Perhaps you, like many others, got into foraging because you wanted to know how to do a little supplementation to your diet. Perhaps you got into it thinking that if you learned enough you could eat 100% wild. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I am here to argue that foraging for food is not enough. This path down "Forager Lane" has given me such a great love for the natural world, and has shown me in so many different ways that we humans have an enormous impact on our environments, and often times we are touted as being these great destroyers of nature, but our destruction, much like the beaver, can be used for good, and can have a very beneficial effect on the world around us.
Having my entry point into foraging be from the primitive skills world, perhaps I have an inherent bias, because when I see forests I don't just see trees, I see possibilities. Baskets, utensils, canoes, housing, fencing, rope, clothing and of course food. When we enter into an ecosystem and we take just the food and nothing else, it is my belief that we are not taking enough. Especially considering that so many of the species that are present on the landscape are non-native invaders (or as I like to call them, "Super Abundants"), it should be our duty to the land to think of ways in which we can use these plants beyond just putting them into our mouths. Think of this as "tending the wild".
Indigenous cultural practices here in the Americas led early Europeans to think that the forests looked like parklands. People commented at that time that the forests looked as if a wagon could drive through them unimpeded. Obviously these ecosystems were not untouched as some people would have us believe. From every account these lands had abundant animal life, abundant edible plants, and most importantly healthy human populations that were sustained from the land. These people knew, unlike the majority of us today, that just taking the edible plants and berries cannot last in perpetuity without adequate care or wild-tending. It is simply a fallacy to believe that if you simply harvest from the land and do nothing with all of the other plant life that your berry patch or Stinging Nettle spot will exist forever.
Now contrast the use of forests by the Native Americans with our use today. Mostly people think that nature is a place that humans should stay out of. Inherent in the belief that we should stay away is the belief that humans are not natural. Our forests are often choking with life, difficult to walk through, and sometimes devoid of both wild edibles, and wild animals. In order for us to reclaim our place as natural beings on the earth, we are going to have to challenge long held beliefs that we ruin nature by being in it. Much of this thought pattern has emerged for a real good reason to be sure, civilized human beings have destroyed much of the earths intact forests and prairies in order to satisfy the cravings of the unending hunger of capitalism. But the belief that humans are only destructive is not founded in any factual basis. Humans are, under the right circumstances, incredibly good for the earth and all of the other beings on the earth.
Just yesterday, as I was gathering strawberries, I tended my spot by simply pulling out competitors as I picked. It really can be just as simple as that. Of course I have no practical use for Spotted Knapweed, but I do have a vested interest in having my strawberry spot grow and not be shaded out by shrubs and then eventually trees. It is a well known fact that the indigenous of this continent used fire to manage blueberry patches. This practice has multiple beneficial effects for the earth, although at face value lighting an ecosystem on fire seems completely psychotic. First of all, blueberry species produce a lot heavier in the sun than they do in the shade. As fire moves through a blueberry patch it kills all of the little tree seedlings that are trying to emerge, thus ruining any chance that the blueberries will get shaded. Secondly, lowbush blueberry species carry 60% of their biomass underground. They are a fire resistant species, they evolved with fire and have learned how to cope with it. Native people, by simply observing their surroundings, noted that the blueberries, and thus all of the animals that eat the blueberries, thrived after a good fire swept through the landscape.
In modern times we cannot just simply set fire to an ecosystem and walk away. The damage could be catastrophic. We humans have put our dwellings all over the place and the likelihood of a fire wiping out a house is too great to chance. Luckily there are people that have mastered the art of the controlled burn, and in this controlled fashion these "Fire Ecologists" are beginning to bring back the harmony we see in nature after a good ol' fashioned burn.
There are so many plants and mushrooms that benefit from disturbance as to dizzy the intellect. Jerusalem Artichokes or Helianthus tuberosus is one species that absolutely needs disturbance to thrive in any reasonable amount. I have witnessed a variety of these patches expand with each consecutive year of me digging them up. The tubers which are collected are often large, but inevitably there are tiny tubers left behind that act as next years starters. The soil is loosened from digging and next years tubers get a chance at growing ever larger.
Wild Rice or Zizania sp. grow and expand their populations when human harvesters move through and collect. Knocked rice inevitably makes its way out of the canoe and into the water where it can germinate more readily. In fact, one could argue that indigenous use of ricing lakes was perhaps the most sustainable use pattern of wild rice ever seen on the continent. In the past, it was the women that went out in the canoes and collected the rice, and the men spent the days hunting down ducks to eat with the rice. This may seem like a non-event, until you analyze this further and see that harvesting wild rice causes more rice to grow. More rice means more habitat for waterfowl. Waterfowl like to eat the rice off the bottoms of the lakes. More waterfowl equals more successful hunting, and less loss of germinating rice at the bottom of the lake. Less viable seed loss equals more Wild rice growth. And the cycle begins anew.
Human use of tree bark is another fascinating example of how destruction can be for the benefit of the forest. All around the world where Birch trees grow, people have peeled its bark. The uses for this bark are varying from culture to culture, but on thing remains the same: the trees, if not cut down, are almost always weakened to some degree. When the tree is cut down, or dies standing what you get is an opening in the forest. Sunlight pours into these spots and allows a variety of plants to germinate and spread their seeds, or spores, before another tree (most likely another birch) takes its place and closes the canopy. The surrounding trees also benefit from less competition and they grow larger as a result. A birch tree with its bark removed is more susceptible to a fungal infection, and almost all of the fungi that grow on birch are useful to us humans. This is a closed loop system that if managed properly, and the bark is not overharvested, can sustain multiple generations with better and less toxic material for baskets than plastics. Elm trees have bark that can be harvested and used in a similar fashion to a birch tree and with similar results for the ecosystem.
Our perception of the natural world is that of a frail, weak and sickened individual. We anthropomorphize ourselves onto ecosystems. We act like we must quarantine the natural world away from us (because we are unnatural viruses). Fortunately there is time to turn this ship around. We can let people know the truth. You, reading this right now are capable of showing people that human beings are not viruses on the land. We can, and should, interact with the ecosystems around us. Our health is suffering because of the way in which we refuse to belong to this world. I coined the term "Locally grown foreigner" to describe the vast majority of our world that no longer takes part in the natural world. I am an optimist about the state of the world, but it will take everyone getting together and deciding once and for all that we are natural and that we too belong here, along with our contributions.
If you are interested in taking part in the harvest of more than wild food, my friend David Flaugher and I will be teaching an Elm Bark Basket Class on July 15th in Traverse City, Michigan. Sign-up here.
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