By Eli Raczynski
I wish I could photosynthesize so that just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow’s edge or floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the world... shade, medicine, berries, roots; there would be no end to it... but this generosity is beyond my realm, as I am a mere heterotroph, a feeder on the carbon transmuted by others. In order to live, I must consume.
These words, written by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, speak to a grief I’ve felt all my life. I have always been troubled by my own need to constantly consume. Thankfully, though, through the generous teachings of those wiser than myself, I have since come to realize that consumption can be a source of joy and reciprocity, if practiced respectfully and consensually.
The way I have most often been taught to take other beings into my body is based on colonizer values – those of extraction – endless need and greed. Though I can hold complicated compassion for myself and the ancestors who have made my existence possible, I cannot make excuses for our exploitive ways of being. None of us can continue to perpetuate non-consensual behaviors and hope to ever live in a just, thriving world.
The quote above is from a chapter entitled, “The Honorable Harvest”. It can be read as a kind of beginner’s guide to building healthy, reciprocal relationships. Based on the traditional ecological knowledge present in the stories and teachings of her Potawatomi elders and ancestors, Kimmerer offers a list of practices to uphold, “whether we are digging wild leeks or going to the mall”.
The first and most important part of the process is also that which is the least intuitive for those indoctrinated into objectifying the natural world – asking for permission. She explains how the simple practice of obtaining consent, even from beings that cannot speak with vocal cords, “shows respect for [their] personhood.” It is also, however, “an assessment of the well-being of the population.” As a scientist, she can use analytical observation to deduce whether the area is home to enough healthy plants to sustain harvests indefinitely. Simultaneously, as a spiritual person, she can use intuition to listen for the, “open-handed radiance that says take me, or ... a tight-lipped recalcitrance that makes [her] put [her] trowel away.” Regardless, she is slowing down enough to notice the nuanced messages present in her surroundings.
Since the worldview that birthed this practice is shared in various iterations by Indigenous cultures globally, Kimmerer notes that, “the guidelines for the Honorable Harvest are not written down, or even consistently spoken of as a whole – they are reinforced in small acts of daily life.” Regardless, she seeks to provide a list for those of us most comfortable learning from the written word. Here is the list she provides (non-italicized comments are my own):
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last (since the first might be the last!).
Take only what you need.
Take only what is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others (human and more-than-human!).
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. (Efficiency isn’t everything!)
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken (even if you make a mistake and cannot consume what you’ve harvested, always compost organic material so death can nourish life!).
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
Another book I’ve had the honor of reading that speaks to similar themes is Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask by Mary Siisip Geniusz. It is brimming with wisdom that sits at the nexus of practicality and spirituality. I will not attempt to sum up this book, it is too deep and varied for me to do justice to in a few paragraphs. Instead, I will encourage you to read it yourself and share just one example it offers of how to cultivate reciprocity in dire circumstances. It is easy to think that harvesting honorably can only happen when one is blessed with a luxurious amount of time and energy. However, the true wisdom of these principals reveals itself when practiced even in trying times.
Once when the author’s teacher, Keewaydinoquay, was spending the winter alone in the middle of Lake Michigan, she broke her leg. She ended up having to harvest all the boneset growing on the island to help her heal before she could make it to hospital for a cast. After this, however, she sowed boneset seeds on the island for the rest of her life. “In her need she took the boneset, but she well repaid her debt.” This story shows how reciprocity is a long-term practice that increases plant populations in the end, even when they must be temporarily over-harvested during emergencies.
I want to stress that all actions can be done with the Honorable Harvest as a guide. For example, Geniusz begins her book by offering respectful thanks to the sources of the wisdom she shares. The preface states, “the knowledge that has been recorded in these pages has come to us through countless generations of the Gete-anishinaabeg, the Old Ones, our ancestors, and the Aadizookaanag, the spirits who hold our teachings, including those of the plants, trees, and animals who brought this knowledge to our ancestors. We first and foremost would like to say Miigwech, thank you, to all of them.”
In our daily lives, we can strive to reach this level of respect and integrity with each breath. If we see all things around us as gifts, instead of “resources” to be exploited, we can learn to receive each moment with real gratitude. This could look like anything from taking stock of what we already have in the fridge, freezer, and cupboards before grocery shopping or eating out, to resisting a chance to get drunk or high or impulse buy something on the internet. It can even look like simply catching ourselves before speaking unkind or untruthful words to loved ones. When we take the time to ask ourselves tough questions about what we really need, what we really want, and where those wants and needs are coming from, healthier relationships can begin to grow. Consent is not an easy concept to navigate in practice, but it is necessary to engage with if we ever hope to break harmful cycles of behavior.
