Journalism professor Michelle Dowd was raised in California’s Angeles National Forest as part of an ultrareligious cult known as the Field, which was begun by her grandfather. She grew up fearing the apocalypse might arrive at any moment, and public education was shunned and largely avoided. “Outsiders” were never to be trusted. As Dowd writes in her excellent memoir, Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult, her father taught his children that “preparing for war is an essential component of growing up.” He forced them to embrace discomfort, limited their food, weighed them after meals and sent them hiking in the snow in tennis shoes. Although there are numerous memoirs about growing up in religious cults, Dowd’s unique spin and reflective voice elevate her story.
Forager is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, especially in the way that Dowd used her innate curiosity and thirst for education as a means to eventually break free. As a child, she began devouring the Bible—the only thing she had to read—taking secret notes on the many things she found puzzling or contradictory, “as if constructing a map for a prison escape.” Often she joined other cult members on long cross-country trips to raise money by performing in circuslike road shows. Dowd learned to endure her father’s frequent “rage and random violence” but never stopped yearning for her mother’s love and approval. Her mother was often absent, hugs weren’t allowed, and little if any nurturing was provided.
The one thing Dowd’s mother did provide was an exceptional naturalist’s education, which serves as the book’s framework. Since the apocalypse was believed to be imminent, Dowd and others were expertly trained in survival skills. Each chapter begins with an illustration and short discussion of a plant that might provide sustenance, such as chokeberry, yucca or Jeffrey pine. Dowd’s survival skills, which have long provided her with a life raft, both mentally and physically, are not only admirable but fascinating.
Although Forager chronicles a horrific upbringing, Dowd’s narration is ultimately hopeful, uplifting and always appreciative of our intimate, fragile dependence on our planet. As she so beautifully concludes, “The sustenance I rely on is from the Mountain, which has made my mind large, open, like the night sky, where there is room for paradox.”