Keith Cowley: foraging for food and native connections

Keith Cowley: foraging for food and native connections

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — Keith Cowley walks through Wilcox Park bearing gifts. Tanned, and dressed neatly in a pumpkin-colored polo shirt, Cowley is holding a handful of wild autumn olives, which he’s eager to share.

They’re not really olives, he explains, but berries — tart, tasty berries from the Japanese silverberry bush — edible and available. He harvested them from nearby bushes moments ago, he says, as he walks through the park where he works as an assistant to Alan Peck, the park manager.

Cowley — wild forager, teacher and naturalist — is the founder of the New-Native Foundation, an organization that seeks to bring together like-minded people interested in learning from nature. He’s also recently published a book: “Environmental Connection, a New-Native Initiative.” It is a record of what he calls a 12-month immersion into nature, a year in which he inserted himself mindfully into six of the Westerly Land Trust properties and attempted to “fine-tune his language” on how he “maintains a connection with his environment.”

It’s filled with stories, journal entries, maps and observations of his experience and includes sections devoted to the barred owl, an otter family, bobolinks and butterflies.

On Friday, Cowley will hold a book gathering at Other Tiger Bookstore in Westerly, from 5 to 7 p.m. On Saturday, he will sign copies of his book at Maize ’n’ Manna Wholefoods on High Street.

“Someone like me wants to see more nature brought into urban environments,” says Cowley, who’s been fascinated by nature and the outdoor world as long as he can remember.

“My grandfather introduced me to traditional ecological concepts,” says Cowley, a graduate of Wheeler High School in North Stonington. “His name was John Raissi. He was of Greek heritage and he was a hunter, a fisherman and a forager. He had a native American friend who taught him how to forage. He taught me quite a bit.”

Cowley hopes to help people relearn the age-old traditions of farming, trapping, forestry and foraging.

“I’m a difficult person to define,” says Cowley, who is also the marketing and creative coordinator for the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, an organization that focuses on preserving the stories and culture of Southern New England tribes. “I guess new-native would be my definition of myself and my life path.”

“I want people to catch on to the idea that it’s important to be aware of our environment and of our impact on it — and how the environment impacts you,” he says. “That is what has carved this path for me.”

Susan Champouillon, owner of Maize ’n’ Manna, says that Cowley offers people a way to reconnect with a way of life that has supported us since the beginning of time.

Especially “in this day and age when technology continues to isolate us from each other and from our environment even more so,” says Champouillon. “As time goes on we’re going to need to depend more and more on our local connections and less on what is imported.”

Cowley has created a website,, which explains his mission and plans and describes his “American Traditional Ecological Knowledge.”

It is, he says, “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by American cultural transmission,” which addresses “the relationship of human beings with one another and with their environment.”

Kelly Presley, the land trust’s executive director, applauds Cowley’s work. “Keith is passionate about helping find a connection to the world around them,” she says. “He has really connected with the land trust’s mission.”

Cowley also leads regular walks and hikes for the land trust. A Full Moon Quiet Hike is scheduled for Oct. 19 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the land trust’s Crandall Preserve.

“It’s another way for me to bridge the gap between nature education and our urban environment,” says Cowley.


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