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Nancy Hildebrand

The Food Forager

In collaboration with

Perch Magazine - Logo

Story by Stephany Hildebrand
Photos by Stephany Hildebrand

We all connect to nature in different ways. For some, it’s through a walk, hike, snowshoe or cross country ski in the great outdoors. For others, it’s heading out to a river to paddle a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard. For foragers, that bond comes from collecting wild foods.

The ability to find wild foodstuffs signals an intimate entanglement with nature. Foragers must be in tune with the smallest signs for the changing of the seasons: the first frost, the change in bird song, the flowering of each plant. They need to understand the conditions that must exist for the survival of each plant: the soil, sunlight, the humidity of the environment.

My mom, Nancy Hildebrand, is a forager. She nurtured this love of ferreting out wild foods from a young age, growing up in St. Agathe Des Monts, Quebec. Her father, a German immigrant, enjoyed taking her out on his mushroom picking outings; while there, he also taught her to identify edibles like sorel, dandelion, and St. John’s wort. But her greatest leap in knowledge came after she moved to Ontario in the late 1990s. Mom says in some ways, this region seems to have more diversity of foodstuff compared to the Laurentian region.

Nancy sees all these foods as gifts of nature and takes her responsibility as a steward of the land seriously. She abides by a set of “rules” that true foragers follow:

We all connect to nature in different ways. For some, it’s through a walk, hike, snowshoe or cross country ski in the great outdoors. For others, it’s heading out to a river to paddle a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard. For foragers, that bond comes from collecting wild foods.

The ability to find wild foodstuffs signals an intimate entanglement with nature. Foragers must be in tune with the smallest signs for the changing of the seasons: the first frost, the change in bird song, the flowering of each plant. They need to understand the conditions that must exist for the survival of each plant: the soil, sunlight, the humidity of the environment.

My mom, Nancy Hildebrand, is a forager. She nurtured this love of ferreting out wild foods from a young age, growing up in St. Agathe Des Monts, Quebec. Her father, a German immigrant, enjoyed taking her out on his mushroom picking outings; while there, he also taught her to identify edibles like sorel, dandelion, and St. John’s wort. But her greatest leap in knowledge came after she moved to Ontario in the late 1990s. Mom says in some ways, this region seems to have more diversity of foodstuff compared to the Laurentian region.

Nancy sees all these foods as gifts of nature and takes her responsibility as a steward of the land seriously. She abides by a set of “rules” that true foragers follow:

Avoid wasting precious resources by never taking more than you can use

Always leave some plants behind so they grow back strong again

Tread lightly and leave as little damage to the area as possible

Make sure you positively identify anything you plan to ingest—beyond a shadow of a doubt

Understand which parts of the plant are edible, when they’re edible, and how to process and preserve them

Be sure the area is not tainted with herbicides, pesticides, or roadside contamination

Stay away from private property

Armed with lived experience and knowledge gleaned from her studies in environmental studies, she and her husband, Alpha, now spend every summer searching out places where they can collect their food. Their home is filled with collections from foraging expeditions: black walnuts, tea, berries, mushrooms, dandelions, cattail, chamomile, purslane, lamb’s quarters, and stinging nettle to name a few.

When I was growing up, our family foraged in the Laurentians. These wild spaces were incredibly fertile, carpeted with blueberries, strawberries and mushrooms. We would return every year to pick all the foods we could ever want. Sadly, one of our favourite picking spots was developed and the berry patches were replaced by a rock quarry. You can imagine the devastation our family felt.

My mom, for one, deeply understands the precariousness of nature and the pressures of deforestation and development. For her, maintaining a connection to the environment is important and she encourages others to pick sustainably—especially for things like the popular wild garlic—so that we can maintain ecological balance, access wild foods, and most importantly, continue to foster a deep connection with nature.

“Foraging makes us aware of ecological balance and the need to protect it. If we don’t have that, we’ll lose an important part of who we are.”

-Nancy Hildebrand

In collaboration with

Perch Magazine - Logo

Story by Stephany Hildebrand
Photos by Stephany Hildebrand

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