Professional Forager Helps Others Learn the Land
Mar 31, 2016 10:25AM
● By Shelly Tower Rushe
Nature has provided sustenance for man for thousands of years; it’s only been in the last century that we’ve come to depend almost solely on grocery stores to provide our food. This system worked fine for a time, but recent events, such as GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) food concerns, overconsumption of processed foods leading to health issues and obesity, food safety issues, and factory farming horror stories point to major problems in our food supply. As a result, more and more people are looking to find healthier, local alternatives to the modern grocery store.
Adam Haritan is one of them. Haritan believes that learning how to forage, identify and protect the plants and animals around you is a lost art, and he is hoping to help spur a revival. Haritan is founder of www.LearnYourLand.com, the first online national database of plant, mushroom and animal naturalists.
Haritan, who studied nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh, first became interested in wild plants and animals when he discovered their overwhelming nutritional value. “Some of the healthiest cultures in the world are those that depend on the land,” he noted. After taking his first ‘food walk’ on the South Side, he soon became more of a naturalist than a nutritionist by combining his love of the two into Foraging Pittsburgh, where he leads wild food walks and gives educational presentations on the subject.
In his experience, he’s found that fewer people are spending time outside (in fact, the National Wildlife Federation found that children are spending 50 percent less time outside than they did 20 years ago) and that those that do weren’t taught how to safely distinguish plants and animals. “You may have been taught biology in general, but you probably weren’t taught about the specific animals around you,” Haritan explained.
He also noted that people who want to get more knowledge often don’t know where to go. “We have the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club here—one of the best mushroom clubs in the country—but most people don’t even know about it,” he said.
That’s where LearnYourLand.com comes in. All you do is visit the website, indicate in what area of the state you live and the topics that most interest you (for example, birds or foraging) and a list of naturalists and events related to that topic will pop up. Signing up for the email list will ensure that you’re the first to know of upcoming events; some events are free while others charge a nominal fee.
Haritan strongly encourages new foragers to connect with an expert, whether it’s a naturalist, nature center or a specialty organization, in order to safely learn what plants and animals are safest. Being aware of and respecting protected plant species is another benefit of having a specialist along. “When we don’t know our local species, we then lack any meaningful connection to them and are more likely to show apathy when their existence is threatened,” said Haritan.
He added that just walking in nature is a great way to get started. “Immerse yourself in nature,” he stressed. “See what interests you. Whatever pops out at you, whatever you notice—pursue that.”
While some might consider this a scary prospect, Haritan firmly believes that the threats of foraging are over-exaggerated. “There are far more benign plants than dangerous ones,” he assured.
While investigating on your own, some plants will be exactly what you think they are; apples, for example, or cranberries. “If you are ankle deep in water, there’s nothing else that it could be but cranberry,” laughed Haritan.
Other plants are not so straightforward, which is why Haritan continually stresses that it is crucial in the beginning to have someone with you who knows without a doubt what is safe. “It’s a skill, like knife skills or driving a car,” he said. In time and with help and practice, you, too, can learn your land.
Upcoming Event April 16: Spring Foraging Workshop, North Park, $45. Visit www.ForagingPittsburgh.com for more information.