I always take the shortcut through the town park on my way back home. On my usual route the other day, I saw these 2 Indian ladies picking up some berries from the ground near some big trees with distinctive Y-forked trunks. I've always been exceptionally curious and so I struck up a conversation with them. "I don't know their English names, but these berries are good for diabetes!" I probed on and one of the ladies added on with a slight sheepish grin, "I'm picking them for my diabetic husband. They sell them at Little India (a district in Singapore)...but can be quite expensive. Here, they are free!"
Google later told me that those berries are fruits of the Java Plum (Syzigium cuminii), an evergreen tropical tree with simple, dark glossy green leaves, pink flowers inflorescence and oblong, dark purple fruits when ripe. All these technical terms washed over my head as I recited them. But what really caught my interest was the vast inventory of scientific research on the folk medicine benefits of the species - parts of the plant have been used to treat asthma, biliousness, ulcers, chronic diarrhea and yes, diabetes (Ayyanar et al., 2012). And it's not just fluff. Scientific research has backed up some of these folk uses, isolating compounds responsible for its pharmacological properties (Stephen A., 2012). According to Hindu mythology, it's also the fruit tree that Lord Rama subsisted on during his exile from Ayodhya for 14 years. The fruit skins have also been used as natural dyes.
I've passed by those trees every day, but it was only when I knew their stories that I started paying attention.
I recently finished "Braiding Sweetgrass" by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She recounted having 'almost lost it' at a question while leading a group of pre-med students on a field trip in the spruce-covered Appalachian mountains. As a Professor of Ecology, she was naturally pointing out the diversity of life on the mountains, singling some out with their Latin names, consistently thinking of discussion questions in her head, trying to teach in her way. Perhaps it was her ardent enthusiasm as she made her case for the endangered spruce-fir moss spiders, that primed a student to ask her, "Is this like your religion or something?" She was taken aback by the question. On hindsight, she felt that she had given the students so much information on the mosaic of ecological patterns and processes happening around them, yet the heavy body of knowledge she presented had obscured the most important lesson that can only be taught by the land: being mindful, paying attention to the environment, and feeling gratitude for the gifts of Nature.
Multiple studies have shown that spending more time in nature lead to pro-environmental attitudes. However, the type of experience matters too. Mayer et.al (2019) found a higher increase in connectedness to nature after people had a direct experience in nature compared to an indirect contact with nature through a video. In another study, Duerden et.al (2010) compared the changes in environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour between students who underwent an indirect nature experience (preparatory programme) and students who underwent a direct nature experience (7-14 days international field workshop). While both groups increased their environmental knowledge after the experiences, it was those who went through the field workshop had a stronger influence on their environmental attitudes and behaviours.
These studies highlight that a good education on plant botany that increases knowledge does not equate to a corresponding increase in pro-environmental attitudes. Students have to be actively using their senses to get closer to the elements, and not just observing from behind a mental/metal fence while taking notes.
So how can we get people more participative? I believe food is a natural gateway into the hearts of the masses. Humans are inherently interested in food. It is one of our basic needs, and has been a powerful shaper of our identities. For Singaporeans at least, there is also a desire for diversity and novelty in what we put on our plates. Learning the names of edible plants that one may have passed by before daily but never noticed could be a strong motivator to learning more about the other species, subsequently developing attachment to the place and her non-human residents.
In Singapore, we have strict rules and heavy fines in place for "destructive" acts, which include harvesting plant material, even picking up fallen fruits from the ground. These regulations are not without reason (though perhaps a little austere). An irresponsible or unaware forager could have a larger than intended impact on the ecosystem. But such stringency has also resulted in a general perception of Nature as a museumified landscape - something to see but never to touch. Many wild, edible plants that used to grow in the kampongs (traditional Malay villages) decades ago are still here on our streets, but their stories and range of traditional uses are considered esoteric knowledge today.
I'm certainly not suggesting we live like our hunter-gatherer ancestors once again and return to some sort of atavistic utopia. I'm also not suggesting we allow people to pluck whatever they wish and interest them. Such lifestyles / practices are clearly not sustainable nor practical. But immersive nature activities led by professional practitioners who understand the impacts of their actions on the plant and the larger ecosystem could be an engaging way to get more people interested in what the other species have to give, and subsequently what us humans could give back.
However, regulating such activities would require investment of time and resources, though I think that the long-term benefits will pay off. For a start, we could consider what practices to encourage under "sustainable foraging" to regulate said activities in an urban city. With regards to irresponsible and disrespectful behaviours, I would put forth that they stem from a lack of understanding and appreciation for Nature, that grew from a dearth of urban human-nature interactions. Rather than depending on the government to enforce rules for maintenance of green spaces, there could also be opportunities for interested people / grassroots communities to play more active roles in the management of common greenery.
There is already a small group of people carrying out nature activities in a similar vein, and I believe the interest will only grow as our societies seek more connection with our food sources. Public sentiment on sustainable living and the "grow-your-own-food" movement has also improved vastly, firmly supported by government policies. Perhaps one day, we could consider how responsibly-led foraging could be allowed, and even be part of a progressive conservation strategy.