Writing about the wild and the edible

“More people are rushed to hospital after eating Mahonia and Berberis berries than any other. Even though they’re perfectly edible!” laughs Dave Hamilton ‘03, whose new book Where the Wild Things Grow was published in April.

That so many people believe these common garden plants to be poisonous, when in fact they are good for you – being packed full of vitamin C – unless eaten in excessive quantities, is indicative of how little most people know about the food growing in their gardens and in public spaces.

Where the Wild Things Grow is raising awareness of this natural bounty but is more than just a book about where to pick free food.

“It’s a foraging book – about both food and place,” Dave explains, “It explores different landscapes, including those not usually covered in foraging books such as urban parks, gardens and what I call ‘edgelands’ – those forgotten little bits of land that aren’t quite countryside but aren’t quite city either, like old railway lines.

“And then there’s the more expected places – hedgerows, coastal and riversides. It explores all these different areas and looks at the plants, fungi and seaweeds you’re most likely to find there, what they look like, if any poisonous plants look like them – which is important! – and tips on specific locations where you’re most likely to find them.

“Also, I’ve included stories from people in other countries and cultures – such as Russians, Native Americans, Koreans – on how they cook and eat particular plants. One example is the leaves of Sedum, a garden plant, which you can eat a bit like cucumber but in Japan they put in stir fries.”

Dave’s love of foraging and growing his own food flourished in his student days at Oxford Brookes, and became part of an experiment in self-sufficiency.

“I lived in a normal student house and in my first year started to grow plants in the back garden. I cleared a plot and planted seeds, to see what would come up, and they all did really well. So after that I got an allotment.

“Oxford was great for foraging – in Iffley Meadows, parts of Port Meadow and University Parks which has hawthorns from all over the world. There were lots of nice mushrooms, I made a soup for me and my housemates with mushrooms I found in Iffley Meadows, and I remember finding chicken of the woods, which is a lovely mushroom that tastes a bit like chicken, when I was on my way to the Isis pub.

“So with my own plants and the foraging, I did an experiment to see if I could put something on the table every day for a year. And I succeeded. I wasn’t always quite sure what my housemates made of it but at least they tolerated it and they got some free meals!”

Towards the end of his second year at Brookes, Dave was diagnosed with dyslexia.

“I had an excellent dyslexic tutor, Rebecca Loncraine who was a Doctor of English and dyslexic herself. I found it so inspiring that she was a dyslexic who wrote. Sadly she died a few years ago.

“She helped me shape my dissertation. And at my viva my tutor said it was ‘immensely readable and enjoyable – and I haven’t said that to anyone else this year!’ That was a real surprise to me and a tremendous boost. Learning to cope with dyslexia and become a writer is a real source of pride for me.”

Dave graduated with a degree in Nutrition and Food Science in 2003, and his course has given him a knowledge base that has become more relevant to him over time.

“The first job I got was as a postman, so it wasn’t relevant at all to that! After that I tried to get a nutrition business off the ground. I was commissioned by the East Oxford Healthy Living Trust to produce a cookbook for low income families. That made use of my course and lots of what I did for that piece of work has been relevant since – putting together recipes and looking at food issues from a wider angle.”

Dave now lives in South-West England, with his partner and two sons – Doug and Lenny, named after Douglas Adams and Leonard Cohen. Family life has brought joy but also the need to earn more from his books, and he has published two successful travel books, Wild Ruins and Wild Ruins BC.

Looking to the future, with politics more divisive than ever and the impact of climate change being felt more and more, Dave hopes that people can come together to protect our environment.

“I’d like to think that the polarisation we’re going through diminishes. We need to pull together to face the major environmental changes that seem inevitable and are really quite terrifying. If we can’t stop them, we at least need to slow them down and be able to adapt to the changes that are coming.”

On a personal level though, Dave is in a happier place.

“I want to carry on doing what I’m doing – I really enjoy it! Writing can be up and down, in terms of income, and it maybe that I need a part-time job alongside it to provide some stability. But other than that I really just want my kids to be healthy and to carry on writing.”

You can find out more about Dave’s books – and see more of his photography – on his website: http://www.davehamilton.co.uk

Photographs by Dave Hamilton (except where noted)