By: Bryan Martin
With empty shelves at the grocery store and rising food prices, many parts of Canada saw a huge increase in hobby gardeners last year. Living in eastern Canada, where spring only arrives moments before summer, those of us without a hothouse are left waiting for warm weather before we can at least realize some sort of self-sufficiency in the food department. And why not, our grandparents did it and their parents before them. But as a gardener of many years, I wanted to go deeper, accessing fresh food when the north winds blew and the sky still threatened with snow. I wanted to go back generations before, when the people were in tune with nature, when people knew where and when to harvest the most delicious of foods wherever they strolled. Although there has been a bit of a resurgence in foraging, which simply means ‘to collect wild foods while in season, much of the resurgence has been picking dandelion, nettle, and mushrooms, but as a marine educator I wanted to focus on the coastal side of things. Similar to increasing our connection to ‘the land’, why not foster our connection to the seashore. Seashore greens (and browns) are an excellent spot to start since there are relatively few local species and for the most part, the plants that do grow there only grow at the seashore and nowhere else. To top, many of the seaveg are rich in iodine and other micronutrients.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in a web-based training session on coastal foods and foraging through a group named Cod Sounds. Lori was able to give me the push that I needed to dive in and experience ‘cuisine born from the land’. During the short class, I learned about some of the local beach plants, when to harvest and how to prepare, I learned about the uses for different seaweeds and kelps, how to harvest various mollusks, and the most rudimentary of all, how to make salt, a product that was once worth more than its weight in gold in some parts of the world. Best of all, these foods taste like nothing you can find in an aisle of the grocery store. By having more of us out foraging, we can hopefully increase the collective relationship that we must maintain with the ocean. Although we can’t all work on fishing boats (nor do we all desire to), we can all aspire to grasp that same connection. As I’ve written about before, these connections are vitally important for the survival of our sea, since as Dr. Sylvia Earle continues to say “with knowledge, there is caring, and with caring there is hope.
Not that long ago many of our Mi’kmaq friends harvested a large portion, if not most of the food and medicines that they consumed, from the forest and the coast. It was a part of the belonging to the land. With global trade and the industrialization of food, sadly foraging has become a dying art within all cultures. There is no better time than now to learn from our elders while they are still able to get out on the land and teach us, no better time than now while those coastal areas can still produce the foods we’ve eaten for Millenia. Through foraging, we can be a voice for the protection against destructive development, that very destruction that would destroy those same foraging grounds and the habitat we all so desperately need for so many other reasons.
But how do we get involved if we don’t know the first thing about foraging? Start by going for a walk along your local beach (or forest if you live in a landlocked area) and see if there are any plants you recognize, are there any shells that seem familiar? See what you notice. Get out there and try, it is easier than you think. Pick up ‘The Sea Garden’ by Marie Power if you need a reference guide. Best case scenario is you come home with some lovely food, worst case, you get a bit of exercise and fresh air. While you are at it, bring a spare bag to pick up any beach liter that you see.
If you can, call up a friend who forages and get out there with your basket or bowl. If you are someone who already gets out, consider bringing someone you think might enjoy it and keep the tradition alive. When you do begin to forage, check with local authorities to ensure that you can do so legally in your area and also make sure that the water is clean, especially during the time you plan to harvest (i.e., make sure there is no sewage outflows nearby or that the area isn’t closed to shellfish during particular times of the year due to harmful algal blooms). Be vigilant and make sure to be go on a calm day, preferably to a relatively sheltered beach where getting washed into the surf is not a risk.
Pick or gather what you can identify (hence going with a friend). Be respectful and follow the etiquette rule of 1/3, meaning you don’t pick more than 1/3 of what you can see, especially the flowers or reproductive parts needed for the plants to come back year after year. Ideally, as Robyn Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass would say, never pick from the first plant you come upon as you have no idea if it is the only one. Best leave that one to reproduce. Join a group to find out ways to eat or cook these delicacies, or better yet, find someone, an elder or other, who will take you out and show you what to harvest and prepare. I’m sure they would be more than happy for the company and the opportunity to keep the tradition alive. As with any food, when you do find some plants or organisms to harvest, go easy at first to ensure you like it and that your body can tolerate it. As a bonus, while going with an experienced person you will likely learn much more from them than you would a book or an app. And most of all, have fun feeding yourself (for free!) while enjoying a lovely walk on the beach. You might just taste the best salt you have ever had, I know I sure did. Happy Foraging!
Bryan Martin grew up near the Bay of Chaleur in northern New Brunswick and, despite living, studying, or working in all four of the Atlantic Provinces, has never strayed far from the ocean. Having little kids near the ocean prompted Bryan to get involved with the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium, which is where his adventure with ocean education began. His education and work experiences have taught him about ecology, geomorphology, and ocean systems. Bryan currently works as the Clocean Engager with the Maritime Aboriginal Peoples Council, shedding light on emerging ocean topics within the community of off-reserve Aboriginal People in the Maritimes. Bryan currently lives within a stone’s throw from the ocean in PEI with his wife, two young girls, and “little” black dog.