Tending the Wild

For as long as we’ve been a species, all across the world human beings have told stories. And in the stories told about origins and our place within the world, there is a theme that consistently reoccurs. In these stories, human beings are given a role as stewards or caretakers of the earth. They are taught to respect and value all other beings, knowing that there is no separation of humans from out of the web of nature, but that we are all related and interdependent on one another.

To use the language of science, we might say that Homo sapiens plays the ecological role of keystone species of the planet. A keystone species is understood as one which has such a large impact on its environment that its very presence structures and maintains the ecological community of which it is a part. And no one would deny that human beings have drastically reconfigured the planet’s landscape! Indeed, many today are coming into agreement that a new geological epoch has arisen, and it is to be called the Anthropocene: the Age of Man.

I myself prefer the term coined by biologist E.O. Wilson: Eremocene – the Age of Loneliness. Looking at all the changes humans have made, the outlook seems bleak today. We live in a time of great upset and unrest. Upon us are the plagues of industrial pollution, climate change, ecological collapse, and mass extinctions, including the prospect of our own. The weight of all of this turmoil leads one down a path of grief. In fear of making the situation any worse, reducing our environmental impact has become a fixation for many. And for good reasons.

But in striving to reduce impact, we run the risk of orienting onto a course leading nowhere. Without alternatives for positive action, we find ourselves striving to do increasingly less and less. We may be led down a path of preservationism, for example, believing that the best environmental practice is that which does the least – adopting a “hands off” approach to the natural world. But as our continuing inaction fails to bring about positive changes in the world, we may feel the weight of our grief grow heavier and heavier upon the spirit. We may begin to succumb to feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, numbness and apathy, self-loathing, or even misanthropy. This is no good. I say, doing nothing should be nothing to strive for! There are ways which allow us to engage in better, healthier actions, leaving behind positive handprints instead of negative footprints (as the saying goes…). As a keystone species of the planet, it is our obligation and responsibility to do so. We can come to learn and practice these ways, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge provides a path forward.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) can be many things. TEK describes a collection of aboriginal, indigenous, and cultural practices of natural resource management. The outlook on human ecological changes has not always been so bleak. In traditional indigenous societies, human modifications were generally positive. What I outline here is the concept and process of wild lands tending or wildtending, also known as “tending the wild.” Widespread, light modifications to the landscape – wild-tending – has been at the center of indigenous lifeways for thousands of years. With this essay I hope to inspire and catalyze the implementation of some of these methods, stimulating positive, healthy impact within our ecosystems.

Wild-tending in Theory

To begin with a discussion of wild-tending, we may have to put up for examination and leave behind some of our prejudices and misconceptions. The first examination we must make is the idea that human modifications or changes to the environment are wrong – morally, scientifically, or both – and that they inhibit or disrupt the flow of natural ecological processes. The second examination concerns our understanding of wilderness and what it means to be wild.

I recommend to the reader the book Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. It is a title by M. Kat Anderson of the University of California-Davis, and a tremendous resource and scholarly defense of the ideas in this essay. One of the things that M. Kat Anderson succeeds in showing within the early chapters of her book is just how profoundly humans had influenced California ecology following millenia of indigenous management before the arrival of Europeans. In his book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, the environmental historian William Cronon makes similar claims about the environment of the northeast, not only as it was before European colonization, but as it became after.

In recent decades, ecology has gone through its own version of a Newtonian Revolution. Gone is the old idea of the climax state in the forest succession model, and patch dynamics are in. The climax state model suggested that ecosystems, given enough time, would eventually arrive at an ending state (at least until the next disturbance anyway), and that this sequence was fairly predictable. Patch dynamics has overthrown that old climax model, and put in a new one emphasizing the interactive, shifting, stochastic (random/in flux) nature of ecological communities. A similar change is occurring in the debate around invasive species. The mainstream emphasis – embedded within environmental policy – is on the eradication of exotic, invasive species. But that idea is losing its currency with a younger generation of writers and thinkers such as Emma Marris, author of The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, where she discusses the wide-spread emergence of novel ecosystems, invasive species as a response or solution to ecological problems, and highlights their creative powers and functional diversity.

The new picture that is being shown is ecology as the sum total of dynamic interactions among all organisms (including humans!), flowing in ways that are not always predictable, and actively creating novelty with every iteration and configuration.
Ecology is fertile grounds for change these days, and growing up out of the field are new inquiries and old insights regarding the human place in the ecosystem. The old paradigm was that first there was the wilderness, and then came the axe and the plowshare. But the new paradigm challenges the very validity of the wilderness concept, and confounds our attempts to carve an essential line of demarcation between hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist.

