Janet and Margaret talk about sustainable foraging, herbalism, wild tending, constructive ethics on why you might choose not to wildcraft, ways to impact your food intake in small but meaningful ways, unlearning extractive tendencies when harvesting food and medicine, and upholding indigenous wisdom around wild tending.
Janet (she/her) is an herbalist and teacher at the Terra Sylva School of Botanical Medicine. Janet can be found on wordpress at Radical Vitalism The school can be found on Instagram @terrasylvaschool. Janet does a podcast called The Book on Fire.
Janet recommends reading The Honorable Harvest by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
This show is published by Strangers in A Tangled Wilderness. We can be found at www.tangledwilderness.org, or on Twitter @TangledWild and Instagram @Tangled_Wilderness. You can support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/strangersinatangledwilderness.
Janet on Sustainable Foraging
Hello, and welcome to Live Like the World is Dying, your podcast for what feels like the end times. I’m your host today, Margaret Killjoy. And this week we’re going to be talking about herbalism and foraging and sustainable foraging of herbalism, and forage….[Trails off] That’s what we’re gonna be talking about with with Janet Kent, who you all have heard from before on another episode from a long time ago, about herbalism. And I think you’ll all get a lot out of this episode. But first, this podcast is a proud member of the Channel Zero network of anarchists podcasts. And here’s a jingle from another show on the network.
And we’re back. Okay, so Janet, if you could introduce yourself with your name, which I guess I already said, and your pronouns and kind of what you do for a living as, which would help people understand why they should listen to you about this topic.
I am Janet Kent, my pronouns are she/her. I run a school of botanical medicine that’s located about an hour outside of Asheville, in southern Appalachia, and in so called Western North Carolina. And I’m also a clinical herbalist. And I also live in hardwood co [conifer] forest. And so I’m surrounded by wild plants. And specifically, like this region of southern Appalachia has a long history of settler wild crafting as a kind of hustle. And there were a lot of…when most pharmaceuticals came out of plants back in the day, this was a huge nexus of harvesting and distributing, and people extracted a lot of plants from the wild as a means of survival and sold them to the pharmaceutical companies. So, that is partially because this is a really ecologically rich place. But, I say all that just to say that I’m surrounded by plants that have medicinal value, even in like the larger market outside of the home forager or home apothecary. So, it’s something that like, we have to really think about here and are forced to. Even though we’re surrounded by the medicine, the ethics of that are something that I think about pretty regularly. So, I might be better situated than some to consider that. Yeah,
Yeah. Yeah. Okay. And that’s why I wanted to have you on to talk today, right? Because I feel like this is this question that is coming up more and more as foraging becomes a little bit more mainstream. Or? Well, I guess, actually, to start with, we were talking earlier, and you talked about how there’s sort of a foraging craze that’s coming from the pandemic, I was wondering if you could kind of talk about that, like what’s happening right now in foraging?
Yeah, I mean, while I do think there was a much more of a burst during the pandemic, when people were getting outside more. Public spaces, and parks became more visited once they were open again. And you saw just a lot more people out. I don’t know, like how much time you spend in public spaces. But, there was a huge increase in people national parks, and national forests, State Forest, all of those kinds of places. And even just in city parks and such. And I think that there has been a lot of social media content that’s being created around foraging. And it is like a way that people can get excited about gathering their own food. It can be a really nice, like gateway to like relationships with plants, because people start to learn to identify plants and learn what is food. And I definitely think that there’s no small part of this that is also connected to people wanting to spend less money on food. I mean, we have applicants for school sometimes even say, you know, like, I want to learn more about plants that are useful for food and for medicine, because I need to spend less money. So there’s like an economic incentive here, as well. And I should probably spend some time on that in a bit. But, also I would just say that over the last…I don’t know, it’s probably been more than a decade, there has just been a surge in interest in wild plants, including for food and for medicine.
Yeah. And that’s either really good or really bad depending on who you ask, Is that what’s Is that what’s happening right now?
Yeah, I would say that there can be pretty binary of viewpoints on this. And it’s interesting, I mean, something that you probably see with a lot of people that you interview or with different communities that you might be in as there is a rise in awareness of just the colonial project that we’re all part of still. And so that this is still occupied territory. There are indigenous people here whose land settlers are occupying. There is a certain level of guilt that can come with that awareness…[interrupted]
[Continues] If you are someone who is not indigenous to turtle islands, and the way that I see that play out sometimes, not always, is with people sometimes seeing kind of stark black and white ideas around what is good and what is not good, and relationship. And we see people who hear like, “We shouldn’t wildcraft,” or they memorize like this all wildcrafting, which is the word that herbalist and people who are into plant medicine will use to describe harvesting herbs for medicine specifically. I don’t actually hear ‘wildcrafting’ used to refer to food. Yeah, but so wildcrafting can be seen as strictly extractive and people just taking from the wild, because as I mentioned in the introduction, there is a long history of plants being taken en mass from the forests, to serve the pharmaceutical industry. And even now, there are certain plants that are threatened and endangered because they are used, even in European markets.
Black cohosh, specifically, is an herb that is seen as being helpful for some menopausal states. And it’s used in…So in Europe, it’s more license legal to be a doctor who uses plant medicine. And so you can prescribe herbs there. It’s more regulated as well, but definitely tons of black cohosh are sent abroad every year. And from what…I met someone who works, is sort of like from a root digging family, like a traditional Appalachian root digging family, but she said she’d been in warehouses where there was just like piles of rotting roots of black cohosh, you know, cause people…
Yeah, the work of, as in is usually the case, like the piece workers, the people who are gathering are paid shit. And then the stuff is piled up. It’s not stored very well. Some fraction of it will make it into medicine. And so there is very much a problem with extraction en masse of plants, especially when the root is what’s being harvested, because that kills the plant. Right?
Yeah. Ginseng is like one that I feel like I hear about too.
