[Back to the Wild] Fergus Drennan Shares the Secrets of Full Time Foraging
Perusing the aisles of our supermarkets we find everything from plastic-wrapped, Styrofoam-cupped, microwavable, freeze dried, GMO noodle soup seasoned with MSG to pretty packaged, artificially flavored, colored and preserved food-like products to tantalize our taste buds and tempt our need to consume. We fork over our hard-earned dollars and take home these colorful shiny packets of pasta, breads, biscuits, butters, pickles, pies and jams and eat them with the intention of nourishing our bodies and fueling our daily lives.
So if we are what we eat, then what happens if instead we pluck a wild and living plant from the forest or munch a few pink petals from an edible flower, or gorge our gobs on berry bushes dripping with sweet and sour jewels, packed with nutrients and vitality, complete with sensual satisfaction. Do we then begin to embody this wild vitality or blush of beauty or sensuality? If there is one man in this world who really understands the secret world of foraging, it’s Fergus Drennan, also known as the Fergus the Forager. After over 20 years of foraging experience including extended periods living off 100 percent wild foods, Fergus can speak to the health benefits and the fun of concocting, cooking and consuming wild foods. A warm welcome to you, Fergus. Thank you so much for being here to get a little wild with us today.
Fergus Drennan: Well, thank you for such a wonderful introduction. I’m very happy to speak to you.
Alison: Great. Before we begin the interview, there’s something I’ve really been wanting to ask you since I first saw your website. And there is this adorable photo of you having a bath with a tub full of wild greens and a huge smile on your face.
Can you tell us a little bit about what’s going on here?
Fergus Drennan: Well, I went to a stream and picked lots of wild watercress. And you know I think a lot of working with wild plants is like you get them back to your house and then you clean them and you process them and you’re pickling them or whatever you’re doing to them. And you’re kind of locking in that kind of magic of the memory when you were doing that, you know. And when I was picking this watercress it was a lovely sunny day, so I went for a swim in the river.
But when I came back the watercress had lots of, you know lots of mud on the bottom and little beetles and stuff, so I needed to wash it before making some soup. So I washed it in the bath. And I was washing it away and I was just thinking about what a lovely morning I’d had with a friend gathering this watercress. And it was almost kind of like I just wanted to relive the experience of picking it and how refreshing it was being in the stream, so I thought well, why don’t I just get in the bath with it and wash it at the same time, you know. Just for fun, you know.
Alison: That’s awesome. I love that.
Fergus Drennan: Yeah. I was just going to say you have to be the right kind of person to enjoy that, you know. There are a couple of friends who said, oh, I’m not going to eat that; you’ve been naked in the bath with it. But most people can understand the playful magic of that, you know.
Alison: Yeah. Yeah, I mean if we’re not having playful magic in our lives it can get a bit dull, can’t it?
Fergus Drennan: Exactly. Exactly.
Alison: So I’d love to learn a little bit more about you, Fergus, and how did your foraging journey begin? And how did you earn your title, Fergus the Forager?
Fergus Drennan: Well, you know when something begins, it’s always a very strange point to pin down, you know. Does it begin in this life, does it begin in another life? Who knows.
But what I think is very clear to me is the profound influence that early childhood experiences have on what you do. And here in the UK we’ve got a famous park in London called Wimbledon – Wimbledon Common it’s called.
And I used to live near there when I was up to about five years old. And two things were fantastic about that Common. There’s lots of wild areas there, but also I had a tortoise who I loved dearly, called “Creep.”
And I used to go to the Common with my mother to harvest various wild plants for the tortoise. And used to watch him eat them with such joy and relish, you know. I used to be transfixed just by kind of looking at him reaching and tearing the dandelion leaves. That very first kind of stage when I’d pick things, you know it didn’t occur to me to eat them myself. But, you know after a year or so of like – now we’re talking I’m about three or four — of like doing this and watching my tortoise eat these things, I thought well, “I’m just going to have to try these absolutely delicious wild greens that this tortoise is enjoying so much.”
The surprising thing was, is that, you know dandelions, which is the main thing I harvested were actually very bitter. And particularly if you’ve never eaten a wild plant before. So you might think it actually put me off, but no, it didn’t.
I think in later years what kind of happens is that when you become aware of the nutrient value of wild plants and that in many cases bitterness doesn’t mean toxic, it can actually mean that there’s lots of good nutrients and other beneficial chemicals in there, then you appreciate it more and you learn to kind of work with it, you know.
Anyway, that’s kind of where it started off – with my tortoise as a kind of three, four year-old in Wimbledon Common in London.
Alison: That’s a lovely story.
Fergus Drennan: Yeah. But skip forward a few years and I had another transfixing kind of childhood experience where a caterpillar had come into my room and crawled up the wall onto the ceiling, you know, done its magical thing where it ties itself there with a bit of silk thread and then pupates.
So I was fortunate enough – and this is what I find being out in the wild, you know and working with wild food, is you see these magical secrets of nature that is a privilege to see. So as a kind of five-year-old I saw this caterpillar – I saw the moment – not only did I see it pin itself to my ceiling, I saw the moment when its skin split and it turned into a chrysalis or cocoon.
Fergus Drennan: And I watched this for weeks as it became kind of clear and you could see the butterfly forming inside. And not only that, I also witnessed that amazing moment when the chrysalis split and the butterfly came out.
And it was one of the most beautiful butterflies we have here in the UK called a peacock butterfly; it has amazing eyes on its wings. And the caterpillar feeds on nettles. So as a result of this experience I became very interested in looking for caterpillars of both butterflies and moths. And therefore having to look for the food plants and identifying the food plants so I could find the caterpillars, you know.
