Euell Theophilus Gibbons was born on September 8, 1911, in Clarksville, Texas, in the Red River Valley area. He belonged to a Protestant Christian family of five, consisting of his father, Ely (Eli) Joseph; his mother, Laura (Bowers) Gibbons; his two brothers; his sister; and Euell himself.
His father, Eli, had to move around quite frequently, taking his family along wherever work took him. Young Euell spent most of his childhood in the hilly regions of north-western New Mexico. His mother, who often relied on foraging for food, in the absence of reliable resources, taught all the four siblings the art of searching for edible food in the wild. Gibbons became adept early, making his first recipe out of hickory nuts and hackberries at 5.
In 1922, the Gibbons family moved to a homestead in central New Mexico, where they lived in a semi-recessed dugout, with some tools and very little livestock that Eli bought. A severe drought hit the region in the 1920s, which ravaged the lands, killing all their livestock. Gibbons’s father, desperate to find means for a living, left his wife and four small kids to fend for themselves.
With almost nothing to eat and on the verge of starvation due to the drought, Gibbons took to foraging in the surrounding hills, where he found puffball mushrooms, pigweed, and wild garlic. After his mother fell ill, he fed the entire family for over a month, with wild pickings and rabbits fetched from burrows. Soon, his father returned with some earnings.
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Gibbons left home at 15, leading a life similar to that of a vagabond, wandering from one state to another in the southwest, experimenting with an astounding range of occupations. He mostly worked in Texas and New Mexico during those years, doing everything from harvesting wheat, panning for gold, riding fences, and digging postholes. He also spent time working as a carpenter, a cowboy, and a dairyman.
At the onset of the ‘Dust Bowl’ era in the 1930s, Gibbons took a freight to California. For the next few years, he drifted from San Bernardino to Los Angeles and then from Ventura to Lompoc and San Jose. He found foraging hard in the Golden State and lived the life of a hobo in a camp, entertaining people and working as a carpenter. As a result of the dismal condition of life during his travels, Gibbons was drawn toward communism. Soon, he became a prominent member of the local chapter of the ‘Communist Party’ and wrote leaflets for them.
Sometime during the 1930s, he settled down in Seattle and joined the ‘US Army’ for a short period of time. Though he earned his living as a carpenter, a surveyor, and a boat-builder, he spent most of his time with wild foods or political work. He got disenchanted with communism after Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1939. He quit the ‘Communist Party’ soon after and began calling himself a “left-wing Democrat.”
In 1939, he moved to Hawaii, and for the entire duration of World War II, he built and repaired small boats for the navy. Gibbons ended up staying in Hawaii for 14 years, working as a beachcomber after the war. He had a hut behind Diamond Head, where he sold whatever produce he could procure, such as fresh catch from the sea, coconuts, guava, wild boars, and pigs that he hunted. He even designed crosswords to earn money.
During his stay in Hawaii, he finished his schooling. He enrolled at the ‘University of Hawaii’ in 1947, as a 36-year-old freshman. There, he studied English and anthropology. Although he never graduated, he won a university creative-writing prize while studying there.
In 1948, he became a ‘Quaker,’ along with his second wife, and joined the ‘Society of Friends.’ He joined his wife as a teacher and taught on Maui. In 1953, they moved to the mainland and tried to start a cooperative agricultural community in Indiana unsuccessfully, following which Gibbons started teaching at the ‘Pendle Hill Quaker Study Centre’ near Philadelphia.
Around 1960, encouraged by his wife, who offered to financially support him, Gibbons decided to dedicate all his time to writing. He had been a writer all along, jotting down a few short stories and sonnets. Soon, he wrote a novel titled ‘Mr. Markel Retires,’ based on a poor schoolteacher-turned-wild food enthusiast who bedazzles the society with opulent meals made from foraged ingredients. He sent this to a New York literary agent.
The agent advised him to remove the fictional element from the novel and focus more strongly on the foraging part of the book, possibly because of the trend of denouncing everything artificial and of moving away from technology that was rampant at the time.
Gibbons spent another year on the book, turning ‘Mr. Markel Retires’ into a memoir-like handbook of mostly vegetal wild food. ‘Stalking the Wild Asparagus,’ which was published in 1962, became an instant success. The book had him speaking of berries, stone fruits, nuts, fungi, Japanese knotweed, chicory, and calamus, along with the caloric components of wild foods, edible weeds (dandelions and purslane), and medicinal herbs. He threw in folk wisdom, personal stories, and testimonials, which contributed in making the book a literary marvel.
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In the following years, he wrote ‘Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop’ (1964), ‘Stalking the Healthful Herbs’ (1966), ‘Stalking the Good Life’ (1966), ‘Stalking the Faraway Places’ (1973), ‘Feast on a Diabetic Diet’ (1973), and many other books. All these books did well, but they could not earn as much popularity as his first book.
Gibbons also frequently published articles in famous magazines. He wrote two well-known articles for ‘National Geographic.’ The first article, which came out in July 1972, was based on a 2-week stay on an uninhabited island off the Maine coast, where Gibbons, his wife, and a few friends sustained themselves solely on what the island could provide. The second piece, published in August 1973, featured Gibbons, his daughter-in-law, and his grandchildren, foraging wild foods in four western states.
His literary success made him quite a celebrity, and he was invited to make guest appearances on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ (1973–1975) and ‘The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.’
Gibbons was even featured in a series of 1974 TV commercials for ‘Grape-Nuts’ cereal, for which he lost a lot of respect and adulation. His critics claimed he had been sold out for a commercial purpose. His image as a naturalist was tarnished. However, he soon found his respect back when he parodied his line “Ever eat a pine tree?” for the advertisement, which he did in good humor.
Gibbons also helped found and was a charter member of groups such as the ‘National Wild Foods Association’ (West Virginia) and ‘Foraging Friends’ (Chicago).
In the late 1960s, he spent 6 days in the wilds of Pennsylvania with writer John McPhee. McPhee wrote a biographical piece on Gibbons, named ‘The Forager,’ in the ‘The New Yorker’ in 1968, soon after their excursion. Gibbons had, by this time, spent over 40 years foraging and cataloguing wild foods.
Family & Personal Life
Gibbons married Anna Swanson on September 12, 1935, while he was in the army. They had two sons, Ronald Euell and Michael Darian. They were divorced after World War II. Gibbons later described the divorce as a “casualty of the war.” On December 17, 1949, Gibbons married Freda Fryer, a teacher in Hawaii.
Gibbons’s passion for foraging was practical and philosophical. The first chapter of ‘Stalking the Wild Asparagus’ had him stating, “Man must simply feel that he is more than a mere mechanical part in this intricately interdependent industrial system.”
His approach was more than just hunt-pluck-eat. He visited libraries to extensively research on wild foods. He would actively speak to local experts and look for people-to-people information exchanges. He would invent new ways of processing and preparing wild foods.
During his last years, he lived in Beavertown, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Freda. He died on December 29, 1975, aged 64, at the ‘Sunbury Community Hospital,’ Pennsylvania. His death was caused by a ruptured aortic aneurysm, which is a common complication of the Marfan syndrome (affecting the aorta). Given the syndrome he lived with, it is possible that his smoking habit, his liberal consumption of saturated fats, the hard life he led, and the lack of exercise in his later years (due to arthritic pain) might have contributed to his death.