Some of you may not be aware of this, but food is my first passion above herbalism and above magic. I am a mom, then a cook, then a plant lover, and then a witch. The artist is in there too, but often gets to create through food rather than illustration most of the time. My parents taught me to cook from a very young age, from the garden, from scratch, from whole foods. I cooked while I was going to school and then went to culinary school out of high school rather than university. I worked at hotels and restaurants all over the great cities of Canada: Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Victoria.
I saw the truffle seller come in the back door and peddle her fragrant wares out of a basket by candlelight in a restaurant in Montréal. I remember picking herbs fresh from the gardens of a lakeside hotel to cook dinner for a wedding in rural Ontario. I’ve cleaned endless fir needles out of pounds upon pounds of wild harvested chanterelle muhrooms for a cafe in Victoria. I’ve felt the steam of the line kitchen, the heat of the deep fryers, and the feel of flipping a pan of perfectly browned vegetables in my hand over a gas flame. My dream at nineteen was to become like my German-Ontarian idol Michael Statlander as famous chefs Magnus Nilsson and Rene Redzepi have become in recent years but with simplicity instead of their superfluousness… and well, maybe it could still happen one day.
Further in the past there was once a little girl who had very odd parents. On the surface they appeared normal just like every other child’s parents; they dressed normally, had normal jobs, went to church, and read her bedtime stories at night. But they were… odd. You see, they talked to plants and animals as if the flora and fauna understood them and were going to answer back. Her green-thumbed mother talked to and expressed love for all the plants in her garden and they flourished for her. Her father lovingly spoke to his cows and pigs as if they were friends and fed them better than most people and they loved him back, tamely following him around like he’d walked out of a Disney movie or was some kind of animal whisperer. These odd parents would take the little girl and her sister deep into the forest of tall, moss-covered trees with a floor of ferns and teach her the names of the wild plants and the animals they were lucky and quiet enough to spot. The girl learned how to say please and thank you to all the bushes she picked and ate delicious juicy berries from and to give a friendly hello to any forest creature she met.
Preparing a feast at my kitchen table for workshop attendees
These are my parents and it took me a long time to realize that they were rare people when it came to their ethics and philosophy regarding the natural world. My father loves his 83 acres of field and forest as if it were a person and he loved his livestock as much as his dogs and his children. My mother simply cannot live without her garden and being surrounded by the beautiful green of nature – the city just won’t do. It’s not that they grew up with a rural mindset. They both grew up in towns and cities, attended university, and have travelled extensively. This is the life and philosophy they have chosen to live, not one they were born into. And yet, my parents are Christians who attend church every Sunday who have never heard of animism and have never put much thought into environmentalism aside from recycling, not polluting, and generally not being a jerk to nature. Without intending to, through their own everyday actions, they had taught me ethical livestock husbandry and land stewardship.
It is my belief, that if most people quietly went on about their lives living and breathing such a philosophy every day as my parents do, no matter their religious denomination, that our severely damaged relationship with the natural world would slowly be repaired.
When the world was awash with animism, the people viewed food as sacred and precious. Nature was God and thus food was God. Little berry deities on the bush, succulent root deities in the earth, sweet deity blood as sap running from a tapped birch tree. Animals were deities too, presided over by the wild and fearsome forest gods who could curse or kill those who did not treat their realm with respect. Ancient hunters would ask permission of these wild gods before hunting their deer or boar. Ancient gatherers would ask permission before picking berries or harvesting the soft edible cambium or underbark of trees. All that is left of these beliefs and practices is folklore and prayers from both the Old and New Worlds, collected as anecdotes rather than as a body of living lore.
below: beets and carrots at a farmers’ market
foraged saskatoon berries preserved from the hot sun with sweetfern
Talking to Our Food
What if we didn’t strive to be like the ancients, whose true ways are long lost and whose skills are beyond many of us at this time, but instead decided to bring the philosophy of animism to the dinner table? What would it look like? To be honest, it would look foolish to an outsider as it would involve talking to plants and animals, talking to our food sources, as if they were sentient and could understand us. Most of the old prayers collected as folklore weren’t really prayers at all, they were people talking to plants and to wild spirits. What would it sound like? Something along the lines of: “Hey there beautiful thimbleberry bush. I’m not going to harm you. I’m just going to pick some of your berries to eat. Don’t hurt me and please tell your friends good things about me. Thank you for your gift of food.” It is informal dialogue showing honesty, politeness, and respect. Following up your words with matching actions completes the circle by practicing ethical wild harvesting or hunting and fishing methods. Somehow, saying such things aloud to a plant or a fish eventually feels less silly and more ritualistic, more necessary. It creates a connection between you and your food source – the natural world.
