Dive into a tale of sustainability, leadership, and the transformative power of outdoor education that our children need more than ever, as a reminder of the sustaining beauty in the world.
The New Foragers
Nick Scacco, The Grauer School's Environmental Science teacher, takes the students for a walk around our school nature preserve, our campus forest, but he does it differently than I could. His students forage.
This hands-on approach is more than just an educational game; it represents a paradigm shift in how we engage with nature, as Nick elaborates: "We foraged prickly pear fruit, pine nuts, nopales (cactus paddles), and black sage. We used the food we foraged, along with eggs from the campus chickens, to make scrambled eggs with nopales and other vegetables. We also made delicious cheddar black sage scones, and we used basil from the classroom aquaponics tank to make fresh pesto." They have made white sage bundles such as Native Americans use for purification, too.
Nick is introducing ideal and critically needed educational practices, the kind I only wish every youth in the world could get. The trail seems to be perfect for this class, too, and those nopales and that sage is ready for them. There is just enough and, of all the foragers we could have on our trails, that class is the best I can imagine.
It is a modern irony that foraging, often heralded as an ultimate back-to-nature practice, may not be the most sustainable environmental activity humans can engage in, as it once was back in the native Kumeyaay days. While the practice seems idyllic and even revolutionary, it comes with a caveat that we must consider. According to a study by the Journal of Environmental Management, indiscriminate foraging can lead to a decrease in plant diversity by up to 20-30% in certain areas. We'd be competing with rabbits, rodents, coyotes, and bobcats that have no supermarkets to go to if we remove their only food. How many nuts can we take from our Torrey pine trees before it impacts our squirrels who depend on them?
The health and survival of the coming generations depend upon biodiversity, the continuing ability of forests and oceans to act as carbon sinks, and sustainable resource use.
Hence, sustainability is a matter of justice, ensuring that our students, including that seventh generation, can meet their own needs once we are gone. What could be more fundamental to the job called teacher? For the sake of sustainability, Nick teaches the kids when to get into nature, and when to get out. Nick also knows that if every class went foraging, our campus would suffer.
The California coastal sage and chaparral biome is home to a diverse array of animal species adapted to its unique conditions. Needless to say, as long as our students are on that trail, our quail, bobcats, lizards, rabbits, and ground squirrels are not. The native bees might stick around, and that might be a good thing!
For many years, I’ve been a vocal advocate for outdoor education, having written over 60 columns and speeches on its benefits. However, I haven’t often addressed its limits. It’s crucial to recognize that our call for greater engagement with the outdoors is a double-edged sword. We’re currently facing alarming rates of habitat loss and species extinction, issues that are exacerbated if our push for outdoor activity isn’t handled responsibly. It should not be an irony that hunters and anglers have become the ultimate advocates for harvesting from nature in sustainable ways.
Being outdoors tends to benefit us and the out-of-doors, both: lovers of the out-of-doors make up our advocates for biodiversity conservation and such efforts. But loud noises, two-legged creatures such as off-trail middle schoolers, off-leash dogs, and after-hours visitors freak our permanent-resident critters out and push them into nature’s corners if not out of the area altogether. This is happening nationwide. Visits to national forests and wilderness areas increased by 18 million from 2019 to 2020, and according to a 2016 review of 274 scientific papers, 60% of wildlife interactions with outdoor recreation are negative.  It is the unintended consequence of infusing our population with the amazing benefits of naturalist living. It is a good time for teachers to teach about sustainable use of these areas. What can we do?
To bridge from the tradition of foraging to our modern necessities, we can broaden our foraging metaphor. We have learned of new ways to “harvest” what the wild has to offer us! While the sustainability of large-scale foraging is questionable according to current research, the concept can evolve. Here are some things organizations and families can “forage” or “harvest” from our much more urban, human-centric environment. Some of my ideas are a little metaphorical, but here are many things we can conceive of as “regenerative” and that will ultimately support our ecosystems:
- Use sunlight (solar and renewable energy that we capture on our rooftops).
- Recycle water for our fields and quad (as our campus recycled water project is doing).
- Maximize endowment interest payments that are permanent to fund the school and re-invest in those endowments when we have surpluses in our budget.
- Make sustainable investments (financial management that considers equity, sustainability, and good governance).
- Practice regenerative school gardening (using our fallow land, natural pest control, composting).
- Recycle food waste and teach others how to do this. Wasted food accounted for about 38 percent of the total food supply in 2021, according to ReFED (a national nonprofit which is a collaboration of more than 30 industry, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States).
- Purchase the absolute minimum of plastic and re-use what we have.
- Incorporate local, intergenerational culture, history, and wisdom into the curriculum and parenting.
- Use digital resources that minimize paper, ink and energy used in printing and distribution. (I say this reluctantly, because so many of our students and teachers love “real” books, and so do I, so let’s re-use those.)
- Take energy conservation measures such as our school has, including efficient HVAC, LED lighting, and LEED architecture.
- Use natural spaces for quiet contemplation and deeper breathing, triggering your parasympathetic nervous system, which brings us inspiration and peace of mind even in chaotic times.
These practices allow us to honor and preserve the out-of-doors. Nick adds: “Foragers can identify non-native plants and remove them, and scatter native seeds as they go.”
These practices amount to more than the gathering or foraging of renewable resources. They serve as a spiritual center for The Grauer School and they can do so for your family. While foraging in the literal sense might not be the most sustainable practice for us as a community, the metaphor of foraging—using only what can regenerate—still holds tremendous value.
We are the new foragers! Connecting the dots from regenerative and sustainable use of the land to regenerative and sustainable human impact on earth is not just the essence of any great education; it's also the essence of great organizational leadership and governance. In this new context, we can see that “foraging” extends beyond merely gathering from nature; it becomes a bigger vision for how we interact with our world responsibly. Plus, it can keep the coyotes and bobcats in their homes.
 Larson, C., Reed, S, Merenlender, A, Crooks, K. Effects of recreation on animals revealed as widespread through a global systmatic review. December 2016.
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