Recently, I was asked to write a book review for the African Journal of Range & Forage Science.
I know, it is a bit odd. I am not a sciencey person and although I am a writey person, I have never actually written a book review. I had also never read an entire book as a pdf on my computer – that was a challenge on its own. However, in the spirit of seizing interesting opportunities that pop up, I said yes, explaining that I would only be able to do it my way, which would not be scientific at all. They seemed happy with that and apparently, the author is interested to hear what a free-spirited foraging foodie thinks of his epic work.
I am thrilled that I agreed because Nourishment is an incredible book. I had never heard of the book’s author, Fred Potenza, before but I am delighted to have been introduced to him. I may just have a new hero. One who says things like “We are the Earth and the Earth is us.” When I tell people on weed walks that I believe we are made of the same things as the trees and weeds around us, how foraging connects us deeply to our place on the Earth, many probably think I’m a bit dippy. I don’t mind because I do absolutely believe that. But when a smart scientist says the same sort of thing, and talks of “Foodscapes, Heartscapes, Thoughtscapes’…
Nourishment – What animals can teach us about rediscovering our nutritional wisdom
By Fred Provenza published in 2018 by Chelsea Green Publishing www.chelseagreen.com, 416 pages ISBN 9781603588027
Terroir is terribly trendy. Local, seasonal, organic is the food mantra of celebrated chefs and foodies across the globe.
Despite this, many humans have little connection to the food they consume, with no idea of how, or where it is sourced, and pay almost zero attention to the idea that food is medicine.
Fred Provenza (Professor Emeritus, Utah State University) is a wise and curious observer. He appears to have spent his whole life carefully watching the world around him, paying attention, and taking time to puzzle over his observations. His life as farmer, scientist, teacher, hiker, fisherman, traveller, and his fascination with all things wild and free, has created the perfect conditions for him to publish his latest book Nourishment.
Provenza writes in an engaging and accessible manner. Introductory paragraphs are poetic descriptions of the world he inhabits, his connection to the landscape of his life. The titles of the chapters are enticing – How to Poison a Rat, Cow or Human, Linking Palates with Landscapes, Extending our Stay in Wonderland – and tempt one to delve deeper into the book, skip chapters and return to favourite sections. While some readers might consume the entire work in one go, most will slowly savour a particular chapter, return for a second helping in a day or two and take small bites of the most succulent sections.
Skilfully he weaves threads of philosophy and common sense with memoir and science, to create an exceptionally interesting book. Much of his academic life has been spent researching the eating habits of animals, of which he has a deep understanding. His animal research is discussed in detail; however, he also asks the question – would humans be able to self-medicate if left to forage freely? Provenza shows that animals pass on their knowledge of how to maintain optimal health to their offspring, so why is it that humans consume so mindlessly?
Over millennia, humans (and animals) have co-evolved with landscapes – learning exactly where to find the food necessary for survival in a given season. Shamans and healers observed the eating habits of animals, learning to treat sickness with the abundant pharmacy provided by Nature. For most of homo-sapiens’ existence, we have eaten according to our needs – influenced by age, environment, and the season – so how can we have completely lost this ability in such a short space of time? Free-foraging animals consume 50 to 100 different plants, whereas modern humans now rely on just 15 plant species for 90% of their diet. Animals have self-medicated successfully for 65 million years without any assistance from man and, nowadays, even domesticated livestock are still able to select appropriate nutrition from a diverse rangeland, adopting innovative survival strategies in constantly changing habitats.
An interesting concept is that of our palates developing in harmony with the landscape. Learning about flavours through mothers’ milk is something that happens in many species. An innate appreciation of terroir. Research has shown that a children fed by a mother who eats a wide range of foods will be less fussy about what they eat.
The recent speeding up of production of milk, meat and vegetables means they lack flavour. Breeders have selected for appearance and high yields, rather than flavour and nutrition. It is no wonder then that many children do not like vegetables these days. The vegetables do not actually taste particularly good as producers strive for ‘consistency’, something that does not occur naturally. Another issue is that as foods have moved from their centre of origin to across the planet, important cultural preparation practices have also been lost. Maize is a relevant example for South Africans. In Mexico, corn was traditionally prepared by first soaking in an alkaline solution that increases the bio-availability of nutrients – niacin and lysine in particular. Corn was usually supplemented with beans and small grains like amaranth or chia to improve the nutritional value. Where maize has been adopted in regions without this knowledge, diseases like pellagra became common.
While there is widespread acknowledgment of the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, Provenza explains in detail why universal dietary recommendations cannot work. For example, the unique combination of olive oil and wild greens cannot be taught or adopted overnight by those who did not grow up in the region. It takes many generations to learn and adapt. The traditional milk and meat diet of the strong Masai people might not sound ideal at first glance, but with the addition of up to 28 different herbs an adequate intake of micro-nutrients is achieved.
The trend to medicate proactively as humans now do through consumption of supplements, e.g., Vitamin C to prevent flu, has never been observed in animals. Once an imbalance occurs, only then do animals attempt to rectify by finding out of the ordinary food. Provenza provides the example of sheep eating birds and cattle eating bones to balance their diets. Remember scurvy? Apparently, when suffering seamen arrived on shore, they gorged on wild growing watercress, sorrel, and purslane instinctively. Surely modern humans could also remember how to meet their needs when their body craves a particular food?
A study conducted by Clara Davis at an orphanage in Canada in the 1930s details how the children ate a very varied diet and included some exceptionally unusual foods (brains, bone marrow, raw meat) when they were free to select whatever they wanted to eat from a wide range each day.
Provenza believes that by remembering ancient wisdom and with all the knowledge available to us now, we should be able to design ‘grazing circuits’ that better support the health of humans. Observations of social herbivores have shown that the matriarch is able to maintain the health of the herd, meeting the needs of various family members, by foraging in a variety of locations for a wide range of plants. Some sheep herders in France specifically design grazing circuits for their flocks to stimulate the appetite with various ‘courses’ throughout the day.
Provenza concludes his book on a personal note, describing the events in his own life that have led to a change in eating habits, skilfully combining science, prose and real life, to craft a riveting tale.
This book will change the way you eat as it becomes clear that our bodies, not our brains, are the best judges of how we should eat. Read this book if you are fascinated by the science of why we eat what we eat, by detailed research and considered observations, read it if you are intrigued by what makes a human a human, by the big spiritual questions, or why we have allowed our food systems to be commandeered by the corporations. Read it as a memoir of a man with an inquisitive spirit who worked hard, learnt much, suffered setbacks, cultivated compassion, read widely, walked, dreamed, and ate.
The growing trend in foraging for wild edibles may set humans back on the right track, rebuilding connections to place and flavour. A humble appreciation of life on Earth will teach us well as we find nourishment in the simplest ways of getting the energy of the sun into our bodies.
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