The urban forager

Author explores using wild plants as food, medicine

By Keith Loria, Special Writer
   It’s not every day that someone comes across an urban forager, but for Becky Lerner, a 2000 graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro South High School, meeting up with these folks is all in a day’s work.
   Born and raised in West Windsor, the 31-year-old Lerner has studied foraging for years and is considered one of America’s foremost experts in the subject. She writes about it on her blog, “First Ways;” speaks about it in lectures; teaches about it; and this past year has written her first book, “Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness.”
   The book is an entertaining and thought-provoking narrative about foraging urban wild plants for food, herbal medicine, and more in Portland, Ore., where she currently lives.
   ”My goal with this book is to inspire and empower people to see the usefulness of the common wild plants all around us,” Ms. Lerner says. “I write about using wild plants for food and medicine to enhance survival preparedness, self sufficiency, and to promote sustainability and a nature connection.”
   Ms. Lerner says she was always interested in nature, but that growing up in this area didn’t lend itself to much exploration in the foraging field.
   ”While growing up, my parents took me to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge very often and that greatly impacted me and helped me develop a love of nature,” she says. “Later, as a high school and college student, I enjoyed visiting the Delaware Water Gap and Rutgers Gardens. I was enjoying them as a passive visitor though, not as a forager, and I didn’t know anybody who foraged or made herbal medicine.”
   She went to college at Rutgers, got a job writing for “The Home News Tribune” covering Middlesex County and then moved to Ithaca, N.Y., for a year. It was while living in upstate New York when she first became interested in wilderness survival.
   Then when she moved to Portland in 2008, things really kicked into gear as far as foraging goes.
   ”I became immersed as the area has many wilderness areas nearby and a large community of herbalists,” she says. “In Portland there are a lot of people interested in it, with more schools and even the National College of Natural Medicine here, so it’s on people’s radar.”
   Ms. Lerner learned how to better identify plants for medicine, food and other important uses, and really upped her foraging and wilderness survival skills.
   ”It became a passion for me,” she says. “I was writing the blog and was also in graduate school for creative non-fiction writing and the combination of the two led me to think about writing the book. The thought behind the book is I wanted to create something entertaining and inspiring and share the story of my adventures and how I got interested in foraging and what I’ve learned and the people I met along the way.”
   The book introduces readers to Jason, who spends his days picking up road kill and turning it into meat and making clothing and shoes from the remains. The chapter on him talks about his hunting/gathering ancestors of Ireland and Germany and explains why foraging is so important to him.
   ”Another colorful person is Margot,” Ms. Lerner says. “I met her through a posting on a Craigslist ad, where she was looking for a place to dig up dandelions. She was a recovering agoraphobic, scared to leave the house. She is an artist; she’s inventing her own language, and is a really unusual, eccentric person, and I wouldn’t have met her any other way.”
   The book covers four years of Ms. Lerner’s experiences, the last two of which she spent writing. She admits there was some writer’s block along the way, and she wasn’t always sure what the structure of the book would be, but is very happy with its outcome.
   ”I was used to writing on deadlines as a newspaper reporter, but being a creative writer is just a different experience. It was a lot of fun with a lot of freedom, but it was also really different and it took me a long time to learn how to tell stories and write scenes,” she says. “Sometimes, I wouldn’t know what the next chapter would entail, but I would have a neat experience that weekend and that would become my next chapter.”
For more stories and foraging advice, visit her blog at www.firstways.com.