Absolutely. Ginseng would be a great example. And interestingly, I mean, you may even live in ginseng country. I do, for sure. But, that’s something that’s, you know, has been historically, as settlers came into these mountains, have shipped abroad, because by the time the Revolutionary War happened here, already, there was a dearth of ginseng in China because so much had been wild harvested, and they hadn’t really put in cultivation yet. And so, as soon as the global market, people within the global market figured out that there was a similar ginseng here, they started shipping it abroad, and actually ginseng sales helped pay for the Revolutionary War.
Oh, god. Uh huh.
Which is just so wild. Yes. So, there is very much history of extraction of plants.
Yeah. For the extractive project that is the Revolutionary War
Yes, absolutely, a huge scale. So, when we are thinking about our own personal use or serving our communities or, you know, a lot of people will try to make herbal products as a side hustle, then we do need to confront our personal relationship with that legacy. That’s obviously really important. However, the amount of time and energy people spent in policing other people’s foraging and wildcrafting is a lot, as you may imagine.
Yeah, social media is particularly good at getting us to level our weapons at each other. Yeah.
Right. So, we see a lot of that, and I feel like the the climate has not been very nuanced for this conversation, because what’s true, and this is probably a part of what you’re wanting to get out with this episode is that there’s a really big difference between digging up a 15 year old root of a plant in the forest that took that long to get that big and taking the whole root and killing it, than there is actually harvesting weeds or harvesting invasive plants or plants that are here in abundance. And actually, you can harvest some kinds of plants in a way that is supportive to the plant community that they live in, because they’re opportunistic or taking too much space. And so, I think when we have a black and white rubric around this, and much like all wildcrafting is extractive, we’re also forgetting that there is a way for humans to be in relationship with plant communities in a way that fosters diversity and richness in the ecology. And can be a form of wild tending. And that is how Turtle Island was maintained by all of the indigenous folks who are living in so many different plant communities around the continent before Europeans showed up and disrupted that.
Okay, so what are some of the…I like, examples. It makes it really more concrete in my head. Like, what are some of the examples of plants that you’re helping that plant community by foraging or or by? Yeah.
Okay. Yeah, that’s, that’s a good question. And there’s, I’ll share with you a book, there’s a whole book on invasive plant medicines. And so I’m going to say ‘invasive’ here, I know that that’s a controversial word to some people. But, what I mean is plants that came after 1492, and are opportunistic and can take over spaces, and take up space. So, that’s what I mean when I’m saying that, and we can say ‘non native’ or ‘invasive’ or just ‘opportunistic,’ but I’m gonna say ‘weedy’ and ‘abundant’ plants here. Plantain would be a weedy and abundant plant, and mugwort can be quite opportunistic, and take over in some places. Mimosa tree, the really beautiful pink firecracker looking tree that grows in the southeast pretty abundantly is pretty opportunistic. It can take over spaces for sure, you know, and sometimes native plants are also pretty weedy as well. Yarrow is a plant that comes from Europe, that there are some native varieties too, but they tend to not be as opportunistic. A lot of garden plants that have escaped, like catnip or horehound you might find in other places, sometimes lemon balm goes feral, in some places, as well. So, those would be some examples. But, a lot of trees that you see…[corrects self ] well, it’s hard to say…Trees that were planted for landscaping, and then kind of move out like, Tree of Heaven is an example. There’s a lot of different trees that got brought in at various points that have spread out and can really out compete other trees. Yeah.
This is really interesting to me for a lot of reasons…I mean, I’m kind of notoriously bad for someone who like often lives off grid or like, you know, I live mostly alone on a bunch of acres in a mountain or whatever in Appalachia. And I’m like, kind of notoriously bad at actually knowing the plants around me and how to engage with them besides being like, I swear, one year, I’m gonna be here in the fall and eat the acorns. You know, has been my plan for however many years. I’ve done every step of acorn harvesting at various points and never actually finished it and eaten them. But, so it’s just, it’s kind of interesting to me because as I walk around, you know, the place that I live, I become more and more familiar with some of these plants and it’s interesting to think about them in different ways. And then also think about, like, whether or not I have a desire or like, a role in sort of shaping what plants grow around me. And like, I don’t even know the answer that yet. Like, I mean, what I sort of in my head, I’m like, I believe both the pines and the Oaks near me are fairly, you know, native to this area, or whatever. But, I’m like, but I like the Oaks more. And so I’m like, Is it bad to start, like, kind of cutting back the pines and like trying to propagate more of the Oaks? Like, maybe the tree level is a higher level of thinking about because they take a lot longer, but is that something that like, people should be doing in the kinds of….should be is a weird question….but [people] could think about doing in the places that they forage or, like thinking about what the current plant environment community is and what it could be shifted towards? Or is that like, do you stay out of it? This is not a question. Sorry.
Yeah, no, I, I think I can pick the through line in there, which is that: what would a good relationship look like when foraging? And to me, you know, I wasn’t taught this way at all. I definitely came up in herbalism when this was not part of our conversation. But, I think in general, wild tending is the way to go where you actually have a perennial relationship with the plants that you live around or the plants that you visit, or the places that you’d like to harvest so that you can pay attention to when they’re healthy and when they need support. See which plants are taking up some more space, you know, I mean, depending on what pines you’re around, you know, those would have at one time been controlled partially through fire management practices, because they burn more than oaks. So, you know, that’s like…I mean, not that we’re trying to like, go back to some pristine era, because that’s not possible. There’s just sort of moving forward from where we’re at. But, but it is true that in a lot of places where there were mixed forest in that way, there would be periodic fire for….support hunting, which would have taken out the pine. I mean, I think that personally, preferential treatment of different plant communities and landscapes feels pretty intuitive. And also, if you look back through history, but also if you just look at different cultures that are living in a sort of a tending/stewardship relationship with the plants around them, there is usually preferential management practice, which that’s kind of like a boring way to say it, but yes, like favoring the plants you would like to see do better and favoring plants often that are useful to humans, and wildlife. You know, before the American Chestnuts went through, they’re blight, they’re not extinct, there are still a few left, but before the chestnut blight took out such a large amount of the chestnut trees on the eastern coast that was the dominant tree. And yes, they were taller and larger than most of the trees in the forest, but there was a level of preference for those because they made tons of food every year. And so humans and birds and other animals that like chestnuts, propagated the chestnuts by moving them around, even a squirrel burying a bunch of chestnuts is going to make more chestnuts come up, you know? So I think that that is a pretty natural way to relate to the plants around you, which is to favor some over others, you know. And when you start to pay attention to like, who’s just kind of taken over, which can be plants that are actually from here too. And you want….ecosystem’s tend to benefit from number of connections and number of members. And so you want to see richness in both of those numbers. You want to see more members and you want to see more connections. So, when you have any one member dominating, you’re having less of both. And I think if we can think of tending towards, you know, the word diversity is almost destroyed at this point for usefulness, however, I could say that ecologically, what I mean is like, yes, strengthen members and connections.
