page title icon Tenders on the edge: Anthropogenic mycelial islands for future foragers.

This little article highlights 3 simple ideas.

1.       Foragers are the eyes and ears of the landscape. 
2.       Forest gardening (or tending the wild’) is a natural counterpart to foraging.  It contributes to biodiversity and in some cases; forms complex ecosystems often mistaken for natural history.
3.       Foragers could be THE central players in preserving and enhancing biodiversity in your region by the combined acts of talking, tending & taking.

I want to start by giving thanks to all those who draw attention to the practices of foraging from and tending to the wild edges.  Thank you for passing on your skills, observations, experiences, knowledge, understanding and enthusiasm.  I also want to presence the diversity and richness of the many foraging cultures of the world who give us inspiration and hope.

Im relatively new to foraging myself ; fungi foraging more-so.  I’ve have been fortunate enough to have met some engaging naturalists, foragers and anthropologist types who have helped my interest develop by meeting my curiosity with fireside conversation and engaged wild rambles!

Being seasonally specific, foraging is turning into a healthy addiction and is bringing a number of strands of relationship together…. Let’s Begin:

Foragers are the eyes and ears of the landscape….

Most foragers will tell you there is something ancient and entirely grounded in foraging for elements of your meal or medicine cabinet.  Some will say its purpose pleases the palate, the purse and relates people to the primaries of place. 

Fewer still will say foraging, given enough time, direct experience & cultural emphasis can make an indwelling indigene from an incomer. 

Seeking out and dining on heritage species weaves a tangible rope to our ancestors with echoes as far back (and forward) as we dare to accept.  The routine of wandering off path, following your nose or other linear features, edges and boundaries in search of food also leads the forager into unexpected discoveries. 

The forager walks betwixt and between the human world; for a few hours each day more akin to other indigenous species in the landscape than modern human. Ask a good question and they offer some interesting eyes and ears on whats going on in the local countryside because of what they do or don’t encounter.

As we have come to discover, the following definition of indigenous knowledge holds true as much for Ardnamurchan, (or the old hedgerow behind Aldi) as it does for Amazonia:

‘Indigenous knowledge, also referred to as ethno science, traditional, local, folk, and native knowledge can be defined, relative to agriculture in its broadest sense, as accumulated knowledge, skill and technology of local people derived from their direct interaction with the environment. Information is passed on through generations and refined into a system of understanding of natural resources and relevant ecological processes.[i]

Silent Spring has come and gone….now they say: ‘Winter is Coming’

There’s no dispute that a dramatic decline in habitat and biodiversity has happened in the British Isles due to changes in agriculture following WW2.   (I’ll keep it short… try not turn your face to the wall)  Wildflower meadow cover has declined by 98% since the 1930’s.  Loss of Hedgerows, our echoes of ancient woodland edge, our wildlife corridors and havens for flora and fauna has been estimated at 450, 000km through removal or neglect. 

The use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers has had an alarming effect on floristic diversity and insect populations have declined massively.  Mycorrhizzal species are showing a frightening loss of diversity in forestlands.  Let’s not even look at stocking densities and the prevalence of sheep and deer in the landscape. 

As Paul Staments points out:

‘With the loss of every ecological niche, the sphere of biodiversity shrinks.  At some presently unknown level, the diversity will fall below the critical mass needed for sustaining a healthy forestland.  Once passed, the forest may not ever recover without direct and drastic counteraction.’[ii]

I wonder then, what impact the change in relationship from skilled to mechanized land management and resultant lack of ‘edge’ has  had on the ability of foragers (read humans) to fill their larders or bellies with seasonal food? 

Has the decrease in biodiversity meant a less abundant availability of foodstuffs from nature’s larder for the human pot?  Almost certainly.   Ergonomically, things ain’t looking superabundant for this generation of indigenous foragers; even foragers themselves are thin on the ground! What of our future ancestors, our foragers- to-be?

Is it possible that a loss of biodiversity brings with it a loss of indigenous knowledge?  Can this degenerative cycle be reversed?