“Mistress of the woods, Mielikki,
Forest-mother, formed in beauty,
Let thy gold flow out abundant,
Let thy silver onward wander,
For the hero that is seeking
For the wild-moose of thy kingdom;
Bring me here thy keys of silver,
From the golden girdle round thee;
Open Tapio’s rich chambers,
And unlock the forest fortress,
While I here await the booty,
While I hunt the moose of Lempo.“
~ Rune XIV, The Kalevala (1849)
The Kalevala is a Finnish epic, it’s true age isn’t known as the oral lore wasn’t written down until the 1800s. Above is an example of a hunter buttering up the guardian spirit of the forest so that she will show favour to him and let him hunt her caribou successfully. Below a travelling musician kindly asks that he may walk through the forest without being harmed by the bears who dwell within it.
“Otso, thou O Forest-apple,
Bear of honey-paws and fur-robes,
Learn that Wainamoinen follows,
That the singer comes to meet thee;
Hide thy claws within thy mittens,
Let thy teeth remain in darkness,
That they may not harm the minstrel,
May be powerless in battle.
Mighty Otso, much beloved,
Honey-eater of the mountains,
Settle on the rocks in slumber,
On the turf and in thy caverns;
Let the aspen wave above thee,
Let the merry birch-tree rustle
O’er thy head for thy protection.“
~ Rune XLVI, The Kalevala (1849)
“O Lady Artemis, do not loosen your golden chains. See your hounds of plain or forest, white or coloured, let them not with open jaws seek out the fields of the plain, let them come empty and let them go empty. Make them run off, and let them not come to our farm, nor touch our cattle nor harm our donkeys.”
~ Latin incantation inscribed on a copper nail found in northern Europe
In a related tale from the highlands of Scotland a deer woman comes out of the forest and tells the hunters to leave a deer once a month as an offering at a cairn and when they do their hunt is successful, if they don’t leave the offering they bring home no deer. This mysterious woman’s own hunting hounds are often wolves and it is her in the Scottish tales asking the hunters to tie up their hounds (Davidson). Such themes and incantations are found across cultures and continents from the Coast Salish of the Pacific Northwest asking a Red Cedar tree permission to harvest its bark to the Amazonian Huacharia’s tea ceremony asking permission of the forest to hunt and forage to incantations from 19th century Scotland recorded in the Carmina Gadelica asking plants to lend their magical and medicinal powers to the forager. They all announce themselves and ask permission of the forest, or the individual flora and fauna who compose it, to trespass, to forage, and to hunt.
River may I cross your waters and fish them for food? Forest, trees, please reveal to me your mushrooms edible to humans and free from slugs and worms. Berries, shining jewels, may I pick you? Roots, deep medicine, may I harvest you and nourish my family with your starch? I won’t take too much, just enough for me and mine while still leaving plenty for you and yours who belong to the forest.
Lake Superior from Northern Ontario
The more you do this the more you may start to notice that the natural world responds back. Maybe the forest will reveal its best berry picking and root-digging spots to you after your good treatment of its denizens, its resources. Maybe it will get less and less hard to find deer during hunting season after you’ve consistently asked for permission from the forest. Maybe you’ll end up with more fish from the river than you’ve ever caught before after years of giving it simple offerings, asking respectfully for a good catch, and cleaning up any garbage you find. If you dwell in a more sub/urban area, maybe it will be simply that your vegetable garden flourishes as never before and your chickens lay the best eggs after being treated with love. Perhaps you’ll find an incredibly productive blackberry bush in an unexpected corner of the city away from pollution that yields its fruits to you scratch-free. Whatever they may be, the rewards for your philosophy in action will become apparent and very much real.
