There’s something magical about finding a patch of wildness in the middle of a bustling city. A few weeks ago, I followed a previously unknown path down to a secluded spot on the banks of the Dodder where, as traffic whizzed past high above us and the river trickled quietly by below, a small pebble beach lay uncovered by the very low flow. Around it grew elder trees with fist-sized clusters of dark red berries, brambles weighed down with a glut of blackberries, a good salad’s worth of peppery wild watercress on the bank and – what the . . . Oh! tomato plants? The work of an opportunistic guerilla gardener, perhaps.
I was actually on a mission to beguile a young child with a small, green, easy-to-miss plant that smells exactly like pineapples when you squeeze its flowers, but we came upon this little wild feast instead and got a bit distracted. Wild food is something that often distracts me: berries for jams and tonics, greens and leaves to add to salads and soups, fruit for chutneys, especially tasty flowers for cordials or flavoured honey, or my most recent – and most cautious – interest, mushrooms. I have been known to take diversions in order to check the ripening progress of a particular bush, or book my annual NCT at a test centre with an especially good hedge for rosehips. A walk cannot happen without regular wild snack breaks.
It hasn’t always been this way, though. While I am definitely a natural foodie, I am not a natural naturalist. There was a time not too many years ago when I couldn’t have told you the difference between an oak and an ash. Trees were trees, hedges were hedges, grass was grass, flowers were a) roses, b) daffodils, c) other. Native or non-native? Uhm . . . Crow or blackbird? Not a clue. Foraging? That’s something for hippies and ruddy-faced celebrity chefs in their idyllic country farmhouses, not people like me. How wrong I was.
Many of us – urban and rural alike – experience the world with poor natural literacy. This makes it hard for us to “read” the world around us, to understand it, make sense of it, appreciate it and value it, in all its complexity and diversity. I think of this lack of natural literacy as a kind of cultural poverty that affects not only our quality of life, but also the quality of the natural environment: learning about nature and using that knowledge is one of the most powerful acts of conservation we can take.
We live in a world where it’s perfectly normal to be able to identify hundreds of corporate brands from 50 paces, but knowing the names of different species of birds, plants, insects and mammals that live around us, their calls and habits, the shape and flavour of their fruits, their rareness or uniqueness, and which other living things they’re most closely related to, is not. There’s something wrong with that.
Luckily, it’s never been easier to notice nature and get to know it in a way that we can enjoy. Aside from the traditional identification guides and books, there are apps and Facebook groups dedicated to everything from birdsong to wild feasts, where you can find a helpful community ready to share tips, tricks and recipes.
If you’re hungry to improve your natural literacy, make a start with three basic berries – navy sloes, blood-red elderberries and everyone’s favourite, the blackberry – and you’ve got the makings of both a very tasty jam and an afternoon of awe and wonder. And while up to your armpits in a hedgerow foraging for berries, you might well notice the weird-looking pincushion gall on the wild rose bush, or wonder why the blackthorn’s spikes are especially painful in autumn (hint: wear good gloves), or spot bees frequenting a late-blooming ivy flower you’d never even realised was a flower before, opening up a whole world of exploration.
Even better, autumn is the perfect time of year to get outdoors, look beyond bureaucratic notions of “green space” and begin to make the acquaintance of the wealth of life therein. Natural literacy is something we can all be better versed in.
Hannah Hamilton – @theriverfield – is a sustainability consultant specialising in biodiversity conservation and environmental communications