What do fruit trees have to do with happiness? Maybe everything.
The other weekend I – feeling blue – went looking for green.
Like most city dwellers, I spend too much time sitting in front of a computer. Being outdoors always lifts my mood, whether it’s going camping, diving into the waves, or biking around the ‘hood.
This time, I set out to bring some wilderness into my life by going foraging in the suburbs.
A (mul)berry good idea
Pardon me if – delighted as I am to live in a country where papayas, mangos, pineapples, and passionfruit grow natively – I miss my berries. They grow like weeds in BC. They are cheap, plentiful and often wild. Here they just seem harder to come by, more expensive, and typically in plastic punnets, which I’m not down with.
So I paid close attention when, on a walk down Bondi Road, I noticed a branchy archway over the sidewalk created by a large tree dotted with oblong black berries. These I recognized as mulberries, thanks to a gardening bee at the Randwick Community Garden. They are similar to blackberries in shape and colour, though perhaps not as lusciously delicious (few things are). They would do. They were in season.
It turns out mulberries are fairly common across Sydney and most Aussies have fond childhood memories of gorging on them, fingers stained red from the juices.
They are a generous tree that needs little maintenance. One can even eat the leaves, or feed them to pet silkworms. One crop, many types of yield.
Hidden in plain sight
Curious after my discovery, I googled and found a few foraging apps with local info. I set out on bike in my own neighbourhood and brought a small container with me in case I struck black gold.
I found the mulberries I was looking for. Heaps of them. I harvested fruit so ripe it was literally blowing off the tree in the breeze. I was accompanied in my foraging at different intervals by a young magpie and a small dog. I hear pigs love fallen mulberries too.
Other perennial edibles I spotted: lemons, oranges, peaches, figs, passionfruit, rosemary, lemongrass, papayas, loquat, bananas, olives, mangoes and coffee berries. Not all in season, mind you, nor where they could reasonably be considered fair game. But foraging is less about pulling in a full harvest than it is about the sheer delight of discovery.
Humans: landscape architects
Finding food crops in the city is a reminder that humans can create and maintain beneficial landscapes, not just destroy them. That we can plan for the long term. A much needed counterpoint to the notion that we’re inherently bad for the earth, and related, that our elimination from the face of the earth would somehow be the best way resolve things.
Underlying this humans as cancer mindset is the bedtime story about the untouched wilderness, part of western mythmaking around European ‘discovery’ of supposed wilderness. Charles C Mann expands on this topic masterfully in his book 1491.
The reality is that all cultures shape lands, some much more successfully than others over the long term. So it is not a question of if, but how we do so that matters.
The longest running systems of land management work with rather than against natural systems. With continued population growth in cities like Sydney, I’m particularly interested in exploring permaculture in the urban environment for the purpose of developing hyper-local food sources.
Abundant, edible landscapes.
My foraging adventure cheered me up because it was a reminder that there is abundance everywhere. I thought of the people who planted those trees years ago and created a legacy of good. It reminded me of the many fruit-bearing trees in my parents and grandparents’ yards. It made me grateful. It made me want to do more to create permaculture landscapes.
Perhaps permaculture’s real appeal is optimism.
Thoughts I’m left with after a day spent foraging:
- Rough edges are beautiful and useful // a great garden will be a bit wild. Some plants will go to flower and seed, which will feed the bees and lay groundwork for the next crop. The wildest areas provided the most.
- Reimagine perfection // The way our culture values perfection in physical form is dissociated from function. What if the sterile hedge was made of rosemary, the tree in the front yard full of lemons, or the garden was bright with edible flowers? Who is making these landscaping decisions? How can I be more involved?
- Think multi-generational // I’ve been teased for sprouting avocado seeds and planting them since it could take seven years for one to bear fruit. On one hand, it’s hard to know what continent I’ll be on in seven years, and on the other, in some societies, seven generations is the length of the planning cycle. This gives meaning to my baby avocado tree and fuels my passion for restorative land management. In years to come, someone will enjoy the avocado tree I planted. While I hope it’s me, it doesn’t have to be for the exercise to be a success.
- Loss of landscape is loss of culture // Older homes are being demolished at a rapid pace here in Sydney. It’s not that I’m so tied to the architecture (honestly, much of it isn’t terribly well fit for the climate), but that the trees and the culture will be destroyed by ever-increasing houseprints. We might forget that lemons, loquats, mulberries and mangoes all grow here. Foraging has you reflecting on the ground under your feet.
Freezer full of berries, head full of dreams.
Humans can and must restore the landscape. Planting food forests is one way to do this. One tree planted now could provide food, shelter, habitat, and building materials for generations.
Some guidelines for foraging in urban areas
- If you’re not sure what it is, don’t eat it.
- Foraging is about gleaning what would otherwise go to waste on public lands, not trespassing or taking from community garden plots. Go for overhanging or fallen fruit only.
- Don’t strip everything – leave some for others, or the birds.
- Do something nice for the area, like picking up a few pieces of trash.
- If you’re in a position to, consider planting a fruiting tree.
- If foraging isn’t your thing, join a swap group to trade surpluses in your area.
- Check out fallingfruit.org, www.ripenear.me, CropSwapSydney or www.facebook.com/groups/swapyourcrop