Okay. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense to me. I don’t know, I’ve been really enjoying just like, you know, I have a dog now. So, I have to walk around a lot. And actually, like, pay more attention, because he’s always like finding all of the things and making me pay attention to it. I don’t know where I’m going with that. There’s cactus where I live. And it confuses the hell out of me. Yeah, I live in West Virginia.
Are they prickly pears?
I don’t know. They’re small. They’re like low to the ground. They’re like big, round, green lobes kind of like hanging out on the ground. There’s not a lot of them. But, it confuses the hell out of me. I have no idea if they’re native to this area or not. I don’t understand. I don’t know why I’m telling you that. Now everyone knows I have cactus.
Dogs are wonderful for getting us out of the house and out into the world, you know, and then you start to pay attention to who else is around, you know, the dog leads you to the others. Right?
Yeah, totally. It’s how I know about all the turtles on the property is my dog finds them in and hangs out with them and just sort of stares at them. And then I watch them.
Are they box turtles?
Yeah, there’s some kind of. Yeah, I think they’re box turtles. They’re not, uh, they’re not doing so well. I looked them up. There’s not a lot of them. But, I live somewhere where there’s not a lot of roads. So they don’t die as much.
Right. I love box turtles. I actually wanted to bring up a different similar creature when I was thinking about this topic earlier, which is that I think that, while I can be like, it’s all you know, ‘we need to turn relationships, we need to be stewarding land,’ all of these things, it is worth noting that generally, wildlife and plant communities are under pressure when people get hungry. And you know, I was in Florida near some of the beautiful springs down there a few years ago, and I’ve also seen these In parts of the Gulf South, but there are these really cool tortoises called gopher tortoises. Have you ever met one of those?
They’re kind of big. I just realized I’m using my hands and you’re able to see my hands on the podcast. However, they’re pretty big turtles.Tortoises. And, they’re so cool. One of the things they do is they make these burrows That’s why they’re called gopher tortoises, but they help a lot of different creatures survive hurricane flooding and other like vast flooding, because other animals will hang out in their burrows. They’re like, wombats or something. They’re like a helper species that makes habitat for other animals. But, I was reading about them when I was down there and in the Great Depression, the locals down on the Gulf South and in Florida, called them Hoover Chickens. Because they were naming after present President Hoover, who they were blaming for the Great Depression and just got….because they eating so many tortoises to survive, okay, and the tortoise population just like dropped out during that time, and they’re slowly getting back, but they have a hard time too, like the box turtles that we live near. And so when I read that I just, it made me really…it made me think about foraging honestly, and how much I had seen this like uptick, with the economic dip, and made me just understand the level to which we need to be emphasizing what’s abundant. And what you know…a tortoise….Tortoises are not abundant. They were not abundant even back then, probably. But like, what species are there a lot of? Which species does harvesting actually help the larger plant community? But, also with individual species, there’s plants where if you harvest in a specific way that helps propagate them, then you can help increase their numbers as well. And that’s going to differ from plant to plant. But, I think that what I would like to see with people getting more and more excited about foraging and wild harvesting of herbs in general, is that actual consciousness about what it is to help their numbers grow so that it’s not as much of an extract of relationship?
Yeah, no, I remember reading one of the things that like really stuck with me, I read a long time ago, it was about how during the Great Depression, like squirrels and deer were hunted to near extinction in various places. And like….
Yeah, exactly. And, you know, these are the things when I think of abundant animals, right, I think of deer and squirrels, at least where I live. And, and so that, that realization that we actually have an impact, you know. Like, the small amounts of destructive things we do really can add up. Obviously, we’re living through a, you know, climate level of all of that coming. But no, that’s, that’s makes me sad about the tortoises. But okay, so So what are some examples then of these? I know I just keeping like, give me more examples, because I like the stories of it. But like, what are some of the plants that you’re like helping? I can imagine, for example, like, I mean, obviously, chestnuts are very complicated right now. But, you know, harvesting chestnuts, of course, doesn’t necessarily negatively impact the tree. And earlier you were talking about basically being like roots are like much more complicated to extract, or there are like ways of extracting roots that are less bad? Would you mostly say to anyone listening to this unless you know, better just don’t mess with roots and work on some other stuff?
