As a kindergarten child, Alexis Nicole Nelson counted honeysuckle trees to her dearest friends.
She named the tree Priscilla after her great-aunt.
“I wasn’t very good at climbing trees,” she told me as she walked through the woods near her home in Columbus, Ohio. “But this tree grew that curved way, so I was in full control of just walking around, sitting on the branches and having a light meal with a few honeysuckle flowers.”
One would expect their 1.7 million TikTok followers to have such an enchanting origin story of Nelson known as the Black Forager. A 29-year-old woman, an urban adventurer who wanders from Central Park to the surroundings of her home, makes short, vivid videos of her edible discoveries in the forest. She collects unripe black walnuts for a version of the spicy Italian liqueur Nocino and praises the strengths of milkweed, a monarch butterfly favorite and the basis of Nelson’s air-baked donut recipes. .. And it all started with their inclination to see the tree as a relative.
While there are no clear statistics, collectors informally report an increase in practice during the pandemic.
Referring to the local Philadelphia community, Patrick Harley, professor and dean of the environmental faculty at Ursinus College said:
Nelson represents part of an increasingly visible community. Many young black people did not go to the forest to “go shopping”, but got to know less well-known fruits such as service berries, cold remedies and burdock through books and the Internet.
They want to fascinate guests with herbalists, grandchildren looking for southern roots, shoppers cutting food budgets, the only black kid who went to 4-H camp that day, or berries in the backyard. Home cooking or not, they often struggle against the contradicting history of separation from the land – and now that nature isn’t always a sanctuary.
According to Justin Robinson, the idea that blacks don’t do it outdoors has evolved over time and centuries. An ethnobotanist, farmer, and cultural historian in Durham, North Carolina, he rejects the term “foraging” and its practices as new to African American and the general public. He believes this word separates the world into disturbing cultured vs. wild binaries that don’t reflect reality.
“That’s what we do,” he said. “So life is!”
Robinson combines his love for the land and his work with the warm childhood he spent following the grandfathers of his two farmers and the adult years he unwittingly spent copying one of the gardens. But he knows that the black story is also a series of serious rural exodus, starting with slavery and forced labor in agriculture in indigenous and deprived areas. Increase. The low prevalence of slave masters turned slaves into naturalists, out of both necessity and opportunity.
There are many references to beating honey and finding food in slave narratives. In a 1937 interview with the Works Progress Administration, Charles Grandy, of Norfolk, Virginia, spoke about his escape during the Civil War and how he ate wild fruit for days. Livestock raising and land loss – due to physical and legal violence – followed. By the beginning of the 20th century, more blacks had migrated from the southern country to cities across the country. Some have vowed not to look back or look at the country again.
As Robinson said, black history is a combination of “food and land”. And Larry Golston is holding back part of his rural heritage.
Every May, Galston visits the barn near his home in Toccoa, Georgia. He is looking for something specific – and poisonous in its natural form: Phytolacca americana, pokeweed and Appalachians native to the south. Gholston, a 68-year-old retiree and community historian, works on the conservation of pokeweed, a dish made from pokeweed. For the past three decades, he has carefully selected small, soft leaves for the Memorial Day Poke Salit Festival.
He tries to impart knowledge to young people, including his 35-year-old son Seth Gholston, who puts on the event while his father cooks. Seth makes it easy to find plants that are 10 feet tall.
The festival aims to “preserve our heritage,” said Goalston. “A lot of black people will tell you, ‘I don’t eat this mess, man.’ It has an impact on poverty and the landscape. “
Pokeweed leaves, berries, and roots are poisonous to varying degrees, but many rural Americans once soaked, boiled, and boiled the leaves in a coral pocket salt (likely a derivative of a “salad”). I fried it. Chewing foods can send the eater to the hospital if the toxins are not neutralized. Few people now know how to cook properly, and few dare to do it. The exception is Goalston, who has perfected the technique by drawing on family tradition.
