This article first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 issues a year right in your mailbox.
By Shane P. Mahoney
While acquiring food is essential to the lives of all species, humans express a unique emotional connection to what we consume. Food, for us, is memory and family; it lies at the center of ceremony, both joyous and sad; it is heritage and identity and a communal expression of connection, love, trust and understanding. Seeking it, preparing it, consuming it, even just thinking about it … all stir emotion. Food is a medium of extremes. We use it to demonstrate wealth and position and humble generosity, as well as our talents to cultivate and create. We even go so far as to abuse it, denying ourselves or overindulging. But one thing we really never do is consume food mindlessly. Why is this the case? And why does it matter?
Understanding our relationship to food helps us clarify our place in the world and leads us to reflect on our past. It also forces us to ponder our future. These, too, are uniquely human things to do. All species can show miraculous adaptations to acquiring food. But only humans have shown the drive to acquire food through the shaping and controlling of their environment. For us, the animal called human, acquiring food leapt from basic nutrition to guiding our fate long ago. Ultimately, our foods shaped the human journey. It is hard to conceive of another medium that so explicitly ties us to our collective cultural past and yet remains so vibrant in expressing our incredible diversity today.
It is in a sense, ironic, then, that the human quest for food now lies at the centre of nature’s own struggle for existence. We have turned the table, it seems. How we will feed the billions of our own kind is now the greatest challenge we, and many of our wild foods, face. Food, once more, lies at the intersection of prosperity and hope for our species.
Seemingly it always has.
Photo by Alex Sienkiewicz
Our Foraging Past
The human journey has been a long one, beginning in Africa during a period of dramatic climate shifts, some 8 to 5 million years ago. As ice sheets expanded and pushed away from the North and South Poles, more and more of the earth’s moisture was sequestered. Locked in great continents of ice, it became unavailable to fuel the dense vegetation of earlier, warmer times. As air temperatures also fell, the lush, expansive forests of Africa gave way to a highly productive mosaic of grasslands, lakes and gallery forests, providing our earliest direct ancestors with access to an extraordinary range of habitats and foods. As our life in forests retreated, we perfected our capacity to walk upright. Being able to cover vast expanses efficiently, we uncovered new foraging opportunities and developed the unique skills required to pursue them. Our road to modernity had begun.
To this day our species still expresses a wide diet preference (and a love of walking), as well as a natural longing for the dispersed vistas and varied landscapes of our birthing time. Indeed, we strive to recreate them in every manicured lawn and tree dotted backyard. Nature’s claws dig deep, it seems, and the pursuit of wild food lies very much at the heart of this remembered past. It shaped who we were and who we remain. And, like a shadowed conductor, it orchestrated many of our most defining characteristics, including our capacities to use fire and develop technology. These capacities developed early and were critical to our species’ success, certainly; but we sometimes forget that the propelling force behind them was our search for food.
While our chimpanzee relatives can fashion and use tools to a limited extent, the dawn of tool manufacturing by our direct ancestors dates back some 2.6 million years and, by about 1.8 million years ago, had already matured to a level surpassing all other species. By this time, we were carrying around pre-fashioned tools, not just picking up a stone, using and then discarding it. We had also moved fully into a terrestrial way of life, and while still eating a diverse array of foods, we were clearly expanding our use of tools to access and butcher wild meat.
The benefits of tool use (and meat consumption) were extraordinary and affected many aspects of our biology and culture. In a process of mutual reinforcement, technology and animal flesh increased both our brains and overall physical size. These developments, in turn, opened up even more foraging opportunities and enabled us to improve our technologies – and not just for taking large animals. These tool advancing activities included highly profitable but less athletic and lower risk ventures, such as digging for calorie rich tubers buried in hardpacked soils and mollusks in the wet sands of lake and ocean shorelines.
Roaming wild landscapes, gathering wild foods, building open fires, and using technologies to enhance our experiences may seem like modern diversions. But they are far more than this. In a most profound way, they represent the intersection between ancient memory and the exercise of our enduring naturalness as a species.
The point is that our primary drive to develop technology was nutritional, not primarily for weaponry or defense. This resilient aspect of our species, that unbroken arc between perfecting our earliest stone tools and building the incredible space stations of today, is indeed profound. At its center, however, was our basic need for food.
So, too, with fire. While various claims place our opportunistic use of fire as far back as 1.5 million years, clear evidence suggests that somewhere around 800,000 and certainly by 400,000 years ago, we were making habitual use of it. Of all the benefits fire brought to early humans – warmth, protection from predators, fashioning of tools – there can be no doubt that its use for cooking food was the greatest. Not only did it vastly expand what could be eaten, such as the tough stems of plants, mature leaves and tubers; fire also rendered meat much easier and profitable to digest, breaking down collagen and other connective tissues and killing parasites and bacteria, as well.
Releasing meat’s full dietary potential is considered a pivotal achievement in the development of the human species, and our resilient desire for animal flesh is easily explained. And, certainly, the controlled, purposeful use of fire is one of the uniquely human things we express. We remain fascinated by fire to this day. Like so much else we consider defining of our species, however, fire’s use is also deeply rooted in our pursuit of wild foods.
