Forage Psychogeography

- Sixth Draft, October 2011 -


The urban dweller of today looks down on farm and field with a sense of superiority but it was the farmer who invented the city and the peasants never left it. Urbanized notions of how the world should be organized and the landscape must be read are still based on agricultural needs, principles and prejudices and this can be clearly shown by looking at the key concept of agricultural philosophy: the possibility of a place being a ‘Wilderness’ an inhuman horror land where no potato will grow and only violence and doom awaits the righteous farmer and his unimaginative morality. The wilderness does not exist as a fact of nature. It’s a psychological inadequacy, a 10.000 year old psychopathological delusion unique to the farming mind. In the last remaining vestiges of darkness (Image 1) some psychogeographers have seen another way by learning from the people who continue their refusal to succumb to farming as the back office of their subsistence model [i]. People who in all their work-shy, proud and anarchic savagery are quite comfortable and at home in the ‘wilderness’. What is Forage psychogeography? It is a vision of the reinhabitation of the world on foraging principles [ii].

Would you kiss someone who had just eaten a tarantula (or a handful of grubs, or a bat, or his uncle)? Apparently spiders taste like hazelnut and humans taste like monkey, food habits sets cultures apart and this is true for foraging cultures presented in anthropological textbooks and it is also true for contemporary urban foragers blogging about the virtues and great taste of dandelion coffee and thistle root biscuits to a horrified public of cappuccino slurpers. No amount of preparation prepares the novice field-worker for the culture shock of first contact with a foraging people. Completely steeped in taboo and superstition, with instant retaliation against any perceived wrong as the social norm, foraging cultures are almost impossible to relate to on a human level, even to the most open minded and free-thinking homesteading radicals of the urbanized world. This is perfectly logical. The forager is not a farmer without tools and foraging culture is not an archaic fossil from the time before agriculture that can be explained by citing a lack of appropriate technology, intelligence or soils. If you are part of a small community living in the depths of an impenetrable forest and if your tool set consists of an axe and a machete, a blowpipe and a curare dart, the idea that nature can, and should, be fenced in, dominated, cultivated and domesticated is patently absurd. Superstition does not discredit the forager, it reinforces the argument that peasants are blind to the obvious. Taboos and superstitions force constant focus and awareness, bold-typing and slanting-in-italics that the smallest act can have severe repercussions. All things that occur are interconnected, open to interpretation, all that happens may foretell future events, warn against a disturbance of the cosmic balance, bring luck or take it away. Everything is watching you and you better not ignore the signs. You thank the animals you have killed, you say grace to the berries you harvest. No trace, no form of impact, is allowed to pass unnoticed. The peasant has rationalized the butterfly effect and hailed it as a remarkable new insight, the forager feels it everyday, and one can only marvel that the web of entanglement that can turn every small misstep into a melt-down of the milky way isn’t driving them insane: raw observations, flexible minds, irrational intuitions.

As for cannibalism, the unnamed German rubber trader was right when he said  to Colonel Fawcett: "It's easy to condemn cannibalism as disgusting but when you come to think of it, is it any worse to eat a dead man than to eat a dead beast or bird? It as least provides a reasonable motive for killing a men, which is more than you can say for civilized warfare; and it's a convenient way of getting rid of the death, without occupying valuable ground and polluting clean air by burying the corpse!” [iii]

The non-farming primitive with his stone-age economy savours the advantages of a foraging lifestyle with arrogant self-possession. His perspective is short-term and based on total self-reliance at all times while the farmer deals with greater uncertainties over longer periods of time in the hope of large returns. A farmer who knows his job can accumulate resources and buy freedom of labour and precious goods, but every day his entire crop can be destroyed by some unpredictable and malignant force that nullifies a season of backbreaking labour with a sleight of hand. To the forager the year moves from one resource opportunity to the next as plants bloom and trees fruit, the rivers swell and reside, the rain comes and goes, animals arrive or stay away. You may be without food for one day or two days or three days or even four days but there is always something going on and you trust that you will find some solution because the land means you no harm. What may have been abundant last year and the years before that may be scarce this year. It pays to focus on what is there rather than on what you expect to be there, observation means everything. As Barry Lopez observed: “When you ask them for specifics, the depth of what they can offer is scary. It’s scary because it’s not tidy, it doesn’t lend itself to summation. By the very way that they say that they know, they suggest they are still learning something that cannot, in the end, be known”[iv]. The farmer always knows what to expect (and what needs to be known) and everything else needs to be eradicated. The relationship of the forager with the landscape starts with what the landscapes gives, not with what man can take from it. Work-ethics reflect this. Farmers find foragers lazy, the forager finds farmers unable to truly enjoy a party. Worldviews reflects this. Farmers have powerful and scornful gods that demand obedience while foragers have tricksters that may be malignant but are never truly evil.

