Urban Forager, Nina Sengupta Tells us how she’s Changing the World one Weed at a Time.

Heart of Conservation podcast Ep#18 Show notes (edited)

Heart of Conservation Podcast. Episode #18 Show notes (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi. I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to episode 18 of Heart of Conservation podcast. I bring you stories from the wild that keep you connected with our natural world. This monsoon has turned everything green and fresh and wild again, maybe a bit too wild for some of us. S,o what do you do when you see a weed occupying space with your favorite flower? Fling it aside, right? I pretty much do the same, I actually find weeding quite therapeutic. But how can you be sure you’re getting rid of the right plant? My guest today will enlighten us about the ordinary weed. She is Nina Sengupta an ecologist who lives in Auroville and works around the globe as an independent consultant, integrating biodiversity conservation and sustainable development options. She’s worked in South & Southeast Asia, Africa, Finland, and the USA. She’s passionate about food forest, food gardening, art, films, and making life science active and participatory for all. She’s also published a coloring book for adults, the first of its kind on edible weeds.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Thank you so much for coming on Heart of Conservation podcast and am excited to talk to you. I will start with a very basic question.  So, what is urban foraging and how did you get into it.

Nina Sengupta: Get into it is entirely by chance but what is urban foraging? What is foraging? Let me explain that, that may help. Foraging involves searching, wandering and collecting food on your own from the wild or where it grows naturally but for free typically the items that are foraged are vegetables, fruits, roots, honey, and edibles but if you look at it ecologically, the theory foraging involves two key decisions of the foragers – what do forage and where to forage and for most animals who are surviving in the wild, wild animals, these are the two very critical decisions. So up until you know about 10,000 years back when humans started agriculture, humans were hunter-gatherers, and out for a lot of their survival they depended on their skills to forage. So urban foraging is nothing but within the concrete jungle of urban areas that you find areas where things are growing wild, where you can forage or collect your food or greens or whatever you choose to, sometimes it’s also flowers for beautification but also definitely food items for free, for yourself, not for selling, you know, for yourself. That’s the key thing about foraging.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s interesting! I never thought of flowers as foraging but you so right and also to me, you know, foraging has always been a western concept, you know, you hear people picking mushrooms and strawberries and stuff like that in the woods. But I am sure in our country in rural areas, people with traditional knowledge do this all the time regularly and already and I’m sure their kids also, you know, know what is edible and what’s not. So I’m curious in urban India when you’re talking of foraging and for free is this, you think, is a recreational activity or are the people doing this regularly?

Nina Sengupta: Let me address this whole idea of the western concept, the term foraging is perhaps what we have tagged to a certain recreationally activity which is primarily coming to us from the West but, you know, if you really step back from it, how can gathering food that is seasonal, accessible and you can get it for free, how can that not be part of any culture and in any century really. So, you know, once I worked with a tribal group in India and one person, I clearly remember him saying, he kind of famously made a statement; that as long as the forest lives tribal people will not starve, you know, so I kind of remember, like it was amazing to me, because then I kind of thought that I am not there, I mean, where he is and there’s a huge truth to that and if you really look into the, you know, traditional village life you have there are people who would say, you know, after school they would come by while coming back home they will pick up this and this, this and that which they learned from their parents what to pick and those are the greens they seasonally picked. So, picking where, you know, it was not recreational at all, it was often not poverty-driven either. It was part of the lifestyle whereas if you right now look at, you know, what the foraging is, in the urban areas you find people who are consciously shifting to a healthier lifestyle. They are getting into foraging and those are, I won’t say recreational, it’s really going back to a more sensitive way of living but you can call it, you know, borderline recreational too but you also find, you know, people who are foraging when they have the access to, urban poor, those who actually forage to supplement their income. I always find this, you know, amazing this – typically old ladies who would come to the fringes of a market. They never get probably a place in the market but they would have their fares on the footpath, next to the footpath, in little portions, no weight or nothing and they always bring the seasonal, you know, greens and seasonal this and that, very small portions of each. Now what they’re doing is basically they are foraging, they are foraging for themselves and a little bit extra they go and sell for this little extra money. There is some kind of seasonal weed-like what you call chickweed (Portulaca quadrifida) this you actually rarely ever find in any of the supermarkets or any of the, you know, formal shops, you always find seasonally with these ladies. So, we do have a tradition of foraging, even urban foraging, but yes, the middle-class foraging perhaps came to us from the West.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. When you speak about it, I do remember seeing, you know, women with very little selling these greens and I always presumed it was from their garden but it’s interesting that they probably foraged it. So, Nina, in a city where would one, you know, I mean without being specific, what is an ideal spot to start forging in the city.

