Fecundance? Is that a word? My spell checker said no - but I just added it to my dictionary so in my small corner at least, it is now! I love to play with words (although sometimes I get the feeling they are playing with me...).
I started to think of the many plants which are starting to come into peak season now, and how overwhelming the time of year we are entering into now is, with so many verdant and plentiful things putting forth vigorous spring growth. It's like the hedgerows and their banks (after all lanes and paths are how we move around and therefore the main exposure we get to a weekly changing landscape) were a pot that is suddenly boiling over with plant life. Even on a purely aesthetic basis I find this intense (though wonderfully so) to the point that after taking it all in I almost want to go and lie down for a while. But considered from a culinary point of view, it seems like a benign extravagance (to borrow an epithet from the title of a book by land use scholar Simon Fairlie), like arriving at a banquet where the host has provided more than the expected guests could possibly eat...
Life re-emerges in spring in the most lively way, and a clear understanding of what is happening tells us that this is for two reasons: to generate seeds for the plants own continuance and to generate food for everything else, from hungry human foragers, to dead leaf decomposing fungi and bacteria.
So: two words describe this very well: fecund and abundance. In case you are unfamiliar with the former (though it is the root of a more familiar 'f' word) here is a condensed version of the Oxford English Dictionary definition:
Fecund: fruitful; of animals, the earth etc. Capable of of producing offspring [seed] or vegetable growth [food]; prolific, fertile.
So I took the dance from the end of abundance to make a new word: fecundance. The dance is the ebb and flow, of growth and the end of the life cycle: producing seed and being eaten - you could say growth and decay but that's only one way the plants are eaten at the end of the growth cycle. A much more interesting ebb and flow though, is the dance that happens when we eat them. Let me get down to the specific plant example of nettles so I can describe that in more detail.
Nettles are currently emerging from winter dormancy to make the first of two annual appearances with tender young growth, which will appear again in the autumn after the summer flowering has died back. Nettles are one of the most important wild plants for a number of reasons, being a source of not only food (and a highly nutritious one at that) but also of medicine and fibre for making fabrics. It's an example of both the fecundity and kindness of the land, in that nettles, where found, are usually found in abundance and are often conveniently close to where people live. This is because they tend to get established on disturbed ground and they also like a lot of nitrogen in the soil. Land around places where people have lived for any length of time tends to have been enriched with manure, compost or human excrement, but when people stop tidying up so much or stop cultivating the ground, nettles move in.
If we have our thinking straight, we will see this most definitely as a blessing not a curse: here is one of the most nutritious and delicious of all green vegetables deciding to grow abundantly and without assistance, mere yards from your door! With thinking duly straightened, that strange behaviour exhibited by gardeners, known as 'weeding' becomes incomprehensible. It's like someone trying repeatedly to put cash in your wallet, to which you respond by throwing it in the bin, and calling such activity wallet tidying...
Let's explore this wild fecundity idea a bit further. A few years ago I spoke with someone who works for a major conservation organisation as head of biodiversity or some such role. They were bemoaning the fact that due to farmers, in the interest of cutting labour costs, doing far less 'tidying' on farms, both nettles and brambles (which produce blackberries) were now far more abundant. The problem, as this person saw it, was that the areas covered by nettles and brambles now had fewer species, thus in their mind, biodiversity had decreased. However, the biomass of available wild food had evidently dramatically increased. Nettles and brambles are two of the best known and easy to use wild plants (and there is more to brambles than blackberry fruit; their leaves make an excellent and health-giving tea). If they were used by people, this biomass would replace an equal biomass of food which otherwise would need to be cultivated.
Now this points to the real issue around biodiversity: habitat loss due to farming. You might say that building is also a big culprit but in fact, land with houses on is vastly more biodiverse than conventional agricultural farmland. Across the globe, the greatest loss of biodiversity has resulted and is resulting from industrial farming. This approach violently severs complex life giving linkages - fecundance - between species (as well as people) and landscapes. It disrupts the fecundance, the two way flow of responsiveness and reduces biological systems and landscapes to machines. Complexity gets watered down to narrow inputs and outputs. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and seeds in...one kind of industrialised plant food out.
In fact the vast bulk of plant foods produced are starch based energy foods (maize, sugar cane, wheat, rice, potatoes, sugar beet) so this system is also treating us as machines. As if eating food were just a fuelling process like putting petrol in your car, not a wonderful fecundance, a dynamic fit between our complex metabolic needs and the chemical complexity of food plants (to name but one class of living things we could, and our ancestors did, eat).
The more wild food the land produces; the more the fecundance in terms of the biological complexity and diversity of both landscapes and our food. In other words the less high-carb junk-food being produced means more land can be released to host complex biologicaly diverse ecosytems instead of being reduced to sterile fields filled with one nutritionally impoverished crop at the expense of all other plant animal and microbial life.
By which I mean: net effect of more nettles and brambles = more, not less, biodiversity.
To me, nettles moving into the space created by less frantic human land management is like a cheeky, flirtatious first move, trying to reinitiate the dance... Look I know the nettles themselves don't really care to be eaten, but I am pointing to something real here. It seems to me there is a kindness expressed by all this abundant and close to hand provision. And regardless of intentionality the dance itself is real. Let me explain. If you could see them through time lapse photography as the nettles grow, the nettles die back, the nettles grow, the nettles die back - you would see rhythmic movement. In the case of our eating them, this is the answer to a pertinent question regarding the extent of our wild food supplies: how could we have more wild food in the world?
Of course our biodiversity officer has already given one answer: do less work - less tidying, less weeding. But the second answer is an unexpected one you only find out by action and observation. We have more wild food in the world by eating the wild food we have. Time lapse photography again: picture the nettle patch, being harvested and growing back, being harvested and growing back. Willingly or unwillingly, the nettles play their part in the feeding-other-species aspect of fecundity. When we stop picking them, they get on with their own fecund seed production project...
To wrap this all up, the message here is get into the fecundance with your nearby nettles: harvest and eat some today. The nicest and simplest thing you can do is make a green soup with nothing but nettles and water. Just harvest a handful of nettles per person, boil a kettle and pour a cupful per person onto the nettles in a blender, blend then pass through a fine sieve and drink it. Its so delicious, rich, but also fresh and bright. Full of protein, vitamins and minerals. Get into that goodness. Get that goodness into you. Step into the fecundance!
Seasonal recipes to help you get the most out of foraged ingredients when in their prime