A moving, heartbreaking, and lyrical true story of the author’s escape from an apocalyptic cult—and the survival skills that led to her freedom.
My family prepared me for the end of the world, but I know how to survive on what the earth yields.
As a child, Michelle Dowd grew up on a mountain in the Angeles National Forest. She was born into an ultra-religious cult—or the Field as they called it—started in the 1930s by her grandfather, a mercurial, domineering, and charismatic man who convinced generations of young male followers that he would live 500 years and ascend to the heavens when doomsday came. Comfort and care are sins, Michelle is told. As a result, she was forced to learn the skills necessary to battle hunger, thirst, and cold; she learned to trust animals more than humans; and most importantly, she learned how to survive in the natural world.
At the Field, a young Michelle lives a life of abuse, poverty, and isolation, as she obeys her family’s rigorous religious and patriarchal rules—which are so extreme that Michelle is convinced her mother would sacrifice her, like Abraham and Isaac, if instructed by God. She often wears the same clothes for months at a time; she is often ill and always hungry for both love and food. She is taught not to trust Outsiders, and especially not Quitters, nor her own body and its warnings.
But as Michelle gets older, she realizes she has the strength to break free. Focus on what will sustain, not satiate you, she tells herself. Use everything. Waste nothing. Get to know the intricacies of the land, like the intricacies of your body. And so she does.
Using stories of individual edible plants and their uses to anchor each chapter, Forager is both a searing coming-of-age story and a meditation on the ways in which understanding nature can lead to freedom, even joy.
Michelle Dowd is a professor of journalism and contributor to the New York TImes, Alpinist, The Lost Angeles Book Review, Catapult, OnlySky, and other national publications. She founded The Chaffey Review, an award-winning literary journal, advises student media, teaches poetry and critical thinking in the California State prisons and has been recognized as a Longreads Top 5 for The Thing with Feathers, on the relationship between environmentalism and hope. She guides yoga and meditation workshops throughout southern California, where she hikes the peaks with her four dogs.
Luisa Smith is the Buying Director of Book Passage, where she has worked for over 25 years, and Editor in Chief of Scarlet, an imprint of Mysterious Press. She grew up surrounded by books as her father is the bestselling author, Martin Cruz Smith and her mother was an English teacher. A childhood filled with books has resulted in a lifelong love of every aspect of the world of books, but the mystery genre holds a particularly special place in her heart.
Michelle Dowd photo courtesy of Noel Besuzzi; Luisa Smith photo courtesy of Book Passage