Nina Sengupta: My recommendation would be – the first step to foraging is recognizing. In your city if you have weed walks, like the one I conduct and many cities do actually, it’s best to join them because if you are new to this, not just once, join it as many times as possible until you recognize a handful say 5-6 of them almost like second nature, like you know, kind of see that and you know it is that.  Now where you are seeing and recognizing it may not be the ideal place for collecting it because often these are in the cities, these are next to the gutter or next to a leaky pipe, or pretty terribly bad polluted water but these are actually quite excellent places to see them, know them, and recognize them. It’s actually a good source of collecting seeds because you cannot collect and eat them because these plants also often bio-accumulate & bio-concentrate which means that if they’re growing in polluted water they are actually would concentrate those and heavy metals and pollution in them, so you definitely don’t want to collect and eat where you are not very sure that the water is relatively clean. So in an urban area, once you have recognized and if you’re going for a guided walk you will already know where you know it’s a safe place to collect but otherwise, you know, you say you are very confident of 5-6 plants that you are sure you can collect, then look at the fringes of the gardens even the edges of a flowering bed often, you know, where they get a lot of TLC -tender loving care every day the Flowers and all that get but you know the edges of that they start getting a little wild and start getting, you know, other plants which are not intentional, these are the places where it is absolutely safe to collect from and if you know that what they are you can. And sometimes, like you know each area in India for example has a primary seasonal flowering time. Once the garden kind of gets over there is a period when it says lull, know there is not the next, you know, set of plants hasn’t been planted, these are also the absolutely ideal time to forage because the weeds kind of takes over and it’s very easy to pick them at that time and you’re also very sure that they are safe.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow! That’s interesting. Nina, I hope you’re going to be free after COVID time because I don’t know anyone else who takes people out on weed walks. Is there a network of people who do that or is, I think, it’s only you?

Nina Sengupta: I think is there somebody I mean there are lots of this you know pop up lunches and dinners where they do farm to plate kind of thing, you know, so I am just guessing when they’re doing farm to plate some of the things that they’re collecting, I am hoping, they’re also wild and not necessarily the vegetables but yes I know I didn’t realize that I was only one but you know hopefully not, hopefully, we are a tribe.

Lalitha Krishnan:  And, you know, you’re also talking about foraging being free but, you know, free for us but is there a law, is it legal, I mean, could you be arrested for eating wood sorrel or would you be doing a city a favor by clearing the weeds out?

Nina Sengupta: In India, really, who cares what (plants) you eat or as long as what you eat is not commercially super attractive or declared a narcotic. If it’s not either of this category whether, you know, I have, you know; whether I’m surviving on wood sorrel or something else really, you know, nobody, to me it feels like, that they have the time to but there’s an interesting anecdote I must share with you. There is a particular solanum like you know Solanaceae which is in the nightshade family is usually you don’t eat the leaves usually, you know, people kind of stay away from it, but there is a particular Solanaceae which is a lot in Solanum nigrum which is very, very nutritious, wonderful to eat and tasty and all that and I, it is it’s quite popular in South India, even though the plant grows anywhere actually pantropical not only everywhere in India but you know beyond, it is not something very popular elsewhere in India. So I went to Calcutta and I see that I am eyeing, that right all along on both sides of the road I’m walking there this Solanum nigrum is fruiting, beautiful, lush and nobody is collecting because nobody eats them and I have eyed them and eyed them for several days as I walked up and down. And then one day I decided I’d stop and just take some fruits as you know seeds so that you know I bring them back and plant them and as soon as I start collecting them, there were lots of benevolent people who just kind of crowded around me and said “Madam don’t, don’t you are going to die” so I must say that they were very sweet, very concerned people who were very bothered that what I eat I might, you know, might kill me but otherwise there is no particular law to stop me from eating something which is I collect, not that I have encountered but I don’t think so.

