In a commentary on the Heart Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh compares the purity of a rose in a vase to the squalor of a garbage can:
“In just five or six days, the rose will become part of the garbage… And if we look deeply into the garbage can, we see that in a few months its contents can be transformed into a rose… Roses and garbage inter-are. Without a rose, we cannot have garbage; and without garbage, we cannot have a rose. The rose and the garbage are equally important. The garbage is just as precious as the rose.”
When everything is interconnected and interdependent, the pure and the foul are not so easily separated, and the line between the marvelous and the mundane dissolves.
Over the past couple years, I’ve come to view foraging wild plants as a practice in cultivating this nondualistic view. It’s a reminder that life is full of wonder and awe, value and benefit, beauty and complexity—and yet so much is easy to dismiss and look past.
In The New Wildcrafted Cuisine (2016), Pascal Baudar notes that a life spent foraging has given him “a true sense of balance, harmony, and freedom.” When you’re out there under the forest’s canopy, amid rolling desert hills, along splashing shorelines, “the chatter in your head, the crushing sense of time, seems to just slow down and cares disappear after a short while. You can simply be present in the moment and experience the environment fully and with all your senses: smell, touch, hearing, taste, and sight. It’s an amazing state of awareness.”
While many have found a connection between garden-tending and mindfulness meditation, there’s a difference between tending to the wild garden rather than the cultivated one. As Baudar continues:
As you get to know the plants and understand their world, you realize that you’re truly surrounded by pure, unadulterated life forces and, with time, your relationship with their environment becomes more intimate. You become simply part of the environment as a human being, not trying to dominate plants and place them neatly in rows after rows over endless acres of sorry-looking-land. You understand nature is not trying to dominate or scare you, either. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
This sort of sentiment is commonly shared among foragers and wildcrafters—that stepping outside the tamed space of the cultivated garden gets you in touch with yourself and your surroundings in unique and rewarding ways. Those untamed, wild spaces are also much more democratizing in comparison, since they are typically public and shared places rather than the private properties associated with cash-crop cultivation and rigid garden rows.
While foraging is often characterized by knowledge and outdoor adventure, it can also be just as much about sustainability and revolt.
While foraging is often characterized by knowledge and outdoor adventure, it can also be just as much about sustainability and revolt—about realizing and embracing the close connection with our natural surroundings and rebelling against an industry and perspective that reduces uncultivated plants to ornaments on a nature walk or unwanted intruders in our public spaces and in our yards.
In particular, urban foraging carries such subversive, rebellious qualities when framed as an affront to our modern, industrialized food system. But the deeper truth is that learning more about our landscapes, and what naturally grows in them, can also help us become more present, connected, and excited about our surroundings, further unlearning those distinctions between the ordinary and the spectacular. In other words, when foraging becomes our mindfulness practice, we can better appreciate the unappreciated—not just among plants we might otherwise disregard or disparage, but in all aspects of our lives.
Wild foods can also be incredibly nutritious and delicious—often more so than their cultivated counterparts—and they inherently have stories attached to their harvest and preparation that can make shopping along an aisle seem rather banal and disconnected in comparison. Most people don’t realize, for example, that the purslane (Portulaca oleracea) growing through the cracks in their sidewalks contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green, that the stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) they avoid could otherwise provide them with essential amino acids as a complete protein, or that Mahonia berries (Mahonia aquifolium/repens) make a fantastic jam.
Alan Bergo, the James Beard Award–winning “forager chef,” sums up the lifestyle shift a fascination with wild foods can offer in The Forager Chef’s Book of Flora (2021): “Foraging, in my mind, isn’t just an act—it’s a mindset and a healthy way of life. It’s about the willingness to look beyond the status quo for exciting and unconventional ingredients…and a desire to have a more personal, meaningful, and gratifying relationship with our food.” It’s that relationship, I’ve discovered, that can help open us up to a much more mindful awareness and existence too. “As we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel nature’s details, we become more present, and compassion and love grow within us,” Zachiah Murray writes in Mindfulness in the Garden (2012). While foraging can help us connect more intimately with the environment, the attentive sentiments and sensibilities fostered in the process can spread throughout our everyday lives in general as well.
