Straight off the top, yes it’s another article referencing my mental health. My anxiety and related paranoia sit precariously atop a knife edge every waking second and, whilst I have it under control the vast majority of the time, frequently even forgotten about in the farthest depths of my busy head, sometimes there isn’t a right side of the bed to wake up from. This is not some great confessional - in a previous article, I’ve made it very clear that any mental health blips should be considered in the same category as any physical ones - but much like anyone with a dodgy ankle or spasm-prone back can attest to, sometimes these things flare up.

The great news is that I have the cure. The secret, the answer, the holy grail of dealing with it. No surprises (you’re welcome) about what it might be: a bit of good old fashioned great outdoors. Luckily for me, that happens to be where I earn a living, operating entirely now as what one might call a ‘professional forager’. You aren’t going to find that in any drop-down menu when taking out insurance, nor will that even seem like a proper job to some, but I assure you it most certainly is, and life is better with more of us around. 

When planning this piece exploring what someone with that job might do, I did consider drawing inspiration from a throwaway end-of-weekend-supplement-magazine interview, whereby the tedious subject of the piece rises at 4am, no doubt inhales a line or two (redacted for print), bangs a wheatgrass shot and then does a claimed 16 hours of solid work. That’s not my style, nor does it sound like the behaviour of a well-rounded individual. Instead of pretending there is a typical day, it would be better to go into some of the fluctuations of the role, ignoring the large proportion of my time spent either at a laptop or mucking about in the kitchen, the garden or my local green spaces - important parts of my day, but no different to an amateur enthusiast forager. I’ll spare you the dull admin side of the role, save from saying that I know that, right this second, there are beautiful parasol mushrooms, porcini and chanterelle in prime condition near to me. I’m twitchy because I can’t go and get them until today’s workload is tackled!

My working days can be split into two very distinct types: workshop days and non-workshop days. A workshop day is spent teaching the wonderful art of foraging to groups of keen ticket holders, most often public sessions but with frequent corporate gigs, hen dos and kids birthday parties scattered across the wall calendar to keep me on my toes. They always include exploring somewhere beautiful, including a meticulous recce of each venue to squeeze out the wild ingredient potential for each attendee, before ultimately teaching a diverse group of intrigued people about the world of wild food.

These were not my gateway into the world of full-time foraging, yet they are exceptionally more-ish and I cannot deny that I get a rush from standing in front of a crowd of people who have paid to see me in action. It’s a hit that hasn’t faded too much, seeing people get off on my passion for the subject, and one I don’t have to push the limits of to keep getting that high. Whether it is a drizzly Sunday morning in suburbia or a full day’s stomp in glorious autumnal woodland, I love it. I really, really love it. My life now revolves around my young family and the education of an ancient tradition, and I wouldn’t change it for all the high-earning desk time in the world.

Cliche-clad job centre advertising will tell you to find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life. Of course, this is largely spin, with the reality of the vacancies listed being endless identikit positions of desk-based drudgery. Positions to fill in the spreadsheet brigade. The yuppies networking, tethered to their workspace by landyards. For some, this is their calling. No judgement here, barring one of potentially limited imagination. Fulfilment and long-term satisfaction must be pretty thin on the ground though. Log on and grind out until I turn seventy? You’re all right, thanks. Add to that the unstoppable snowball of AI replacing the vast majority of desk-based roles, threatening the livelihoods of the existing human robots in offices across the world, and I feel like I’m in this for the long shift. It’s not like foraging is the focus of the rapidly expanding AI industry (although with the rise of sketchy mushroom ID apps and AI-generated foraging guides available on Amazon, maybe I am being naive!) so I feel like this might actually be the so-called ‘career’ I stick with.

I am by no means the only one, either. I am a member of a wonderful organisation called The Association of Foragers, a sort of ‘Who’s Who?’ of notable foraging outdoorsfolk. You could not get a professional body further from the typical embodiment of an industry collective, with very few LinkdIn profiles floating around and a love for nature, rather than capital, setting the tone. Whilst it is by no means a comprehensive collection of all professional foragers worldwide, that seems to be an aim and anyone who is anyone within the world of wild food can be found in our ranks - if, like me, you have a collection of mushroom, foraging and generally wild cooking books on your shelves, any author of those is almost certainly involved in the association. Having met my fair share of the group too, I can attest to their fine characters too, with each and every one of them a nature-loving, ecologically-minded member of the foraging community. Don’t get me wrong, there are some wrong’uns in the foraging world, but these tend to get weeded out. Ambition makes you look pretty ugly. Red-top headlines ensue, courtcases follow, and soon us lot doing it right are tarnished with the same brush as the real villains flirting with modern day slavery and excessive ‘stripping’ of the land. As anyone who spends time in the countryside can attest to, it’s the very small minority ruining it for the vast majority.

Back to my own job in the foraging sector (can you imagine how awful it would be if that was actually what people called it?!) and to the days when I’m not teaching or doing company admin. This is the clincher for me - I get to spend my actual working day foraging as anyone other enthusiast might. I literally get to go into the woods, researching, learning, writing and foraging for a living. It would be easy to get wrapped up in merely running a business, but I am still very much connected with nature and acutely aware of the changing of the seasons like anyone who spends time outside. I used to be anxious about the seasons passing me by, worried that I was somehow missing out on a certain harvest - a sort of Foraging FOMO, I suppose - but am more at ease with it now, knowing that it will roll on again next year. I didn’t preserve any wild garlic this year, for example, not least because I can’t fit much else in my walk-in fridge (yep, just sat out there in the garden) but also because I’ve got a good twenty kilograms of wild garlic fermenting and aging since last year. I needn’t worry - it will be back as a reliable crop next year.

These days, any anxiety tends to come from a sort of embarassment at being caught picking plants or mushrooms. I am very proud of what I do, but there is a distinct wide-bearth and funny look given to a bearded man hanging out in the bushes or out for an early morning walk without a dog. An incorrect perception from the masses there, but I understand how it is, and more often than not I take my kids along to act as an excuse forcefield. A dad picking fruit with his daughters is wholesome and makes old people beam. A not-quite-but-nearly-middle-aged stranger rummaging through a hedgerow results in an almost opposite reaction. I am getting better with not caring and I will try to engage people who might ask what I am doing, even more so if I remember to carry my dry-bag of flyers, pointing out edible invasive species or particularly delicious plants, perhaps even humouring those who quip the classic ‘are they the magic kind?’ or ‘all mushrooms are edible once’ lines.

They say that our work-life balance is askew in the UK. We have a deeply unhealthy relationship with our jobs, working far more than we need to and retiring with little to show for it - the correlation between our working hours and pension are one of the leanest in Europe. Our working hours are long, strained and leave little space to unwind. In my case, I am fortunate to spend my working week doing precicely what I do in my time off but, for so many others, foraging is something you might get to do a couple of times a year. It is considered to be an old-fashioned pasttime, but really shouldn’t - the wellbeing of the population has never been under so much scrutiny, so enriching our lives with activities like gathering wild food might be better considered a necessity, rather than a novelty. My job is to ensure that it is done responsibly and safely, with maybe the odd dash of inspiration thrown in to connect people to their food a bit more and hopefully provide relief to stressed minds in the process. And it’s the best job in the world.

I’ve written this because I think someone will enjoy reading or take comfort from it. If that’s not you, that’s cool, but please keep it to yourself - I don’t need your constructive feedback.

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