Gibbons Publishes

Euell Gibbons rewrote his unsuccessful and unsold novel about foraging, transforming it into a best-selling field guide to edible plants.

Summary of Event

In 1962, when the David McKay Company David McKay Company[David Mackay Company] published yet another nature guide with the whimsical title Stalking the Wild Asparagus, reviewers greeted it with praise but could not have anticipated the effect the book would have on American culture—and on the author’s career. By the end of the decade, when the counterculture’s appeal to health food and simple living began to influence the mainstream culture, the book—by then available in a smaller, paperback “field guide” edition—came close to replacing the Boy Scout handbook as the indispensable guide to living off the land. Stalking the Wild Asparagus (Gibbons)
[kw]Gibb ons Publishes Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962)
[kw]Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons Publishes (1962)
Stalking the Wild Asparagus (Gibbons)
[g]North America;1962: Gibbons Publishes Stalking the Wild Asparagus[07140]
[g]United States;1962: Gibbons Publishes Stalking the Wild Asparagus[07140]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1962: Gibbons Publishes Stalking the Wild Asparagus[07140]
[c]Environmental issues;1962: Gibbons Publishes Stalking the Wild Asparagus[07140]
[c]Health and medicine;1962: Gibbons Publishes Stalking the Wild Asparagus[07140]
Gibbons, Euell

The early life of Euell Gibbons, the avuncular, soft-spoken author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, might seem episodic or even aimless to some. In virtually every detail, however, it was precisely the right training for a master forager. Only a person who, like his father, had roamed the American Southwest looking for work harvesting, herding, or trapping—and finding it infrequently enough to appreciate food one did not have to buy in a grocery store—could write with such passion about the delights of wild food. His mother, to whom he dedicated Stalking the Wild Asparagus, stocked the Gibbons dinner table with wild foods. At one point in 1922, Gibbons kept his family alive by foraging while his father was away looking for work.

Even the timing of Gibbons’s birth seemed providential. Born September 8, 1911, he was barely eighteen when the stock market crash turned all too many Americans into unwilling foragers. He had already been on his own and on the road for three years by then. At the peak of the Depression, in 1933, Gibbons hopped a freight train for California, where he received valuable culinary training in the hobo jungles. A year later, he enlisted in the Army, and in 1935 married Anna Swanson. After his discharge in 1936, they settled in Seattle and reared two sons, though, like his father before him, Gibbons left his young family to find work. When he found it in Hawaii during World War II, he discovered his marriage had been a “casualty of the war”; having custody of his sons, Ronald and Michael, again made foraging a necessity.

It was in Hawaii that Gibbons, who had always studied and written wherever he happened to be, first wrote professionally, working for the Honolulu Advertiser from 1947 to 1950. Studying anthropology and creative writing at the University of Hawaii, he won the university’s creative writing prize. He married schoolteacher Freda Fryer Fryer, Freda in 1948. In the mid-1950’s, Gibbons attempted to organize a communal farm in Indiana (he had been politically communist since the 1930’s, though he resigned from the Communist Party in 1939), pioneering organic methods that would become standard practice decades later. When the collective farm failed, Gibbons resigned himself to the steady work of a groundkeeper at the Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.

It was in this setting that Gibbons wrote—and rewrote—the book that would change his life and the field of ethnobotany forever. The study center allowed him to research the scientific end of foraging—for as popular as his writing style was, Gibbons considered himself a field researcher. He liked to call his avocation “ethnobotany,” and he was proud of his membership in the Academy of Natural Sciences. As he was preparing to write his foraging book, which he first envisioned as a novel, a leading botanist, Fred Irvine Irvine, Fred , joined the school as a visiting fellow, lending Gibbons access to expertise that he acknowledged in Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

Since his wife was helping to support his full-time writing by teaching school, Gibbons, who had also been a teacher at various times, decided to make his foraging book a novel about a schoolteacher named Markel who abandoned his “respectable” life to live off the land. While it may seem odd that a nonfiction field guide began life as a novel called Mr. Markel Retires, those who have read Stalking the Wild Asparagus will recognize literary qualities even in its final form: its conversational tone, its anecdotal illustrations, its blending of narrative and philosophy. Nevertheless, as a novel, it did not interest a single publisher.

