At an early age, Alexis Nikole Nelson formed a habit of eating items straight from the dirt outdoors.
It wasn’t as concerning as it seems.
Nelson, who’s a Black forager, vegan cook and outdoor educator in Columbus, Ohio, has a long family history of farming and growing foods to feed loved ones. Foraging was a norm.
“By the time my mom came around, my grandmother was dead set on both my mom and her sister getting to experience the outdoors, and she knew how important it was,” Nelson said. “But getting to experience the outdoors on their terms — not making money for somebody else, which is a pretty dope thing for her to have done.”
Oftentimes, the amount of dooming news about the state of the world can be overwhelming, she said. But sustainable practices like foraging can make a difference.
“As long as we’re here, there’s always something that we can do,” Nelson said.
Hosted by KU Commons, Nelson visited Lawrence on Wednesday evening to drop knowledge and words of encouragement. People packed into downtown Lawrence’s Liberty Hall for the sold-out event. The audience, which Nelson said was the best crowd she’d ever spoken to, applauded and laughed throughout her lecture.
Through her community-based work and vibrant social media presence, Nelson teaches people to take journeys through wooded areas and ocean waters in search of edible plants. She always held a fascination with plants and all their potential.
Leading with comedic relief, Nelson on Wednesday evening broke down the demise of biodiversity throughout the United States’ history. The culprits: colonialism, racism and American suburbia, she said.
Early white settlers enforced their way of interacting with nature as the best way, and the only way, of doing things.
“The European mentality toward the wilderness was specifically of something to be tamed and turned into something productive,” Nelson said. “Instead of viewing the space as being productive by itself, we lost so many of those food forests.”
That mindset was especially harmful to marginalized groups, such as Indigenous and Black people, who embraced cultural food traditions tied to foraging. In the 1860s-70s, trespassing was made a crime, which Nelson said was a planned way to “cut Black people and Indigenous people off.”
Many Black folks in the post-slavery era, for example, didn’t own land. Now they couldn’t forage for their families legally, and they wouldn’t dare attempt to forage illegally in fear of being imprisoned, forced into unpaid work or killed. They wouldn’t be able to take care of their families at all if something happened to them.
As America became suburbanized, foraging “fell out of fashion,” Nelson said. Houses upon houses were being built, leaving little room for native plant friends. Society began to look down on foraging, summing it up to be solely something poor people had to do to stay afloat.
Though U.S. history has proven to be grim, progress in recent years makes Nelson proud.
As of 2019, enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are permitted to gather sochan, a wild springtime green that is native to the area and traditional to its people, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The legal agreement came after years of the National Park Service barring the community from harvesting sochan on their own ancestral land.
Foraging is more than just collecting leafy greens. Plants such as milkweed, seaweed, ramps, sweetgrass, honeysuckle, acorns and more can contribute to a delicious meal. Nelson said the ability today to have food from a wide variety of restaurants easily and quickly delivered to someone’s front door has created a “disconnect.” That can be salvaged, she said.
“People aren’t thinking about the hands that the food passed through before it made it to your plate,” she said. “And I think having that knowledge and thinking more deeply about your food makes you appreciate it a little bit more.”
Foraging can also be done in the name of preservation, Nelson said, but take heed: foraging is a reciprocal relationship between humans and nature.
“A lot of times people associate foraging with disruption,” she said. “And with a lot of plants, there’s absolutely a way to forage them for the preservation of you both.”
Nelson said foragers should always be thinking about what they could give back to the spaces they harvest from, and impact and intent are everything. Never harvest the first or only patch of a plant that’s visible as it may be the last one left in the area. If there’s a small patch of plants, consider harvesting just a few and leaving the rest to continue flourishing. Garlic mustard can be found in Kansas, and it spreads widely from April to June, so foragers can clear out some garlic mustard to support other plants being crowded by it.
And there’s an abundance of professional guides and cookbooks for people interested in taking a dive into the world of foraging. The Raven Book Store in Lawrence sold copies of various foraging guides and cookbooks during Wednesday’s event, and a book selection is available at the downtown Lawrence store and on its website.
Communities can enjoy foraging as a way to draw one another closer and build on traditions. Nelson encouraged audience members to try it out – grab some friends or family members sometime and make a day of it, she suggested. And if homeowners association representatives ever give anyone trouble, Nelson said to ask them to call her.
“I won’t yell at them, I’ll just cry until they give up,” Nelson joked. “It’s worked for me every time, so far.”