Ethnobotany—The Intersection of Plants, People, and Culture: ‘Our Common Ground’ Conversation Recap

November 10, 2021

What can modern farmers, ranchers, and the rest of us learn from indigenous wisdom about plants? How can we access the diversity of knowledge about the plant world to broaden our view of land stewardship as we navigate toward a more just and sustainable world?

The October 27, 2021, episode of MALT’s ‘Our Common Ground’ conversation delved into ethnobotany, or the study of how plants are used in a particular culture, as well as well as the related area of agroecology, or the application of ecological principles to agricultural systems and practices.

MALT CEO Thane Kreiner, Ph.D., moderated the fascinating discussion among three panelists with diverse backgrounds and expertise:

Throughout the conversation, the one theme that kept recurring was interconnectedness: how nothing is intrinsically separate from everything else, whether that means across landscapes, among people, or over time. Here are some highlights of the ‘Our Common Ground’ Ethnobotany panel discussion.

“It’s all one”—and it’s personal

“Landscape provides everything that nourishes and nurtures us, including our second skin,” said Rebecca Burgess. “In ecosystem or working lands restoration, and in agriculture in particular, we need to think about how agriculture also includes the bulbs, corms, tubers, native sedge, and everything else growing there. Agriculture really means stewardship of landscapes.”

When Keith Warner dropped out of college and joined a ‘Jesus freak’ hippie commune in rural Southern Oregon, he planted half a million trees in the mountains there. “That changed my understanding of reality and what my own life project should be,” he said. “Nature became not an abstraction, but it became deeply personal. I began by thinking tree planting was local work, but I began to understand that I was participating in this bigger system of ecological devastation by greenwashing it and covering it over.”

“It’s important to remember that the concept of wilderness, the idea of a space that’s untouched by humans, is a Western concept,” said Sky Road Webb. “My Coast Miwok ancestors were stewards of the land. It’s our job to manage that space not just for one species, but for a wide variety of animals and plants.”

How local connects to global

Many years ago, Rebecca did an experiment where she challenged herself to wear all clothing—bathing suit, underwear, socks, everything—made using fiber and dye that had been grown within 150 miles of her front door.

“I wanted to see how I could reinvigorate my relationship with place and with the local ecosystem,” she said. “In the process, I developed relationships with multiple types of land stewards, from tribes to the latest European versions of agriculture. Fiber and dye is really part of food systems, often a byproduct of food systems. Through this personal experiment, my work grew into policy, community organizing work, manufacturing, and economic development. And I realized that if we don’t build local, place-based economies, we’re unnecessarily putting burdens on other parts of the world to procure our material culture.”

Thane agreed. “If the food, fiber, and materials that we grow on our agricultural lands, broadly defined, don’t come from where we live, they’re coming from somewhere else,” he said. “How they’re produced in those other places is something we all need to be really mindful of when we make choices about what we eat and what we wear. As I often say, many of us in Marin and Sonoma counties have the privilege of being able to choose what we eat and wear, and with that choice comes a moral obligation to know how it’s produced and its impacts on the environment and the people who produced it.”

Connecting plants with ecological consciousness and social justice

“Over the last couple of years, pretty much every spiritual tradition, and science, tells us the same thing: We need to care for our common home,” said Thane.

“For many years, a question I kept rubbing against was how we say we don’t like ecological destruction—we aspire to do better—yet we keep participating in the systems that continue to degrade the earth,” Keith said. “For me, the deep sense of kinship I felt with the trees and the forest and the creatures was a form of prayer, touching me at the level of consciousness.”

As a Christian, Keith struggled to fit these things together until he read about the 13th-century Italian medieval Saint Francis. “St. Francis is an example of someone who brought together what we might call nature mysticism, a sense of deep communion with creation, and finding that that was connected to his sense of religious faith,” he said. “This Franciscan world view unites my desire to foster greater ecological consciousness and also to work for social justice—to bring forth the twin mandate of caring for the earth and dignifying the life of the poor.”

Learning from indigenous knowledge

“One of the things we want to pay more attention to at MALT, and the reason we reached out to the Coast Miwok, is to learn how to steward the land in ways that are more respectful and centering of indigenous knowledge,” Thane said.