Lalitha Krishnan:  Tell me why do you forage? Is it just for the pleasure of I,t for the taste and also what do you get what do you get from it personally and also what would you forage for, you did mention a few?

Nina Sengupta:  Actually to begin with it, I mean I primarily again it still is, it’s fun, it’s a sense of discovery and there’s a wow factor because there is that sense of discovery and if you see something beautiful, you know, you inhale a chest full of air in wonder and that wonder-appreciation of nature is quite priceless and it almost does not happen it doesn’t matter if ultimately I get to pick something, you know, I think or eat or collect enough but that I know that they are there kind of has a huge a sense of security and well-being. That is, you know, it’s hard to articulate that sense that you get that despite being an urban area I have this amazing, you know, a wonderful bounty around me, it’s like even in a concrete jungle like nature kind of lets you know that it is there for you, you know, very close to you if you choose to pay attention.  So for me, I actually got very attracted to this tiny little flowers which many of the weeds have and you wonder at the detailing, you know, it’s just too good and you know, I have a haiku which I actually had included in my coloring book which says that ‘a flowering weed hearing its name, I looked anew at it’ and it’s so true because you figure out its name because of course I, first of all, it was a wonder for me, then being a trained ecologist it’s not that difficult even though I’m not a botanist, it’s not that hard to figure out, OK! let’s identify this species and then you read about it and then you’re like amazed by the different qualities of it and soon you realize that many of them, you know, natural remedies that you are very familiar, which comes in bottles, familiar bottles, they’re actually growing right next to you. So, this is how they look and some of them you can actually eat so that’s where it is that it started and it continues to be that because I still am discovering and figuring out absolutely new things almost regularly. So the things which I get to absolutely love, there is this particular weed, one I already mentioned, Solanum nigrum locally called manathakkali and there is a cousin of it called Solanum villosum which looks like tiny little red tomatoes and it’s beautiful and for me personally, there is a plant called Commelina benghalensis and it grows… it’s prolific, and has one of the most delicate blue and beautiful flowers and it turned out to be that it is amazing for, you know, intestinal health, gut health and yeah so and of course punarnava- it’s a very well-known ayurvedic medicine but it is also amazingly edible and quite tasty too. What I actually personally revel in discovering is that the ones which are not traditional, there so many greens, you know, locally if you ask they will say, you know, it’s a goat food. When there is terminology like that, you know that they are perhaps not in their traditional pantheon or things that they are using which also may indicate that it had become naturalized much later it is not part of Ayurveda sidha and all the other medicinal tradition but if you really investigate and find out about them we can be edible, they can be amazingly medicinal, they are just, you know, awesome. So, I’m still discovering, I’m still at that wow stage.

Lalitha Krishnan:  I can hear the wow in your voice. I guess every time you are attracted to something it sort of begins a whole voyage of discovery because then you go into it and find out more and more and more. Nina, you created a coloring book called “Edible Weeds and Naturally Growing Plants of Auroville for Adults” on weeds, I love the idea but what made you think about it? And what do you think the experience of drawing weeds does, you know, for a person?

