Harriet Tubman: The Freedom Forager
5.6 Min Read
Since the beginning of our human timeline we have sustained ourselves by foraging.
The earth’s oldest human group, the Bushman, innovated the science between nutrition and nature. Culturally they are divided into the hunter gatherer San people and the pastoral Khoi. The Khoisan’s have lived as foragers in semi-desert climate for over 75,000 years in southern Africa before their southward Bantu expansion
We must identify those who have preserved this foraging connection in the Western world. One must say the name of Harriet Tubman. Harriet's groundbreaking vision attaches us to the evolution of nutrition, agriculture, and ecology.
Harriet was born Araminta Ross of pure African ancestry in 1819 or 1820, in Dorchester County, Maryland. Harriet became a forager, farmer, nurse, spy and a cook. She learned these trades from her Grandmother Modesty, who was full of much wisdom. Her mother, Harriet "Rit" Ross, a "big house" cook. And her father, Ben Ross, an expert lumberjack. The Ross family’s craftsmanship prepared Harriet for what would be known to us as, The Underground Railroad.
Today we live with restaurants in every town, and on every corner. We have a mass-produced food industry, and giant supermarket complexes. It takes strong will to find food every day in our natural environment without depending on factories. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Harriet Tubman used the oldest human technology, foraging, to sustain and save an entire race from death and terror. Harriet knew the intersectionality of biological and ecological aspects of nature.
Why call Harriet Tubman, a Freedom Forager? What does foraging even mean? Foraging means relying on food, water, and shelter provided by nature. The gathering of plants and small animals, birds, and insects; scavenging animals killed by other predators; and hunting. The word foraging can be used interchangeably with “hunting and gathering.”
On the Underground Railroad, it was Harriet's duty to locate and prepare nourishment. On the roughly 13 raids Harriet conducted over the course of a decade, one of the many challenges she faced was keeping her party of rescued families and individuals fed on their long and arduous journey. Harriet went foraging in the forest. While the woods were rich with resources like sassafras, black cherry, and paw-paw. Not everything was safe to eat. Harriet had to know certain characteristics of plants, wildlife behavioral patterns from the animals and insects of the surrounding environment to avoid consuming poison.
Foraging requires intellect especially while facing harsh weather. Due to the ritual "end of the year" enslaved auctions, many Africans fled during the winter. These conditions made foraging more difficult for Harriet to find food. During frosty weather, they depended on acorns and varieties of wild nuts to sustain themselves.
Visualize traveling, escaping with newborns and small children in dangerous icy swamps. To keep babies from crying and attracting attention, Harriet dosed their bread with homemade herbal tinctures of opium poppies to put them to sleep.
Harriet Tubman was an abstemious eater. She fasted on Fridays, a practice her father taught her. Ben gifted Harriet many invaluable survival skills. He spent much time living off the land. Navigating through forests, fields and waterways. He passed that knowledge to his gifted daughter. The skills were put to phenomenal use while traveling and setting up raids; freeing African people up to 700 at one time.
Newly free Africans quietly hiked on dirt, grass, moss, and through rivers. Engaging in their natural habitat, they relied on the illumination of the moon to light their paths. Using their own mental imagery to memorize locations, they often knew the best trees for fire wood to sustain body heat, and the ideal plants to heal wounds.
Think of gazing up at the vast night sky using the stars as your compass. Or studying bird calls and mimicking them to communicate danger and safety. The science of foraging makes us human and grounded as individuals. Harriet had to know this. Her work has helped us reclaim our relationship with nature, science, and survival to experience true freedom, a relationship which has lasted over 75,000 years.
It is of importance to emphasize preserving native landscapes for all African heritage connected to aspects of nature and agricultural sciences. Teaching and studying about the sustainability of foraging and the Underground Railroad interprets the profound knowledge that is still available to be learned between historic conditions and events regarding our convenient lifestyles today.
If you reside in Georgia and want to forage, get to know the major soil provinces of the state which will connect you to many foraging sites for wild plants available for research and taste.
1) Limestone Valley
2) Blue Ridge
4) Sand Hills
5) Coastal Plain
6) Atlantic Coast Flatwoods
Also The Chattahoochee National Forest allows ginseng foraging!