Because I just found it all so fascinating. So I’d say that’s as big an influence as my tortoise – yeah. The whole kind of natural history of learning about insects and wild animals and things, you know.
Alison: Wow, that’s lovely. I’m just imaging my own kids –
Fergus Drennan: Yeah. But it’s also just that whole process of metamorphosis and transformation, you know. As a very small child that hasn’t kind of studied biology or learned about these things, just witnessing it directly, you know has a profound kind of influence on you both kind of – yeah – philosophically, psychologically, it’s a wonderful experience to see these things.
I was going to say from kind of five to 11 I was just out looking for butterflies and moths, learning about wild plants. And kind of what happened – I didn’t have a huge interest in eating wild plants. But when you’re looking through lots of books on wild plants I would often come across a reference to it – the plant being used as food.
You know nettle – stinging nettle. I don’t know if you have that in New Zealand. I expect you do. Do you?
Alison: Yeah. Fergus Drennan: Yeah? Stinging nettle? Alison: Uh-huh.
Fergus Drennan: Now that’s the food plant of a whole range – some of my favorite butterflies and all sorts of beetles and the rest of it. But of course it’s also one of the most nourishing wild greens. But it’s a lot of these references that I would pick up and then, you know in my late teenage years I actually studied to be chef for a couple of years. So I learned how to balance flavors, work with textures, work – you know just all the stuff you would learn when you’re learning to be a chef and the confidence that goes with that.
And then that wonderful thing kind of happened, which I’m always aspiring to in life, is to take two divergent interests and combine them. So that interest in cooking became an interest in cooking with wild plants. So that’s the very basic kind of background to how the interest developed.
Alison: Great. That’s wonderful. And now you’re a teacher.
Fergus Drennan: I think, you know in life – and I see this with many people – if you’re passionately interested in something you will just eventually find yourself in the position where you’re communicating it. Just by default it just happens. You know, so that just kind of evolved. Yeah.
And what I would say to people actually – I mean in all walks of life, I mean when you find your passion it kind of opens you up and it makes you much more confident and communicative. Because I used to think that personality was fixed, like you’re either introverted or you’re extroverted or, you know somewhere along that spectrum.
And in my early years, doing kind of psychological tests at school and stuff, I came out as very introverted. And to tell you the truth I was very shy, I didn’t really talk to people. I was quite timid. But just working with wild plants and I’m very fortunate in the fact that over the last kind of 20 years as I’ve been doing it, it’s just kind of a rhythm in power with the growing interest generally.
But so many people when I’ve been outside have come up to me and want to talk and learn about what I’m doing. But it’s just really drawn me out of myself to kind of communicate, you know.
So it’s interesting because I think someone that has a disposition to be kind of introverted and shy, it’s much easier to engage with the natural world, but I think that connection that you find with the natural world extends as you develop it to a deeper connection with people. Which is one of the kind of profounder things I’ve discovered. Some of the things I do now in terms of public speaking and stuff, you know 30 years ago – 25 years ago if someone told me I’d be doing this I’d say no, no, no. But I enjoy it. I really enjoy it now.
Alison: Great. Well, we love hearing from you and having you share your wisdom with us. So I’d love to talk to you about the whys. Why should we forage for wild food? Why bother going outside to collect weeds and flowers when we could go to our local grocery store, grab our shiny, clean, cut celery, you know it’s edible and safe, and go home?
Fergus Drennan: God, that sounds delicious. I think I’m just going to do that from now on. Yeah, you know there are so many answers to this question. And to tell you the truth, also I really just like to kind of do what I do, and I don’t like to tell anyone that they should do this or they shouldn’t do that, you know. I think that’s very important.
All I can speak from is from my experience and okay, I think every individual being an individual by definition, they are absolutely unique. But at the same time in a very real sense I’m not that unique, you know. I share experiences with other people – the whole of humanity. However when I think that on a personal level how it benefits me, both in terms of my connection with nature, how it makes me feel psychologically, spiritually, emotionally in terms of health – emotional spiritual health – then I think well there’s lots of other people if they were doing what I would do, what I’m doing, that they would feel those benefits just naturally, you know.
So I mean I really don’t like to kind of proselytize about wild food, I just like to kind of get on with it – forage. And the people around me can just kind of see the benefits and then they’re encouraged to do it themselves. But I also think, you know like I think – I mean I won’t criticize people that use supermarkets whatsoever, because I do sometimes, you know. I mean I’m very uncomfortable.
Sometimes people try to set me up as like this kind of wild food guru – green guru, you know, that people have got to aspire to. And oh, he’s been doing it for 25 years, I’ll never reach the pinnacle of foraging heights that he has. It’s kind of nonsense. I like to dispel that very quickly. I try to eat as healthily as I can, but occasionally I do go to kind of supermarkets and stuff. But the thing is as you described like some supermarket produce in the introduction to kind of this interview, you know kind of wrapped in cellophane, you can’t really tell what it is, where it came from very often, you know.
Even though it might look very pretty – it might look very tempting. I think what is profoundly lost from those things apart from all the issues of unsustainability and industrial production that we could get into. But I think the most important thing for me is if I have a jar that’s say – I don’t know – of pickled cherries. Yeah? That I’ve collected and gathered myself and the equivalent I could go into the supermarket and buy-if I’ve been lucky enough to find a jar of pickled cherries.
What the jar of pickled cherries from the supermarket doesn’t have – it doesn’t have the story connected to it; it doesn’t have all those wonderful locked in memories either of a reflective moment when I was picking. Almost like a kind of moving meditation just enjoying the sunshine on my back and picking the cherries and hearing the birds and seeing the butterflies. Or the fun I’ve had playing with friends and we’ve had a cherry fight and we’ve been ducking and diving and, you know trying to splash each other, you know.