There are other ways we can bring animism to the dinner table. Some are simple and already practiced by many of us such as choosing sustainably or organically grown local produce from a local farmer who cares about quality and about their land. A locally grown tomato, ripened on the vine in season will always taste leagues better than a tomato grown thousands of miles away out of season, covered in chemicals to kill pests and molds, picked green, and artificially ripened. If hunting or raising livestock for your own meat isn’t an option, then try your best to purchase local, ethically raised meats and eggs. The prices in shops and city farmers’ markets are always higher, but if you drive out to the country to pick up meat and eggs yourself, you may find the pricing more digestible along with a much healthier and tastier result.
below: a wild hare
The Grey Ethics of Killing to Eat
“An indigenous approach is more concerned with honouring the body of the creature by taking the most nourishment possible from it, where the modern attitude is to use only some of the creature’s body if it is convenient, sterile, and socially acceptable.” ~ Miles Olson
I was raised on a farm and in the wilderness with hunters. When I was a little girl I saw moose butchered in garages with every part to be used; meat for eating, sinew for crafts, bones for stock, the hide for leather, the skull and antlers for decoration. The locals’ favourite part was the tongue. I helped my Tahltan neighbour carefully pick sockeye salmon out of his traditional long pole net in the Stikine River and then gut them – some for smoking and some for canning. I sat by that same river alone with a fishing rod of driftwood with a hook and salmon eggs as bait and caught salmon, knocking them out with a club, gutting them, and wrapping them in newspaper to place them in the freezer. I lived on a farm with cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. My parents named every livestock animal, talking to them as if they were human, and treating them well with good food, a good life, and a good death. Our love for them didn’t stop us from eating them. Through the actions of my parents I learned that as we loved and cared for our animals, they in turn cared for us by nourishing us with their fat, meat, minerals and vitamins.
“I feel a deep kinship with the animals I hunt; most hunters do. We get to know them in a far deeper way than all but a few other sorts of human: We know their personalities, their foibles, their habits. Where they like to live, what they like to eat, and what they might do in any given situation. Yet most of us take delight in being fooled when a deer or rabbit shows us some new quirk of their behavior. Hunt any animal long enough and it ceases to be the Disneyfied caricature of itself most people know and blossoms into a clever, free-thinking entity – an entity not so different from us.
My mind settled onto this seeming paradox the way a leaf settles onto the forest floor. Sitting in this meadow, in this place, as a hunter and a human animal, it felt serenely right in a way I find wildly incapable of explaining to those who have not experienced the same feeling.” ~ Hank Shaw
I saw and lived this way of life from a young age. I saw the good, but I also saw the bad. I saw coyotes pick off livestock when drought caused them to starve. I saw hunters come from the city to kill bears for sport, taking nothing but photos and the hide and wasting the rest. I saw chickens kill their own deformed chicks. I saw cows and pigs accidentally kill their own young by crushing them. I saw pigs locked in pens to grow fat leading to health problems and atrophied limbs. I saw pregnant animals killed without a thought, the fetuses thrown onto a pile of refuse. My father used to buy animals from farmers who treated their livestock like this to give them a better life. We took in cows, pigs, and chickens. I remember one time the vet came to our farm to inspect our animals and give them shots. He refused to vaccinate them because they were so healthy, friendly, and intelligent, he didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken “you’ve got some healthy organic meat here, you don’t need me.”
Butchering a duck into meat, fat for rendering, and bone & organs for stock
My parents taught me to care where my food comes from and when I became a professional cook it was just as important. I learned that the meat from a pig who lived a happy life with other pigs, was fed a good and varied diet, was allowed to run around, roll, in mud, and forage, and was given a good, quick death led to amazingly tasty meat. I learned that if that same pig was locked up in a small pen alone, fed only the same commercial feed and water, was never allowed to see the light of day, and was terrified before death, resulted in disgusting inedible meat.
Studies have been done on cows that revealed a good, quick death devoid of fear resulted in good meat, whereas a frightened and panicking cow before death results in bad meat; the adrenaline and hormones released from fear poisoning the muscle. I grew up knowing there were no absolutes in the ethics of killing for food, but that it’s our individual actions and treatment of our food that really matters.
I learned I should not kill an animal because I can, but because I need to and that when I do kill for food it should be the easiest, most painless, and best death I can provide. It is much easier to believe that animal life is not really life equal to ours and make ourselves cold to them so we can stuff them into slaughterhouses for frightening, painful deaths so we can have convenient access to mass amounts of faceless meat in supermarkets. It is much harder to admit animals deserve fair and good treatment with respect and reverence towards their feelings and needs and spend extra money and time making sure they receive that good treatment.