Nina Sengupta:  It’s a variety of things and since I have kind of come up with the book it has also extended into several other things which kind of justifies it, but for me it was, you know, I was very bothered about one character in me, I have noticed in me, that for example, there is deforestation going on in some part of our country and we’re all very bothered, we are, you know, signing up in some kind of a petition signature and then something else comes up – social, environmental, other factors, we’re totally, you know, shift to that but hardly ever there is an update on what actually happened to the other one and it bothered me that how we can let go of that, you know because there are people who for them it’s a part and parcel of their lives and they are, whether you forget or not, they will not be able to forget it. So I kind of thought that perhaps that nature doesn’t, you know, in urban life, nature is not such an integral part because you know we get our food from a grocery store, supermarkets, we, you know, have a park nearby too, so it’s not like if one goes, we go to the other , you know, it’s not such an end of the story and I kind of started asking people that you know how do they connect with nature and somebody who had made a statement famously that “I really don’t have the time and I don’t afford to go and a visit, I don’t connect with nature because I really don’t have the time and I don’t afford to go to a National Park every now and then”. And it struck me that, Oh my God is nature so disconnected that for an urban individual to connect to nature one has to actually physically take themselves out of the urban areas and go somewhere? Now, of course, there is always the bird watcher group and the other you know other wonderful tree groups and in different cities but what about people in general like they do they connect with nature? And I started thinking that what I can offer? What I can kind of point out for me and for all of us that we cannot ignore that it is right there in the cities? And I could come up with weeds because they are everywhere and so that’s how I started on, you know, focusing on weeds more carefully to make into a book. The reason I wanted to make it into a coloring book for adults because it is a concept that has remained with me since I was doing my studies abroad, that I had walked into a genetics class and I always, you know, was interested in art and here I walked into a genetics class and the professor was telling that you know you can pick yourself a coloring book and you can see the snow, learn about the cell structure that that way and for me mainstreaming coloring which is doodling and coloring was always like and you shouldn’t be doing in the class kind of training I had. So suddenly mainstreaming coloring as part of your education really seemed very attractive and from then on I always thought that you know, we should have our education also made a little more fun, little more light so that you can do it yourself so that when I made the coloring book I want it to be experiential that by holding the book it feels different, it is made in handmade paper, it is hand-stitched, it has no use of plastic in it and when you are a coloring, when you are sitting and coloring, I really believe that this calming act of coloring has an effect like osmosis, the kind of the information gets to you even without you paying attention and so it kind of gets to you in many levels, it kind of wraps you in in a certain experience, it informs you about plants. If you want to, you know, paint it crazy purple – that’s fine but you can still have a colored insert by which you can take outside and identify the weeds you want because everything is drawn to scale. So yeah that’s why.

Lalitha Krishnan: You know, I really hope people are listening with this lockdown we’re talking about growing our vegetables and microgreens, and people are thinking of taking up farming seriously. I mean, this sounds like the perfect climate to go foraging. Don’t you agree?

Nina Sengupta: It happened in our community how as I was and how it evolves here is… I had made the book and I actually thought everything has been very organic, you know, making thinking about making the book, making the book and I let it be, you know, I didn’t, you know, start off with uh doing weed walks and it turned out to be that some people… they were gathering up to know about local food and it didn’t have so much of interest that, you know if you publish a recipe people look at it but you know they’re not very sure so they didn’t know. So, there was a group which started, they started taking people’s small groups to different farms and actually there will be a demo on how to cook it. So one of them in one of these farm demo visits that they had gone, they found that they are using my coloring book as a reference so for a lot of people that was the first time they were getting to know there is something called you know edible weeds so they called me up and said you know can you show us a few? So that was the beginning of the weed walks and I realized that you know, one weed walk and one session was not enough so it kind of became regular but even then, even when you know very well, that this is edible, people are very interested learning, taking notes. I saw, barring a few exceptions, there not many people who graduated from knowing the weed to actually cooking and eating them. Even though, you know, we have plenty of safe places where it can be collected. But come lock down suddenly with this knowledge which was already they had gathered, they decided that let’s, you know, use it so there was absolutely amazing amount of energy we had, you know, there was a WhatsApp group but with hardly about 10 members it became soon a group of 90 which each one sharing their recipe on how differently they can use this weed and that weed, incorporate that a little technique, taking pictures and, you know, getting congratulation from each other. It actually really brought it into a full circle in which right now there are several people who who eat it and also this is their way of avoiding to go and stand in the line in a grocery store, they know that, you know, they can just go around and collect and how healthy and I call it ultra organic food and, you know, it has been right simply wonderful, you know, there are recipes which I would have never thought which, you know, part of this community, you know, it has developed so it’s yeah it has been a great journey as far as that is concerned.

