Rewilding for Better Nutrition
Just to show that no matter how much you know, there's always another new idea out there if you're open to it, I had just written an article about Common Sense Health Tips, and along comes something that moves the goal posts of nutrition, called rewilding. This is going to be a post with many "soapbox" moments. I can't help that, but I'm not as critical of the modern world as some who practice rewilding. To be honest, I haven't practiced it in more than 15 years and until recently I didn't know there was a word for it. About two years ago I was reminded of it by a random email I received. Recently, I've been inspired by a new book I'm reading.
Matters of nutrition are central to my health, and often have a lot to do with Celiac Disease. I don't think a person needs rewilding to recover from CD, but I will lay out my belief that my health deteriorated after I stopped taking actions like passively foraging for some of my food. I did that in secret, and when I told someone, there was never a good reason for why other than I liked to. So now there are reasons and explanations and I couldn't be happier to read about them. Other people have done more along this path than I, and I'd like to share some of it with you.
Isn't it frustrating when you "knew something" on a subconscious level, but it didn't crystallize for you until someone else put it together? Well that's exactly what happened when I started reading Arthur Haines' latest book, A New Path. It's about a subject called "rewilding" which is, to live as much like a hunter-gatherer, with as much ecological awareness as possible, while not absolutely rejecting the modern world. This means, doing things like foraging, hunting (he's a bow hunter), and spending a lot of time outdoors, among other things.
It's possible that his opinions seem more "out there" to other people, but to me, they are like the echo of my subconscious. There are one or two places so far (I'm not finished with the book) that I have disagreed with, but overall, I'm left wondering what happened to me, because I left these beliefs behind at one point.
As a budding environmentalist in the 1990s, I discovered I wasn't radical enough to work for Greenpeace, and anyone working on actual cleanup wouldn't hire a 20 year old woman, either because we're too honest, or because it's risky work and they saw us as "weaker" and more likely to get injured.
Some of that part of my life "went to sleep" and I broke down and worked in Information Technology instead (where they blithely asked me to install 80 lb printers without help). So if your kids are thinking of taking this path, take my advice and tell them to study engineering. The rewards are better and the opportunity to make a difference far better. Voice of experience.
When I got sick, I started to wonder if I had spent too much time outdoors. I grew up in southern New Jersey amid the Pine Barrens and cypress swamps and for 6-7 years I spent so much time outdoors that I daily checked for ticks and found one almost every day. About 4 times a year I found one that was already embedded in my skin. Chiggers were another thing that happened about twice a month, not to mention mosquito and fly bites. Did I get Lyme or Q Fever or some other never-diagnosed but awful thing? The fear of this is very real when I'm exhausted and can hardly stay sitting up for a few hours a day. But the memory wasn't all bad.
I used to forage for wild berries and edible leaves all the time. And when I wasn't doing that, I was hiking, meditating, or sneaking out at night to glory in the moonlight through the trees. I know how to prevent looking like a threat to a pack of wild dogs because they are frequently wandering the woods. I can swim in snake infested water without upsetting them. I used to joke that my perfume was citronella, and I preferred moccasins not because I was some kind of nouveau hippie but because it felt good to feel the sticks or grass or earth under my feet, and they absorbed the citronella and I had to use less. Does it sound crazy to miss these things? Does it sound backward? I don't know. I know how I feel about it.
I think there's danger in ignoring intuition. I have instincts about things, especially things related to my well being and yet I sometimes ignore them until there is more evidence. Yet I didn't go find the evidence for my intuition. I could analyze why, but the point is, Arthur Haines didn't ignore his intuition, but followed it to a logical conclusion, or several really. I'm envious and inspired. However, in my physical condition, it's unlikely that I'll be spending as much time on it as he does for a while, or maybe ever. But any step in this direction will make me happier.
Wilder NutritionOne of the things I believe is that our soils are more depleted than ever and that's certainly true. So farmed foods are becoming less nutritious unless they're organically grown. However, there's an even bigger picture that I missed. Cultivated crops are diluted sources of nutrition and wild foraged foods, though less "productive" are more concentrated. I used to take "eat the weeds" very seriously as a regular practice. And now I'm wondering if stopping this practice added to my health loss.
When I was in my 30's I could feel that I had lost something. I didn't have the mental focus to meditate as much as before, wasn't as fit, and lacked the will I once had for strict dieting. I never knew why, but I did get some lab tests showing some vitamin deficiencies. Since doctors are told to test for certain deficiencies, but aren't told how to frame that for patients in any really helpful way, it was like information in a vacuum. What could I do other than take pills for it? Now I know how it went wrong and when and the timing is correct. I stopped foraging, I wasn't "just getting older" I was losing vitality.