All those magical, wonderful experiences are locked into that jar of cherries. And it’s almost like a living experience like locked in there, and so I might have picked them in the summer and saved them until the winter. In the winter, you know it’s cold, it’s kind of chilly and you open that jar of cherries and all those happy memories like come out.
You can literally taste those memories. You go to a supermarket, you get a jar of pickled cherries, it’s dead to stories. It doesn’t have any stories that really relate to you and your personal life and your friends. So it’s not so enlivening.
So it’s one of the things. It’s deadening – it is quite deadening in that sense. Although it will to a certain extent nourish you, that can’t be argued. But I think the whole concept of nourishment has to be looked at beyond nutrition, you know. There’s many other ways of nourishing yourself at multiple levels – multiple dimensions, you know – spiritually, emotionally, creatively.
And something you buy in a supermarket, although it might nourish you, it might give you some food calories that are kind of useful for energy, it won’t have that wonderful magic that nourishes you on many levels.
Alison: Beautiful. I love your poetic stance on foraging. I’ve never heard anyone speak about it like that before.
Fergus Drennan: But if you ask me the same question in ten minutes I’ll give you a completely different answer. I think there are so many answers to that – there are so many answers to that question.
That’s just the one that occurs to me right now.
Alison: Well it was a great one. And one thing that stands out for me too is that it’s free. It’s free food.
Fergus Drennan: Well I love to debunk ideas. I think it’s just my kind of nature. And you know you’re right in a sense, it is free. There’s very much freedom embodied in going out and getting wild food. But I think when most people say it’s free they mean it doesn’t have any monetary cost. But I think what’s very important also to realize though with wild food is I’m always very keen, particularly when I’m educating – running courses, is that we don’t get blinkered into thinking about wild plants as purely there for my benefit to go and harvest, you know.
That can happen. Lots of people are drawn to wild food but won’t happen because they are kind of naturally sensitive. But you have to realize that if you are – and it depends on how you harvest plants, but if you’re picking a lot of various plants, you are then taking that away from various animals, insects – all the rest of it in that ecological niche, which it inhabits.
But you’re taking it away from there. So you have to – and it might be free in one sense, but you know you’re limiting the freedom of another creature that therefore doesn’t have it for food anymore.
So I’m always looking at refining my practices, whether it’s, you know collecting seeds and germinating them myself and then putting plants out, just so you know you really always maintain good healthy colonies of the plants that you’re harvesting so that you really can feel that it is free on all kinds of levels, you know.
Alison: Yeah, you have to look after your patches and forage sustainably, don’t you? I was going to say for sure you do save a lot of money too. And it’s kind of interesting because lots of people say to me, well, how many hours do you spend foraging?
And okay, it’s a hard one to answer because every day it’s something wild. And like if I’m going for a walk into town I find that by the time I’ve got there – for me it’s a four mile walk into town – by the time I’ve got into town I’ve had an equivalent of a large wild salad just by kind of grazing and, you know picking off of bushes I kind of walk by. So yeah, so I’ve got a free – from a monetary point of view, I’ve got a free kind of wild salad. But then that kind of interests me, it’s like sometimes I will go out and I will forage for like four or five hours, you know – maybe a couple of hours.
And people say to me oh, that’s a long time, you know. You should be doing something more sensible like get a regular job, like do something. And what’s fascinating, particularly where I live, I mean I live in Canterbury, which is about 65 miles from London and lots of people I know, they commute to London. So from where I am it takes about an hour, an hour and a half on the train, depending on which train you get. So they commute to London to get the money to then buy the food, you know. Now in the time that they’ve commuted back and forth every day – like three hours – I could have had a wonderful forage, got a complete wealth and variety of foods in the time that they’ve gone to commute to get the money.
And so I’ve cut out that whole process. Not only have I not had to commute to go and get the money, I haven’t even needed to go and get the money because I’ve just gone straight to the source – the source is the food that I need to nourish me, you know. There’s no money involved.
Yeah, I kind of like that, you know. It’s very empowering.
I think empowering is a word that’s overused a lot, but in terms of harvesting wild foods and wild medicine as well it’s very empowering to do so.
Alison: And it’s all about what you want to do with your life as well. It might suit other people to, quote, unquote, get a real job in London, but foraging is your passion, so you know there’s nothing like living your purpose.
Fergus Drennan: Yeah. It’s absolutely fine if you want to go to – it’s just some of the people that I know that they grumble about their commuting life, they grumble about their work in London, you know. It’s like they’re not living their passion.
If you want to live your passion and work in London that’s wonderful, but you know if you’re not happy with it, then you need to adjust your situation.
Alison: So that’s a good segue into my next question.
Fergus Drennan: You were going to say something about your daughter.
Alison: Oh, yes. Well I was just going to say because we were on the topic of foraging sustainably and I was going to say my daughter who’s seven and a half loves to pick flowers and, you know make fairy potions and just sprinkle them all over her bed and make little beds in the forest that she can lie in. And I like to encourage her to engage with nature, but I also make a point of always telling her, you know that’s the bees’ and butterflies’ and the birds’ food and you have to leave some for everyone else too. And if you pick them all, you know when you pick them they’re just going to die. So I’m always encouraging her to be mindful of the other creatures around her.
Fergus Drennan: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Alison: Yeah. So when you’re teaching foraging classes, what are some of the most common obstacles that you observe that people seem to face when they’re deciding to forage or not? What are some of the obstacles that you observe people seem to face? You know like some people are afraid of eating food out of the forest or they feel like it takes up too much time like you said just before or they’re stuck in their old habits. Do you try and like suggest things to help them overcome this? Or what do you sort of observe in people with their hesitations to foraging?