It is true that foraging people are only rarely fully dependant on hunting and gathering alone. Most of the actual food, though not the actual nice bits (meat fat and honey sugar) is produced in gardens. But this does not discredit the idea of a radical psychogeographic distinction between forager and farmer. The gardening techniques of foraging people are incompatible with the crop monocultures that have fed farming communities for the last 10.000 years. The forest garden is a meticulously organized micro-cosmos inside the forest that works by perfectly reproducing forest conditions and interactions with a large number of desirable species. To farmers these gardens look like a total mess but this messiness is the outward sign of its resilience. The traditional view on slash and burn agriculture thinks of it as hopelessly inefficient as productivity lasts for only two or three years before the weeds take over and the garden has to be abandoned. But abandoned gardens are not actually abandoned at all, their productivity continues without active labour. The weeds are not unwanted and often hard to find in the high forest, the fallows attract eagerly hunted animals closer to home, the trees will produce fruits for the long future. The garden is not liberated by force from the chaos of the surrounding forest, the forest itself is a garden, of a sort.

When you enter someone’s house for the first time you will immediately without effort and without intent get a ‘feeling’, a ‘sensation’ or an ‘opinion’ from it: a room is a picture of a soul, an emotive dynamo. Do you really live like this? This observation tells us two things. One: there must exist an instinct for the qualitative evaluation of space. Two: this instinct can be manipulated. A space can make us think and feel certain things or prevent certain thoughts and feelings from occurring. Cities and hotel rooms, mountains and beaches, no
place is psychogeographically neutral and psychogeography deals with the study of mind control enacted by and through the landscape. Now look at the map Guy Debord presented, in ‘Theory of the Derive’ (1958, Image 2), as the prime example of psychogeography because it provokes “outrage at the fact that anyone’s life can be so pathetically limited.” [v]. It is what we would now call a data visualization, showing the start- and endpoints of all travels undertaken by a female student in the time of a year. Most of Paris is never reached but is that really pathetic? Paris is depicted as a schematic closed entity against a white background and the implicit assumption is that Paris as a whole, and Paris only, is the natural range of the Parisian. The entire city is your territory as if by birthright while the city is fenced in to separate it from its surrounding wilderness. The hard boundary between the two is not a coincidence. “Wandering in open country is naturally depressing, and the interventions of chance are poorer there than anywhere else,“ Debord quipped as the classic example of what deep topographer Nick Papadimitriou calls the ‘psychogeographical sneer’[vi]. By demanding continues access to the experiences and sensations of others, by refusing to engage with the countryside because of its low probability for random encounters with strangers, Debord is truly and pedantically failing to be exciting. The ‘sneer’ is just another example of the peasant crying wolf over the injustices caused to man by wilderness: its inability to fatten up the cows or stimulate instant excitement. The ‘sneer’ blames the landscape for being sterile and boring (read: not working hard enough) by understanding it only in terms of pre-conceived needs and desires. On the other hand: classical psychogeography understood the city and its varied zones and districts through the political and economical machinations that brought them together and in that light what else is there to do but sneer?

Image 3
It is not that the drift and its “rapid passage through varied ambiences” is without power but that it needs to be backed up with a sensibility that can acquire insight while staying pathetically close to home. Forage psychogeography begins with the power and value of close and minute observation of things within walking distance and with the recognition that the local and the boring do not set a restrictive boundary but are instead especially suited to the needs of  a discoverer. Call it the Miss Marple principle of psychogeography: “Her mind has plumbed the depths of human iniquity and taken it all in a day's work. It's extraordinary, she knows the world only through the prism of her village and its daily life. By knowing the village so thoroughly, she seems to know the world” [vii]. Or, to answer a map with a map, compare the two maps of the Cumberland Sound region on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic (Image 3) [viii]. The first map is drawn from memory by an Eskimo, the second is a modern cartographic map. The power of observation, coupled with the ability to reproduce it accurately and proportionally, that has gone into the Eskimo free hand drawing shows a degree of awareness to the factual rather than to the general that is beyond the capacity of every modern day urban peasant as mental map drawing exercises easily point out. As Robert Walser said: “We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much”[ix].

The drift, the active search for and celebration of, chance and coincidence, remains critical to the study of psychogeographic effects but it has to be rephrased for the specific circumstances of the forager. In her field work with the Huaorani (sometimes Waorani) Anthropologist Laura Rival noted how the foragers walk opens up the senses:

Men, women and children spend hours slowly exploring the forest along their trails. They do not merely hunt and gather (two activities which are relatively undifferentiated in practice), but walk, observing with evident pleasure and interest the movements of animals, the progress of fruit maturation, or simply the growth of vegetation. When walking in this fashion (a style of displacement markedly different from the one used when going on a visit or when transporting food from one place to another), one does not get tired, or lost. One’s body takes the smell of the forest and ceases to be extraneous to the forest world. One learns to perceive the environment as other animals do. One becomes a ‘dweller’ deeply involved in a silent conversation with surrounding plants and animals.[x]