Even PhD's are confused on the best way to get nutrition anymore. I mean, did you notice, now it's 10-15 servings of fruit and veg? Plus a multi-vitamin? Plus a "green food product"? I mean, I did get to the point myself where I decided greens are their own food group and should be eaten daily. But we're missing something if we think that humans throughout time were eating this much vegetable matter every day.
Plus where would hunter gatherers get multi-vitamins? They obviously didn't need one because they thrived well enough to get us to agriculture (for better or worse). But these days, we can feel the difference if we skip the daily multivitaimn and mineral, especially if we have chronic illness. But even in my 20's when I was foraging regularly and hiking, getting lots of sun, etc, I could feel it when I forgot to drink my morning vitamin drink.
So I propose a step wise wilder-nutrition process:
Eat as far down this list as you can, as often as you can. We're not perfectionists living a perfect life, so don't worry if you manage to only get halfway down. It will still be an improvement that I'm confident you will be able to feel.
1. Conventional produce and meat. Don't knock it, most people rely on this, so we still have to fight for it to be as nutritious as possible. Ignoring this category or considering it beneath contempt is an act of violence against everyone who can't afford organic food. Don't ever shrug and say "oh it's just conventional, so whatever." It matters to millions of Americans how that's grown, this category of Americans includes most elderly people, so even if you don't care about "the poor" do you care about your mom and pop? We're all in this together. The default option should be good enough to not produce chronic illness and right now, it isn't.
I suppose technically, packaged foods from the "middle" grocery aisles of the supermarket should come first. Those who are desperately poor (warning, heartbreaking video) can't afford to risk letting food go bad, so they don't buy fresh foods. This is an urgent problem that should shame all Americans into action, raising the minimum wage to a living standard that reflects our status as a developed country.
2. "Unsprayed" but not really organic produce or meat that claims it's grass fed but isn't certified organic. I really don't think grass fed meat deserves the prices it's asking. But PCO is hopefully going to clean up that act. We will see. This is a category that is kind to farmers and is better nutritionally than the first, but it's still basically a compromise. One of the main reasons why organic meat is hard to find is that the meat case for fresh meats that are organic must be completely separate from the meat case for conventional meat. I've only found one butcher shop in NC so far, that has this setup.
3. Organic produce and meat. Meat is especially good when it's organic and (when it's beef) certified grass fed because all steps in producing that meat have been organic, including the production of the feed for the animals (that means, organic grasses). With meat like that, you can safely eat the fat because it will have a more balanced omega-6/omega-3 fat profile. However, it's not yet the pinnacle of nutrition, that would be game meat.
4. Home grown garden plants, perhaps a few chickens. I've already written about this subject so I won't repeat it. But which plants you choose in your garden is also important. Heirlooms are not just a matter of elitism, but nutrition. And keep a little space for nutritious "weeds" and strange foreign imports with medicinal value. You don't need to grow exactly what everyone else is growing.
4. Forage for local plants. Here are some resources, it's incredibly easy to get into! And please do try to relax about "poison" plants and mushrooms, the odds are you won't encounter them often. Other than poison ivy I have never encountered a poison plant, to my knowledge. I admit I stick to morels and chicken of the wood with mushrooms though, it's hard to mistake those for something poisonous.
Is it really more nutritious? https://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/wild-foods-zmaz86jazgoe
By the way, this is the perfect time to collect pine pollen, if you're not allergic. My mom was allergic, and I can tell you that the way you tell is, your mouth tingles when the pollen touches it. If allergic, avoid it. But otherwise, it's very nutritious. Take a look at the price on bee pollen and you'll see why I made a special mention of it.
5. Go fishing. I am very nearly too squeamish for this even. So I understand if you are just going to buy wild fish instead. I mean if I'm going to eat it, then at some point I'll have to cut off its head, or let it suffocate out of water. Either way, my spirit shudders. I suggest you avoid catfish, not because they're "toxic" but because they can survive longer without air than other fish and if you have the sympathy bug like I do, it will not feel good to clean one. People debate whether or not fish is toxic. I think it's better to risk toxic fish than to risk poor nutrition. I also happen to like smaller fish, but you'll have to become a master at picking out bones. Still, sunfish are delicious and much less likely to be full of mercury, plus they're easy to catch, and don't have an overfishing problem.
6. Hunt for wild game meat. Obviously this is easier said than done, and some people don't have the emotional fortitude for it. But it's an endeavor worth attempting. This is probably the most controversial thing I've ever said on this blog, and that's up against some stiff competition with things I said about drug companies and public policy and organic farming. But gun control is a visceral issue in the US and my support of natural hunting behavior for human beings, in the woods, while seeking nutritious food, is not to be misconstrued as if I were condoning people acting cruelly to each other.
