Poetry Shelf review: Helen Lehndorf’s A Forager’s Life

A Forager’s Life: Finding my heart and home in nature, Helen Lehndorf,
HarperCollins, 2023

I read Helen Lehndorf’s new book, A Forager’s Life: Finding my heart and home in nature, in two sittings. The first sitting was both short and long. I read the opening pages, that focus on a childhood blackberry memory, and then stalled because Helen’s recounted memory affected me so much. I returned to the book the next day and devoured the remainder. It was an all encompassing reading experience.

The book begins with the arrival of a baby brother when Helen is aged four. She goes for a ride on her dad’s motorbike. He wants to head to more rugged terrain with his mates so leaves her on a log momentarily. She is wearing her beloved magnifying glass around her neck and scrutinises the world about her: “The magnifying glass has given me a new way of looking.” She is unsettled by the beady glare of a squawking magpie. She finds comfort in a nearby blackberry bush, gathering and eating the fruit, collecting some for her dad in her handkerchief. The event, both scary and illuminating, feels like a turning point for the adult reflecting back: “I’m not the same kid who rode into the valley that morning.” The perfect steeping stone into a memoir of foraging, of self care, and of challenges.

I muse on the blackberry episode and consider about how we become stitched into books that affect us, and how books that affect us are stitched into us. On the one hand, our own experiences chime and rattle the surface of reading. On the other hand, Helen’s incident reverberates keenly in the context of a foraging life, and how life might offer us new and invigorating ways of looking, existing.

In her author’s note at the start of the book, Helen underlines the need to be careful eating foraged plants, and to eat what you are sure of. She also acknowledges her ancestry and that ancestral connections and knowledge “is utterly different for tangata whenua, the first people of Aotearoa”. She offers “respect and gratitude to all tangata whenua, who suffer many fractures to their intergenerational cultural transmission due to the actions of Aotearoa’s early ‘invasive species’: the European ancestors of Pākehā New Zealanders, like my own, and Pākehā today.”

Take the blackberry bush for example. This may feature in nostalgic memories for many of us who went foraging with families as children, made apple and blackberry pies, and devoured the sweet juicy fruit by bucket loads. But along with the benefits, the introduced plant is an invasive species, “a rampant coloniser”, not kind to locals.

A Forager’s Life includes recipes at the end of each chapter, featuring foraged plants, often with healing properties. There is an excellent guide to the art of foraging, to the principles of permaculture, and a useful bibliography. But aside from being a handbook on foraging, the book is a riveting memoir. It is a memoir in which foraging plays a key role, almost as a key to survival. We move from the awkward schoolgirl whose haven is the school library (book foraging) to the lessons learnt from her butcher dad who took her hunting, to her move into punk music, her meeting of kindred spirits at university and to becoming a community activist. There is the early marriage, the time in the UK and Europe with her husband, the birth of her first son back home, and the second son who was eventually diagnosed as autistic. There is a constant pull to both write and forage.

I adored reading this book. It’s one of those books that arrived at just the right time, when life is corrugated but certain things are anchoring. I found the idea of foraging such an uplift, a vital anchor for Helen in the midst of grief, challenge, the unexpected. In the blurb, Wendyl Nissen writes that the book will get you “looking at your neighbourhood with new intent”. Yes indeed, but it will also get you looking at your own life with new intent.

Beautifully written and carefully structured, this handbook to life and living is one to hold close. I loved it.

Helen Lehndorf is a life-long forager and Taranaki writer who lives in the Manawatu. She co-founded the Manawatau Urban Foraging group. Her first book, The Comforter, was published by Seraph Press in 2012, and her second book, Write to the Centre, a nonfiction book about the process of keeping a journal, was published by Haunui Press in 2016. Her work has also appeared in anthologies and journals such as Sport, Landfall and JAAM.

HarperCollins page

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