Throughout the panel discussion, Sky Road shared stories from his tradition featuring incarnations of animals, plants, and other entities from the natural world (such as sun, moon, and babbling brook). The stories, part of the way knowledge and wisdom is transmitted orally in his tradition, told of relationships and characteristics important to the Coast Miwok’s lives.

In one story, Sky Road told explains “why we plant elderberry and move that around to all our communities.” The Coast Miwok have long used elderberry to make musical instruments, including clapper sticks and flutes, and they processed it for its medicinal properties.

Connecting that traditional knowledge to the present day, Rebecca added, “Elderberry also makes a great dye, and it’s wonderful for riparian corridor restoration.”

Rebecca also commented on the value of transmitting knowledge through stories and direct interaction with the natural world. “I head an educator that I respect say that we’re still experimenting with the concept of Western education,” she said. “This idea that you have kids just sitting there at desks, listening—as someone who has studied brain plasticity, I think we do a disservice to children in transferring knowledge that way. I’d like to see landscape-level education that’s sensory-rich, that will help us bring ecological literacy into our culture at a much deeper level.”

“I am a lover of native plants down here in San Benito County where I live, and each year I see a greater awareness of the value of indigenous plants from the perspective of water conservation,” Keith said. “These are economically useful and culturally valuable plants, and that shouldn’t be restricted to the historical past. Building upon the interest in native plants, how do we use that as a way to help us recenter and learn to love where we are even more?”

Reimaging the economics of agriculture

“One important aspect of the regenerative agriculture that we pursue at MALT is the notion of circular models of production and consumption,” said Thane.

Sky Road told how Coast Miwok people used delicate sedge grass to weave baskets considered among the best and finest in the world. “We found a way to use baskets for everything,” he said. “We didn’t even use pottery, though we could have, because you can cook in baskets with hot rocks, and you can carry your stuff, and you can port it—and when you’re done with it, it just melts away and doesn’t last for 50,000 years like plastic.”

Sky Road also pointed out the difference between Western and indigenous attitudes about ‘economy.’ “If the Western mind of the early settlers here had seen the oak tree as a viable food source, not just as a cabinet or a big frame for their boats, they might have realized what a plentiful food source the oak trees were offering,” he said.

The Western settlers didn’t realize, he explained, that oak is a cornerstone for the whole environment—feeding the moths, the bugs, the birds, and all the rest. There was more economic and environment value to the oak besides the acorns or the wood from the tree.

Rebecca said: “My ancestors—from the North Atlantic, Irish, Welsh, Scandinavian—brought crops and plant life to this landscape that they had breeding experience with, so I don’t think they were paying much attention to oak, as Sky Road said. And as Keith said, the Spanish settlers saw economic value in cutting down the oak for tannic acid to use in tanning hides.”

Expanding the scope of agricultural land stewardship

“MALT’s mission it to permanently protect Marin’s agricultural land for agricultural use,” said Thane. “I think this conversation about ethnobotany and agroecology and indigenous knowledge really reveals the breadth of ‘agriculture’ that we can consider as part of that mission.”

“When studying agroecology for my doctorate, I interviewed literally hundreds of people involved in California agriculture,” Keith said. “It wasn’t just the people working the land, but also their connections to a whole host of social, ecological, and economic relationships as they tried to make incremental progress toward more ecologically informed forms of agriculture in the state. Important to this work is the notion of forming communities of trust and working together on a common agricultural project centered on the local plants.”

“The process of European settlement and the Spanish missions in California broke and severed a lot of cultural knowledge,” said Rebecca. “I think there are gentle, subtle ways and also very overt ways to put the plant palette back into the landscape, including for agricultural lands.”

“There’s a lot of talk about natives using prescribed burns to manage forest space,” said Sky Road, a process that can also be considered as ‘agriculture.’ “Through prescribed burns and other land management practices, you encourage some plants and discourage others. With trees further apart and less dense underbrush, the forest is more resilient against bug infestations and wildfires.”

“Fire prevention is a big topic of conversation right now in Marin,” said Thane. “As you point out, Sky Webb, shared stewardship of the land, and particularly stewardship of productive or working lands—to use a phrase that Rebecca used—is actually a mode of fire protection and fire prevention. The notion that protecting farmland is a way to help prevent fires is something I hope people will take away from our conversation today.”

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