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Working with Weeds Interview #3

Anna Dunnill

Food and Medicine From Your Lawn: Diego Bonetto is fluent in the secret language of weeds.

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Container garden with lemon balm, mallow weed, dandelion, parsley and scurvy weeds growing side-by-side. Photo: Diego Bonetto.

Sydney-based Diego Bonetto is passionate about eating weeds. Dandelions, nettles, purslane, wild lettuce, mushrooms: there’s a trolley full of nutritious food options growing in your lawn, if you only know where to look—and if you don’t, Bonetto will teach you. Having grown up in Italy, where foraging for wild produce was commonplace, Bonetto was surprised to realise that his knowledge of edible weeds was unusual in Australia. He began to educate people about the benefits of weeds, and his work now spans art, storytelling, performance, public workshops, community activism and catering, including a popular wild food event series called Forage to Feast.

Bonetto points to “Indigenous knowledge loss” as well as Australians’ “disproportionate mistrust for wild produce” that have led to “a country of disconnected living”—something we are perhaps just starting to wake up to. “We no longer know the names of the plants living on our doorsteps,” Bonetto says. “We distrust and dismiss some of the most important food and medicine plants that have always walked with us as our co-evolutionary species.”

Anna Dunnill: You grew up on a farm in northern Italy and would bring foraged plants home to your family. Tell me about the weeds you collected.

Diego Bonetto: ‘Weeds’...we didn’t call them weeds. It’s very interesting just to start with that. [There’s a] whole belittling judgement that comes from this word, and yet we use it all the time. It’s become entrenched in our culture that if it’s out there, it’s thriving, and nobody planted it—it’s a weed, got to kill it.

So, anyway, when you grow up on a farm, there’s the ongoing work that you keep doing season after season. Collecting wild food was a job to be done. In today’s terms you’re trying to paint a picture of people happily skipping out to the fields with a willow basket in their hand, laughing and collecting flowers along the way. It was nothing like that! Just a plastic bag, out to the field, “off you go and get the dandelions”. So that’s the answer to your question—dandelions!

AD: I’m very interested in in talking about the inherent difference between calling things ‘weeds’ versus ‘wild food’. But there’s certainly a tendency to romanticise these things—that image of happy peasants wearing flower crowns or whatever…

DB: That’s right, flower crowns, and you know, pristine hills with the scattered sheep or scattered cows…what is this place?!

Photo: Diego Bonetto.

AD: So how did you prepare the dandelions? Were they fresh for salads?

DB: In the early spring you’d go out and collect young, fresh dandelions, because that was the cultural practice. Not just us, everyone—there were people all over the fields with their bags and their knives, picking dandelions, wild lettuce, wild asparagus; lovertin, which is wild hop shoots; a whole bunch of young brassicas. There’s always all of these young wild greens [in early spring] that were celebrated as important traditional and seasonal treats.

So we collected dandelions and we ate them in salads. They were young and less bitter than later on [in the year]. Clean them up, wash them three times, chuck the water in the garden, and chop them up with a bit of onions, boiled egg, oil and salt. That’s how we ate them.

Wild purslane. Photo: Diego Bonetto.
Mallow flowers. Photo: Diego Bonetto.

AD: Why do you think that, in Australia, the attitude towards wild food or weeds focuses on eradicating them—and the idea of eating ‘weeds’ is so suspicious or objectionable?

DB: I don’t know! 20, 30 years on I still don’t know. People still find it hard to find appreciation for what [this country] is—to find some sort of sense of gratitude towards the land. Colonists hated Australia from the word go. Nothing was ‘good enough’, so we imported everything and made everything new. And the weeds are kind of the victim of that. [The idea that] things that I don’t do myself, that don’t come from my own effort, are useless and despicable.

[There’s also the idea] that we hate the untamed, you know? That we fenced off our domesticated world, and everything that was beyond the fence was to be mistrusted: it’s wild, unpredictable, unaccounted for. It’s either contained within the boundary of your garden bed—or whatever is growing around the raised garden needs to be killed with Roundup.

AD: How does your work challenge these attitudes?

DB: I take people around, show them whatever grows, and give them a taste. “This is what it is; this is how you identify it. Here’s some stories; let me tell you a great joke.” You know, there’s great value in comedy. There’s great value in fun. My job is to create positive experiences around engagement with nature, as opposed to experiences built on fears. Like, “Oh, there are snakes here! Ahh, a spider! What about the ants?” “Relax! Relax, relax. Now, let me tell you about dandelions.”

AD: How do people respond?

DB: There’s a great gratitude for giving people the possibility to see, which is quite simple—you just need people to recognise the plant in the landscape. It’s classic pattern recognition: once you know what you’re looking for you’ll see it everywhere. A place you’ve been walking every day, you turn back and look at all of the things you’ve never seen before. It’s a simple tool.

And it’s amazing, you know, once you have these skills—wow! The world is changing in front of your eyes! Food is everywhere! Medicine at your hand!

AD: Yes, through getting to know different plants myself, it feels like you’re speaking this new language—you’re walking around and you can suddenly make sense of what’s growing. It’s like learning to read.

