one. So those are the elements of a minimal shoe. So it's a continuum, right? You can have everywhere from a super structured shoe and a high heel and a sole that doesn't flex and a very narrow toe box, and it can also be a flip-flop, and can also have your toes up at the front, which would be a fun contest to design. But a minimal shoe is on a continuum. And you can also add other elements, which is exposure to sun, exposure to air. Because there are so many differences between our shoes and feet that I am only putting five. You could add more. Which ones are most important really depends on the experience that you are currently having with your feet. So it's not as easy as saying make sure you have x or y and ranking them in importance as a global statement. Their importance really relates back to you and your personal needs. You can have a minimal shoe that is completely flat and a thin flexible sole but maybe what you do with your body is stand in place. Like I'll get emails from a lot of nurses or people who have to stand for long period, baristas, people that stand for long periods of time on their feet on hard flat surfaces in which case that minimal shoe in that context actually isn't serving them all that well. And they'll be like, "I really feel like I need to add cushion." And I'm like, "Yeah you do." You need to add cushion. So if you want to keep that flat and flexible element you want to look for something that's beefed up and cushioned a little bit and minimize that geometry. So this is why I really recommend that rather than memorizing or learning the characteristics of the shoe, you learn how each characteristic of the shoe affects your body so that you can then rank them in order. For me, or if I were to say if everyone was going to make one small change, the altitude of heel would be probably the easiest. That being said, if someone is having a lot of pressure on the front of the foot or the toe gripping or the toes is a thing, it might warrant you to be addressing the front of your toe box. Then again, if your heel is putting a lot of pressure on the front of your foot in that narrow shoe, then again the heel is the most important. So if you're only going to address one thing, the heel is probably going to be the easiest to address down in scale. What I would recommend is going and pulling out the 3 pairs of shoes you wear the most often and give them a rank. Again, in Simple Steps there's a grid to help you do this. Score your shoes. And go, "you know what? I notice that maybe I have a range of heel height. Maybe I do spend quite a bit of time in flats and maybe I have the heels for some time but I've noticed that all my shoes have a narrow toe box." In which case for you, your current footwear selection, really never allows for that one type of movement, of moving the front of your foot, that would be the piece for you to add. If having the flat heel and very malleable sole you're noticing, "My feet - I don't have time to add a lot of foot strengthening stuff and now the extra malleability is creating a stress riser somewhere in my foot or I'm noticing that my foot isn't strong enough to deal with it then that thickness - or not thickness - but the stiffness of the sole could be a nice bolster for you while you get other elements of minimal. So again this is up for you to determine. It really depends on your physical experience and what you would be transitioning to minimal shoes for. If you go to the beginning of Move Your DNA there's a place where I ask you to write out the things - your physical experience - to help you quantify it a little bit where you can then start to maybe correlate your footwear to various other elements that aren't always within the foot. Some people have issues with their feet. Some people don't. But they have issues with their knees, or their hips, or their bone, and they can learn how footwear affects that and they can learn how that footwear affects that and can start picking the element that's most crucial for you. So, sorry my answer is, it depends and it's up to you to determine it. But isn't it great that it's something that you can learn and determine? Let's get back to the interview. Thanks again to Unshoes, as well as Earthrunners, MyMayu, Venn Design, and Softstar. I really appreciate your support and I hope the listeners are loving these questions that are inserted into our podcasts. Go check out their websites. Ok, back to Sam.
SAM: Oh yes.
KATY: What would be one.
SAM: So, I mean one thing I like about picking nuts whether it's acorns or hickory nuts or walnuts is I sit on the ground. I'm kind of crawling on my hands and knees and often with hickory nuts I have a tub that I slide around on the ground and then I'm picking up as fast as I can with my free hands and then I quickly dump them in the bucket. I'm kind of pivoting in a circle where my knees are the center of the radius and when I clear that area then I maybe scoot over one hop or drag my knees just a few feet and then kind of start the process over again. So when I'm collecting hickory nuts I may spend several hours on the ground on my hands and knees crawling around, scooting around, and picking these nuts off the ground. And also when I harvest ground beans, I rake, I have a very small curved digging stick that is in my right hand and I rake the surface of the ground with that digging stick and I pull the beans out as they're exposed with my left hand. So quite different motions there. And those tend to be things I can do for a very long time without feeling sore or even particularly tired. But they're good low-level cardio activity that lasts all day long.