The environmental historian William Cronon sees no hope for the wilderness concept: “We mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem.” He advocates instead for the term “wildness.” Others point out the inherent ethnocentrism in the experience and description of wilderness. That the European white man could come to the New World and declare it a virgin wilderness – thereby justifying his actions in clearing, commodifying, and colonizing the landscape – by even thinking and doing so he completely erases the histories of indigenous ecological management, denying even that the indigenous could have altered the landscape at all. Wilderness is, by this measure, a racist concept.

A real case-in-point are the writings of John Muir, a nineteenth century Scottish-American romantic who penned ebullient, lyrical prose extolling the majesty and beauty of the California mountains and untrammeled wildernesses. It was John Muir, advocating as president of his organization The Sierra Club, who persuaded Teddy Roosevelt to create Yosemite National Park in 1903. The indigenous Miwok were removed from their ancestral lands within the park, because it was believed their presence could only be a nuisance. The park’s managers banned fires in order that the wilderness of the park be preserved. But few realized at the time that the open, sweeping vistas of Yosemite were due in large part to the Miwok’s semi-annual practice of burning. The very fires that had come to be suppressed once kept the meadows open and clear for the maintenance of grand wildflower displays, and when fires had burned in the forest they suppressed the growth of vigorous, undesirable trees like Douglas fir and altered the forest composition in favor of oaks which were more useful.

Yosemite became a landscape without its people, and began to change and “decline,” in anthropocentric terminology. The meadows began to be swallowed up by trees such as Douglas fir, and the composition, abundance, and diversity of the wildflowers began to shift for a number of reasons. These changes concerned the preservationists, who had assumed wrongly that taking a hands-off approach would ensure that the park would remain much like they found it into perpetuity.

Fire management was common not only throughout the west but also in the southeast. Annual burning by tribal groups resulted in a landscape full of savanna habitats – widely-spaced groves of trees situated within grasslands. Early colonists remarked at the open, park-like quality of many of the eastern forests which they could easily drive through with horses and wagons. Bison roamed freely over the continent – across the mid-West, over the Appalachians, and all the way even to parts of the Atlantic coast – and everywhere were elk, deer, wolves, and other animals. The name of the state of Kentucky in fact means “meadowlands” in an Iroquoian language. Today the bluegrass state has far more forest than prairie, though the name still gives us clues to the past.

Most of the prairie habitats that were across the eastern half of the continent were results of fire management. The interior portion of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, for instance, used to be referred to as The Great Plain and it was a sandplain grassland community with some scrub oak bottomlands. It was in habitats like this that the now extinct heath hen roamed the coasts all the way from southern Canada to possibly as far south as Florida. In the early 1600s, colonial Puritan minister Frances Higginson wrote of the view from a hill in Boston, Massachusetts, where one could see for “thousands of acres” with not a tree in sight. The patchwork of prairies, meadows, and savannas burned by fire, along with interspersed patches of older, dense forests which had remained unburned, once comprised the ecology of eastern North America but now no longer exist. What few prairie remnants do remain are confined mostly to the mid-West: western Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, etc. Many of the prairies and meadow lands have grown back with forests or have been functionally erased by human developments, agricultural fields, and cities, and many of the old forests have regrown without fire in second- and third-growth forms, their structure and ecological communities different.

And in the prairie remnants which remain, some of the species present include prairie turnips and breadroots (Pediomelum esculentum & other species), Atlantic camas (Camassia scilloides), prairie onion (Allium stellatum), eastern yampah (Perideridia americana), and others. All of these are indigenous first foods, and their presence and distribution is no coincidence!

When so much of the continent bore the handprints of mankind, what of the vast wilderness described by so many captivated European explorers and colonists? I’m sure you are getting the picture by now: what the Europeans called wilderness was in fact something more akin to a cultural product of the indigenous peoples. Wilderness to the European was a Garden to the Native American.

M. Kat Anderson has some good discussion of the wilderness concept in Tending the Wild. “The word for wilderness is absent from many tribal vocabularies, as is the word for civilization,” she writes in the introduction. Indigenous groups did not distinguish between managed land and wild land as contemporary agricultural societies do. She continues, “contemporary Indians often use the word wilderness as a negative label for land that has not been taken care of by humans for a long time, for example, where dense understory shrubbery or thickets of young trees block visibility and movement. A common sentiment among California Indians is that a hands-off approach to nature has promoted feral landscapes that are inhospitable to life.”

A re-examination of the wilderness concept also prompts inquiries into the etymological origins of wild, wildness, and wilderness. A look at the history of language reveals that wild descends from the Old English word weld or wold meaning “forest” or “woodlands.” A wild animal is one who is “of the forest/woodlands.” Environmental studies historian Roderick Frazier Nash highlights a different but complementary meaning to the wilderness concept, noting the parallels between the word will and the word wild. According to Nash, a wild animal is one that is self-willed. And a self-willed landscape is a wilderness. I like this definition.

