What comes from the land

14 Dec 2019 Jake Harries

 

When we began this project, we had in our minds a kind of forest garden where we’d let the species of plant which already inhabit this place grow without much interference from us. It would be a counter to both the industrial farming which surrounds the half acre plot, and the usual kind of food growing people do at home (which would be more akin to an allotment). We wouldn’t dictate which species grew, and we would learn about the plants that did without help from anyone, the indigenous species if you like: it would be a kind of natural permaculture.

Over time I have needed to shed a huge amount of cultural baggage that comes with traditional ideas around food and food growing. One of the most pervasive is that one is thinking of food plants as occupying a particular space of the surface of the land, and that space will yield only what that particular plant will yield for our consumption. The amount of food, waste and by-products can then be calculated and given an economic value.

The small piece of land we occupy has nothing growing on it for a human beings’ specific consumption. However it contributes not only to our diet but provides the diet of countless birds, animals and insects. It is a natural ecosystem, and we took it upon ourselves to discover how that ecosystem might feed us. What is striking is that each plant has other species growing right next to it, maybe growing to be a different height, maybe having a different kind of root so they don’t interfere with each other, and this changes over the year.

What motivated us to try this experiment was the fact that for every calorie of food grown on the land by modern farming, ten calories of energy, usually fossil fuel, are used in its production. This energy calculation shows how dependent on petroleum products the food industry is and has been for creating its raw products. Of course, more energy is used in processing, packaging, transport, refrigeration, marketing etc, and that is reflected in what we pay for our food.

The energy demands of modern agriculture are vast, and they have a vast carbon footprint to go with it, although sustainable energy technology is changing this now. But what if we needed to expend only the energy for one of us to walk out of the house, walk thirty feet and pick a piece of food? No energy is used by us in planting, fertilizing, watering and mechanically harvesting. It comes only from the Sun. There is no economic calculation attached to the food either. It is outside the market place. All the energy that creates it is free, and there’s no actual monetary cost attached to the food. In fact, these plants are what most people would want to pull up and destroy because we are led to believe they are not food and get in the way of food production. So, early on we began talking to each other about food economics, the way food is grown and how the market place dictates to us so much of what we take for granted as reality.

We have seen commercial crops failing in the fields next to us every now and again because of adverse weather conditions, rain or drought, or sometimes insect pest infestation. Each time, we look at our ‘weeds’ and see that they are thriving. The narrow climatic conditions demanded by cultivated species aren’t needed by these naturally resilient plants, and the ecosystem in which they grow has a natural way of balancing pests.

 

 

A workshop in Heksinki

July 2019 Monika Dutta

 

Almost three years ago we led a workshop at the PixelAche Festival in Helsinki, Finland. The theoretical context we put forward to underpin that workshop has become increasingly relevant to our practice as the months, seasons and years have passed since. It seems timely now to tie those thoughts to our ongoing practice, almost by way of a manifesto of sorts, and so they go....

 

Today, pressures from the market place dominate our food choices and preferences and maintain a detachment from the land as our source of sustenance. Would allowing the land to revert to an almost wild state enable us to develop symbiotic relationships with particular species of flora and fauna present? Can we come to better know, understand and anticipate cycles and patterns of growth based on ‘felt’ observations of trends in temperature, rainfall or sunlight, the incidence and behaviour of pollinating insects, the nesting preferences of ground dwelling and passerine birds and the prevalence of offspring in small wild animal species?

In properly inhabiting richly biodiverse environment, we can come to understand that whilst all other species contribute to a single interconnected system, people remain outside of this, residing instead within our own, discrete and disconnected human system. Much of what we understand as ‘natural’ environment has been assimilated into this human system and is in fact far from natural. If we choose to properly relinquish control of our immediate ‘natural’ environments; our gardens, our parks, our water sides, how are we then able to (re)integrate ourselves into the ‘wild’ system that takes over.

 

 

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Monika Dutta

 

I have chosen the term 'forest kitchen' as it brings together the two concepts integral to this book: the forest garden, as the site of a set of ideas and practices of growing and cultivating; and the kitchen, as the site of inquiry into, and production of, food.

The purpose of this book was initially to bridge the gap between these two sites. In my searching for information and instruction related to either of these subjects, I always found them distinctly separated; material on forest gardening and permaculture focused on principals and methods of growing, which plants to grow under what circumstances etc, whereas recipies for the use of many of the edible perenial vegetables that can build a forest garden were thin on the ground and vague in terms of instruction and ingredient quanities translated to meals on plates. Furthermore, due to the nature of many of the plants in question, many of these recipes were to be found under the umbrella of 'wild food' and 'foraging'.

None of this categorisation actually matters of course, all these areas are interconnected and merge in and out of one another, but in the context of disseminating information for people to put to real practical use and not just explore as ideas, I saw a big gap on the shelf in the space where one might pull out a book that could take the reader on a journey from encountering an overlooked and often willfully dismissed plant in their garden to finding it a staple foodstuff in the annual cycle of production in their kitchen.

Foraging for wild food has become presented to us as a contemporary alternative 'dining out' experience; most of what I have encountered as exploration and instruction in foraging offers one a package of a one off 'outdoors' experience learning to find and identify edible plants, harvest them in small quantities and cook them in the immediate environment. Again and again I found images of small grous of people in waterproof clothing huddled round a steamy pot sat atop a camp fire. Not to dismiss such activity, but with a family to feed day after day, this information just wasn't substantial enough.

In terms of an easily digestible package, the research and discovery I've made has led me to think that perhaps the best established and understood model to present as ambassador for the concepts inherent in this book would be the kitchen garden. In the case of these historic outdoor domestic environments shaped to provide food for a household, the governing principals of planting and maintainence have been aesthetic, whereas in the case of the food producing environment we live with here, the governing principals are those of permaculture and forst gardening.

The methods of planting are to follow the lead of those plants that grow abundantly whether wanted or not, the methods of maintainence are rather intervention and the methods of harvesting could be likened to foraging; what we live with on our doorstep is a pleasant and non-labour-intensive environment that provides us with a wide variety of versatile and multi-purpose ingredients which make palatable and nutritional food for the table.

And when it comes to getting that food on the table, the recipes I have devised and adapted are not to provide entertaining gourmet experiences, they are instead focused on food that children will eat day in and day out and produce that transforms a fleeting moment of seasonal harvest into a food that can be enjoyed at the opposite end of the year.