KATY: Yeah. And I think it's also, many people perceive that the only way to get cardio is through doing a cardio exercise. Right? Like running or jumping. There are these kinds of repetitive low impact carrying heavy load ways of cardio which I also like to remind people, means that you're moving your, the muscles around your ribcage. The alignment of how you take in a breath, you're basically changing the mechanics of how you breathe and the flow of your blood that that's what happening when you do cardio. It doesn't necessarily have to do with what you're doing on the outside of your body. It's referring to what's going on in the inside of your body. So I was going to ask you what you love about using hand tools but I think you have probably already answered it. Like what is your favorite hand tool? What's under your pillow you like it so much?
SAM: What's my favorite hand tool? I mean... I actually like hand tools because they make life simpler. Unless you use a tool a lot, I mean, a power tool can be just a hindrance and an annoyance in my view. But I've got a hammer my brother gave me when I turned 18 and I love that thing. We call it the porcupine hammer because porcupines like to chew on tools and the thing was almost brand new and a porcupine chewed up the handle pretty good but the amount of work that I've done with that hammer in my life is kind of ridiculous. But I have, I've got a kitchen knife that I really love, and I've got a hunting life that I love. I've got a hatchet that I love and I've got a shovel that I love. I've got a lot of hand tools. You spend a lot of time with a particular tool and you just grow attached to it. It becomes like an extension of your body.
KATY: Yeah. Ok, how important would you say that your identity as a forager is to the way that you understand the world? Can you even separate them?
SAM: No. I mean, yeah, I view the world through different eyes than most people.
KATY: Which I love about you. Which is the best reason to get all of your books. If you want to learn a different way to see the world, read your books. I'll just throw that in there. Go ahead.
SAM: I consider that fully a positive thing that I see the world through the eyes of a forager. I look at the landscape and I don't see just a jumbled mass of greenery. I see wild grapevines with carrion flower growing through it and think, "Oh there's probably rabbits in there."
SAM: Well, I encounter two different forms of resistance to foraging. One, people who claim that it's damaging to the environment. And the second is people's fear of foraging: fear of poisoning themselves. And with both types of resistance I want people to know that I'm on their side. I'm not trying to promote irresponsible foraging that is likely to result in somebody getting poisoned and I'm not interested in foraging that's going to be harmful to the environment. So I let people know right off the bat, "I know your concern." And then I can say, "but here's the truth." And with the fear of poisoning, this is, there's a very good reason we're afraid of poisoning ourselves and that's because we come from thousands of generations of food gatherers and we have a built-in instinct that tells us that we need to only eat a plant if we know what it is. And when you actually go out and forage, that instinct expresses itself in exactly that way. It says don't eat this, you don't know what it is. Very healthy way. Very helpful way. But for people who don't forage, you have an instinct that is boiling over, that's trying to come out. It's trying to express itself. But it doesn't know how to express itself because these people no longer engage in the activity that the instinct was designed for. So it comes out in these absurd irrational ways basically fear of food itself. Fear of plants themselves. Fear of nature and mushrooms. And this is just ludicrous. And so I try to point out how statistically how incredibly safe wild food foraging is. There is one to three deaths a decade that arguably could be caused by plant misidentification in North America. That's almost unbelievably low when you consider that there are billions of people that engage in this activity. So it's remarkably safe and you just have to follow the simple rules. Know what it is before you eat it and know that it's safe. And then we come to this idea that foraging is bad for the environment. I think it's equally absurd. Foraging can be practiced irresponsibly. But any activity can be practiced irresponsibly. It's really easy to forage responsibly. And it's actually pretty hard to forage irresponsibly. If you wanted to forage irresponsibly it would take extraordinary effort to do so. The amount of labor it would take would be such that you would have to have a really good reason to damage the environment through foraging. And that really good reason in most people's cases is money. So if you're not collecting a wild food to sell, there is almost no chance of people damaging the environment through foraging. I like to point out to people, "You know that nature center you go to? And there's a parking lot, and some paved walking trails? Or mowed walking trails?" The environmental impact of that parking lot, and that visitor center, and those hiking trails is far greater - a far greater negative impact on that nature center that if every person who came there went and collected some wild greens to leave before they left. We just, it's a silly cultural notion that eating from the landscape destroys it. Because our ancestors ate from this landscape for thousands and thousands of years and it remained vibrant and intact. And it's only when we decided to remove the native vegetation and replace it with a different, simplified system we call agriculture, that is where destroying nature in order to eat your food came into our life. Before that we ate nature and had nature at the same time because we were part of it.