Acknowledging that wild beings are self-willed gives to them both the agency and the autonomy that many mechanistic thinkers would like to deny. There is a tradition in western science which views animals – especially non-human ones – as mindless automatons, hopelessly enslaved by desirous appetites and thoughtless instincts. In my experience, this understanding of the world is precisely backwards. It is instead domesticated animals that act without purpose, and wild animals that exercise restraint, prudence, and discipline. In the community of subjects which is the natural world and what we call ecology, wrong and reckless moves often result in death. While evolution is on the whole a cooperative endeavor, one has to play by those rules of cooperation, or else they will eventually find themselves in an evolutionary dead-end. Domesticated animals don’t have to worry about the rules of engagement with other beings so much, because they will be cared for by someone anyhow. (In Native American tradition, such “rules of engagement” are referred to as the Original Instructions given to each being.)

On a practical level, the difference between wild and domesticated has almost everything to do with sex. When a plant, animal, or other organism can reproduce itself, true to form, and without helping hands, it is what we may consider wild. Wild beings are fruitful and they multiply, it is simply what they do.

In the rewilding (that’s a whole other discussion!) that I do with plants, the focus is on the seed. With a species like ramps or wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), for example, it may be two years before each seed germinates and begins to grow as a plant. In another four years the plant still has not reached maturity, and does not flower. Only by about the seventh year – five years after germination – will the plant flower, get pollinated, and set seed of it’s own. Many perennial plants are on this seven-year cycle. Camas or wild hyacinth (Camassia spp.) follows the same form – two years to germinate, five years to grow, seed-set by the seventh year. Thus the integrity of the population is maintained by those matured plants that actively produce more of themselves, year after year, and the emphasis remains always on the viability of seeding populations.

Domesticated animals do not and often cannot reproduce themselves in such a way. Domesticated bull dogs, for example, have heads so broad that the mother’s pelvis is not wide-enough to deliver them, and they must be born by cesarean-section. In the case of cattle, the animals are kept separately and not given the chance to reproduce unless the farmer allows his steers to mingle with the cows. When it comes to the farming of crops, many varieties are not open-pollinated but are instead hybrids, and hybrid seeds generally are not true-to-form to their parents (causing uncertainty or undesirability in the quality of foods grown from them), or they are simply not viable at all. For this reason, farmers purchase things like new seed potatoes every few years from growers who engage in the breeding work. Seed savers who maintain heirloom vegetable populations year after year engage in another approach, however, their plants will not germinate or grow or maintain viable populations into the future without human interventions to intensively create optimal conditions for the plants. Thus open-pollinated heirloom varieties cannot be considered wild, either.

In wild tending, the emphasis is on creating and maintaining the abundance of wild plant populations. While a wild plant may not truly need a human wild-tender, it can certainly benefit from one, just as the human may benefit from it. Collecting seed from healthy patches and sowing them elsewhere to create new and dense patches increases a plant’s habitat and leads to further and increasing abundance throughout the landscape through the natural reproduction of these self-willed wild plants. Wild-tending is a kind of populations management.

Hopland Pomo woman collecting seeds with a seed-beater
A California Pomo woman collecting seeds with a seed-beater. Photographed before 1924, Smithsonian Institution. Used as the cover of M. Kat Anderson’s book.

I will reproduce now the opening paragraphs of the Introduction to Tending the Wild, as Kat Anderson so concisely and elegantly wrote them. In an explanation of what is tending the wild, why re-invent the wheel! She writes:

“The New World is in fact a very old world. The mountain forests, broad inland valleys, oak-studded hills, and deserts of the region now called California were thoroughly known, celebrated in story and song, named in great detail, and inhabited long before European explorers sailed along the west coast of North America for the first time. Every day of every year for millennia, the indigenous people of California interacted with the native plants and animals that surrounded them. They transformed roots, berries, shoots, bones, shells, and feathers into medicines, meals, bows, and baskets and achieved an intimacy with nature unmatched by the modern-day wilderness guide, trained field botanist, or applied ecologist.

“The first European explorers, American trappers, and Spanish missionaries entering California painted an image of the state as a wild Eden providing plentiful nourishment to its native inhabitants without sweat or toil. But in actuality, the productive and diverse landscapes of California were in part the outcome of sophisticated and complex harvesting and management practices.

“California Indians protected and tended favored plant species and habitats, harvested plant and animal products at carefully worked out frequencies and intensities, and practiced an array of horticultural techniques. Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized the potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged a diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years. In other words, California Indians were able to harvest the foods and basketry and construction materials they needed each year while conserving – and sometimes increasing – the plant populations from which they came.

