Gardening vs. Gathering: How We Harvest

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Hank Shaw


My blog may be called Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, but for the past year it's felt more like Hunter Angler Gatherer Cook. I've stepped up my foraging considerably in 2010, and for much of the year my garden suffered because of it. There are only so many hours, and something had to give.

Now I'm happy to report that the garden is back in full swing. I built two new raised beds in July and planted a full array of fall and winter veggies, all of which are doing well. Hell, even with this benign neglect, I managed to grow both butternut squash and pumpkins successfully; winter squash always had been a problem for me in the past.

Gardening is all about control, while gathering requires you to relinquish it.

Conversely, this is something of a down month in my foraging year. California aches for rain in September; it is our deadest, driest time. Yes, you can still find berries, but you need to head up to the Sierra or down to the river to find them. Nuts don't come until October, and we will not see anything green until the rains come.

This pause—garden humming, wild world waiting—gives me a chance to reflect on how different the relationship to the plant world is between the gatherer and the gardener, or, at the very least, how my relationship with plants has changed.

Control lies at the center of the relationship. Gardening is all about control, while gathering requires you to relinquish it.

In a garden, you control the soil, the water, what grows where when and next to what. You become an imperfect master of your own little green world, a guardian standing vigil over your charges. You squash caterpillars, crush beetles, spray mites. You cover your tomatoes for fear of frost, and shade your peppers if the sun shines too strong.

In the wider world, however, it is the plants that have control over you. They decide whether to fruit or not, drop acorns or not, present themselves to you or not. Anyone who has ever hunted mushrooms knows they possess a paranormal power to become visible, or invisible, depending on your state of mind. You cannot will a morel to show itself; you have to let them come to you in their own time.

Gardeners plan. They pore over seed catalogs and scribble down imaginary garden plots when the snows are flying in February, and then when it comes time to plant, they line their seeds up like soldiers: straight lines, right angles.

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Hank Shaw

Gatherers meander. Sure, when we wander into the wild, or at least the semi-wild, we have some notion of what we ought to find when we get there; only a fool looks for blackberries in April. But a forager must keep an open mind—and open eyes —for the unexpected. The salal berries I found last month while huckleberry-picking were just the most recent example.

It's like shopping for your dinner: If you walk into the supermarket in search of a ribeye or some pork shoulder, you are all but assured to find it. But if you are in search of fresh fish, you really cannot plan. Maybe the salmon is sketchy today, but the sole sings to you. Or something special might make an unexpected appearance, like fresh sardines or spot prawns. Then you must drop everything and seize the moment. Fish, incidentally, are the last wild food we humans regularly eat.

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Hank Shaw

But it goes deeper than the question of control. The more I forage for wild plants, the more I start to look askance at my garden plants. Don't get me wrong, I love my funky Italian lettuces, my Portuguese cabbages, my German radishes. It's just that, well, they're needy. Some, particularly the brassica family, are downright pushy. If you garden, you grow brassicas: cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, radishes, mustard greens, etc. And at least in my garden, the brassica clan grows under siege. Cabbage looper caterpillars, the larvae of those pretty little white butterflies, gnaw the leaves ceaselessly. Worse, a legion of black-and-orange harlequin bugs can materialize overnight to suck my broccoli raab dry. I must tend my plants almost daily to prevent the bugs from gaining the upper hand.

Presented by

Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.

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