In 1886 in a shtetl in the Ukrainian countryside, a family of Jews became caught up in a regional war to decide the fate of what was known as the “Pale of Settlement”, an area reserved for the settlement of Jews in the Russian Empire. As the family ethos goes, the perpetrators were Cossacks: purportedly Slavic or Central Asian warriors that served the Czar and were especially feared by Jews who suffered greatly at the violent hand of their campaigns. This Jewish family escaped the lands of their sojourn and made their way to North and South America. The collective trauma of escaping from violent pogroms has percolated into the family culture with a guarded and defensive perspective on all things Russian. Seeing the events of the past fortnight in Ukraine has justified and doubled down on the rejection of the place and culture that was once home. As my father said recently, “Better to be in America than in Ukraine.” That is undoubtedly true presently with the ongoing bloodshed.
In addition to this contextual collective trauma that has shaped my identity in multifaceted ways, I have my own personal traumas of war from experiencing certain facets of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the summer of 2014, as I was expecting my first born son, war erupted after a series of soul-crushing events. The violence sparked rocket fire on the city where I lived and when my son was born, he was kept in a nursery located in a bomb shelter. When we brought him home for his first night at home, a warning siren and not the cry of a newborn is what shattered this new family’s first night’s sleep. The house shook when there was a direct hit nearby. The defensive Iron Dome was in operation, but there were GRADs that made it through. The evening breezes were violated by the booms coming from the western sky, where Gaza was being pummeled.
Another instance of my own personal experience and the closest I have been to any conflict was a cross-border skirmish with aircraft and anti-aircraft fire in the Golan. We had been in a shelter since the early morning because of sirens in the area. After a few hours of quiet and as the sirens stopped, I decided to take my young son on a short walk to get some fresh air. We made our way to close by trail that led to spring water. Another siren went off. I practically covered my son’s body with my own using a large boulder for cover. When the sirens stopped we waited for a few moments then quickly started to head back toward the shelter. At this precise moment an anti-aircraft missile exploded in the sky above our heads. I carried him into an old Syrian bunker on the side of the road and waited until it seemed to be calm again. Thank the Holy One, we were unharmed, but there was a sense of the chaos and the randomness of war and it’s uncanny ability to seem calm one moment and a havoc the next.
These experiences are on the relative milder side of the traumas of war and yet living through them has led me to a truth: The knowledge of foraging and more generally resourcefulness is the most resilient and revolutionary act that can be done in response to experiencing warfare. The nature of foraging is de facto challenging to the status quo and authorities. When one’s landscape becomes a foodscape in which healthy nutrition can be extracted from natural resources, then adaptation is more easily achieved. The body of knowledge could change for refugees who find themselves in different environments where slight differences in species and ecological systems could yield different wild edible opportunities.
Generally Slavic countries have a known affinity for especially mushroom hunting and Ukraine is known for it rich abundance of varieties and culture of mycophiles and mushroom hunters. According to the book Chantrelle Dreams Amanita Nightmares by Greg Marley the price of this affinity is a much greater number of misidentification and poisonings. According to the author, this is due to the new generation of mushroom hunters not having the same traditional body of knowledge that was once held by their babushkas who would throw out any fruiting bodies that could make the family sick. The risk does not deter and I found a very enticing Mushroom Hunting Tour in the Carpathian Mountains.
The tragedy of war is so severe that anything else on that backdrop has seemingly diminished importance. Although I imagine as spring approaches on the fields, mountains and streams of Ukraine and the Russian atrocities continue to pound these brave people, I hope that the emerging mushrooms give them hope, inner-joy and nostalgia of better times that were and most importantly a food source when there could possibly be no other. The knowledge that an attentive grandchild learned from their grandmother could now save lives and help in the struggle for freedom, peace and independence.
I recognize the doubt that could confront my claim that foraging is one of the most resilient acts in the face of war. I insist though that this knowledge is one way to put order into the world when chaos and randomness seem to dominate. If everything else is upended, at least the seasons and abundance of nature remain unchanged. As adaptation becomes a necessity of survival for combatants and refugees of a warzone, the knowledge of wild edibles and preparation methods is another tool that one uses to survive.
Food is something that is constantly taken for granted. The food that we find on the shelves of stores is just a given, until it’s not. As the systems were designed to sustain a civilization that does not put limits on itself, in these circumstances these systems will fail and personal knowledge about an environment will become a more valuable knowledge and skill than one who made themselves wealthy by manipulating the unsustainable system.
Ultimately, foraging, canning and preserving, growing your own food are all revolutionary acts and is not normative in a society that outsources everything. This knowledge though can be useful to help and protect the people that are close to you and that you love if the systems that we all rely on are put to the test and challenged beyond capacity.
At the very minimum, it is important to be open minded and accepting of alternative sources of food when there are none others. It is my wish that abundance fills your life reader, may you never know hunger or pain.