Last fall, I was sitting at a table at our local Green Fair, talking to people about the
ers and I had to offer. Many of the young native or Mexican children immediately recognized the nuts I was cracking, saying “bellotas” and asking what I planned to do with them, and tell me how their grandmothers would make bellota soup. At one point I was approached by a woman who began asking questions of me, which escalated into somewhat antagonistic jabs. When I began explaining about how I had spent hours collecting the acorns over several weeks, she began saying to me I had no right to be taking things from the forest, that I was stealing from the trees and the animals, and how could I be so selfish. I tried to explain my wildcrafting ethics to the woman, how I most assuredly collected my bounty with conscious awareness of the plants and animals around me. But this lady had it in her head otherwise, a
nd I gave up explaining.
It is difficult to explain the hours of time spent crouched in the warm sun, lying in the sand, gathering a single acorn at a time by hand, how I felt the trees alive around me, the small animals scurrying around me collecting their own stash of nuts for the cool season, to someone who doesn’t see it that way. I do understand that if everyone also decided to wildcraft, many plants would be stripped bare by over harvesting, and thus laws are enacted to prevent people from “taking” from the earth.
While I understand the idea behind the protection of natural resources, I also feel deeply how these types of ideas and laws have created a disconnect between humans, the earth, and the resources and gifts that Gaia has graciously bestowed. Humans have become increasingly alienated from the natural world, because we no longer understand, in our bones, and our daily sustenance how deeply we are dependent on the earth. Food comes from grocery stores, or if we are fortunate, local organic farms and ranchers, but very few people come in contact with the actual procurement and production of the food that passes through their mouth. Naturally, gardening in the home becomes a way for us to reconnect with our food and the earth, but it is lacking something that the wild foods and animals can teach us, ju
st by their presence, and making ourselves open to it.
As an herbalist I have primarily been a wildcrafter. I do grow some of my medicinal herbs and much of my food in my garden, but there has always been something in the call of the wild places that speaks to my wildest heart. I go to the plants for teaching, for healing, and for medicine. Many people ask why I go to so much effort to wildcraft much of my medicine and a significant portion of food, when it could easily be grown in a garden? I respond, the wild things have a special teaching for us, in this age of disconnect and alienation from nature, that we are still so dependent upon.
The wild plants I go to for medicine and food are tough creatures, they endure the harshest extremes of weather, water scarcity, bugs, fire, and climate change, and yet they persist. They are rich and resilient in the face of challenge. Those wild plants have a strength from which we can both learn from and benefit from medicinally or nutritionally. Plants grown in wild soils that are rich in nutrients are almost always more nutritionally dense than their cultivated counterparts grown in depleted agricultural soils, they endure the extremes and develop compounds that are strong and medicinal in order to resist such challenges. And that is just the beginning of the benefits of using wild plants for food and medicine, but there is more.
Contrary to that woman’s belief about harvesting from the wild, wildcrafting both food and medicine brings me in closer contact with the ever changing environment on which I live and depend, it fosters an intimacy with both the creatures in the environment and the needs of that environment. My regular forays to certain spots through all the seasons teaches me about the cycles which our landscape moves through, I become aware of small changes that might go unnoticed by untrained eyes, but can mean significant environmental changes. I notice when a particular plant population is growing, expanding and becoming ever healthier, or likewise, when a plant population is retreating, getting smaller or moving. In noting these changes I can act responsibly as an herbalist, wildcrafter and inhabitant of the land, by sowing seeds, refraining from harvesting, or encouraging growth and expansion. I notice the years in which little rain fell, and familiar plants are sparse or not present at all. I have seen chaparral bushes brown and drop leaves, and prickly pear turn red and shrivel in response to a particularly long winter drought, and I have seen washes flood in the overabundance of summer rain, ripping out trees by the roots, exposing new rocks and covering over embankments with fresh silt and sand, thus changing the landscape permanently, and influencing the subsequent growth of plants in that area. When I am wildcrafting I notice which animals are also harvesting from the plants, and work in concert, always aware enough to leave more than plenty for the other inhabitants of the landscape, including the soils which take in discarded leaf litter and plant stalks and transform it into mineral rich humus for the next seasons growth of plants. I very rarely wildcraft for the sake of taking plants home solely for medicine or food. I wildcraft for the sake of experiencing the plants in their wild home, for the sake of becoming intimate with the changing moods and needs of my landscape, for the sake of reconnecting myself deeply with the earth, which provides everything I am dependent on, and for the sake of falling in love each day with the stark beauty of this land of extremes and contrasts; of drought and fire, of rain and rushing waters, of tropical vines and giant cactus, of riparian bosques and mountain pine forests.