Alive in the Woods
Anna Chrystal Stephens discusses her ongoing research into wild food, outdoor survival and self-sufficiency. She has also put together some suggestions for those who wish to learn about edible wild plants.
In 2014 I was researching wild food during a residency in Wisbech, in the Fens, learning about foraging in the Mesolithic era and the transition to the Neolithic. I was practising subsisting on wild food, spinning wool and making bedding, trying to find a sense of control over my own living situation through learning those skills. I was allowed to handle prehistoric artefacts at the Wisbech and Fenland museum; stone tools and bone needles as I tried to understand my habitat and improve my ability to survive outside. [i]
A year after I did that residency a man went missing in Wisbech; he was found (safe) in the woods there last week (August 2020). He was doing the thing I was considering during my visit to Wisbech and have been thinking about since then: living outside. I have only done it for small amounts of time, as part of projects or as a leisure activity but this man did it for 5 years full time. He entered the woods out of necessity to escape exploitation; for survival. When he set up camp it was an emergency, not a research trip or a holiday or an existential exercise, but a way to find safety from a desperate situation.
There were other people living in the Wisbech woods in homemade shelters, where the lost man was discovered. A local resident was very upset about it, he said:
'It was awful when they were here…they were living in tents and shelters, and chopping down the trees for firewood and building materials… It started off as one or two of them, but the numbers grew. At one stage there was a dozen of them sitting around drinking together. It was like a party. The councillor told me they were all in work, but I said that was irrelevant. He also said that they had been offered alternative accommodation, but didn't want it as they were happy living rent free.' [ii]
Image: An image of a different shelter, this one in the woods outside Stoke-on-Trent where we (Vulpes Vulpes) went to investigate a rave site.
When rents are high and wages low, when people are alienated from the processes of growth and production, controlled through wage slavery or excluded from access to support through prejudice, lack of documentation or lack of resources, sometimes they escape to the woods and form their own community. Erecting a temporary shelter outdoors can be a literal, immediate escape from hostile situations (domestic abuse, enslavement, war zones), but the same activity, labelled as Camping can also be an elective escape from the monotony of regular domestic life - for those lucky enough to experience it - or a rejection of expensive, substandard rented accommodation.
In Devon ‘Fifteen families of beavers have been given the permanent "right to remain"’.[iii] In a ‘ground-breaking government decision’[iv] the beavers have been allowed to stay on the river which is their home. Imagine being forbidden from living on land, your own habitat, because a person or an authority thinks that they own or control that soil. Restriction of land for the majority of creatures when a powerful few are able to exploit it feels absurd. The case that ownership protects natural habitats is meaningless when the same rules of ownership mean decisions can easily be made to destroy wildlife and restrict access.
In the quotes from the angry local resident of the Wisbech woods area, I selectively omitted some things about people being pissed and rubbish being left because I thought that they detracted from the weirdness of the feudal situation depicted. People being prevented from living on publicly ‘owned’ land is not acceptable when our society does not provide a safe comfortable, affordable domestic situation for all. Maybe if we were allowed to use that land to sleep on we might be able to regain some connection to it and respect for it, and make our own booze in hollow tree stumps, with no rubbish to dispose of.
During my time in Wisbech I presented work in a local camping supplies shop about trying to learn the basics of survival. I wanted to be in that space because it is a place which sells things to make us feel equipped (either practically or psychologically prepared) to spend time outside and this alone can lead to the empowering knowledge of survival: the shop is magical, a subversion of materialism: you can buy things in order to equip yourself for (temporarily) living outside but once you get to the woods you realise that you do not need very much in the way of equipment and the elements needed are not necessarily objects but information, like how to recognise food.
The process of gathering plants for food or medicine can enhance the way we understand ecology and our habitat in mystical and practical ways. Lois (another artist on the Wisbech residency) later told me that since we went on a foraging walk together the way she sees the landscape has completely changed. The same thing had happened to me a few years earlier when I started to actively learn about edible wild plants. So many plants are edible and they are available to all of us, as long as we can recognise them.
Above images: (top) An overgrown area between houses. (bottom) Some edible and useful plants collected in that place: honeysuckle, mahonia, blackberries, poppy seeds, dock, hedge woundwort, nigella, clover, lady’s mantle, willowherb and buddleia. NB. The buddleia here was only for external use as a treatment for an irritated eye.
