I’ve had so many ideas for blog posts in the last few weeks. I wanted to do another winter botany post, but then the snow melted. I thought about a post on early spring botany and how to ID seedlings and some plants by their cotyledon leaves. (Baby plants are sooo cute!) I’ve taken pictures of the plants that are up and growing in my neighbourhood. I want to show you what’s happening in the garden at the farm. Every day I find something that I’d love to share. (A lot of that sharing happens on my Facebook and Twitter pages.) As a new growing season begins, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with the plants and my environment. As Earth Day approaches, it feels right to attempt putting some of these thoughts into words.
Late winter and early spring in the garden has become a time of gathering medicinal bark and coppicing wood. Last year was my first attempt at coppicing the meadow willow that grows at the edge of my plot. This year I was back again, coppicing more. Oh my gosh. You guys! I have fallen completely and madly in love with this ancient practice (and its associated activities such as wattle fencing and hedgelaying). Like, I would marry coppicing if I could. Like, I’m seriously contemplating a coppice apprenticeship some day. Like, if I believed in time traversing reincarnation, I would want to be reborn as a 17th century coppicing/hedgelaying dude in Wales or the Midlands or something. (“Mornin’ guvnah. Off to the copse to lay down some hawthorn pleachers. Cheerio!” Except, people probably didn’t say things like ‘guvnah’ and ‘cheerio’ in the 1600’s did they? They probably said things like ‘sooth’ and ‘prithee’. I’m mixing up Marlowe and My Fair Lady.) Anyway, I am awed by the regenerative power in the root systems of these plants and their ability to send out new growth, and that when the top growth gets cut back, a corresponding mass of roots also dies back, building soil. I am fascinated by the fact that coppicing can keep trees healthy century after century, long beyond their natural lifespans. I am delighted that the products of this management technique include medicine, fuel and building materials that are sustainable, non-toxic and completely biodegradable.
My partner called me while I was working with the willow in my garden the other week. “I AM SO HAPPY RIGHT NOW!”, I all-capsed at him, when he asked how I was doing. And I was. With wind and sun on my face, feeling the smooth bark under my hands, the scent of fresh cut wood in my nose and listening to the birds chirping their spring songs, I was full to bursting.
Reflecting on this later, I wondered why? What is it about this activity that brings me so much cup-runneth-over joy? In fact, I sometimes wonder how it is that I find myself, fresh out of youth at 39 and utterly enamoured and obsessed with the photosynthesising set. Is this weird? (Maybe.) Am I crazy? (Probably.)
The other day I re-watched a video of myself from two summers ago. I thought I might use it for some promotional material I am working on, but I decided not to post it. Olivier Asselin did a wonderful job on the video, and I think I mostly made sense, but there was one moment that I felt, I guess, a little embarrassed about. I talked about my wish to devote the rest of my life to the plants, in a big-eyed, overly earnest sort of way and well, in a world of hipster irony and cynicism, big-eyed earnestness does not play well. Watching myself, I felt self-conscious and silly and shy. But I remembered that moment in the interview and I remembered that the emotion felt too big to put into proper words. I knew there was something more that I wanted to express, but couldn’t quite get out.
In the video I talked about my year of not buying anything new in 2008. (You know, in that era of the early aught’s where people were doing all sorts of year-long challenges to make the world a better place?) I talked about how that year introduced me to some pretty scary realities in the world, like the fact that we’ve used up all of the cheap, easy to get fossil fuels and the energy return on what’s invested is rapidly diminishing. I understood more about how the burning of those fuels contributes to a changing climate and how our resource management strategy seems to be: extract whatever the earth has got, at the expense of our flora, fauna, lakes, rivers, oceans, forests, air and most importantly at the expense of the lives of the most marginalised populations in the world, not to mention our children and our future. I learned a little bit about how the economy is like one big Ponzi scheme, money is loaned into existence and the whole system rests on the ridiculous belief that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible and desirable. (There’s a good summary of the issues here.)
As these realities sunk in, I got scared, depressed, zealous, horrified, indignant, judgemental, self-righteous, green, crunchy, granola, active, involved, engaged, really into permaculture, radical homemaking, self-reliant homesteading, prepping, gardening, canning… It was quite a year! And I found the plants. Or they found me. I’m still not sure. All I know is that suddenly they were everywhere and I wanted to know everything I could about them. I wanted, in the most earnest, big-eyed way possible, to devote the rest of my life to the study and stewardship of the plants. Suddenly, it was the most obvious and sensible response to all the information I was taking in, which had completely shaken up my world view. So I pulled up my sleeves and got to work creating a practical (and IMO, beautiful) antidote to the bleak and resource depleted world we seem to be on track for leaving to future generations.
The drought in California weighs heavily on my mind these days, (one of among many). It is staggering to comprehend that this is a state that for over 14,000 years was forest gardened and fire-stick farmed by hunter-gatherers to such abundance that it allowed for the highest population density in North America at the time. (Anderson, M. Kat (2006). Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge And the Management of California’s Natural Resources.) In less than 500 years ‘civilised’ humans have managed to drain it nearly dry.
My heart gets heavy and so darn sad when I think about things like this and the only thing I want to do in the face of it all, is find ways to live in the world that might lead to a more balanced, co-creative, regenerative, closed-loop relationship with my habitat. (Lofty ideal I know, but the heart wants what the heart wants.)
And now I know why something like coppicing makes me so happy and why I feel so compelled to forest garden, wield a scythe, wildcraft, compost, work with plants and share what knowledge I can. It makes sense, down to my very marrow, to maintain these ancient practices into the future. It feels right and sane and essential to engage in work that can meet basic needs, while at the same time manage and sustain a thriving, diverse ecosystem for hundreds if not thousands of years, without exploiting or violating the rights of others. It fills me with hope. (Plus there’s the added bonus of actually getting to live out my childhood pioneer girl fantasies, straight out of a Willa Cather novel. I’m living the dream!) (And goodness please don’t think that I don’t value other types of work and pursuits. There are many important, necessary, noble professions out there, as well as many dedicated people in jobs they may/or may not love, but contribute so much in other areas of their lives. Most of us do the best we can to the capacity we are able. This just happens to be my story. It’s the only one I know.)
So, I don’t have plans to do anything special or different on Earth Day, but I know that my hands will be busy with some kind of ancient future work.