Calling all land regenerators, earth walkers, and friends of the weeds! You can help heal our lands, today, with the resources you have and the love you have to give. What if, instead of doing less harm or less bad, we could do good? We could work to heal? In this post, I’m going to talk about the process of gathering, scattering, and sowing seeds, nuts, and roots in regenerating our lands. This perspective is of the wild tender, the seed scatterer, the weed wise wo(man). This is four-part series on Wildtending that I’ll be presenting over the next month–the first giving the “how-to” and philosophy (this post) spiraling from my earlier writings throughout this year. So, grab a handful of seeds, nuts, and roots, and let’s get started.
The Man Who Planted Trees
I recently came across a story called “The Man who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness” by Jean Giono. His story talks about the actions of one man, Elzéard Bouffier, who planted trees in a barren plane, and over a period of years, planted a huge forest on the barren landscape where he lived–the forest brought back water, people, and abundant life. One man’s small mission ended up transforming the lives of so many. Before you continue reading my post, I really, really, really suggest you stop and read his story. (A PDF of the full story is here: The Man Who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness; A Youtube Animated Video is here.) This story is empowering–it shows us that the actions of one person, determined, over time, can really regenerate a whole ecosystem.
Wildcrafting and wild tending
I talk a lot about wildcrafting on this blog, both in terms of wild food foraging and healing medicine. And I firmly believe that gathering from the land is important. Wildcrafting is the half of the equation that gets people into the woods or into a field of weeds–going off to find wild mushrooms or berries, reconnecting to nature, and taking nature within ourselves. It’s the half that encourages people to help protect wildlands and places. It’s the half that allows nature to heal us through her mere presence and through her medicine. It’s the half that helps people appreciate nature and her bounty–but its only half of the equation and that’s an important piece to understand.
When you forage in lands that are abundant and healthy, you can’t see the need for doing anything but being present and thankful, maybe taking a handful of the seeds from what you are harvesting and scattering them a little further as a sign of thanks. However, when the plants that you found in abundance in one area are non-existent in another, you start to see patterns of problems that emerge. In fact, it was my wildcrafting practice in PA, in such damaged and pillaged lands, that has led me to this line of thinking and understanding.
Stories like “The Man Who Planted Trees” remind me of the importance of balance, a principle resonated in the ying-yang, or the sun-moon, or any other balanced pairing. This is that wildcrafting (that is, ethically harvesting from nature) must be balanced with wildtending (that is, returning to or giving to nature). Our lands desperately need wildtending.
A Partner in Healing the Land
The most important thing to understand about wildtending is this: Nature already knows how to heal herself. All we have to do is to help set up the right conditions for healing. We need to literally sow the seeds and help the soil–and nature will do the rest!
The problem we face today is simple: nature doesn’t always have the seeds or resources she needs to heal. We have a tremendous loss of biodiversity (both plant and animal life) caused by severe damage to our lands, from clear-cutting or logging forests, to the creation of monocrop industrialized agriculture and lawns, to spraying and toxins. Mines and factories are polluting our rivers. Our topsoils are being eroded at an alarming rate. On top of this, our infrastructure (roads, fields, cities) and human activities prevent the natural spread of seeds and roots; further, the decline in bird populations and wildlife that would spread the seeds mean that fewer seeds are spread. At literally every point in our ecosystem–something is causing damage.
Finally, humans themselves, who used to tend the land and spread seed regularly, no longer engage in this practice. We don’t know-how, for one, and most of us are afraid to do so, for fear of causing more harm. Even for those who see the land as sacred, who hear the land’s call–we are so afraid to do anything that might harm her further.
And yet, the need is great. Most of our forests and lands–even those that *appear* healthy when you walk into them, are currently devoid of may major medicinals and botanicals that once grew abundantly there. Many critically endangered plants don’t thrive on disturbance like their weedy cousins–rather, they thrive in areas that are undisturbed. And what forest or field has remained undisturbed in the last few hundred years, at least in the USA? Very, very few. This means we have a situation where its harder for nature to heal because she lacks the seed stores and biological diversity to do so.
I’ll give you a direct example here of what I mean–in the forest below my parents’ house, almost 90% of it has been repeatedly logged–except for about a 5-acre section which, for whatever reason, has been largely spared. This section is perfect for growing certain wet and dark-loving forest plants due to its wet conditions and small early-year springs. Abundant ramps, along with blue cohosh, white and red trillium, may apples, and trout lilies are all over this small piece of land. Everything I’ve listed, with the exception of trout lilies, shows up on one of the United Plant Saver’s “at risk” or “to watch” lists–endangered medicinal and key species of plants, now disappearing from our lands. An invisible line is present in that forest–as soon as you step into the areas that have been logged within the last 30 years, the forest floor is no longer carpeted with these spring plants–instead, its mostly bare on the forest floor. Now to be clear–nothing else appears to be changed–the forest canopy is still there, the larger trees grow around. Only knowing the history of this land, and where has been disturbed, and where hasn’t been, allows me to understand the dividing line between the ecological sanctuary and ecological wasteland.