I’ve been learning about wild food for a while now, every season many familiar species appear and some of the unfamiliar ones are learnt. Initially I liked the idea of being empowered through knowledge about the land, foraging seemed interesting as part of an art practice which was about finding ways to live outside of oppressive systems, self sufficiency, communities and escaping capitalist structures. But the foraging activity itself soon became a daily practice, even if I were on polluted land and wasn’t gathering I would observe and record, it felt like something fundamental.
As I learnt more about how ancient hunter-gatherer communities would eat from the land as they moved around, it started to seem alarming to me that we no longer have control over such a basic part of living: we cannot recognise our own food and we usually acquire food in mediated ways. In the context of detachment from our habitat, learning to recognise our food is a journey of re-integration, a physical journey of wandering to collect the food and a journey back (or forward) in time to owning your own survival. The plant in your hands could be food medicine or poison, but once you know which, the streets are full of sustenance. The act of taking a leaf from the ground straight into a mouth produces a tangible, energetic connection with the vegetation we have left.
Above images: (top) Alleyway between terraces. (bottom) Some edible and plants collected in that place: linden, jack-by-the-hedge, bramble, dandelion, comfrey, cleavers, red valerian, oregano, silverweed.
Above images: (top) A grassy corner in a residential area by a small road.(bottom) Some edible and plants collected in that place: fig leaf, clover herb robert, forget-me-not, mallow flower, apple, fig, ribwort plantain, dandelion, yarrow, chamomile, mallow leaf.
DIY Edible Wild Plant Learning:
I’ve noticed that recently I’ve been having more conversations than usual about wild food, which makes sense whilst the fragility of our existence is heightened. People have been asking me questions so here are some suggestions for anyone who wants to start learning. It is learning that goes on forever and I have lots more to find out, I urge you to do your own investigations too. I should also say that my academic training has been in the field of ‘art’, so I am not coming at this from a formal, scientific or medical background. There are lots of fascinating questions about things like alkaloids, saponins, lectins and tannins present in plants which have potential benefits and harms depending on the levels present. (Bear in mind that there are also many questions about the benefits and harms of cultivated food such as levels of nutrients, toxins and the presence of agricultural chemicals). The following points are related to my personal learning experience.
– Get/borrow ID books (nature books which depict wild plants). I use illustrated and photographic books together because it is not always clear from one image as plants look different in different contexts and seasons. Look for the books with good clear illustrations or photos, they can easily be found second hand.
– Get/borrow wild food books (the books which tell you which plants are edible and how you can eat them). A few basic books for UK plants are: Food For Free – Richard Maybe, Wild Food, A Complete Guide For Foragers – Roger Philips, Hedgerow Medicine – Julie and Matthew Bruton-Seal, A Prisoners Herbal – Nicole Rose. There are interesting older books like: A Modern Herbal – Mrs M. Grieve and Culpepper’s Complete Herbal.
– Poisons. There are poisonous plants, they can kill you e.g. hemlock (which could be mistaken for cow parsley or sweet cecily), hemlock water dropwort (which might be mistaken for lovage or parsley), cuckoo pint (leaves could maybe be mistaken for sorrel or garlic), giant hogweed (which is easily mistaken for regular hogweed), fox glove (which, before flowering could be mistaken for plants in the borage family). These are not the only ones, never take a chance if you are not sure.
– The internet is good especially if you have no idea you can type in a description, but there is conflicting information and you need to check sources. I have seen mis-labelled plants online, at least with books you know they have been researched.
– Plant ID phone apps are interesting and useful, but I think that ultimately I want this information inside my head rather than my phone, and I like being able to really recognise something.
– A bag made of natural fabric is better for collecting. Or a basket so the plants don’t get crushed, and if you are picking mushrooms the spores can drop through the basket (its important for the soil + the fungi). – For some plants/fungi a knife or scissors will be useful. – It is easier, especially at the start, to be shown things in person, physically identifying with someone else who knows (because then you can be sure you’ve got it). If you don't know anyone who can show you, there are courses (they can be expensive though), or maybe start an informal group working together. – You can learn on your own and correctly identify plants, but its good to go slow and be careful. Maybe start with a couple of things, maybe plants you already recognise and are known to be reliably safe (eg. nettle, dandelion). Then pick a couple more; plants you are drawn to, but are common wild edibles: perhaps herb robbert, cleavers, white dead nettle or ramsons (wild garlic), fennel or elderberries. Try and learn them well and recognise them repeatedly in different contexts.
– Make sure you have ruled out similar looking plants which are poisonous before consuming anything.
