Ancient Advice for Sustainable Harvests

Greenery

The passenger pigeon named Martha was kept in a Cincinnati zoo.  This September 1 marks 100 years since her lonely death as the last of her kind.  I attended a forum reflecting on Martha and other extinctions at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  One speaker I wanted to hear was Robin Kimmerer, a Potawatomi woman and Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology, SUNY.  I also wanted to get her new book, an Orion award finalist.  She is  an expert on moss, among other things.  The heart of her talk was what she called the Honorable Harvest, principles by which we can interact sustainably with the world.  She called these ancient tenets “rules for those of us who can’t photosynthesize,” because really, when you think about it, all life relies on the sun and we rely on those forms of life that can harness solar energy and pass it on to us as food.  Let us not take them for granted.  And let us not take more than our share or, like the passenger pigeon, they will be no more.

Here are some wild harvest guidelines I gathered from Dr. Kimmerer’s talk.  She also has a chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass on “The Honorable Harvest” in which she says that these things are not usually written down but “reinforced in small acts of daily life” and apply to all “the gifts of Mother Earth–air, water, and the literal body of the earth: the rocks and soil and fossil fuels.”  These “small acts” can be practiced every day in some form or another.

1.  Never take the first one you see.  How do you know it’s not the last one?

2. Introduce yourself.  Approach the fungi or roots or whatever you’re gathering and tell them your intent.  Ask permission to take them.

3. Listen for their answer.   There are ways to communicate and receive an answer.  If you are quiet enough, you can hear (or feel) it.

4. Respect the answer.  If permitted to harvest, take only what is needed.

5. Minimize harm.  Be careful how you harvest and how you move around the area.

6. Use everything you take.  “Do eat food that is honorably harvested, and celebrate every mouthful,” Kimmerer writes.

7. Be grateful.  “The practice of gratitude is a radical act,” Dr. Kimmerer said.  It is humbling and it is part of reciprocity, giving back.

8. Share what you’ve taken.

Similarly, Anishinabeg (Ojibway) elder, Anne Dunn, let me know that wild rice is harvested with gratitude and “cherished as a gift from Great Spirit” and will “flourish and feed many generations of countless people” as long as it is treated with appreciation and respect.  The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) gave an address in 1977 in Geneva, Switzerland, “A Basic Call to Consciousness,” noting, “The Western culture has been horribly exploitative and destructive of the Natural World.  Over 140 species of birds and animals were utterly destroyed since the European arrival in the Americas… The air is foul, the waters poisoned, the trees dying, the animals are disappearing.  We think even the systems of weather are changing.  Our ancient teachings warned us that if Man interfered with the Natural laws, these things would come to be.  When the last of the Natural Way of Life is gone, all hope for human survival will be gone with it.”

Robin Kimmerer said at the May 2 Nature and Ethics forum, “It is not land which is broken but our relationship to land.”  She said we are in the time of the seventh fire, at a fork in the road.  Honoring our plant and animal relatives, “we can light the eighth fire of kinship” and heal some of what we have broken.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Chicago Botanic Garden
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Chicago Botanic Garden

Have a healthy harvest and enjoy!

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