Forest gardening forms complex ecosystems; Conservation schemes less so.

Accepting this loss is one thing, to move forward from this place of ecological shock I need avision of a future I can work towards.  I want to make mention of the positive effect human culture with an embedded relationship in the natural world may have upon the landscape.   

Foraging is somewhat of a fringe activity these days, but what of a culture which fully embraces it as fundamental to life?  Rather than defer to ethno-botany, or archaeology or geopoetics to piece together what may have existed in our distant Celtic past, I want to keep it real and make mention of modern cultural groupings.  My knowledge of their reality comes from conversations with frends with firsthand experience.  My references serve only to illustrate what I realised over the course of our conversations.  The Kayapo of Central Brazil…

‘…enriched, rather than impoverished their rainforest habitat by introducing food plants and fruit trees into their forest gardens… some of the great plant variety of the Amazon was put in place by the Amazonian tribes’[iii]

Forest islands are common throughout the savannas and wetlands of Amazonia & range in size from a few hectares to many square kilometres. Most are raised less than one meter and often surrounded by ponds or a moat-like ditch. The Kayapó of Central Brazil create forest islands (apêtê) of improved soils through additions of organic matter from household middens and recycling of crop debris for intensive cultivation of crops.  These anthropogenic features are known for their high biodiversity and agrodiversity.[iv]

This vision of many square kilometers of ‘living landscapes’ where human culture within it are part responsible for spore and seed dispersal, variations in soil, forest cover and drainage has dramatic implications for our entrenched view of ‘Conservation’ here on our windswept isle.  The concept of ‘anthropogenic forest islands’ seems antithetical to the idea that Nature should be protected against culture; a kind of stasis determined over it by experts; whilst we gather  our resources and food from areas less ‘protected’.   It makes me re-think about the origins of forest remnants I pass through… 

The landscapes …. represent a projection of culture onto nature through time. These are living landscapes, even if they have traditionally (and erroneously) been understood to be primary forests by foresters, ecologists, and phytogeographers alike’.[v]

Crossing the seas to Africa, we find a similar story:

“Far from being relics, Kissidougou’s forest islands prove to have been created by local populations. Where people lived, there was initially no forest. It was only later that the forest was formed around the village to protect it from fire and wind…the extent of the forest just grows each year.[vi]

Seen in this light, here on our own soil, devoid of an unbroken, ethno-scientific oral tradition, the 21st century forager has to glean what s/he can from their mentors, books and their instincts.  From my hill overlooking the Highland capital, I’m writing to state my belief that we have every right, even a duty, to manipulate our immediate landscape to secure wild food not only for our belly but for the preservation of the crop for kith or kin & the next generation.   This requires ‘tending the wild’ as well as taking from it.  It is two sides of the same coin- both giving intrinsic & extrinsic reward.

Perhaps we have been fed a lie or our natural historians have got it wrong.  Either way:

The implications of mistaking forest archives for natural history are many. It serves to essentialise nature, robbing it of its dynamism, and it further seeks to remove the role of humans in shaping and constructing landscapes and ecosystems.[vii]

Foragers enhance biodiversity by talking, tending & taking.

Tell me:  Who where you live gardens the edge?

 I have a creative compulsion to engage with the landscape…there is something inherently satisfying about regenerative gardening of the forest environment.  It is in my blood and bones.  Simply taking, just another form of consumerism; is not.

I shared this thought over a casual chat with a forager friend on the phone.  His response was to tell me a story of finding sea buckthorn earlier in the week; the bush was ravaged and uprooted by the recent floods and storms we’ve been experiencing.  His only response, not least because of his relationship with the berries; was to gather it up and replant it in a safer yet appropriate habitat.  Talking about these things, relaying experience, telling stories of where the wild things are is vitally important to both teller & listener… it’s how indigenous knowledge aka tradition is transmitted.

Still with me?  Let’s take mycorhizzal fungi as just one example among many as what it may mean to be a tender of the wild edge.

