The title of Rebecca Randall Gilbert’s wonderful book, “Weedy Wisdom for the Curious Forager: Common Wild Plants to Nourish Your Body & Soul,” reflects the nature of her writing, which is filled with her own wise advice, observations, personal stories, thought-provoking perspectives on the world, particularly the rich magic of plants.
Gilbert considers plants to be our wise elders because, she tells us, “the plant kingdom, their ancestors the fungi, and even older cyanobacteria had already oxygenated the earth’s atmosphere long before animals came on the scene. For each of us personally, our individual relationship with the world’s plants began at birth, when we took our first gasping breath of oxygen-rich air … and this relationship continues with each breath we take.”
Gilbert began foraging at 6 years old when she spent the summer with her grandmother on Martha’s Vineyard. She has been exploring the subject — and grazing on the same farm — ever since. Gilbert is an educator at heart, sharing a variety of rural skills at Native Earth Teaching Farm, which she and her husband opened to the public in 2002.
When asked, Why weeds? Gilbert says, “I focus mostly on the plants that came over from Europe with my colonial ancestors. They’re common, not necessarily invasive, but easily available. They’re always around somewhere!”
The book arose out of the foraging visits from Camp Jabberwocky, the oldest sleepaway camp for people with disabilities in America. Gilbert structured her chapters around the eight classes she and the campers did over the course of a foraging season. Sprinkled throughout are elegant, illustrated drawings, recipes, hands-on activities, and profiles on plants that exemplify the respective lesson. Whether you randomly flip open to any page or read it through cover to cover, this little book calls out to be read.
This is not a text focusing on how to identify common edibles, but, she writes, “instead … on how to appreciate them, how to approach learning from and about plants, and how to deepen the connections that already exist. It is intended to give you the motivation and tools to put these plants to use.”
Gilbert begins with why to forage, glimpses about the wisdom plants offer, safety and comfort, “green literacy” — which is learning from plants — and a host of other fundamentals. There’s a class on leaves as foundational food; roots, seeds, and sprouts; enjoying invasive plants; edible flowers; finding flavor correspondences; working with fermentation; healing first aid for foragers; and cooking techniques. The more than 50 recipes are easy and alluring. Swap out potato chips for Leaf Crisps, which can be done with washed and dried leaves, stems removed, tossed with a few drops of oil, baked in a 250°F oven until crisp. Other alluring recipes include Dandelion Fritters, Easy Seaweed Cake, Seed Crackers, and even pet treats. “I hope readers walk away with at least one or two things that they want to try right away!” Gilbert says about the book. “Most of the recipes and suggestions are easy, ‘folk’ food and medicine, and don’t require us to be botanists or chefs.”
Tucked within the pages are all sorts of fascinating facts, like both cooked and raw greens are typically dressed with a combination of grease and something sour. Part of the reason it tastes so good is that this combination of fat, acid, and plant causes the nutrients in the greens to become significantly more bioavailable — more digestible.
In the section on first aid for foragers, we learn that foraging isn’t just for consuming your bounty. The section’s wonderful opening is an example of Gilbert’s accessible style: “One of the delights of becoming a forager is that you grow to feel more and more at home in the outdoors. The entire environment is your living room. There are snacks, amusements, work to be done, and constant entertainment.” She then goes on to profile three powerful common herbs for healing, and recipes for ointments, oil, balm, liniments, and even mouthwash.
In the foreword, Michael Leon, the Camp Jabberwocky counselor who worked with Gilbert, writes, “I trust you’ll find this book to be, like its author, full of wisdom and magic. Let these pages be your invitation to the delicious and unexpected world of secret greens — hiding in plain sight, and just waiting to be tasted.”
“Weedy Wisdom for the Curious Forager: Common Wild Plants to Nourish Your Body & Soul,” by Rebecca Randall Gilbert, $16.99 softcover. Available online and at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books, and signed copies at Native Earth Teaching Farm.
Gilbert will talk about the book on Saturday, Sept. 17, at 10:30 am at the Edgartown library.