There are lots of spaces just like this forest–spaces that used to have important plants and biodiversity, and due to various human activities, no longer do. Only knowing what once grew there can help us bring it back. The practice of wild tending and seed scattering is putting the tools–the plants–back in nature’s hands for healing work.
Principles of Wildtending: What to Do?
Wildtending can take many different approaches, but the one we’ll talk about today is the magic of the seed. The magic of the seed is something that each of us can know. A simple practice is to start a seed on a paper towel and to simply watch it grow. The lessons within the seed are profound. You get this same experience when you watch sprouts on your counter–that magical seed breaks forth from its casing and sends roots down and a shoot up. Some seeds are so special that they pull moisture towards themselves and retain it for earlier and easier sprouting. It is embracing this magic of the seed where we can start our work.
How do I know what to do? The first big question in wildtending is this–how do I know what to sow? How do I know it will be beneficial and not harmful? The two keys are the act of careful observation and second is ecological knowledge.
Careful observation. As I grow more and more deeply into my herbalist practice, it has given me perspective on the number and abundance of plants of many different kinds. Where you can find calamus (sweet flag), skullcap, or lobelia; how rare plants like goldenseal or even black cohosh are to see. As a permaculture designer, I also know how to look at ecosystems and understand their needs–how they function, the different roles of plants, and how to encourage ecological succession and healing. These two perspectives, I think, help me answer this question.
This question must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depend on what they are lacking, and you figuring out what that might be. There are, however, a few places to begin. I want to draw your attention to an organization that has been around since the 1970’s, started by Rosemary Gladstar called The United Plant Savers. They have a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings.
I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been reseeded with native plants that you can go visit and learn from? These are good places to look. For example, a set of local books (nearly all older) helped me fill in the gaps. About six months ago, I found key information on what PA’s forests had been like prior to clear-cutting in an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890. They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to logging. I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 20% of our forests! I don’t think this was by accident, but by careful tending on the part of the Native Americans who lived here and tended the wilds).
How do I know I won’t do more harm than good? I also want to speak here about fear. A lot of people don’t want to do this kind of thing cause they are afraid of screwing up nature, planting something “wrong.” Let me tell you–so many people are doing things wrong right now, and very little of it has anything to do with wanting to be of service and help.
I suggest using your mind and your heart. In terms of using your mind, As long as you research carefully,stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), its hard to do something wrong. You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil–pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with (milkweed or pleurisy root are great first time plants for my bioregion) and start there. It’s also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land, and know that your heart is in the right place.
Principles of Wildtending: How do I know what to plant?
Different ecosystems require different kinds of seeds and approaches. I have divided up my efforts here based on the ecosystem and immediate need. Let’s start by examining the concept of a “plant guild” in Permaculture and then move into some specific approaches based on different ecosystems.
Understanding Plant Communities (Guilds): If you know enough about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work together (I think about the spring ephemeral plants in the patch of forest I discussed earlier–ramps, dutchman’s breeches, trillium, mayflowers, and blue cohosh along with woodland nettles, all under maples, oaks, and cherries primarily). Our goal, as land tenders, should be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems.
Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (the horizon). For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, patrtidgeberry); vining (groundnut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers. (For more on this in a home gardening/home ecosystem context, look at material found here and in the really great free PDF here.).
Likewise, permaculture recognizes that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere else is not a monocrop but a set of plants that often work in conjunction (that’s not to say there isn’t a competition, but there is also a lot of collaboration). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” These could include nitrogen fixers (most legumes), nutrient accumulators/dyanmic accumulators (those that pull up nutrients from deep in the soil, like burdock or comfrey); nectary plants (pollen and nectar plants), biomass plants (those that create carbon-rich soil; like leaves from the fall); along with any edible or medicinal qualities. Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.
As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what seeds to scatter:
- The height of the plant and growth habits
- The plant’s own needs for light and water
- What the plant does and offers (consider for many herbs bloom times and nectar)
- The plant’s endangered status more broadly or population locally
- The distinct context you are planting; considering long-term growth and other people’s actions
I haven’t given you specific lists of plants here because my lists would not be the same as your lists–this is work that each of us needs to do. I can share my lists, and I hope that others can share theirs as well! I will be sharing some of my typical lists below. I’d also recommend for those really serious to this work to check out Dave Jackie’s Edible Forest Gardens books–they contain the most detailed information on plant guilds for more cultivated plants (although I am generally distrustful of the herbal information in their books, they are otherwise really fantastic).