Fergus Drennan: Okay. Yeah, that’s an interesting question. It’s not quite as easy to answer in terms of the people that come on my courses. Because obviously, you know in psychological jargon it’s a self-selecting sample of people that can already see the value to a certain extent in working with wild foods and harvesting wild foods. Or at least they’re intrigued, you know enough to come along on a course.
But you’re right. Like even then there’s kind of resistance. And there’s a little story here, which I find really illustrative of one kind of resistance and it’s that fear of dirt, you know. That wild food is dirty. There’s two stories actually here.
One is that there was a fantastic dead-end street on the outskirts of a town near me that on either side of the road there are these lovely cherry plum trees. Which every year they seem to be laden with these – cherry plum has the flavor of a cross between a plum and a – it’s more plumy than cherry, but it looks kind of more like a cherry or at least like the size of a cherry tomato. Lots of different colors – yellows, purples, reds, pinks – wonderful fruit.
But there was a housing development that came along and one side of this tree-lined street all the trees were removed and some houses were put there. The other side was left and I thought oh, what a shame. Not only that all those trees had been lost, but I thought well, this is such a wonderful patch and now the people that move into those homes, they’re just going to harvest all those cherry plums. I thought well good for them – lucky for them. You know I just have to find another spot.
But you know what?
The houses were built, people moved in and I went. One side of the street was still loads of trees, laden with fruit. And one day – this was a year after a family had kind of moved in to one of the houses there, and I was picking off the cherry plums filling my basket thinking well, I’m really surprised that the people in these houses like haven’t picked any of these cherry plums.
Anyway, this lady drove into her drive, opened her boot and started taking out her shopping. And she kind of looked at me and she said like, what you doing?
Just curious, like what are you doing?
And I said oh, there’s these wonderful fruit here and they’re called cherry plums. And I noticed that you moved in and I’m really surprised that you’ve not picked any. Anyway, this was the really interesting thing.
I could see she had boxes of things and she had plums like in a plastic container in cellophane, you know. And I said oh, I can see that you’ve got plums – so you like plums, but you haven’t picked these.
And she said, oh, no, no, I would never pick those, they’re not clean, like they’re dirty. And I said, what do you mean exactly? What do you mean they’re dirty?
Now, that was interesting because the day before it – we had one of these absolute downpours of rain, you know and I love it when that happens because it means I don’t bother washing anything. You think oh, it’s cleansed by all the rain, I don’t need to do anything. And I said well, I said objectively, I said they’re actually quite clean because remember that downpour we had yesterday, that’s completely washed everything. And not only that, this is a very quiet dead end road so they’re pretty clean anyway. And she said oh – and she just kind of repeated again, oh, no, no – it’s just like dirty.
I said oh, so you kind of – what you kind of mean is like something growing outside is dirty, but like – this wasn’t in a kind of, you know aggressive confrontational way, it was just a kind of to understand kind of way, you know, where she was coming from.
And we had a really good conversation and it was – yeah. But she just – she trusted that the authorities that had created her food, you know packaged it up to make it look clean. And I said, well, have you thought that maybe kind of working with your kind of concept of what’s clean and what’s dirty, I said have you thought about herbicides and fungicides and pesticides that you might not be able to see?
Because I said I can tell you for a fact that there are none on these trees where I’m picking. And you know I said, yeah, and I think it’s really important to have as good as food as possible. And I said to her, not only that, but in terms of flavor and I got her to try some and she agreed that the flavor was really good.
So, you know you can win people over to the idea of making more use of wild food not only by talking about how in many ways it can be more highly nutritious because it’s, you know not grown in nutrient defunct soil that has to have nutrients added and herbicides and pesticides and all the rest of it, so then you don’t have the health issues associated with all those things.
But not only that, if people don’t care about that, they don’t care about organic, they don’t about that, they just want good quality standardized food. You know that’s the great thing. As long as you can get them to the point of tasting, that’s the challenge. If you can do that, you can almost always win people over.
Because the flavors speak for themselves, you know. Not just the flavors but the interesting textures, you know different colors and all – yeah. So I think if you can get to the point to getting people to try – and it’s not always easy. Some people are kind of very resistant and they would just say point blank no. But for the most part it is quite easy.
But I can understand the kind of reluctance, you know to – because there is a very real sense that unless you have a very strong relationship not only with the land on which the plants are that you’re gathering, but the people who work the plants, who might own that land, you know. Who may be in adjacent fields putting down herbicides and pesticides and fungicides, or you know former land use. You might go to place that’s covered in the most wonderful blackberries.
And you know it looks it’s been there forever, you know since 2,000 years ago. But then you see the telltale sign that just below the mud there’s a little bit of concrete on it. And it turns out that this a completely overrun abandoned garage where the ground is completely polluted. So you know, unless you have the awareness and knowledge and actually put in the effort to find out, I can understand how there can be a reluctance.
Now obviously this is much more pertinent where I live, which is in the UK, which is very small country, particularly in the Southeast of England where I live, which is very kind of built up. You know it’s not like great areas in the United States where you can go out and it is genuinely wild habitat that’s far more pristine than kind of the environments that I’m kind of in.
Or perhaps in New Zealand and Australia. So, you do have to invest the time to develop the awareness to kind of know about what’s going on on the land. And so – yeah. I’m not judgmental at all to other people. I can really understand sometimes where they’re coming from.
And another issue, which I think is profoundly important and just, you know I hope not to depress your listeners. But actually now I’m really excited about it, it’s a really good thing – it’s a very good thing, but let’s go to the depressing part first.
It’s that a friend of mine has had some of the plants that we’re picking analyzed and it turns out that even in seeming pristine conditions they can have very elevated levels of various things that you don’t want. Like heavy metals like cadmium and lead and things that aren’t going to do you any good.