Since the book encapsulated thirty-five years of experience and research, its lack of marketability disappointed, but did not daunt, its author. The literary agent to whom Gibbons sent it suggested he recast it as nonfiction. Rescuing the informational elements, transforming episodes back to their anecdotal sources, making recipes out of descriptions, and absorbing characters back into the authorial “I,” Gibbons produced something rarer than any rare plant: an expert source of technical information that is enjoyable to read.

Despite the usual quibbles, reviewers looked at Stalking the Wild Asparagus as a breath of fresh air in the field of nature books. Phoebe Adams in The Atlantic complained that Gibbons had minimized the difficulties involved in preparing wild foods, a puzzling charge in light of the book’s ubiquitous qualifiers; nevertheless, she praised the recipes. P. G. Anderson’s glowing review in Library Journal helped the book’s sales tremendously, as many libraries used that periodical to guide their acquisitions.

Amateur foragers found in Stalking the Wild Asparagus a philosophical vindication for their hobby, as well as practical advice for pursuing it. More than that, Gibbons offered a means of making the hobby a way of life for a whole generation. The book had appeared on the advent of a series of crisis points in politics, ecology, and demographics. In the unparalleled economic growth in the United States after World War II, many Americans, particularly the generation growing up after the war, discovered what philosophy and religion had always taught them: that wealth did not bring happiness. At the same time, the ecological cost of industrial growth was beginning to be felt in American cities. Demographically, the population explosion produced two effects impacting nature studies: the sheer numbers of people, causing further encroachment on wilderness areas, and the increased ratio of younger to older Americans. The back-to-nature movement, which Gibbons described in Stalking the Wild Asparagus as already beginning, caught the imagination of the Woodstock Generation.


Though many of its readers turned to Stalking the Wild Asparagus because they were already foragers, or at least sympathetic to the author’s ecological philosophy, there is no telling how many thousands of readers turned to foraging because of the book. The Boy Scouts of America, whose own official books on edible plants (as well as their general handbook) had been eclipsed as authorities by the writings of Gibbons, hired him to teach seminars on wilderness cuisine to scout leaders. Outward Bound, Incorporated, a survival school for high school students, hired him to teach survival techniques, as did the U.S. Navy.

Though such survival programs offered him financial security—he was in demand as a speaker for the rest of his life—he often expressed a distaste for them for two reasons. First, as a Quaker and pacifist, he resented the military use to which his peaceful wisdom would be put by the Navy. Second, the whole concept of survival training was foreign to his aesthetic of gathering wild food. The notion of “conquering” nature was anathema to Gibbons; he saw his activity as symbiotic, for the process of collecting wild foods invariably produced more plants than it destroyed, through the spreading of seeds.

Gibbons was more comfortable with the far-reaching effects of his work with students at Bucknell University in Lewisberg, Pennsylvania, and at Ithaca College in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The focus of these workshops was on enjoying wild food, not survival, and the workshops had an added dimension of training the college students to pass on what they learned to high school students a few weeks later. By geometric progression, then, Gibbons was reaching thousands of students with just a few seminars. Again, it was the success of his first book that put Gibbons’s seminars in demand, and the seminars in turn reflected the philosophy of his book.

It is this philosophical dimension of Stalking the Wild Asparagus that constitutes much of the impact of its publication. Gibbons was offering not simply a practical skill or a means of recreation, though indeed his book promised both, but also a philosophy, a way of life, a concept of humanity’s role in nature. It is this wider dimension of the book, which is inseparable from its narrower focus on wild edibles, that inspires its readers, now numbering in the millions.

If Stalking the Wild Asparagus made Gibbons one of the ecological counterculture’s Counterculture;environmentalism
United States;counterculture gurus in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the majority popular culture, inevitably, turned him into a caricature of the back-to-nature movement. Comedians and talk-show hosts used his name as a punch line in jokes about aged hippies eating tree bark; in 1973, a cereal company even hired him to do a television commercial Television;advertising
Advertising in which he asserted that a cereal reminded him of “wild hickory nuts,” a phrase that became another punch line for the video wits.

The commercial also became the butt of jokes among back-to-nature enthusiasts, but for a different reason: They saw it as evidence that one of their heroes had sold out by advocating a commercial food product. The truth, though, is that Gibbons never advocated abandoning cultivated or even commercial foods. After the success of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons’s larder was well stocked with name-brand foods, and even his camping provisions typically included salt, sugar, oil, flour, cornmeal, coffee, and other such staples. Though he was an expert campfire chef, Gibbons liked to include a propane camp stove on his outings. “Roughing it” never appealed to the man who had roughed it involuntarily in the Depression. Thus, Gibbons was often as misunderstood by the nature-worshipping purist as by the nature-scorning scoffer.

