Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Finding Food on a Field Trip

by Kaitlin Henderson

A group of 200 sixth-grade students recently came to Duke Gardens over two mornings to learn how ancient civilizations found food. They went to the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants to imagine what life as a hunter-gatherer in North Carolina might have been like, and to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden to learn about the history of plant cultivation and agriculture.

In the Blomquist, students used pictures to help identify plants. These plants ranged from those you can eat directly, such as grapes and prickly pear cactus, to plants that add flavor or texture to your meal, such as mint and sassafras, and those that attract birds and animals that you could hunt, such as beautyberry and hickory.

As they stood in the woodsy environment of the Blomquist, students were surprised to learn that food was all around them. Even with a plant photo to use as a guide, most students found it hard to find an unfamiliar plant growing among all the other plants in its environment. Others recognized the plants we talked about from their own neighborhoods, but they hadn’t realized they could be used for food. Sometimes students were surprised to see things they did eat, such as ginger and onions, growing as a whole plant in their natural habitat. For example, they might have seen a ginger root in the past, but that didn’t help them identify it from the portion of the plant that grows above ground.

When some rain showed up, we wondered what hunter-gatherers would have done in that situation. You still need to eat in bad weather! Some students had the great idea that hunter-gatherers could have used the leaves of a nearby banana plant as umbrellas.

Our sixth-grade visitors left with a better understanding of what hunter-gatherer life was like. And they had a greater appreciation for conveniences such as comfortable shelters and farms and grocery stores, which get you off the hook for finding your own food in the wild.

Kaitlin Henderson is a graduate student in Duke's Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program.

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