And particularly if you’re young, or even if you’re pregnant or you’re trying to conceive. No, they’re not going to help you. However, you know that used to be – and when I think about it as human beings we are very, very polluting creatures. I mean, you know this is self-evident truth, you know. It’s unfortunate and we’re learning all the time – we’re learning all the time. But we do pollute in outrageous ways. But what I really see because it’s not only just kind of land plants, but particularly fungi and seaweeds, like the seas are kind of polluted.
But there’s lots of work now with fungi for environmental remediation, so returning habitats to a more healthy kind of ecosystems after they have been polluted. And the way that happens particularly with fungi, it’s because they can take up these toxins into them and then, you know make the soil more healthy, make the whole ecosystem more healthy. And it’s the same with seaweeds in the sea, they take up heavy metals.
Fergus Drennan: It’s the same with plants on the land, they take up pollutants and heavy metals. So you know what kind of gives me a real sense of joy and encouragement is I think in the long term – and I’m just not thinking like next week – in 500, a thousand years, two thousand years – much longer than that. I see happening now is the natural world adapting and balancing out essentially our abuse of it and actually cleaning up what we are unable to clean up or unprepared to clean up ourselves, which is an amazing thing.
So you know I really offer my love and gratitude to the plants and fungi and seaweeds and just the natural world to do that. It’s amazing – amazing.
But at the same time it does mean you have to really have your wits about you when you are harvesting wild foods to know how polluted that land may or may not be. So it’s a little word of caution there.
I’m saying that because I think it’s something that doesn’t get talked about much at all. I think what’s happening a lot with the kind of growing interest in wild food is that it’s pointed at as like these people that are foraging or this guy or this lady that’s into wild food, you know they’re more organic than organic, they’re super green, you know. And their pointing towards like the ultimate in healthy food, beyond organic, it’s wild, that’s what we should be doing, getting back to how our ancestors ate, you know you for the last 200,000 years.
Now to some extent they’re right. But also we live in a very, very different habitat than our ancient ancestors did, you know. That’s something we need to be aware of. Just awareness, that’s all. Not fear, just awareness and respect for what’s going on in the land.
Alison: Yeah. Definitely. And I’m really glad that you said that. And I think also as you pointed out, in the older countries like England there’s probably more prevalence of that than in the younger countries like Canada and I know in New Zealand, but we definitely have things to be wary of here too.
And a lot of herbicides are used here. Like even in the house that I’m living in now I know the previous owners sprayed Roundup in their gardens and now I have – and I mean I don’t spray anything – and I have plantain and chickweed and all sorts of plants taking up those spaces that were sprayed. But I know, you know that I’m not going to harvest them because the herbicides will still be in the soil.
Fergus Drennan: At least not for a couple of generations until it’s all kind of worked through. Yeah.
Alison: Sorry, I was just going to say alongside like certain streams and rivers you have to be aware if the water’s clean or polluted and alongside roadsides and that kind of thing, you have to have an awareness.
Fergus Drennan: Yeah. But I also think that has to be counterbalanced as well against the fact that, you know a lot of wild plants that you harvest, although they might be slightly polluted or contaminated. In terms of the – if you compare that to say an industrial produced bag of salad –
Alison: Yeah. Chlorine washed and –
Fergus Drennan: Yeah. Let’s say unwashed, you know, that’s covered in all these kind of things. And not only that but because it’s been select to be bred to eliminate any kind of balancing bitterness and stuff, it’s not so high nutrients, it’s not so high in other kind of phytonutrients, you know or the kind of antioxidants and all the kind of rest of it, you know. So I think what’s quite hard and I do find sometimes is that as a very passionate and keen amateur forager, you know – and I’m always going to be an amateur forager.
If I forage for the next 200 years I still see myself as an amateur forager learning from – because there’s so much learn. But yeah, the issue is it’s the things that you can’t see, you know that’s kind of scary, you know.
Yeah, but only if you had a scientific lab behind you could you kind of analyze to find out if this plant is taking up lots of heavy metals, or –
So I think one thing that’s important for me is like, yeah, a lot of my time is those wonderful times outside harvesting stuff, but also I’m doing a lot of research. Whether it’s book-based research, Internet-based research, phoning around, you know talking to the relevant agencies to find out what’s going on on land. So there’s a lot of research that needs to be done.
Alison: Well I guess we’ll just have to use our common sense if we’re not going to do the research work.
Fergus Drennan: Yeah. I don’t know, it’s such a big topic that, you know?
Alison: Yeah. I know it’s kind of real passion of yours, isn’t it?
Fergus Drennan: It’s the topic of intuitive awareness and developing your intuitive awareness. And it’s whether – yeah, I mean there’s lots of different techniques that have been used for a millennia by kind of native peoples to kind of understand whether a plant is good for them, whether it’s through kind of shamanic practice, you know working with herbs and plants that can induce kind of dreams or even intoxication. So then give ideas and inspiration and visions of what the properties of individual plants.
But you know I wonder that if even if we can kind of go back to a certain extent and redevelop that awareness, that intuition – whether that’s enough to tell us, you know if something is like radically polluted with cadmium or heavy metal, you know.
Can we attune ourselves enough to get that kind of direct insight, and that’s something that I’m constantly kind of researching and looking at. And I don’t have the answers to be frankly honest,. Don’t have the answers.
Alison: Well, you keep working on it and let us know if you find them. But I do love what you said about the intuitive awareness and I think that’s something we’ve become really disconnected from in our modern lives. And it is something I think that it is sort of –innate awareness comes back very quickly when you start spending more and more time in nature. Just start getting a little bit more still and a little bit more quiet and that sort of inner wisdom emerges, doesn’t it?
