Arthur Haines is a Maine hunting and recreation guide, forager, ancestral skills mentor, author, public speaker, and botanical researcher. In this episode he and Eric talk about the benefits of eating and gathering wild foods, how not all impacts we might have on wild plant populations are negative, practices for properly harvesting fiddleheads and wild leeks, and strategies for regulating the harvest of wild edible plants, among other things.
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Eric Garza: Welcome to the Quillwood Podcast, a show dedicated to helping you learn to navigate today's changing world. I'm your host, Eric Garza.
Today's episode features a conversation I recorded with Arthur Hanes. Arthur is a noted botanist based in Maine and is an extraordinarily knowledgeable forager, especially when it comes to the gathering of wild and edible plants. He wrote the book A New Path as well as two volumes on Ancestral Plants, which focus on plants that are both edible as well as those useful for other tasks in the US northeast. In the conversation that you're about to listen to, Arthur and I talk about foraging and the benefits of doing it, the benefits of being outdoors in relatively wild places, and we spend most of our time talking about how to manage growing numbers of people who seek to gather and eat wild foods. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, living in a place where certain types of plants are over harvested. We'll talk about that in our episode. This is an issue that has grown only more important since Arthur and I recorded this conversation back in May of 2019.
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With all that out of the way, I hope you enjoy today's episode featuring Maine botanist, Arthur Haines.
Eric: So I know that you are a pretty significant botanist here in the northeast, and also do a lot of wild crafting. I thought a fun way to ease us into this episode is for you to share a little bit about what you've been harvesting and eating as of late.
Arthur Haines: This is always a really fun time of year. Spring in particular, this exact part of spring, gives a lot of abundance. Wild foods are something that are pretty easy to secure, with all of the plants that are emerging. One of the types of foods that we go after this time of year are leaves and shoots and other things where, for many people, they're at their most tender. They're at their tastiest. The textures are just perfect, even like the absence of stiff hairs and things that can come later in the season that are used by plants to store insects or even protect themselves from the sun aren't really present this time of year. Even stinging hairs early in this part of the month are still very flexible, so gathering some of the things that we love to eat, like stinging nettle and wood nettle, are much easier now because you're not being stung by the plants as much, by their stinging hairs that they have, again to try to thwart human and other kinds of herbivores.
So we definitely focus a lot on what's above ground now because we're finally at that stage of the year where things are greening up. It was a very slow spring for us, but we still have a lot of ostrich ferns that we gather. It's one of our favorites. It's something that's easy to gather conscientiously in abundance, and we eat it every day of the spring until it's gone. And about the end of the time when you're just starting to say, Boy I have eaten this for two and a half weeks every single day, it disappears for the rest of the year unless you have a way to pickle it or preserve it. And then you're always looking forward to it again. We do gather a bit of wild leeks. And I'd mentioned the stinging nettles. And some other greens that we go after, like spring beauty. We have Carolina spring beauty in abundance, and that's a wonderful salad green. And maybe one of the last plants that I'll mention that we've been eating a lot lately are the expanding leaves of the American linden, or basswood. That particular species has these beautiful translucent leaves that remind me of the flavor of green beans. They also have a little bit of a mucilaginous texture. They're in the same plant family as okra. They're not nearly as mucilaginous as okra is, but they have a bit of that same texture, and we just love them in salads.
Eric: I haven't had any linden yet this year, but I do eat a fair amount of violet. They've been coming up quite a bit in some of the areas where I forage. They have a little bit of a mucilaginous texture to them as well.
Arthur: You're right, yeah. One of my favorite wild salads that we occasionally get to make when all the timing works out, is violet leaves and flowers, linden leaves, and then we'll put something a little spicier in there, like toothworts, which are a member of the mustard family. And all together that creates this really great set of different flavors and textures. And if you're wanting to add some type of salad dressing or anything like that, it becomes very comparable to something that you could get at the farmers market, except very deeply nutritious for you in a lot of different ways.
Eric: The deeply nutritious part is an interesting thing to point out. Some of my listeners probably appreciate this already—and some of my listeners follow you as well, so they've probably heard this from you—but what a lot of people might not recognize is that a lot of the wild greens in particular might be a bit more nutrient dense than, for example, romaine lettuce, or certainly some of the more typical lettuces that you get at the supermarket.
Arthur: Yeah, we see in the testing that's been done, there's there's a pretty large, growing body of evidence now, it's substantial and getting bigger every year, where we're noticing that there is a pretty significant difference often in the mineral content of the wild versus cultivated, in particular the greens that we're talking about right now. There's often a difference in the carotenoid content, so that pro-vitamin A. And then some pretty substantial differences in their phytochemistry, all of those plant compounds that end up benefiting our health in the long run by suppressing free radical damage, suppressing inflammation, promoting the functioning of our immune system, and even in many cases helping to prevent cancer from being something that we have to contend with.
Eric: Another benefit with the phytochemistry is that we're getting information. Our bodies are getting information from our local landscape when we eat things that we gather locally, as opposed to getting this very generalized stream of information if we're buying from a grocery store where things might be grown thousands of miles away.
Arthur: Yeah, Eric, very much that direct connection with our landscape, especially while we're out there. Much like you can acquire gardening, you're out, you're exposed to the elements, you can be getting sun exposure. And in many times, people today, you'll watch those who don't have a lifestyle that allows them to be outdoors a lot, you'll notice that when those folks come to classes or go on camping trips it's often just exhausting to be outdoors contending with wind and sun and temperatures and biting insects and uneven ground. And we get all of that while we're foraging.