It isn’t so easy to give meat a good death, even if you are a farmer. Abattoirs (or slaughterhouses) are fewer and fewer with independent butchers closing up and retiring faster than they can be replaced. Where I live in Canada meat has to be federally inspected before it can be legally sold to the public. This results in many small farmers not being able to afford to send their livestock to a federally inspected facility and it’s often the meat farmers in any rural area I’ve lived in within Canada who go out of business first. There is simply no legislation in place for small meat producers and even for small egg producers. This is one of the many reasons we need change so badly. If we change the demand for how our meat is raised and slaughtered, it is more likely to lead to the necessary change in laws so we can legally and more easily access healthy, local, whole foods.
Carrot Juice is Murder
“Listen up brothers and sisters, come hear my desperate tale.
I speak of our friends of nature, trapped in the dirt like a jail.
Vegetables live in oppression, served on our tables each night.
The killing of veggies is madness, I say we take up the fight.
Salads are only for murderers, coleslaw’s a fascist regime.
Don’t think that they don’t have feelings, just ’cause a radish can’t scream.“
~ The Arrogant Worms
The world is not our oyster and we need to change how we think and act when it comes to our food supply.
Many people’s solution is to become vegetarian or vegan to stop participating in the industrial machine that treats animals this way. We laud ourselves for being so ethical, but in doing so we can easily forget that plants deserve fair treatment just as much as animals do. We forget to think about the forests and wetlands destroyed so they can be replaced by fields of organic carrot and soy bean monocrops in California.
We forget to think about the environmental footprint of importing fruits, vegetables, and grains over long distances. We forget to think about if our produce has been genetically modified or altered or covered in herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides and what the health effects of such things are upon the land, its waters, the animals that live on it, the bees who pollinate it, the farmers that tend it, and our children who eat its fruits. We forget to think about if the produce was commercially grown on land raped of its nutrients and filled with fertilizers to compensate, leaching into the water supply and contaminating it for animals and humans. Yes, even organic agriculture is guilty of this.
We forget to think about if our produce was grown with long-term sustainability in mind. Farmers, animals, and whole ecosystems are dying so we can eat organic soybeans and corn we don’t actually need. How many people have to die and how much more research has to be done before we abandon the Frankenstein that is modern commercial agriculture? Even organic agriculture is not sustainable, not the way we are currently practicing it. How many studies must be done proving plants are intelligent and can feel pain before we start to treat them better and stop splicing their genes and covering them in toxic chemicals? How long until we realize maybe we can’t always do this better than Nature naturally does?
The answer is simple, but hard to accomplish. As a collective we need stop buying and eating the fruits of the commercial food industry. If we don’t feed the greed machine it ceases to make a profit and therefore will eventually cease to exist as it is. Money is the only thing big agri-business understands and the only language it speaks. If we demand change and vote with our dollar, we can all make that change happen. If you want to see organic, sustainable, permaculture, and forest farming based agriculture succeed, you need to buy produce from farmers who apply its methods or do so yourself. If you want fairer treatment of livestock animals, then raise your own or purchase your meat and eggs from local farmers who treat their animals well and feed them gmo and chemical-free feed. If it’s not an option where you live, you may have to hunt, forage, garden, or become vegetarian. Don’t let a poor economy or a low income get in the way of choosing how you eat. Food is power. If we can feed ourselves we have power over our own lives.
“I realized something had to be done; I had to take action! It was clear that I was a ‘food victim’ and it was time to take back control. I discovered it’s possible when you grow your own fruit and vegetables, raise your own meat, and know what to eat from the wild. This is how I made the switch.”
~ Rohan Anderson, Whole Larder Love
I encourage ecologically friendly agricultural practices and ethical animal husbandry because I always keep in mind the darker side of rewilding the dinner table. There are simply too many of us for everyone to return to foraging and hunting as our main food source. There would be nothing left in the wild in very short order. The remaining forests would be raped and pillaged with our good intent and Nature would have nothing left to feed their own. Farming, forest farming, permaculture, land stewardship, animal husbandry, and other forms of sustainable food production should never be cast to the side, but improved upon for the benefit of all –wild and civilized.