Fergus Drennan: I think that is – you’ve hit the nail on the head there. It’s finding those – when you find those moments to be still, to be silent, to take a pause, you know. We don’t emphasize the aspect of pausing enough in kind of our culture, you know we’re too busy drowning in a coffee and, you know rushing off in a hectic speed, you know. But finding those moments of pause, that’s when – yeah. You just – ideas just come to you.
You do see things, you see things in your mind’s eye, things do come to you. But I must say even with foraging I can get into cycles where, you know because I like to structure my time according to the dictates of what’s going on in the natural world, even that can become a kind of a neurotic thing where I’m rushing to the next harvest, to the next thing, like you know the cherries are finished, but now the mulberries are coming. Now the mulberries are finished, now this particular fungi’s coming. Now the fungi is finished, now I’m off on the next thing, you know.
So even in my realm you can get neurotic in just rushing, rushing, rushing. But when you do find that time to pause – and I do think it’s a lot easier to find the time to pause than if you’re in a high pressured job in the city than if you’re in the country.
Because nature is just inherently calming, inherently grounding, you know. So yeah, you’re right. Finding those moments of silence, of pause and then that’s when I think intuitive awareness does start to develop. But like anything, you know like developing your muscles, you have to exercise this, you know. So the more you can kind of develop those kind of grounded moments of silence and pause, the more intuitive awareness you develop.
Alison: Yes. I completely agree. So should we move along and I’d love to ask you your opinion on say if someone listened to this call, knows absolutely nothing about foraging and when they go outside all these see is grass and leaves, what do you recommend is a good starting place? A good starting place for them to get familiar or what’s a basic first step?
Fergus Drennan: Well, just from your example, if all they see is grass and weeds I would say they are in a very good place to start. You know it depends where you live. I mean you could give the example of someone – let’s take an extreme example that someone lives, you know in the center of a major city somewhere, you know – London, New York – wherever, you know.
Even there – and I don’t know why I say even there because perhaps even more so there than some of the overmanaged places in the countryside, the cities can actually have absolutely wonderful biodiversity of plants. So there’s lots of really common so-called weeds or wild plants.
You know things like dandelion, things like chickweed, things like sow thistles, things like the plantains and all the rest of it that you can just find in the urban environment, you know. If you’ve got a small garden that would be the first place I would say to start. Go outside your backdoor or your front door, don’t over-manicure your garden.
Alison: Don’t weed.
Fergus Drennan: Look around in the nooks and crannies, you know. You’ll find things like hairy bitter cress, various like sorrels, you know shepherd’s purse, really good salad greens. They’re out there.
It’s just a case of – yeah, just kind of opening your mind, opening your awareness to something that you might have excluded before because it’s not part of your well-organized flowerbed. But there’s just some green here that you haven’t noticed, or you’ve noticed it just to the extent that you thought well I better pull that up, you know.
Again, it comes back to what we were saying earlier about that moment of pause, you know. If you’re ever in your garden and you get the desire, I’m going to pull that up because I don’t want it there – you know as they say about a weed, it’s just a plant in a wrong place where you don’t want it.
But stop at that moment of not wanting, you know. And, you know see if it’s a common plant that you can identify. And there’s many kind of really good kind of guides or get a friend in that knows about wild plants – and there’s lots of people now – just to kind of have a look at it.
Or just get them to come and look around your garden and point out what’s there. But you know getting away from your garden you can get into urban alleyways, you know by overgrown places. Every city has them. So there’s plenty there. And I think with the rise in interest in wild foods now that there’s lots of walks going on either whether they’re paid foraging courses or, you know agencies that are woodland, like we have the Woodland Trust, we have Natural England, like nature kind of based organizations.
But very often in local woodlands or local brownfield sites or wherever, there will be someone giving a free talk or a free walk and just look out for those and attend them and just slowly build up your knowledge about the plants that are commonly around in your local habitat.
I would say if you’re walking down the street and you see a weed and you keep seeing this particular weed, that should bug you, you know. You should think wow, I want to get to know that plant a bit more, you know. It’s trying to say hello, I think I should say hello back, you know. And that hello is finding out what it is and getting to know it, you know.
Alison: I love that. The plant’s trying to say hello.
Fergus Drennan: Yeah. I really love – do you know the author, Stephen Buhner, he writes a lot about herbalism and about the kind of heart connection with the natural world. He has a wonderful perspective that a lot of what are so-called invasive plants, so lots that you find in the urban environment, whether they be Japanese knotweed, a classic example.
You know these are actually the plants that are there to heal us, you know. And they’re actually growing in the places that people need the specific treatment from that plant, you know.
It’s almost like they’re kind of co-evolving to kind of help us. And, you know you might think – some people might think well that’s just poetic nonsense, I don’t believe that. But that’s the realm of magic, you know? That’s the realm I like to live in.
That’s the kind of person I am. You know I like to believe. But always I do have a healthy hint of skepticism to me, but I think what makes me happier, you know – what makes me more joyous?
To think that that might be the case – that might be or that it’s not, you know.
Alison: Yeah. It doesn’t matter. I know I’m totally with you there. Like you can choose to live in the magic of life or you can choose not to. It doesn’t really make a difference.
Fergus Drennan: Exactly.
Alison: The only difference that it makes is how you feel and you view the life and how much love you have. So yeah, I completely agree with you. And I also am doing a call on wild crafting and the woman I speak to talks a bit about that phenomena as well, where the plants that you most need seem to appear around you when you most need them.
Fergus Drennan: They do. And I’m going to keep coming back to what you were saying about the pause, you know. Because the pause is so important. Because even these plants that are very common around us – and I have suffered from this many times – really it’s like you can become blank, your awareness isn’t there, you just don’t see them, you know.
