Academic journal article Educational Research Quarterly

Helping Students Go Feral: A University Course on Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants

Academic journal article Educational Research Quarterly

Helping Students Go Feral: A University Course on Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants

Article excerpt

A university course on wild edible and medicinal plants is described. The course objective-student skill in identifying and using wild plants as food and medicine in a safe and enjoyable way-was fulfilled. Students acquired not only botanical theory but also hands-on experience in securing their own free nutrition and healthcare. They gave high marks to the course and even demanded extra classes-certainly a first in my career.

For all the current emphasis on teaching about the natural environment, it is amazing that we have failed to educate the public about gathering wild plants-the most prevalent natural objects around us-for their food and medicine. Surprisingly the United States, reputedly the home of pragmatism, has singularly failed in this respect.

Many reasons can be adduced for the failure. First, the sociological dictum that macro structures influence local processes suggests that civilization itself is prejudiced against wild plants. Since the inception of agriculture, humans have deluded themselves with the anthropocentric notion that they are above nature and hence do not need the wild. They believe they control nature (and ignore the fact that nature controls them) and hence mass-produce their own food and medicine from farm and factory. Thus, wild foraging is disparaged as primitive, while spending hard-earned money on nutritionally and medically dubious products is lauded as civilized.

Second, civilization's Judaeo-Christian tradition seems to have a special animus against the wild. From the unfortunate association between a wild apple and the moral collapse of humanity, to the one between herbalism and witchcraft (during the "Enlightenment"), this religious tradition has hardly been sympathetic to wild vegetation. Yet, whatever the moral value of wild herbs, their ingredients, biochemically speaking, still offer nutrition and healing.

Third, the current political economy of civilization-capitalism-ignores and disparages things that make no profit, especially free nutrition and healing from the wild. Every language is a theory: products from supermarket and pharmacy are labeled "food" and "medicine," while their wild botanical counterparts that do the same more safely, cheaply, and effectively are labeled "weeds" and the humans who consume them "poor." Who wants to be called a poor weed-eater? Yet if education is supposed to empower students to provide for their basic needs, and not make them dependent on remote institutions, then we must take wild edibles and medicinals more seriously. Strangely, we teach the young to negotiate supermarket and pharmacy, but not their own backyard, which is chockfull of food and medicine. Certainly the owners of food and drug companies prefer it that way, but is that way serving our students?

Finally, the public fears that "Johnny will be poisoned." Yet upon just a little reflection, the anxiety is untenable. While occasionally we hear about hospital admissions of children who have eaten wild plants and gotten sick, it is clear that Johnny poisoned himself not because he was educated about wild plants but because he was not. Indeed, you will find many more toxic plants, profitably sold, down the street in commercial outlets than in the wild (e.g., daffodils). The simple fact is this: If Johnny is going to poison himself, he will most likely do it in and around his own house with store-bought plants, not wild ones.


To redress this failing, I taught a course called Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants at my university in the fall of 1997 and again in the spring of 1999. The logic, which I shared with my students, was as follows.

* Familiarity with wild plants can save lives. It is first of all a survival skill, removing a major latent anxiety: IfI am stranded in the wild, can I feed and heal myself?

* We value what we use. By not using the wild's bounty, we have little reason to preserve it; that is the root of the ecocrisis. …

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