#parent | #kids | Urban Foraging with Alexis Nikole Nelson



When the coronavirus pandemic first shuttered businesses and restaurants across the country, Alexis Nikole Nelson – otherwise known as @blackforager on Tik Tok and Instagram – posted a video about finding edible plants in one’s own neighborhood.

“I went out in my neighborhood and I was like, ‘Hey, I know you’re nervous about going to the grocery store. I am too! Let’s meet five plants that are definitely growing in your neighborhood that you can eat,’” Nelson said.

Since then, Nelson has been sharing her love of foraging with thousands of followers, providing tips on identifying wild foods, sharing recipes, and starting conversations about the racial history of foraging laws.

To hear this “Extra Spicy” episode, click on the player above. You can find a transcript of the episode’s interview, edited for clarity, below.

SOLEIL: We’re so excited to talk to you. 

JUSTIN: Super excited! 

SOLEIL: I f–ing love your TikToks.

ALEXIS: Awwww. How dare you both immediately come out of the gate being kind to me.

SOLEIL: It is like ultimate fantasy for me to like, watch someone like, just sing about the woods, just go someplace I can’t right now and just be so happy about being outside. I am jealous, but also just totally in love.

ALEXIS: Oh, Soleil, thank you. I love singing about being in the woods. So the fact that that brings joy to anybody else – while I find it baffling – I also find really happy and exciting.

SOLEIL: So I thought we would start by just maybe talking about like, why are you doing this? You could easily just go to the woods privately. And yet you choose to share this activity with the world. What’s up with that?

ALEXIS: So that comes from a couple of different things. I will start with the most selfish reason and we’ll work our way to the nicest reasons. The most selfish reason is I really like talking and I really like attention. Let’s just get that one out of the way.

ALL: laughing

ALEXIS: I don’t know what happened when I was a kid, but I love knowing that someone else is hearing the sound of my voice. But in terms of kind of educating and showing the world what I do and, you know, almost as if I’m taking everyone with me on my hikes, there was a point in time in which knowledge about edible plants was far more widespread and a whole lot more folks kind of partook in foraging in addition to the food they were buying for themselves. And over the course of the 20th century, we really had a systematic loss of that information, especially within the Black community. And a lot of that was on purpose. And so for me to be able to have this method where I can teach people this information that I know for free on their own time at their own pace means everything to me, because I do believe that this information should be widespread and I believe it should be as accessible as possible.

JUSTIN: That’s great. I’m right with Soleil, by the way. The TikToks are just so charming, so endearing and really, really informative, which is the really great part about it. You kind of mentioned this: part of it is liking attention and liking the idea of people hearing you talk, which I think is incredible and is a wonderful sign of confidence, too…but when you first start, in the beginning, does it feel like you’re kind of yelling into a void kind of thing, or were there already people kind of waiting for you to do this? Like what were those early days of creating this account and doing these videos like?

ALEXIS: Oh my gosh, well, if we want to take it back to the beginning – beginning, before I even had a TikTok, before I even made like my Instagram foraging account, which predates my TikTok by like a year, I was just bothering all of my friends and family members on my personal Instagram with all of the weird food I was making. And you know, all the times I was going into the woods and after a while, I was like, “Aah, you guys don’t want to be hearing this.”  And my mom doesn’t need to keep calling me asking why can’t I just go to the grocery store.

So, I’m going to make like this separate Instagram account. And it’s crazy because for that first year, my face was in nothing. It was just the plants. Just straight information, no jokes, no nothing

JUSTIN: Oh, interesting. 

ALEXIS: Yeah. I was really afraid of not being taken seriously at first. Um, it took me a year of having that account before I was willing to show my face and I was so nervous about it. It was literally just like a selfie next to my fig tree and I panicked about posting. So for TikTok, I didn’t originally intend my TikTok to be for foraging, I was just kind of stumbling around in the app, figuring out how it worked so I could do my day job better. Just as a one-off thing, the week that the shutdowns began happening in March last year, just for funsies. I went out in my neighborhood and I was like, “Hey, I know you’re nervous about going to the grocery store. I am too, let’s meet five plants that are definitely growing in your neighborhood that you can eat.”

And so I just went through like dandelions and violets and a couple other really basic things that you can find in any given city. Posted it, didn’t think anything of it. And then the next day I woke up with like double the followers and 40,000 views on video.