And then you might have a particular ailment that you need treating and suddenly you see them there. Or – and this is a classic example – if I get into my kind of rushing around mode – got to do this, got to do that, got to harvest that, got to go and see – count this plant, you know.
Perfect example – I might be looking for a particular fungi and I’ve been walking around for hours and I can’t find it, you know. I stop to go to the toilet, you know? To nourish the roots of some tree somewhere, to give back to the tree. But there you are, you know? You’re not rushing around, you’re in that moment of stillness and suddenly out of the woodland floor comes the very mushrooms or the very plant that you’ve been rushing around in your busy mind like looking around for like three hours and not finding.
And that’s the moment when you just laugh to yourself, you know. And you think, oh dear, I wasn’t allowing those moments of stillness, of quiet. I wasn’t allowing that connection to happen, you know. And it’s so easily done – it’s so easily done.
So there I am standing weeing by the tree and everything is appearing.
Alison: Okay, Fergus, I’d love to move on to a bit more about you because you have some amazing projects on the go at the moment. So tell us about the 100 Percent Wild Food Year Project.
Fergus Drennan: Oh, I take a deep breath. You know it’s a project that I’m wildly excited about, but it depends on what day you catch me on it when you ask me about it. And also there’s a certain sense of intimidation, you know.
You know have I bitten off more than I can chew. So this is a project to go through the entire year just sustaining myself – I want to say sustaining – the main focus, sure is nutrition, but it’s also, you know it’s spiritual, it’s emotional, it’s psychological.
So sustaining myself entirely on foraged foods. And using that as a way to explore issues around sustainability, to explore issues around kind of pollution and toxicology. To explore issues around practicalities, you know. It’s very different to – like I have – where I live now, I’ve lived around this area for 35 years so, you know it takes a long time to get an intimate and intricate awareness and appreciation and connection with where you live. To really understand it and read it, you know like a book.
Read the kind of stories of what’s appearing and what’s going to appear. It takes a long time. So what I’ve done throughout this year, like every month I’ve structured the project so that I’m really tested in a different way, to look at a different skill as it relates to foraging. So yeah.
So one month, building on my knowledge of like 35-odd years of living in the same place, I’m looking at the issue of extreme kind of localism in a sense. Like a number of years ago it became very popular, like the hundred mile diet, you know. But in my life I always like to – although I think balance is very important, I do think at the extremes – it’s like you can journey through extremes and you can learn a lot.
Hopefully you’ll come back to tell the tale afterwards, you know. So for me like looking at the localism issue. So for one month only – for ten days I’m going to be foraging just within 30 miles of my house. For the next ten days of the month it’s 15 miles. And for the last ten days it’s within one mile of my home. So that’s really looking at – I can look at so many issues.
Issues of abundance, which is one key issue with foraging. The sheer volume and variety that is just within a small area, which I think many people really aren’t aware of, you know. So looking at that. But then that also looks at the whole issue of sustainability of, you know it’s no good trying to kind of look at foraging as – if you are choosing to look at foraging from a sustainability point of view, you know.
If you’re driving ten miles in that direction to get a few salad leaves, then 30 miles in the other direction to get some roots and then 20 miles in the other direction to get some berries. And I’ve been guilty of that, you know.
But it just doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make sense.
So that’s looking at that issue. But then there’s a very different skill involved in foraging on the move, you know. Not only in the terms of that you literally have to travel light. And one of the big skills that comes with foraging is knowing how to prepare and process and store foods, whether it’s through lacto-fermenting, whether it’s through smoking, whether it’s through more conventional pickling or salting or freezing or drying or, you know all these different methods.
How you do that on the move is going to be very different compared to if you’re just staying in one place. So for one month I’m looking to kind of walk around Scotland, which the kind of British Isles is one of the kind of few really wild places that has that kind of real essence, the magic, the kind of reality of the wild, you know. It really does, it’s an amazing place.
But also I see that now there are so many different dimensions from which people are coming from with their interest in wild food. Whether it could be permaculture, it could be raw food, you know? It could be bush craft.
So in the different months of the year I’m incorporating those kind of interests. I’ll really explore that and make that relevant to those particular interest groups. So for one month – and to be perfectly honest I think this might be my most challenging month. I’m going to explore whether it’s possible to be entirely raw, wild and vegan. I don’t have the answers. I’ve experimented a lot and I have this year in preparation, I have been 100 percent raw, wild and vegan for a whole month period, but over two months.
And I managed it and I felt great. So you can see, there’s so many issues to explore.
Just like, I mean the whole issue of raw food, which you know we could just do a debate on that for hours. Aliso
It can be a very cleansing diet, but it has to be relevant to the habitat and the climate that you’re in. And I think here in the UK, yeah, maybe in the hotter months of the year it’s possible to be entirely raw, whether it’s wild or not. But in the colder months it doesn’t make so much sense.
So it’s kind of interesting to hear me say this because I’m talking about doing a year of doing being 100 percent, you know foraged and wild. But as I say, you learn at the extreme. But in the end – but the answer is to find what works for you and to find the balance in what you’re doing, you know. A balance of wild foods in a raw state and all the benefits that they can accrue to you health wise and in other ways is well worth exploring. And I find to explore these things is often useful for a short time to do it 100 percent, and then see how you’re going to integrate that in a more balanced approach.
Yeah. Another thing I’m doing, which I’m probably more excited than anything else is when I first tried to live on wild food. Now this is back in 1995. I went on an adventure around Ireland. I just took my bicycle and a sleeping bag – that was it. And I cycled around for three months.
So I’m going to try and replicate that experience by cycling around Ireland, but just for two weeks, maybe a month at a push because – yeah, that was such an adventure. And again, it’s a different speed. You know the different speeds of foraging, whether it’s walking into town along the river that takes me two hours, whether it’s driving to the coast that takes me half an hour, you know – or whether it’s cycling.
