Fire power

In his book Against The Grain, James C Scott discusses the use of fire as a tool to manage the environment. Through clearing rain forest with fire, prehistoric hominids discovered that the burnt areas recovered rapidly, becoming more attractive to the species that were hunted for food. Attracted by tender green shoots and lush grass, grazing herbivores were followed by their carnivorous predators, much to the satisfaction of the hunter gatherers.

By creating productive oases of harvestable food, the hominids no longer needed to travel so far to find food. The pressing need to move on and start looking for fresh sources of food started to lose its urgency. But Scott has a more intriguing discovery to relate.

The closest relative to hominids is the chimpanzee, which has a significant difference, despite sharing almost all its genetic traits with humans. The chimp’s digestive system is elaborate and robust, allowing it to digest cellulose and tough vegetation. This heavy duty digestive function is absent in homo sapiens, Scott argues, because the use of fire for cooking food makes it easier to digest. It is as though homo sapiens has externalised the digestive functions by cooking on fires.

Having made the transition to a lighter, swifter digestive system, humanity is not going to reverse the process any time soon. Humanity is committed to maintaining a pattern of routine burning in the rain forest, just to carry on eating. We are now dependent on the restraints that we took on willingly millennia previously and are irrevocably committed to cooking and eating food, ranging over shorter distances than before. The domestication that came with fire changed humanity’s future development.

Pick what you know

Artwork copyright: Helena Barcraft-Barnes 2021

In the late 1970s, Richard Mabey sparked a passion for wild food with his bestselling book Food For Free. The title said it all and cleverly encapsulated a town dweller’s view of nature as an endless source of food.

This is overstated. Of course, there are occasional gluts, but these are uncommon. Realistically, foraging is a source of garnishes rather than whole meals: carrying a basket is no guarantee of coming home laden with wild food to order. It is however a pleasant addition to an extended walk, taking in some of the seasonal colour.

Armed with a copy of Food For Free and George Kibby’s mushroom guide, some 45 years ago I started collecting wild fungi and other crops as I learnt about their characteristics and locations. To anyone who asks if it is safe to pick fungi, I have a standard answer: pick only what you know and walk past the rest. By learning how to positively identify one species of mushroom you can be sure that you will recognise it even if it turns up in a fresh location.

In time, by adding more species to the positive list, you can build a repertoire of reliable fungi: walking past the rest will save time in the field and, if the opportunity occurs, you can always pick specimens to identify upon your return home. Just don’t mix the unidentified specimens with your supper without first making sure that they are an edible variety.

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to encounter a paddock full of giant puffballs in Shropshire, most of which were skull-sized and some of which were bigger than a beach ball. On another occasion I spotted a cauliflower fungus the size of a large hen; when walking alongside canals in the Black Country I would routinely pick wild celery, which is widespread and as large as the cultivated variety, with a strong preference for damp soil. But, apart from the wild celery, wild food has been a bonus rather than a reliable or significant addition to the menu.

Summer fungi in November

Today is November 7 and this morning I picked these shaggy parasols, a fungus that I used to pick in July August or September 40 years ago. We ate them for supper. But I struggle to decide whether of not they are an out of season treat. On balance, probably not, since the season has shifted rather than the fungi.