Yeah, you know, and actually, you’re reminding me that when I have been seeing a lot of like, more like virally popular foragers, they don’t tend to emphasize roots, which I feel grateful for. And yeah, I would say that in general, unless you have a perennial relationship with a plant community than just staying away from roots is a good idea. But with a lot of plants, there are ways to harvest where you’re not actually greatly impacting the plant. Let me think of some examples of that. I mean, I almost don’t want to bring up ramps because they are so over harvested in some places. Those are wild leeks for people who might not know, but what is true is that if instead of harvesting the bulb, the white bulb, it’s kind of like an onion, garlicky thing and each can just take a leaf and harvest leaves from a big patch instead of digging them up that’s gonna make a huge difference. Now when you see restaurants start saw offer foragers money for ramps, at least in my neighborhood, I started to see much more like big holes dug where they’re just digging up clumps of them at a time and then just taking them wholesale out to sell, you know, and so, I would say like, yeah, the above ground parts are always always gonna be more sustainable to harvest. But also, if you’re taking flowers from a plant, for example. I’m trying to think of like a good example of this. I love peach flower medicine, I love peach flower for grief and for hot agitated states and there are feral peach flower trees and, and there’s old orchards that are no longer sprayed. And when you’re harvesting peach flowers, you can actually support the tree because they need to not let all of those flowers go ripe and become flat fruit because it’s too much. So, if you selectively just pick a couple blooms off the into clusters, that’s actually going to help the plant overall, you know? Or I’m thinking of, I wanted to give another example of something in a more urban setting. but linden trees are plants, there are some linden trees that are native to this continent, they’re called basswood trees, that’s the name here. But there’s European lindens that are planted ornamentally There’s a bunch of them in downtown Asheville. But that’s like, where there’ll be a huge tree covered with thousands of blossoms and the flowers are the medicine there too. And they’re always covered with bees. Bees love them. But, if you see something like that, where you’re like, it’s impossible to even imagine how many there are, then you can take some flowers, and you’re not going to hurt that tree. You know, I guess if we all did that, that would be something we’re thinking about. And that’s why having a perennial relationship where you see the shifts through the years, see who’s getting hit. And, if an area is being over harvested, you can tell because you’ve been paying attention, that would be something to do. But yeah, I would say like there are a lot of like flowering trees where you can get the flowers or you could even prune some of the branches and have some of what you need. But also with urby plants, the above ground plant, you can kind of see the parts, the aerial parts is what we call them, and notice how much has gone. And usually you can tell if someone else has been there, right. So, that would be what I would say. But again, if you if you’re sticking to really weedy abundant plants, then this is going to just be less of an issue like goldenrod, for example, is a gorgeous endemic plant, or a plant that grows on a lot of parts of Turtle Island, which is a really excellent allergy remedy. Not so good for food. But they’re incredibly weedy. You’ll see a giant field of them right over the place, you know, and so if you just stuck to plants that were pretty weedy and abundant like that, even if you got as much as you’re going to need for the year, it would be very little in a dent of even one plant stand.
Yeah. Okay, so I took a bunch of notes on what you were saying, because there’s so many pieces that I want to pick apart. And one of them is this, I’ve been running across this thing more, and I suspect you’ve probably run across a mortgage or rent more in these circles. But this idea that like, the concept of nature is sort of a colonial construct. This idea that like, when we create the idea of nature, we’re talking about something that is distinct from humans, and how that’s like, kind of this thing that like gets us off the hook. Like when we imagine like humans as only bad. It like lets us off the hook for being bad as compared to like, it seems like you could talk about either you show up and you dig up all the roots of these, you know, ginseng or whatever that’s been there forever, and you just like mess everything up, versus they’re like other plants that do very well for humans as part of the ecosystem interacting with them in the same way that they do very well for having bees in the ecosystem or birds in the ecosystem. Whatever. Yes. I don’t know, it’s really interesting to me. And I’m wondering if that’s like a conversation that…
I think that’s been a helpful conversation, I think, for people to have around not just having black and white thinking around it, which is what you’re gonna get, I think, which is that, if we’re actually in relationship, then we’re going to be able to care for the plants instead of just taking or just ignoring. I mean, there’s definitely, unfortunately, a pretty big segment of people who are into environmental biology who do have a very hands off, ‘don’t interfere, just leave it,’ you know, kind of perspective.
The Star Trek approach.
Definitely, which is I mean, ridiculous given that there are no plants left on the planet who are not being impacted by human activity. So, you actually going in and maybe… So, part of, this is like, kind of an aside from what we’re talking about, but there’s this concept called assisted migration, which when you’re like, “These plants hate how hot it’s getting right here. We should move them further north.” You know, and so there’s all these people who are like, “No, no, we can’t interfere. We might ruin everything.” You know, it’s like time traveling or something like we actually, like do one thing wrong and everything will be, it’ll be a clusterfuck. And the whole system will collapse because we move this tree up there. And who knows who else is on there. But then there’s a lot of people who there’s actually like secret groups who meet to help with assisted migration and to propagate. It’s really wild. Anyway, I say all this just to say that, like I’m not on a never interfere with, because I think the interference is happening already. I mean, it’s not my life’s work to move trees around to places where they might make it. Right. But that is something that, you know, even the research we have about this extinction crisis is just that the loss is huge. And are there places where we could support life becoming, like diversifying and strengthening, plant communities as other trees are coming out? Like right now, where I live? I don’t know if this is how you’re where it is where you’re at or not, but the ash trees are all dying.
The ash borer, whatever? Yeah.
And it’s really happening hardcore where we live. So yes, it is true that there will be other trees that are going to come in to those canopy gaps, to live. But we are seeing these forests change dramatically right now. And it’s just, it’s going to be interesting. Like, there are people who, because the hemlocks are dying out as well from the woolly adelgid along the rivers and streams, and some places around here, there are people who are like, “Well, what are the plants that we could put in here intentionally, that would help shade that would support the trout and support the life in here?” You know, and so those kinds of ecosystem design frameworks make people really uncomfortable because of the level of damage that has happened through the inadvertent introduction of certain species.
Right. Well, it’s like, if we fucked something up so bad. And ‘we’ is a weird word to use in this context. But sure, you know, I mean, I’m a settler here and I, you know, reap the rewards of that in terms of like, the foods available to me at the store, whatever, tons of shit. But okay, we fucked this thing up so bad. I can understand people’s like, “Oh, no, we fucked it up. We just shouldn’t do anything.” But, but that’s a little bit like, pushing someone over. And then they’re like, “Help me up,” and you’re like, “No, last time I interacted with you, it went really bad. So I’m just gonna walk away.”
No, I mean, exactly. Like, we’re gonna just watch the destruction happen that is in the wake of this economic system, and not actually do anything to change it, because we might hurt something. I mean, it’s absurd when you actually lay it out that way.
