Fear, Progress, and Wild Foods: A Final Paper

“When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge passed down through generations is broken, and the land becomes wilderness.”  

- Kat Anderson from Tending the Wild



It was only day two of 30...About forty hours ago we had been dropped off in lightning near Roaring Fork Mountain on the East side of the Wind River Range of Wyoming, and now we had finally caught a break. The first taunt of sun was finally piercing the dull clouds as we fired up our stoves, the Upper Popo Agie’s turbulence in the background. It was a pleasant moment. We were all drying off for the first time in a couple days. Water was boiling, smiles abounded, and then Teddy started vomiting. It was absolutely classic.

He’d been weak all day during the hike and over-compensated by walking faster, not drinking water, being tough, but toughness has nothing to do with altitude sickness. You see, Teddy, like all the students on the expedition, had come from sea-level three days before, and was now hiking with a 50-pound pack at nine-thousand feet. That transition is not something the human body knows. Teddy’s body surely didn’t.

I watched briefly from a distance, let my mind catch up, check, check, check, yes, he’s dehydrated, altitude, nothing I can really do except encourage him to get everything out and then put everything back in again. So, I walked over and sat next to him, talked slowly, handed him a water bottle, and told him to drink as much as he felt comfortable. Predictably, he threw up all the water again; and as I watched him yell material off of the rock we were sitting on, I looked down at the brilliant color popping from the granite. It was Stonecrop, an innocuous, slightly bitter, and juicy plant that loves rocky substrates. A few months prior a friend of mine told me that she loved chewing on Stonecrop to pass time on the trail. I had an idea. I picked a small cluster of the plant, and after Teddy had finished another cacophonous verse of semi-fluidity, I looked at him and introduced the plant.
“This is Stonecrop. It is going to taste bitter. You might not like it, but it will settle your stomach.”
“Are you sure its not poisonous?” Teddy worried.
“Yeah, it’s completely fine. I actually like it it a lot.”
    Teddy looked at me and then took the little florette and, with a bit of reaction, chewed and swallowed the plant. He washed it down with some water, but this time none came back up. It felt a bit like defusing a bomb at the last minute, waiting. I was on edge for a moment, but an hour later Teddy was finally getting some calories back in the form of rice. That night I heard him from his tent tell a fellow student, “Yo, that Stonecrop stuff is legit!” And every couple days for the rest of the trip I would see a student or two pick and munch on some Stonecrop, presumably instructed by Teddy to do so if they ever felt a bit queasy.

Stonecrop is just one of the many consumable plants in the Wind River Range, and, it should be noted, there are no direct mechanistic explanations for it having any remedial effect on acute mountain sickness. But the important point here is not that Stonecrop placeboed Teddy back to health, rather, that for the rest of the trip Teddy knew that plant. There was a relationship and a narrative built that linked Teddy to Stonecrop.

On trips I like to encourage students to try to eat as many different plants as they can, not for calories, but for familiarity. For most students, the Wind River Range can feel more similar to Mars than to Home. Through this process of becoming chemically entangled with the local flora, it’s incredible how quickly the mountains can become a second home to students. When it comes down to it, intimate entanglement with plants can enrich anybody’s sense of place, wherever that place is, home or not. So, why is it then that these days the majority of us have no relationship with the species that surround us? What aspects of our society led us astray from our local ecological partners, and what are some vectors toward repairing this fallen relationship? To begin, we must first understand a difficult reality, that is, that the West was founded on fear.

In his The Way of the Human Being, Calvin Martin Luther articulates the West’s fearful tendencies by defining two conflicting belief systems. The first he calls an ontology of trust, which he associates with many non-Western cultures worldwide. This ontology believes Earth to be a place of plenty, and the purpose of one’s life is then to align oneself with the ways of nature. In contrast, Martin also illustrates an ontology of fear, which he argues underlies all Western belief systems, irrespective of politics. He argues that, especially in this country, we all tacitly believe Earth to be a dangerous, resource-denuded place. And truly, it isn’t difficult to find support for his claim. Our economics are based on the basic assumption of scarcity, as is Darwinism. Further, the artificial systems of interaction we create are built to reflect that which we see out there, in nature. For instance, even the idea of money adheres to an assumption of scarcity.