With so many critical aspects of our humanity tied to it, it is little wonder that reconnecting with wild foraging seems so much like coming home. Roaming wild landscapes, gathering wild foods, building open fires, and using technologies to enhance our experiences may seem like modern diversions. But they are far more than this. In a most profound way, they represent the intersection between ancient memory and the exercise of our enduring naturalness as a species.
Exploring these connections helped shed light on why hunting and gathering matter so much to the individuals who engage in these activities today. It also helped bring into focus how food, and wild food, in particular, could lie at the center of building coalitions to support nature conservation.
Conceiving the Wild Harvest Initiative
Trying to rediscover the deep, visceral connection to provisioning from nature is true for cultures the world over. It is not hard to explain why. Not only does our past drive us there, but our modern replacements simply fall short on so many fronts. While foraging at commercial grocery outlets is a modern necessity that becomes routine, the harvest of wild foods tends to build a sense of purpose that is forever original. Furthermore, grocery stores are practical, but they are also predictable, unstimulating and relatively impersonal. Harvesting from the wild, on the other hand, is evocative, highly personal, and builds a strong sense of identity that is highly valued within the community of practice. And, while grocery store aisles do not inspire a connection and value for the origins of the foods available, natural harvesting connects people to landscapes and natural processes they come to highly value and wish to conserve.
These thoughts, and the earlier reflections on our development as a species, provide some of the foundational thinking behind the Wild Harvest Initiative. Was there some way to discover amongst these ideas of origins and modern longing a force for conserving our deepest expressions of humanness and the natural world? One thing was clear: If there was one vital requirement for building such a movement, then finding an authentic voice was critical. It was also critical that the authentic voice should be connected to food; it should care about its own preservation, recognize its own inherent value and see its own actions as exemplifying a way of life that was worth fighting for. It was, furthermore, critical that this authentic voice be deeply connected to the original lifestyle that had shaped our species, so that its ties to nature were deeply intrinsic, emotive and intuitive, and that its experiences were reinforcing because, by their very nature, they revisited the founding culture of humanity. Most importantly, this voice must have been raised in the service of nature and the wild things that have no voice of their own. Where to find this voice was the question.
These qualifications apply fundamentally to all who harvest from the wild, of course, but they also reach out to those who create their own foods in relatively natural circumstances such as home gardening or smaller scale, free-range animal husbandry. Centrally positioned, however, are the recreational hunters and anglers of the United States and Canada, a constituency that has fundamentally expressed alignment with the harvesting of wild animals, that believes deeply in this authentic way of life, and that has for a century and more spoken for the wilderness lands and wild denizens of our nations. It is also a constituency that is increasingly challenged by modern philosophies towards nature that are reinterpreting our relationships with other animals, and that often view lifestyles involving the harvest of living things as anachronistic, cruel or both. Thus, the hunting and angling constituency has one more characteristic to recommend it in the fight for wild things: Its own sense of identity is fundamentally linked to nature’s future abundance. And, the community’s lifestyle is threatened.
For all these reasons, preserving the wild foraging lifestyles of hunters and anglers was seen as critical to the survival of wild things – and the survival of wild things as critical to the future of hunters and anglers. But the survival of hunting and angling requires something nature does not – social license. And what, of all justifications for this activity, is most likely to resonate with the wider public? The use of wild nature as food. Consistently, hunting for food enjoys the highest level of support in society; and because of the evolutionary lines of evidence it likely always will.
So, once more, the pursuit of wild food looms with an influence that extends far beyond physical requirement to potential social driver. Indeed, could wild food harvesting become the rallying cry for conservation, uniting all foragers from Indigenous peoples to recreational participants the world over, and rippling out to embrace best practice ranching and agriculture and commercial wild fishing communities as well? Certainly, these questions resonate with a mobilized army of participants, in all of these communities. Their collective energy, if it could be harnessed, would be simply awesome!
Photo by Everett Garcia
Introducing the Wild Harvest Initiative
Conservation Visions’ Wild Harvest Initiative intends to make this hopeful vision a reality. Its purpose is to educate, advocate, build and inspire alliances, influence public and political opinion in support of natural harvesting and to positively impact people and nature. Like the hunter-based North American Model itself, this initiative seeks to remind us of the values and philosophies that are foundational to a nature centric way of life.
Launched in 2015-16, the Wild Harvest Initiative is the first science-based advocacy program to evaluate the combined economic, conservation and social benefits of recreational wild animal harvests. The initiative recognizes that wild harvesting is not limited to animals, and that hunters and anglers have many natural allies in the wider community of wild resource harvesters. The WHI intends to build an accurate picture of this integrated network of wild harvesting activities, from hunting and angling to mushroom foraging, berry-picking, firewood and shed antler gathering and medicinal plant collection.
Working with partners like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Wild Harvest Initiative will provide a new and innovative assessment of wildlife’s value and the benefits wild harvest activities bring, not just to hunters and anglers, but to all citizens, including those who may be generally opposed to animal use. In the longer term, the program looks to embrace best practice animal husbandry, recognizing the efforts being made by many ranchers and farmers to provide domestic animal protein under free ranging conditions, thus helping build alliances across the healthy food sector. How to bring all of this into focus is a daunting challenge, but with hunters and anglers, we have a solid place to start.
Shane Mahoney is the president of Conservation Visions and founder of the Wild Harvest Initiative. He is an internationally recognized conservationist and wildlife advocate, and a foremost expert on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 issues a year right in your mailbox.