Researcher and forager Melissa R. Poe
Photo Credit: Lara Muffley

What are the benefits of foraging in an urban forest? Researchers in Seattle have found some answers, several of which position urban gathering as a way people are connecting with nature in cities today. Melissa R. Poe and her fellow researchers have compiled over two years of ethnographic research findings as a case study in a larger comparative city project, interviewing nearly sixty self-identified gatherers in Seattle’s urban forests. The research team also conducted extensive field observations, identifying additional gatherers and discovering further insights into the process and benefits derived from foraging in urban forests.

Foraging in urban forests is hardly a new idea; organizations such as Seattle’s City Fruit and the Boston Tree Party and classes like one recently held at the Hill Center community center in Washington, D.C., are finding new ways to build on an ancient practice and make it accessible and relevant to contemporary city dwellers. The Huffington Post has published an online guide to urban foraging, and “avid foragers” Caleb Philips and Ethan Welty recently launched an international online map portal, fallingfruit.org, that as of last count identified nearly 550,000 places to forage in North American cities alone.

Poe herself is no stranger to foraging; she conducted her dissertation research on wild edible mushroom harvesting in Oaxaca, Mexico, and has been a Seattle forager herself for over 20 years (see a 2012 post on her early childhood foraging experiences and her contemporary philosophy on foraging). She is also quick to position her research as inspired by great research conducted before hers; she says: “the body of work by [co-authors] Emery and McLain inspired my previous work (see McLain et al. (2012) Gathering in the City for a recent literature review of research on “Human-Plant Interactions in Urban Ecosystems”) and it was a career dream-come-true to collaborate with them.”

Poe et al. collaborated on every aspect of the project, engaging in what Poe describes as “team ethnography.” The team’s research findings include significant social benefits of urban gathering. Urban foragers, the researchers discovered, are inspired by motivations such as “maintaining cultural practices, sharing knowledge, building community, engaging in spiritual practices, and connecting with nature,” among others (416). Gatherers gain significant benefit from their found materials for livelihood and personal use, and also describe the act of gathering from urban forests as a way to build community and maintain important social ties.

Of greatest relevance to urban gathering as an indicator of a biophilic city, Poe’s research team discovered that participants seemed to enjoy great connection with their local environment, and as a part of the gathering process, share and maintain significant local environmental knowledge. Poe says “this element (the connections between nature and people) is among the most deeply significant motivations for people to engage in the practice of foraging.” Already at work on forthcoming articles engaging more with these aspects of urban foraging, Poe shared the following interview quote, which captures the sentiment of foraging’s human-nature connection:

It’s an intimate connection. You can go out and you can appreciate [urban nature] and say “oh, my isn’t it pretty,” but when you interact on this level, when it becomes part of your pantry, when it’s part of what you eat, now you have a relationship. You’re not an outsider observer. It’s not this ‘other’ thing. It’s part of you and you are part of it. (Seattle Forager)

The researchers suggest that, along with immediate benefits gained from items gathered, “seeking wild foods and medicines in the city can be seen as a way in which foragers assert their rights to the natural resources that support their wild food and health practices” (419). Ultimately, this work intends to position urban foraging as part of a larger movement the researchers set forth as “urban forest justice,” drawing attention both to the needs of individual gatherers and the wider implications that gathering can have as a way to develop and maintain strong ties to one’s local environment and larger ecosystem, particularly in the context of cities continuing to grow and develop and engage in “traditional” forestry practices (such as harvesting timber). Moving forward, the research team has plans to continue this work in many ways. Poe’s new areas of research “build upon the themes of wild harvesting, connections with nature and place, and cultural wellbeing with a look towards how those play out in marine and coastal contexts.”

By examining and documenting urban foragers’ connection to their natural systems and the myriad benefits derived from urban forest gathering practices, this research (and future work to come) breaks new ground and presents a strong argument for the benefits of continuing a practice as ancient and human as any on earth.

Full article: http://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/43868

Citation: Poe, Melissa R. Rebecca J. McLain, Marla Emery, and Patrick T. Hurley. 2013. Urban Forest Justice and the Rights to Wild Foods, Medicines, and Materials in the City. Human Ecology 41: 409-422.

Post by Julia Triman

Julia is a masters candidate in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia.