Walking for Food Teaches Primitive Skills in an Unlikely Classroom

Zack Rouda, left, eats some wild blueberries while leading a group on an edible plant walk in the Eastern Prom August 9, one of the wilderness classes taught by Rewild Maine in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

On a windy August evening along Portland’s East Parkway, Dani Unterreiner and Angel McCorkle walked arm in arm behind their foraging guide with rapt attention. Zack Rouda of Rewild Maine was leading an urban foraging walk that inspired four of the group of 14 to take diligent notes. Unterreiner was the next one, filling a nature journal with plant facts and sketches. Right next to her, McCorkle listened intently, equally intrigued.

The Portland couple called the urban foraging class a ‘game changer’ because the life skills taught could help them spend more time in nature, eat healthier and maybe just save on energy. ‘grocery.

“I wanted to learn how to complete my groceries and make buying food more affordable,” Unterreiner said. “With inflation, everything has become so expensive. We also like to hike and we always wonder what we can eat.

“Now I want to try turning Japanese knotweed into fruit leather. It was delicious,” McCorkle added enthusiastically of the knotweed samples shared by Rouda.

Offered by the non-profit organization Rewild Maine, the course teaches people how to connect with nature while becoming more resilient and less dependent on commercial products. Foraging, especially for mushrooms, has grown in popularity in recent years, especially during the pandemic. But those who run urban foraging walks across the country say such classes are still rare in city centers.

“People have definitely been doing this since the 70s,” Rouda said. “But when I started Rewild Maine, I thought there should be wild edible walking tours in every city in America. They are not. We need to keep these skills alive and find the most sustainable ways of living. »

Christopher Nyerges was one of the first to teach urban wilderness survival skills when he began teaching his wilderness food outings in 1974 in Los Angeles.

A teacher at Los Angeles City College and author of 22 nature books, Nyerges first studied botany in elementary school. From an early age, he became fascinated with Native American traditions and learned to reduce the weight of his backpack while camping. His curiosity led him to the Self-Reliance School he co-founded with his wife to teach self-reliance, sustainability and survival. Five decades later, many of his students have gone on to teach similar courses across the country, but Nyerges said most are not taught in urban settings.

“I know of one in Portland, Oregon, and another in Arizona that travels to urban areas. But most don’t, as far as I know,” Nyerges said. “The know-how is old. It’s bushcraft – how to make things in the desert. I think technology has made us dumber in the sense that we rely too much on technology. But during COVID, there was huge interest in my classes.

Zack Rouda’s Edible Plant Tour in Portland Parks has the distinction of taking place in an urban setting. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

New York City park rangers teach similar courses in wildlife tracking and outdoor survival skills at parks in the city’s five boroughs. But a class dedicated to urban foraging isn’t on the city’s parks and recreation schedule.

In Portland, Oregon, Peter Michael Bauer has been teaching urban foraging classes since 2002 and founded the nonprofit Rewild Portland in 2010 before partnering with the city’s parks department. It now offers urban foraging courses that have attracted up to 80 participants.

With an urban landscape around him, Bauer learns to forage and make quiche and pesto with nettle; how to use invasive Japanese knotweed to heal wounds or as a medicinal tea to relieve symptoms of Lyme disease.

“It took us 10 years to create the momentum necessary to serve as a model. We were just in (the city) in the beginning, until the pandemic. Then we went online and taught in the Czech Republic and Australia. I now act as a consultant to try to start programs in local communities,” Bauer said.

Since Rouda modeled Rewild Maine after the Oregon nonprofit five years ago, he now attracts a dozen foraging college students each month on his free walks. Other Rewild Maine classes offer lessons in survival skills like animal tracking and primitive shelter building. Some courses are free. Most cost between $15 and $35. A tool-building course can cost up to $65, although Rouda offers scholarships.

Unlike Rewild Portland on the west coast, Rouda’s nonprofit does not partner with the city’s parks department. But he acknowledges during his classes the good the town does for pickers – such as planting wild blueberries for the public to enjoy. Additionally, the city’s Restrictive Pesticide Use Ordinance makes it safer to forage and eat wild plants in Portland.

Zack Rouda of Rewild Maine shows off a chicory green he found on an edible plant walk in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

By far the most popular class is the Free Wild Foods Walking Tour which is offered bi-weekly from May to October on the Eastern Promenade.

“Not everything on the schedule is very crowded. Sometimes only two or three show up,” Rouda said. “But often 10 to 20 will come. .

The free urban foraging walk two weeks ago was billed as a two-hour seminar on how to find edible plants, but after an hour Rouda offered to cut the class short on a perfect night out. ‘summer. None of the 14 who showed up walked away. So Rouda went on and filled the entire two hours with information on how to use weeds, leaves, flowers, and plant stems for teas, dehydrated goodies, salad greens, and wine.

Rouda taught how sumac cones can be used to make tea; how rose petals can be used to make wine – wine rich in vitamin C; goldenrod and dandelions can be used in salads; Burdock root – which is sometimes sold in the Portland Co-op – can be used as parsnips which go well with garlic and onions.

Some plants are poisonous and therefore need to be researched and identified correctly, Rouda reminded the group. For example, staghorn sumac – which grows like a shrub or tree – should be used rather than poison ivy to make wine or tea.

The biggest draw during the class was the lesson on the invasive and often despised plant of Japanese knotweed. Although often considered ugly, the stem of the shrub can be used to make a primitive flute, grilled like asparagus, or made into a sauce or dehydrated treat. Rouda shared small samples of the beef jerky type appetizer that was tart and sweet.

Lincoln Leach, a Maine native who recently moved from California to Lyman, said the foraging walk opened up a world of possibilities and after two hours he wanted to know more.

“I saw this on Facebook and wanted to learn more about bushcraft,” Leach said. “It’s also an excuse to be in nature. I was kind of hoping to find these classes in my home country. I saw these lessons online and wanted to learn this.


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