KATY: Yeah. So you've done quite a bit of work to have this knowledge at your fingertips, literally. How are you facilitating... are you facilitating this with your own kids? I mean obviously all parents are modeling what they do but are you actively taking them out or do they go or do you go to other wild food classes? How are you making this a family thing, if you are?
SAM: Well we just forage together. It's just, they don't realize... well that's not true. They're starting to realize now that this isn't normal but they were born into a foraging household. In fact, I had a guest a few days ago and we all sat down for breakfast and I cracked a bunch of hickory nuts and while the wild rice was cooking we all sat down, my wife, my two older children, and I and my guest and we all sat down and shelled hickory nuts. And he was mentioning how "in our house, we could never get the kids to do this." Well, I said, "We don't 'get' the kids to do this, this is just what we do." There's no convincing involved. This is just what life is in our house. So we go pick blueberries or serviceberries or both every summer and we'll camp out and we will spend the whole day outside. And we will get as much food as we can. We'll also have a lot of fun. Might go chase a ground squirrel. Might find a turkey nest. We might find a lizard or a snake under a log and have a bunch of great experiences outside and get a bunch of blueberries and get a bunch of exercise and then go swimming at the end of the day. And this is just what life is. So I think it's really hard and not very effective to try to quote "get children" to do a particular thing or get them to learn a particular thing. I think it's really easy to do it yourself and have kids want to participate. In fact, I really believe that these mundane activities involved in foraging are such a part of the human path that we are instinctively drawn to it. If I get out a bucket of hickory nuts and am taking the husks off, and there's a group of people around, a whole bunch of people without any prompting from me are gonna sit down next to me, ask me what I'm doing and then start shucking hickory nuts beside me. This happens to me every time any year. People are instinctively drawn to that, including children.
KATY: A lot of people will ask me, "how much movement do I have to do to start identifying myself as a mover?" When do I become a mover to which my answer is "as soon as you.." I mean, we're all movers but if you're thinking of transitioning to more movement as soon as you take any steps, literally or figuratively, or take steps towards this thing that you want to do on a larger scale, that's when you are it. It's like a headspace thing first and foremost. So for those people who are wondering, "If I go out and I find this alley or go in my yard and find miner's lettuce or find dandelions, is the moment that I first gather these and throw them on my tacos or put them on my salad, am I now a wild food person or am I a poser?" What does it take to become a wild food aficionado?
SAM: Well there's no such thing as a poser. I mean if you gather a thing and you eat it, then you've gathered that think and you've eaten it. And I don't place a value on the categories - am I enough of a gatherer to be considered a hunter-gatherer? I don't know. And I don't really care. It's just, the beauty of foraging is you start with one plant. Start with one plant usually that you already know but don't eat. I mean most people know some edible plants already. They just don't know how they're eaten or they haven't taken the steps of going and eating them. And so as soon as you know one plant, you can use that one plant. It isn't like learning a language where a couple words doesn't do you much good until you learn the grammar and the syntax and how they're put together. You can learn one plant and incorporate that one plant into your diet and then at the next convenient time you can learn the next plant. And you don't need to worry about where you fall in the hierarchy of foragers or how you need to categorize yourself.