The different speeds lead to different levels of engagement with the habitats you’re moving through. And certain different possibilities arise from that and it’s really interesting to explore that whole kind of notion of slowing down, you know. And what slowness – what the value of slowness can add to the richness of your experience, you know. So that’s in a nutshell part of why I’m doing this project.
There’s so many reasons – so many, many reasons. Obviously I want to explore the whole nutrition of wild plants as well, so I’m trying to get funding at the moment.
Do you know it’s quite interesting because people often say, what’s the nutritional value of that plant or this plant or x, y, and z? And to a large extent I do say yeah, we can look at that plant and I can tell you that it’s very high in beta-carotenes or that one’s particularly high in zinc and it can be useful to know that. But let’s not get too hung up on what each individual plant contains. Let’s just develop our knowledge so that we can eat a broad range of wild plants or other plants. And it’s just that broad range that provides the variety, not just in taste or flavors, but the variety of nutrients that leads to a balanced diet as well.
But at the same time I do find that with the nutritional information on wild plants that is out there, it’s so dependent on time of harvest, of underlying geology and soil type, you know, that it’s hard to find any kind of consistent information. So just within the areas that I explore I really would like – and I’m trying to get funding to look at the influences – the variables that do affect the different nutrients even in the same plants at different times of years and different habitats to get a fuller picture of what’s going on. So that’s one motivation too.
Alison: Great. So, just quickly tell us about the wild food guide as well.
Fergus Drennan: The wild food guide. So I wonder which one you’re referring to.
Alison: So on your website it says that you’re making a wild food guide made of entirely foraged materials.
Fergus Drennan: Yes. Yes, I’m working with an artist at the moment. And it’s such a wonderful project; it’s such a creative joy and pleasure to be kind of working on it. But it has its challenges. So an artist, James Wood, and myself, we’re working on a 380-page wild food guide that has 20 fungi entries, 20 land plant entries and 20 seaweed entries.
Now within each entry you’d have all you’d expect from a good wild food guide, you know backgrounds to the plant, historical uses, herbal use, you know description, habitat, confusables that you might mistake it for, any potential toxicology health warnings, but also herbal use and all of it.
And of course a lovely recipe, so you’ve got all that.
But what’s unique about this guide and what makes it such a wonderful creative challenge is that every single part of this book is itself made from wild material. So it’s been a steep learning curve for us because I mean I’ve been making paper from fungi for like the last five years.
But for myself and just, you know painting and writing I’m happy with the quality. You know it’s fine. But when you upscale that to book quality, to make this one unique book, you really have to refine your skills. So we were kind of a little naïve and over optimistic in our ability, so actually as this project develops we’re getting many more experts on board. At the moment we’ve got some guy that’s worked in the paper industry for 30 years but really knows about the technicalities of working with paper, so how we can improve our very basic papers just through our pressing techniques and the other wild materials that we add to it.
So it’s just really good quality so it can take the pigments, it can take the kind of the text as well, you know. So yeah, so all the paper is made out of fungi pulp essentially, and all the text is made either from plants, mushroom spores or other plant dye and pigments. And again, all the illustrations are made from those sources. So not only is it a guide on working with wild food, it’s also a guide on how to create art works and art materials and just work – just find another dimension, another reason to get out there and experience the wonder, the joy, the fascination of working with wild plants. Yeah, honestly, it’s so much fun.
Alison: Yeah, I agree. Wonderful.
Fergus Drennan: It’s such a steep learning curve. Boy.
Alison: Yeah. I’m sure. So if people want to learn more about you they can visit your website at furgustheforager.co.uk. Is that right?
Fergus Drennan: That’s it.
Alison: Yeah. And you offer classes and you have your information about your 100 Percent Wild Food Year Project. So if people would like to learn more about it –
Fergus Drennan: There’s not a lot of information up there at the moment. By the end of September I’m putting up a lot of information about it.
Fergus Drennan: But we’re not quite there yet. But yeah, there’s information on courses. There’s lots of free articles about working with wild food that you can access there too.
Alison: Lots of yummy recipes too.
Fergus Drennan: Yeah.
Alison: So I just have one last question for you before I can let you go.
Fergus Drennan: Okay.
Alison: And that is, what is your wild wish for the people listening to this call?
Fergus Drennan: What is my wild wish? My wild wish is that in whatever you do – and I do think profoundly that working with the natural world can facilitate and help this, but not necessarily, you know. But my wish is that you will do with whatever you want to do just by following what really inspires you – what your heart really calls you to do, makes you want to do.
Because if you then follow that kind of passion with your heart, you know, it just engenders connection, creativity, joy – yeah, and if I just think, there’s a lot of people that just get – sometimes in their life they get a glimpse, it’s like a door opens, and there’s this wonderful vista out there. And they shut it and they think, no, I’m too small, I’m not worthy, I can’t go down that path, you know. Or I’m too busy, it’s not for me, I’m not good enough, you know.
I just think really value yourself. Follow your passion, follow your heart and that will lead you always along the right path of what you want to do. Whether it’s wild food or not. That would be my one wild wish.
Alison: Beautiful. I love that wild wish, Fergus. And thank you so much for sharing your passion and your heart and your poetic stance on re-wilding. It has been such a pleasure to have you with us today.
Fergus Drennan: Oh, it’s been my pleasure, absolutely too.
Alison: Thank you.
Fergus Drennan: Thank you so much.
You can sometimes find Fergus here, but he prefers to avoid social media these days to prioritize his focus in the real world. There are some great posts on Instagram, too. And this is his website absolutely LOADED!!! with valuable articles, information and inspiration to guide you on your path back to the wild side of life!