Yeah, we set the house on fire. And now we don’t want to run in and help people because we just make everything worse, so we should avoid everything. I mean, it’s because I think that it makes sense for people to not be like, wildly cavalier about deciding that, you know, they should just get to reengineer the way that ecosystems work. I like, Oh, that’s such an interesting tension that I don’t have any answers for but…
Well, I mean, there is a lot of tension with it. I mean, I think a lot of times when I see scientists who are taking a really hard line, ‘no interference’ stance, they are people who don’t study indigenous land management, and don’t understand the level to which humans normally play in ecosystem, design and movement, and construction. And so I think that in general, what would be the wisest thing to do for anyone would be you know, what, if you’re not indigenous to this place, what are the indigenous folks around you saying about what is wild tending? And what does support and stewardship of this land look like right now?
Right. Yeah, though, that makes sense. What is involved in…you know, I’m not indigenous and what would be involved in trying to find that out where I’m at? Do I look for people who are like kind of talking about that publicly? I assume the answer is not just like, go find my friends who are indigenous and be like, “You there…”
Well, it depends. I mean, it really depends where where people live. I mean, there are in many places around the continent, I’m learning more and more about this, there are actually are cultural centers where you can talk to folks and be like…who are working on land management stuff, right then you know, within whatever tribal sovereignty they have in that situation. Here, this is unceded, Cherokee land, but you know, we are in contact with folks who are doing wild tending and talking about…a lot of the schools there in the Cherokee where the actual reservation is, they are actually trying to introduce more and more wild foods, you know, and so through talking to folks who are part of that project, we’ve been able to be like, “Okay, like, what, would be helpful for you to have more of?” Also, one thing that I would say in most places, there’s some tension between what indigenous groups…what land they have access to and in the Cherokee area, I mean, a specific part that they’re still have control over right now, you know, I know a grandmother who was given a $500 citation for picking herbs in the National Forest, for her daughter’s memorial, you know, and, at the same time, like they had to have…the Cherokee folks had to push through to try to get a permit to be able to pick this plant called sochan, which is a wild perennial green that people eat in the spring especially. And so through communicating around with those folks, like I’ve been able to, like learn, like what plants are being prioritized with them, but also like supporting them, you know, like, they had to petition the state for us to be like, “Can we pick herbs on this land?” Right? Yeah. And so actually, like, as annoying as it is supporting that getting the word out, making sure that there’s a shit ton of signatures sent to the State Forest, which are just like that this even a question is absurd, right? Especially because there are plenty of settler foragers just going out and foraging with no sort of impact. I mean, they’re having an impact, but they don’t have to deal with any consequences. So yeah, I guess I would say is like figuring out who’s just around you, you know, and usually, and the thing is, is I don’t know how the regions are all over the country, but it definitely in the west and southwest and in some parts of the southeast, too, it’s not that hard to find cultural centers, or people who are working on land and food sovereignty, where they’re at. And so I would just say, I don’t know about specifically where you are and that’s an interesting question. But, there are cultural centers in a lot of places that will have people working on food, wild food support, and often just like land tending and medicine ways. And I know, in the West, like, we’ve had a couple of students who actually are doing fire management, intentional fire trainings with with different indigenous tribes out there. And so they’re actually learning to do the fire management practices from the people on the ground who had that tradition. And I think that’s a fascinating way to learn to and to be like…because that can be somewhat dangerous as you’re learning, right?And so like, that feels like a pretty big service to me, to be like, “Could you help do that kind of work somewhere?” And you would learn as you went, what plants are being prioritized, which plants need support, what plants are problems, you know, through through that work as well.
Okay. I liked that. I liked that’s…I feel like usually that kind of question the like, “Well, what can you do?” doesn’t have as good of a concrete answer as that I really appreciate that. One of the things you were talking about earlier, you’re talking about, you know, the ramps that are being sold to the restaurants and stuff, right? And I was just thinking about how it seems like when you’re talking about foraging, and when you’re talking about wildcrafting, obviously, scale matters, but also when money gets involved, it seems like it gets real messy. And like, I wonder how people like, like, is there any ethical wild foods that introduce into market environments? Or is it like pretty much, if you’re going to be doing foraging, you should be feeding yourself and your family and maybe your community but not doing it at like market scale?
Yeah, that’s tough. I mean, I don’t know. There’s definitely some folks around here who do like a wild food, food share even. And then there’s people who do wild food…there’s like a wild food booth at the farmers market because of this. That’s how it is around here. There’s just more people with that interest who are willing to pay the big bucks for foraged items. And so I can imagine…
Which is just like ironic, but anyway.
Yeah, if you could see what’s on the table at this spot, it’s pretty wild. But um, anyway, but so that feels like a scale….it’s not that….I’m like, who’s actually….like, how much are they actually selling at the farmers market every week? Like, you know, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like huge but once we think about like actually scaling up to like, say, like, provide for several stores or something like that, and it does get kind of out of hand. And I know that in some places, like mushroom foraging has gotten pretty wild in a way that can be destructive, but again, that depends on the mushroom. I mean some mushrooms, it actually helps them to have a lot of people in there just sort of disturbing the ground and like spreading the spores around, while some mushrooms when it’s not actually the fruiting body like Chaga or something it can be somewhat damaging harvest a lot of it. It really just depends. I think that, if, say like your product was something that was a really, a plant that’s causing a lot of trouble in a whole area? Like around here there’s there are people who are working really madly on kudzu root production and using kudzu root for for starch and using kudzu root to make paper. They have this kudzu camp every year and like dig a ton of kudzu root and just trying to figure out how many ways they could work with kudzu root. If that was what was entering the market, then that would be fine. Because as you know, having lived in the southeast, there’s no shortage of kudzu for people to work with. So, if we were actually making a marketable item out of opportunistic and aggressive plants, then that would be not a bad idea, actually. I mean, yeah, who knows? I’m sure it could get weird.
Yeah. Right, because you could eventually enter the nonprofit trap. Like, I’m not anti nonprofits. But at some level, every nonprofit has a financial incentive to continue its problem existing.
Oh, yes. Right. Exactly. Yeah. So you’d be like, “Oh, God, we’ve got our kudzu. What are we gonna do?”