Colony Farms organic community gardens in Port Coquitlam, BC
Maybe you’re a conservative person and don’t like to rock the boat. Maybe you don’t understand politics, don’t care about politics, or don’t have the time to spend figuring out the system so you can effect change in your own life or in the lives of others. Maybe you still feel you need to do something regardless, to get your hands dirty to make a better world. One thing we all share in common, one thing we all care about, is food. Food is where we can start a peaceful revolution forcing the corrupt system to change. If the system isn’t working, opt out. Maybe no one told you it’s a choice before, but it is. You can choose not to participate. You don’t have to be a radical hippie living on a farm or in the backwoods.
You can live in the city or a small town and still grow your own food and choose where your food comes from. There are so many resources for growing food anywhere (apartments with or without balconies, rooftops, yards, containers, empty lots, community gardens, etc) that there’s no excuse not to try. Excuses are our way of opting out and not feeling guilty about it. “I can’t do that, I don’t have enough time or money.” We make time for the things we are truly passionate about. You may have to rearrange your life and give up some things in order to achieve your own food security. I personally think it’s well worth it whether you choose to grow and harvest your own food or simply to make more careful food choices.
Eating as Animists
Does this relate to bioregional animism? Yes! What better way to reinforce your practice and beliefs as a bioregional animist than to focus your diet on wild food and food grown and harvested in a way that sustains the local ecosystem? Besides shopping at seasonal farmer’s markets, you can learn about local wild berries, nuts, fungi, roots, and greens you can forage and eat. Discover native tea and coffee substitutes. Be ethical and sustainable in your foraging and wild harvesting practices so nature can continue to renew itself each year, producing the same wild foods in the future. If you’re a hunter you can learn which animals to hunt for food and what seasons to do so in. If you’re not a hunter, many cities now have butchers devoted to wild game meat – often locally sourced. To learn all these things you can research local wilderness schools, nature field guides, or foraging guides and sign up for a hunter’s licensing course. This new-old way of thinking about food is gaining popularity making resources easier to find.
“Taking back a little bit of control where your food is produced makes life tend towards the simple side. That’s the idea anyway. Simple doesn’t mean you don’t put in effort or that you just lay back and watch things happen. Simple can sometimes mean more work, more planning, and even more thought put into your philosophy of life. The work comes in the form of getting soil under your fingernails, blood on your shirt, and beads of sweat on your forehead cooking over a hot stove.
The planning comes in the form of seasonal preparations and annual events that keep your food stores in check and your vegetable patch happy and productive. And finally, bringing it all together, is your approach to life in general. My philosophy is basic: nature rules supreme. We are only little gears that make the bigger machine do its thing. Although, fools that we are, as a species we often live as though we are the operator of the machine.”
~ Rohan Anderson, Whole Larder Love
As spiritual people who pride ourselves in being reverent of nature, we should care where our food comes from and how it is treated. We should care about plant life just as much animal life. We should care with the deepest passion from our hearts and souls. As a pure animist I see no difference between catching a salmon and killing it for food and pulling up a beet root and cooking it for dinner. No matter what, it’s a life for a life so I can eat and live. We are all eaters of spirits and those spirits deserve to be treated well. All life deserves respect and reverence. How do we show it? Show it through your food choices. Show it through growing your own food and treating your plants and your land well. Show it by giving thanks to the spirits on your plate before each meal. But most of all, show it by teaching your children to care too. If we teach our children where their food comes from and how to make good choices, the next generations will learn from our mistakes and change how things are done to the benefit of all life.
It’s not up to anyone else, it’s up to us. No one is going to do this for you. Look what has already happened when we let the government and agri-business do it for us by monetizing food; something which should be a basic human right and not something we can’t afford to farm or purchase. Take back your power as a living being on this earth and feed yourself and your family. Share the excess with your neighbour and when we all source our own food sustainably and take care of ourselves and each other, then we will have food security and a food system with an ethical philosophy. Then we can start to become part of the earth and its natural food chain once more.
Adventures in Edible Plant Foraging: Finding, Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Native and Invasive Wild Plants by Karen Monger
Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram
Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook by Dina Falconi
Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast by Hank Shaw
Sacred Food: Cooking for Spiritual Nourishment by Elisabeth Luard
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
The Hair and the Dog – Scottish Deer Lore by Hilda Ellis Davidson and Anna Chaudhri
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
Unlearn, Rewild: Earth skills, ideas and inspiration for the future primitive by Miles Olson
Whole Larder Love: Grow, Gather, Hunt, Cook by Rohan Anderson