Foraging 26 – Developing Foraging Skills

Have you ever noticed that each time you are presented with information for the second or later time, you take in something different from it?

Elderflowers laid on white paper to allow bugs to escape.

Perhaps on an occasion, you read an information packed page in a book about Elder (Sambucus niger). You read words describing how the shrub is often used as a fever medicine, in skin salves and for delicious immunity enhancing cordials. You also read a host of other information about some folklore attached to the shrub in your land and others; tales of tree spirits, rules about not burning its wood and so on. But on this day, you are most interested in the berries.

The sun is out, you spotted plenty of ripe hanging elder berries as you walked home yesterday and today you are keen to harvest and use some. So the information that you just read about the folklore, skin salves and so on are not as important to you today. You are interested in the berries today so your brain filters out a lot of the other information and helps you to focus on the task in hand - Elderberry harvesting and processing.


So you go out, use the berry identification information which you just read, find the right shrubs, pluck the right fruit and you process it according to the instructions which you read. By reading, thinking about it, actually doing the finding, plucking and processing, you are helping to lay down powerful connections in your brain which make Elderberry work easier the next time around. The more you do it, the better you get but the less you recall about the salves, immunity-boosting properties etc.

Homemade salve

Because our brains get better at things which we experience repeatedly, it is well worth revisiting that book with Elder information from time to time. You never know exactly when you will need to be able to recall that certain parts of this plant has excellent emollient (skin softening) properties or that elderberry pips contain a precursor to hydrogen cyanide.

Our minds are amazing things. They can remember so much, make incredibly fast connections between different topics, make connections and solve problems whilst we day dream or sleep and have razor sharp focus just when we need it. But our brains have a habit of becoming easily distracted from important tasks. They can also have difficulty with information recall just when we need it and they stop working so effectively when we overload them with superfluous information.

If you have done plenty of academic study in the past, you will probably have received some advice about study skills. As we leave formal education, we tend to think that those study skills are no longer needed. If you want to be a life long learner, keeping your brain sharp, I suggest you think back to those study skills and also keep track of new learning about how the brain works.

There is much to read on the subject (or watch or listen to). You may like to read Daniel Levitin's book, The Organised Mind. It contains lots of useful tips about how to help your brain be more productive (and calm) in a world of information overload.


1. If you have read or watched something on the topic of improving how we learn and retain information, which could help us all, please share it in the Foraging Forum.

2. To help you to better understand, recall and learn about herbal work, you may like to play around with any of the following techniques. I am sure that you will have other wonderful ways to help build your knowledge. As ever, don't let my words limit you, and please do share your favourite tips and tricks in the forums.

Daydreaming beneath Valerian flower stems

Sleep and rest enough
This may sound too simple but sleep is essential to making those neural pathways and connections mentioned above.

Oversleeping or under-sleeping on just one night reduces the amount of new information we can store, remember and correctly retrieve for the several days. So if you learn about Elder seeds on Monday and under-sleep on Tuesday you are less likely to process and remember that information correctly.

Adults need on average 6 - 10 hours sleep per night. Everyone is of course different and some people have very different sleep needs. Whatever your number, try to get the same amount each night - especially when you are actively learning new information and skills. Sleep cannot be caught up and oversleep is as damaging to the ability to remember as is under-sleep.

Be organised.
If you keep herbal, botany or medical books, organise them and keep them in a convenient arrangement for easy access. Our minds can save their energy for learning from the books rather than trying to remember where the books are located. It also saves you time. If you are not a great one for books and perhaps retrieve lots of information from the internet, keep a record of your references so that you can revisit them. The same goes for helping you recall who told you certain information.

Daydream and be creative
Employ different parts of your brain to help forge deep connections about a topic. This is why I suggested you draw, write, sing, dance about your green ally some time ago. We all know that reading is only one of many routes to learning and yet we often rely only on reading.

Be Mindful with the plants
Rather than looking at a plant with a set goal in mind, spend time just being in its presence. Perhaps sit next to it and share the air. Perhaps soft gaze at it. Perhaps closely and gently examine its details. The way the leaves join the stem. Pour your attention into just being with that plant and becoming aware of it via each of your senses.

Keep and revisit notes
Of what you learn about plants in each location. Again, this facilitates time saving and easy access and also is helpful because we all forget when information is not revisited now and then. So revisit your notes now and then, re-read them, look at your doodles, references etc. Top up your knowledge.

Index cards
Keep index cards with key information about each plant. I use pencil for this, to save me re-writing the cards when I decide to change the content. Keep them in a set place (to save time hunting for them) and refer back to them now and then.

Handwriting such information may seem old-school but it works. Our minds are wired to recall where we physically place written (visual) information on a tangible object and where we store that object. Our minds are less good at recalling which cloud, USB stick, hard drive or smart phone file we saved that nugget of useful information on.

Visual differences for electronic storage
If you prefer to save learned information on some form of computer, your mind will recall it better if you make each device screen look very different. Also, being very strict about how you organise files on these devices will help. Google Drive saves me a lot of time because I can access it from all my devices.

I store a lot of information on computers but I also have my most creative work in note books. I buy attractive books, which I like to handle and are easy on the eye. I store them in very specific places so that I always know where they are.

Revisit experiences.
Read over your notes soon after new learning (a day after, three days after and then every now and then). Remake lotions and potions to help create reliable neural pathways. Revisit the plants. Look again at your pressed leaves. Doing things over and over really helps us to gain more from them in terms of memory and motor skills (like getting better at measuring liquids, grating beeswax, chopping etc).

Do one thing at a time.
I grew up being told that multi-tasking was a wonderful skill. I was proud to be a seemingly good multi-tasker. Now I realise that it is not such a good thing. Of course, I am happy to be able to do several things at once sometimes but the brain cannot really do lots of the things well, at once.

When multitasking, the brain actually switches attention from one task to the next to the next repeatedly and very fast. This is very tiring for the brain and leads to nothing being done terribly well. It also decreases our ability to make good neural pathways and connections which aid with memory and understanding.

Better for the brain and effectiveness is to do one thing properly at a time. Yes, it takes longer but the results are far better. It is well worth a try, especially if you are a recovering multi-tasker like myself! Doing one thing at a time also enables us to get into the flow of things.

Allow time to Flow
To really focus, dive deeply, be creative and allow our minds to make wonderful connections and dream up new solutions and ideas - we need time. To get into a really productive flow is said to take about 90 minutes. So perhaps have this in mind when you next set aside some time to focus on your herbal studies or some other creative work.

Give yourself time and uninterrupted space to really get into it. When you achieve flow, you feel as though you and the topic/object of attention are merged together as one. Do you know that feeling? When did you last have it?

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