“During the course of their long history in California, Indians so exhaustively explored the plant kingdom for its uses and so thoroughly tested nature’s responses to human harvesting and tending that they discovered how to use nature in a way that provided them with a relatively secure existence while allowing for the maximum diversity of other species. In the context of the entire continuum of possible human interactions with nature, ranging from exploitation and human-designed environments to hands-off preservation, this relationship between the indigenous people of California and the natural world represented a middle way, a calculated, tempered use of nature. Tending the Wild explores how California Indians managed economies that occupied this middle portion of the continuum. It recasts them as active agents of environmental change and stewardship, shattering the hunter-gatherer stereotype long perpetuated in the anthropological and historical literature of California.

“The terms ‘hunter-gatherer’ and ‘forager,’ inaccurate anthropological labels assigned to most California Indian groups, connote a hand-to-mouth existence. They imply that California Indians dug tubers, plucked berries, and foraged for greens in a random fashion, never staying in any one place long enough to leave lasting human imprints. But as Tending the Wild demonstrates, the indigenous people of California had a profound influence on many diverse landscapes – in particular, the coastal prairies, valley grasslands, and oak savannas, three of the most biologically rich plant communities in California. Without an Indian presence, the early European explorers would have encountered a land with less spectacular wildflower displays, fewer large trees, and fewer park-like forests, and the grassland habitats that today are disappearing in such places as Mount Tamalpais and Salt Point State Park might not have existed in the first place.”

– M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild

Wild-tending in Practice

Aside from fire management, there are numerous other techniques in the wildtender’s bundle. Willows may be pruned in the fall and winter so that in the spring they will grow long, straight wickers for basketry. Maples, ashes, walnuts, and poplars may be coppiced on 5 or 10 year rotations for regenerative timber harvesting. The composition and abundance of wild plants may be managed by the intentional sowing of seeds of desirable species, and sometimes the weeding out of species serving less function. Even the action of harvesting roots in the spring with a digging stick stimulates the stronger future growth of wild food patches. Digging loosens and aerates the soil, allows higher permeability by water, and some perennial species even thrive on the disturbance digging causes, sending out new growth where roots are touched or broken. By leaving behind the biggest and oldest plants, wild tenders ensure also that the best genes will go on to regenerate in each patch.
With the right insight, almost every interaction with the natural world can become one that is simultaneously symbiotic. The first peoples understood that what you leave behind is more important than what you take, and it was this gifting attitude that was central to the process of tending wild lands. It was a spirit of giving which enabled ecosystems to increase in an abundance of food while human beings increased in generations. In this light, Traditional Ecological Knowledge can be considered the good habits that go on to create and maintain one’s own habitat.

With this blog, I aim to profile many different species and their uses, harvest, and cultivation in a wild-tending context. This essay provides some philosophy, but it is the blog entries that provide the nitty gritty. Please read, understand, and enjoy, and do send me feedback!

Masanobu Fukuoka's "Natural Farming" in The One-Straw Revolution
Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One-Straw Revolution, an important work in the permaculture library. What Fukuoka came to discover and call “natural farming” is a nearly exact match to indigenous management techniques of tending the wild.

“Several important insights were revealed to me as I talked with elders and accompanied them on plant gathering walks. The first of these was that one gains respect for nature by using it judiciously. By using a plant or an animal, interacting with it where it lives, and tying your well-being to its existence, you can be intimate with it and understand it. The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with – that one should respect nature by leaving it alone – by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or an animal.

Many elders I interviewed said that plants do better when they gather them. At first this was a jarring idea – I had been taught that native plants were here long before humans and did best on their own without human interference – but it soon became clear to me that my native teachers were giving me another crucial gift of insight. California Indians had established a middle ground between the extremes of overexploiting nature and leaving it alone, seeing themselves as having the complementary roles of user, protector, and steward of the natural world. I had been reading about how various animals’ interactions with plant populations actually benefited those plants – how grizzly bears scattered the bulblets of Erythronium lilies in the process of rooting up and eating the mature bulbs, how California scrub jays helped oaks reproduce by losing track of some of the acorns they buried – and it seemed plausible that the many generations of humans in California’s past had played a similar role. If it was true that native plants did better with our help, it meant that there was a place for us in nature.

About halfway into the years of fieldwork, I began to ask native elders, ‘Why are many plants and animals disappearing?’ Their answers, which always pinned the blame on the absence of human interaction with a plant or an animal, began to add up to a third major insight: not only do plants benefit from human use, but some may actually depend on humans using them. Human tending of certain California native plants had been so repetitive and long-term that the plants might very well have become adapted to moderate human disturbance. This idea had a very practical corollary: the conservation of endangered species and the restoration of historic ecosystems might require the reintroduction of careful human stewardship rather than simple hands-off preservation. In other words, reestablishing the ecological associations between people and nature might be appropriate in certain areas.”

– M. Kat Anderson in Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, University of California Press