The ultimate expression and realization of the foraging mind is the trek: a relaxed and joyous perambulation in celebration of abundant possibilities. The trek, a periodic migrating by otherwise sedentary people that might take months, is not about crossing distance but about osmosis with a terrain: two hours forward, and six hours back and forth along all cardinal directions. It is not about food (survival) but about good food (luxury). The drift  brings the trek to the next level (play) but the avant-garde’s stock tactics of the 20th century, the cut-up, the derangement of the senses, the automatisms and catharsises of Dada and Surrealism, are in need of a Curupira update because the forager always knows where he is and where the next turn will lead to [xi]. The Curupira is a bush spirit with green teeth and red hair who wanders through the forest all day to guard it against disturbance. Its most notable features are its backwards pointing feet and its human footprints: when you follow it you walk away from it, when you walk away from it you end up in its maloka, just in time to be thrown into the cooking pot. When a forager gets lost something must be tempering with the contents of her mind: a Curupira is nearby, wrecking navigational havoc, causing the drifter to drift in ever smaller, inward pointing circles destined to an immanent feast of unpleasantries. But the spook of the high forest has a weak spot, it likes to play and a puzzle or game of suitable difficulty left along the trail will offer protection because if the monster (in some versions ape-man) finds your puzzle it will devote all its attention to solving it and this will allow you to find your way again.

At the end of the day the farmer looks out over his fields and says to his wife: “You know, sometimes I think the whole world has gone crazy apart from you and me. And sometimes I doubt about you too” [xii]. In theory the farming farmer is not such a bad guy. His lifeway implies a deep knowledge of the land and local circumstances as well as a long-term commitment to the endured wellbeing of the land. Wendell Berry gave a wonderful cross-section of small scale agricultural practises, from Andean mountain farming to the benefits of Amish horse-use, and the ingenuity deserves awe[xiii]. But something in the accumulated life experience of a farmer always roots something vile and nasty in his mind: a hatred for everything that disturbs the order of his fields and for anything that refuses the plough. The farmer has at least the sanitizing effect of dirty hands to keep his bad habits in check, the urbanite has no such tempering device and the resulting savagery is all around us, visible from outer space. Consider NASA’s earth by night time map (Image 1). In conventional ideoagricultural terms the dark spots are empty, unused and pristine, defined by darkness and absence, silence and gloom. What a self-congratulatory misunderstanding: the cartographic darkness is a legacy, the collective achievement of numerous people using those land for thousands of years and still leaving it more or less as they found it, uncluttered with monuments [xiv].

Image 4
At a recent urban forage expedition the participants spread out in small groups to find and harvest edible plants. The route was produced on site by a .walk script (Image 4) generating a wandering path of alternating sequences of 'chase' and 'scatter' based on the mechanisms that guide the movements of the red ghost in PacMan, a game that essentially deals with foraging for food in an inhospitable world. The walk started at a public transport terminus: a train station behind us, a three lane bus ramp fronting us, 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? 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 visualized a direction at an invisible diagonal point 500 meters ahead of us. After only ten meters we made our first edible weed catch of the day between ornamental violets in a huge flowerpot. This would prove to be the first instance of a pattern that would direct our ghost-manoeuvring for the entire duration of the walk: aiming to move ahead, towards an unknown point beyond sight, interrupted by the visible reality of omnipresent weeds in the corner.

The unintentional notion implemented in the code was that a walk always travels between places of use separated by something else. After 75 minutes we had only crossed a short distance but we had visited five areas containing specific communities of plants. At least that is how the walk could afterwards be divided into discrete units of place, but at the time of the walk it wasn’t like this. Instead we travelled through a continues plane. We weren't moving from one location to the next, we were moving through a landscape that was offering something everywhere all the time. Our code was peasant code. The one location that did make a definite impact as a foraging hotspot 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 plants could grow without obstruction. While we were standing there, chatting, looking closer and closer and closer and exchanging bits of information, plant determination books at the ready (we are not natives yet), we were continuously laughed at from the cars waiting for the traffic lights to go green. There is a peasant inside each of us and he does not need to be liberated, he needs to be crucified.

[i] See:
[ii] In the words of Gary Snyder: "reinhabitation: moving back into a terrain that has been abused and half forgotten – and then replanting trees, dechannelizing streambeds, breaking up asphalt"
[iii] See:
[iv] See:
[vi] See:
[vii] From Agatha Christie, The Body in the Library (1942), Michael Holquist wrote: “The message of the stories in which she appears is always the same: the great heart of darkness beats under the quaint surface rhythms of a village church social no less ineluctably than at the headwaters of jungle rivers.”
[viii] From Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams (1986).
[ix] See:
[x] See:
[xii] Burroughs, cited from memory, unknown source.
[xiii] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America. (1986)
[xiv] See: