An essay by Jeremy Siegrist, Iron Creek Properties Land Steward
"I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown for going out, I found was really going in." -John Muir
The long days of summer are fading away once again. The fall migrations are beginning. Seasons come and go, and change is the constant theme. A heavy rain has given me an excuse to be inside on the computer, but I'm distracted with daydreams of all the wild mushrooms that will be ready to harvest once it stops (then i get distracted from that by checking out a youtube video of Paul Stamets teaching how fungi can restore habitats and save the world). We are in that beautiful time of the year when the asters and goldenrods are in full bloom and the temperatures are mild. When I'm not cutting invasives or doing other on-the-clock stewardship work I'm wandering around eating black cherries now at the end of their season, and starting to watch for ripening acorns. I notice that plants and animals all around are storing up energy for the winter to come. I walk familiar paths in a place that is never exactly the same two days in a row. I experience the many seasons within seasons and find it hard to believe that I used to think there were only four. Inspired by Muir I head back outside and try not to miss out on any of them.
"Going Out""Pay attention to what nature wants and work with her." - Steven Apfelbaum from Restoring Ecological Health to Your Land
As I wander on and off the trails of the land I live and work on I regularly (perhaps constantly) encounter changes and patterns I can't explain and species I haven't yet gotten to know. I respond with questions, "What has happened here?", and "What is happening here currently?", and "Who are you?" (asked to myself as well as other species). In effect this is an attempt to read the landscape, which is the theme of the River Raisin Cluster's workshops this year. Reading the landscape is an art rooted in the assumption that embedded in any landscape are signs, that can be read like words in a book (for those who know the language) that tell the story of the land. From scars on trees to old stone walls, from animal tracks to arrowheads, natural and human history has left its trace. If we learn the skills required to track these paths of disturbance and succession, of occupancy and abandonment, we can contextualize our stewardship efforts accordingly to be specific to the places we love. And so we can enter into the story of lands that were changing before we arrived and that will continue to change long after we are gone. We can help write some of its pages as it helps to write ours.
Learning to read the landscape is learning to pay better attention and to ask better questions. Most guides to ecological restoration start by telling us to observe nature first before trying to intervene. We are taught to gain an understanding of what the land is trying to do before we lend our helping hand. To do this we need direct, experiential knowledge which helps us to begin grasping the difference between health and sickness in ecosystems. The symptoms caused by the most aggressive invasive species become clear fairly quickly, and removing them seems an obvious response. The symptoms caused by the worst of human industry are easy to see as well, but not always easy to remove. However, through daily stewardship work in the field, visions do develop of a deeper and lasting healing of the land and of ourselves. And one begins to learn that healing the land is at least as much about healing our relationships to the land as it is about anything we do to the land itself. There are many innovative techniques being experimented with in the field of ecological restoration from using goats to overgraze invasive shrubs, to returning apex predators such as wolves and cougars to certain areas, to removing dams. One theory I am exploring, inspired in part by the recent studies of ethnobotanists such as Kat Anderson and Nancy J. Turner, is the use of human foraging techniques in the enhancement of biodiversity. I will touch on this more in my workshop on September 27th (http://www.stewardshipnetwork.org/foraging-restorationists-reading-lands...), but here I will mention one striking image from Kat Anderson's book Tending The Wild. She is describing how many of the first Europeans to see California called it a wild paradise, a new garden of eden (as was said of many places in North America, including Michigan). Anderson goes on to describe how this natural beauty was developed and maintained by the native inhabitants. In a sentence attempting to sum up the essence of many of these peoples' relationship to the land she writes, "When one moved across the landscape, one gathered food."
"I wanted to be loved because I was great; a big man... I'm nothing. Look at the Glory around us; trees, birds... I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn't notice the Glory. I'm a foolish man." -From Terrence Mallick's Tree of Life
The observational "getting to know you" period of restoration work is never finished. There are so many things we don't know, and so many we will never know, but it is exciting that the learning never has to end. Infinity exists in every acre (perhaps every square foot). I've heard it said that one could spend a lifetime getting to know a single tree, and still not exhaust all its attributes. The Iron Creek Properties work crew has given ourselves a goal of learning every species that lives in the Iron Creek watershed. Even if we can reach that goal (which feels almost impossible) identification is only the start. Every creature is much more than a name. All of our senses can be engaged in this project. We can study behavior and habitat. We can try and understand the relationships a particular species has with others sharing its habitat. We can delve into its natural history, phenology, and traditional human uses including its connections to spirituality. We can explore its potential usefulness to us now, and discover ways in which we can give back to form a mutually beneficial partnership. Of course, all the while, honoring the glory and mystery and all the the things we will never know, and don't need to know.
