Foraging: The Foraged Book Project

by Abigail Willis

For many of us the nearest we get to foraging is the odd autumnal blackberrying excursion or perhaps a last-ditch rootle around the larder to retrieve some little-used and long-past-its-sell-by-date ingredient.

Fergus & James holding King Alfred's Cakes Mushroom

Fergus & James holding King Alfred’s Cakes Mushroom

For others however foraging (“the act of looking for food or searching for provisions”) is a much more meaningful business, and for Fergus Drennan and James Wood it is the central tenet of an unusual, not to say eccentric, artistic venture – the creation of a book from foraged materials.

The project got underway last November, when James, a recently graduated ‘sustainable’ artist, contacted Fergus, a chef turned ‘wild food experimentalist’ and educator.  Originally James wanted to apprentice himself to Fergus, but when Fergus learnt about James’ art foraging quest his interest was aroused straight away, “I had already been experimenting with making paper from mushrooms and I thought it was fantastic to be contacted by someone with the same interest as me”.  The apprenticeship went by the board and the idea of collaborating on a foraged book was born.


Book papers made from mushrooms

Book papers made from mushrooms

Physically every material used within the book will be foraged and processed by either James or Fergus – a time-consuming, seasonally dependent undertaking that has already seen the original two year time-frame extended to a more realistic four to five years.  The book itself will contain 360 pages of mushroom paper (hand-made from birch polypore pulp), bound within a road-kill badger leather cover.  Paper production is well underway with over 40 sheets of paper already made and, although the pair have yet to conquer the technical difficulty of ‘sizing’ the paper in readiness for ink and paint, James has successfully used Japanese knotweed roots to make the paper more water-resistant.

In terms of content, the book will be packed with foraging information and recipes, as well as quirky diary details about the back story involved in gathering the various materials.  Fittingly, for such an artistic endeavour, the book will also be rich in visual content as Fergus and James are working with around 14 other artists, who will provide formal botanical illustrations, in return for the chance to work with these unique materials.

With Fergus based in Kent and James in Cheshire, this collaboration is a long-distance affair.  James travels down to Kent every couple of months to go foraging with Fergus, returning to Cheshire with a bulging rucksack of raw produce.  While Fergus is responsible for identification and recipes, James is doing most of the actual experimentation and making in his studio  (although Fergus does have his own deckle and mold so he can contribute to the paper making effort).

For Fergus, a highly experienced food forager, locating art materials in the wild is a new challenge and he admits that even for him it is a matter as much of following hunches as hard knowledge.  There have been some ‘horrible failures’ but triumphs too, such as James’ recent success making glue from a fungus, without any other external references to guide him.

Bagged organic pigments

Bagged organic pigments

While birch polypores have been supplying the raw material for the Foraged Book’s paper, other plants are providing the pigments.  Honesty seedpods collected on Fergus and James’ very first foraging trip in November produced blue – a tricky colour to source in the wild. Beloved of supermarket carparks and municipal planting schemes, mahonia turns out to be the best source of yellow that James has discovered so far, with spring flowers such as primroses as other go-to yellow dye plants.  Willow – an obliging plant that gives us aspirins and cricket bats also provides pink dye from its bark.  The roots of cleavers (Galium aparine) yield a red pigment, although this is perhaps less of a surprise when you learn they belong to the Rubiaceae plant group (the clue’s in the name) and are related to madder.

A shared sense of curiosity rather than hard cash drives the project. Forager and artist come to the project with different perspectives – Fergus from a food angle, James from an artistic one but “we’re learning a lot from each other,” says Fergus.   The pair are natural communicators and collaborators and the book is being developed on an open access principle, with recipes and findings published on the FBP website.  Fergus and James also share their knowledge via workshops on papermaking, wild dying and wild paint-making. Fergus is also keen to involve chefs whose work he likes to work on wild food recipes, and says “the more people involved, the more interesting it is!”

foraged book bound and tied px

The paper bound and tied

With funding yet to be secured, the Foraged Book will be financed by a more conventional published version of the book, sales of which will be used to fund production of the unique, artisan-crafted book itself.

Although the project has been underway for less than a year, working on it has already had an impact on its two creators.  Thanks to Fergus’ tuition, James says he eats more foraged food now and indeed finds it impossible to just go for a stroll, “I can’t go out without a bag now”.  Meanwhile, Fergus is relishing the opportunity to extend his already formidable foraging knowledge and to push the boundaries of how wild resources can be utilised, through the medium of art. For Fergus, the professional forager, working on the foraged book is, he admits, “total playtime”.  Nice work if you can get it….

© Abigail Willis, September 2013

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