On How Foraging Helps Wild Land


Image by Danmala

In honor of Earth Day, check out this interesting interview with NJ-based wilderness skills expert and author Tom Brown, Jr., and Larry Dean Olsen, a survival skills teacher out West, excerpted from an article on Hollowtop, a primitive skills website run by Thomas Elpel, the Botany in a Day author.
“Question: Primitive skills practitioners have sometimes been criticized by environmentalists and those who espouse “leave no trace” philosophy as despoilers rather than protectors of the Earth. Is there any validity to these accusations or concerns? 

Tom: Let me answer that one first. I love this one. There’s the old survival philosophy which is, I think, the European way of thinking that the land is put here for our abuse and use, to do with as we wish. But I believe that a true survivalist is a caretaker of the Earth. Things must be harvested. Things must be adjusted and balanced. A survivalist put into a forest like this that is ailing, overgrown with trees killing each other off could actually be a positive effect, knowing what to take and when to take it. They are not just a caretaker, they’re a healer. We’re not a mistake from the Creator. We belong here and if we do this correctly as a survivalist, we are as important as the wolf is to the deer herd or the fox is to the rabbit population. And I know that Larry teaches that same thing, whenever you gather a plant, whenever you use a material, the Earth is put back as we found it but better. I believe that this attitude of “leave no trace” is like passing somebody wounded in the woods, saying hello and leaving. I look at the Earth as dying and it needs survivalists as healers. Instead of passing that person by, bandage the wounds. Fix what ails them and then go on. 

Larry: I think if we lock up the Earth in the name of environmentalism, we’ve taken ourselves away from the Earth. And there’s no hope for us. I had a little story I wanted to illustrate that with. I’ve often said to people who have challenged me on that when they say: “What are you doing to the land out there when you take these groups of people out on the land?” And I say, “Well the entire group, probably does less damage than one cow does in the same amount of time.” Cattle, although they keep the grass down and keep things cleared out and everything, they can still be very destructive to water holes and that kind of thing, and we don’t do that. 

The good illustration of that is when I was teaching at Brigham Young University I used to take my classes out to a place called West Mountain and there was a hillside out there that was just lush with biscuit root and sego lilies and fritillary bulbs. There were seven or eight different bulbs you could dig out there. And I would take a class of 30-40 people at a time, and sometimes three or four sections of those and have a hundred people out there, all with their digging sticks, digging on that hillside. I pretty well let them randomly go through but always with the caution that if you are digging a little patch here, always leave two or three. Don’t dig all of them, leave some of them. They were pretty respectful for that. Then I began to notice after the third year of doing this using this same area that every year they’d come up just as thick or thicker. And by the third year we began to notice that the bulbs were bigger and better. And after eight years of working that same ground every spring, we were getting that little thing they call the Indian potato that was usually about as big around as the joint in your little finger, they were now as big as onion bulbs. 

Then an environmentalist group contacted me and wanted to send somebody over to interview me, and they challenged me on the destruction of wild plants in the environment. Well the sego lily is a state flower of Utah so they didn’t want us to dig any of those and I just had to say, well come with me. And I took them out there and showed them what had happened. Then I took them over to another place where that hadn’t been done and showed them how they were there. And in fact as stewards of that piece of ground, we had actually improved, not only the ground itself by loosening it up, but we’d improved the size of the bulbs, we had improved the habitat that was there in many ways. And I really believe that man is the steward of the Earth and that we have that veritable command from the Almighty to take care of it and to, what did he tell Adam and Eve, till it, you know? Make it fruitful and improve it and I think that’s just what we are doing. We tend it.” 

