Close-up portrait of a white middle-aged woman with hazelnut eyes and long brown hair looking straight into the camera with a soft smile
Berkeley author and rewilding advocate Jessica Carew Kraft in Tilden Regional Park on Aug. 25, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Jessica Carew Kraft arrived at Tilden Regional Park wearing thrift-shop camo pants, a short-sleeved T-shirt and a many-pocketed vest that conveniently hides her Mora knife in a sheath on her right hip. “When I’m in nature I like to have a knife,” she said.

The Berkeley Hills resident proudly held up a quill pen she used the day before to sign copies of her first book, Why We Need to Be Wild: One Woman’s Quest for Ancient Human Answers to 21st Century Problems. The book chronicles her adventures in “rewilding,” a movement that advocates a hunter-gatherer lifestyle as an antidote to a contemporary culture that has disconnected humans from our history and nature. Rewilders practice a broad range of skills that include hide-tanning, from roadkill animals or those you have “harvested,” and then turning such skins into clothing, re-sowing with native seeds, basket weaving, acorn grinding and cordage making.

Because of all the time she has spent there, Kraft considers Tilden her second home. During a recent hike to Jewel Lake, Kraft tracked wild animals and foraged, the latter being her favorite skill, one of many she has learned over the five years she spent researching the book. The highlight of that period was a one-week wilderness survival camp, Wilderness Awareness School, in Duvall, Washington, where she watched her friend slay a live goat for dinner. During that time she also participated in a number of skills-gathering workshops led by members of the Ohlone, Miwok and Pomo tribes. 

Such expertise has allowed her to confidently serve raccoon roadkill soup to her young daughters (it tastes like the dark meat of chicken, Kraft said) and sautéed and stewed deer roadkill to her Berkeley guests. She promotes the venison, she said, “as the freshest, wildest, most organic meat you can get,” similar to the gourmet fare of upscale restaurants. 

Dead deer
Kraft holding venison stew

Kraft found an estimated 110-pound buck off Highway 108 near Jamestown in 2019. She later served venison stew made from the roadkill to guests in her Berkeley home. Courtesy: Jessica Carew Kraft

Her tip for sizing up roadkill: Use your senses. “Are there flies on it? Does it smell terrible? Is it oozing out of orifices? Leave it alone. But if it looks fine and rigor mortis hasn’t set in, it’s usually OK.”

Kraft does not hunt, partly because of the abundance of roadkill – especially during the fall rutting (aka mating) season. She finds it wasteful to see such food sources end up rotting away.  “We have an overpopulation of deer in the Berkeley Hills,” she said. “It would be great if more people would eat it.”

She has trekked Tilden searching for wild edibles and natural materials to fashion into useful objects, foraged the fruit trees and redwood stands of the Berkeley Hills and dined on freshly sprouted candy cap mushrooms on the steps off Arlington Road. 

Detail of a woman sitting on a bench gripping a turkey feather in her hand
Author and naturalist Jessica Carew Kraft holds the turkey feather she uses as a quill pen to sign her new book. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“It’s nice to ingest your environment and feel a part of the place and get that extra boost of nutrition,” she said. 

In summer 2020 she plucked 80 pounds of loquats from public fruit trees in Berkeley, making everything from sauce to jams, jellies and a dried version she threw into her muesli. It took a year for her to eat it all, even after giving much away. 

She has come close enough to smell the musk of mule deer bucks on the outskirts of the UC Berkeley campus, bathed in Wildcat Creek and tracked down a coyote who left a trail of scat on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. 

Along the way, she has been cheered on by her daughters, now 10 and 14, who have accompanied her on some of her educational adventures, learning how to harvest wild food, weave baskets, tan hides and make friction fires. It was her daughters who nudged their mother to pick up a dead fox on the side of the road, which she then sneaked into her home, hoping her lawyer husband wouldn’t notice. 

The book chronicles these adventures and many more. 

Originally, Kraft had envisioned an immersive-journalism-meets-anthropological approach (she has a master’s in anthropology from Yale), but found as she delved deeper into the subject matter that the perspectives of many of those she interviewed resonated with her own dissatisfaction with the modern world. Nevertheless, she maintained a journalistic distance and challenged some of the movement’s more strident beliefs and leaders who have attracted a cult-like following.

The book is also somewhat of a memoir. The so-called inciting incident, for example, is her mother’s death from multiple sclerosis that convinced Kraft that “the lifestyle of Western civilization had done her in,” she said. Her deteriorating marriage is another personal thread that courses through the narrative. 

Benefits of a paleo lifestyle

A duck dabbles near the shore of a lake. The water is green with algae, and the sun casts the shadows of tall trees into the water
A duck dabbles in Jewel Lake in Tilden. Kraft has walked Tilden numerous times as part of her adventures in rewilding — tracking animals, studying the land and foraging for edibles. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Kraft found paleolithic habits, skills and “lifeways,” based on a hunter-gatherer history that began about 300,000 years ago, provided a more appealing, healthier alternative to the contemporary life she was living. 

