edible wild plants, Naturalist


We want to conserve the world around us. Not to eliminate the footprint of mankind, but to soften it, to pause it for a moment during the hurried day to smell the wildflowers, admire the industry of the bee, and thrill to the music of the songbird. Conservation understands the vital role of the green space to the human soul, and seeks to create oases in the urban jungle where trees can sink deep roots and remind us that all food does not arrive in neat styrofoam packages at the supermarket. Conservation is driven by the hunter who wants to teach his grandchildren to hunt the wild creatures – not to extinction, but to respect the creatures that sustain life through the food we eat. Conservation understands that even the seemingly useless creatures fill an ecological niche and should be conserved rather than eliminated out of some petty human grudge: like mosquitoes, ticks, and wasps.

I was raised by conservationists. My family hunted and fished for food, trapped for furs that would be made into warm garments, and foraged for food and profit (I have picked wild mushrooms commercially, in addition to many edibles for the home consumption). Every one of them understood that the wild places have limits, and if we want to cut and come again, to use a gardening metaphor, you cannot cut too far. Wounding the roots of nature means it will wither, die, and stop providing the bounty we relied on. Short-sighted savages cut the land to ribbons and watch it dying as they starve. The long-sighted conservationist seeks to keep the land healthy and productive.

I am not, however, an Environmentalist. My core ethos is to conserve the land and resources of it… for use and benefit of mankind. Why do I think that even if we could kill every last tick on earth, we shouldn’t? Because in my conservatism, I understand that there are consequences to actions, and we don’t always understand what those are. Do I want to return the wounded lands to what they were before? No. Because, to be blunt, we don’t know what they were. And even if we have superficial historical accounts, we don’t know how long it had been in that state, or why. I do think that restoration is not a bad goal. I also think that extinction of species is a natural, normal process, and by attempting to hold that back, we court unforeseen consequences.

One of my personal projects is to document native pollinators and raise awareness of them. I have no grudge against the Honeybee (Apis mellifera) for being an invasive, introduced species. Any more than I’d refuse to pick daisies for the vase, or eat apples. But I do believe that relying on a monoculture for production of food is a dangerous precedent. And we do it in many ways. Conserving species diversity is vital if we are to persist through the changes in ecosystem time inevitably brings. I include my own species in the list of ones needing conservation, because somewhat obviously I’m pro-human and believe that we deserve to live just as much as the spotted owl or the fairy shrimp or… choose your endangered species here. No, humans are hardly endangered. Yes, humans have a mandate to be stewards of the earth. So it’s up to us to conserve the natural world around us, so our children and children’s children can enjoy it, subsist from it, and thrive.

I wrote last week about the environmentalists, who would have us return the Earth to some idyllic ‘unspoiled’ state. I have debated in the past a self-proclaimed anthropologist who maintained fiercely that hunter-gatherers were a peaceable bunch who never made war and lived from the plenty of the land. Less people, they seem to think, means more for them personally without having to compete for food, or do that nasty four-letter word ‘work.’ Having hunted, and gathered, and done so in both one of the most bountiful environments in the world (Willamette Valley, OR) and one of the harshest (Interior Alaska) I can assure you it’s not as easy as lying under a shady bush munching peaches. Although there can be days like that… if you don’t care about the future.

I do care about the future, which is why I write about these topics, I fill up an Instagram feed with beautiful weeds and bugs, and I talk about my passion for nature if given half a chance. People as individuals are caring, warm, bright souls. People as a group are nasty, filthy, ugly mobs. If I can make them look, really look, at something like a lowly wasp before they “Burn it with FIRE!!!!eleventy!!” then perhaps there will be hope for the future. But I don’t advocate for the mass murder of humans to return the Earth to some more ‘natural’ state. And that’s what makes me a conservationist, not an Environmentalist.

But what about pollution? What about it? Look around you. The pollution problems aren’t here in the USofA any longer. Sure, there are bad spots. But the activism in the 60s and 70s mean that we are cleaner than we have been since, possibly, men started to settle on this continent. And I’m not talking about the wave of settlers that came in from the East. The tribes that wandered across the Bering Strait while it was a land bridge brought with them habits like setting fires to clear land/burn animals for food and to reduce competition for food, open outdoor latrines until they started getting sick, then moving camp to crap all over another place, and driving entire herds of animals off hills to harvest what their bellies could hold and let the rest rot. All those things were necessary for survival. I’d do it, too, if I were living in that time. But we no longer need to crap where we eat, so we don’t. And we have learned to clean up after ourselves. And don’t get me started on the generation of energy – the clean coal revolution, nuclear energy, and hydroelectric all are vastly more productive with less waste than you were taught in schools.

But we’re still taught that we are a blight upon the land. There are more trees in, say, New England (since I am intimately familiar with the forests up there) than there were a hundred years ago. Sure, there’s trash in the creeks. I photographed some last week. But I also photographed an extensive historical midden in the woods near that creek, with hundreds of bottles that dated back a hundred years. We don’t do that any longer. We’re not perfect. We are a flawed species. But what sets us apart from the beasts is that we know better. We can conserve the wild places, and logically conclude that our actions are causing damage, and then rectify that damage, making the place where we stepped better than it was before we were walking there. Logging companies replant where they cut. Mining companies research and spend a ton of money planting over their tailings and dregs to reclaim the land for the wild again. Ranchers keep an eagle eye on their herds and prevent overgrazing, while nurturing the land to ensure it will support their livelihood. This isn’t all noble cause. There are excellent reasons to make the Earth thrive, and someone with half a brain will conserve the resources for the future.

My last thought. I was walking in a nearby metropark – a green space conserved specifically for the enjoyment of urban dwellers in the nearby city – with the First Reader, this spring. I noted a woman with two children walking down the road toward us. She was… well, I’ll be impolitic here. She was the epitome of poor trash. Tattooed, skinny with a pot belly (sign of poor nutrition), wearing ragged clothes, bad teeth, dirty hair. The children looked half-feral. She was carrying a plastic supermarket bag full of something, and when I got closer I could see she had been picking mushrooms. She held one out to me ‘Hey, are these edible?’ I looked. “No, and neither are those. Why did you pick them in the park? When you didn’t know what they were?’ She shrugged. ‘I thought I could sell ‘em.’ Then, more recently, in a mushroom ID group I belong to on facebook, I saw someone post a photo – and this is a very common thing – of a table full of mushrooms, with ‘anyone want some? I picked more than I need.’ These… these are the reasons we need to teach conservation, because humans with no knowledge of the wild have no respect for it. Urban poor will pick the parks clean of everything, because it might have value in some way, they know not what. Overeager hunters will take more than they want or need, and give the responsible ones a bad name. We must teach them, old and young, if we are to persist and endure.

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