Yeah, exactly. I mean, that’s a good problem for us to run into, right?
And then, like, I was thinking about one of the other places I’ve been with the most, like intense invasive things, I think of like, the Himalayan blackberries in the Pacific Northwest, that will just like, take over every field. And, and in some ways, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, great, you know, blackberries.” And then I’m like, “Oh, I think if you’re just picking the berries, you’re actually just propagating.”
We would need to instead like have the commercial product, ‘heart of BlackBerry root’ or something, you know?
It would need to be the root. Probably, yeah. Which is just so wild. If you’ve ever removed a lot of that stuff, it’s so intense.
Yeah, I used to do landscaping. And that was, most of what we did is remove Blackberry, BlackBerry root balls or whatever. It’s been a long time.
I think also, since you brought the Northwest up again, I just wanted to say that like part of what I would want to just share here, since we’re giving different specific examples is that really, it just matters like place to place even weedy and abundant plants in some places can be a problem if you’re harvesting them other places. Like here, stinging nettle is like pretty aggressive. It’s abundant. There’s a lot of places where you can harvest a huge amount and make barely a dent in the stinging nettle patch. But, I know that there are places in the Northwest where there’s actually been a problem. And there are certain butterflies who exclusively lay their eggs, that have caterpillars that feed on nettles, which I don’t remember what kind of butterfly this is, and so those butterflies have become endangered because of the foraging craze around Portland specifically, because it’s a very small area that they inhabit. So, while I could be like “Nettles, great, just take the top third of the plant. It’s a huge patch, it won’t matter.” Like that doesn’t translate to everywhere across the continent, right? So part of what we have to do if we’re going to be foraging much for food or medicine is to actually know what are the conditions for the plant where we live? And not just have…I can’t give a list of what’s safe to harvest everywhere. That’s why invasives can feel a little safer. Because generally, if you know something invasive, then you already know that it would be helpful to right take some of them out, but other plants not so much. You know.
That’s actually one of the things that’s really interesting. I think there’s a lot of topics that we talked about on the show where you kind of can’t learn from this show. You kind of can’t learn from this like: “Oh, I follow a forger on Instagram. therefore know all this stuff.” I mean, like, I’m sure you can learn a ton of stuff that way. I’m not trying to disparage that, or my own show. But it sounds like local knowledge will always be necessary in a lot of different fields that are the kinds of fields that we like, we as a species need to like learn or we as a culture or whatever, like need to learn in order to survive what’s coming anyway are a lot of these skills where we’re actually interacting with the places we’re at in terms of you know, whether it’s like making microclimates that the temperature doesn’t change as much or being able to continue to eat food on a regular basis or whatever. as we as we move more local, a lot of the knowledge has to move local. That’s really interesting to me.
Yeah, that’s definitely true. And I would also say that it’s something that like you have to kind of pay attention to over time, because we have local knowledge as of now, but the climate is shifting so quickly. And a lot of people I know are in zones that have changed already in the past five years. And so, we also need to be paying attention to like who amongst the plants is impacted by this shift to warmer and erratic weather, and who is thriving like that, you know, and so it’s also just paying attention to those changes. And and that’s something that it really just helps to be an observer over time or to speak to people who’ve been around for quite a while. And within that, I think it’s probably important for us to think of the concept of the shifting baseline from ecology. Which, the shifting baseline means that like…Okay, so my example would be like, when my dad was a kid, my dad’s 87. When my dad was a kid, there were so many more kinds of birds, there were so many more animals of all kinds all around like wild animals. There are a lot more specific kinds of like big birds that eat big insects, like Whippoorwills, there are more Bobwhites, there were all these….there were more birds that have now you know, I think the estimation is that there’s maybe some people say 30%, some say 50%, less birds than there were 50 years ago.
That is so depressing.
It’s incredibly depressing. But when I was growing up, I would not know that if I hadn’t read that, or hadn’t talked to my dad about how many birds there were, or how many fish there were, or whatever, because I would think like this is how many how much of x there is, you know. And so when you grow up with less, you think less is normal. And we have generation after generation growing up with less and less and less. We have lost an incredible amount of biomass globally. And we don’t always know that. So, what I can say like locally living somewhere where there’s been like, I don’t even know how many herbs schools over the past two decades, there have been so many herbs, schools, and so many foraging schools and places where people….and it just draws and attracts people who are interested in doing that kind of stuff. But also, if you’re not already, you will probably will be if you stay here for long enough, I guess. Anyway, the impact on wild plant communities where plant walks happen often, where herbs schools take their students often has been very notable. And it’s because, you know, we have like, there’s just like, year after a year of alumni, of cohorts of students, of different people who have moved here who have gone and taken classes, and those people continue to visit those spots. Sometimes even if teachers have asked them not to. And they bring their friends, you know, and there’s this whole, exponentially more people harvesting plants of certain kinds, there’s certain ones that are specifically more exciting than others, probably. And so, just in seeing what’s happened since I moved here with some of the more accessible spots with specific plant communities, I’m thinking of pedicularis specifically right now, which Wood Betony is another name for that herb, that’s a plant that’s very cool and easy to identify, but also has like sort of a relaxing, muscle relaxing feel to it. So people really like it cause it has a little bit like, body relax, feel. And so those patches have just been decimated. And when I see that I’m like, you know, a lot of herb schools, at least in what I was taught traditionally, it was like people would be like, “Go in. And you can have like, you can take about one out of every 10 plants.” You know, and that would be like the maxim that we were taught at a certain point, 10%. And, but if everybody comes and takes 10%, what does that even mean? So, that is something that I’ve seen here specifically is like a cumulative effect of over harvest, over time. And it’s increased not just with the people in the field that I’m in, but just with an increase in learning about wild plants and learning what they do. Because people want to take care of their own health or they want to feed themselves, you know, like, I mean, it’s not coming from the worst place. It’s just that when we’re not in relationship and don’t know, the baseline of what that patch looked like fifteen years ago, then we don’t know that we’re in a decimated area, or where we’re with plants that are under stress. That’s something that you know, from yearly visitation.