But the other thing that I always like to point out is that we're inoculating ourselves with the local bacteria from those leaves that we're eating, by digging in the soils, and so on. There's some really cool studies showing benefits that you would never expect from these soil bacteria. One of the studies I read, they exposed mice to soil bacterium—and obviously had a control group where there was no exposure—and found that the mice that had been exposed to soil bacteria actually completed the maze challenges that they threw at them faster than those that did not. I think there's a lot that we still don't fully understand, and might not even be thinking of, in terms of the benefits to the bacteria that we have in our landscape. In other words, becoming inoculated with all that's in our local area.
Eric: Yeah, I feel like maybe 5 or 10 years ago is when the whole microbiome thing really started taking off. Ten years before that, no one was talking about this stuff. There were people who were talking about the benefits of forest bathing, almost as if it was like this spiritual, metaphysical sort of thing. And now as people find it easier to study soil microbes, via the technology that's come up, I suspect a lot of the benefits that we used to attribute to something very vague like forest bathing, we'll find out, Oh, wow, there's a very specific thing that helps that.
And maybe not even just bacteria. In my former life I was an environmental chemist, and one of the things I learned in one of the toxicology courses that I took was that the fastest route to get any chemical into the human body most of the time is to inhale it. Because if we eat something, our liver is there to try to filter things, or kidneys are there to try to filter things. Our skin is not a complete barrier, but it's designed largely as a barrier to keep chemicals out. But our lungs don't have much in the way of infrastructure to prevent us from absorbing chemicals that we might breathe in. So when we walk out through a forest, for example, or in a field, we are breathing in all kinds of chemistry, probably hundreds of different chemicals, if not thousands. And a lot of those were probably absorbing. A lot of the aromatics... When you walk through a pine forest, that pine scent, there are chemicals in the air that are causing that. I think it'll be interesting to see, maybe there are folks already out there who are doing this, but interesting to see if people start attributing some of the benefits of forest bathing to basically a natural aromatherapy.
Arthur: Yeah, you brought up a really good point, Eric. The breathing of these chemicals, these plant compounds that are found in the air—and we can smell them, sometimes it takes, for some, a bit of a large exposure to really know that they're getting them, like when they walk into an evergreen forest here in the northeast, whether that be pine or fir, the species may not really matter that much—but you're getting all of these aromatic compounds. And the forest bathing reference that you brought up, the scientific literature refers to these aromatic compounds as phytoncides. They have done tests by keeping people in a hotel room and exposing them to some of the same aromatic compounds that would be found in a forest, and it's really crazy what they have demonstrated for positive health benefits: significant improvements in the immune system, higher activity of natural killer cells, white blood cells that are doing extra work, protecting against cancer and other things, lower levels of stress hormones being produced, increases in memory function and concentration... There's a large list that they've shown from these health improvements just from being exposed to these aromatic compounds, the phytoncides, that are found in our forests here in the Northeast. Overall the message really needs to be, it's not just about what you eat, but it's how you access that food, how you get that food. And if you're out on a landscape, whether that be a forested landscape, a river shore, an open clearing, you're getting so much more benefit than we've really given credit to, that that needs to be considered as part of the whole nutritional package of wild foods.
Eric: I'm not familiar specifically with that study, but the results don't surprise me at all. When I think about it, from an evolutionary standpoint, our body wants to be as healthy and protect us as best it can while using the least amount of effort. And if you were naturally living in these landscapes, and if it can use this chemical soup that we're walking around in to help regulate itself in useful ways, it makes all the sense in the world to outsource a lot of those particular functions. And then when you take that person who's been living in that chemical soup, and using all of that exposure to regulate body systems, out of that soup, then you force the body to work terribly hard in order to do that same work. You're basically creating an opportunity for us to ease back into that chemical soup, and use a lot of that chemistry to do that work again. That's how I make sense of what is happening.
Arthur: It sounds like a wonderful way of describing it, Eric, to me. And I do think that as the value, or the role, of phytochemistry in our diets is becoming known. There's a lot of work that has discussed the value of this and what has been lost, or maybe a better way to describe that is reduced in a lot of the cultivated fair that we consume. And I wish people could take that message home today, along with some others that I think we're going to get to, is that you simply can't make up the lost phytochemistry in a cultivated diet because we have actively suppressed that—to change flavors, to increase sweetness, to increase juiciness of the various produce that we have. And in doing so, we're losing out on protection from a host of chronic diseases, one of the really important ones is cancer, that a lot of medical anthropological work has shown hunter gatherers had an extremely high immunity to, people that were consuming a near 100% or complete wild diet.
Eric: You mentioned, and maybe we'll come back to some of this stuff later, but you mentioned some of the other stuff we're going to talk about, and maybe we should use this as a nice segue. One of the things I wanted to pick your brain on: you mentioned eating ostrich ferns and to a lesser degree ramps, which are—I eat a little bit of ostrich fern, I really don't have access to ramps right now because in the area where I live in Vermont, in the Champlain Valley, they're pretty much gone, they've been harvested to extinction by people who harvest for personal use, but probably primarily for folks who've been harvesting for commercial use. And the place where I used to gather fiddleheads, they're still there but the property owners have basically told everyone no one's going to be harvesting that anymore. We can harvest other things, but they basically put a moratorium on fiddleheads because of overharvest, and particularly from commercial harvesters, and it was headed in the same direction that ramps are.
So I would love to pick your brain, and maybe have a conversation about the ethics behind harvesting wild things in general, wild plants. And you and I are both hunters, so maybe we'll drift into that realm as well, but starting with with plants, and focusing in on ostrich fern and ramps, at least at first, because I feel like in my area, maybe with the exception of Chaga, which gets hit really hard as well, those are the things that seem to be under the most pressure. And maybe that's true where you live, or maybe you have other plants up where you live that that get the same or more pressure than those do.
Arthur: Those are really good topic choices that you've brought up, Eric. Those are some of the species that are under the highest pressure. Many of the places where we forage, the commercial collectors who do target ostrich fern, which is Matteucia struthiopteris. It's sometimes just referred to as the fiddlehead fern because it's targeted so much at that stage of growth when it's a tightly coiled up crosier, as it's known. Many of the people who collect that species don't realize that they're walking over and through wild leeks. So they're simply not collected because the people don't have the identification skills, which works out to be a—it's always good and bad, right? Anytime we have something like that it's good—it ends up protecting the plants—but it's bad because it represents a level of disconnection, it's just a greater degree of disconnection that is being documented when people are walking through choice edibles and simply don't know who they are.
I think there's one thing that we need to, well, there's probably several things that we need to discuss before we jump into how do we actually go about protecting and managing all these populations. And when I say managing, I'm talking more about the managing of people, because the plants are often uniquely and very well adapted to the environments that they're in. And so long as they aren't over harvested—we're talking about plants right now, ostrich fern and wild leeks, that are part of kind of climax communities. In other words, they don't have to worry about the fact that they grow in a clearing, and as that site succeeds into taller and taller vegetation, they're going to be lost. What I'm trying to describe Eric, these are species of mature forests. So generally, the sites are relatively stable unless we have severe flooding or some intense fires, some pathogen that goes through. So these plants are really well adapted and can can be present on site for millennia, without needing to worry about a human or another organism resetting succession, and making sure that that site stays at just the right openness, or something of that nature that makes it that site suitable for the plants. So in this case, we're often needing to manage human populations.
But the important thing I wanted to bring up, and something that will be present for a lot of your listeners because it's just something that is very pervasive right now in our society, is this idea that when humans gather wild food, they're only capable of causing impact. So one of the things that I see when I visit some of the locations nearby for fiddleheads and wild leeks, they frequently grow in the same type of high-terrace riparian forest, is that deer also move through these populations and consume some of these exact same plants. And when we see that, when we see the deer tracks, and we can see the forage marks, the browsing on the wild leek leaves where they have been chewed from the plant, we get excited by that. Oh, look, here's the deer, and it's doing its natural thing. It's consuming wild plants. But very often, as soon as a human steps in to collect those leaves for food, it automatically becomes impact. The human was causing impact, almost as if they shouldn't be there, as if we recognize that there's something different about modern humans. And we can attach all kinds of names to this, whether we just want to call it disconnected or domesticated or whatever word works out the best for us to use. And that when these humans, contemporary humans, enter wild places to gather food, it's somehow really negative. And I think it's important to note that it might be negative only because we don't have the same cultural upbringing around traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom that some First Nations groups do, that some indigenous groups have as part of their cultural upbringing, to make sure that there are ways known to interact with species that prevent their over collection.
So with that in mind—and I want to also obviously give you a chance to be part of this discussion, too, because I've been talking here for a few minutes—but I do feel it's important to recognize that humans gathering wild plants should not automatically be given a negative label, even though the way it's being done now can be negative to the populations, but we can change that.
Eric: I think that's a great point, a nice prelude, if you will. And I might even add to it in saying that, from my perspective, impact is not inherently a bad thing. You were using the term impact, and we can look at them as negative impact, or positive impact. But maybe a more nuanced way of looking at it is that we can have an impact on a landscape that reduces biodiversity there and makes it tenable for fewer and fewer species, or we can have an impact that very much supports biodiversity there and creates room for a lot more rare species or endemic species to thrive. And which of those impacts we have is entirely dependent, like you said, on culture. How do we engage with a landscape? And how do we carry ourselves through that landscape? And what are the particular things that we do?
There's a book that I'm thinking of called Tending the Wild by a woman, I think she's in the University of California system, M. Kat Anderson. It's been a while since I read that book, but she talks at length about some of the different practices that indigenous peoples in what we today call California would use to engage with the landscape, to make a living out where they were at. That's a very different way of engaging with the landscape than a lot of European-descended peoples do today. But certainly not something that is impossible for us to approach again, if we set our minds to, I don't think.
Arthur: That's exactly right, Eric. And I like the way you're pointing out I'm using the word impact, because that's how it's often interpreted. I think that's a really great point you've brought up. A better word is just interaction, right? Species interact with each other. And that's what ecology studies are species interactions. And this is one of the interactions that we have with say, the fiddlehead fern. And that interaction can range on a whole scale of extremely positive to extremely negative. And in some cases, our interactions may be primarily just of no harm. They might not even necessarily be of massive benefit to the plant at that time. But I often think about if people have lands that have fed them for generations, that in the long run, they will ultimately fight to protect those lands, no different than we saw here with North American First Nations people fighting to keep their land from people who are colonizing it. When something has fed you and healed you and supported your life for generations, when you have that level of connection, you're much more likely to come to its rescue, you're much more likely to donate toward land preservation efforts, or whatever the case might be, that could be benefiting all of the plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and so on, all of those wild lives that live on that land. And so for me, it's important to get that interaction started. And to do that we first need to get past this label of humans cause impact, because we know humans can. But that doesn't mean that we have to.
