Introduction in English

The Herbologies/Foraging Networks programme, emerges from the Baltic Sea region, focused in Helsinki (Finland) and Kurzeme region of Latvia, now extends beyond. In a series of events during 2010, it has explored the cultural traditions and knowledge of herbs, edible and medicinal plants, within the contemporary context of online networks, open information-sharing, and biological technologies.

Herbologies refers to the different ways of knowing about plants and their extracts (as well as sometimes fungus and bee products), as wild and cultivated food, medicine and related crafts. Foraging Networks raises awareness of organised behaviours and practices in gathering wild food, including micro to macro ecosystems or socio-political levels. Combining with the fields of social/visual arts, craft, cultural heritage, media, network cultures and technology, attention is made to different ways of sharing knowledge, especially within the Baltic Sea region and between different generations. Furthermore, it has also been initiated from the position of ‘not-knowing’, and being an immigrant to a landscape and environmental habitat.

The cultural and experiential knowledge about wild useful plants (for eating and medicinal purposes) found in (the southern Finnish and Swedish) Nordic landscape has changed dramatically over the last two generations. The grand-parents, and many parents of the current generation, knew/know many things about the plants and roots surrounding them in the countryside. However, with the mass shift of families to city and urban locations, this knowledge is being lost, slipping away from the younger generation, at a time when information & media sharing online is booming.

In recent decades the foraging as a tradition or hobby-outdoor experience which took families and friends trekking and into the woods, to pick up berries and mushrooms with no money exchange, has also been converted into international commerce. While previously the rich variety of wild berries found were stored in the cellars of Finnish citizens, now only a few people use local, self-foraged berries. “Super foods” and healthy products are more popular than ever, while at the same time, as part of an urban and contemporary lifestyle, people need gyms and ‘adventure holidays’ to keep fit.

Across the Baltic Sea, many middle-age and older Latvians (and likewise Lithuanians and Estonians) still carry everyday knowledge with them into the woods, meadows, to the coast, forest and fields. However, even there that is becoming less common. There are many published materials in medical or pharmacy books, but very few stories sharing the cultural context – how to gather, how to prepare, how to use, reflections on use and how such knowledge is learned.

In both locations, younger people’s interest in sustainable food production and environmental awareness appears to be creating a revived interest in local and ecological use of plants. For those in their teens, ’20s and ’30s, online information, data and social networking sites have also become the main communication and sharing medium. In addition, do-it-yourself/ourselves ‘maker’ culture has blossomed in recent years thanks to audio-visual culture, and in particular participatory platforms which support digital image or video sharing. Strongly based on community-created content, this trend is also extending to ‘grower’ and ‘forager’ sites, which share example recipes and activities.

As part of the ethical and technological discourse surrounding these activities, it also explained and interpreted the changing realms in food foraging and industrial food production excess; and necessarily brought to light some of the consequences of the advances of technologies in plant biology and industrial agriculture (GMO, pesticides and fertilizers etc.) that did not exist or were just discovered within the past couple of generations. Furthermore, food production technologies advance, and are taken into practice, without knowing well what are their impacts to social and ecological ecosystems.

Also copyright issues were raised several times throughout the programme: At the same time that we are sharing this information—sharing the ancient information related with the plants and their extracts—similar information is being exploited by for-profit companies, corporations and multi-nationals. This activity, called also biopiracy, is leaving, in some parts of the globe, native or indigenous people without their fundamental rights to collect, use and pass their information to the later generations as it has been done since ancient times, from mother to the children, from the healing guru for the apprentice.

Precious treasures of vitamins are lying in the woods of North East Europe. In recent years, a larger proportion of yields have been picked up in Finland and Sweden by cheap labor force originating from different countries, earlier from Eastern Europe in the 1990s, and increasingly in the past decade, the era of hyper-globalisation, from South-east Asia. Thai and Vietnamese berry-pickers work very hard in Northern forests in areas of local high unemployment. Also at the time of writing, the Baltic States and dormant Eastern European land is being surveyed for future commercial plantations of health foods. Pharmaceutical and specialised food companies are interested to learn about the clean fruits from the woods and forests of these countries, and that has given the local entrepreneurs a new area in which to do business.

How does one attract attention, create critical thinking and inter-generational appreciation: With books, interviews, online maps, workshops, mobile-guided tours, open-source information or DNA code? Based in practicalities, Herbologies/Foraging Networks develops a cultural programme of events that shared, in the Baltic context, how to grow individually or together with hydroponics during the dark winter months; invited artists and designers to go out foraging with wild plant experts, and documented countryside traditions from elders in the summer months.

What does this mean for an art and culture project that encounters these subjects? In a similar way that a culture’s songs, stories and dances are documented and valued as intangible cultural heritage, we argue that the practices of foraging and ‘making’ using herbological knowledge are important to document also as cultural traditions of respect: In relation to nature, to promote the ancient, historical and contemporary inter-dependence people have had with herbs, plants and other related natural produce, and to maintain this continuity.



Date: 2010-11
Author: Andrew Gryf Paterson (SCO/FI) and Ulla Taipale (FI)

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