Lalitha Krishnan: ‘Weed recipes’, that’s your new book I think. Yeah but definitely I think, you should do a webinar. There will be thousands of people who’d be really, really interested so that’s another way to promote but so do you do a lot of walks and how else can we promote foraging – school groups? I mean now it’s all online. Is there a platform that one can go to and read or forums to participate in?

Nina Sengupta: There are forums to participate, I have actually initiated a new Facebook group and also a Youtube channel where I actually, regularly, tell more about the weeds, individual weeds so that they, you know, sometimes if you see 10 and then you forget all of them. So we thought that we will concentrate on one or two at a time so that, you know, it can percolate and you know make more concentrated writeups on that, make a little video how it actually looks in the because… you know, the walks we cannot do at the moment until like, since the lockdown in March, we haven’t had a walk and we thought that it’s, instead of people using what they had already gained other than the ones which are already using, it’s a good way to connect to people who are… who can just look around their own homestead and start foraging from then on? So, yes, we do have… and also, you know, I feel that this activity is such a calming and grounding activity in a way that this has to come to each individual at their own pace. So, if it’s OK to just, you know, sit with a coloring book, read about it and then go out and, you know, get something, read about it before you actually try out. It’s OK, but there are others who do it much, you know, at a faster pace, so the pace is decided by you, but out once you already what is really nice is that…a couple of things. Most of the foraging weed that we are talking about they’re pantropical, there available everywhere and sometimes even in the temperate regions, in the summer months they are available. So I find it an amazing connection that I am eating a wild here in that wild grows in somebody else’s backyard halfway across the world or a half way across the country and I find it very connecting, you know, that factors are very connecting and we make those connections to our websites and the channels that we are trying to make and so what we’re trying to do here is …part of it is reclaiming our tradition because many of the weeds as you get to know you see that there are traditional users then we just, you know, we may have forgotten or lifestyle didn’t permit so we didn’t know whatever, so we are reclaiming our past in a way then we’re building on it at the present because culture and tradition are never static. It is dynamic and part of that dynamism is that there are weeds which are probably not part of our tradition but they’re here and now so you learn about them and you add to that… add to your repertoire of weeds that you forage from and thus kind of you are building on that culture, you know, that you are connecting with the past and your building in the present and the next obvious step is to take it to the future which you have not touched upon just now in your question, is to take it to the next generation. And I think that there cannot be anything more amazing that as parents and adults we can do is to take this knowledge to the kids and have them that sense of wonder from a much earlier age and so that’s one of the things that we are trying. Personally in my effort, I’m trying to reprint this book because now it is out of print… reprint this book and have two more volumes and the way I want to do is through crowdfunding because one more uh interest in doing so in that way that I want to involve people not just printing and publishing book but also take it as a package to the schools, you know, the schools will have all the three books may be and as part of this whole initiative, the teachers will get trained. I will have different sessions with the teachers and then with the kids so that there will be many more of this weed walks and the weed knowledge that will go and percolate amongst the children in the schools and that’s where, you know, that’s where you start picking up you know things will really get rolling, I think.

Lalitha Krishnan: You’ve given us so much food for thought…

Nina Sengupta: And the idea that it is getting in touch with the wild, it is actually the best wilderness that you can remain in touch with being an urbanite. So it, you know, when I am really connected to the natural world around me I am much more sensitive and sympathetic to somebody else elsewhere and I hope that that kind of feeling comes in the decision making in the choices that we make as consumers or as individual citizens in making our decisions. So that is hope from weed to changing the world.

Lalitha Krishnan: Well this is the time to change the world. Nina, I also wanted to ask you where do you draw the line when it comes to foraging?