When it comes down to it, I think that all life has dangerous moments and that the more we learn to trust ourselves and each other in these moments, the better. So I don't think we should regulate everything out of life until everything is safe and bland. I think we should learn to be controlled about the dangerous parts of ourselves. I think that teaching kids dangerous crafts like blacksmithing or hunting gives them a feeling of empowerment and responsibility. Even cooking can be risky and can teach one to trust one's self and one's skills.
Go in groups if you go hunting or just to a certification class. And don't stop with just target practice. Also, consider bow hunting. It's not as awfully hard as it sounds and it's much less lethal to other humans in the woods. (Yeah we can debate that, but no I won't, it's been debated in other places.) So the worst that will happen if you attempt this, is, you'll get certified to use some weapons, and become familiar with them. Demystified is good, even if you don't actually own a weapon, ever. You might learn some target shooting, and then drop out of it, most people do exactly that, so there's no shame in it. Everything beyond that depends on your temperament, and unfortunately today, your gender.
As a woman who's taken NRA classes (seriously can we please find someone else to teach gun classes? anyone?), I've experienced how hard it is to do anything other than go to a firing range and practice at targets. And as a former martial art student, I know that kind of practice isn't really practical and won't lead to anyone being safer just by having a gun and being good at target shooting. A person needs situational strategic thinking to make their life safer. OK so that was my little soapbox about personal safety and weapons.
But it's equally true for hunting. Try to go on a hunting trip, even a paid one, as a woman, or join a hunting club as a woman. I tried, and the silence was deafening. I think it's extremely dangerous to exclude women by simply not returning calls, because it would've forced me to wander the woods alone unaware of where people normally set up hide locations. There was a moment where I was imagining that in my head. I wasn't unwise enough to do it, but there are more determined people out there who will. I leave it as an open question whether I will ever actually go hunting.
So that leaves me, and some other people, with the buying option which is expensive and can even be risky. Bbuying and selling wild game meat is often illegal. In most places, it's illegal even to give someone else part of your hunted meat. If you want to have game meat, the best option is to hunt it yourself, or have a family member who does. Lately, there has been some modernization of game meat since demand is very good and it provides a cottage industry in rural areas. One driver of the new laws is the problem of boars in Texas. Wild boar meat is something to look for because even my supermarket sometimes carries it (frozen).
Here is a list of options for legally buying game meat: https://www.thespruceeats.com/best-places-to-buy-wild-game-meats-1666078
Read carefully, because the question can now be asked, how wild is wild? Are "overpopulated ranches" a wild place? Well they are certainly a good source of meat that's from animals considered a "pest" by the rancher. This is a great option if you can't bring yourself to hunt, or for whatever reason, you just don't. Like all things, habitat change and destruction is affecting not just the animals, but us too.
I'm not alone in lamenting the modern limits on optimal nutrition, but I can see how the connection between habitat destruction and optimal nutrition can seem vague. While there are others who also talk about nature divorcement, I'm going to stick with Arthur Haines's explanation because it's his book I'm reading right now. To see the connections between nutrition and wilderness, a bit of rewilding needs to take place first. You have to feel invested in nature before you can really care about nature, I think. What better way than to make your own gumbo file from local sassafras leaves, for instance? How much more will you care about a wild stand of trees after you do that, even once? That's the principle of rewilding.
Take It Slow
Just take a few steps in the direction of rewilding. It won't be nearly as hard it seems. Parts of it can be expensive though. But buying some wild game meat a few times a year shouldn't hurt the budget too much for most people. And everyone has wild(?) clovers in their flower beds. So assuming you're not spraying chemicals there, it can be an easy way to get some non-cultivated, slightly wilder greens. Once you start down that path, it can become a healthy addiction. You might consider looking for a local foraging club, tours, or just teaming up with some friends to hunt for wild plants more safely together. It's also a wonderful activity to do on a weekend with kids, once you have some experience. Obviously people take kids fishing and hunting, so why not foraging?
Finally, there are some wonderful children's books that tell a good story while incorporating nature interaction. Carl Hiassen writes books for older audiences too, of which my favorite is probably Nature Girl. It was a bookstore owner in NC that first mentioned him to me and I sensed immediately that his worldview matched my younger self very well. (How did she guess?!) The loss of corner bookstores with well read and interested owners is a giant loss to humankind. But that's a subject for another time. In the meantime, happy reading, hunting and gathering.