This blog has been gestating in my mind for about six months now, ever since the last one started grating on me, and I feel like it’s about time it came (or, more actively: I brought it) to term. The idea was to create a wild foods & herbs blog which charted my movement away from all things indoors and, more loftily, to ‘chronicle attempts to extend my social circle beyond the habitual human spheres‘, using it to develop (or return) to animistic ways-of-relating with ‘our plant brothers and sisters‘. How does that sound? Strange? Stick around, I’ll try to explain (something I was never good at with the last blog).
Question: ‘What do you find growing “on disturbed ground”?’
Answer #1: ‘Weeds’.
Answer #2: ‘Crops’.
Really, I don’t think there’s ever been such a thing as undisturbed ground. There’s always a volcano or an earthquake or an avalanche or a flood to shake things up and reshuffle the ecological deck. Nonetheless, life forms, until recently, have always tended to move, communally, away from disturbance & toward a balance of negative feedback loops which the ecologists term the ‘climax ecosystem’. In this movement, the plants we know either as ‘weeds’ or ‘crops’ have an important role to play. Richard Manning compared them (in Against The Grain) to an emergency first aid crew for when disaster sets the ecological clock back to zero. Elsewhere he describes how the seeds of hardy pioneer species lie dormant in the soil for long periods just waiting for a disturbance which gives them the opportunity to do their work and start the process of succession running again. ‘Natural Farmer’ Masanobu Fukuoka put it this way: :
[W]hen you cultivate, seeds lying deep in the soil, which would never have germinated otherwise, are stirred up and given a chance to sprout. Furthermore, the quick sprouting, fast-glowing varieties are given the advantage under these conditions. So you might say that the farmer who tries to control weeds by cultivating the soil is, quite literally, sowing the seeds of his own misfortune. (One-Straw Revolution, p.38 – pdf)
Here’s the story as I currently understand it: around 10-12,000 years ago, people living in the Near-Middle East and in other parts of the globe, perhaps as a response to a traumatic period of post ice-age climatic disasters, took this movement toward diversity, stability and resilience (everything embodied in the ‘climax ecosystem’) and turned it in completely the opposite direction. From now on they would actively create the disturbance and work tirelessly to reset the ecological clock. In Manning’s unforgettable words they would get their food by creating the ‘annual artificial catastrophe’ we call agriculture, ‘ripping [the catastrophic] niche open again and again’. This pitted our cultural ancestors in a war against the tendency of all living things; a war we’re still fighting today.
Ran Prieur, still a big influence, likes to link to this article, ‘Planet of Weeds‘, which describes the impoverishment of the global biodiversity as a result of civilised humanity’s disturbing activities. The key point: farming doesn’t drastically lower the amount of life in any given area (until it completely kills the soil, that is), it just kills back the diversity and channels all the life into a few ‘weedy’ species.
So yes, apart from the quibble that we already do, I agree with the various people exhorting us to ‘eat the weeds’. The important thing as I see it is that we show a willingness to travel with them as they lay the foundations for the journey of succession; that we relinquish our desire to control and learn to accept the gifts the land provides in return for our help in getting it where it wants to go.
Another aspect of this comes with the recognition of ourselves as weeds (you are what you eat, right?). Hence this blog will also deal with the kind of growth that occurs on our own disturbed ground (disturbed by those trying to ‘cultivate’ us for their own purposes) – celebrating the hardy, fierce eruptions of life that somehow manage to germinate and thrive in soils where all of our variously hybridised, inbred, manipulated, adulterated, monocultured forms succeeded only through a massive importation of artificial stimulants, leaving the soil all-but dead…
What does it mean to grow on disturbed ground? Having observed and eaten the plants who do, and noticed some of their qualities in – or, through the act of relating to them, taken those qualities into – myself, it feels like a protection and preservation of life at its most basic, indomitable level. Moreso: it feels like a promise and an all-or-nothing dedication to spend that life selflessly and tirelessly working to undisturb the ground on which we grow; to prepare it as best we can for those-who-come-after.
Derrick Jensen wrote this in Culture of Make Believe:
If your experience is that your food comes from the grocery store and that your water comes from a tap, you will defend to the death the system that brings those to you because your life depends on it. If your experience is that your water comes from a stream and that your food comes from a landbase, you will defend to the death that stream and that landbase because your life depends on it. (source)
I’m trying to change my experience.
Do not fuck with the weeds!
– Ian M, SE England, April 22/3, 2010