And I was like, “Oh, the people want to learn here. I like that. I like learning. I like teaching!” So, I posted another one and it did even better. And I posted, you know, how to make pesto with these really invasive weeds and it did even better. And it just kept going until it became like a full on chaotic acorn processing video that now is what most people on TikTok know me from. That’s the one that’s been seen the most.  So, it’s been a slow build into the confidence of being like, “Yeah, I’m happy to be sharing my face and my voice. It was definitely not there at first.

JUSTIN: Wow. That’s amazing.

SOLEIL: I want to go back to that like moment when you finally posted that selfie of yourself next to a fig tree. What were you thinking, like how were you feeling? What were you worried about?

ALEXIS:  Well, the only reason that I was going to post it, period, is it was about a year ago in the middle of January. There’s not a lot growing outside. So most foraging accounts, unless they’re like really avid mushroomers, are kind of shut down between mid December until about mid-March. And I was terrified of losing like this small, beautiful audience that I had managed to kind of wrassle up with all of my other posts. And so I was like, “Oh, well I have to post something. They can’t just not hear from me for, you know, two or three months! So, I’ll let them know that I’m alive and I’ll take this funny picture next to like my grow light with my fig tree and be like we’re photosynthesizing together.”

And it was received really well, which I also found super surprising. And I think without that moment, I probably wouldn’t have tried to combine like TikTok and my foraging stuff, had I not been like, well received by my smaller audience then.

SOLEIL: Oh man. I mean like what could people say? Like how dare you show your face next to this tree?

ALEXIS: I mean, you’d be surprised. In the realm of foraging, there’s like a very standard procedure that you see from a lot of folks. And it’s like, maybe you’ll see a hand in the picture for scale. But it’s, you know, usually just, “Here’s the plant.” If you’re going to see a person,  they’re usually white, they’re usually male and they’re usually speaking very softly and standing seven feet away from the camera. And that’s so not me, like I don’t check any of those boxes! So I was nervous and I got a little bit of pushback in the forage and community. When I first started making TikToks, I heard from people who were just like, “I don’t like the style of video that you make. Like, I get that you have this knowledge. I just don’t like the way you’re presenting it.” And that was a trip.

JUSTIN: Oh my God. Soleil and I’ve talked about this too. Like the maybe somewhat like niche categories, like the rules that are in these environments within these groups. Like I had no idea there was a baseline like foundational, video kind of script, or method that you had to follow for foraging videos. I had no idea about that. Like, that’s a, is that like a long standing thing and people were just saying that they could, they not get the information that you were giving… I don’t understand what stopped them from being able to enjoy it.

ALEXIS:
Me neither! Yeah, it’s, it’s wild. And I had never even noticed the through line of all of the other foraging videos that I’d watched until I got called out for deviating from that.

JUSTIN: Oh interesting, oh wow.

ALEXIS: Because for me, I don’t go into things trying to be different than other people. I just go into any kind of creative project telling the story and like the best, most effective way that I know how, which just happens to usually involve me sing-yelling at the camera.

JUSTIN: Oh my goodness. That’s so interesting. And you know, I mean, is that something that you thought about too? I guess maybe not, but like in creating these videos in naturally being who you are and providing information, the way that you do, which is like, you know, fun and engaging, you’re kind of like rewriting how foraging videos look and feel and sound and how they can be created. And, you know, especially like who makes them…is the gravity of all this, I guess that’s not really something that you think about when you first started doing the videos and stuff, right–

ALEXIS: Oh gosh, no, no, not at all. Ah, I hadn’t even really considered that until this moment.

JUSTIN: You’re welcome. 

ALEXIS: Oh, we love gravity, gravity, gravity. Doesn’t keep you awake at night. Exactly. No, it’s, it’s amazing. And I don’t know if it has anything to do with me. And I don’t think in my good conscience, I can say that it does, but slowly but surely starting to see more people of color, more women, more folks starting to like raise their hand and be heard and the foraging community and the horticulture community on Tik ToK and elsewhere just in the last year has been amazing. Oh gosh, I feel like prior to this year, it was like me. And then my friend, Eric (Eric of the Woods) who is Korean and lives in Indiana, our state neighbor who was also foraging and then indie officiant in California. And I was like, well, where the rest of us? There have to be more POC who were doing this.

And so just, I don’t know if it’s because maybe I have like a little bit more reach and it’s easier to find people now. And those folks were there the entire time. But now that there’s kind of this advent of more folks who look like me in the space, I love it even more. And I didn’t think that that was possible.

