Helen Lehndorf has written the new book A Forager’s Life: Finding my heart and home in nature. Photo / Anthony Behrens
Helen Lehndorf’s earliest memory of being alone in nature, was at 4 years old, on a motorbike trip with her dad, near their home in rural Taranaki. Keen to head off with his mates further
up a hill, he left her to play in a valley, reassuring her she would always be able to hear the motorbikes in the distance. After a few hours, the sun started moving across the valley floor and the engine sounds disappeared. Alone, apart from a menacing-looking magpie, she clenched her fists and bundled her jacket against the cold, before turning to a familiar friend – a blackberry bush.
Although it ended well (her dad returned shortly after, grateful for the blackberries she had thoughtfully picked for him), I’ll admit to an urbanite like me, reading the opening scene in Lehndorf’s memoir, A Forager’s Life, made my breath shallow and a little panicky, dredging up a memory as a toddler of briefly losing my parents on a crowded beach. Yet, for Lehndorf, it encapsulates something elemental about her life and her memoir: a beautiful story about creativity and belonging, marriage and motherhood, that also speaks to how we lose and return to ourselves over the course of a life, and how our relationship with nature can be a way back in.
Speaking to Canvas from her home in New Plymouth, Lehndorf recalls feeling frightened that day “mostly because of the magpie” but regards it as her most potent early memory of the wilderness being a reassuring place. “There’s the mosaic of family and you’re just a little tile in that mosaic, aren’t you?” she says, “It was my first really intense memory of feeling like an individual person, and that first tangible feeling of the elemental support of nature.”
In a post-pandemic world, growing your own food and living a simpler life, usually rurally, is the new luxury. The hashtag #foragingtiktok has 14 million views and on YouTube there are hundreds of young men and women wandering around in cottage-core outfits picking fruit for the camera. Yet Lehndorf ’s memoir of her wild food beginnings sits well outside of a trend, recounting memories from rural Waitara in the 1960s, of her father hunting for dinner and her mother foraging for mushrooms; the neighbours dropping around surplus crops, and endless cups of community tea. It recalls a way of life we used to honour in New Zealand, before “sustainability” was in vogue, and “community” meant the local Facebook page.
I sense, in the cities at least, that many people’s plant identification skills might stretch as far as the basil you can buy in a pot from Countdown, and I tell Lehndorf I think I have the plant equivalent of prosopagnosia (an inability to recognise familiar faces). Standing in the middle of the native bush behind our house it all just looks, well, green. So where does one begin? She tells me there is a common phrase in nature writing called the “green wall”, where all the plants look the same.
The first step is to be curious about the plant world and to start small. Often, new foragers have a “beginner’s mind” and a passion to learn a hundred plants right away, but if you start with one, you may find it suddenly starts appearing to you, or as she puts it, “stepping forward”.
“Obviously, I don’t mean literally, because they’re rooted in place,” she laughs, “but metaphorically plants can step forward into your life in some way. Sometimes they appear when you need their medicine or you’ll read about them in a book or see them in a piece of art, and think, ‘I’ve never seen that around here.’ And then the very next time you go for a walk, it will pop up to you.”
Lehndorf credits the community she grew up in, with the marae (Ōwae Whaitara marae, Te Atiawa) at its heart, and her dad, “a wonderful storyteller, with a wild imagination – one who could spin a yarn into an almost mythological event” – for her relational view of the natural world. She recounts a time he went down to the river with some Māori friends and an albino eel popped its head out of the water, giving him a pointed stare. His friends said it was “tohu” and sped off on their bikes. When he got home, he said that the eel had a message for him (although never revealed what it was). “He has this way of making the world seem like it’s full of mystery and things can happen – connections can be made,” she says.
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This respect for intuition is something Lehndorf and I keep circling back to in our conversation because it’s threaded throughout her book, and because it’s connected to foraging: both require trusting our instincts and our senses. Yet when Lehndorf’s second son, Magnus, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, she writes that the feeling of being “fundamentally held by life and supported” faded. In a time before autism was a well-known diagnosis, his erratic behaviour meant seeing friends and family became challenging and she found herself in a season of isolation.
“I feel like they were lost years for me where I was just overwhelmed,” she says. “They sort of sucked the magic out of life for me a bit because we got very socially isolated and I’m very much a community-minded person.”
She hopes that an autism diagnosis today may be less intense for parents, because public awareness around neurodivergence is so much better, but she shares candidly the initial grief she felt in letting go of preconceptions of what her parenting life might be. For any parent in a similar situation, she would tell them not to hesitate to seek help, especially if, like her, they are used to being the “giver” and not the receiver of it.
It was only when she joined a local permaculture class a few years later and was reminded of the supportive power of “radical reciprocity”, that she remembered a way back to herself. This was how she had grown up in rural Taranaki – taking the time to look after the natural world and one another, which yields a sense of belonging to oneself and to a community.
She’s not on the autism spectrum herself but, when her son was diagnosed, she recognised that she was a sensory seeker too. “I think I am wired a bit differently because of how I experience the natural world. And mostly, it’s wonderful, but I do feel quite out of kilter with the overculture at times,” she laughs.
She couldn’t pick a favourite plant to forage, but she points toward the blackberry, not just for her early memories of it in the wild but also because of its dual nature – a pest with delicious fruit, a blight on the landscape for some and conjuring memories of a sunny day for others. A plant that can only be accessed by those willing to approach it slowly and with respect. But most of all, she writes: “It taught me about boundaries, and the strength required to live on the margins, out on the edge”.
- A Forager’s Life: Finding my heart and home in nature, by Helen Lehndorf (HarperCollins, $39.99), is out now.
- Helen Lehndorf is at the Auckland Writers Festival May 16-21.