woensdag 13 oktober 2010

Edible city G-map apps, wild horses & the great hippie revival

The awareness that the city contains many domesticated and undomesticated edible plants (wild food database) which together constitute a hidden dimension of the urban landscape is growing. The awareness that it makes environmentally sense to consume these foods rather than the flown-in fruits and vegetables from the supermarket is growing as well. I watch too many cookery shows on the BBC and it sometimes seems that all English Michelin-starred chefs (and Ray Mears thrown in for good measure) are keen to incorporate foraged greens. In fact the world's top restaurant for 2010 is Noma in Copenhagen has the cardinal rule that at least one third of each dish must be foraged. Most of us (the assorted collection of 'artists' that I suppose are reading this) have a participatory sympathy for the Transition initiative. In fact, I would not be surprised if the Transition Town movement will become a major political voice around the world within the next 10 years. One of the core goals of this movement is the creation of the resources for communities (cities or otherwise) to feed themselves on locally grown food exclusively. The 'edible city', in other words, is hot property.

Swanky screenshots of the Boskoi Beta
The city is already harvested: all over town I see people purposefully picking blackberries and collecting walnuts and chestnuts that have fallen on the ground, I know that people are foraging for mushrooms for taste and for the strange things they do to your head. Anglers are surely eating their catch. These are the obvious examples of edible city foodstuffs, and these examples are probably also where the knowledge stops for most people, myself included. But there do exist people whose passion is older than the buzz and who have amassed an amazing body of knowledge, often, I suspect, through direct experimentation. 

It is fun to go out with a 'guide' and discover this n'th landscape and to learn about the unsuspected properties and uses of ordinary plants. An astonishing array of everyday 'weeds' (as you call them) are at least partly edible and it is great that people are sharing this knowledge through books, (art) projects and and through on-line services like Boskoi and Forag.rs and countless of others, this augmented foraging wiki lists almost 30 different projects. It is probably true that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were aware of these plants both as food and for its medicinal properties. (Even though this knowledge has always been suspicious: it was the secret technology of the witch). We, who depend on an incredibly impoverished diversity of food-sources, have forgotten the variety of nature and suppressed our grazing habits. Now we must relearn this the hard way.

Typically 'collaborate free food mapping sites' critically depend on the Google.Maps backbone/interface, enabling you to find edible foodstuffs on a map and learn their uses with no effort than a double-mouse click. These services will also urge you to add your own local wild food resources to the database through a point-and-click interface. Most services will also provide (or promise to do so at some point in the future) related information like harvesting season, medical issues or recipes. However, all augmented foraging application I have seen so far disappoint when it comes down to delivering the goods: their databases are all almost empty. And even though this might of course change, I have my doubts. 

Forage.rs has the best interface but 11 annotation for the entire US is pathetic.
In a sense augmented foraging tools are a way of cheating; or better put, they seem to promise a short cut to an higher awareness where no magic portal exists. What characterizes foraging people (see earlier post) is their immensely detailed knowledge of the natural landscape, a landscape in which they are at home and in which individual has the full capacity to survive with affluence. A web 2.0 app is just another screen asking you to rely on other people's knowledge, a tunnel that tells you where to go and what you can find. It is not that augmentation cannot add additional (virtual) richness to a place but that in practise much augmentations offer a quick fix, a fatty gob, McDonalds style. I do not want another redundant layer between me and my surroundings, but I want the information that helps me read it better so I can create my own mental pop-up notes. So to speak. Sure, this is an idiotic criticism to level at these tools, (criticizing new tech is the best way to come across as grumpy, boring and out of the loop) at least at the practical level, and I am convinced that free food locating websites are a great way to learn about an important under-appreciated aspect of the city. They are teaching devices and like all teachers their influence over you must be doubted and criticized at every point. 

Unlearning is just as important as learning.   

There are already millions of G-maps applications, the technology is just monkey business. What I would like to see these services do is to step away from the gonzo-mapping model. Instead they should try to create content, to create exhaustive coverage for an area no matter how small. Collecting this data is hard work but once it is done, even when it is just for one street, it will give a much better sense of the richness of the world right under your nose than a random shatter of annotations ever will. It also makes sense as a open-source best practise: the open source projects that find the leverage to spawn an enthusiastic community are always the ones in which the project is useful from the start.

The edible city phenomena is a hippie revival because no other movement in the past (from surrealism to situationism to punk) has ever considered the production of food as politically important. That hurts.

The hippies were there before us, even though farming is a hopelessly conservative practise  
I also have to mention that my own interest for the edible city is purely intellectual. I will have to cross several mental bridges before I will be able to set myself to eat wild flowers and street grasses. I am not a horse, but I do have equestrian potential. 

There is also my proposal for Forage Mark-Up Language which is for you if you want it but will probably forever unused, which is ok. 

Small portion of Free Food Bristol map

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