SOLEIL: Yeah. I mean, it must feel so great because I’m sure you’ve inspired other people, especially people of color to put themselves out there and try going into the woods and foraging too, because they probably also assumed it was a white space that they just weren’t entitled to. Right?

ALEXIS: Oh, absolutely. And that, I think if there’s anything that I am like proud of accomplishing with this, it’s the handful of folks who have told me that they feel more entitled to outdoor spaces when they didn’t previously, , nothing feels better than especially another Black woman telling me that they have come to like this realization that the outdoors are for us too. Because they are. There were many centuries of it being kind of ingrained into our ancestors, our predecessors that the outdoors and outdoor education, outdoor activities were not for us, as kind of this systematic disconnecting black people from the land once black people weren’t working the land for free anymore. And so it’s, it’s beautiful. Like watching people discover this love that they thought they weren’t allowed to have.

JUSTIN: So, you made a really good point about the idea of the outdoors, belonging to us as in Black people and kind of reminding ourselves of that. And I’m curious about this, because I know that if I go walk in or I have friends that, you know, are like going to go get some exercise, get my steps in today or something…they might feel a little bit nervous or apprehensive about walking through a neighborhood where there aren’t many people who look like them. So what they’ll do is like FaceTime a friend or something, or like I’ll call my brother or something like that if I get kind of nervous.

For Black people that are foraging and for yourself, I guess, have you ever had those moments where you’re like, “Ooh, I feel nervous about being here,” and does social media help you cope?..

ALEXIS: Yeah, absolutely. No, first of all, I’m glad I’m not the only person on the team “fake phone call.” I have done that many, many a time because I live in the city, so I do a lot of urban foraging and sometimes people don’t like it when a tall, loud Black person is doing something that they can’t identify. Because some suck. So, there’s a lot of different mechanisms that I have used over the years to kind of combat that filming TikToks and content for Instagram is absolutely one of them. I don’t know why that puts people at ease or makes people feel like they can come and just ask you what you’re doing instead of worried about what you’re doing from a distance. Those are the instances in which a lot of times someone will come up to me and be like, “Oh, like, what is this plant that you’re filming?”

And then we get to have a moment and kind of like an exchange of humanity instead of it potentially being a scene. I also, especially when I’m urban foraging, less when I’m like out in the woods, I will dress up to go for it. I’ll be like, “Oh cool. Like we’re wearing a Prairie dress and we’re doing our makeup because if I look cute, pretty and approachable, odds are my very Caucasian neighbors won’t call the cops on me.”
Which is like something that I can like to laugh about, but it’s one of those you have to laugh so you don’t cry about these kinds of situations for sure.

JUSTIN: Right. 

ALEXIS: I mean the, with being able to like livestream also on Instagram and on TikTok that feels very safe because I have had people walk up to me and be apprehensive in the middle of a live stream. And there’s something that makes you feel very safe about the fact that like 200 people are watching, what is transpiring when maybe no one else directly around you is. Yeah, I would absolutely say that TikToK and Instagram and just the content creation process in general, it acts as a shield for me frequently, especially in regards to urban foraging.

SOLEIL: Yeah. I wanted to talk about your choice of moniker as well, you know? I think that is a really probably a potent choice and has a lot going on with it as far as visibility goes. I think our conversation is definitely touching on visibility in so many different ways. Can you explain the use of black forager as your, your internet presence as your sort of brand? I guess I hate saying brand, but you know what I mean?

ALEXIS:
Yeah. When it was time for me to make the aforementioned foraging page, I would stop bothering the people I know who don’t care about plants. I sat down and just fought about what it was that I was bringing to the space that I didn’t see being brought to the space at that time. And at that point in time, I hadn’t found any other black foragers on Instagram. And one thing that the conversation kept coming back to when talking to my parents, when talking to my friends about my love of foraging, is everyone talking about how it is so often viewed as like a very white, very upper-crust activity, very academic activity to be participating in. And so I was like, okay, well, I feel like I have to be ‘Black Forager’ then, like I want my name alone to be an act of visibility before people even see my face, before people even, see my content. I am letting people know that we’re here and we can be here and it’s not just me. So, I granted, never expected to have more than like 800 followers. So didn’t really know the visibility work it was going to be doing when I came up with it. But that was the headspace that I was in.