I know, as a descendant of colonizers, even my simple presence on the land I call home did not occur consensually. Because of this, I believe non-native people (particularly white folks such as myself) need to think as deeply as possible about what it means to live in right relationship with the land and our fellow community members. This begins with acknowledging history, as well as present realities. Acknowledgement, however, is not enough. We must first listen to and then take action to support our neighbors who belong to Indigenous nations. They face countless forms of discrimination and oppression under ongoing colonization and yet still thrive while sovereignly stewarding land and waterways all across turtle island and the globe.
We need to remember this especially if we are Permaculture practitioners. As UMass alum, Shannon Mo, wrote in a previous blog post about the land on which UMass is built, “it is... important to acknowledge that Permaculture itself is synthesized Indigenous knowledge. The creators of Permaculture simply wrote down what Indigenous cultures around the world have been doing for thousands of years.”
In their post, Mo shares a variety of helpful links and resources for learning more about Indigenous communities past and present. I encourage you to check it out, and afterwards to look into opportunities to take action shared on the website of the local Ohketeau Cultural Center. If you are reading this from another location, you can search for the nations of the land where you live via this site: native-land.ca and research ways to get involved from there.
The unsettling and decolonization the Earth badly needs will not happen overnight. It took generations create the global systems of oppression that churn out suffering on a daily basis. Intergenerational healing takes intergenerational action. The only way this ideal can become reality is for each one of us to commit to an ongoing practice of respect, reciprocity, and consent, within and without.
Eli Raczynski (class of ’21) is currently collaborating with UMass Permaculture Initiative as part of a year-long independent study focused on plant medicine, wild and cultivated. They are pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration entitled Learning from the Land.
As Above, So Below: Digging Roots and Scattering Seeds under the Scorpio MoonRead Now
By Eli Raczynski
It is no secret that Scorpio season (October 22nd – November 21st) is a time for contemplating the ever-present cycle of death and rebirth. This, I can only assume, is why many of the holidays celebrated this time of year (Halloween, el Día de los Muertos, Samhain, All Saints’ Day, etc.), regardless of the cultures where they originate, focus on the same themes. So, if you find yourself wanting to dig deep into the metaphors this season has to offer, I am pleased to present a guide for foraging two very common plants of the land in and around UMass: Burdock and Yellow Dock.
The first and most important part of any endeavor involving plants is to cultivate a sense of the right timing. As the air chills and plants begin to change into their dormant forms, we look to their roots and seeds not only for the promise of new life come spring, but also for the unique nourishment they offer us right now. If we want to find the most ideal time within this season to partake of these gifts, we can consult the moon.
This week (November 7th – 14th), the moon is waning and will eventually disappear completely – what's called a new moon. On the 14th, since the sun is in the sign of Scorpio, so too will be the moon. See, the light that shines at night is merely the sun reflecting on the moon’s surface, so when the moon is new, it is sitting right on top of the sun.
Traditionally, in most cultures the world over, people have understood that it is smarter to work with nature than against it. This, by no coincidence, is also a guiding principle of permaculture design. Not everyone, however, considers the moon when they first think of nature, even if they know it creates ocean tides. My question for the doubtful: why should our bodies, the bodies of plants or even the soil - all majority water - be impacted any less by the moon than the vast seas?
Though it is possible to spend many lifetimes studying the intricacies of how celestial bodies effect life on Earth, all anyone really needs to begin working with the moon is the power of careful observation. Any study of cycles inherently takes time and is relative to the location where you find yourself. Therefore, it is best to learn slowly, from many sources, over the course of your entire life. So, if all these ideas are new to you, congratulations, you’ll never know boredom again!
I was first introduced to the practice of planting, harvesting, and tending by the moon when presented with a biodynamic calendar last year. Biodynamics is a comprehensive agricultural method / lifestyle based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Today, I only wish to share one simple biodynamic practice as it relates to harvesting roots: digging them up in the early morning darkness of a day when the moon is waning. See, light and heat from the sun and moon draw a plant’s nutrient-dense fluids (the source of their medicinal properties) upwards and into their stems, leaves, flowers, fruit, and seeds. Therefore, when it is coldest and darkest, roots are most robust. So, if you find yourself brave and awake enough some spooky morning this week to venture out with a headlamp and shovel, read on for detailed root harvesting (and subsequent seed scattering) instructions!
