Wild food mapping as global cultural maintenance

Most of us have adjusted to the idea that social media and networked knowledge exchange extend the reach of our embodied, situated encounters. For better or worse, we have shown that we love to tell the world “this is where I am and this is what I’m doing.” In the case of foraging, knowledge that is vital to human survival can bounce usefully between the material world and the cloud and back again, fostering human‑plant relationships in the process. And this is all beautifully illustrated by the Australian‑born Wild Food Map.

Wild Food Map has its origins in a digital weed map of the inner‑city Sydney suburb of Chippendale, created in 2012. It was produced by artist Diego Bonetto and creative technologist Adrian O’Doherty for the Tin Sheds exhibition Baadlands, curated by Zanny Begg.[1] Bonetto is widely known for the “wild food” tours he conducts around Sydney which introduce people to the edible and medicinal plants that abound in urban terrain. As an artist, he is at once performer, educator, activist and story teller. He cuts through the familiar plant categories (weeds, ornamentals, natives, etc.) to reveal the identity of plants and their provenance within global food, health and making cultures. O’Doherty is a creative web developer by profession with a string of diverse projects under his belt, and a cartography enthusiast. He and Diego are like minds in their concern with the survival of plant and animal ecologies in the city, and O’Doherty was formally active in a data visualisation project which mapped the encroachment of urban sprawl upon wildlife habitats. Since the Chippendale pilot project the Wild Food Map team has expanded to include Salla Mankinen, Warren Armstrong and Karleene Hindmarsh, whose skills and passions as a group reflect the ambition of the project: digital production, app development, online architecture, social media strategy, nutrition, food justice and culinary innovation. 

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Screenshot: Wild Food Map http://wildfood.in

So how does the Wild Food Map work? It is both a web platform and an app which enables you to locate, identify and take advantage of useful plants around the world. Should you happen upon some wild fennel or purslane greens (very rich in omega 3) take a photo and upload it to the site, where it is archived as a geolocated data point on a searchable map. You can search by location to find out what can be foraged in your vicinity, or if you know that an edible is in season, you can conduct a search for, say, mulberries or macadamias, to learn where such trees can be found on public land. Wild Food Map combines visual and textual information for identification purposes, access to food preparation tips and other uses, and cultural traditions associated with the plant.

Interestingly enough “cyber foraging” is a term now in circulation in the world of Big Data. Such metaphorical links between plants and technology‑based information distribution aren’t hard to find: think of the “harvesting” of data, or the “radio broadcast,” which marries two nostalgic moments: the analogue radio and the farmer broadcasting seed with a wave of the hand. These linguistic adaptations hint at what the founders of Wild Food Map understand very well: that there is an easy affinity between foraging and networked knowledge sharing. 

Foraging is an activity that interweaves mobility, locality and communal knowledge. As the cultural geographer Doreen Massey argued, when we look at society through considerations of space rather than time, hegemonic understandings of modernisation become unthinkable and we rather perceive the simultaneous coexistence of many social realities.[2] Bonetto’s teachings and tours show plants to be culinary, medicinal, crafting and architectural mediums of social interaction around the world. He gathers and rebroadcasts countless anecdotes and methods of use from Indigenous, peasant, agrarian and migrant contexts. In the process he draws attention to the relationship between plants, subsistence and social life that globalised food markets and supermarket chains divert us from.[3]

Wild Food Map is an extension of this practice, and is a tool for precisely the kind of spatial thinking that Massey espouses. It honours and archives local knowledge on a global platform, while it also localises globally distributed knowledge. It takes advantage of the tools of the Big Data universe, having aggregated over 90,000 tags from freely available data sources, while also being a conduit for intimate exchanges between friends, subcultures and community groups, whether they use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or any other platform. It is also an example of web‑based citizen science and crowdsourced mapping, which have been a particularly fruitful arena for “glocal” collectivism. Wild Food Map is thus data visualisation at its most useful, generative and democratic.

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Screenshot: Wild Food Map http://wildfood.in

The “glocal” character of contemporary foraging practices arises from the mobility of both people and plants. Plant diasporas echo human diasporas. Every continent has histories of plant migration, territory loss and adaptation that are as complex and surprising as human histories. Wild Food Map is thus a vehicle for plant knowledge to traverse the globe and be responsive to its ever‑changing botanical scenarios. Meanwhile researchers have recently defined a sobering phenomenon spreading through many societies: “plant blindness.”[4] While animals, particularly mammals, pique our sympathies and weave their way through the visual mediums of popular culture, many of us look past and through plants in our everyday lives.

Pondering this leads to a disquieting fact: if habitats and ecologies sink over the horizon of our social imagination, they will cease to exist. This might be an anthropomorphic view; of course, the non‑human species who interact in that ecology know it exists. But many ecologies have evolved through the interdependence of humans, animals and plants. And, as becomes immediately obvious when we think about the intricate representations of plant species in Indigenous Australian art, or the culinary arts of Japan, the survival of many plants depends upon us treating them as cultural, not only botanical phenomena.

Wild Food Map is an antidote to plant blindness, not only because it enables us to become attuned to the botanical life that surrounds us but because it emphasises the usefulness of plants. Conservation movements produce a culture of care around plants in which we see them as always in need of protection from the damage caused by humans, factories, roads, mines, feral animals or invasive species. This is all unquestionably necessary, but it bypasses a panoply of human‑plant interactions that are functional, nourishing, nutritious, healing and structural and able to be integrated purposefully into our day‑to‑day lives.

This utilitarian approach to plant care points to Wild Food Map’s wonderfully iconoclastic character. It disseminates Bonetto’s controversial ethos of valuing weeds, which contests many decades of nativist conservation and landscape maintenance practice. But Wild Food Map challenges another sacred cow: that art should have some intrinsic aesthetic value, irreducible to any logic of usefulness. This is an artist‑led project—a tool no less—whose value will be measured by its functionality. It attests to fresh understandings of nature and art, understandings that arise from a recognition that treating them as special and quarantined from the everyday is not an effective mode for fostering either. Our networked devices are the best evidence we have that it is patterns of use that underpin how and why we value things, and it is these patterns of use that Wild Food Map immerses plant relations within.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Baadlands: An Atlas of Experimental Cartography curated by Zanny Begg was on exhibition at the Tin Sheds Gallery, University of Sydney, 2 August – 7 September 2013.
  2. ^ Doreen Massey, For Space, London: Sage, 2004.
  3. ^ See Laura Fisher (2016) ‘Land, Labour and Food: art and the recovery of ecological livelihoods’ Axon, 11, 2016: http://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-11/land-labour-and-food.
  4. ^ See Kathryn Williams (2016) ‘People are ‘blind’ to plants, and that’s bad news for conservation’, The Conversation, 14 September 2016: https://theconversation.com/people-are-blind-to-plants-and-thats-bad-news-for-conservation-65240; Robbie Blackhall-Miles ‘We need a cure for plant blindness’, The Guardian, 18 September 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/2015/sep/17/we-need-a-cure-for-plant-blindness.

wildfood.in is a plant community, where gardeners, foragers, growers, restaurants, chefs and bush crafters can locate plants, share knowledge and find resources related to useful, edible and medicinal plant species | wildfood.in

Laura Fisher is an arts researcher and sociologist based at SydneyCollege of the Arts, University of Sydney. Laura is interested in the role artists are playing in bridging the rural/urban divide globally, and is
researching a range of projects that are responding to challenges such as rural depopulation, environmental degradation and conflicts over land use. She is a member of the recently established Kandos School
of Cultural Adaptation.

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