Adapted from a talk to Sustainable Kirtlington, May 2017
One of the things I wanted to do was make the wild food map seasonal. I really wanted to find a way to show people what’s available ‘now’ – what’s ready to eat in the second week of May (or whenever). However, watching the seasons over a few years, I’ve seen that it’s highly unpredictable – things come into season earlier or later each year, so even if I were to painstakingly record exactly when things were ripe, an early warm-week or a late frost could throw everything off course the following year.
I talked to some techie people, and looked at trying to make it searchable by season – if not the exact week, at least make a distinction between spring, summer and autumn plants. However, we realised it would make it more complicated for people to add things to the map – it would no longer be: “click, and type-in what you’ve seen”, but also: “tick the boxes to select a season”. It quickly gets more complicated with things like elder trees – with flowers in spring and berries in summer. My overruling idea is to keep the ‘add’ process as simple as possible – otherwise it deters the people who don’t want to play with technology. Manually asking for ‘seasons’ wouldn’t work.
There would be ways of automatically applying the seasonality based on the types of plants (assuming the names were standardised). But at the moment the points are free-text. This means that the same type of tree could be recorded as ‘sloes’, ‘blackthorn’ or ‘Prunus spinosa’). If we had a standardised name, we could automatically apply a ‘season filter’ to the map. However, this would also make the ‘add’ process more difficult.
We considered trying to automate the search, based on a letter-sequence – if the entry contains “apple” assume it’s an autumn crop. However, although the search for the letter-sequence ‘elder’ would correctly pick up ‘elderflower’, and ‘elderberry’, it would also catch ‘guelder rose’. Similarly, the text-string ‘apple’ would be found in ‘dappled plum’. We’d need to record all the possible names – and then link them to a correct term. And for things like ‘whitehorn’ or ‘wood-garlic’ there’s an ambiguity.
To make it slightly more seasonal, I set up a Twitter account (@OxfordWildFood). This means that whenever anyone mentions “@OxfordWildFood” on Twitter , the tweet shows up alongside the map. So, if someone says “Hi @Oxfordwildfood! The cherries are ripe in Summertown!” it’s displayed to anyone who looks the map. I try to tweet at-least-weekly updates of what’s in season – sometimes text, sometimes a relevant haiku or quoted line of poetry. More recently it’s branched out into more general subjects, usually linked in some way to ‘Oxford’, ‘Food’, or ‘Wildness’. It’s currently got around 300 followers – a mix of Oxford people, and foragers from around the country.
If anyone has any ideas for making the map better-reflect the seasons, please do get in touch – email@example.com. The main challenge is applying some ‘seasonality’ while still allowing contributors to have a free-text input.