Tantalus at Dawn

26 Aug

berries2This weekend I went camping for the second time this summer. Unlike my previous trip—which involved a full prep-week making jerky and pemmican and planning paleo meals with the least amount of perishability—this trip simply involved throwing a bunch of crap in the car, driving an hour and a half up to the Sacramento River delta, and plopping down on a picnic table with some board games and boxed wine (protip: not paleo).

Our trip did take an unexpected paleo turn when we discovered that the campground was surrounded by wild blackberry bushes. Not surprisingly, most of these bushes were already picked clean, but a bit of intrepid scrambling along the breakwater lead us to a stand that seemed to be untouched by human hands. There were so many berries that we visited it twice, once each morning, and came away with a big haul both times.

With so much to gather, I had ample time to ruminate on the nature of foraging, a topic often overshadowed in paleo conversations by the much sexier themes of hunting and heavy work. One might even say that it’s the Rodney Dangerfield of the paleo-sphere. But my adventures this weekend definitely proved that it deserves a lot more respect.

For starters, I was surprised—both pleasantly and otherwise—at how much of a physical workout it provides. Whereas foraging in a grocery store simply means walking up to a shelf, foraging on the vine means a lot of bending, squatting, and reaching in every plane of movement. Additionally, we were standing on the slippery, unbalanced rocks of the breakwater, so my legs and core had to work full time to balance me. And lets not forget that berry bushes actively fight back against intrusion (making them more like hunting prey than foraging prey, IMO) so I had to be even more careful. More than once I found myself in an almost meditative state as I focused on my balance and movements to navigate the narrow boundary between the thicket and the water, lulled by the warm morning sun and the lapping of water on the rocks.

The gods of Irony were with us that day, since about two minutes after K talked about how much she wanted to go swimming, she slipped and fell in the water.

The Gods of Irony were also with us, since on our first visit, about two minutes after Kara talked about how much she wanted to go swimming she slipped and fell in the water.

Which leads me to my next observation: the mental workout. Again, instead of simply walking up to a shelf to pick up a pre-packaged clamshell, I had to actively consider my approach and and every move. Some of the berries were literal low-hanging fruit, of course, but acquiring most of them involved evaluating and solving mini-puzzles of balance, shadows, and thorns. It reminded me that problem-solving is what allowed our ancestors to not only deal with but thrive under complex environments. It is so essential to human nature that while we spend the majority of our technology trying to streamline society, we seem to spend the majority of our newly-acquired free time coming up with challenges to solve for fun. Solving problems is so instinctive that my friends and I were irrationally excited and pleased with ourselves when one of us located a curved stick that allowed us to hook onto deeper branches and pull them closer to us.

Demonstrating the use of our latest technology: the wonky stick. Not shown: Mouth full of berries.

Demonstrating the use of our latest technology: The Wonky Stick. Not shown: Mouth full of berries.

But the foraging experience also had some things to teach me about the darker sides of human nature. For example, the excitement at our latest advance in Curvy Stick technology was only temporary. Once we had cleaned all the branches it could reach, we were still taunted by heavy branches full of glistening black berries beyond its grasp. Even more frustratingly, some branches that the stick could reach were still too high for our long monkey arms to follow suit. I considering my options. We had already collected enough berries for our entire campsite to snack on all afternoon, but those last bunches were just too perfect to pass up. I started thinking that if I had brought my long-handled tree lopper from home, I could have snipped off those high vines and picked through the clumps at will. Hell, if I had the lopper, I could even get deeper into the thicket at ground level.

And that’s when I stopped and really considered what I was thinking. In just an hour or so, I had gone from simple joy at foraging for free, wild berries on a beautiful summer morning with my friends, to nonchalantly plotting ways to damage and manipulate the environment to my own benefit. Yes, this was just a berry bush and in the grand scheme of things it probably wouldn’t have made a difference, but I started to see how a simple instinct to maximize one’s foraging efforts in an environment could spiral out of control into pure exploitation. It shamed and humbled me.

Another interesting observation came up when I saw this video clip my boyfriend took of us, which he—an aspiring Attenborough—so drolly narrated:

[vimeo 73159160]

For those who can’t hear the narration, he says:

“Note, the specimens are near the water in a very slippery area. Yesterday they attempted to harvest berries here as well, and discovered that it was very slippery and resulted [sic] in injury. But much like the monkeys with the nicotine levers, the blackberries draw them back.”

He was specifically referencing studies like this one that are trying to understand the neurology of addiction and why it persists so strongly, even when faced with reduced overall health. Our experience is perhaps a microcosm of this. Yes, we got scratched and scraped and a little sunburned and Kara fell in the water, but that didn’t stop us from returning the next day to gather more. That same tenaciousness allowed our ancestors to survive under harsh and variable conditions. They became hardwired to ignore the pain in their bodies and seek out that burst of euphoria that came from eating such scare, sweet morsels, since those morsels might help them survive to another day.

Hundreds of thousands of years later we are left with that same wiring, but instead of driving us toward berries, it drives many of toward other things that release similar euphoric signals. Drugs, alcohol, refined sugars, agricultural grains like wheat. All of these cause euphoric signals in our brain that lure us on through all the pain and damage they cause in our bodies. Unfortunately our modern foraging landscape is filled with far more things like these than it is patches of berries.

At the end of the day, I’ll take the berries, spines and all.

Even the dead spiders.

Even the bits of dead spiders.


One Response to “Tantalus at Dawn”

  1. Georganne Fisher August 27, 2013 at 4:40 am #

    OMG! I love this…!

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