Okay, and so it seems like then the ‘answer,’ I hate saying the ‘answer,’ because I’m sure it’s more complicated than anything I could say after that. But like, is this thing that you’re talking about, about being in relationship with these plant communities, rather than a quick maxim about like, “Oh, go visit and just it’s totally chill to take this stuff,” versus like, knowing what’s actually happening there and how things are changing. That makes sense. And then as you’re saying, with like, a few exceptions, where you’re like, “Look, it’s fine to take plantain. Fuck it,” or whatever.
Okay. Yeah, it ties into this thing that I keep thinking back on is like this concept of like, the wild feels infinite, you know? Well, of course, I can’t affect the number of…I mean, if you can even look at this, like in a negative sense, right? It’s like, :”Oh, I can’t affect the number of ticks in my yard.” But you actually can. I know the number of ticks in my yard, my yard in particular, feels infinite. How can I possibly have an impact on the number of ticks? And there are ways that I could impact that number of ticks and like, so like, if I had guinea hens or whatever, and they ate a bunch of ticks, you could actually create a notable difference, even though it seems like you’re digging from this infinite pool of ticks. This is a very gross metaphor. And so that makes sense that yeah, either these things that feel abundant, and as long as you take 10%, but you’re not thinking about how everyone does it. I mean, the whole baseline shift thing, I like…nothing is more depressing to me than thinking about the lack of biodiversity as compared to a hundred, years ago, even.
It’s so wild.
Yeah. Which leads me to the sort of conclusion of like, I think I have a difference in opinion than a lot of my friends and a lot of my community, like, I have more of this, like, “Great, we all need to start growing food inside,” like, this very, like opposite method of solving it, or rather, specifically, because I think a lot of people are like, “Oh, well, we’ll all go forage,” right? You know, as this like, “Ah, well, nature will provide for us,” and it’s kind of like, well, nature did provide for us, and then our culture, our settler culture, like fucked that up real bad. But, I like this thing that you’re talking about, about like, one of the main ways to solve that, on a small scale, at least is to grow into community with the place that you’re harvesting from, to not be extractive.
I think that there has to be kind of a mix too. I mean, I agree with you, like, I encourage people to grow their own medicine and to grow their own food as much as they can. But, also, I can say that like as a…I’m a clinician, like, you know, I have a clinical practice with herbs. And once you actually see the volume of plant material it takes to keep even a few people on a formula, or on a tea, it’s really wild. Like if I was not using some grown plants with also some weedy plants that I can just harvest, like, I don’t know what I would do. And that’s just me. Like, if we were all doing what I’m doing, then the amount of plant material would be pretty enormous. I mean, I think about how, you know, in China, it’s amazing, they have still pretty intact herbal medicine tradition that’s part of their medical system. I mean, it got homogenized after Mao, for sure, and changed, although they’re still people who practice pre Maoist Chinese medicine, but they have an enormous amount of land given to a monoculture of growing herbs for that industry. And so, you know, when I have folks be like, “Well, we should just grow our own plants,” I’m like, “Well, when we’re actually, if you were actually talking about the scale of supporting a lot of people’s health, that is a lot of land.” And and for feeding, it’s going to be even more or land, because the caloric intake we would all require is more than that, that we need with herbs, right? So,how much land are we talking? You know?
No, that that makes a lot of sense. One of the things you brought up at the beginning, that you said you wanted to return to and we’re coming near the end, you were talking about how like more and more you’re seeing maybe students coming to your school, because they’re interested in herbalism. And they’re interested in forging and wildcrafting out of economic necessity. Basically. Like, you know, I think about, you’re talking about, like, your wildcrafted table at the farmers market where everything is like wildly expensive. No pun intended. And, you know, versus like, kind of the whole point of foraging is that it’s free. Right? And I wonder if you want to talk more about that, about like…because I do think that there is even if I’m like, obviously there’s a million problems with foraging, it does seem like it still could have a way to be useful to help people on an economic level as like food prices go through the roof and wages stagnate or disappear. And all that.
I do, I do think it has a place. And I will say that like you know, just for the record in case my students are listening to that, there’s always a fair number of people who have come in like staunchly anti wildcrafting as well. So there’s definitely a pretty good mix. But, I but I’ve been noticing more and more every year there are more people that are like, “I think this is a survival skill,” with the economic downturn that’s happening, which is what you’re referring to. And so I do think that wild foods that are abundant and weedy can be a really helpful supplement to other food. For sure. I think that actually trying to live off of it is challenging. That’s something people will learn. But, you know, it is true that there’s some things we get with wild foods that we do not get from the domesticated food that we eat normally and I should just point out that I think that unless people can afford to eat organic foods, especially if it’s organic food with restorative agricultural practices, which is not a lot of organic food, we’re usually eating food if it comes from the grocery store, and in some cases, even the farmers market that is coming from extremely depleted soil, because the pressures of capitalism, of the market require people just to like, not ever let the land be fallow. They just have to continue to pump the land and extract that food from it in ways even though they’re growing the food. And so most of the food that we eat is pretty nutrient deficient, compared to what it would be in a more restorative agricultural system. Now wild food, if it’s not in a place that’s very polluted, that’s a whole other topic that we should probably mention, is going to be growing out of a place that’s not just having like a cycling of harvest over and over again. And so they tend to be more nutrient dense. So, if you could pick nettles in a place that doesn’t have a lot of toxins in the soil, it’s going to, they’re going to be nettles, that actually have a lot more mineral content than the greens you get at the grocery store. The same is true for dandelion greens. So, while you might not be able to really like, bulk up your diet with a ton of calories from the wild, although you could, it just honestly takes a lot of time and energy that not everyone has. You will, even by supplementing a little bit with dandelion greens or other wild greens, you are going to actually get more of a nutritional impact. You’ll get more minerals. You get this bitter flavor that’s been mostly bred out in the domesticated greens and lettuces. There’s not bitter any more. Bitterness actually has a purpose, which is that it helps the liver function, it helps with digestion. So, I do think that if people supplemented their diets with some wild food, it would be beneficial in more than just those calories and in more than just the money saved, because we are eating from such a depleted food system. So, this is all to say that as our budgets are being impacted by the level of inflation and how much food cost, which is just going to get worse is what it looks like, it’s also just true that we’re we’re buying food that doesn’t have as much nutrition as it should. You know? And so, you’re getting more than just like that handful of greens on your salad, you’re getting actually like pretty dense nutritional food.