When I first started learning about the culinary, medicinal, and practical value of wild plants in my area, I made it a point to dedicate a month to a single plant before moving on to the next. My broader knowledge is still elementary as a result, but I know the plants I have spent time on extremely well. And now I see them everywhere. In many ways, this clearly demonstrates a sort of frequency bias. When we get to know something—especially for the first time—we tend to see it a lot more often, as if it’s suddenly appearing more frequently. It’s not, of course (not usually, at least). We just notice it now. And when you know something—when there’s a name attached to it, when you know intimate things about it, when you’re able to confidently engage with it—there’s also a certain sort of respect and protective attention granted to it as a result. As Murray writes, “A greater intimacy with nature is born of our willingness to look deeply.” When we know something, that thing is now particularized rather than blurred in our periphery, and we’re more attentive as a result.
One of the first plants I studied was the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). It’s probably among the most abundant plants seen growing in urban areas. It’s also such a versatile perennial, having so many culinary, medicinal, and practical uses. Unfortunately, it’s often labeled a noxious weed and largely neglected and drowned in poison to the detriment of the soil and living things surrounding it. But the yellow flowers and fluffy tufts are some of the most beautiful sights for me every spring. Flowers, in general, of course, effortlessly capture our gaze. Perhaps, it’s because, as Murray claims, “they model pure presence” in that their beauty emerges by simply “being what they are, without vanity or apology.”
“The flower does not mind its impermanent nature and is never moved to complain.”
Stealing our gaze, wildflowers can also beckon us to look more deeply—to see that their cycles of growth and the connections upon which those cycles depend are not much different from our own. “Like the flower,” Murray reminds us, “our bodies are of the nature to grow old, die, and be cast off.” When we stop and admire them, she states, we are also presented with an opportunity to observe beautiful equanimity in a powerful moment amid life’s impermanence. “The flower does not mind its impermanent nature and is never moved to complain.” And it stands as a powerful example for how we might approach our lives as well.
According to Murray, “we can witness all of life in a single petal.” In other words, when we consider various phenomena, such as a wooden table or a cup of tea (a couple of Thich Nhat Hanh’s go-to examples), looking deeply into them reveals all of the nonwooden table and nontea elements that led to and are responsible for their existence—and by extension, the effects they have on other phenomena to which they are also intimately connected. So when we look deeply into a dandelion, we might also see in it all of the nondandelion elements—not just those that directly contribute to its physical existence, like sunlight, rain, and soil, but also the communal reach that the dandelion has with everything growing and living around it, how that reciprocally affects its surroundings, and how that conditions the existence of the lives it touches as well. Looking into a wild plant like a dandelion can remind us of the impact we have on the environment and its myriad inhabitants and cycles. We can see the sun itself, the clouds that produce the rain, and the pH and minerals in the soil. We can also see the sun’s energy and the conditions for it to affect flora on Earth, the hydrologic cycle and the cleanliness of our water, and the engagement of other living things with local soil and chemicals inadvertently or consciously being introduced.
We impact and affect our world in all sorts of ways, and learning how to appreciate the otherwise unappreciated can also help further disclose the nuances of paticca-samuppada (interdependence) throughout our lives. Learning about our wild garden can help enable us to become more mindful and aware of our presence in what surrounds us, how to welcome, understand, and be more attentive to everything we sense and perceive, and foster an ability to learn from what we encounter and observe rather than cut ourselves off through destructive and false dichotomies. Mindful foraging—or simply mindful spectating—can help us see how interconnected everything is in this world. And while the lobed, basal leaves of wild, flowering plants might not always be so pristine, the point is, they’re just as spectacular.
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