DB: You build a botanical vocabulary—a visual vocabulary. And it’s as simple as putting names to things: the name attaches to a pattern and all of a sudden you can see the pattern.

I mean, this is nothing amazing, nothing new. It’s the basis of marketing—logo recognition and branding. In evolutionary terms, it’s a way for us to make sense of our surroundings; we think in pattern recognition.

AD: I’m interested in how your work engages with First Nations knowledge and native ecosystems.

DB: My work engages with First Nations knowledge and Indigenous plants with the utmost respect. Whenever I run at workshop, the vast majority of what I talk about is weeds. And I start off by telling people, “If you’re interested in wild food and I am your only point of reference—a foreigner, with an accent!—you’d better start again.” I ground people straight away.

I work a lot with chefs and herbalists and media producers and so forth, moving beyond the small bubble of art. And chefs, the catering industry, mixologists, they’re all interested at the moment in wild and foraged food—particularly natives, bringing the native food to the table. And there is an incredible amount of cultural appropriation happening in there! There’s an enormous amount of people, white fellas, making money with Indigenous food—in total disregard of acknowledging where the stories come from, or asking permission!

Stellaria media, commonly known as chickweed. Photo: Diego Bonetto

DB (cont.) I understand where this comes from—this need for the Australian population to ground and place themselves, and embrace an Australianity that forms the core value of “Why would you be here as a human?” But the starting point should be an acknowledgement of Country at the very least, if you want to embrace Australianity.

In my terms, I speak of weeds because I have authority; because there’s plenty to talk about; because from a decolonizing point of view, we should eat up all of the weeds before we even touch Indigenous food. But I’m learning all the time, and I pay respect all the time, because there’s a lot to learn. Whenever I talk about Indigenous food, I acknowledge where the knowledge comes from—and I send people to get the knowledge from where the knowledge is.

I also speak of weeds because, on another level, we need to come to terms with the Anthropocene. We need to come to terms with what land is—not what should be; what we would like it to be; what was; what could be—we need to come to what it is.

This is about reality, and we live in a hypocritical narrative. We talk about, “We should kill all of the weeds and we should contain all of the past.” And yet all of our food sources are exotics. All of our companion animals are exotics. All of our structural systems and points of reference—the vast majority—are exotics. When will we start to be honest with the damage we do? And be honest in appraising what we’ve done, and start to engage with that in a constructive way?

Ribwort, or narrowleaf plantain. Photo: Diego Bonetto.

DB (cont.) But I work a lot with regenerative farmers and with Indigenous people, in the various projects I do, and it’s amazing how much common language there is [between all of us]. There are these narratives coming from a place of gratitude: “This is the land; say thank you for what you got given”. As opposed to, “this should be”, “this could be”, “I would like to”, and so forth.

AD: Yes—to recognise what is actually here, now, where we live, and engaging with that on a really down-to-earth level. That feels important.

DB: And honest! Let’s just be honest about what it is.

Diego Bonetto picking mulberries. Photo: Diego Bonetto.

AD: What are you working on currently?

DB: I’m writing a book, and of late I’ve also closed down a couple of projects; there were a few things that needed to come to a closure. Like Wildfood Store, which was set up as a kind of a business-provocation-slash-art-project or cultural intervention, supplying foraged weeds to the catering industry. Which turned out to be too hard and didn’t really work—it wasn’t physically possible. There’s five million people in Sydney; if you want to find things by the kilo, you really need to travel a long way before you find something clean. And these are species that never were bred for shelf-life. So you pick it; an hour later it doesn’t look good already. They wilt away pretty fast.

AD: It must have been interesting to take the idea to that point, to figure out whether it works as a broad distribution model.

DB: Yeah. It’s a great idea—the farmers kill weeds all the time. But then when you go and look at it, there’s very few crops that are worth your time—and before you harvest it, you need to have the clients already, because the shelf-life is negligible. So you need to have a refrigerated transport at hand.

This is a whole infrastructural shift that could have happened, but at the end of the day, the people who can use these things and pay for the labour of it is the top level of restaurants. And they’re only going to get a kilo here, a kilo there, if you’re lucky. And if you move all of this infrastructure for a kilo here, a kilo there... the economy of scale doesn’t add up.

I’m not giving up on this idea! It’s just that as a one-man business proposition, it did not work; I need to be approaching it in a different way.

The typical multi-headed flower of sowthistle (also called milk thistle), a common and tasty weed. Photo: Diego Bonetto.

This project was undertaken on the lands of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung peoples, who have never ceded sovereignty. I pay respect to Elders past and present, and particularly acknowledge the Wurundjeri Willam people who have maintained and farmed the Merri Creek area since time immemorial. I honour their deep and living knowledge of its plants, animals and seasonal cycles. As an occupier I strive to live respectfully and in a spirit of collaboration with this place.

Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

Working with Weeds is an interview series developed during a Blindside ‘Isolation Residency’ in August 2020. As a public outcome of the residency, this interview project is facilitated and supported by Blindside through funding from City of Melbourne.

Text by Anna Dunnill, November 2020