KATY: Fluency not required. Right? If you want to take a step, just take a step. Right? That that's fine.
KATY: It's enough. It's great. It's wonderful. You're good. And all those things.
KATY: What are some really general harvesting guidelines?
SAM: Ok. As far as the sustainability of harvesting, plants come in different categories depending on what part you're using and what they are in the landscape. Plants that we consider weeds, you really don't need to worry about the amount that you harvest. Plants where you're collecting only the greens or only the seeds or only the fruit, there's not a big worry about overharvesting those. But when you get to digging up underground parts that's when you really need to understand the plant's ecology and how it's affected by that before you do that in any significant amount. As far as safety, I don't dwell on safety rules because this is not a dangerous activity. When people talk about fishing, they don't go on and on about fishing safety or tennis safety. It's not a dangerous activity. It's only people that don't forage imagine a certain level of danger. So I don't really have a bunch of safety guidelines other than know what the plant is before you eat it.
KATY: What about areas that are sprayed?
SAM: That's definitely a concern. So, in fact, the big concern used to be with lead from automobile exhaust and that is still a concern even though lead hasn't been in the gasoline for 30 or 40 years but it's somewhat superseded by the concern over herbicides and insecticides, both of which are really prevalent in use. So when you gather on property that you're familiar with; your own backyard, your alley in your neighborhood, you're likely to have a good bead on what's happening and whether or not there's any dangerous chemicals there but really well-manicured landscapes like golf courses and certain city parks and certain people's lawns, those are the kind of places where it can be dangerous to forage or agricultural land, if you don't know the status of that agricultural land. You just have to be aware use common sense but you don't want to eat herbicides or pesticides in your food. The bigger pitfall that I see with foraging for people that are getting into it has nothing to do with safety. IT's about culinary sensibility. People tend to think because I have identified this plant now I can use it as a food when in fact that is not how food works. Everyone who eats asparagus knows that there is a narrow time during the year when it is appropriate to harvest asparagus. There is an appropriate stage of growth. And every wild plant also has an appropriate stage of growth and you can have horrible recipes and horrible experiences with food if you are collecting the wrong part or the part at the wrong time when it simply isn't in the right stage to be eaten. And these things aren't going to be poisonous but nobody wants to eat a tough, old, woody, stalk or a bitter, tough, leaf covered with sand. So the quality of what you gather is really important to having a positive experience with foraging. You need to be picky if you're gonna like it enough to come back and do it again.
KATY: After talking to you I feel like I might need a wild food cookbook. What's your favorite wild food cookbook if you have one?
SAM: I have an old one from the 70s called Billy Joe Tatum's Wild Food Cookbook. And I like that one. And I really like Euell Gibbons’ books. His recipes tend to be based on experience and well explained and have panned out quite well when I tried them. There's quite a few wild food cookbooks out there and I find that my cooking is so different than most people's cooking that it is hard for me to find a cookbook where I think "Oh that fits into my kitchen real well." Because I have set of ingredients that they may not have.
KATY: Well as far as the weeds go, I can just throw out there that some of the simplest recipes were simply throwing dandelions into a smoothie. My kids love dandelions. I remember reading in your book years ago, people say they're bitter, that bitter is not a flavor that anyone can be used to. A lot of cultures are used to bitter, we just tend to not like it. So we throw them in smoothies all the time. Which doesn't require any skill but it just kind of starts modeling "hey, right out back in our backyard you guys got get the greens for what you're gonna make today." Miner's lettuce, again, dandelions get chopped up and just get thrown raw into salads, tacos. That's not even hard cooking. And nettle is really great stir-fried. Again, that's a little oil, a little garlic. You do not have to become a culinary wizard and I'll link to other sources that you mentioned, Sam.