SOLEIL: I’m curious too, you talk about sort of reclaiming the outdoors for Black people and Black women. And I wonder if you’ve had conversations with indigenous people in your area about what foraging and going outdoors means for them too, because I’m sure having it be typed as a white endeavor is probably even more offensive to them. But yeah, I’d love to hear about those conversations because I know historically, Indigenous Americans have done a lot of teaching to enslaved Africans and their descendants who escaped slavery to allow them to live off the land in this foreign place, too, and I think there’s a lot of really interesting connection between the communities.

ALEXIS:  Absolutely. And I would absolutely say that like the two communities that deserve to be outraged at how whitewashed an activity foraging has become is absolutely the American Indigenous community and then subsequently the Black community. I think it’s very interesting how all of a sudden like ethnobotany is becoming a very cool little buzz word, as we’re now deciding in academia that so many practices that have been passed down through generations of hands of Indigenous people, um, might, ‘Oh my gosh, actually be worth some sort of merit!” Who would have guessed? And I feel like that’s the narrative that I see happening a whole lot on social media surrounding this kind of reclamation of an act that never should have been lost in the first place. I know I have been doing a whole lot of reading just around some of the earliest laws that were put in place solely for the purpose of disenfranchising Indigenous folks, from being able to gather food on the land on which they were from.

And a lot of those laws still exist today under the guise of like conservation, as if, you know, those lands that were suddenly a native conservation, hadn’t been kept in that condition by means of Indigenous stewardship already, which is just insane to think about. A lot of those laws came into fruition around the time that a lot of indigenous folks were being moved to reservations. And around the time that Black folks were being freed in the South, It was almost like, “Oh my gosh, well, if under the guise of wanting to keep these spaces pristine, we say, you know, no trespassing on this public property, no loitering on this public property, no taking of these precious plants from this public property.” It kind of takes away power, in a sense. It takes away a huge portion of food sovereignty for two groups and food sovereignty is such a big brick and the foundation of any group here in the United States. I want to continue seeing Indigenous folks have a huge seat at the table of all things stewardship of our native plants, all things foraging, all things urbalism. And, I hope that that continues because I’ve been seeing a lot more of it on Instagram and on Tik ToK, which is great.

JUSTIN: You know, Alexis, in the sports world, like when Black athletes, NBA players, were speaking out about like social justice issues within the last two years, there was a Fox news anchor who told them to like “shut up and dribble,” you know, like, “Don’t speak about politics, just perform for us,” kind of thing. Is there an equivalent of that you faced in the foraging community about the conversations that you want to have about the impact of indigenous people, about… disenfranchisement, like all of these issues that are really relevant to this topic. Do you ever try to discuss those things or introduce those things online in some capacity and get pushback from people that are just like, “Nah, not show us the plants. We don’t want to hear about this.” Because, I imagined since it’s a predominantly hyperwhite space, there might be pushback from a progressive dialogue especially one that’s kind of painful and shows the actions of White America. I don’t know. Have you gotten any pushback like that?

ALEXIS: I have certainly gotten my fair share of pushback. I know I did a video on gathering Juneberries last spring. And there’s like a line in it that’s just like, “For legal purposes, I am required to tell you that I’m not in a park right now, but if I was in a park right now, I also want you to know that the laws in place to prohibit people from gathering food and parks are put in place solely to disenfranchise the poor and the people of color,” and people did not like it. People did not like that line at all! And let me tell you the question that I probably get the most immediately after, “Have you ever gotten sick from solving that you forage,” is always questions circulating around about the spaces in which I am gathering with a whole lot of implied questioning as to the legality of what I’m gathering and where I’m gathering.

And that’s a conversation that I hope to like bust wide open this year because I’ve been answering a lot of folks kind of on a one-on-one basis. I dunno, I also said some words to some folks on the comments of that Juneberry video to where everyone could see them, because I wanted to put that conversation to bed where it belonged, it was tired. That’s something that I want to dive a lot deeper into moving forward this year. Because it’s an important conversation. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who very much believe in good nature or give the benefit of the doubt to some of these rules that have been put in place about gathering food in public spaces. Sometimes you just have to tell people that they were incorrect about something. I was trying to think of a better way to say that.

it’s like, it’s absolutely crazy to me. Some of the most populous parts of our city have Juneberry trees, have Magnolia trees have PawPaw trees and all of it goes to waste if people don’t gather it, if you don’t teach the people around you that it’s there, but at the same time, people get mad at you when you try. And it just makes no sense to me.

