From roadkill to radical locavorism, we pick the brain of AQ wild edibles columnist Laura Reeves
Weighing in at over 200 pages and chockfull of colour pictures, stories and recipes, Laura Reeves’s Guide to Useful Plants finally hit the streets this October. Aquarian co-editor Syd Baumel, who helped Laura edit the book, chats with the author.
Syd Baumel: What made you want to write this book?
Laura Reeves: Actually, my book started out as more of a handout to students who took my “You can eat that?!” Wild Edible Adventures workshops. Every year I’d update it with my most recent discoveries. After a few years, people who hadn’t taken my classes started requesting copies while at the same time expressing disappointment that it had no photos.
I mean, it wasn’t meant to be a field guide, just a collection of fun stories about plants for people who could already identify them. Truth be told, I think I just wasn’t ready to take on the task of creating a “real” book. But as more people expressed interest in the subject, the fire under my butt got hotter. And then things started coming together – the photos, an editor I work well with, a designer with great style and a strong interest in the subject matter. Suddenly the task became achievable and, more importantly, enjoyable.
SB: That enjoyment comes through. It’s clear you love sharing your love of nature. I also get a sense of a spiritual connection to nature. It’s a lot more than “useful plants” to you, isn’t it?
LR: Yes, it is. I’ve always thought it unfortunate that people don’t truly value or respect things (or other people, for that matter) until they derive a direct personal benefit from them. I’ve always felt a close connection to nature but, admittedly, that connection became stronger when I started depending more on wild plants – and animals – for my basic survival. We can’t separate ourselves from the web of life. Every living thing wants to live. A fox will chew its own leg off to escape from a trap. A plant will go dormant or sprout new shoots in order to survive adverse conditions. When I walk out on the landscape, I see myself in every living thing. As a result, my policy is to minimize the amount of harm, struggle or suffering I cause to others – and maximize the benefit – as I go about my own life.
SB: That dependence on wild plants and animals, together with your ethos of doing the least harm, has taken the form of a vegan lifestyle for you, hasn’t it? What’s the story there, and how does depending on animals fit in for you?
LR: I don’t like labels because right away people try to pigeonhole you and I can’t be pigeonholed. But for all intents and purposes, yes, I adopted a vegan lifestyle after joining the Manitoba Animal Rights Coalition at age 15. I couldn’t enjoy eating food that came of someone’s pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, and didn’t want to support an industry that doesn’t allow animals to be what they were designed to be.
However, the more time I spent in nature, the more distance I put between myself and the animal rights movement, because the movement doesn’t always mesh with reality. Empathy became more important to me than sympathy and it spread to all life. There’s no two ways about it – for something to live, something else must die. I don’t like the industrial, “profit at all cost” mindset that seems to be behind most of our food, so I decided to start harvesting as much of my own food as possible. That way, if I didn’t like how it was getting to my table, I could accept responsibility and change it.
How does depending on animals fit in with this? There was a period of several years when I decided to make the most of roadkills. The carnage on our roads caused by our rushed society sickens me. In my mind, no animal should be killed without a good reason, and I couldn’t justify killing animals when plenty are being killed and left to rot in ditches every day. I made use of various roadkills for food, clothing, tools and other uses, and vowed to share what I learned with other people, thus giving purpose to many otherwise senseless deaths.
SB: Eating local is a big deal in environmental circles, and you’ve produced a detailed guide to stalking the wild edibles in our own southern Manitoba back yard. How doable would it be for committed locavores to feed themselves year-round by “picking local” in our neck of the woods? That would obviously include preserving and storing the spring-to-fall bounty.
LR: First of all, let’s put things into perspective. Our society encourages a lifestyle of independence; that is, doing things alone. But there’s only so much time in the day, and since we can’t do everything on our own, we need full-time jobs in order to pay people to do the things we can’t do ourselves. The reality of “picking local” is that it takes time and energy to harvest, prepare, store and cook wild foods. The fewer expenses we have, the more time we can spend working for ourselves, and vice-versa, but a person has to be extremely committed to spend all of their spare time gathering and preparing food.