SAM: Yeah, I promote not haute cuisine for cooking with wild food. I promote base cuisine. Haute cuisine is what the royalty paid other people to prepare for them because it was not something that was labor efficient enough that people would make it for themselves. Whereas I promote using wild food in the really healthy ways that the commoners used to eat wild foods. The Mediterranean diet is based upon everyday use and lots of wild leafy greens combined with pork, and olive oil, and seafood. And that is a really really easy way to use wild food. And a lot of the recipes are so simple like the fried greens that you mentioned. So simple and so good and I could eat it day after day after day and not tire of it.
KATY: What's your favorite wild food to eat?
SAM: Well it's really hard to compare classes of foods.
SAM: Stuffing my face with berries off the bush. I probably like serviceberries, good service berries better than anything else. But wild strawberries are also...it's hard to compare. But I never gorge on wild strawberries. I don't get quite enough. As far as flavor, I love shagbark hickory nuts. They are just out of this world delicious. It's hard to compare with a wide range of produce types.
KATY: What's the hardest plant to forage of all plants? And not necessarily the entire process, you know if you're carrying heavy things, but minute to minute either the fact that they're so distributed far away from each other. Like we have wild strawberries here but there's also a ton of birds in this one open space where we are. So to find one or two requires so much movement in between. So if you were to compare a minute by minute of the gathering part, which would be the most challenging of all wild foods?
SAM: So, the most labor intensive thing that I regularly set aside a lot of time to collect probably is wild strawberries. They're just so delicious that they're worth ... but every year the crop of different foods varies. And there's such variety of wild food available that I will collect what makes sense that particular year. We eat a lot of nuts in our household but we have a lot of options. We have hickory nuts, black walnuts, and hazelnuts and all of them in some years are in great quantity and other years they're hard to find. And also butternuts. So between those four nuts in our region, every year I'm gonna get at least one in a bumper crop - maybe two or three. And at least one usually fails in a year. So I try to collect the things that are the best use of my time.
SAM: Well that's true but also within a garden the weeds that volunteer themselves, they're mostly edible plants. There are a few things that grow in a garden that aren't edible, but it's one of the safest and headspace places to forage because there very few dangerous plants that volunteer as weeks and people garden and the vast majority of what grows in the garden in between your rows of vegetables is going to be food plant.
KATY: So what we're picking and throwing away is actually food.
KATY: Labor free food to cultivate. You just have to gather.
SAM: Exactly. You can double the output of your garden. We actually, in our, we have a vegetable garden, an annual vegetable garden. And we actually have more weeds that we save some to go to seed and then we broadcast and distribute the seeds throughout the garden into the fall so that they come up thick next summer because it about doubles what we get out of our garden. So that's lambs quarters, amaranth, black nightshade, and I can't remember the fourth one.
KATY: Is it purslane?
SAM: Actually purslane doesn't do very good on our soil. We have just a bare little purslane in our garden. Black nightshade, amaranth, lambs quarters...I'm sorry I'm terrible.
KATY: That's alright.
SAM: Those three for sure I spread around the garden and then I'm harvesting them all the year long in between the garden vegetables.
KATY: There's not really any arguing that nature is abundant here. Ok, well I thank you very much for coming on. I'll tell everyone where we can find you here in a second. But do you want to leave us with any other bits of your wisdom?
SAM: No, not that I can think of. I've probably already talked too much.
KATY: No it was perfect.
SAM: I have a tendency to blab on and on when you ask me questions.
KATY: You and me both brother! Ok! Sam Thayer is the author of The Forager’s Harvest, Nature’s Garden, and Incredible Wild Edibles. You can find Sam online at foragersharvest.com. I encourage you to check out everything. There's wonderful articles to read there. You can also check out his classes and appearances tab. You offer a lot of foraging workshops through the year. And you can find all of his books and videos there as well. Sam, thanks for coming on!
SAM: Thank you, Katy!
VOICEOVER: This has been Move Your DNA, a podcast about movement with Katy Bowman. Hopefully you find the general information in this podcast informative and helpful, but it is not intended to replace medical advice and should not be used as such.