Nina Sengupta: I say the word foraging comes from a very western concept of foraging, where actually people do go and collect themselves to eat but it has also escalated to being a part of tourism, you know, that eating wild is part of the exotic feeling sometimes not even going to the wild, you know, sitting in the city there are famously this some restaurants in Nairobi, famous for over decades but we also now have started having them in India is that if you go there you will be served wild food. Now that’s to me is not foraging for if you are sitting in your city and somebody else is smoking the heck out of the rock bee to provide you the most amazing honey then that honey has a lot more ecological problems with it then values because the demand actually forces— demand beyond self and beyond the local area— forces a greater amount of, you know, taking off these resources and it’s a concern. One of the things that I probably … one of the things that I also am very interested in films, I do screen an environmental film series every year and I’m … you know a lot of my metaphors come from films… and if you even look at Satyajit Ray films or any films as such, you see people treat the forest as the edge of civilization. So when you go to the forest you let your hair down and you be somebody else and this feeling remains there and as people have in the risk they say the last couple of 20 years people have started moving more. You know there are more people who are working you know young people there working away from their family; they are traveling, they are going into tourism, there lot more people movement and these people when they’re moving and going into a very exotic place, they’re not necessarily sticking to their, you know, traditional meals or even the very hardcore vegetarians don’t remain vegetarian. So many wild foods are getting overexploited to serve… one thing is to serve the people who have moved away from their own community elsewhere so that they have, you know, a touch of their home and other people who are visiting and as tourists to their place and want to experience that taste of the wild without foraging. So, these two are actually very even, though it is termed as foraging, it’s called forest food you are eating local honey. You know, how healthy can it be? How sustainable it can be? It is actually anything but sustainable.

Lalitha Krishnan: One more question Nina, I usually ask my guests to share a word to improve our vocabulary and I know, I’m suggesting now, ecotonal and the term edge effect. So, would you mind explaining both?

Nina Sengupta: Yes, gladly but I will start with that I will take again a little step before I go to ecotonal, that much of our lives are now locked up in the screens, you know, be it, you know, in our mobile phone or computer screen and that bit hasn’t probably changed in our lockdown period either but, you know, life happens in the periphery. So it is that peripheral vision individuals have started losing more urbanities than not but there are you know it’s becoming our character like you know we are all if you’re going in the bus or train or plane you’re still looking at a screen, we’re looking at a screen, many are watching… The screen is our lives yet our lives are happening around so this is kind of in ecologically speaking ecotone is the region which is a transition between the two 2 biological communities two ecological areas. For example, an estuary is an ecotonal area because the river meets the ocean and the land is there in that area… that confluence is the ecotonal area and naturally, the ecotone between which is the confluence between the two habitats is always richer in species than either of the two. So, you know, given the area, you know, per unit area, there usually ecotones hold more species. Now the edge effect. You can have both, a positive and negative tilt to that. Edge is something that you create, it’s not always the ecotone, not always the natural boundary. Suppose I have a boundary of the forest, the natural boundary of the forest and grassland, that is an equal ecotonal area, that area will have more species but say I have cut a forest, I have cut a road in the forest and have created an edge, that edge is the boundary between the two communities, like nothing and forest would also have quite a bit of different, you know, different creatures but usually they tend to have the more generalist species. So suddenly you are favoring the generalist species rather than the forest dweller one, so it has, it can have negative impacts also and therefore, you know, as an ecologist always say that if you were actually… have a forest is better not to have it fragmented, better not to have a cut a road or cut a railway through it because you are creating more edge and that will actually affect the forest interior species or the overall health of the forests.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s great. Thank you so much, Nina!! That was enlightening, to say the least. You have introduced foraging, I mean, we knew it was somewhere on the edge of our consciousness now you have brought it right to our minds, into our hearts. Thank you so much.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation, I’m Lalitha Krishnan. You can listen to Heart of Conservation on Spotify or SoundCloud and other platforms of your choice. Keep listening and do check out Nina Sengupta’s YouTube channel. It’s called ‘Edible Weed Walk’. Stay safe and start foraging.

Photo courtesy Nina Sengupta.. Podcast interview and Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.

Birdsong by hillside residents.

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guests featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organisation, committee or other group or individual.

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