For This Man, Foraging Is Good for Body, Soul, Budget — and Mother Nature
Where other people see weeds, Deane Jordan sees dinner.
For the past 12 years, Jordan — better known as “Green Deane” — has devoted his life to teaching people how to comb suburban lawns and county parks for their next meal.
Without any formal training, Jordan has become one of the foremost authorities on foraging in the U.S., largely through his “Eat the Weeds (and other things, too)” website and videos on YouTube, where he has more than 53,000 subscribers.
“I’d say he’s an expert,” says Peggy Lantz, 82, a Florida Master Naturalist who co-wrote the book “Florida’s Incredible Wild Edibles” and gives talks on foraging. “He knows plants I don’t know. I admire him.”
Jordan dispenses his wild-eating wisdom online, at herbal conferences and in person during weekend classes in parks throughout Florida, traveling his home state in a black Mazda Miata with the license plate “FORAGER.”
“Foraging makes pollution personal,” Jordan says. “It’s abstract to know railroad tracks are polluted. It is another to see a tree full of fruit near the tracks and know you can’t eat the fruit because of decades of severe pollution.”
Seeing a Different Way
On a sunny Sunday in March, Jordan, 67, shepherds nearly two dozen aspiring weed eaters, from children to seniors, through a park in Largo, Florida, pointing out the edible plants and warning against the toxic ones.
His current occupation brings him full circle from his childhood in rural Maine, where he drank wild-juniper-berry tea and learned to forage by watching his mother and grandmother scour the woods for dandelion greens.
Jordan had an epiphany when he was 7 or 8 years old: Why buy raspberries in a store when they could be plucked for free growing wild outdoors?
“We’re surrounded by food,” Jordan says. “My job is to help you see it.”
Foraging, by its very nature, is an exercise in patience, stamina and vigilance, and Jordan exhibits all three during the four-hour-plus classes he teaches.
On this day, he hasn’t eaten anything for more than 20 hours, yet he shows no sign of fatigue as he leads the group around the park south of Clearwater, stopping frequently to reach for a branch or get down on his hands and knees to dig up a weed and offer the students a taste.
He stays in shape by bicycling up to 120 miles a week, usually on one of the three fast days he observes weekly — he says to control his weight and for other health benefits — lifting weights and walking about eight miles a week.
Jordan practices what he teaches, too. He says he tries to eat something wild every day and avoids most carbohydrates, although he admits to occasionally breaking a fast with a brownie from Starbucks.
Bryan Detweiler has been attending Green Deane’s classes for four years. He praises his sense of humor, storytelling and knowledge about the history and use of every plant he encounters.
“I still learn a ton of things every time I take the class,” says Detweiler, 48, who lives on a 25-foot sailboat in Sarasota Bay and forages greens for his salads. “He’s just a super-interesting guy.”
Back to His Roots
After struggling through high school, bored, Jordan graduated at the bottom of his class in 1969. Told he was no longer welcome at his family’s home, he enlisted in the Army and was stationed first in Colorado and then in Japan, where he played the bass and the tuba in a military band.
He finished his service in 1972, and three years later earned a bachelor’s degree in music education, summa cum laude, from what is now the University of Southern Maine, where he was a member of Mensa International, a society for people with high IQs.
Weary of frigid New England winters, Jordan moved Central Florida in 1977 after visiting an uncle on the Space Coast. He now lives in an Orlando suburb with his cats, Oliver “Ollie” Whitecat and Couscous.
Along his path to becoming a foraging expert, Jordan did graduate work in communications at the University of Central Florida, played bass and sang in a big band, became a newspaper reporter specializing in crime and courts, was accepted to law school (but never attended) and then branched out into corporate writing.
In 2006, Jordan was laid off from a job he said he found morally repugnant: writing sales presentations.
The displacement devastated him financially — he lost his house and his savings — but it also freed him to pursue his childhood passion and live truer to his values. He already had honed his skills by studying in the early 1990s with the late Dick Deuerling, Lantz’s co-author on “Florida’s Incredible Wild Edibles.”