Note: I took the pictures below in the afternoon, on a day when the moon was waxing – not ideal. This, however, just goes to show that sometimes (especially when you’re in school and forced to work on the schedule of “the man” instead of the moon), you just got to do things when you have the time. Don’t let the sun, moon, stars, or anyone stop you from getting outside whenever you’re free! No practice is perfect, that’s why it’s called practice.
Step 1: Find the Right Plants
Burdock is easy to identify by its uniquely sticky seeds. These little burrs cling to anything soft, so if you find them on your shoelaces and socks – or in my case, dog leash – you’ll know you’re in the right place.
Once you’ve made a positive identification based on these little guys, look around for a plant with the same leaves and overall shape, but no seed stock.
Being a biennial, Burdock only makes flowers and seeds in its second year of growth. By that time, the root is no longer good to eat or use for medicine, so you’ll want to leave it in the ground. If you really want to make sure you know what you're looking for, burn this image of a Burdock leaf into your brain:
Yellow Dock is another plant easily identifiable by its seeds. Unlike Burdock, Yellow Dock is a perennial. So, if you find a seed stock, you can dig up its root without worry.
Yellow Dock also goes by the name curly dock and for good reason – its leaves curl inwards around their edges.
Here is a closer look at the curliest leaf this particular plant had to offer. In this image you might also be able to see that the leaf is speckled – just another detail to spot for verification in the field.
Step 2: Ask
Before taking any living being from its home, it’s best to ask permission. I’ll be exploring the logic, morals, and history of this practice in my next post, so stay tuned if you’re interested. For now, though, just try to remember when you’re interacting with the more-than-human world that the creatures you are harvesting deserve respect, then ask yourself how your actions can reflect this knowledge. Even a simple pause, breath, and “thank you” spoken inside your head is better than nothing. See, if you slow your process down, you’ll be much less likely to damage the overall population of the individual plant you’re harvesting. Taking the time to make sure you’ve selected individuals in areas where their kind grows in abundance guarantees that the present supply of food and medicine will be readily available whenever you, or anyone else, need it in the future.
Step 3: Dig
To dig roots, all you really need is a normal shovel, some strength, and a desire to be covered in dirt. But if you find yourself with access to specialized tools like the ones pictured below, give them a try. They’ll make it easier to dig deep around the taproot without risking breakage.
Begin by loosening the earth around a single plant, then carefully excavate until you’re deep enough to pull the long root up in full. If you don’t get it all, though, don’t worry! This gives the plant a chance to regenerate, which is good in a different way
\If you’re successful, the Burdock should look something like this:
And the Yellow Dock like this:
Step 4: Scatter Seeds
Another way to ensure a sustainable harvest is to scatter the seeds of the plant you’ve just dug up. When it comes to Burdock, since its seeds are sticky, you’ll be doing this without thought. When it comes to the Yellow Dock, however, seed scattering takes a conscious choice - particularly because the seeds themselves can be made into very tasty treats! After you’ve given the land its fair share of the seed bounty, run the rest through a coffee grinder or smash them with a mortar and pestle. The processed seeds can then be used in any recipe that calls for gluten free flour. To make a medicinal coffee-adjacent beverage, toast them in the oven at 350 degrees for 5 minutes before grinding, then brew a cup any way you’d usually make coffee. Drink it straight or add sweetener and enjoy! My favorite addition is maple syrup, yummmm…
Step 5: Process your Roots
The final step in any harvest that’s not immediately edible is to preserve it. If you don’t have the ability to wash your roots right away, remove the foliage from their tops and place them in a brown paper bag to keep them fresh. When you have the means, wash your roots with water and a scrub brush. Once they’re clean, there are nearly infinite options for consumption – a quick internet search will present you with recipes galore, as well as resources presenting facts including the medicinal properties of each root. The most immediate way to enjoy Burdock is to eat it for breakfast. Broil it in the oven like any other root vegetable or add to soups or stir-fries (don’t try this with Yellow Dock, though, its root is very bitter). Any way you take them in, both will greatly support your liver’s ability to flush toxins from your body among many other benefits.
Entries are submitted by project staff and UMass students.