by Scott Kloos
It’s a clear, somewhat chilly September morning in the high desert mountains of southeastern Oregon. I am here with a small group of people facilitating a plant teacher immersion trip. The day previous we came to this same place to commune with Aspen (Populus tremuloides); today we will ceremonially connect with Yellow Pond-lily (Nuphar polysepala) and potentially harvest rhizomes from which we will make medicine to share with our friends, families, and communities.
A light breeze blows through my hair. Behind me the same wind animates the leaves of the quaking aspen grove which hugs the side of the muddy lakebed upon whose ill-defined edge I stand. Surrounded by the sound of the goldenyellow, trembling leaves I relax into a deeper state of presence. Anchored by Aspen’s persistent and expansive clonal root system I allow myself to open more widely to the lifeforce and ecological information which pulses through every being within this ecosystem.i With enhanced awareness I scan with eyes, ears, nose, heart, and whole being: vibrant blue sky, smell of sagebrush, small winds funneling across the lake-scape rustling through desiccated plant-life, large heart-shaped pond-lily leaves browned and plastered to the mud with no seedpods in sight, feelings of solastalgia.ii
Recognition sets in as I acknowledge the absence of any standing water. In each of the last four years I’ve noticed a progressive receding of the lake’s water level, but this year there’s not even a hint of the small puddles that remained at this time last year. In years past the water in this snow- and spring-fed basin would persist through the region’s typical hot, dry summer with only the edges of the lake drying up. The yellow pond-lily’s leaves would remain green. Although it is possible that the drying up of the lake may have resulted solely from periodic drought conditions that have historically impacted Oregon and other western states, we now know with certainty that conditions such as these will be increasingly common and that we have been, are, and will most definitely continue witnessing with greater force and frequency catastrophic weather and climatic events. We are living in times of great change, which some have dubbed the Anthropocene, a new epoch of Earth’s history marked by industrial civilization’s devastating impact upon our planet’s air, water, land, and life systems.
After concluding the ceremony our group walks down to the lake through a gap in the aspens that encircles our ceremonial space. The sun shines brightly overhead as we walk. Our silence broken only to marvel at and appreciate the presence of the many tiny brown and green frogs who hop aside to make way for our passage across the dried and cracking lake-bottom mud. A turkey vulture glides effortlessly through the sky buoyed by currents of warm afternoon air. We circle around a grouping of yellow pond-lilies that have attracted our attention a third of the way in from the lake’s southern edge. Not having shared with the members of the group my earlier realization about the lake’s acute dryness, I invite each of us to find our alignment with the land, to tune into the deeper ecological intelligence of this place, and to observe with all of our senses—thinking and feeling our way towards an assessment of the state of this ecosystem.
After a period of silence, I invite each participant to direct their attention to Yellow Pond-lily and ask whether it is okay for us to harvest today. When holding space for a group to collectively ask permission, I honor each person’s current state and their personal relationship to the plants and to the land. It is quite possible for some to get a “no” while others may hear a “yes.” I usually fi nd this process somewhat challenging. In this case it was even more so because for me, based on my longer term relationship with this place and the beings who call it home, it is very clear to me that we won’t be harvesting today. We are in the midst of something beyond this time and place, and deeply consequential situations call for collective noes.
I wait silently as the attention of each participant returns from the reverent inquiry to which each has dedicated themselves and ask what information or feelings have arisen. One by one each shares that they do not feel that this is the proper time or place for a harvest. I express my feelings from earlier in the day and tell them about what I have witnessed over the last several years.
We sing to the plants. Some of us wander off to make offerings, to have a private moment to be present with our own feelings about the state of the world and the state of this place, and to perhaps enter into empathetic engagement with the surrounding life. While we won’t be able to partake in the always fun and rewarding experience of a yellow pond-lily harvest together, we will all be bringing medicine home to share.
