maandag 9 mei 2011

Sloterdijk Pacman Foraging

1) Yesterday's Sloterdijk forage expedition (8 May 2011, Amsterdam) brought together nine people ready to get their hands dirty in the Middle Kingdom of Weeds. Spreading out as two groups we hoped to find, harvest and log edible wild plants in a relatively randomly selected part of Amsterdam. The directions from walking were produced on route by a .walk script generating a wandering path of alternating sequences of 'chase' and 'scatter' based on the mechanism that guide the movements of the ghosts in Pacman, a game that essentially deals with the problems of food foraging in an inhospitable world. The two groups agreed beforehand to meet again at the starting point after 75 minutes.

2) The theme we wanted to explore with this expedition was the caloric content of city greens. Without any claims to scientific precision the final harvest was sorted and weighted and should give us an indication about the balance between the energy invested and gained when urban foraging (see one half of the results). In the end we foraged for diversity, collecting samples of as many different edible food stuffs we could find rather than take all that was usable. We could easily have spend an hour digging up the roots of the thistles we found at the centre of a roundabout, but as we were not prepared to use all of it this would have been bad practise. The momentum for the consideration that a globalized food industry is probably a bad idea is growing and foraging is considered as one possible alternative source of local food. From this perspective any well informed guess on the number of people a city can feed is a strategic piece of information. Our expedition will not answer this question but I certainly felt that resources are not scarce, especially when taken in consideration that through a different regime of maintenance (read: weeding) the overall quantity of edibles could easily be enlarged in a short amount of time.   

3) The concern for caloric value and energy efficiency is a peasant concern. The forager is not a Homo Economicus and uninterested in finding optimal paths between the statistical correlations that map output maximization and input minimization. Diversity is not a luxury but a biological necessity on which calories should unhesitatingly be wasted. In the words of William Burroughs: "It is not necessary to live, it is necessary to travel." The use of game algorithms was a jokish way of criticizing any attempt to discredit foraging on peasantry terms.   

4) As the start of our walk I found myself at a junction with indeterminate exits. With the Sloterdijk station in my back, a three lane bus ramp in front of me, tower blocks to the right and large scale infrastructural works crossing the horizon on the left, our position offered a uninviting perspective with limited views. Where to go? As a group we started scanning the surroundings for patches of green that we might want to take as our target, looking at the code to see what we should do because we couldn't see any. We selected a direction towards an invisible diagonal point ahead of us 500 meters in the distance. After only ten meters we made our first edible weed catch of the day. Growing between ornamental violets in a huge flowerpot, this plant, the name of which now escapes me. This would prove to be the first instance of a pattern that would direct our ghost-steps for the entire duration of the walk: aiming to move ahead, towards an unknown point beyond were we could see, interrupted by the visible reality of omnipresent weeds in the corner.

5) The implicit idea behind the way the .walk code was structured is that a walk always travels between points, between places of use separated by something else. After 75 minutes we had walked only a short distance but we had visited five areas containing specific communities of plants (a flowerpot, a grassy field, the inside of a roundabout, the line of trees hiding the Telegraaf office from the road, an overgrown strip of land between the road and the blind wall of a warehouse). That is at least how I would afterwards order our walk into discrete units of place, but I don't actually recall us moving from target to target at the time. We weren't moving from one location to the next, we were moving though a landscape that was offering something everywhere all the time. The fact that we had to cross several busy roads did not diminish this sensation.

6) The one foraging location that did make a definite impact was a small segment on the inside of an enormous roundabout. Most of it was mowed but a small area was carved with ditches and adorned with little hills of dirt and here the plants could grow without obstruction. On one side the ground had been disturbed more recently and here we found different plants than on the other side that hosted thistles, cow parsley and a few other edibles whose name I don't recall (I am a novice with a terrible memory for such things). In the recent ditch we found several large strands of wild rocket which, we theorized, will mean that it is good at colonizing freshly disturbed soils. Based on this simple observation one can start to predict where one specific plant may be found and how you can bring it closer to you: think of a small observation like this as the beginning of a framework that will make hospitable even the most forlorn outposts of the Middle Kingdom. We spend some time harvesting the roots of milk thistle, a plant that according to my 'Food for Free' guidebook was brought to Northern Europe as an extremely useful pot herb from the Mediterranean. Intellectually I get it. To us novices the wild rocket is a better plant to really get the issues of urban foraging in focus. It looks exactly like the normal rocket an Italian restaurant puts on your pizza but it has a far richer, dare I say wilder, taste than its domesticated supermarket form. Bland products really are the price we pay for industrialization. While we were standing there, chatting, exploring and exchanging bits of information, guide books at the ready, we were laughed at loudly and mockingly from behind open car windows waiting for the traffic light to go green. The Mike-the-Situations of this world are clearly not yet ready to join our shores.

7) Afterwards we sampled a bit of Comfrey (smeerwortel) root: it was the foulest thing I have ever tasted. It was fed to us for this purpose.
ps) This report will be added to as fellow foragers will publish their reports and as I rewrite my own. A report by Michelle Kasprzak is already available. 
Our first find, notice that yellow hand.

Caloric table.

The first of two sheets of .walk code.

At the roundabout.

Harvesting Thistle roots.

Found several plants mentioned in Food for Free.

The harvest sorted.

The fabled wild rocket.

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