When people don’t use plants they get scarce. You must use them so they come up again. All plants are like that. If they’re not gathered from, or talked to, or cared about, they’ll die.
- Mabel McKay, Pomo Elder, quoted from News From Native California
Last week I attended a remarkable 3-day workshop at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) called “Tending the Wild”. It was organized by my friend and colleague Lindsay Dailey, who is the Associate Director of the Wildlands Program at OAEC. For the past few years Lindsay has been training and working with me in the use of fire mimicry techniques in oak woodland restoration. I have found her to be a serious student and practitioner of traditional ecological approaches in land care.
The workshop drew together an amazing group of teachers and elders speaking on the topic of wildland tending by the Californian native people. The first day was led by M. Kat Anderson, PhD, author of the book “Tending the Wild“. Her thesis is that the richness and abundance of the historical ecosystems in California were largely the result of thousands of years of tending by the native people, primarily through the wise use of fire in burning the land to improve soil fertility and promote plant production/regeneration. In answer to the question: “Why are plants and animals disappearing?”, her response is: “Because we no longer have a relationship with them.”
After recounting all the various ways in which native people harvested, tilled, burned, sowed, weeded, and transplanted selected species, and how so many of these species are now in decline, she lamented, “Nature misses us”. Dr Anderson has given an authoritative voice in academia to the long-standing claims of native elders that their homelands had forever been intensely managed with fire, and that the decline of the oaks and associated species, as well as the great severity of present-day wildfires, are the direct result of a sudden cessation in the use of fire as a management tool.
On the second day we heard from Lindsay Dailey on her participation at Root Camp and her experiences with Native Americans in gathering and processing various edible wild roots such as lomatium, camas, and yampah. Jim Coleman spoke on the application of various ecological monitoring techniques, including the repeat photography methods used here at Sudden Oak Life, in documenting changes in plant communities and ecosystems. Brock Dolman led a stimulating discussion and field trip on the OAEC land showing all the ways they are managing the forest and coastal prairie ecosystems, such as transplanting “white root” sedge (used in basketry) and demonstrating the “shuck and huck” method for the propagation of wild plants. We also heard from Native American teachers Edward Willie and Ethan Castro on the cultural practices involved in managing and harvesting wetland species, including tules and cattails, for use in making boats and cordage.
The third day of the workshop was led by Dennis Martinez, an ecologist and founder of the Indigenous Peoples Restoration Network. Dennis shared his in-depth knowledge of the ecology around salmon, and how the loss of indigenous cultural practices have led to declines in salmon, as well as reductions in grey willow habitat, an important plant in basketry. He also described how the native people would transport the salmon in wet moss to streams beyond their original distribution.
The highlight of the event for me was an evening of storytelling by native elders representing several of the local tribes. The stories were both sad and heartening, and were punctuated with hope for a future that honors and advances the Native American world view, where all of nature is alive and humans are a healthy and integral part of it all.
There is much more to this workshop that I cannot capture here, so many gems of knowledge were shared by the instructors and by the 30+ participants, many of whom are themselves experts in related fields of permaculture and land stewardship. Given the success of the workshop I suspect that it will be offered again by OAEC. If so, I strongly encourage the participation of anyone interested regenerative wild-tending of the land.