Charles Eisenstein explains in his Sacred Economics, that scarcity exists, “because of the way money is created as interest bearing debt...the debt, because there is interest on it, is always greater than the amount of money. So, it essentially throws people into competition with one another for never enough money.” Here, we should understand that it is not because nature inherently works in a purely Darwinian fashion that we have naturally built scarcity into our economic system, but rather, because of our basic ontology of fear we have chosen what we wish to see in nature, and thus, built a system that confirms this most basic beliefs. In the case of money, it confirms both our belief in scarcity and in competition as overwhelmingly important natural patterns. We must come to recognize that our economic system however is merely one of infinite systems by which we may interact as humans, and that this one which we have ultimately chosen is born from our basic ontology of fear and subsequent belief in the truth of scarcity. But scarcity is only one of the many manifestations of this most basic ontological orientation.

Martin elaborates upon his articulation of an ontology of fear that the purpose of life when operating from this ontology is then to manipulate, control, and improve upon nature’s ways. The assumption of improvement, or assumption of growth, is so basic to all Western faiths that it is exceedingly hard for anyone raised in modern culture to even begin to picture a life wherein improving is not the goal. The immediate problem with our assumption of growth is that, as Charles Eisenstein later notes, “growth means you have to find something that was once nature and make it into a good...You have to find something that people once got for free...take it away and sell it back to them.” He continues, that, “by turning things into commodities we get cut off from nature in the same way we get cut off from community. We look at nature with eyes that assume it’s just a bunch of stuff, and that leaves us very lonely...and of course now, we are nearing the end of growth. Our planet cannot sustain much more growth.” From our assumption of improvement or growth, there are two side effects of note.

The first, as mentioned above, is that we continually turn what was once nature into an improved commodity, and thus at some point will run out of nature to convert. The other issue is that in believing that natural processes can be improved upon, we inherently begin practicing discrimination between lands. We are forced to put land into two categories: improved (or soon to be improved) or wilderness. In his Changes in the Land, Bill Cronon expertly illustrates the confusion over land and improvement that arose when an ontology of fear first met its reciprocal, ontology of trust, on the shores of this continent.

When early colonists landed on these shores they were immediately appalled by the laziness of the Natives. One of them, William Wood, observed that “[the Natives] might benefit themselves if they were not strong fettered in the chains of idleness; so as that they had rather starve than work.” Here we see Wood, operating from his assumption that the world must be improved upon in order to survive and lacking the basic humility to listen, failing to accurately understand the world in front of him. In reaction to Wood’s baseless claim, Cronon points out that, “Few Indians, of course, had actually starved in precolonial times”. The important point here is, again, that this assumption of improvement is born directly from an ontology of fear that arrived for the first time on this continent in 1492.

Quickly after landing, the colonists actually went so far to use the assumption of improvement to justify their theft and conquest. In advocating for further expansion of the New England colony, John Winthrop logicked that “As for the Natives in New England, they inclose noe Land, neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame Cattle to improve the Land by, and soe have noe other but a Naturall Right to those Countries...the rest of the country lay open to any that could and would improve it.” The founding members of this country literally used land discrimination as the primary tool for reconciling the lawfulness of what came of the indigenous peoples here. We all know the story that followed: genocide, Manifest Destiny, the closing of the Frontier, the industrialization of agriculture, environmental degradation, the birth of Pinchot’s Conservation, and its battle with Muir’s Preservation. Today, our culture has largely arrived at a Muirian Preservationist mindset toward what we deem ‘wilderness,’ and a largely developmental mindset toward what we deem ‘not wild.’ Let’s break this down.