Wildcrafters as Integral Parts of the Ecosystem
Not harvesting can be as profound an experience as harvesting. Saying “no” need not feel or be constrictive. It can be as liberating as saying “yes,” and so long as our responses to the world are based on experiences of deep connection and communion with the community of life, we can move with more certainty and integrity as integral components of the Earth. But for processes such as this to be truly grounded and aligned we must also engage in critical reflection and work to heal and transform the personal and cultural traumas we all carry. That said recognizing and accepting the ways climate change is already affecting the lifesustaining balance of the ecosystems in which wild plant communities thrive, we must as wildcrafters ask ourselves some serious questions about the ways we engage with the world. How are rising temperatures, extended periods of drought, erratic seasonal transitions, and other factors of the Earth’s changing climate impacting wild plant communities and the ecosystems in which they/we live? How will we adapt our harvesting practices to reflect this new reality? As we bear witness to the increasingly evident human-caused planetary crises spurred on by technoindustrial civilization, is it enough to simply alter the way we assess and plan for the long-term health and vitality of ecosystems from which we harvest wild plants, or might we simultaneously practice wildcrafting as a way of transforming the fundamental ways we conceive of and interact with wild nature and the community of all life? And how might adopting regenerative harvesting practices help us perceive the world in ways that will allow us to more deeply connect and intimately engage with local and bioregional ecological intelligence?
Answering questions such as these not only requires assessments of physical ecological processes but demands that we restore cultural frameworks that allow us to access the inherent ecological knowledge that has guided and continues to guide traditional cultures all across the globe. By consciously developing relationships with the living world we can be present to the Earth community in more mutually enlivening ways that increase our understanding of already existing processes of ecosystem regeneration. We may even come to rethink, as we follow these lines of inquiry, the notion of working with plants and ecological communities—which is certainly more appropriate than taking from them— and consider that our actions if they are to be truly regenerative require us to work as integral parts of the ecosystems within which we live, work, die, and receive sustenance.
Physical Ecological Processes of our Warming World
Even without factoring the effects of climate breakdown our task is challenging. As I’ve written elsewhere, “We should look at the effects of our harvesting with a long-term vision, but with humans’ current state of disconnect from the land and the loss of traditional knowledge, we don’t have much to go on in terms of longer harvesting cycles.”iv Declining populations of insect pollinators, increased browsing by deer and elk due to human eradication of keystone predators, and the rampant use of toxic insecticides and herbicides among others are all worthy of investigation as we assess the many human-caused factors impacting wild plant populations, but in this article we will focus on the most apparent and critical ones relating to the continued thriving of plant communities in the Pacific Northwest bioregion and the state of Oregon where I live: drought and abnormal seasonal fluctuations. 2015 was a year of unprecedented heat and lack of precipitation, and according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, its “extreme weather events…coupled with the impacts of a multiyear drought, provide an enlightening glimpse into what may be more commonplace under a warmer future climate.” The National Weather Service’s bureau in Portland recently released a bulletin stating that in 2018 “above-average temperatures and near to below-average water year precipitation result[ing] in a below-average winter snowpack” has led to drought conditions throughout Oregon. Higher than normal late spring and early summer temperatures which quickened soil dehydration and greatly reduced streamflow exacerbated these conditions, and the persistence of hot weather through the early fall made it even worse.v Climate scientists write that “there is high confidence that climate change and extreme events [in the Pacific Northwest] have already endangered the well-being of a wide range of wildlife, fish, and plants.”vi With much of the central and southern parts of Oregon, about 25 percent, already in a state of extreme drought, conditions will only get worse as the state is set to, at the very least, experience continuing drought through 2019. vii Having witnessed these conditions in the field I do not harvest from communities of “plants like sharptooth angelica or western peony [who] choose to conserve energy by not ripening their seeds” during years of drought-stress. For “others like yerba santa [who] produce bountiful seed crops” under drought conditions, I harvest only after the seeds have ripened and can be dispersed.viii I recommend that others do the same and over time investigate the ways that different plant species respond to drought and act accordingly.
