Monday, 19 March 2012

Ways of Seeing One

Take a look at this photo. What do you see?

Trees? Sky? Stream? Path? I'm rather hoping that you noticed the Beech on the bottom left. Anyone who didn't should be reading my Free Wild Food & Natural Resources Course. Shame on you if you're not.

OK, the question was a little unfair, since it's quite a detailed photo with lots going on. First let's consider ourselves wild food foragers, what do you see now? Brambles? Nettles? Beech? Stream? Shaded areas for mushrooms?

Let us now imagine that this is the point at which your survival situation has begun and you are in the surveying and resource analysis phase before you start making real decisions. You'll be considering shelter, fire, rescue, water and food. What do you see now? Wood for a shelter, dead wood for fire? Roots for binding? Water in the stream? A meadow for signalling? Tracks in the mud?

There is a method surveying an area like this quickly which allows us to both take in lots of information without having to look in detail and that is to take a wider view and consider what you're looking at in zones. In this article, I'll address just one type of zone, that of Habitat. Further posts will cover other zoning techniques and they each of the zone types interact.

By far the most relevant zoning technique for foragers is Habitat. Different plants grow in different conditions and those are broadly grouped in habitats we can easily identify such as grassland, woodland (both broad leaf and coniferous), river, bog, rocky, sandy, sea shore, jungle, etc. There are also urban regions to consider, such as park, garden, footpath, avenue and carpark. Across a consistent climate zone, these habitats will support similar species.

The green bit is broad leaf woodland. The red is the path, the purple is the bank, the blue the stream and the yellow the meadow. There is no need to be more detailed. From a foraging perspective, we're looking at these zones as supporting different edible species, from a survival perspective, we're looking at more general resources. In both cases we're going to maximise our outcome by having lots of different zones. This area is very good for both parties.

The woods support trees in both live and dead form as well as shrub and plant species which tolerate the low light conditions. At this time of year, in this or other broad leaf woodlands, the leaves have all gone, giving plants such as Wild Garlic and Primrose a chance to complete their cycle before the the new leaves begin to form. The woods also afford us a certain amount of shelter from the weather, but are not so good for placing signals. 

Conversely, the grassland is exposed and bathed in as much sunlight as available. Here thrive grasses, which have a root system so tight that it prevents other species taking hold. Only those with thick tap roots, such as Dandelion, can work their way into the soil without getting strangled.

The stream is clearly a source of water, but also supports it's own unique species, and also the bank, where its normally quite moist. Watch out for flood potential, as well as midges this close to water. Little used paths can support hardy plants which don't mind being stepped on, like Plantain. In a survival context, the path might be a game trail. Either way, paths and trails not only give us an easy route through the woods and also Search and Rescue teams so are worth keeping close to and are a good place to erect signals aimed at those on foot.

Each of the different habitats throughout all the climate regions of the world support their own plant and animal life as well as providing different resources for those in a survival situation.

What's most interesting is that these do not represent the ecological zones in the picture. At the edges and borders of all of these broad habitats, there will be a zone which supports its own set of plants, because where one habitat meets the other, there is an area which shares some but not all characteristics of both.

An example of this is where the woodland meets the grass. Here, the ground gets more exposure to the sun, but not enough for grass to take over. This is ideal for such as Nettle or Bramble. In heavily closed canopy climax woodland filled with ancient old oaks, say, the edge is an area where secondary succession species such as Hazel and Willow can thrive as well as shrubs, like Wild Rose or Gorse. When a path cuts through a young woodland, there might not be enough light for nettles, but Jack by the Hedge and Hert Robert may thrive. This might also be the case where a large tree has fallen.

So when you're out and about next, try taking a broader view of your environment as you go. Take a walk off the path and check out what's growing in the different habitats and also at the borders. Where do you find the easiest fire wood? Where does the fungi grow? What sort of habitat to ferns like? As with learning our trees and plants, take a distant view ahead and try to make predictions about what you'll find. As an academic exercise, look around and try to consider where you might set up camp in a survival situation. Find a place which gives you protection as well as access to resources. Have you found a place close to multiple habitats?

When it's light, look out of the window. What do you see?

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