Adapted from a talk to Sustainable Kirtlington, May 2017
My own early experiences of wild food were very limited. There was a childhood of scrumping blackberries from West Country hedgerows, and being assured that there was plenty to eat in the countryside, but everything might be poisonous, and it was mostly too scary and dangerous to try. I think a lot of people never get beyond that stage – it’s much safer to eat things that have been prepacked, plastic-wrapped and had the mud scraped off by somebody else.
I moved to East Oxford in 2008, and became friends with people who were experienced foragers. I began to read up on the subject, and to walk and cook with more-knowledgeable people whenever I had the opportunity. We never found anything truly unusual: just the sort of plants you can find within a short walk of central Oxford – or indeed, on any short walk in England – elder, blackthorn, hawthorn, apples, and the assorted path-side greens of springtime leaves. I began to get more confident in the things I knew, and started to use foraged plants in my cooking.
I began to take notice of the apple trees around Oxford, but soon realised that there were too many to remember. I plotted them on an online map so I could revisit them in the autumn. When I came to save the map, there was a question:
“Do you want to allow others to view and edit this map?”
“Why not??” I thought, and clicked, Yes.
I shared the link with a few friends, they shared it with their friends, and I forgot all about it. A few months later I went back, and discovered that new plants had appeared. Places where I’d never walked had sprung with fruit trees and ‘good nettle patch’ and ‘maybe a quince bush’. Other people were adding to it, strangers started leaving comments about how useful it was, and contacting me with stories of successful foraging trips (and occasional samples of homemade fruit-wine).
It took off: there were articles in the Rose Hill News and the Oxford Mail, and it was linked to from various Oxford Food websites. It’s currently got over 200 plant-locations listed, and has had over 19,000 visitors since it was set up.
Personally, foraging for food made me experience the city in a totally new way. I no longer saw ‘the grassy bit round the back of the shopping centre’, but instead: ‘where the walnut tree grows’. To me, the car-park of Heyford Hill Sainsburys is famous for its cherry trees, and the anonymous suburban roads have become dotted with overhanging apple-trees and pigeon-pecked pears.
The map also gave me an excuse for wandering the back-streets and waste grounds, the ‘hedges and edges’ – checking Google Earth’s satellite photos for urban patches of green, and cycling out to find what was growing there. My understanding of the city changed. It was, as somebody said, “not a city with added fruit trees, but an orchard with added houses”.
After a few years, the Wild Food Map has reached a sort of plateau. Most of the fruit trees have been found and I think the majority of the good foraging spots have been added. There are a few additions each month, but it’s mainly levelled off. I check it every few weeks, but my involvement has always been fairly small-scale – perhaps half-an-hour per month to make a backup and tidy the markers. It’s a useful community resource, and doesn’t need any meetings, groups, funding or ‘organising’. For me, that’s the best sort of community project.
The Wild Food Map is a great example of a community working together – people use it, people add things. There’s no ‘reward’ for contributing to it and no cost for using it. And it just works, it connects people – not necessarily face-to-face, but facilitating a collaborative sharing of knowledge.
So, if you are using it or contributing to it, thank you for being a part of it. The edits are all done anonymously so I can’t thank people individually, but everyone who uses it is grateful for your generosity in the sharing of your knowledge.