The Urban Forager’s Oasis
The word foraging, conjures up images of pristine wilderness, vast forests, mountain ranges… a distant dream to the urban dweller. The truth is, I have foraged in the most unexpected places. Hidden between rows of buildings and streets, are slices of urban neglected space- undeveloped, forgotten by all but plants, insects and graffiti taggers… the terrain vague.
The term translates to “undisclosed or vague terrain”, a space void of traffic, advertisement, construction – a rare thing in any cityscape. Growing up in Lyon city centre, luck had it that my family lived with one such space- at a hop over our garden wall. I craved this overgrown and peaceful little place, I came to find solace, creativity, imagination and life…. In those instances, i felt like i could be in the middle of a large luscious ecosystem and forget the city for a while. I’d bring all my friends here who came after school, it was magical. Likewise, the sudden jolt back in the city streets was a reviving change. Since then I have loved merging these two worlds.
Many of the plants thriving in this wasteland oasis are labelled as weeds, or plantes squatteuses; seen as almost illegally squatting the land- growing ‘where they should not be’. I could relate to this as a skateboarder and graffiti tagger, (and later squatter), we were constantly reminded ‘that this was not our playground’. We would read the signs, “no skateboarding”, “interdiction”, “no loitering”… a term that I found difficult to comprehend, considering there is nothing more natural than for people (especially kids and teenagers!) to congregate. Nevertheless we trespassed…
Through skateboarding and graffiti, our perspective on the architecture of the city was able to morph and adapt to our curiosity and playfulness. It was the act of pursuing places to graffiti, that led me to trespass beyond more forbidden walls. Alongside the trash “we played in vague terrain, amongst leaves, washing machines, plants, aluminiums and greens…”* – this abundance of plant life, attracting all sorts of insects, creatures and neighbourhood cats. A meaningful relationship to place began to form. I got to know the fragrance of buddleia, the sting of nettle, the sticky seeds of cleaver… all before I ever learned the Latin or common names, or nutritional properties. Firstly, the plant shapes and forms began to influence the style in my graffiti alphabet. This is where my foraging story begins.
“we played in vague terrain, amongst leaves, washing machines, plants, aluminiums and greens…”
* lyric from song Avocado Baby, written and performed by Samyel (Samuel Arnold Keane)
Just as the skateboarder reimagines harsh concrete architecture into playful flow, the urban forager sees the bounty in the terrain vague.
The Magic Line
In my last piece, I wrote about growing up in the cityscape; through graffiti and skateboarding, I was able to find the cracks in this structured environment, to find the ‘wild slices’ where naughty plants (weeds), thrived… bringing me to foraging and caring of any ‘wild’ spaces
When my family moved to Dublin, the coast line was this incredibly vibrant, ever changing place. This space between two worlds. Where elements mingle. “The sea’s rhythm of tide, wind and wave, has kept this magic line dancing”*. Like the Terrain Vague of the city, the coastline is largely void of modern development. This strip of land at low tide, then- submerged in sea at high tide; is a place of impermanence.
I would walk, wade, climb and forage along this meandering line. This place of elements- unpredictable, untamed, holding on to so much magic, maintaining mystery in this otherwise, overstudied world. When I began to forage in this environment, I fell under its salty spell. “Where plants have learnt to kiss the salt”* I foraged more succulent plants, sea spinach, sandwort and rock samphire- jutting out from stone. As tide dropped, I would discover ever more seaweeds, sliding from stone to stone, “caught up in a tangle of the kelps and lengths of sea spaghetti”… in these moments I would “slow down to the ticking tides, that pulse beyond our time,”* tapping into an ancestral activity.
Beyond foraging, the Magic Line is a place that inspires. Just as the environment merges earth and sea, I feel varying art forms and expression can arise. Lyrics flow into illustration…eroding into a melody. Many people come here to unwind, let go and allow… or just walk and forget everything else for a while.
*Excerpts from upcoming publication “Where Seaweed Dances” Including poem The Magic Line.
Illustration taken from my exhibition FORAGE, May 2022, Cloughjordan.
Song Because I am of This World, 1st October 2022.
Samuel Arnold Keane is a forager, an illustrator, a musician… merging various art forms to tell the stories of the seaweeds, coasts and streets, he gathers, wades and walks. Samuel guides foraging events with an emphasis on marrying ancestral skill within the modern landscape. Finding story alongside practical knowledge. Just as the skateboarder reimagines harsh concrete architecture into playful flow, the urban forager sees the bounty in neglected ‘waste land’.
“Foraging fosters an intimate relationship with our environment. We tap into an ancestral activity. We become part of the flow rather than spectators of the outdoors. We begin to truly care for our environment – the beach we comb, the forest we walk, the derelict land we trespass into, the small slices of wilderness that remain. We start to stand up for it. This is where I believe environmental action truly begins.”
Samuel Arnold Keane