It might seem like an odd thing to have realised so late in life, but over the last decade or so, I have come to appreciate how important a force kindness is. Whilst you might be weary of pithy social media posts bandying about slogans such as ‘if you can be anything in this world, be kind’ - interestingly, these seem to mostly be posted by ominous accounts with dogs and/or flags as their profile picture, because kindness is a complex beast - and other such triteness, actually the sentiment is bang on. We do live in a world where kindness is not only in short supply, but criminally undervalued. From the normalisation of internet trolling, to the excessive rise of sporting schadenfreude, we’ve become numb to everyday unkindness to the point that frankly diabolical political policies don’t really even get noticed. The BBC ties itself up in knots trying to remain impartial about laws being passed that would once have been considered abhorrent, immoral and inhumane. Blatantly unethical acts seemingly aren’t a barrier to getting you a slot on a chat show couch, a starting place in the national football team or being the leader of the free world.

There is hope, of course. Pockets of society can see what an absolute bin fire society has become in that regard. Individualism has overrun community-minded thinking on the whole, but small groups of kind folk do exist, even if their voice isn’t the loudest.

In my job as a foraging teacher, I’m always thrilled to see that when I harp on about sustainability, kindness and how important nature is for us, I am met with positive murmurs, enthusiasm and nodding. It’s probably no surprise that foragers are kinder folk - my guess is that a life spent hanging out in green spaces has quite the calming effect on an individual, and that calmness is a useful tool when dealing with a fellow human being in the nicest possible way - but it warms my soul to see that those looking to learn this excellent way of life also have an appreciation for the softest of skills.

When running any workshop, I always ensure I get a bit of a discussion in there about the culture surrounding foraging, including the laws, ecology and ethics one needs to take into consideration. The way I frame this is through a bit of a decision journey:

Am I picking safely?

Am I picking legally?

Am I picking sustainably?

Am I picking ethically?

The first three questions mentioned are for another time. The fourth, and most relevant to this piece, is the one that most often gets forgotten about. It refers to the kindness of foraging, and is no less important in my eyes than any consideration for the law or sustainability when gathering wild food (although I admit that picking safely is rule number one and that there is no wiggle room on this being paramount!).

What does that mean then, ‘picking ethically’? Fundamentally, it is about not upsetting anyone when gathering wild food. This is, admittedly, a clunky phrase to use and doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, because there are plenty of busy-bodies out there, who take great delight in telling people their feelings, even when not asked (“But I don’t want guitar lessons!”) so finding someone to express their displeasure at what you are up to is not exactly a challenge. This is where you have to hope you remembered to pack your ethical compass along with your mushroom knife and basket.

When teaching, I tend to use examples to demonstrate this largely undefinable facet of gathering wild food. 

Take new build housing estates as our first example. Undoubtedly due to (correctly applied) pressure from guardians of the greenbelt, when the inevitable spread of housing bursts into previously protected tracts of countryside, developers are expected to leave as much green space as possible between the new builds. Where the gaps between dwellings might once have been concreted over, aggressively turfed or assigned as a car park, you are far more likely to find a community orchard, a public raised bed or even a wild flower meadow (sorry, I mean a ‘wild flower’ meadow). These are valuable spaces and play a vital role in restoring the connection between suburbanites and nature. Yes, there might be a number of species for a forager to collect, but collecting the apples from an orchard that is used by a local primary school or helping yourself to the edible prizes that have been tended for months by local volunteers simply wouldn’t be very considerate. You wouldn’t necessarily be breaking any laws or harvesting unsustainably, but it could be strongly argued that foraging for food from those spaces is an unkind thing to do.

At the other end of the spectrum, you will find a surprising number of edible species in the public gardens of your nearest stately home. Prize roses, dahlias and tulips might all have edible flowers, and hostas, cardoons or daylilies offer as much as anything you’ll find in the walled kitchen garden. But help yourself to any of these for the purposes of taking them home for dinner and you will understandably suffer the wrath of the head gardener. You could throw some sass their way, insisting that the foraging here is legal (you aren’t trespassing and you won’t be selling it for profit) and just the existence of the cut flower industry will tell you how sustainable your wild harvest might be, but any reasonable individual can see how egregious that behaviour would be. They might well ask you to leave, in no uncertain terms, and I think they would be entirely justified in doing so.

(N.B It would technically be illegal to take any part of a plant that has been deliberately planted, but I wanted to use two common examples of where one might consider goign foraging to demonstrate my point)

That’s really all it is: it simply boils down to thinking about someone/everyone else’s feelings. It’s an easy mantra to toss out there - I have to remind my four-year-old about it on a daily basis - but it’s so easy to get wrong. Foraging enthusiasts have to respect the law and nature, but very few column inches are given to how important it is to be respectful to people too. 

So what about Forage Box? At the risk of this becoming a bragging (or even humble-bragging) section, do we practise what we preach? I’ve already alluded to how we teach the decision process mentioned above, which is an important thing to learn when starting out on a foraging adventure, but I thought I would take the time to dig a little deeper into how else we do our bit in trying to make the world a better place. The culture of any company is as important as any other business facet, so I try to set the tone accordingly. 

As with any hobby or passion, you’ll find online communities built on sharing their knowledge and experiences, maybe attracting novices trying their hand at it for the first time. However, this can harbour know-it-alls or purists, whose communication habits often make whatever shared passion a bit impenetrable. I don’t often join in on those groups as they can get a bit shouty, but trolling, ‘pick shaming’ or belittling fellow foragers is never how I operate - unfortunately, not something I can say for a small number of active users in this niche community, although most offenders tend to get called out on this.

Forage Box has changed over the years and so have the ways we give back to those who might need some help. We donated £1 for every wild food subscription box we sold to FairShare, a charity trying to tackle hunger and food poverty. In winter 2022, our Wild Deli served free soup made from leftover halloween pumpkins and wild ingredients to those who needed it. In 2024, we expect a community project to finally come to fruition in some of the poorest areas of the North West, which should hopefully see our ‘wild food bank’ hand out wild street food to those who might not have otherwise eaten that day - watch this space for news about that or get in touch if you are interested in getting involved.

Foraging, wild food and our interaction with nature is a big topic, full of complexities and loopholes that can lead us down many a conversational cul-de-sac, and in a world lacking in nuance and agreeable dialogue, this can bring out those pesky absolutists and aforementioned purists, who are often the ones who shout the loudest. It’s not very helpful - nobody has ever changed their mind after being ridiculed or shouted at - but compassion is king here. Take away kindness in any area of society and people suffer, be that in petty internet comments sections or international politics. Foragers and those who wish to connect with their food might not be at the forefront of worldwide debate just yet, but in our little corner of the global allotment, we can set the tone with how our fellow humans interact with each other as well as the world around them.

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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