The book that you brought up by Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild—which is a great book—the only downside to it is it's primarily written for the California landscape. What we need to understand is all of those same collection of techniques—in other words, harvesting plants in a way that is truly sustainable and in some cases even rejuvenative—exists for the species that we have here. It's possible for humans to interact with them without causing harm. The problem is, as you alluded to earlier in this, is that the commercial collecting is by far the number one damaging thing that these species face. Again, we're assuming that the habitats are left intact. With the travel that I've done in the greater Burlington area, and it's the same here where I live along the Androscoggin River watershed and everywhere else in New England, these major rivers, sort of middle sized to large rivers, where these floodplain forests grow that are home to things like fiddlehead fern and wild leeks, are also some of the most fertile lands for producing crops. So most of these areas have been impacted already by clearing them. They were cut down and they were converted into farm fields for growing corn and other species. And what we have left—when I say we, I'm talking about all the people that live in this area, or your area—what we have left are fragments, small strips, islands, and hints of how much wild food was likely produced at some point in the past. Now we're all also trying to share that little bit, these fragments that are left, which also creates a big issue when we're talking about numbers of people.
But the commercial collectors go beyond personal use. That's the issue that we're dealing with. They're trying to gather for the populations. They're going into the wild to gather plants, to bring them back to the urban areas, to the farmers markets, where they can sell them. And most—and I don't want to put everyone in this category, because broad sweeping labels always cause problems—but in my experience, most commercial collectors have one goal in mind: short term economic gain. And that is fundamentally incompatible with life, to put it very bluntly.
Eric: Maybe this is true where you live it, I feel like it certainly is true here, in not just the greater Burlington area and in Chittenden County, but in Vermont more generally, I would say a decent number of the commercial harvesters don't just harvest so they can sell at the Burlington farmers market or the Montpelier farmers market. A good number of them actually harvest so that they can put hundreds of pounds of fiddleheads or ramps in their truck and then drive down to Boston. So this stuff is not destined to be consumed within the state. It's going to head down to Boston, or it's going to go down to New York City. And of course, you're talking about millions of people who are going to be consuming at that point. So it's a very, very hungry place. And a place where there's a lot more wealth, and people are willing to spend $15 bucks a pound for ramps for fiddleheads, whereas people generally won't do that at least in Chittenden County, for the most part. There's a couple of high-end restaurants that might spend that, but for the most part that's not a large part where a lot of this stuff ends up.
Arthur: Right, here's a great example, Eric, is that when the fiddle heads have passed by the stage that they would be collected, say, here in western Maine—I'm not in northern Maine, I'm in the southern half of the state. And when they've passed here, two or three weeks from now, they mature on the northern rivers, like the Aroostook River, for example, which is in northern Maine in Aroostook County. And they gather there and truck them south to sell them, even at Hannaford and other shopping centers where most people do their food shopping in the state of Maine. And they also end up in farmer's markets in places in Portland, and other larger cities here in Maine. Larger is obviously relative. Maine has no large cities, but our larger cities.
It's the exact same thing. The wild foods are leaving the landscape they were collected from and being consumed by people in a completely different bioregion. That's obviously one of the problems we run into, is there certainly isn't enough wild food for the entire planet. Not in the way that it's certainly being done right now, where we're just focusing on a few species, and then trying to feed some of the country's largest cities with this food that we're taking out, like you said, often at a very premium price where it is generally wealthier people that would be able to afford such things. And so that obviously is going to be a problem for these remaining fragmented natural communities that harbor these plants.
Eric: So we've been bashing on the commercial harvesters, so maybe we can talk a bit more in detail about how might we engage with a landscape where there are ostrich fern or leeks in such a way that we could, not on a commercial scale, but on like a personal scale?
Arthur: At the very least Eric, we can start there because there are ways for private collectors—and I don't use this in a term in a museum setting—but in the case of a family who are out collecting for their household, there are ways for them to interact with these plants without their interactions causing harm. And certainly at some point we need to recognize, to go back to the commercial harvesters, that right now they have unregulated harvesting. So they are, so long as they have access to the land, they are practically free to do what they want. And we know that in all cases, when a new market opens up—like take here in Maine the sea urchin market that opened in my lifetime, it really took off—we now know that sea urchins are scarce compared to what they were when when I was a younger person. Unregulated harvests where the goal is short term economic gain is always going to be a problem. So at some point, such activities need to either be stopped, or at least regulated in some fashion. And regulated could simply mean that commercial collectors heed the standards that we're about to discuss for ostrich ferns. If commercial collectors followed what I do in my personal life and what I teach my students, then we wouldn't be seeing quite the damage that we see right now.
And ostrich fern is a really interesting species to focus on this one, because it has this really neat strategy to protect it from herbivory: asynchronous maturation. It just means that all of the leaves—because each one of those fiddleheads is a leaf, it wants to open up and expand and become the solar collector—except it doesn't produce all of its leaves at the same time. Anybody who goes out into the field to gather this, if you spend any significant amount of time with ostrich fern, it becomes very obvious that there are some that will be tall, there will be short fiddleheads, and they'll even be fiddleheads that are still tucked down in this crown, where all of the leaves are emerging from the underground stem that connects all of these colonies of ostrich fern. And so by producing its leaves at different stages, it makes sure that if an herbivore comes through, it doesn't lose them all. The problem is if we harvest every leaf that we see and then we go back in a few days and harvest them all again, we're essentially defoliating the ostrich fern. It'd be no different than taking our prize to apple tree and plucking every single leaf off the tree.