In a basic sense, this country views land as either committed toward wilderness or toward improvement. We are very keen on discriminating between the two. On land we deem ‘wilderness,’ we institute laws in order to support the space as “an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” If the land doesn’t fit our arbitrary aesthetic standards for wilderness, we then essentially believe that it is open for improvement or, its more commonly used synonym, development. This mindset, I argue, is a downstream product of a culture which, from its origin, is hell-bent on ‘improving’ and ‘enclosing’ land. We must understand that our ontology of fear and assumption of improvement implicitly conjure a sense of separation between Western man and nature. That is, belief in improvement inherently makes the discriminating point that this is better than that, it assumes we know what is better than what has come to exist. Curiously, even the specific parts of the specific plants we have come to call food, those which scientists and engineers improve upon each year, in many ways do not compare to their wild progenitors. In an interview research Botanist and forager Arthur Haines noted that ‘wild foods’ are generally more nutrient dense, have more favorable phytochemistry, a better fatty acid ratio, and better calorie to fiber ratio than our “improved” foods. One might ask then why are we improving these plants? The answer is of course, yield and calories.

As an aside, our country’s definition of wilderness contrast intensely with cultures that come from an ontology of trust. The tribes studied by Kat Anderson in her Tending the Wild, from whom our epigraph is derived, “believe that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interaction, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the Earth...When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge passed down through generations is broken, and the land becomes ‘wilderness.’” This illustrates that cultures which operate under ontologies of trust are much more ecologically entangled with their surroundings than those that do not.

We’ve come to at least a recognition of our ontology of fear, how it informs an assumption of improvement, and how we discriminate amongst lands. It must then be intuitive to us that on the lands we deem open for improvement, “improvement” has been made. In our search for perfect cropping, we have narrowed our global agricultural systems down to a handful of “good crops.” The plants that can feed the world. Over the past 100-or-so years, the plants we eat have been narrowed even further to just a few. In many ways, the industrialization of agriculture and the Green Revolution have provided prosperity to many. But a side effect of this homogenization of our agricultural systems has been our decreasing familiarity with the foods that surround us everyday, largely because we feel we don’t need to know them. And when it comes to sustenance, we don’t. It is this ecological forgetting and how it is tied to our modern sense of isolation here on Earth that will serve as a launching point for the rest of our journey.

Whether we are talking about inter or intraspecies interaction, relationship is built from exchange. In our opening vignette, in exchange for buffering Teddy’s altitude sickness, the Stonecrop received Teddy’s recognition of its existence. This might not seem like a reasonable ecological transaction from the perspective of the Stonecrop, but by today’s standards, I assure you it was a small win for the Stonecrop.

Within our own species, we build relationships with others and begin to get to know them. Our getting to know them deepens our relationship as knowledge and relationship operate in a sort of feed-forward cycle that builds intimacy and defines that person as part of our human community. Over time this process plays out with various individuals and comes to define our place amongst our network of “friends,” and it is ultimately this social context that comes to define many aspects of our identity. We may say that what we know is who we are. Because of our fear of the uncontrollable, many of us have lost the intellectual thrust to get to know the other species that surround us everyday. We have forgotten that the same community defining pattern that plays out in building our intraspecies community holds true for relationships between species as well, and in doing so, have disallowed other species from ever truly becoming part of our personal identity. Like land, we too discriminate between ‘food’ and ‘wild food.’ Although we haven’t yet explored the complexities of actually defining improved and unimproved land, we may gain some ground by quickly looking at how we may define ‘wild food’.

Before concessions, Arthur Haines defines “wild foods” as “species that grow on our landscape that we did not actively plant and do not actively participate in their propagation.” These are the species with which we have lost all relationship. They are the uncontrolled ones, and thus, the ones we are fearful of. Haines notes, however, that there are many plants that do not simply fit into one category or the other. Parsnip, for instance, has effectively escaped cultivation and can be found along roadsides throughout our country. There are millions of Apple trees strewn across this country that, although once actively cultivated, have been left to the wind. From the seedless watermelon to the White Pine, plants truly exist on a spectrum which, from our point of view, may be determined by the extent to which they interact with humans. Today, it should be clear that many species with which we formerly relied upon have been left to fend for themselves. One may conclude that our sentiment toward the wild or unimproved species around us is these days not so much guardedness, but rather plain and simple apathy. And although apathy is certainly part of the equation, apathy does not explain fully our relationship with our former ecological partners.