“My mother washed and cooked it,” he explained. “Some relatives will provide it for Sunday meals. Others will refer to it as a type of spring tonic. Elderly elderly people make wine with berries. People took the stalks and fried them like okra. “
His focus on black independence is in line with a new generation of black explorers. When I met Nelson in Jeffrey Park, where Columbus real estate became a public resource, I thought of his ingenuity. Nelson is a master of the forest. It’s the walk-through talk of a plant factoid and a ridiculous ginger who encourages fans with a cheeky but serious prayer to the collector: “Don’t die!” And her trademark smile with a void.
What you don’t see in her video is how well she looks at the tree before touching it, how gently she plucks the leaves, and how often she doesn’t take anything.
As I picked up a black walnut from a fallen branch, two deer sprinted ahead of me. It is never painful to follow up and see what they see, she said. However, I noticed that the animals were devouring behind a huge mansion in the forest. Given the movie “Get Out” and the early warning of a white man and a character not alone in the woods, I asked how comfortable she was feeling.
“I like to dress up and do all the makeup. Who doesn’t want to rush through the forest and feel like a female fairy? But some of them are definitely very accessible. It’s about how it looks, ”she said. Even in the chilly autumn of the Midwest, Parker is no longer on their list of approved foraging clothing and is being replaced by a sturdy cardigan.
Imagine yourself as a tree spirit in peasant dress with bold lips and loud, but you cannot entirely prevent unnecessary attention. Nelson said she was stopped quite often by random whites and rangers.
This is a common complaint from black people exploring the outdoors. A widespread incident in 2020 (a black man was attacked while on a hike in Indiana after being falsely accused of black bird watching for threatening a white woman in Central Park) was confronted by collectors. This is an extreme example of everyday encounters.
Robinson said he parked his car once to see the colic look on the other highway. A few minutes later, law enforcement officers arrived to investigate the theft.
“I don’t know if it’s configured, but I was literally in the open,” he said. “I don’t think anyone except the Bible thief digs a hole in the field to hide their wares.” After a brief chat, he went home.
Fushcia-Ann Hoover, the hydrologist who published A Black Girl’s Guide to Foraging, decided to search for food in her well-known Annapolis, Maryland, and take her sister’s adorable Shih Tzu with her. She quoted a black camper who was attacked by a white man outdoors.
“If it’s that dangerous or dangerous, it might be easier to say,” Oh, we’re not going to do that, “she said. “So that you don’t feel lost.”
Likewise, Lady Danni Morinich, a 57-year-old former advertising saleswoman in Philadelphia (her title comes from a small Scottish package that a friend gave her as a humorous gift), tea, tincture. We sell other products. With picked herbs. She doesn’t romanticize the fact that she’s often the only black person on game food exchanges or the consequences of bringing a jackknife into the field. .. Because if you walk you can be killed by a black man. “
As I chased Nelson down the winding road, her eyes sprinted across the ground, down to the canopy, and down again. She pointed out the early papaya fruit that glows green six meters above us. She said it was one of the few she was willing to trample on poison ivy.
Others are grouse and morels. She laments the lack of a Spider-Man mycological sensation to find the latter. But their knowledge is deeply rooted. She can recognize the plant by the shape of the leaves, whether the fruit is crowned or not, and by the smell of the roots.
At another fork in the road we stopped at a sloping tree. In the case of mushrooms, the sick tree is supposed to clear the ground. Nelson picked some medium-sized, brownish peach tree ear mushrooms. I joked that the shade would be the perfect neutral lipstick for us – two black women exploring the wilderness. She crumpled one up and held it in front of her face. Folded this way it resembled the human ear and was poorly cut, Van Gogh style.
“If I do that, my partner hates it,” she said with a laugh. Nor was he interested in trying candied mushrooms in plain syrup.
Cooking for others is the main motivation for Maryland scientist Hoover. She used Nelson’s Magnolia Flower Experiment to fortify water flavored with stir-fries (ginger-like flavor) and wild lemon sorrel. She even figured out how to dip the acorns, a necessary part of making flour, in the toilet tank.
Your family and friends may be ready to watch the “Fushcia Project,” but for them black freedom is a bigger and more ongoing project.
“It is powerful to name things around you and to know what they can or cannot be used for,” she said. “As a black person in this country, I have an increasingly independent feeling.
“Some of us are such rebels that we know and can accept things because we are told we shouldn’t.”