Shortly after the layoff, he began giving foraging tours full time.
“I had been kicked out of the rat race, decided to stay out, and viewed it as an opportunity,” Jordan says. “For me, that became writing and teaching about edible wild plants.”
Forging His Own Path
The self-described introvert’s office is now the great outdoors, and his work clothes are blue jeans and a T-shirt or sweatshirt, depending on the weather. He starts his classes with a brief autobiographical shtick, describing himself as “an accidental bachelor,” and punctuates his lessons with jokes and stories about plants and himself.
“My mother was a horrible cook, and I learned to cook in self-defense. She thought I was a Greek god; every meal was a burnt offering,” Jordan quips as he cautions his pupils to boil pokeweed leaves twice before eating to avoid being poisoned.
During the hike, he ticks off a list of people and things he disdains: botanists, Latin teachers and daylight saving time, which he does not observe. He also refuses to text or talk on the telephone.
“I’m marching to a different orchestra,” he says.
His audience doesn’t seem to mind. They’re too busy soaking up information when Jordan goes into professor mode, pointing out so many edible plants that they start to look alike to novice foragers after a couple of hours.
Here’s the yaupon holly, whose leaves are loaded with caffeine and antioxidants. Over there is the Eastern redbud, which produces pink blossoms that can be baked into muffins (there’s a recipe on eattheweeds.com) and peapods that can become bitter as they age — “just like people, just like me,” he says.
“This tree smells like your grandmother — or maybe your great-grandmother,” he says of a camphor tree, an invasive species the group encounters in the woods.
Foraging Across America
Indigenous peoples foraged for plants for food, medicine and shelter. But in the past few years, the practice has made its way to trendy restaurants in cities such as New York, Baltimore and Austin, Texas, where seaweed, wild mushrooms and pine needles are taking their place on the menu next to halibut, asparagus and shoestring potatoes.
At the renowned Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, diners fork over up to $125 for meals that include wild nettle soup with thyme or grilled black sea bass with wild fennel puree.
The late wild-food advocate Euell Gibbons, author of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” and pitchman for Grape-Nuts cereal, brought foraging into the public eye in the 1960s and 1970s.
Although not a mainstream hobby, it has experienced a resurgence among devotees from Portland, Maine, to Santa Monica, California, and in cities including Philadelphia, London and Toronto.
Typically, people who are interested in foraging are survivalists, mistrust the commercial food supply or just want to live closer to the land, Jordan and other experts say.
“It goes hand in hand with reconnecting with nature,” says Robert Kluson, an agriculture and natural-resources extension agent with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Sarasota County, Florida.
Love of the Land
Jordan ekes out a living, charging $30 for a four-hour hike. Even so, he’ll comp a class to someone in need and stay afterward to answer questions or pose for pictures with his fans. His DVDs cost $15, but he makes the the videos available for free on his website and YouTube, where he has fans around the globe.
“I don’t make a lot of money now, but I sleep at night,” he says. “I think there has to be a moral aspect to work.”
To thank him, Green Deane’s fans are giving back through a GoFundMe page he established to upgrade his website and write a book.
“The information you provide, free of charge; and the time you put into providing said information, is invaluable,” one contributor writes. “Thank you for your dedication, education, and desire to share!”
“I’ve loved your articles and videos for years and your classes were amazing,” writes another. “I wish I could give more. Thank you!”
The accolades point to a kind of success that isn’t defined by salary or title. For Jordan, sharing his love of nature and teaching people to find authentic food in their backyards is a greater reward than a corner office.
“I can walk the same woods road as I did 60 years ago and find wild raspberries growing in the same place,” he says. “No doubt, Native Americans felt the same way about the land they had lived on for thousands of years. It’s an old friend. There is some psychological comfort attaching yourself to something more permanent than people.”
Susan Jacobson is an editor at The Penny Hoarder.
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