Michigander: Clay Bowers, Expert Forager
You may have picked a few raspberries off their branches on your last hike, but have you ever considered making foraged foods a staple in your everyday life? Clay Bowers, Northern Michigander and Founder of Nomi Forager, has done just that.
“Learning my plant and fungal neighbors has been a passion of mine since childhood, but it has only been a true obsession for about a decade now,” Bowers shares. “It always just looked like a wall of undistinguishable green to me... until I started to learn who I was looking at. Now after many years I can walk through the forests and truly see, but I still have much to learn. This is a lifelong path.”
What started as an interest in "survivalism," quickly became a way of life as he learned more about the wildlife around him and how it can be harvested. Now, Bowers uses his years of experience foraging and hunting to help sustain himself and his family. With Nomi Forager, he works to educate others and spread the good word about nature's bounty.
We sat down with Clay to learn more about his foraging skills and harvesting in Michigan's natural spaces.
Tell me a little about yourself!
I am a passionate advocate of wild foods, but especially local wild foods.
Some of my favorite memories are camping, fishing or exploring the woods as a child. I have always loved the feeling of just being outdoors. The calm of nature feels like an antidote to the stress of modern American living.
What do you like about foraging?
Learning to forage is essentially like learning your way around a city. Eventually you learn every which way you can get to a certain place, where everything is and why there are certain associations in certain regions. Foraging gives you a sense of belonging to your surroundings beyond the normal hikers forest connection.
I like feeding myself from plants that need no tending. I have been foraging for roughly 16 years, originally I began because I had had an interest in survivalism.
I made hilarious mistakes along the way and have eaten more disgusting things than most people would ever like to try. But I would not change a thing. Because, apocalypse or not, I get to spend time in the woods picking food for free.
What did you find surprising or unexpectedly challenging?
Mushroom identification is extraordinarily difficult when you go beyond the basics. Often a chemical reaction is required to positively identify a species!
Do you forage for wild foods regularly?
Yes, year round.
Being a forager makes me a part of my ecosystem. I feel like I belong. That feeling is extremely lacking when you have zero interaction with the land you live on. It’s easier to see clear cuts and housing go up when you don’t equate buildings with taking away a place you gather food.
I’ve heard that mushrooms, nuts, berries and tree fruits can be foraged from Michigan's outdoors. What do you like to harvest?
Our family harvests all of the above. 40-50 percent of our calories come from wild food. We average 120-150 pounds of wild berries a year, 200 pounds of nuts, and a wide variety of mushroom species. Our biggest staple however is Wild Rice which I travel to Minnesota to harvest every September.
Do you have a favorite recipe to share?
White Pine bark tea. I implore you to get to know this drink as it is not only healthy, but damned refreshing!
After years of drinking that god awful pine needle tea I am ecstatic to report that not only is Pine bark tea good for you, but it is tasty as well. The flavor is very piney, but in an incredibly refreshing way. You will have to try it to find out. It is so good in fact that I am confused as to why this tea is not talked about more often. (Click here for Clay’s steps on how to harvest and brew White Pine bark tea.)
What inspires you?
I am inspired by teaching people how sustainable foraging can actually be. And I do teach many classes throughout the year, more information can be found on my website: www.nomiforager.com
Is there anyone you are thankful for?
I am so thankful for my lady Madelyn Walters. She is my perfect match. She collects food with as much enthusiasm as I do. I love my family with all my heart.
Is there anything very important to you?
Converting monocrop agricultural fields into diverse ecosystems is heavy on the mind lately.
What advice would you give someone who hopes to give foraging a try?
Start very slow. Learn 4-5 species a year and do not try and force yourself to eat flavors you don’t enjoy.
Your experience with eating wild foods will be greatly enhanced by slowing down. Especially in the beginning. Try adding in one new species at a time. First and foremost see if you like the species that you are working with. I often convinced myself that I liked something even though I in fact did not. There is no shame in not harvesting some wild foods. I haven’t harvested Jerusalem Artichokes for my kitchen in 8 years probably. I think they are gross, starvation food fit for the apocalypse.
Taking time to learn a species properly gives you space to explore all of the possibilities that a single food item can achieve. Some foods can be fermented and taste much better that way. Some foods taste great cooked, but horrible raw. Eventually some of these plants will become commonplace in your diet and you won’t be able to imagine your life without them.
If a friend was visiting Michigan for the first time, where would you recommend they visit?
The Upper Peninsula, Michigan. I’m looking forward to blueberry season in the U.P. this year!
Foraging is a great way to add more excitement to your hikes. However, be careful to learn how to forage sustainably before you go collecting things in nature.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
If you take small steps and learn how to properly harvest wild foods your relationship with wild species and wild places will improve dramatically. You will pass the word on to others and gradually this will help our world move toward a more healthy lifestyle. Most importantly, those that eat wild foods will do anything they can to protect those places that house those wild foods. Being a forager may just seem like a silly, hipster thing on the outside, but on the inside it is a complex web of ideas, skills and relationships that can never be duplicated in a grocery store.
We all desperately need to be able to take a step back, lift our hunched necks up, and look at the stunning beauty of the world around us that is slowly unfolding day after day after day.
If this interview has inspired you to learn more about Michigan foraging, you're in luck! Clay Bowers runs a blog on his website, Nomi Forager, where he writes detailed entries about the types of food that can be foraged around Northern Michigan. He also offers foraging classes throughout the year. You can learn more on his website, Nomi Forager, and see more on his Instagram @clay__bowers.