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Rebecca Lerner will change the way you look at your neighborhood.
She is part explorer, part advocate for natural medicine, part historian, part journalist and storyteller, and now a first-time author. If you spend even a small amount of time with her, she will help you begin to see things that you didn’t see before.
“Oregon grape is probably the most useful wild plant that I know of,” says Lerner of the official flower of the Beaver State. During a trip to the outskirts of town, Lerner rattled off a plethora of medicinal uses for it, including using parts of the plant to soothe various gastrointestinal and skin conditions.
From that point on, I began to see the yellow, flowering plant everywhere, including near the OPB offices. I texted Lerner images of Oregon grape, along with photos of several other plants I spotted in various places around Portland.
“Yes, isn’t that neat?” she replied via text. “If you come to one of my classes sometime where I do a plant walk in the city, you will have that experience with about 30 more plants. It really transforms your sense of place in the best way.”
In her new book Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness, Lerner gives an autobiographical account of her experience combing the streets of Portland, learning and sharing tips on how foraging fits into a modern lifestyle. She also talks a lot about transformation, a concept with which she has a good deal of personal experience.
Lerner has been known by a few different names over the course of her life, including standard nicknames like “Becky” and “Becks,” but it wasn’t until she started eating plants growing from the cracks of sidewalks, streets and back alleyways that she earned the name “Wild Girl.”
Lerner’s activities began to receive more notice when she decided to conduct her first foraged Thanksgiving, where she survived on wild, foraged food for an entire week leading up to the holiday. This endeavor attracted national attention, both to herself and, more importantly for her, to the foraging movement.
The concept of foraging isn’t new. Lerner feels that the core of what she does hearkens back to an older tradition of hunting and gathering, the act of which she finds rewarding.
“I feel more and more empowered the more I do it. Not only is it practical because I’m getting free food sometimes, or because I feel really confident that I can cure myself of really basic, common ailments like the flu, or like strep throat, but I also do this because it’s really fulfilling to me to be able to engage that part of myself that really feels like a hunter-gatherer,” says Lerner.
Her perspective has evolved over time, as has Lerner’s involvement in what has become a resurgence of the foraging movement. Lerner says that initially she perceived foraging as more of an activity or something fun to do like a hobby. But today, much of what she does has grown to include education, advocacy and outreach. She works closely with organizations and other foragers to help educate the public about foraging. She also conducts city tours that help people understand the ins and outs of how to forage safely.
And as much as Lerner’s names have changed over her life, so has the newly published author evolved the way that she presents herself. She no longer goes by “Wild Girl”; it seems that moniker has served its purpose of bringing attention to the cause and she has let it go. Still, Lerner continues to maintain a deep respect for her roots. She also still finds them growing around the city streets, digs them up and eats them.