Continually on the move, hunter-gatherers treaded lightly on the land and often improved it through the use of controlled burns or seed resowing. They lived in the present moment, ate more healthful foods and formed multigenerational, cooperative groups that allowed women to have the same control of their own lives as men. Modern-day groups that live this way number about 10,000 people scattered across Africa, South America and Asia. When European settler-colonists arrived, most Native American tribes were hunter-gatherers.

Some rewilders consider the movement a survivalist preparation for the impending societal collapse that will be brought on by climate change. The pandemic, they believe, provided a dress rehearsal for such a dystopian future. So they want to be able to fend for themselves in the wild when the time comes.

On a hike to Jewel Lake, Kraft demonstrated some of her rewilding skills, stopping to point out two scats. A circular blob dotted with wild plum pits came from a coyote and small, oval-shaped scatterings came from the dusky-footed woodrat which, she said, builds huge structures within the park, some 5 feet across. She plucked a few leaves of redwood sorrel, a companion to redwood trees that enjoys acidic soil, and popped one in her mouth. 

On a wooden path, she used her knife to slice off a piece of blackberry cane, stripped it down to its pith, put one end in her mouth, demonstrating how to twist it into cordage.

“You just keep twisting and twisting it until it looks like rope or string,” she said. “There’s so much here you could make an entire fishnet out of it. You could make a bag. You could make clothing.”

Fitting in — and standing out — in Berkeley

A white woman with long brown hair, a blue denim button-up shirt, and a green utility vest sits on a bench surrounded by greenery filled with afternoon sunshine
In 2018, Jessica Carew Kraft, a former tech worker and mother of two, moved from San Francisco to Berkeley, lured by its proximity to nature. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Before she learned how to make cording using her teeth, Kraft was a typical Bay Area mom who worked in tech and bought cut-up packaged meat and bagged greens from Safeway, though she acknowledged that she already had progressive leanings when it came to her politics and lifestyle (she ate a paleo diet and did away with heels and structured shoes). She, her husband and two girls moved to Berkeley from San Francisco in 2018 to be closer to nature “and have more backyard space.”

In Berkeley, Kraft met Philip Stark, an urban forager who runs the Berkeley Open Source Food, which promotes urban foraging. 

“I didn’t even know he lived a few doors down until I read about him in Berkeleyside,” Kraft said. 

The two went on foraging walks in the Berkeley Hills, collecting peppery vetch, sow thistle stems, coyote mint and other edible greens, sharing the excess, along with concoctions he created, like pickled magnolia leaves and bay-leaf infused vodka. She also accompanied Stark and his partner, Daphne Miller, on a foraging and tracking adventure near Point Reyes National Seashore. 

In Berkeley Kraft also met Vincent Medina, a member of the Ohlone tribe who has incorporated Native food traditions into the fare at Cafe Ohlone. During a discussion with Medina, Kraft discovered that the Ohlone consider Mount Diablo, one of her favorite sources of wild foods, so sacred, they don’t even go there. His response made her consider the sort of cultural appropriation that often takes place when mostly white, educated people adopt Native ways, a controversy she explores in the book. 

“I was grateful to Vincent and other Ohlone, Miwok and Pomo folks who were generous and open with their cultural traditions when I attended their events with my daughters so we all could better understand the gifts of the land we were now on,” she wrote. “But I didn’t think that our lack of Native ancestry prohibited us altogether from harvesting the acorns around us (only the park regulations did) or making baskets from the Tule reed or creative friction fire kits from the California buckeye tree. If it was our industrial, civilized lifestyle that was responsible for cultural and natural destruction, then trying to return to wild ways seemed to be the least offensive direction we could go in.”

Detail of hands twisting the green pith of a plant into cord
Kraft twists a long string of blackberry cane pith to show how to make a cord during a walk in Tilden. Carew Kraft recommends carrying leather gloves and a knife to make foraging easier. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Small green-leaf plants spring from the ground next to a redwood tree trunk
Redwood sorrel, seen here in Tilden, is edible, grows next to redwood trees, has a citric flavor and can be used as greens for salads and sauces, Kraft said. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Initially, Kraft’s background as a trained naturalist was seen as a plus among other mothers. Trying to expose her daughters’ friends to some of the rewilding skills her daughters were learning, she ran an informal wilderness camp in her backyard and local parks. But as she got deeper into rewilding, she felt herself having less in common with some of her neighbors (one of whom used the controversial weed killer Roundup) and the norms of Berkeley parenting. One of the most notable things that distinguished her was the autonomy she granted her daughters. 

Trying not to cast it in a negative light, she described the Berkeley model as being “a little more tightly focused and controlling and knowing what the kids are doing and prompting them,” she said. “Whereas I was learning about the anthropological ethnographies of other cultures and how they successfully raised children with very little interference.”