I don’t know what percentage of my diet is wild – I’ve never bothered to figure it out – but between my garden and wild harvested foods, I can completely avoid the produce section of the grocery store. This takes up a good portion of my time. To adopt a completely wild diet, a person would have to be prepared to give up a lot of staple foods – potatoes, domestic grains and cereals, sugar, etc. – and replace them with much harder to get foods.
Local/wild food isn’t always the best environmental choice simply because of transportation realities in our province. It’s great to eat wild blueberries, but if we’re each going to drive three or four hours for a pail of berries, the environmental cost is greater than the personal benefit. I encourage people to use what’s immediately around them whenever possible, caretaking their local wild spaces so that they become more productive and can support more use. The more we use our own backyards, the less we have to depend on food coming from thousands of miles away.
When talking to people about my diet, I’ve found that the vast majority are really hung up on having fresh greens and vegetables all year round. This expectation is totally unreasonable at this latitude, and the waste of food and resources that occurs because of it is huge. In order to have greens during the winter months on a wild-based diet, preserving starts in spring and continues as long as the greens are still in good shape. I don’t expect fresh salads during the winter – my stored greens are added to other cooked foods like soups, breads and other dishes.
SB: So it sounds like someone of a survivalist or “Xtreme environmentalist” mentality could pull it off – and sustainably – if they use active transport to chase down those widely scattered berries.
LR: Yes, keeping in mind that, at this latitude, a vegetarian survivalist isn’t going to fare very well. Fat and density of calories is especially important during the cold winter months.
SB: So wild nuts, seeds and even legumes – too challenging to find enough of these calorie-dense foods up here? What if you’re really into acorns?
LR: Yes, wild nuts and legumes tend to be small and can be difficult to gather a lot of. We don’t have a lot of nut trees this far north. If you watch other large mammals, such as bears or deer, eat acorns or hazelnuts, you’ll notice that they don’t bother to shell them. It’s easy for them to eat a lot without expending extra time and energy. Acorns are much lower in fat than other types of nuts. In fact, they have about 50 percent less fat and 50 percent more carbohydrates. A person can get much more bang for their buck if they can secure meat.
SB: Your book has a lot to say about the practical, nonculinary uses of local plants – warmth, shelter, even first aid. It makes one wonder if having Laura Reeves’ Guide in your backpack could be a lifesaver if you get lost in the barrens while stalking wild berries.
LR: As I say in the introduction, my book is not meant to be a field guide. Yes, the plant uses I describe in my book could definitely save your life in a survival situation. However, I strongly advise people to practice them before they find themselves lost and frantic. It’s one thing to read about someone else doing something and quite another to try it and succeed, yourself. That said, I try to make success easier for everyone by sharing the things that didn’t work for me as well as the things that did. A survival situation is not the time to practice. Making a mistake when help is nearby can make for a good laugh, but alone in the woods, it could be deadly.
SB: And on that cautionary note, where can people get a hold of your book, which to a greenhorn like me seems like a field guide, what with all its detailed descriptions, photos and proper Latinate names – a field guide abounding with personal stories and reminiscences.
LR: Even though my book was designed to stand alone, it’s meant to be more of a supplement to existing field guides. Rather than repeat all the basic details you’ll find in popular field guides, I purposely tried to include information and observations that most field guides don’t mention. My book is available in several stores in Winnipeg, Steinbach, Brandon and places in between. I’ve included an alphabetical listing by town on my website. It can also be ordered directly from my website.
Check out Laura’s book at psbotanicals.com/lauras-guide.
The founder of Prairie Shore Botanicals, botanist Laura Reeves regularly shares her enthusiasm for wild edibles, wilderness skills, urban survival and disaster preparedness in courses, workshops and private consultations. Laura also sells sustainably wild-harvested herbs and is helping to restore 100 acres of tall grass prairie within the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. For more info, visit psbotanicals.com and like Prairie Shore Botanicals on Facebook.