We also ought to pay careful attention to the ways that abnormal seasonal fluctuations affect the growth rate and reproductive capacity of plants. The reactions of each species will differ based on complex relationships among many environmental factors and within specific geographical contexts: some will begin vegetative growth earlier and some later. Early growth is more susceptible to frost damage, and delayed initiation of budburst may diminish rates of spring growth by preventing access to adequate moisture and temperatures favorable for growth. We also ought to examine the effects of plants flowering earlier or later than normal during the growing season. Early exposure to frost may injure or destroy early-blooming flowers; late-blooming flowers may not have adequate time to ripen fruit; and plants with distinct male and female flowers might flower at different times.ix
Integral Ecologies for an Interconnected View of the World
With the uncertainty about how quickly rates of warming will progress and the unpredictability of climate chaos inhibiting our ability to plan long-range, how may we best approach these crises? We might consider, as many now are, questioning the philosophical foundations of Western culture. Even as we alter our practices according to standard ethical and ecological principles perhaps we ought to look at our practices from the more inclusive lens of integral ecologyx and use our responses to these crises as opportunities to transform the way we inter-act with and engage the world. Modernist ways of being stand in stark contrast with indigenous modes of relationship with the land such as those practiced by the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Like many other indigenous, animistically oriented peoples around the world, the Kwakwaka’wakw people, also known as the Kwakiutl, of what is now called Vancouver Island have practiced and continue to practice sophisticated forms of intentional food and plant medicine cultivation techniques whose primary ethic is reflected in the Kwak’wala word q’waq’wala7owkw, which when translated into English means “keeping it living.”xi This way of being is more than a harvesting technique. It is a way of life that, like other traditional animistic cultural orientations, recognizes and respects the mutual interdependence which makes the maintenance and flourishing of life possible. For animistic cultures, plants, animals, and different human groups as well as rivers, mountains, and other ecosystemic components are kin. We in the West have much to learn from this way of thinking and being. But while we may be inspired by the Kwakwaka’wakw concept of “keeping it living,” each cultural milieu calls for different modes of relation that must apply specifically to and be aligned with each place and the beings who live there.xii
Rather than just taking from this plant or stand of plants and making medicine to use for this or that illness, bodily imbalance, or disease process, what if we view our interactions in a more integrated manner? We might choose to view the unfolding climatological crises as messages or feedback loops of the greater Earth system that our health is intimately entwined with the health of our ecosystems and the other beings with whom we cohabitate. While there may be an impulse to set aside the wild to protect it, we mustn’t retreat into false forms of separation in attempts to conserve nature. We must learn to be present to the natural world without imposing our will upon it. Instead it seems that we are being called to actively and intimately engage with the entire community of life on Earth.
Expanding our field of awareness beyond the mind and empathetically engaging with energies, intelligences, and ideas that exist as part of the greater field of life we might ask questions like: What are the implications of my actions within the context of my greater ecological self? How can I/we become beneficial presences within and as the community of life? How can I/we be better inhabitants of the Earth? Even as we respect rational modes of inquiry and acknowledge the contributions of modern, materialist science, we need not discount spiritual inquiry or other approaches to being present to conceptual worlds other than the modern human ones to which we are habituated. Along with love, bodily feeling and other forms of energetic perception ought to be considered tools of equal value in the exploration of knowledge and the gathering of data. Instead of looking at nature as a conceptual space separate from humans, as do the majority of people in the dominant techno-industrial societies, as the provider of resources to be extracted for human benefit, we can view wild plants, and all beings, through an animistic lens and respect their inherent right to thrive as we recognize that our own survival as a species is inextricably bound and dependent on the vast web of interconnections that comprise life here on Earth.