Many have observed that “in our culture we fear what we don’t know and can’t control.” This should make sense in light of everything we’ve explored prior to arriving at this sentence. When we take this recognition in hand with the clear observation that our food systems have become increasingly homogenized, we may correctly infer that we may have become increasingly ignorant, and thus increasingly fearful, of the plants that surround us everyday. Expert forager Sam Thayer notices in his essay Poisonous Plant Fables that “Our culture is spellbound and beguiled by the story of someone mistaking a poisonous plant for an edible one and dying from the error.” He elaborates by ripping to shreds the entire narrative of Chris McCandless’ death from the much loved Into The Wild. According to Jon Krakauer’s narrative, McCandless died from accidentally eating H. alpinum or “wild potato” seeds. Yet, as Thayer points out, in a 2007 article by the world’s leading expert on wild potato, the author himself notes, “I’d eat them myself. “

Because these myths permeate our culture about the existence of poisonous plants, we all feel hugely inflated anxiety about eating them. The reality is there are very few plants that are poisonous in the way we vilify them in our myths. What is difficult for us to understand is that fundamentally all plants are poisonous at a certain volume, but that for many, that volume is unrealistically high. The same plant that at one volume is toxic can at other volumes be completely harmless, even medicinal. But this knowledge takes actually knowing the plant; not just its name, but its patterns, how it interacts with humans. This type of knowledge is, frankly, completely lost on us. We are a culture that loves to know things about people, not people themselves, and this orientation makes us very lonely.

When it comes down to it, this is ultimately a discussion of how the majority of our species’ basic belief in a scarce and dangerous nature have led down a path of ecological isolation. We are afraid of the unimproved, the wild, and this fear prevents us from coming into relationship with those unimproved species that surround us everyday. Because we are no longer reliant on those species, we then feel no anguish in destroying them or simply no rational reason to keep them around. Ultimately, our species’ Western subcategory is more successful in fighting for what we love, not against what we hate. In the words of the ever-wise Wendell Berry, “the answer is to fight always for what you particularly love, not for abstractions and not against anything.”

Right now most of the human movements that are concerned with the fate of our common home still function to “combat climate change’”. They demonize the fossil fuel industry, Big Ag, and land developers. I argue this conflict-based mindset is, too, born from the same ontology of fear that got us here. If we are to change anything, we must first become again entangled in this mysterious complex web of life here on Earth. We must again become somewhat reliant on the species that surround us, get to know them, their patterns, who they are. Especially for those among us that feel isolation in the modern way of life, getting to know plants may be as enchanting as finding human friends.

Many of us spend the majority of our days inside our skull. Walking or driving from place to place, we ruminate over whatever uncontrollable thoughts find cycle. But a curious thing happens when we begin to know some plants. They wave like a passing friend. A dandelion growing from a crack in the sidewalk, if you know dandelions, begs notice. It pulls you out of the unhealthy cycles of thought and says “Hi!” “What are dandelions all about? They are quite a wild spirit!” you wonder. “They are certainly not a food…” but one day you discover dandelion coffee and begin harvesting here and there, roasting the root, become more intimate with the dandelions, and one day you see your City spraying the “weeds” with pesticide. For you, the dandelion harvester, the anti-spray argument then is no longer a sentimentalist abstraction, but a concrete conversation involving human health. Dandelions are a part of you. You may think, “Have they poisoned me too?” And yes, they have. It is this intimacy that Earth demands of us. Without it, it is too easy to make irresponsibly logical arguments in favor of our modern tendencies.

In her book The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, Katrina Blair outlines the “thirteen plants found growing in every region across the world are: dandelion, mallow, purslane, plantain, thistle, amaranth, dock, mustard, grass, chickweed, clover, lambsquarter, and knotweed.” They are wild plants that grow in all of our backyards, wherever civilization is. I beg you, go meet them. Katrina notes, “if we can become familiar with these thirteen edible survival weeds found all over the world...we will become closer to our own wild human instincts—all the while enjoying the freshest, wildest, and most nutritious food there is. For free!” If you live in civilization, go meet these plants, expand your community. If you’re looking for more intimacy, learn how to consume them. Don’t be afraid. Go!