‘Most ecologists now recognize that a forests vitality is directly related to the presence, abundance and relationship of mycelia associates’[viii]

Yet  no-one where I live (at least to my knowledge) is responding to loss of mycorhizzal species; not in parliament, not in replanting schemes, not in forestry, not in Local Biodiversity Action Plans.  Fortunately for your region, your foragers have in living memory the location of existing mycelial islands.  They might be eating the fruits from some of them right now….

Recognising the importance of these relationships has implications not just for the fungi eater but for ecological restoration; with mycorhizzal relationships; health begins to return.   This is partly as the relationship helps plants resist disease, accelerates growth and even passes around nutrients to species other than its host plant.  

To paraphrase Martin Crawford (who identifies 61 mycorhizal species with edible fruits in his book), there are several ways of encouraging new tree growth to take on mycorhizal fungi.[ix]

How much effort would this take for those of us that go out hunting anyway to take a trowel and some saplings with us; or drop some of the picked mushrooms into a water bottle to make a broth of spore mass?  Hardly any.  How much of a difference would it make to our future ancestors?  More than none.  Why?  Because passing on the act and our experience of it begins to recreate our own ethnopedalogy (our indigenous knowledge of soil); which in turn increases our chances of self determination.[x]

I’m toasting the Reclamation of the wild edges as ours for the tending as well as the eating; co-acting instead of consuming.  More than that, I’m learning to sharpen my senses along with my billhook.  There are countless other ways of giving back and tending the wild as your garden; I’d love to hear more.  Would you?

Is it possible that an increase in biodiversity brings with it an increase in of indigenous knowledge? 

Betwixt and between the status quo bias and wholesale destruction I have a vision of a not too distant generation of foraging ecological gardener hero(ines); bent on superabundant proliferation of multitiered forest ecotopes between meals; roaming and grazing benevolently on their own patches.  

Please consider the relevance of what I’ve written to the patch where you stay, however rich or denuded it may be.   If you’re a forager, take others out tending on the edge with you.   If you teach, consider passing on ways that others can give back as well as what they can take.  Sharing stories of our observations, interventions and lessons out there on the wild edges helps our generation learn skills together. 

The alternative I fear, cannot be entertained for too much longer.

[i]Ettema, C             p1           Indiginous Soil Classifications                                             University of Georgia.

[ii]Staments, P        p3           Growing Gourmet & Medicinal Mushrooms                  

[iii]Girardet, H                        Darrell Posey Obituary.                                                      Guardian newspaper 2001

[iv]Clark Erickson                   Amazonia: The Historical Ecology of a Domesticated Landscape

[v]William Balée                     Historical Ecology: Premises and Postulates

[vi] Fairhead, J. 1996. 14-36  Enriching the Landscape.                                                    Africa 66


[vii]Sheldrake, C                    Implications of mistaking the forest archive for natural history.


[viii]Staments, P     p24         Mycelium Running                                                               10 Speed Press


[ix]Crawford, M                       Creating a Forest Garden  

1.       Plant young tree seedlings near the root zones of proven mushroom producing trees, then transplant them a few years later.

2.       Dip exposed roots of seedlings to the spore mass of one or more mycorhizal species… you can make it yourself by liquidizing 4-5 mushrooms for a bucketful of water, which can be used as a dip for 100-200 small trees/shrubs. (such a mix can be stored by mixing into a 15% glycerol solution and freezing)

3.       Broadcast spores onto the root zones of existing trees and shrubs, using spores in a water carrier.  Success rates may be low, but little effort is required.

4.       Place a little soil from the root zone of proven mushroom producing trees around seedlings, either in the nursery or soon after planting.

5.       Inoculate the compost of pot grown plants with a mix of dried sores of suitable species.

6.       When planting trees or shrubs, scatter a dry spore mixture into the planting hole.[ix]


[x]Of course there’s no money in it.  As Paul Staments points out: ‘Once the hurdle of establishing mycorhizal fungi has been overcome, decades may pass before a single mushroom forms’.  Perhaps those interested in a quicker harvest would care to experiment with growing mycelia from the stem butts of their foraged saprophytic mushrooms?



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