“Plant blindness” and “the green veil” are both terms that describe the way many people mostly ignore the botany in their own yards and neighborhoods and on public lands.
But it’s clear when walking with Gabrielle Cerberville through Kalamazoo’s Kleinstuck Preserve that her experience of the forest is very different, that years of observation and study allow her to notice things most others don’t.
“It’s just a sea of green to some people, but I see blackberries, black raspberries and motherwort, burdock and English ivy and all of these other things,” says Cerberville. “Anybody can learn to notice those things, but it does take a while.”
For the past two years, the 30-year-old woman has been helping others “learn to notice” the landscape around them with irreverent and lively videos that demonstrate how to locate, identify and cook wild plants like chokeberries, mayapples, lilac flowers, ramps and a variety of mushrooms. She does so as the “Chaotic Forager” on the TikTok social platform, where hers is one of the most popular accounts on foraging.
A lifelong forager and naturalist, Cerberville is also a composer, multimedia artist and self-described “creative alchemist.” Her musical creations are often inspired by botany and mycology (the study of fungi), sometimes incorporating “found sounds” from the natural world.
Cerberville moved to Kalamazoo from Indianapolis in the summer of 2020 to enter the master’s degree program in music composition at Western Michigan University. With the world still mostly under lockdown then and some extra time on her hands, she began searching for local foraging spots and decided to share some of her findings on social media.
“I didn’t really have anything to do before school started so I decided to try make a video blog,” says Cerberville. “I didn’t expect anybody to want to watch it.”
Her presence in the first few videos is straightforward and subdued as she shares her adventures searching for wild ginger by riverbeds and wild blackberries behind big-box stores. After about a dozen videos, though, Cerberville’s personality starts to emerge — high-energy, humorous and extremely enthusiastic about edible wild plants, especially mushrooms.
“When I started finding mushrooms, people got really into it, and mushrooms had always been my favorite,” she says.
It was a video about finding and cooking the giant puffball, a common Michigan mushroom, that boosted her TikTok following. She now has more than 900,000 followers on TikTok, and the puffball video has more than a million likes.
Cerberville observed a definite uptick in foraging interest during the pandemic, when walking outside became one of the safest activities available. More time staring at the plants in their yards or neighborhoods led many people to want to break through “the green veil” and figure out whether those berries growing at the edge of that nearby forest might be edible.
Cerberville’s videos make it clear that you don’t need to be an expert homesteader to cook with wild plants. She does most of her work in her small studio apartment in Kalamazoo. In one video, she uses a sock as a potholder, and most of the time she employs just a few inexpensive kitchen tools.
While mushrooms are her passion, Cerberville’s interest in foraging began with berries. When she was 5, her family moved to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania and a neighbor pointed out a patch of wild blueberries growing near her house.
“I got really obsessed,” she says. “I would take my notebook and go out and mark the dates the flowers came out and the date the berries came out and the date they turned blue and would make maps of all the good trees and bushes.”
This experience led to a lifetime of observing and learning, thousands of hours spent walking through the woods, slowly gaining confidence and expertise. She doesn’t consider herself “self-taught” necessarily, since she gained much of her knowledge from books and videos made by older generations of foragers.
“I’m pretty sure I owe the Indianapolis Library a lot of money for books I borrowed and didn’t return,” she says with a laugh. “I’m still learning so much from other people all the time. It’s a long assemblage of information.”
As she walks through Kleinstuck with a basket and foraging knife, she often stops mid-sentence to bend down and describe a plant or mushroom — bolete mushrooms, nettles, a bright orange chicken-of-the-woods, greenbriers, black raspberries. A few passersby stop to watch her harvest, something she says happens often to the “weirdo with a basket kneeling down in the dirt.”
“Most of the time, if I’m picking something that they can try right away, I’ll let them do it, and people are surprised that it tastes good 100 percent of the time,” she says. “It’s so baffling to me. It’s fresh, it’s organic. They’ll often tell me, ‘Oh, I think I have that growing behind my house. I just never thought to find out what it was.’”
At the same time that Cerberville has been developing her online forager following, her art has also continued to develop and evolve. In March of this year, she debuted her master’s thesis project, “The Fungal Chapel,” an interactive sculpture and sound installation, at the Kalamazoo Nature Center.
“The Fungal Chapel” utilizes one of Cerberville’s main creative tools — bio-sonification, which she describes as “taking data from things that are alive and turning that into music.” Electrodes connected to mushrooms sense the fungi’s vibrations, which are then assigned musical notes to create a composition. Visitors are encouraged to use parts of the sculpture to create musical sounds, “communicating” with and through the mushrooms.
“I am really fascinated by how mushrooms communicate with each other and how they allow other organisms and plants to communicate,” she says. “A lot of my work centers around the concept of communication, so it seemed like a natural thing to spend some time on.”
She’s also experimenting with “sound dinners,” which involve collecting both edible plants and sounds from a specific natural location and then using the sounds to compose a musical piece for each dish she creates. She hopes to host one in Kalamazoo soon.
“The whole process of taking something from the forest and cooking it, trying to find different ways to process the food, and even the romantic nature of finding a spot and taking care of it over time feels very simpatico with writing music and the amount of time you spend with a piece of art,” she says.
Cerberville graduated from Western Michigan University’s music composition program in May and isn’t sure what’s next in her life, but she says that the program and Michigan’s wild spaces have both had a profound impact on her art and her foraging.
“There was a time I convinced myself that making the art I wanted was a little self-indulgent, but the things I’m making now are serious to me,” she says. “I think my time in Kalamazoo has made me a much more honest artist and imparted my work with a lot more joy.”