And what's so strange, Eric, is that we understand that would be horribly detrimental to that apple tree, and we would never do that. But when it comes to the ostrich firm, we don't seem to realize that it needs to have some of its leaves. Without them, it can't make energy and it dies. And that's what collectors who aren't following any protocol do, is they simply gather all the leaves. The trick is very simple. Ostrich fern fiddleheads come up in a circular clump with the fiddleheads pointing to the inside of that circle. And you always make sure that you gather no more than half of the leaves that are present. That means round down, so if there are five fiddleheads at the appropriate stage of collection, you gather only two. If you see six in that little clump, you can gather three. If you see seven, you still only gather three. The reality is that you probably won't be gathering half because there will be some that still haven't emerged yet. So your end up gathering less than half. And the only thing you have to do is not come back and gather them again. So you don't get to gather half, and half, and half, and eventually the plant ends up with very few leaves.
This also means that if you come to a site a couple of days after someone else has already harvested, you have to leave the plants alone that have already been harvested. And that's tracking. It's pretty easy tracking, but you're still interpreting the signs of herbivory. Instead of you looking for deer browse, you're looking for human browse, where they have picked some of the fiddleheads. Any clump that has been picked from, you have to move on to the next one. And you have to find essentially a circle of fiddle heads that no one has picked from, and that can be really hard, especially if you're really excited to be out there gathering fiddleheads and somebody has already moved through a colony. But in the United States we're all about personal liberties, and we rarely focus on our personal responsibilities, especially our personal responsibilities to the natural world. And this is just one of them. If somebody has already harvested, you have to find another area, or potentially even forgo harvesting in that spot that year. So quite simply, any circle of fiddleheads you come to, gather half that are available and don't return. This level of collection has been done for a very long time without causing any harm to populations.
Eric: Yep, I'm actually a bit more conservative than that even. When I go out for fiddleheads, I'll usually take one leaf from each. And then I cut the leaf high enough so that if I come back to that area, I can see where I've been before and I'll avoid them.
But of course, in the area that I've harvested, the areas that I harvest, not everyone does that. The first time I went out this year for fiddleheads, there was an area I would probably guess 30 yards by 30 yards where someone went in and literally it was like they had a lawnmower, every colony had all the leaves cut. And that was the property where they ended up posting it, they didn't post it as in like No Trespassing, but they basically put signs saying no one's allowed to harvest fiddleheads here anymore.
Arthur: And that's what happens, Eric, because our society doesn't have that traditional ecological knowledge that it really values and wants to make sure everyone learns. You have people, for one reason or another, who feel it's okay for them to gather in this way. And we witness the same thing. And we get a lot of pushback, because my wife is someone that will approach people, and no way in a rude manner, but in a very caring manner will try to explain to them, Did you know that this is what you're doing by gathering in this way, and there's a way that you can avoid harming the plants. We generally get a lot of pushback. I've been coming here for 20 years, as if part of a lifetime gives permission to cause ecological damage. It's very strange. We've been out on islands where, again, my wife approached them in a very non-rude manner to explain to them that this is not how you gather them. They untied our canoe when they went back to the mainland, and thought they were stranding us there. I totally understand and witness this all the time. At some point, we need to be able to have that discussion where your actions are making it so that none of us get to harvest wild food anymore. Because we're extirpating local populations, or we're upsetting landowners who unfortunately, the way the laws work in this society, have the ability to prevent access, even to people who are caring and harvest in a conscientious manner. And this is that whole talk about personal responsibility, not just to people but also to the natural world. And that's something that is quite lacking in our society here.
Eric: I don't know of any landowners who have posted their lands in Vermont because people overharvest leeks or fiddleheads, but in the state of Vermont we're seeing hunting license sales drop off, which means it's hurting the Fish and Wildlife Department's budget. And one of the big reasons is that people who would want to hunt have a hard time getting access to land because a lot of people have a really bad impression of what hunters do to pieces of property and so they post their land to keep hunters away. And I can envision over the next 10 years people starting to post their land because as they become more attuned to what commercial harvesters of fiddleheads and particularly ramps will do in a landscape. As they become more attuned to that, they might sour of that, too.
A friend of mine told me a story where he was out somewhere in Chittenden County harvesting ramps, and a gentleman was there also harvesting ramps from the same population. And for one reason or another, the other gentleman just thought it was important for him to harvest with a shovel. So he was literally digging up probably a 20 by 30 foot area of ground and harvesting the ramps, bulbs at all, and leaving the area like it had been rutted by boars, like wild pigs. And he was just dumbfounded. It has never even occurred to me to harvest ramps like that. Maybe once in a while I'll take a couple whole plants with the bulbs, but for the most part it's a lot like fiddleheads, I take one leaf from each plant, and cut that leaf high enough so that I can see it if I go by again so I don't harvest two leaves from the same plant.
Arthur: I'm just sorry. And I've witnessed similar things. The bulbs, if they were to be harvested from wild leeks, we're talking about a relatively shallow underground storage organ that's easy to unearth with a very narrow digging stick. It requires very little disturbance. In fact, many times when we harvest a few, we're doing it just with our fingers because that soil is so loose in these floodplains in particular, and very easy to dig in. And it just doesn't require that.
And what's happening is not only are the wildlife populations being harmed there, but also that disturbance that's being created is an open invitation for many invasive, non-native species to colonize that area. And once they have a stronghold they can move out from there. And I'm not someone who vilifies non-native plants. They didn't bring themselves here. It's our global trade and global travel networks that did that. They're just doing what they do. They just happen to have some advantages in some cases, because they're growing without their predators, without their pathogens on this landscape. And it gives them a serious advantage in some of these fertile soils. Places that I harvested fiddlehead ferns, the again the ostrich fern, when I was a young person, one of those along the Sandy River and Farmington is now almost completely lost to Japanese knotweed. And that's because of disturbance that allowed the establishment of that plant.
