It's never a bad idea to stop and smell the roses. Hang around urban forager Dr. Michelle Nelson long enough, and you'll want to eat them, too.
Nelson, the author of The Urban Homesteading Cookbook, was at the Whistler Public Library this week leading a foraging workshop that showed participants how to identify and prepare the many edible greens and flowers in Whistler's backyard. With degrees in agro-ecology, agro-forestry and conservation biology, it's an issue that is near and dear to Nelson, who believes adopting a more sustainable, DIY approach to eating is not only the ethical thing to do, but easier than most people assume.
"It's unfortunate people feel afraid and intimidated by foraging," she said. "We're animals and we're supposed to be able to go out and eat food that's available in our environment.
"One of the things I try to impart in these foraging workshops, because they're hands-on, is for people to realize how easy it is. You really just need to go out, make sure you know what the (plant) is, and pick it!"
With the growing impacts of climate change on agriculture — not to mention consumers' unrelenting demand to have the produce they want all year round —Nelson said people will have no choice but to turn to foraging in the future.
"Foraging connects people more to the seasonality of the food available in their foodscape, which is really important because otherwise you're going to go into the grocery store and have no idea what's growing around you," she said. "The other point is, I think that, with growing concerns about food security, foraging might become more engaging to people because if they feel like they can go outside their front doors and bring in a bunch of nutritious, fresh, healthy food then it gives them more of a sense of security if those kinds of things aren't available at the grocery store."
Nelson started homesteading out of her one-bedroom apartment in East Van six years ago, and even managed to cram in a few rabbits to boot. So appalled at the mistreatment of animals at factory farms, she was a vegetarian for 10 years until she decided to raise her own animals. "I decided the most ethical protein source for me would be raising my own (animals) and making sure they were happy... that they ate healthy, so the protein I was consuming was healthy. That's kind of how it started," she said.
She has since moved to Bowen Island, where she now keeps a whole host of critters: chicken, quail, turkey, geese, goats and bees. It's an endeavour that grew out of the most common and noble of desires: a hankering for cheese.
"The whole reason we moved to Bowen from Vancouver was because I wanted to make my own cheese, and in order to make my own cheese, I needed to have raw milk, and in order to have raw milk, I needed to have my own dairy animals. So we specifically moved to Bowen Island so that we could get goats and I could make my own cheese," she explained.
Nelson's work has focused on foraging in urban centres in the past, and she says foraging in cities versus a natural setting like Whistler comes with benefits and challenges on both sides.
"In urban spaces, it actually can be easier to forage because the number of things you can find is reduced, so it's a little bit easier to figure out what things are," she said. "Up in Whistler, the challenge is, because it's a natural environment and the biodiversity is so high, there are more things to figure out if they're edible. There's different challenges in each place and there's different advantages to being in each place."
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