Michael MacDonald has taught me an immense amount in the past week. A self-proclaimed “survival gardener,” 67-year old Michael lives on less than $100/year (more than 3 times below a basic poverty line!) in South Africa, but he far from living in the misery of poverty. His basic needs – at least those of health, shelter, and food, are met. There’s much I could say, for the sake of
Above: deadly nightshade, commonly considered a weed, is actually
a delicious berry, and not at all poisonous, when ripe. Who knew!?
human interest and background, but I’m going to focus on food… Michael only buys rice, tea, and sugar at stores. All the rest, he grows, scavenges, or forages. He eats pork fat and can make chicken bones go a long way; he’s healthy, a fast walker, an enthusiastic conversationalist, and a natural teacher. He has a wild, beautiful garden, and a sense of adventure which inspires me, not to mention a way of maintaining a humane way of carrying himself as he interacts with humans, animals, and plants alike that is absolutely admirable.
‘Weeds’ are not to be scorned. Dandelions are fantastic; every part of them is useful, from the flower (seeds, flavor) to the leaves (salads) to the root (wine). Weeds, for Michael, are possible allies in gardening; when they’re not edible, they’re at least good as a wind screen, or as a fence against pests. Almost nothing should be trashed, ever. Urban areas are actually full of edible things, the issue is changing your aesthetic towards opting to eat them. You also need to gain a knowledge base sufficient to be able to recognize what’s yummy and what will make you sick.
I could say a lot more about Michael’s garden and the many, many lessons I learned from him, but I will leave it for today with some main lessons on surviving in urban areas which he taught me on our sunset walk together. The prize of the walk turned out to be a lovely, sweet pomegranate I found in a hotel’s garden; I climbed a wall and retrieved it thanks to Michael’s charming the security guard into letting me. Magic!
- Before you put anything in your mouth, make sure the area it comes from isn’t polluted/peed on/otherwise contaminated.
- Careful for prickles and thorns before you touch.
- Smell before you eat.
- Chew, but don’t necessarily swallow.
- Nibble; especially at first. Small exposures to new things will “harden” your stomach (or, strengthen your guts), and it may take up to 3 days for you to really know if something is edible, and up to 8 days for fungi.
- Look at what the animals are eating; you won’t necessarily be able to eat the same things as them, but they offer good clues about what’s good.
- Beware of milky leaves; milky/latex-like juices from plants can cause blinding or skin irritation.
- Never kill the goose that lays the golden egg: at most, take 50% of a plant, and leave the rest so that it can keep producing for you.
- Leaves have the most flavor, and think of “spinach” as a general category of greens that can be cooked.
- The goodness is the whole plant; cook with stems, try sap-as-toffee, hibiscus stamens, bark as nutritive or medicinal sources, chicken bones have tons of calcium long after the meat is gone.
Michael, it is a real privilege to know you and to have learned from you. Thank you.