With wild leeks, one of the things that I love to share with people is, one item you already have Eric, and that's we don't need to gather the bulbs. In the spring they're quite small, because they have been depleted producing those broad, fleshy green leaves that the plant uses to collect sun. So most of the food is in the leaf. And we do exactly as you do, we take one leaf from a plant and move on. And we make sure that there has been no other gathering from that plant. Occasionally, a deer has passed through and browsed on some, in which case we avoid. And in other cases people may have come through. This collecting one leaf is something that I've been teaching now for a long while and we're starting to see people using it, which is just really awesome because it represents non-lethal collection that the plant can sustain.
One of the other things that people need to recognize is that many of the major rivers where wild leeks grow are also home to industrial discharges, because there are factories, mills and other such industries along them. And many of the things that are produced for these environmental pollutants from the mills turned out to be lipophilic. In other words, they're attracted to fats. And the first place that these environmental pollutants meet up with fats in a plant is in the cell membranes of the roots, there is a lipid bilayer there. So things like dioxin and polychlorinated biphenols, two great examples, they are concentrated in the soils and in the underground storage organs, which includes things like bulbs corms, roots, rhizomes of the plants.
Interestingly, things like PCBs, polychlorinated biphenols, are poorly translocated to the aerial portions of the plants, with a couple of exceptions. In other words, they are mostly confined to the underground storage organs. Where I'm going with all this is if you don't know where those wild leeks were collected, it's actually a real health insult to you, in all likelihood, to eat those bulbs because they probably represent the highest level of pollution of that plant. So here, for example, where wild leeks grow along some of the rivers, some of the major rivers, we have paper mills on every major river in the state of Maine, and dioxin, which is a serious carcinogen—it's an endocrine disruptor, low birth weight, we're talking about a compound that we don't want in our bodies—the last thing that you want to do is to eat leek bulbs, because that's where it's concentrated. And I think if people knew this, and unless they were gathering leeks from a rich rocky hillside that was far away from these industrial discharges, again, if you don't know where the leeks are coming from, you shouldn't buy them and you shouldn't eat them because you are probably dosing yourself with some pretty serious environmental pollutants.
So Eric, I share this with people as one of the ways that they can protect themselves. But also, if we simply stop buying commercially harvested wild foods, and I'm talking about unregulated wild foods like fiddlehead ferns, like wild leeks, the industry to gather them will disappear. It's like everything, it only exists because there's a demand. And if people recognize that they're supporting something that's potentially quite harmful, maybe they'll change their purchasing habits.
Eric: Yeah, I would like to think that that is the case, but I've got friends down in the southern part of Vermont who talk about the lines of pickup trucks loaded with fiddleheads and ramps that had south in the early morning hours to Boston and to New York City. I'm sure there are plenty of folks in New York City that listen to this podcast, but maybe not enough to make something like that reality.
You mentioned how these are unregulated, and maybe it'd be worthwhile to talk about that. I mean, obviously, it doesn't happen in Vermont right now. I'm assuming it doesn't happen in Maine.
Arthur: That's right.
Eric: Yeah. You and I are both hunters, so we're both very accustomed to getting wild food in a way that very much is regulated, and where for the most part, I don't know if this is true in Maine, but for the most part this is true in Vermont, commercial harvest is prohibited. There's a window of time in Vermont where you can sell deer meat during and right after the deer rifle season, but otherwise it's prohibited. If Arthur Haines got to write laws for the state of Maine, or for all of New England, about regulating the harvest of wild edibles in general, or maybe just specifically things like ramps and fiddleheads that get a lot of pressure, what would those look like?
Arthur: Well, that's a good question, Eric. I've never even entertained it, because I just know that I don't get to do that.
Eric: Fair enough.
Arthur: But, it is a really good point. I think the thing for me is that I would recognize that we need a lot of different voices here to build those laws. I would want biologists. I would want First Nations people. I want restaurant owners. I also want some, I'm going to describe where I grew up, rural people who sometimes... rely is a strong word, but definitely look forward to some foods that they can harvest that are largely free of charge to them. It can make a really huge difference to where their paychecks go every week. And I would want all of those people involved to find out what we can do.
Because what's happening right now, we know that there's going to be more property closures. It's just going to keep going. I have also experienced that in the town of Avon where I grew up in the Sandy River Valley, a landowner there who I met on their property that I had been going to since childhood, met me one day and mentioned that they sell the fiddleheads commercially and they would like them not to be picked by anybody. And it was not a harsh confrontation, I don't mean to make it sound like that. But essentially that property became closed to me for the harvest of wild foods. I had also shown them that wild leeks grow on their property and unfortunately that became something that they were also interested in selling. And so whether they actually close it to people or stop them from foraging, the more this happens, not only do more people become disconnected from the wild because now we're being alienated from these high quality foods in a greater degree, but it also puts more stress, if you will, more pressure on the remaining sites that are open.
So really what I do think we need is not property closures, but we need to have a way of changing behaviors in how humans pick and the amounts that they gather. And that's really what we would need to, in my opinion, what we would need to work toward, because just stopping people from gathering, that doesn't work. If they end up, as generations go by of not interacting with this wild food, they just lose knowledge of it completely, have no understanding of why those riverside forests are extremely valuable to us and to other species that use them, because they're just not in there interacting with them at all. And now we've just lost one of the major reasons why people might donate time, money, expertise toward the preservation of these habitats.