Ecosystems in Need of Wildtending: Places Nobody Cares About
James Howard Kunsler talks at length about the places and spaces that “nobody cares about” in relation to urban planning and architecture. I believe we can apply this same principle to our lands. The strip of bare earth behind a strip mall; the insipid moncrops along our highways; the recent construction site stripped bare of its soil; even the logged forest quickly regrowing. These places, places that have been exploited and stripped, are prime areas for us to begin our wildtending work. Why? They are places that nobody cares about, that nobody is tending–and those are the places that need wildtenders the most.
Bare Earth, Damaged Soil. Sometimes you come across a place that has no topsoil and is simply exposed bare earth. These kind of situations, from my perspective, are “triage” situations–and this is where the plants that many call “invasives” thrive (after the soil is re-established, these plants almost always disappear and ecological succession continues). Road construction is a good example; when they are done, they maybe will scatter some seeds or plant some grass, but really, a lot of it just sits bare. Another good choice is a bare area where logging occurred and its having difficulty coming back. Or, one that I’ve been studying quite a bit since returning home–a “boney dump” where mine refuse (primary shale, still bare after 50-100 years) was piled up in huge piles and left to sit (I’ll write about these at length one of these days). Or when the utility company comes through and digs something up, then leaves without planting anything. There are lots of “bare earth” places in our landscape, and usually they are neglected. These are *perfect* opportunities to begin our work as land tenders!
In these kinds of situations, think really carefully about how far along the ecological succession line you want to encourage this piece of ground to grow. If its under power lines, planting a bunch of oaks is not the wisest course of action because in 20 years, they will be cut down. Instead, here, I’d encourage a herbaceous and groundcover plants would work well or shrubbery that won’t get that high and that will provide good nutrition or forage or nitrogen-fixing or whatever it is you want to provide. The combinations of plants that I’ve used on these kind of situation are: butterfly weed (pluresy root) being one of my favorites and on the endangered list, milkweeds, along with burdock, Echinacea (mid-season bloom), New England Aster (for late blooms), Mullein (medicinal), and Alfalfa (nitrgoen fixer, mid-season bloom). These plants thrive in full sun kinds of situations and once established, are perennial. Not to mention that if there isn’t spraying happening, you can come back at some point, gather more seeds, and maybe even some medicine if the conditions are ok for it :).
The Monocrop. Along our highways in many parts of the USA, we see the monocrop. Driving to visit friends and observing the highways in different seasons of the year was actually one of the inspirations for this whole line of thinking and practice–I was thinking to myself how many millions of acres are along highways and how so few of them grow anything beneficial to the land. These are also, in James Howard Kunsler’s terms, spaces that nobody cares about.
In the case of many of our highways in PA, they only mow the very edges, and many of them are on un-mowable hillsides. Usually, after road construction, bridge building, etc, the highway has been replanted with crown vetch or grass….essentially, a monocrop. The thinking here is not about the ecosystem at all but about keeping something on the surface to prevent drainage and erosion. But, dear friends, we can do better. I actually like some of the same mix for this that I shared above–in this case, my focus is really on nectar-producing plants to help our pollinators along. My other focus is on making sure there are pockets of plants that can function like “arcs” to spread ones that we need more of along. For these spaces, I use seed balls (see my upcoming 3rd post in the series) which can easily be lobbed from a car when nobody is looking or late at night!
Another place that’s good for this is along train tracks–again, places nobody cares about. You can cultivate really incredible and diverse ecosystems here on these edge spaces.
The Nooks and Crannies: There are lots of little nooks and crannies, small patches of land without much growing on them. They are really all over the place–just open your eyes and see what you can add :).
Ecosystems in Need of Wildtending: Established Ecosystems
The strips of bare land are only one kind of wildtending that can be done. After nature begins her own process of healing, you’ll find a beautiful tangle or thicket of wild plants, although, depending on the area, you might not find diversity. Here, our mission is a bit different–simply to bring more biodiversity and help support waning plant populations.
The Recovering Edge of Land. You’ll come across the wild patch that was once barren and has sprung up again–this collection of beautiful plants (not weeds) often comes forth from whatever was there before in the soil and remained or whatever was wind-blown or bird-dropped into that small space. In my area, these small patches are usually full of goldenrod and late-blooming white aster, maybe some brambles or staghorn sumac. I like to add a bit of diversity to these small patches and encourage the spread of certain kinds of plants–milkweed is a favorite of mine for these spaces, and if its a little damp, I also like to add st. john’s wort, blue vervain and echinacea. I also like to plant hardwoods here to help encourage ecological succession long-term.