For whatever it's worth I hope to miss out on as little as possible. Just attempting to learn to read the landscape is teaching me what many poets, prophets, and philosophers have pointed to many times before; that observing nature is a serious business. I often think of the Thomas Carlyle quotation that primitive skills teacher and author Tom Brown Jr. loves to reference, "The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss."
Or Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "If I seek the senses and skill of children, the information of a thousand books, the innocence of puppies, even the insights of my own city past, I do so only, solely, and entirely that I might look well at the creek."
Or Thoreau, who made it a point to walk and observe nature for at least 4 hours a day every day. He took these walks very seriously and wrote in an essay on the subject: "We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, - prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never to see them again, - if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk."
"Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor and spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like ones of these." -Jesus
For many indigenous people across the globe this intense nature observation was a normal part of daily life from birth. And from them we can learn that this discipline pays off not only in spiritual truths, but in practical knowledge useful for meeting physical needs. Observation is a means to participation. In Tending The Wild, Anderson shows many amazing examples of this traditional ecological knowledge such as: Foothill Yokut people listening for the goldfinches to start singing more frequently to know it was time to go gather blackberries; Coastal Pomo people stopping the harvest of shellfish when elderberry shrubs flower because at that time the shellfish become toxic to humans, but once the elderberries ripen they harvest shellfish again; Kashaya Pomo women watching for the first warm inland winds of summer as a sign that there will be only a few days to gather the seeds of wild oats before they fall to the ground.
These ethnobotanical skills can also have uses in restoration, as Nancy J. Turner writes in Biodiversity in Native America "...the most productive, prolific areas to find particular edible or useful plants, especially wild root vegetables, are invariably in those localities where they have been traditionally harvested in immense quantities." Both Turner and Anderson report native elders saying that the reason biodiversity was declining and plants were going extinct because people were not harvesting and taking caring of them.
Most of us don't know much about what wild plants we can eat, let alone how to tend to them in a way that could restore an ecosystem. In fact plants are a relatively understudied subject in general. Foraging instructor and author of Nature's Garden, Sam Thayer says that you could become the world's expert on many plants just by making regular careful observations for a few years because that is rarely done. The majority of plants don't even have common names. Another project that the Iron Creek Properties work crew has embarked upon to help motivate us in our studies is a field guide/ encyclopedia/ memoir of all the species of the Iron Creek watershed.
There is a lot to discover, but it all starts with one. Get to know a single species well, and then another, and then another. It's like learning to read. Each species is a word in this story of the web of relationships we are all entangled in.
Reading the landscape is an attempt to make sense of this web of relationships, seeing how the details fit into the whole and what the whole says about the details. The connections between many different details can often be made clearer through the lens a particular subject you know well. For example, Tom Wessels, who wrote Reading the Forested Landscape, used his knowledge of trees to reveal a whole host of interactions, past and present, in his forests of central New England. Others use bird song, hydrology, or fungi. I'm interested in using wild edibles as a lens. I see a lot of potential in the study and practice of wild edibles for reading and restoring the landscape as well as restoring ourselves to a symbiotic relationship with this living earth we are a part of.
"Observing nature closely can be a grand passion, but tasting moves that relationship beyond the platonic... Through the medium of wild plants, the minerals of the places I love have been kint into my bones." -Margit Roos-Collins in The Flavors of Home
John Muir stayed out till sundown, but eventually he had to go back inside because he didn't know what to eat in the wild. Going out could not literally be "going in" for him. He recognized this and it bothered him, but he thought that was just the way life was. He assumed that there was an inherent division between human culture and the nature. Many of our wilderness icons believed this myth and ultimately remained visitors in the lands they loved. Most of us too are stewarding land that does not sustain us and so we are not fully at home in our homelands. We are still, to some extent, outsiders looking in, tethered to a food production system that is often a source of habitat destruction in the faraway lands from which it comes. But the problem is not with the land; everything we need for food, clothing, and shelter is already there. The problem is we lack the eyes to see it.
"Speak with the earth and she will teach you, or with the birds of the air and they will tell you. Speak with the animals and they will teach you, or with the fish of the sea and they will inform you. Who among these does not know...?" -Job 12:7-9
Visit www.stewardshipnetwork.org/raisin-cluster-events to register for Jeremy's workshop or to see upcoming events hosted by the Raisin Cluster!