That makes sense to me. At the beginning of the pandemic, I basically like lived off of my prepper stash, supplemented by wild greens for like, a month or so, which I wouldn’t like immediately recommend anyone has like fun and joyous. But, I was really, really grateful, like none of my calories came from the wild greens, but the sense that I’m actually like taking care of my body came from the wild greens.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. And that does change things. You know, I mean, I think that’s what I would say, is I’m not sure how much it’ll like reduce cost hugely at this point to be adding in a lot of other food, but that improvement in your health is going to be noticeable.
Okay, well, we’re coming up on an hour. I’m wondering if there’s anything in particular that we missed that you wish we had talked about or like?
Oh, I do have Yeah, I do have one thing to talk about. So, this may also makes sense to you, having lived around here at some point, and it’s that I was going to recommend that people read this essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer that’s called “The Honorable Harvest” and I can send you a link to that because there’s PDFs of that online, but she admits I was….Yeah, I was reviewing it today and she reminded me of something and it’s that so, for a while, this is getting to be less the case, but for a while, within different herbs circles and foraging circles that I was adjacent to there was a sort of a nod towards respectful relationships with the plants you might be harvesting and Robin Wall Kimmerer says in her piece, like you know, “Always ask permission from the plant.” But, there’s something that I was seeing like pretty commonly in settler foragers and herbalist, which would be like just like a really quick like, “Is this okay?” to the plant and then they’re like, “They said, “Yes,”” and then they would just go ahead and harvest very quickly, you know, and like, just like I swear, like immediate, like plants they’d never hung out with before like, this happened in front of me, like I mean, you know. And so, I had always been like kind of turned off by the exchange, well it wasn’t really an exchange, but like by that whatever gesture, gesture towards pretending to have communication. Which it doesn’t mean there’s not communication but, there was this really awesome way that Robin Wall Kimmerer talked about it where she’s just like, “You have to use both parts of your brain for that conversation. You’re not just using the talking and listening, you have to also use the part of your brain that’s assessing that circumstances, assessing the health of the plant, attention over time. It’s not just about intuition and communication with the plant world. It’s also actually about empirical understanding and paying attention,” you know. And so to me, and what I’ve seen in my life is that like, I’m like, I sometimes know, it’s not even appropriate to ask. I’m just like, “This standard is not doing okay. I’m not going to harvest plants here right now,” you know. And so, the idea that all that we need is like a really brief exchange of like, “Is this cool? Cool. Got it,” you know and move in. It’s like, that’s still very extractive. But, it makes you feel like you did something.
I mean, there’s a really obvious comparison here to like the way that consent culture and sex is like not handled incredibly well.
Yeah, where people are like, “Whatever. I asked,” versus like, “I should try and figure out how everyone actually feels.”
Yes. Yeah. Yeah. So just to say that, like, it’s more than asking, like asking, and listening,. Listening means actually listening over time. It’s not an instant gratification listen, you know? Yeah, that’s my last note, which would just be like to actually learn to listen and pay attention and observe and not…Unlearning extractive tendencies. And unlearning the entitlement that we all carry, live and breathe in settler colonial capitalism is a lot of work. And it requires patience and time. But also, I will say that if you see someone else behaving in a way that you’re not that into, you know, understanding that probably yelling at them is not gonna make them change their mind or behavior very quickly. So, also to have patience with other people who were on different learning edges here with this, you know?
Yeah, that, that makes a lot of sense. Well, where can people…do you want people to find you?
Yes, I have. So, I have a blog that’s called Radical Vitalism with my partner, Dave. And our school is Terra Sylva School, which we run with Jen Stovall. I can put that stuff in, I’ll send it to you to put in the show notes. And then we also have a podcast called The Book on Fire. And we’re about to start our third season. And we’re going to actually talk about the “Dawn of Everything.” So, that should relate…
Oh, I love that book.
Yeah, so good. So good. So, it relates to kind of some of what we’re talking about at least.
Cool. Yeah. Cool. Awesome. All right. Well, thank you so much. And I’m sure have you on again, at some point.
Yeah. Thanks a lot.
Thank you so much for listening. if you enjoyed this podcast….Well, first of all, if you enjoyed hearing from Janet, I highly recommend that you check out the earlier episode with Janet and Dave about herbalism and herbalism for emergency medical needs and all of that. They have a lot to say. And if you enjoyed this episode, and you enjoy this podcast in general, please consider supporting us by telling people about the podcast and telling the internet about the podcast and telling algorithms about the podcast by rating, and reviewing, and subscribing, and all of that stuff that has a larger impact than one might expect. Much like killing ticks in your yard, you can also support us financially. This podcast pays its audio editor and the transcriptionist. And we’re very proud to be able to do that work. And we are supported in that work by the people who support Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness on Patreon, the publisher that publishes us. That’s what makes it a publisher. It’s called Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness. We have another podcast called Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness that you can check out, that comes out every month and has different fiction, and memoir, and poetry, and essays, and all kinds of fun stuff that comes out once a month. And if you support us on Patreon, you’ll get a zine in the mail every month. Well, if you support us at $10 or more on Patreon, you get a zine in the mail every month. And in particular, I would like to thank Aly and Paparouna and Milica, Boise Mutual Aid, Theo, Hunter, Sean, S.J., Paige, Mikki, Nicole, David, Dana, Chelsea, Kat J., Staro. Jenipher, Eleanor, Kirk, Sam, Chris, Michaiah, and Hoss the dog. You all make it possible, make the dream work. You’re the team work…anyway, I will talk to you all soon and I hope you’re doing as well as you can.
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