Nature in All Its Glory

Come to Asheville to Connect with Nature in Fresh, Unexpected, and Tasty Ways

by Team Fathom
All photos by Team Fathom.

Produced in partnership with Explore Asheville.

No matter the season, the Earth supplies us with everything we need to survive. Energy, resources, information, food.

“This is what we are evolved to do. It's what we did for millions of years, and that's why it feels good and fun, because it's natural and it's liberating,” says Alan Muskat, when asked to explain about foraging. He’s the founder of No Taste Like Home, an Asheville-based education company that for 27 years has been leading and teaching the art of foraging in the Blue Ridge Mountains, one of the richest biodiverse ecosystems on Earth.

Alan and his team of nature enthusiasts lead daily tours — regardless of the season and the weather — slowly wandering through the forests and fields, identifying and gathering everything edible: mushrooms, herbs, nuts, flowers, and wild fruits. Along the way, the guides offer information and tips about foraging, helping guests identify what’s edible (flowers and certain mushrooms) and what’s dangerous (poison ivy and certain other mushrooms) and share their medicinal properties and recipe ideas.

Guests also learn about the doctrine of signatures, the herbalist theory that holds that the physical characteristics of plants reveal their medicinal properties for humans. For example, walnuts look like brains, and are good for yours, too.

“It’s the original Easter egg hunt. For any age, you end up getting excited,” says Muskat. “It’s like finding treasure.”

The feast after the forage.

At the end of the excursion, guides prepare an appetizer with the day's findings to show just how easy it can be to whip up land-to-mouth meals. Through a partnership with several local restaurants, guests can also bring their harvested bounty to chefs, who will incorporate it into their “find dining” experience. Or guests can bring their bounty home and brew their own nettle tea.

While there are seemingly endless ways to get out into nature in Asheville, foraging offers a closer, more direct connection to the land. When asked what is unique about foraging, Muskat shares, “With hiking, sometimes I call it a ‘green wall,’ as that’s all you see on either side and you don't recognize anything. When you forage, you learn to pick things out, because you actually want to find them. You have a reason to get to know individual types of plants and mushrooms. It's a more meaningful relationship to nature.”

Muskat also shares the importance of teaching foraging skills in schools and reinvigorating the hunter-gatherer mode of sourcing food from the land.

“It's a basic skill and increasingly necessary as food costs go up and employment goes down. It's rather inevitable.”

A lofty and important ambition, and one that belies the unexpected, simple joy of walking through the woods on the lookout for food. On a recent spring excursion, we joined a father and his three tweens. Their initial reactions — “what are we doing here?” “Can you give me my iPad? Now?” – gave way in short order to animated and enthusiastic “Can I eat this mushroom?” “Would this leaf taste good in a salad?” Before long, the trio, enrapt with their new nature skill, needed a gentle reminder to leave some ramps for the next foragers to pick tomorrow.

The forest awaits.

A half hour to the south, on another sunny spot of greenery in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a different bonding with nature is happening.

It’s a forest bath organized by Asheville Wellness Tours, the company that “shares the best of Asheville through the lens of wellness,” with “wellness” broadly defined through a variety of in-person and virtual guided experiences — yoga hikes, meditations, wine tastings, goat yoga, tarot readings.

“Wellness is so multi-faceted,” says Nicole Will, the company’s owner and co-founder. “It’s a gigantic umbrella, and the spokes are unique and exciting. Asheville Wellness Tours is meant to be a hub for people who are seeking — from a lighthearted place — to find the path that speaks to them.”

For the uninitiated, forest bathing is a mindful walk through the woods. Of course, people have been walking in nature forever. But as an art and a healing practice, the term shinrin-yoku was first identified by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in the early 1980s. Medical studies soon followed attesting to the measurable, positive physiological effects of the healing practice — lowered cortisol levels, reduced blood pressure, and greater parasympathetic nerve activity among them.

All of which we knew nothing about when we met Kelly Bruce, a nature guide certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, at the Turkey Pen Gap trail in Pisgah National Forest, bright and early on a crisp spring morning.

Our forest bath, conducted over a few hours, consists of a series of invitations — which can begin with a simple prompt like “what are you noticing?” — designed to help participants, usually in small groups, connect to nature more deeply than we would on a traditional hike or nature walk. We aren’t here to identify plants or birds, though we are invited to walk slowly, sit quietly, set intentions, and share what we’re feeling and observing, connecting not only with ourselves but the community around us.

“It’s not therapy,” says Bruce, “but it’s therapeutic.”

And she’s right. It takes a while to ease into the experience, to realize there’s no big agenda to the experience, like hiking to the top of a mountain or sweating through a yoga class. But once we slow down and settle in, we notice things we would have missed. The creaking of wooden planks creaking as we cross a bridge over a stream. Those tiny purple flowers peeking through the moss. The way the sunlight streams into the water as it passes over river rocks. The singsong call of the birds overhead. We stop looking at our watch. We’re breathing more slowly.

A tea ceremony in the woods.

The experience, which has been marked by not too much conversation, ends with a small tea ceremony. Bruce spreads a blanket and pours a tea she’s brewed with white pine collected from the forest. It’s such a lovely way to literally internalize the forest we’ve just enjoyed in such a new way.

“People don’t always feel comfortable in nature,” she explains. “A guide can help them feel more at ease in the forest. The goal is to try to connect to ourselves and to each other in a deeper way, to get out of our heads and into our hearts. Nature provides this reset — this control-alt-delete, if you will — that helps to restore us. We let people be witnessed and heard — without judgment — and not everybody gets in their day-to-day life.”

“The idea is for this to be fun and powerful,” Asheville Wellness Tours co-founder Nicole Will explains. It’s absolutely both.

Both foraging and forest bathing are unexpected journeys that take us into the wild to reconnect with nature in a way too often lacking in our modern, hi-tech world. It’s a journey of making our way back to the Earth’s table. And in Asheville, all are welcome.

Mother Nature’s Golden Rules

Whenever you’re in the great outdoors, please remember to follow the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stick to the trails, trash your trash, leave it as you find it, be careful with fire, keep wildlife wild, and be considerate of others. This is the golden rule of being in nature, and ensures that future visitors will have as much fun as you did.

Discover even more ways that Asheville is for nature lovers.

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