The Recovering Fields. Then there are the fields that were once farmed, and for whatever reason, are no longer farmed and are slowly returning to the forest. I have a two-pronged approach for this–one is to encourage plant diversity during ecological succession (and my favorite for this are the plants mentioned above as well as berry crops like wild black raspberry), but my longer goal here is to spread hardwood species of trees that are very rare. My particular selection of trees is based on the context of Western PA–these are the trees that don’t recover well after logging and/or were intentionally cut: oak (especially white oak), chestnut (blight resistant), slippery elm (endangered), hickory (of all kinds, especially shagbark), butternut, and walnut. I also think about the understory trees and the need for other kinds of fruit, and plant hawthorn and apple trees (and pawpaw, especially, if I can get my hands on seeds).
Woodlands. Just because you see a mature woodland doesn’t mean the species growing there are necessary all the species that once did. For regenerating this kind of space, I focus my energies on targeted endangered species that need to be re-introduced to our woodlands. I do this carefully though, depending on the kind of forest I’m in.
In Pennsylvania at least, this land was almost entirely stripped to the bare earth during the logging boom that started in the 19th and carried through till the early 20th century. Even since then, logging of much of PA continues. While many of our lands repopulated (as nature has a way of doing that), delicate species may not have repopulated with them. Delicate species, often those having high medicinal value or having slow propagation times (or both) have never recovered.
Sites that will not be logged again– This is typically where I focus my energies in forests currently. These are sites that may be actively protected (State Forests or local forests) or other lands that are private but owned by people who won’t cut them. After the devastation of logging 100 years ago, a lot of forests around here are now 2nd or 3rd growth forests. The 500 acre patch of land here that I often visit here in my town is like that–you can find remnants of buildings and foundations in there, and there are fracking wells in there, but largely, the land has regrown. Its primarily a tulip-chestnut oak-red oak-maple forest, with a lot of birch and a few beeches as well. Its a healthy forest in terms of trees, but there isn’t a lot of forest floor plants. So my focus in this area is twofold. First, I work to bring back chestnuts, which once comprised upwards of 15-20% of our forests. I do this by planting chestnuts in areas where there is a “gap” with the hopes that they might make it–e.g. a large tree has fallen, allowing a patch for something new to grow up. I also plant understory trees that can make it–pawpaw here is my favorite of these. Second, I work to bring back woodland medicinals currently under severe threat: goldenseal, ginseng, and black cohosh. There are others, but these are the three I’m learning to grow and cultivate, both in terms of how to help them grow and also in the specific ecosystems they like.
Sites that will be logged again – I don’t always do much with these sites in terms of planting new medicine or trees, as I’m still learning which plants can recover from this kind of abuse. Right now, most of my work with forests in the logging rotation is energetic healing work (more on this in later posts, some of this is also here). I think this will change as I discover which plants can survive and which can help a forest recover quickly. As a simple example of this, I return to the patch of forest behind my parents’ house. I see what the logging does to those critical woodland species, and I’m not sure trying to bring them back in the face of more logging makes any sense. My point is that sites that have ongoing ecological devastation might not be the best for this kind of work–but there’s still much we can do.
Wildtending as Everyday Practice
Now that we’ve talked about what to plant, where to plant it, and all of that, it’s time to talk about how to build this into your practice. It can actually be really simple and all it takes is a little extra preparation. If you are already in the business of going outside fairly often, have some seeds or nuts with you that are appropriate for the areas where you’ll be planting. Seeds are resilient–even if they are planted at the wrong season, they can often survive in the wild and come back up the following spring. The very first and best thing you can do is start scattering seeds that are appropriate, popping nuts in the ground, and go from there. If you see small seedling trees coming up that won’t make it where they are sprouting, dig them up and take them somewhere where they will thrive. This work is simple, and can be built into your existing forays into this great, beautiful planet
I’ve outlined a number of different ways you might work to be a wild tender as much as a wildcrafter. I hope you’ll take up the call! Look for the plants that we need in more abundance that benefit our ecosystem, that heal our bodies, that encourage health and forage. Start with the list on United Plant Savers, and also consider trees that are in need of more planting in your bioregion. These plants and trees…let’s sow them–everywhere. Scatter them far and wide. Gather their seeds and spill them out of our skirts and pockets. Throw seed balls (I’ll talk about these in an upcoming post) into recently grated highway dirt piles, “wasteland” or stripped soil. Let’s work with our plant allies to put down the deep roots and begin the healing process.