So my emphasis would definitely be toward changing how people interact with the plants, and possibly severely limiting commercial collection so that there was a limited wait, a year, that people could do. I'm not sure how to go about that. The hunting laws and regulations that you talk about, we've had a long period of time now to have people operating under those hunting regulations. And I feel like a lot of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, as it's called here in Maine, they've had the opportunity to see what works, what doesn't work. But we know that there are still poachers, we know that there are still people who take more than their bag limits, sometimes many, many more times than what's allowed. And so we still have a culture, if you will, of, This is mine, and I can take it from the other people, there's no sharing. It's a shared resource in the sense that I can go out and get it, but it's not a shared resource in the sense of other people need to interact with this as well, if that makes sense.
Eric: It does. And obviously we have the same issue here in Vermont. I was chatting, I don't remember if this was a warden, or if this was just another hunter, who said that probably a quarter of the deer in the state, maybe 20% of the deer in the state that are killed every year by hunters, are probably poached, so not harvested legally. I have no idea if that is is accurate, or how we would even know that, but I guess my thought is that hunting regulations, imperfect as they are, I would say most people will follow them. And so the idea of putting forward regulations for harvesting wild plants, I would hope the same thing would happen. And that would be my goal.
Like, for example—and I'm not necessarily saying that this is what we should do, just like tossing this out as an option—if we were, for example, to not outlaw commercial harvest, but outlaw commercial harvest that is shipped outside of the state, I feel that just because of how powerful New York City markets and Boston markets are, I feel that by itself would reduce the commercial harvest down to a level that would maybe not ideal, but it would be a big step in the right direction. And then you could see how that works for 5 or 10 years, and then adjust strategies from there.
Arthur: And I think that's a great idea, Eric. I mean, we already limit certain things from crossing state lines. And we limit when it comes to wild foods, these wild lives that we eat. This food... I always hate that word food—as a tangent—because it's such a demeaning name for these living beings that we consume. But hopefully your listeners will realize that when I'm talking about food, I'm trying to talk about wild lives, in this case. We limit what can and can't be done commercially with many animal species. And unfortunately, without that strong culture of conservation and sustainable practices here in the United States, at least with the contemporary population, it might be important to have those regulations.
For example, another plant that's under a lot of stress from too many people in Maine is wild rice. Now, the fortunate thing is the methods that are being used to gather, which are traditional methods of gathering, won't deplete the plants because they both gather grains into the canoe, as well as sow many of the grains into the water bodies where the wild rice grows. These methods—which essentially use two sticks called rice knockers, one to bend over the plants that have mature grains on them and another to swipe over that lightly to dislodge the grains—drop some into the canoe that you're harvesting from and throws others, it broadcasts these fruits to plant the next generation. So the issue there isn't that we're going to damage the plants because the methods used in this case, so long as we said you may not harvest rice by any methods other than these, wild rice will always be in Maine, at least for the foreseeable future.
The issue here is that there just aren't enough wild rice beds for all of the people interested in wild rice. And of course, that's another issue altogether, how that resource would then get shared. But now wild rice, like others, there's no regulation, there's no permitting process, which has its pros and cons. Because anytime you charge people to do something, you make it difficult for those who have very little money to be able to have legal access to it. I always feel that any permitting process that we have should have some way of a very reduced price or some free permits to those that can demonstrate financial need for such things. Whether we limit access through permits, we limit it by crossing state lines, we somehow limit the harvest, something will have to be done. One of the commercial collectors that I've spoken to, in the last decade, said that he had in fact eradicated a stand of ostrich fern near him through his collecting. He was certain that he had in fact done it. And it was so interesting for him, he just presented that in a matter of fact, like almost, Oh, it just happened, I think it was probably my activity that had done that. But that was okay. And he just moved on to new populations.
Eric: Yeah. And it's not surprising to me that there are people who see it that way. I guess you can think of these plants as being a resource, which is a word that I personally dislike...
Arthur: I couldn't agree more, Eric.
Eric: Yeah. Or you could see yourself as being in this reciprocal relationship with them. And I'm not sure exactly what I would call them to acknowledge that reciprocity. But it seems to me that it's two very different ways of conceptualizing the relationship between myself and a patch of fiddlehead ferns or wild leeks. I've never harvested wild rice, we don't have a lot of that here, at least in the part of Vermont that I live in.
But yeah, I'm in the same boat. I was on a panel last year about wildcrafting food, and I don't know that there were any commercial harvesters on the panel that I was on. There might have been in other panels throughout the day, but there were definitely commercial harvesters in the audience. And some of the conversations that I had with some of them, they're very nonchalant about the fact that they cause extinction. Localized extinction, not statewide. I can't fathom where that comes from.
Arthur: Well, we certainly here in Maine, and it may be very true in Vermont—while I've spent a lot of time in Vermont I haven't lived there, so I can't claim to know what the local way of viewing wild landscapes is—but here in Maine, it's definitely an exploitation mindset. It's a These are resources here for our use, as opposed to living beings we share the landscape with and rely on, and so do future generations. And I think that's the thing that when we cause these extirpations of local populations, there's just no consequence that comes of that. That's like, Oh, that stinks. Now you don't have these to harvest from, but okay. As opposed to being like, That's really wrong what you did.
And I don't mean that we're supposed to punish people. I only mean that they are not held accountable for what they did, and there's no learning that comes of it. And the very society that they are embedded within doesn't change, we just sort of continue to do this slash and burn mentality. And eventually, we just run out of places to burn anew. And so we really do need a radical change in the way we view these things. And obviously, I'm a huge proponent of finding ways to learn from First Nations people that have been here for a long time, and have a very different worldview, a very different perspective on how to interact with these things. These things being these wild lives that we've been talking about this entire podcast. We need something radically different, because what we're doing isn't working. And we all know that, and it doesn't take a lot of evidence to demonstrate that it's leading to a place that we don't want to have to talk about.