SOLEIL: Right. I mean like, what is what’s wrong with that? I mean, what are people arguing that like, how does this hurt?

ALEXIS: Exactly. That’s what I always want to say back when people are just like, “Are you at home park gathering persimmons right now?” And it’s like, these persimmons we’re going to fall on the ground otherwise. These persimmons were going nowhere, and we’re in a place with too much foot traffic, so the birds aren’t even going to eat them either. Like it’s such a weird form of policing, it’s like a very weird form of like concern policing.

SOLEIL: Right. And I mean, I can’t resist bringing it here, but I recognize too that within capitalism, an activity where you get something for free is very confusing to people.

ALEXIS: Oh my gosh, it just baffles folks. And folks will do mental gymnastics to come up with reasons why foraging should not be happening and people should not be partaking in it. And there are good reasons, a good reason would be if you’re not particularly good at ID-ing plants, you know? Maybe sit this one out if that’s you. But a lot of people will just be like, “Well, aren’t you worried about there being pesticides?” I’m like here?  in the middle of the woods, like there’s nothing for them to be pesticides.

ALL LAUGH

ALEXIS: Like, it’s okay. That sometimes people just get free food by accident. It’s fine.
 
JUSTIN: So while we’re on this, I want to take a little bit of a different path. I know we’ve talked about the complicated elements of this, but give me an idea of some interaction that you’ve had with these videos that you were like, “Oh my God, that warms my heart.” Was it from, you know, is it from a young forager, a POC forager, who like got to explore first because they saw you? Is it from an older white person that might’ve been introduced to your voice and then suddenly became, I don’t know, extra woke or some sh*t, like that. Some really magical moment?

ALEXIS
If I possess the power to make people hyper sound of my voice, I would drop everything would become my life’s mission.

JUSTIN: You’d be a superhero.

ALEXIS: Exactly, I have to walk this great nation to rid it of anti-wokeness…

ALL: laughing

JUSTIN: With great power comes, great responsibility

JUSTIN: Yeah. I’m curious, like what’s a really nice moment that kind of like one of those things that keeps you going that lets people know like this is a worthy endeavor. Like what’s something really nice that happened.

ALEXIS: So the one that stands out first in my mind, , was also a bit of a fangirl moment for me. And that was like folksy singer Kimia Dawson telling me that she and her kids like, like watching my content and learning together and that it’s, you know, nice to see a person of color in that space. And for me, that was insane because when I was in high school listening to alternative and folksy music, Kimya Dawson was that person for me. I was like, “A woman of color! Oh my God, We are allowed to do this?”

“I can just pick up my acoustic guitar and, you know, play some folksy, fun two-chord songs, and I’m entitled to this space too?”

So that was, that was absolutely wild. And that’s also a moment that for me is just like, Oh my God, what if someday I am this for someone. That would be wild!

SOLEIL: Wow. So it’s a full circle moment where your inspiration was inspired by you. It’s like you’ve gotten there essentially. Are you just ready to die now? Because that seems great. 

ALEXIS: Honestly. When can you come and tell on one of my videos, I was just like, pack it up, we’re done. Everything else on the calendar: canceled.

SOLEIL:  My final question to you would be, you know, for people who have suddenly become interested in forging while listening to this interview, what would you say would be some advice that you could give them?

ALEXIS:
I would say get a field guide that is specific to your area. I would join any and all local Facebook groups dedicated to foraging, so you can maybe even meet some folks who are willing to take you on a little, you know, masked walkabout with them. Because, in my opinion, nothing is better than learning in real time in person with someone who knows more than you do. And just like a good deal of common sense. That’s I feel like what’s suggested for anybody don’t, don’t pick plants that are growing right next to a railroad.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone we all need connection right now, anyway. And the outdoors, even while it’s cold here, it’s one of the safer places to be when you’re standing six feet away from another person.

SOLEIL: For sure. And where can listeners find you and support your work?

ALEXIS: You are on Instagram or the Facebook. I am @BlackForager. And if you’re one of those cool kids on the TikTok I am @AlexisNikole. That is N I K O L E. Thank you to my mother, Kim, who is K Y M.

SOLEIL:
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us. We are just delighted to have been able to talk to you.

JUSTIN: SO MUCH FUN.

ALEXIS: It’s been an absolute joy, like my week has peaked, my week has peaked which is great. Like Wednesday’s a good place for the week to peak.





Source link
.