Catherine Newman lives and writes in Amherst, Massachusetts.
““Yup,” Birdy says. “Spruce.” Birdy’s looking, in the field guide after passing me an evergreen needle to taste. “Oh, wait, no. It might be yew. Which is, technically, toxic. Oops!” Oops indeed.
Foraging is weirdly exhilarating, and it’s not only because there’s the possibility that you’ll be poisoned. No matter , we tromp through the woods, cramming leaves into our mouths like scurvied cave hominids, blinking in the fresh light. Everything tastes like the color green and nothing has a flavor you’d describe as mild. Dandelions are as punishingly bitter as a pill; garlic mustard tastes first pleasantly of broccoli and then shockingly of the acetone in nail polish remover; burdock is hairy and astringent. Chewing these wild things has so little in common with spacing out over a bowl of Cheerios, it seems funny that both things are called eating.
But why, exactly, is it so awesome? I mean, even beyond the fact that it’s free, that the plants are more or less tasty, that we’re outside in the dappled spring sunshine feeling smugly like self-sufficient pioneers.
“Why is this so awesome?”I ask Birdy, and she answers, like the child of a journalist with an interest in neuroscience, “Dopamine?”
One scientist calls this “effort-driven rewards,” when your brain gives you a hit of a good-feeling chemical for doing things it recognizes as life-sustaining— such as chopping wood, making food, and grooming our children. This likely explains my primate-y love of combing the kids’ hair for lice, and it certainly explains the deep pleasure of finding wild food.
We are hardwired to seek out nourishment.
Neurochemicals explain a lot. Foraging is making us high. And you can tell it’s the activity and not the greens themselves, because when we serve our foraged dinner, penne with wild pesto and a bowl of lightly dressed plants, our kin smile and nod politely. Clearly, for them, the experience is less like ecstasy, and more like being served a bad salad.
It’s something else, too. It’s that, for those foraging minutes and hours, I am freed from my meta life. The one where I’m hunched over a laptop looking at a high school friend in a tuxedo by a private pool, the city lights behind him like a galaxy of wealth, his wife in the foreground slumped over her phone, texting. Or enviously studying a Pinterest picture of a twinkle-lit patio.
I am free and outside with my muddy, pink-cheeked daughter, snacking happily on leaves.
Sure, symptoms of yew poisoning include an accelerated heart rate, muscle tremors, convulsions, collapse, difficulty breathing, circulation impairment and eventually heart failure. But fatality in humans is very rare. And I’m not actually looking for a risk-free life. Maybe I’m just looking for life itself.”