– When you are learning a new plant, spend time with it. Look in detail at the leaves and texture, smell it: as is, and then crush some to sniff. The smell will really help to recognise the plant.
– It is very important not to over harvest. Just take a little. Do not pick all of a plant and if there is only a small amount: The ecosystem needs them, without them bees will die (for example) we are already putting a lot of pressure on it. If some municiple destroyer of plants is out to clear an area of ‘weeds’, sure, harvest the lot. But where possible try and explain the plant's value and uses first?
– If you eat something new don’t eat too much at once, even if you are sure on the ID. Even when you are sure a plant is edible; we all have different bodies and some people are allergic to things which are fine for others. Some things are very bitter, some things taste mild but they still contain a lot more minerals and nutrients and can affect your mood and energy.
– Mushrooms are incredible but collect with extreme caution. I still only feel safe about eating mushrooms I have initially learnt to ID with someone else. Although there are some which are pretty easy to identify from books (eg hedgehog mushrooms) as they are not very similar to anything dangerous. There are thousands of mushrooms and a lot of them look similar. Do not eat any mushroom unless you are completely sure what it is. – Don’t pull things up by the root. Unless there is a lot of it and it's the root you’re after. In this case it is not bad for the plants (like when you thin out carrots in a veg patch). Plants do need you to eat their leaves and berries, brush against them and help disperse the seeds, but just don’t eat them all. The birds need berries, other animals need nuts, and animals will plant new trees (when they store nuts in holes).
Examples of edible plants and processes.
Some of the wild plants I have enjoyed, from different seasons and terrains:
3. White Dead Nettle
5. Forget-me-nots and Dandelions
6. Chanterelle mushrooms
7. Daisies for dried for tea
9. Hedge Woundwort
11. Hart’s Tongue Fern
12. Fat Hen and Orach pesto
13. Rosehip Syrup
14. Rosebay Willowherb
15. Samphire growing on a rock
16. Boiled Samphire
17. Wild Carrot
18. Burdock, Rose, Fuisha, Dandelion, Crab Apple, Mallow, Lavender Dead Nettle,Dock, Plantain
19. Elderflower Cordial
20. Processing Rosehip tincture
21. Sea Beet
22. Rosehip and Rose flower
23. Autumn berries: Rowan, Rosehip, Hawthorn
24. Wild Carrot
25. Ramson and Archangel tea
26. Mushrooms: Drooping Funnel, Chanterelle, Bay Bolete, Boletus Luridiformis, Brittle Gill, Hedgehog, Amethyst Deceiver, Scarlet Waxcap, Parasol, Snowy Waxcap, Rusula
27. Stinging Nettle
28. Dock Leaf parcels
29. Banana Flowers
30. Processing banana flowers
31. Pate with Bay Bolete, Parasole and Hedgehog mushrooms
32. Raspberry, Plantain, Nettle, Honeysuckle, Herb Robert, Clover, Silverweed
[i] The residency was The Frontier Zone and this project later fed into A Sick Logic with Glen Stoker at Site Gallery
[ii] According to the Guardian and Daily Mail
[iii] and [iv]: BBC report on Beavers
All images © Anna Chrystal Stephens
Anna Chrystal Stephens works with photography, sculpture and action to explore living strategies, sustainability and societies’ changing relationship to the natural environment. She is interested in the transition between nomadic and settled modes of living and how connections with ancient ecological knowledge can improve wellbeing and affect change. Her work includes research into the edibility and uses of wild plants, ways to grow food and reduce waste, bushcraft and survival skills. She uses recycled materials, camping paraphernalia, survival gear and boating equipment to make sculptures with real or imagined purposes, making links between ancient techniques and contemporary materials.
She has recently had solo exhibitions at SPACE, London and Hardwick Gallery, Cheltenham. Group shows include The Long Revolution, Ex Baldesarre, Bedford and Pigdogmonkeyfestos at Exeter Phoenix. She is also part of the artist group Vulpes Vulpes who have exhibited as a collective at The Edge Art Centre, Bath, Standpoint Gallery, London and Airspace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent. Residencies include Platform at Site Gallery, Sheffield and Frontier Zones with Aid&Abet, Wisbech. She was awarded a Foyle Foundation Award by Four Corners (2015) and an AHRC Scholarship Award (2010 -2012). She runs workshops and teaches in UK universities as a visiting lecturer.
Anna Chrystal Stephens' work is available from Edgework.