“All Living Things have a deep and burning need to feel loved and appreciated.”
—Iroqouis (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy
Picture this… 8000 years ago in a place and mindset that is foreign in our modern form. Imagine sitting around a campfire at dawn, warming yourself up after a long, cool night. Hermit thrushes, cicadas, chipmunks, and red squirrels dance in an acoustic symphony. Blu-jays yells ricochet off tree trunks as they weave through the canopy. Rays of sun, that heal our wounds and bring strength to our muscles, pass and bounce off leaves and into our vision. Life is good. Thank you Earth Mother.
You look across the pit of embers to your cousin, who’s eyes are wide, relaxed, and gleaming. In your hands you hold up four plant parts, each belonging to a different species. A goosefoot, a sunflower, a squash, and marsh elder. These four plants and their associated niches, needs, and communities tell a story that I wish to share with you. We rest on the banks of the Kennebec River. We hunt for perch, trout, mackerel, blueberries, raspberries, rabbit, crabs, snails, lobster, and many others. Our ancestors say the big animals have gone, and now we must hunt for the smaller animals and fish.
Our mouths water while we watch the steam rise from coal-burned container we use to cook our food. The stew consists of mountain spring water, deer heart, intestines and blood, rose hips, reishi mushroom, sea salt, maple sugar, sage, goosefoot leaves, sunflower seeds, marsh elder or sump-weed flour; and a gourd filled with blueberry and strawberry wine for washing clean our palates. The banks of the Kennebec River offer us a safe-haven from biting flies and mosquitoes and opportunities to hunt for delicious foods like perch, trout, mackerel, blueberries, raspberries, rabbit, crabs, snails, lobster, and many others. We offer thanks to our mothers who prepared the meals last night.
I am here now at the Maine Primitive Skills School and learning the how to procure shelter, water, fire, and food from this landscape in a manner that is in accordance with natural law; and with an underlying layer of awareness. Shapeshifting back to write these words for you, I intend on imparting a new aspect for understanding how we have succeeded in surviving over the last eight millennia.
Today in early August, or the “Feather Shedding Moon” (1), i’ve almost completed a digging stick that’s use is to retrieve the taproots of burdock, wild carrot, evening primrose, and the underground storage organs of sunflower. We travel in car for one hour to a location where 100 of us gather to celebrate the summer harvest. Along side the Androscoggin River (The Place of the Rock Shelters) we find a three-acre plot of land that is being cultivated for maize (Zea mays L.). Within the forming cobs of corn we found a species of goosefoot (Chenopodium album L.), a nutrient rich food that was traditionally eaten by natives. (2)
As we walk across the dewy grass near the edge of the forest, I look down and revel in the magnificence of the white goosefoot. After examining the structure of one plant, I look up to ask my mentor a question.
“Arthur, tell us about this plant (white goosefoot) and it’s importance within the early agricultural crop package.”
Arthur gazes at me over the heads of the excited crowd and states both vaguely, but confidently, that “A food system that is collecting significant amounts of goosefoot, gourds (squash), marsh elder and sunflower is an agricultural paradigm that I gladly accept”.
As I come back to the place where we were to sleep for the night I pulled out my journal and start thinking on the reasons, as well as on the significance of what Arthur had said. What came to me is that in this system, peoples still hunt and gather (3), still enjoy semi-nomadic living (4), still benefit from a rich diversity of phytochemicals that support proper immune system function and adaptability (5). What does a landscape look and feel like when you have biodiversity and bio-proportionality that – includes goosefoot, marsh-elder, sunflower, and squash – is interwoven within intact human cultures?
This set before me a whirlwind of possibilities, for I have lived my life until recently feeling an itch, a reminder that i’ve forgotten something.
Tracking the domestication process.
Modern scientists looks for changes in morphology of certain plant bodies to deduce if a plant has experienced extensive selective breeding (domestication), and compares the phenotypes (outward appearance) of modern seeds with still living wild varieties. For example in goosefoot, a paleobotanist will watch the changes in seeds (both appearance and timing). In this example, a change in seed color, the edges of the seed, and the “microscopic” beaks are key indicators of domestication (speciation), such as in the Riverton Site in the State of Illinois. (6)
I love this quote from one paper titled “Initial formation of an indigenous crop complex in eastern North America at 3800 B.P”,
It reads, “The initial domestication of local seed plants and the subsequent formation of a crop complex does not appear to have occurred in response to any carrying-capacity challenges or seriously compressed and compromised resource catchment areas. Rather, this domestication seems to have taken place within a context of stable, long-term adaptations to resource-rich environmental settings.” (7)
In other words, experimentation with plants was initially sparked by curiosity and a desire for the consistent availability of an abundance of food. These interactions transformed some societies extremely quickly and others very slowly through modalities such as trading, bartering, marauding, and story-telling.
Some say our relations (as a genus Homo) with favorable food plants came with the territory (8). The plants were looking for vectors to spread their seeds, and we could do just that! It was coming from a place of love and admiration for plants- an intense and vivid example of semiosis- that contributed to the very survival of our species.
Hunting and gathering societies have come and gone, and so have civilizations or city-states. What will happen 1000 years from now? What is the future of these plants, especially heirloom cultivars?
Make relations again, call upon gratitude, and bring Life back to your communities. Look for those forgotten plants similar to the package of goosefoot, squash, marsh-elder, and sunflower from my part of this world.
I was born 22 winters ago in the lands of the Lenapehoking (9). My questions are young and on table. However, I have received answers from the beings that hide within that field on top of my hill, and near my seasonal wetland, and high up in my forest of ancient white oaks and sugar maples.
Engage with them as equals just as an aunt may with her nephew, for all of us depend on our elders.
Maximilian is an rewilding visionary and practitioner . He specialises in helping schools to thrive in modern society by deepening nature literacy and incorporating ancestral nutrition into their programs. Check out his platform Lionmanconsulting to learn more.
1. “Why I’m Learning an Indigenous Language.” Arthur Haines, www.arthurhaines.com/blog/2014/6/13/why-im-learning-an-indigenous-language.
2. BRIT – Native American Ethnobotany Database, naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=goosefoot.
3. Keegan, William F. “The Optimal Foraging Analysis of Horticultural Production.” American Anthropologist, vol. 88, no. 1, 1986, pp. 92–107., doi:10.1525/aa.1986.88.1.02a00060.
4. Hudson , Neville D. “Nomadic Pastoralism.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 20 Mar. 1980, pp. 15–61.
5. SIMOPOULOS, ARTEMIS P. “ Biol Res 37: 263-277, 2004 ARTICLE Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Antioxidants in Edible Wild Plants.” Biological Research, 2004
6. Smith, Bruce D. “ Eastern North America as an Independent Center of Plant Domestication.” PNAS, 15 Aug. 2016.
7. Smith, Bruce D, and Richard A Yarnell. “Initial Formation of an Indigenous Crop Complex in Eastern North America at 3800 B.P.” PNAS, 21 Feb. 2009.
8. entheotv. YouTube, YouTube, 12 Sept. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=joQDjEQhTdQ.
9. Welcome to Lenape Lifeways Lenapehoking Mag, lenapelifeways.org/map.htm.