I was invited to give a cookbook talk at a major tech company on the Peninsula. And then I was uninvited. Apparently wild food is too dangerous, and their employees could be inspired to eat poisonous mushrooms, or the seaweed could be contaminated from industrial farm run off, and the plants toxic due to superfund sites on the Peninsula. And the company feared they could be liable if they invited me, and I encouraged their employees to get out and forage.
According to this tech company’s search engine, about 3 people a year die from poisonous mushrooms in the United States. About twice as many people died Pokémon Go deaths. About 6 times as many died from taking selfies. Vending machine deaths are still outpacing toxic mushroom deaths in the US. But still, we live in a litigious society and why take the chance?
Something felt really too bad about this. Yes, in nature there’s always the possibility of injury or death. People die of heat on hikes and there are avalanches, a rare wild animal attack, just getting lost can be fatal. Though statistically, the car ride to the foraging site is the most dangerous part of the journey.
But the declining life expectancy in the United States is not due to hot weather hikes and promiscuous snacking on wild mushrooms. We have become a lonely, sick, out of shape, unhealthy, drug dependent society. We need some serious systemic changes, but the most immediate and effective remedy for our mental and physical health is getting outdoors and eating some local seaweed; cracking some bay laurel nuts; discovering chanterelles and candy caps. And springtime means wild greens start popping! The herring are running. It’s crab season! Wild foods are one of the healthiest dopamine hits we can seek out.
The regions with the highest life expectancy in the world all forage for wild food. People who live in these Blue Zones enjoy this earth’s oxygen for about 35 years longer on average than US citizens. In Ikaria, Greece they get out and pick “horta” their collective term for wild greens. These include purslane, fiddlehead ferns, nettles, fennel, and wild dandelion. Which grow in wild abundance in California. The centenarians in Okinawa Japan eat a lot of seaweed that they forage for themselves. Sardinians make the most of the porcini they find in the woods. Contrast them with the people sitting in front of computers 24/7 subsisting on energy drinks. Who’s healthier?
You can walk your miles at the gym instead of the countryside and buy your leafy greens and mushrooms at the store. But there are more subtle and primal health benefits of being in nature. First, it’s good for you to just take a walk in the woods or by the water. Studies have shown that time spent in nature reduces stress, heart rate, and risks of diabetes or cardiovascular disease, it boosts our immune systems and improves sleep along with mental health.
As well, there is a deep, primal connection between the bacteria in the soil and our microbiome. I recently read the fascinating book The Hidden Half of Nature by David Montgomery and Anne Bikle, two scientists who draw the connections between the roots of plants in the soil, and our guts. “We spent more than 95 percent of our several-hundred-thousand-year existence immersed in nature. Hunting and gathering wild foods and migrating across new landscapes brought us into contact with microbes that that coated our bodies inside and out. This constant exposure to microbial life trained and toned our immune system. Then, in the blink of Earth’s eye, we felled forests, poisoned fields, and paved the land, depleting the stores of nature we once drew upon for our microbiome. In an evolutionary heartbeat, we began renegotiating partnerships honed over countless generations."
Core parts of us yearn to return to this bacterium rich relationship. We are only as healthy as the air, water and food provided on planet earth. Perhaps a corporation can avoid liability if they try and keep their employees from venturing out. But the more we separate ourselves from the land and waters surrounding us, the sicker we become. Eating wild foods requires stewardship of the land. Indigenous people have long fought for their wild foods and are protecting 85% of the biodiversity on earth, despite being only 5% of the population. The rest of us could do much better.
I haven’t responded to this tech company and I need to send a polite email thanking them anyway. Despite being valued at well over 1 trillion dollars, they don’t pay visiting authors a stipend, so it’s not a huge disappointment. And there’s no point in beating the messenger – the person who sent me the email was just responding from the legal department. I would like to reach out to our tech oligarchs, our future makers, and ask them to use their considerable influence and power to please work to clean up the superfund sites on the Peninsula, to use the buying power of their campuses to purchase only organic and biodynamic produce rather than from the farms that are polluting our coast, and to trust their employees enough to let them loose in the forest.
There are many health benefits to being in nature that haven’t yet been quantified yet. The people of the Blue Zones know this. I suspect, it’s as simple as happiness.