As a civilization we have backed ourselves (and the rest of the Earth community) into a corner. We now have no choice but to act with integrity. There is no longer an “away” to which we can run in search of virgin lands and untouched plant communities. The way we in the industrial growth societies have treated and continue to treat the Earth’s ecosystems has disrupted the processes upon which all life on this planet depends, but with the danger we face comes increased opportunity. I invite you to engage wildcrafting as more than just a practice of ethical harvesting. Open yourself to ecological intelligence as you deepen your understanding that everything we do must be aligned with the greater fate of our planetary existence. Our lives, the lives of the plants, and the lives of every other being literally depend on it.
i Embodying the energetic posture of Aspen as with all other of our plant kin reveals and accentuates hidden aspects of our own potential for energetic orientation as humans so that when, for example, we connect with the archetypal and ancient root mass of Aspen we become conscious of our own capacity to feel Aspen’s temporal and ecological depths. This experience then connects us to the source of all life, allows us to access the deep underground waters of our emotions, and grounds the sometimes overstimulating experience of sensitive interconnectivity.
ii Glenn Albrecht, “‘Solastalgia’ : a new concept in health and identity,” PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature. no. 3 (2005): 48. Solastalgia “is the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation).” Albrecht, an Australian environmental philosopher, coined this neologism which is derived from the words “solace” and the Greek word “algia mean[ing] pain, suffering or sickness.”
iii Erle Ellis, “Anthropocene,” The Encyclopedia of Earth, accessed January 3, 2019, http://editors.eol.org/eoearth/wiki/Anthropocene. “The Anthropocene defines Earth’s most recent geologic time period (Anthropocene) as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans. The word combines the root “anthropo”, meaning “human” with the root “-cene”, the standard suffi x for “epoch” in geologic time. The Anthropocene is distinguished as a new period either after or within the Holocene, the current epoch, which began approximately 10,000 years ago (about 8000 BC) with the end of the last glacial period.”
iv Scott Kloos, Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 120 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2017), 43.
v “Update on Drought Conditions and Impacts as of February 6th, 2019,” National Weather Service Portland, OR, accessed February 8th, 2019. https://www.weather.gov/media/pqr/WaterSupplyOutlook.pdf.
vi C.May, C. Luce, et al., “Northwest,” in Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II, eds. D.R. Reidmiller, et al. (Washington, DC: U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2018), 1073, https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/chapter/ northwest.
vii National Weather Service Portland, OR, “Update on Drought Conditions and Impacts as of February 6th, 2019.”
viii Kloos, Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants, 40.
ix Constance A. Harrington, Kevin R. Ford, and J. Bradley St. Clair, “Phenology of Pacific Northwest Tree Species,” Tree Planters’ Notes. vol. 59, no. 2 (2016): 80–84.
x Sam Mickey, Sean Kelly, and Adam Robbert, eds., The Variety of Integral Ecologies: Nature, Culture, and Knowledge in the Planetary Era (Albany : State University of New York Press, 2017 Kindle), 1–2. “Ecology is typically defined as the study of relationships between organisms and their environments. Although this definition is correct, it does not tell the whole story. More specifically, it does not account for what can be described as integral ecologies—a variety of emerging approaches to ecology that cross disciplinary boundaries in efforts to deeply understand and creatively respond to the complex matters, meanings, and mysteries of relationships that constitute the whole of the Earth community.” And “learning about integral ecologies is important not solely because it is required for a comprehensive understanding of ecological fields of study. It is also important because of the commitment of integral ecologies to respond to the critical urgency and gravity of current ecological, or more generally, planetary, problems. Humans and the entire Earth community are facing an unprecedented situation that involves many interconnected crises affecting the natural environment, social institutions, and human consciousness, crises such as freshwater scarcity, the mass extinction of species, global climate change, ocean acidification, economic instability, poverty, sexism, racism, alienation, despair, and fragmented knowledge.
xi Douglas E. Deur and Nancy Turner, eds., Keeping it Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 31–32.
xii Of course within this study it is necessary to also recognize, honor, and include the voices of Indigenous Peoples, some of whom may be inspiring our remembrance of interconnected ways of being and thinking.