Equipped with a small pouch that houses a Swiss army knife, she cuts a piece of bark from a tree and offers it to us. ‘What does that smell remind you of?’
At the edge of Cooper's Island Nature Reserve on the island of Bermuda, Doreen Williams-James raises a conch shell to her lips and blows. The pink shell emanates a deep sound that reverberates in the air. Williams-James blows twice more, her neck and head arched back, sunlight falling on her face. After the last note carries through the trees at the edge of the clearing, she clears her throat and speaks to our small group of five people. “That’s to let the plants know that we’re coming in,” she says.
Doreen Williams-James is the owner of Wild Herbs and Plants of Bermuda, and for the next two hours, I follow her through the lush greenery of one of Bermuda’s parks on the edge of the interconnecting islands. Dressed in comfortable jeans and a T-shirt, she guides our group through the foliage, pulling branches off of trees and offering us tastes of herbs. Equipped with a small pouch that houses a Swiss army knife, she cuts a piece of bark from a tree and offers it to us. “What does that smell remind you of?” she asks, smiling. As I lift it to my nose, the fragrant smell of a spice fills my nostrils, making me think of cooking in my home kitchen. “It’s nutmeg, which is a key part of jerk seasoning in Jamaica,” she says to our group. As I let the bark fall to the ground, my nostrils readjust to the scent of the foliage and trees around us, damp yet fresh like a forest after a rainstorm. The pulsing sound of waves crashing against rocks can be heard nearby at the edge of the greenery, reminding myself and the rest of our group that we’re on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
This is the Bermuda that most of the 800,000 or so annual visitors (pre-COVID) won’t see. On our way to meet Williams-James, we pass the hotels offering tourists a getaway, complete with the typical island resort experience. Along with golf courses and beaches, there are numerous restaurants serving Italian, French, or Mediterranean fare, despite the fact that those countries are miles and miles away. There’s nothing wrong with staring at the turquoise waters at the edge of a luxury resort — it’s a great option, especially since Bermuda doesn’t allow tourists to rent cars —but a tour with Wild Herbs and Plants of Bermuda will offer visitors a different view of a natural paradise, impacted by its unique history and position on the planet. It is a walking history lesson, and a way that Williams-James connects to her past as a Black Bermudian.
Bermuda’s history starts in 1603 when a boat traveling from Spain became shipwrecked on the previously uninhabited island. This also marked the first time a Black person stepped foot on Bermuda when Venturilla, a sailor who was part of the crew, rowed a paddleboat ashore looking for wood to fix the vessel. Frightened by the sound of wild birds on the shore, Venturilla returned to the ship, exclaiming that the island must be “full of devils.” Six years later, another boat was shipwrecked, this one from Britain. Not everyone from that crew continued on to Jamestown, Virginia; three Englishmen stayed behind, starting the first settlement on the island.
The British colony became a strategic stronghold for both America and Britain. People indigenous to the Americas, enslaved Africans, and indentured servants were sent to work and create trade and goods for the crown of the British Empire, until slavery was abolished in the 1800s. Today, people are more likely to think of the Bermuda Triangle or billionaires than the island’s history. But Williams-James’ Bermuda looks and feels very different. For her, Bermuda’s land is home, and a resource for providing health to herself and her family. “People are hesitant to go out on their own,” she says of foraging. “But it’s the only way you can really enjoy the plant life that’s around you.”
Williams-James’ foraging has been a constant in her life, but building her knowledge of the plant life on the island didn’t start until later. “I started foraging as a child in spring with my dad,” she says. As the winter gave way to fresh greenery, she and her father plucked scurvy grass and wild spinach from his favorite foraging spots on the island, bringing the bounty home to make a wild rice dish with onions, sweet peppers, carrots, and turkey. “It was really delicious to me how he prepared it, so it’s probably one of the reasons why I love it,” she says. Her father, who grew up in the Southampton area of Bermuda as one of 12 children, foraged for necessity growing up, his family living off the land as much as they could.
Later, when her father fell ill, she turned to foraging as a way to provide for his health. After he had two strokes in a period of three months, she and her brother took him to a holistic center in Tennessee. “They treated him with plant-based foods and also herbs and natural remedies,” she remembers. After a few months, his diabetes was reversed, and Williams-James wanted to learn more about how she could bring this way of life to Bermuda. “I started to become more interested in what they were doing, and thinking ‘What else is out there that can be used to create a better lifestyle?’”
Once they returned to Bermuda, she began learning all she could about Bermuda’s unique flora, fauna, and seasons. She began interviewing elders on the island about what they remembered growing around them when they were young, what they harvested, and what dishes they made using local ingredients. She started harvesting stinging nettles, gooseberries, and nasturtium at the end of hurricane season — items high in vitamin C at a time when she says everyone gets the flu — as well as loquats from all over the island and prickly pear on the eastern end. She used allspice berries to make coconut chocolate allspice cookies for her family and friends.
Even now, I can still taste the bright burst of salinity that enveloped my mouth as I bit into the fleshy green leaf, feeling as if I’d just taken a sip of the ocean water nearby.
She also found new locations to forage on the island, looking at them with fresh eyes as a window into a time before Bermuda was known for resorts and golfing. “Foraging really gives you the opportunity to connect with history,” she says. “Some of the plants our ancestors have used for medicinal reasons or for food, and I get to hear those stories as well. It's just so amazing.”
Her tours on Bermuda are about making tourists and locals alike feel equipped to engage more with the nature and stories around them, wherever their home is. “It is my hope that visitors walk away inspired to forage more, and become open to trying new things when it comes to foraging, educating themselves more on foraging, and enjoying the plant-based lifestyle more.” Being able to see nature this way, especially after last year where people were more interested in planting gardens and growing their own food, is important, she says.
But for me, it’s also about seeing a place, truly by being in it, surrounded by nature. The two hours in the nature reserve tasting wild herbs and learning about the history of the island illuminated how uncomfortable many of us feel being surrounded by nature and engaging with it as visitors. My fellow tourgoers seldom ate the herbs and items she passed along to us, but I ate as much as I could, both inquisitive and hungry for tastes of Bermuda that are seldom passed along to tourists like myself.
When Williams-James stopped on a landing of rocks in front of a pristine beach, bent down and clipped a bit of sea purslane, and offered me a taste, I happily accepted. Even now, I can still taste the bright burst of salinity that enveloped my mouth as I bit into the fleshy green leaf, feeling as if I’d just taken a sip of the ocean water nearby. This felt like the most authentic Bermuda I could ever experience, one completely shaped by this land and climate. “Can I have some more?” I asked, reaching my hand out again.
Header Image: Doreen Williams-James, owner of Wild Herbs and Plants of Bermuda, illustrated amongst nasturtium flowers and sea purslane; native flora to Cooper's Island.
Korsha Wilson Writer
Korsha Wilson is a New Jersey–based food writer and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She is the host of A Hungry Society, a podcast that takes a more inclusive look at the food world. Her current obsessions include travel, negronis, and authentic Maryland crab cakes.
Zoe Keller Illustrator
Zoe Keller is a graphite artist from Woodstock, New York, who is currently based in New England. Her detailed drawings explore biodiversity loss and at-risk wild places.