Profile: Philip Stark


Philip was a guest at our foragers’ summit in Islay, June 2019. By the camp fire, we cornered him to ask some questions about his background, habits, and ideas about life. The following comes from a transcript of that recording.

Philip Stark [PS]: “I grew up in Houston, and then I moved to Austin when I was about 14. Austin has a lot of outdoor life. It’s on a string of freshwater lakes. Spending time outdoors and on limestone hills was definitely fun for me–time swimming, canoeing, cycling, and this and that.

“I ran away from home in a socially acceptable way. I asked my parents if I could leave for college at age 15 if I got in, and they said yes. I went from an undergraduate major in philosophy to a law school dropout to a PhD in geophysics; eventually I landed in a statistics department. I get interested in all kinds of things. I just have fun!

“In 2006/07 I was bedridden by a spinal infection for four and a half months. It wasn’t clear if I’d ever be able to walk again. Before that happened, I was an ultra‐runner. I ran 100 mile races, and when I sought to get back on my feet, I decided that my best chance of regaining function was to try to repeat the same developmental process that kids go through ‐ so I literally started by crawling on my hands and knees. I discovered how important it is for me to be in closer contact with the ground, including going barefoot as much as possible and using minimal footwear. My feet “woke up” and became much stronger and more mobile. Humans evolved to get an enormous amount of information about the environment through the soles of our feet; wearing shoes is a voluntary handicap. It’s made it possible for me to get back into what was normal for me, in a way I hope to be able to continue into old age.”

Philip's sandals

“wearing shoes is a voluntary handicap…”

PS: “Ultrarunning is more than one kind of experience, depending on the distance. With 50‐mile races, you’re done in a day. 100‐mile races are very different, because you’re running all night long. That brings a whole new set of challenges–psychological and physical. What Napoleon said about armies is true about long-distance running: ultrarunners run on their stomachs. Learning to manage my digestion on long runs was harder than developing the muscular endurance. One of the miracles of 100‐mile races is that you go through every conceivable emotion in the course of a day, from elation to despair. You would think things would only get worse the longer you’re on the trail, but they don’t. You can become more efficient in an odd way as you tire. We tend to think of ourselves as machines: levers and springs and engines that burn food to produce forward motion. But we’re much more complicated than that. We have endocrine systems and we’re sensitive to light, among other things. When the sun comes up in the morning during a 100-mile run, it’s a new day. You feel awake and invigorated. It’s amazing.

“My ritual and my religion consist primarily of being on the trail at sunset as often as possible–and filling my pockets with wild things for dinner!

“Foraging during long runs turned into a passion about wild foods and foraging, and then into some research projects around safety and nutrition of wild foods. I describe what I do as “short attention span science” – it’s like, “oh there’s a shiny problem! Oh there’s a shiny problem! Where does that go?”

“One of my newer passions is sustainability in our food system and agriculture. We need to be farming in Nature’s image. I’m very concerned about the high‐input approach to agriculture in particular. I think that agroecology, permaculture and whatnot are where we need to be. Part of my interest in wild foods is really in the idea that they may be the future of our food system, unless we want a future that’s GMO and CRISPR‐based. A lot of these plants are incredibly resilient and really thrive in a variety of circumstances that conventional crops don’t. They already volunteer between the rows and the margins of farms.

“I kind of see this as an arc… There’s re‐emergence of local ag and small and medium‐sized farms, and a re‐emergence of foraging. Getting these foods back on the table is really probably in our long‐term interests for survival as a species. Beyond the fact that they’re resilient, they’re also incredibly nutritious and incredibly delicious, and a lot of the selective breeding that we’ve done in agriculture has been for economic reasons. We bred a lot of the nutrition out of our diets.

“The control that big agriculture has over food availability has led to an drastic narrowing of the list of ingredients that are available, so one of the fun things here is being here [on Islay] with these amazing chefs from around the world who appreciate the diversity of ingredients that are available that you can’t just buy.”

Gathering in Islay

Watch a short film featuring Philip on his home turf here:


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