Eric: Yeah, yeah. And we're talking in the context of gathering wild plants, but I imagine you're very familiar with this, and I'm certainly familiar with it as well, the whole "nature connection" movement, part of which might involve hunting or gathering plants, part of it is ancestral skills. But even throughout that movement—I've been involved with that, I would guess, twenty-ish years, maybe a bit longer than that at this point—still, I meet a lot of people, including a lot of people who run wilderness schools, who very much have come to that from a standpoint of conquest, like we're conquering these skills, so that we can continue conquering nature. And I feel like there's a minority of people who are willing to approach those from a more a place of reciprocity. And yeah, that dichotomy that I alluded to earlier seems like that shows up in a lot of different places, not just the gathering of wild edible plants or hunting.
Arthur: I couldn't agree more with you, Eric. And I think that when you have people who are well, I mean, this is in so many topics that we could discuss when you have a society who has an overriding worldview, when they return to trying to participate in an activity like, whether we want to call it rewilding, ancestral skills, foraging, it doesn't matter, you bring cultural baggage with you. And this is something that we know, and your listeners are likely very familiar with. A great example of this in foraging is, let's take classes that people can go to: most foraging instructors, what do they focus on for teaching people? They teach them how to identify the wild plant of interest. They teach them where it's found, and when you might gather it, how you gather it, how you might cook it. Maybe even a poisonous look alike, should there be one. And the education primarily stops there.
For me, the absolutely critical piece of information that has to come attached to the learning of all the plant foods is, How do we sustainably interact with this plant? Or a better word that I like to use is conscientiously interact with it? Sustainable has some connotations as well, but how do we interact with this plant in a manner that it will be here for the next generation? And that has to become crucial information that foraging instructors teach.
Eric, what we often see are things like, Oh just gather only one quarter of the plants. Unfortunately, this is horribly over simplified, and in some cases would still lead to the extirpation of local plant colonies. There's a study that was done concerning wild leeks, a really interesting study—the author's names I don't have in my head, but I could send this to you if you wanted to post it as a resource, Eric, for your listeners—and it looked at the population dynamics of wild leek harvest pressures and so on. And it found that a 1/10 harvest of the population would only be sustainable if it occurred once every 10 years.
And so these oversimplified, just gather one quarter of the plants, would actually wipe out all the populations in the northeast, if all the populations were being gathered from. Now, there is potentially an item or two with this paper that was not addressed, but the point is, it demonstrates that this is a species that can't handle the collection pressures that it's experiencing now. And really, the point that I wanted to make is, every species has its own unique life form. And we need to learn its biology, its ecology, its interactions, we need to learn about how to gather that species. And it isn't summed up in a soundbite, it's individualized information that has to be part of that teaching packet that is delivered to each student. Without that information, students are coming at it from an exploitation mindset. We can't help it. It's what we were immersed in. It's what we were grown in and taught to do. And we just do harmful things potentially, without even realizing it.
Eric: You mentioned earlier, you brought up you had some issues with sustainability, baggage. And one of the things I think about a lot is, we do come from this very, for lack of a better word I'll call it colonialist worldview. Improvements can be made on that particular choice of words, but we have that. And so a lot of the words that we use have a certain meaning that connects to that worldview, and has a context within that worldview. And one of the things I've been paying a lot of attention to in myself is, as I use these words, dig down and figure out exactly what it is they're meaning and, at the very least, be skeptical and be critical, and inquisitive about all of that. Sustainability is one of those words that I've become reluctant to use for the most part. Resource is one of those words. We could probably find a whole bunch of others. But yeah, the idea of being very skeptical of language, for those of us who grew up in this culture is a useful thing.
Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to offer, before we wrap up?
Arthur: Well, Eric, really, what I want to do is just thank you for having this discussion. I think this whole topic of wild food and the harvest pressures that it's facing, often just leads people to immediately say, humans shouldn't do it anymore. Or you also see, people of European descent here in North America shouldn't do it anymore. I would argue that will do more damage in the long run, than it will do good.
We're witnessing, right now, what happens when a massive population who use resources at rates greater than probably any other country in the world, become nature disconnected. Returning that population to a more nature connected lifeway is going to have some problems at first, because of the very worldview they're coming from, like we just discussed. The hope—and there's there's no guarantees—but the hope is they can learn how to have that reciprocal interaction become something that is more commonplace, that we can understand that we need to live lighter lives on our wild landscapes, but that we still need to interact with them. And one of the really important interactions is consuming.
I don't think that we can ever fully appreciate how valuable our open spaces are if we're not getting some of our food, and our medicine, or other things that humans need to live so that we can have that dependency on our landscape. Without that dependency, without a without an actual understanding that I am completely dependent, that level of cherishing just never gets to where it needs to be for people to champion the protection of these spaces. And so I'm deeply appreciative that you're having this conversation. At least from my interpretation of the whole discussion I don't see you as one of those people saying stop humans from entering the wild, but that we need to do this from a different perspective. And I just really appreciate you doing that.
Eric: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. Again, this episode is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. You can find Quillwood Academy on the web at quillwood.org. Check out the Reality Blind Reading Group on the Educational Events page under Offerings.
Until next time, this is Eric Garza signing off from this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. Walk softly, and take good care.