Kraft let her daughters eat when they were hungry, not at prescribed mealtimes, preferred some sun exposure to slathering them in sunscreen and was lax about their hygiene. 

“They need more dirt. They need more bacteria and exposure to outdoor elements,” she said. “Always washing was going to have negative consequences to their immune systems.”

Kraft also taught her daughters to discreetly urinate in their backyard for its ecological benefits and considers doing so by the side of the road preferable to a gas station bathroom.

“There are a lot of people who fertilize their gardens and farms with urine. We are designed to give back to the plants just as they give to us,” she said. “Our urine has nitrogen in it that goes back into the soil, fueling the growth of the plant. We ingest the plant and then put the nitrogen back.”

Kraft’s increasing passion for rewilding also highlighted how she and her husband had grown apart. In the book, she admitted that her newly feral nature “was a lot to handle.” Tensions escalated as she considered homeschooling her daughters and getting chickens. She had to hide her experiments with squirrel roadkill in her kitchen and a goat skin that stretched across her back deck. 

“I’d offer him greens I’d foraged, but he’d decline and chow down on prewashed spinach from Trader Joe’s,” she wrote. 

He considered her transformation a midlife crisis. The couple ended up divorcing — amicably, she said — and now share custody of their daughters. 

Escaping Berkeley to become a true rewilder

A woman dressed in a denim shirt, utility vest, camouflage pants, and sandals stands under the sun on a woods trail, surrounded by tall trees and dry grass
“Why can’t a mom rewild and be out in the wilderness with her kids?” Kraft asked. “There’s only this one heroic idea of being out in nature.” Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

At the edge of Jewel Lake, she pointed out the bass call of a bullfrog, the entirely edible cattails, and recalled how she had been considered for the survivalist TV show Alone, in which mostly male contestants struggle to survive with little more than their wiles in hostile environments. Because the show gets thousands of proposals from men, “they are desperate for women,” she said. 

Since she does not hunt — practically a necessity on the show — Kraft imagined her expert tracking and foraging skills might be sufficient to land her on the program. So she made several videos of herself near Jewel Lake, where she tracked a family of otters after discovering their obscure, crustacean-laced scat. 

One reason she wanted to be on the show was to counter the centuries-old image of a man alone in the wilderness. Ultimately, she dropped the pursuit, thinking it was more important to not leave her daughters for five months. 

“Part of the point of my book was, Why can’t a mom rewild and be out in the wilderness with her kids?” she said. “There’s only this one heroic idea of being out in nature.”

Looking back, Kraft admits that one cannot truly live as a rewilder in Berkeley. “It depends on how deep you go. If you’re going to take it to the furthest, you have to have access to wild land,” which she now has.

In 2021, she bought a two-bedroom house on 20 acres that borders 100 acres of Eldorado National Forest in the Sierra foothills, dividing her time between that Gold Country home and Berkeley. In the Gold Country, she spends one to two hours a day foraging in the forests. She tries to eat wild as much as she can, supplementing with greens from her garden.

Kraft contends that it’s all right to take “little tastes” from places like parks and legal to pluck fruit from trees that grow in that swath between the sidewalk and the street. State and county regulations prohibit foraging — even Berkeley codes embrace the “leave no trace” ethic — but so far she hasn’t heard of anyone who has been prosecuted for breaking them. 

Although she’s made radical changes to her life, Kraft is not an extreme rewilder like some of the folks she has interviewed in her book. She admits driving a gas-guzzler to see her daughters and enjoying pastimes like TV, but finds she can no longer tolerate Berkeley’s urban environment.

“The leaf blowers, the noise. Too many people. So many strangers,” she said. “Now that I’m acclimated to a more natural life, coming back into the city is difficult.” 

Despite the book’s serious tone, it has somewhat of a Hollywood ending. Spoiler alert: She ends up “getting the guy,” a helpful neighbor she meets who has become her boyfriend of two-and-a-half years, in addition to the simpler “lifeways” she craved. 

In a place so sparsely populated she can’t see her neighbors, Kraft was surprised to discover a tight-knit community deeply connected to nature and each other, sharing resources and helping out in neighborly ways, like watching someone’s toddler in a pinch. 

No longer in tech, Kraft supports herself by doing freelance book editing, ghostwriting and book shepherding. (Her ghostwriting clients include Apolo Ohno, the Olympic speed-skater and Wim Hof the Ice Man.) Lately, though, she’s been focused on promoting her book. She hopes it will get people thinking about the long arc of human history and how long humans survived as hunter-gatherers to inform the choices they make today.

“We’re very focused on the present moment and digital tech and all the comforts and conveniences,” she said. “We think that’s how it should be, but there’s this vast history of how it was and that’s a better proven way to live.”

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...