There is an upsurge in the popularity of wild herbalism. Take a walk through Gastown in Vancouver and you will see smudge sticks, shamanic feathers, mortar and pestles and herbs for sale in the trendy shop windows. Items that represent our connection to the natural world. I consider this a positive sign as it shows that people are curious and wanting to connect to these ancient practices. With the increase in people exploring herbal and wild food harvesting, however there is increased pressure on the wild plants.
For anyone who wishes to harvest wild plants for medicine or food the consideration that needs to be lived, breathed and practiced is the idea of reciprocity with the plants. Wild plants are living beings, part of a complex web of interconnected species. Humans are a part of this web and due to their incredibly impactful existence must act as plant CARETAKERS. Humans and plants should both gain from the relationship of harvesting and being harvested. For the plants this might come from propagated seeds, helpful pruning, protection from invasive species or recognition that protects the forest around them. Reciprocity is reached when we consider that the natural world is a gift for which we should be thankful.
When we step foot into the wild, we are gifted with fresh air, calm feelings and a renewed reminder that we are not alone in this world. We get so caught up in the human world of time lines, stressors and crowds that we forget the interconnectedness of everything around us. Wild harvesting is a beautiful way to connect to the world but it must be conducted with respect and awareness of what is being done. The plants gift to the harvester their medicines and foods, and as an excerpt from “Braiding Sweetgrass” Robin Wall Kimmerer states:
“a gift relationship with nature is a formal give and take that acknowledges our participation in and dependence upon the flourishing of the natural world. We tend to respond to nature as part of ourselves, not a stranger or alien available for exploitation. Gift exchange is the commerce of choice for it is a commerce that harmonizes with or participates in the process of nature’s increase.”
In our modern world it can be difficult to understand the earth as a gift but we can make our relations with the world sacred again by practicing ritual. The word ritual does not need religious or overtly spiritual affiliation for you if you don’t want it to; at it’s root it means that you focus precisely on what you want and hold your attention to that - in the case of harvesting a plant, focus on respect for the plant’s gift and the power of the medicine it contains. If you practice meditation then this is a similar concept, allow your mind the space to focus in a place of reverence and respect while you gather the plants.
Included in the ritual can be items or practices that help your mind to recognize that you are operating in ritual. Carrying with you and offering tobacco before harvesting plants is a traditional ritual that is done to connect to the plants and let them know your intention in harvesting. Tobacco is said to be the main activator of all plants, it is a sacred plant to many Native people. Another ritual that I often use that you can adopt is:
After entering the forest, I stop to hug a tree and imagine as I stand my blood circulating through my body and I think of the great speed at which it moves. Then I focus my attention on the inside of the tree, on the sap and water in the tree that moves at an incredibly slow pace up and down the tree to give it life. I think of what it must be like to move at such a slow pace, to grow over such long periods of time. Then I imagine that my blood and breath slows down and starts moving at that same slow pace. From there I stay connected to the slowness of the plant world.
This ritual is very helpful for me to stay calm, respect the plants and also to avoid getting prickled, stung or scratched by plants as I pass by them to harvest others.
Ritual can be whatever works for you, but the point you are reaching is that you act cautiously and respectfully; you are better able to gather the medicine and know what you are harvesting and when you could take too much. We cannot all become hunter gatherers since the living world could not bear the whole population but those of us who do wild harvest must learn and perfect our relations with the wild world.
Wild Harvesting Rules to live by:
1. before taking plants from the wild first try to cultivate them, discover how to grow native and medicinal plants and share your knowledge
2. know the life cycles of the plants and fungi, how long growing is the plant/fungi or is it an annual that brings new life each year and at what time of year to harvest the desired part
3. Avoid harvesting plants or fungi that have very long growing times or may harm other plants by it’s removal (think Chaga here, overharvested and harmful)
4. propagate while you collect by replanting root crowns, scatter seeds, coppice or prune shrubs to enhance growth, monitor harvest areas each year to check your successes, maintain a CARETAKER point of view
5. I do not recommend to pursue wildcrafting to support your income, but if you do, you must always consider the needs of the plant community above your own. (I believe that medicine is strongest if you gather it and gift it to friends and family rather then sell it)
6. pick only 25% of the weedy plants in any harvest area, and no more than 5% of the native plants.
7. whenever possible harvest only a part of each plant by pinching off the desired parts, leaves, flowers or rhizomes leaving the rest of the plant to regrow.
8. DO NOT HARVEST ENDANGERED, THREATENED OR SENSITIVE PLANTS become familiar with the plants status
Know what other non-human pressures are acting on your plant ecosystem, be aware that these influences may be so strong that an ethical harvest is no longer possible in that location. Consider if there is currently present impact from:
- Exotic/invasive plants or insects
- Climate change
- Loss of habitat/industrial development
- Road salts
- Waterway diversion
Find a Sit Spot
Once you have observed the plants in many natural environments and have assessed that there is a healthy abundance of this species, get in the right state of mind via your ritual and ask your plant if it would like to be harvested. You are ready to start gathering.
Check out these amazing resources I quoted or used in this article:
(2013) Kimmerer, Robin. Braiding Sweetgrass
(2015) Keane, Kahlee. The Standing People: Wild Medicinal Plants of British Columbia
(2000) James Green. The Herbal Medicine Maker's Handbook: A Home Manual