Sometimes the misunderstanding came from the very people converted to wild foods by his books. In his last book published in his lifetime, Stalking the Faraway Places
Stalking the Faraway Places (Gibbons) (1973), Gibbons wrote an essay called “The Problem of Overconversion,” in which he shared letters from people who, inspired by his books, wanted to adopt a survivalist mentality and exist solely on foraged food. One was from a scoutmaster who wanted to take thirty-two boys into the wilderness for a week with no food. Gibbons saw the plan as the best way to starve growing boys and turn them off permanently from wild cuisine. He balanced his anecdotes of the overconverted with a sensible letter from two teenage girls who foraged for fun rather than for survival.

Despite misunderstanding and overconversion, the visibility that Euell Gibbons attained in American pop culture after publishing Stalking the Wild Asparagus helped popularize his ecological attitudes. The amiability of his writing style, and of his television image, helped remove the stigma of eccentricity attached to the art of foraging. Americans began to realize, partly through Euell Gibbons, that one need not be crazy, nor an anarchist, nor a communist, though Gibbons had been at least one of the three, to enjoy nature and to be concerned about the dangers of both adversarial and proprietory attitudes toward it.

A further impact of Stalking the Wild Asparagus was on Gibbons’s success as a writer. Many similar successes followed: Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop (1964), Stalking the Healthful Herbs (1966), Euell Gibbons’ Beachcomber’s Handbook (1967), and Feast on a Diabetic Diet (1969). Every month from March, 1968, to June, 1974, he wrote a regular column called “Organic Nature-Lover” in Organic Gardening & Farming magazine, and in 1972 and 1973 National Geographic sent him on two foraging trips, each of which he wrote up as an article for that popular magazine. Magazines as diverse as Natural History, the official Boy Scout journal Boys’ Life, and House and Garden sought articles from Gibbons. The articles rarely deviated from the formula of his books, combining practical tips with an ecological ethic, autobiography, and anecdotes. These articles, which perhaps would not have reached such periodicals without the success of his first book, helped popularize and depoliticize an ecological consciousness. Most of these articles were later recast as chapters in his last three books, Stalking the Good Life (1971), Stalking the Faraway Places(1973), and the posthumously published Euell Gibbons’ Handbook of Edible Wild Plants (1979), all three illustrated by his wife Freda. Stalking the Wild Asparagus (Gibbons)

Further Reading

  • Gibbons, Euell. Stalking the Faraway Places. New York: David McKay, 1973. Published a decade after Stalking the Wild Asparagus, this book offers Gibbons’s insight on the impact of that book on American culture, especially the youth counterculture, in such chapters as “Which Generation Gap?” “The Problem of Overconversion,” and “What Ecology Is All About.”
  • _______. Stalking the Good Life. New York: David McKay, 1971. Written after Stalking the Wild Asparagus made Gibbons famous, this book contains much more autobiographical and philosophical material than his first one. Of particular interest for his influence on the ecology movement are “The Organic Camper,” “Where Did We Go Wrong?” and “Pollution and Love.”
  • Hess, J. “Stalking the Wild Food Faddist.” National Wildlife 11 (October, 1973): 36-39. One of the last interviews Gibbons granted before his death, this is also one of the most revealing and sympathetic, appearing in a periodical devoted to ecological ideas close to his own. Though the title calls Gibbons a faddist and the interviewer touches on his quirky media image, the interview is one of the truest portraits of Gibbons.
  • McFee, John. “A Forager.” The New Yorker 44 (April 6, 1968): 45-104. This profile article, based on a foraging trip McFee made with the naturalist, is the most thorough source of biography available on Gibbons. Descriptions of the trip alternate with personal anecdotes Gibbons told the author on the way, adding up to a complete life story.
  • Simopoulos, Artemis P., and C. Gopalan, eds. Plants in Human Health and Nutrition Policy. New York: Karger, 2003. Guide to edible wild plants, examining both the nutritional value of individual plants and the general nutrition-policy implications of uncultivated foods as such. Bibliographic references and index.

Congress Sets Standards for Chemical Additives in Food

United Nations World Food Programme Is Established

Nader Launches the Consumer Rights Movement

Federal Law Requires Cigarette Warning Labels

Wholesome Poultry Products Act Is Passed

The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News Appear