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Nature's Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants Paperback – March 1, 2010
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About the Author
Samuel Thayer is an internationally recognized authority on edible wild plants who has authored two award-winning books on the topic, Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest. He has taught foraging and field identification for more than two decades. Besides lecturing and writing, Samuel is an advocate for sustainable food systems who owns a diverse organic orchard and harvests wild rice, acorns, hickory nuts, maple syrup, and other wild products. He lives in rural northern Wisconsin with his wife and three children.
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When I reviewed Thayer's first book, The Foragers Harvest, I wrote that it is as good or better than anything available on the topic. It has since become the go-to book for students at the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. His new book, Nature's Garden, builds upon the high standard set by The Foragers Harvest and establishes him as the leading authority and author on edible wild plants that has ever published. It isn't slightly better than other books on the topic; it's in a whole different league.
The meat of the book is made up of plant accounts. These are in-depth profiles of edible plants, full of photos of how to identify, harvest and use them. The author bases all of his work on personal experience, so there aren't the usual falsehoods handed down by authors of lesser works. Instead, you get what works, along with anecdotal stories of how the author got to know the individual plants and how he's used them in the past. His writing style is conversational, and while there is a description for each plant that includes botanical terminology, the author writes it so as to make it accessible to the non-botanist. The numerous photos contribute greatly to aid the neophyte in identifying the individual species. The Harvest And Preparation section for each plant is where the author's experience really shines. Whereas the Peterson's Field Guide To Edible Wild Plants will list "starchy root" or similar descriptive term after a plant, Thayer has several pages of highly descriptive how-to information. To use a specific example, most books on edible plants have a sentence or two on acorns. Nature's Garden has 50 pages.
Anyone who has read The Foragers Harvest would expect the Plant Accounts to be encyclopedic and accessible, full of great photos and useful information. On this point, they deliver. If the book contained just Plant Accounts it would still be a fantastic resource. But there's more to outdoor living and foraging than how-to, and in the first section of the book the author gives a snapshot into the mind of living with wild foods. With sections on getting started, the ethics of harvesting wild plants, conservation, personal experiences on a wild food diet and a harvest calendar, he provides those new to foraging a great jumping off point. In a section titled Some Thoughts On Wild Food, he offers useful advice such as don't make a wild plant fit the description in the book (which is a common pitfall), then expounds upon the myth of the instant expert. The last chapter of the section is titled "Poison Plant Fables", where he discusses the story of Christopher McCandless and how his demise in Alaska, chronicled in the book and movie Into The Wild, didn't occur as the famous author of his biography would have us believe. He didn't poison himself by eating the wrong plant. Rather, he starved to death. By pointing out the facts, though, he doesn't poke fun at McCandless like so many armchair survivalists like to do. Instead, he treats him with respect, saving his derision for the authors and movie producers for not telling the truth. The money quote from this section comes in a section titled "What Lessons About Wilderness Survival And Wild Food Can Be Drawn From The Story Of Chris McCandless?"
'In a short term survival situation, food is of minor importance. However, in long term survival or "living off the land", it is of paramount importance.'
Bushcraft continues to evolve for me away from skills and toward personal relationships with the land and people. While I've never met Samual Thayer, after reading this first section I feel that we're kindred spirits.
There isn't a better book on edible wild plants. Taken together with The Foragers Harvest, it is the last word on the topic in print. I don't think more can be learned from any book; to go beyond what Thayer has written, you have to be out there actively foraging.
Thayer is a real expert who knows whereof he speaks; he has eaten all the plants he writes about, not just once, but many, many times. When he tells you that the fruit of the Mayapple is not, as many state, poisonous, or that the seed of the hackberry, chewed with the pulp, is an unappreciated treat, you can trust him. He is respectful of those, like Euell Gibbons, whose knowledge he respects, and unsparing in his criticism of those who spread false information, like Jon Krakauer and several other authors of foraging books who he accuses of spreading false and even dangerous misinformation. At the same time, he can be very witty when the occasion arises.
As in his previous book, Thayer begins by discussing the issues of conservation and sustainable harvest. Some plants should be harvested little, or not at al, depending on how plentiful they are in a given area. Some, like garlic mustard, are invasive that crowd out and suppress the growth of native species and should be completely harvested- and then enjoyed.
One thing Thayer stresses is the importance of plant identification, and to that end he presents a four-step process for identification, and what are probably the best photographic illustrations to be found in any book on edible plants. Where confusion with a toxic species is a possibility, he presents photos of the lookalikes, and points out the differences.
One criticism of his previous guide was that it was too location specific. Western and coastal readers wrote in to complain that the plants Thayer described were not found in their part of the country. In answer to these critics, this book contains a list of what percentage of the plants described in the book might be found in different states, and I was pleased to see that 100% of them may be found in Michigan. Perhaps surprisingly to critics, most of the states on the list are home to at least 80% of the plants discussed, and Nevada (49%), Alaska (43%) and Hawaii (39%) host fewer than 69% of the species.
All in all, a perfectly wonderful book. If you already have Thayer's earlier foraging book you've probably already ordered this one. If you're just starting out, buy both, and Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Field Guide Edition, while you're at it' There are a lot of books on foraging in print right now, but these three may be all you'll ever need.
A great accomplishment to write such an inspirational first person experience on the subject of natures garden, edible wild plants. Its breath and individuality is something to strive for in learning, personally as someone just starting to see nature as worth learning about, not being afraid to logically interact with, understand beyond my front door..
I'm not a professional forager, but knowledge of my surroundings and where my food comes from increasingly fascinates me. This book is wonderfully written and an interesting read even if its subject matter is nothing you plan on experiencing personally. To those who spend some time with nature, this book should be a wonderful bonding experience.