19 thoughts on “On How Foraging Helps Wild Land

  1. I am a confessed V riparia scofflaw .After scoring some blows against the usual suspect invasive of the area, common Buckthorn I began to gather the V.riparia where not soon after a “ranger”, whom I will call Rick, informed me I was not to take of the fruit of the ubiquitous plant. While I am too bashful for urban public urination, unable to round out my repertoire as a public nuisance, I also make use of the comparatively charming shrubbery that does not benefit from modesty like I do to spare the country folk of nightmarish visions. A model citizen in action if not thought, no? However what I planned to do privately, modestly, and on occasion, earnestly from too much fermented contraband made me an outlaw. Now as someone who routinely roots them suckers, Buckthorn, the “authorities” on occasion merely cut them at the base fecklessly since root suckers shall return, I needed antibiotics once when defending a choke cherry colony from a buckthorn invasion that skewered my hand. I’m taking my reward because I remain an unrepentant V riparia scofflaw.. I am so bad I still have 6 bottles,

  2. Pingback: DAY 23 OF April’s blog love challenge | Linda's New Garden & Wildlife Journey

  3. I think it all depends on the circumstances of the foraging. While there is evidence that human activity can increase bulb production (Turner/Deur 2005) I’m sure that there are places where commercial ‘foraging’ is reducing some plants to critical numbers.

    Many foragers make it a practice not to remove more than 20% of a population from an area. But if you happen to be the 5th forager to pass through then you’ll be leaving just 33% of the original crop behind.

    Foraging is becoming more mainstream. As it does there are bound to be instances of over-harvest. I’m not sure how we’ll deal with that but it will probably lead to licensing like we have for fish and game.

    • In NY state there is concern of overforaging ramps. I think the thing is that some people have an attitude that foraging is a big free shopping spree. they do not have much awareness of the land they visit to forage, of what is weakened from others, of what the land had been thru that year since last season, they do not have a daily relationship with that place. it’s just a hipster supermarket weekend outing.

      • Becky,
        It’s this guy who lives down the road from my rural house in the out skirts of Vancouver Washington. TO make a long story short, we have just about every wild edible where I live. Oregon grape is in abundance and this guy was spraying the open lot across the street from his home because the blackberries and Oregon grape were taking over. Not his property mind you. Here comes the round up, and he starts spraying. Never mind that were all on well water and he’s f***ing poisoning our water. Nope, he wants that big road (at the end of a rural road and a dead end at his house) so he can easily get his truck out. Oddly, he sprayed them, killed everything around them, but guess what two plants are coming back in force? Oregon Grape and himalayan blackberry. Everything else is dead except one canada thistle that made a new home after all the grass was killed off. Guy told me he researched that oregon grape roots go down about 70 ft. (I have no idea if he’s accurate, though I doubt it) so their really hard to kill. I wanted to tell him their hard to kill because they belong there and a few other things. I bit my tongue. Both of my kids were with me.

        As far as the garlic mustard is concerned, I read an oregonian article about them using pesticides in forrest park control it. It was an article from 2009. They were exploring introducing an insect to help control garlic mustard. The whole article screamed of grasping at straws, and blatant incompetence. Good to know that the people running the show are as clueless as how to tackle this problem as anyone out there. I left a comment suggesting organizing garlic mustard pulls, and cook offs like they have in the midwest. We humans could be part of the solution. Instead of treating us like were at enmity with all things nature, we can do our part in the food chain and help keep garlic mustard under control.

        Anyway, those are the two situations I was thinking of when I commented last. I could have explained that one a little better.


      • Marc,

        That guy is crazy: Oregon grape roots spread horizontally about 1 inch below the soil. They are the easiest plant to uproot that I can think of! I can’t believe he was spraying a native plant, too! What a moron!

      • Becky,
        I think too many people confuse Oregon grape with holly. Even my mom said no to Oregon grape when I wanted to plant nervosa in her yard. She kept referencing the holly tree next door.

    • Tom, I would rather see us invest in creating more foraging habitat as opposed to restricting the existing foraging land. There have been studies showing that when permitting/licensing has been tried, it discourages foraging and results in park cops harassing people, taking all the joy out of the experience. There is an excellent paper on this subject called “Constructing a Wild Mushroom Panopticon: The Extension of Nation-State Control over the Forest Understory in Oregon” by Rebecca McLain, who is an anthropologist studying foraging.

      • I’m totally with you on creating more foraging habitat, Rebecca. There are lots of opportunities ti work with local habitat restoration groups. It’s fun. And sometimes I will create a little foraging habitat on my own. 😉

        I was so happy to hear about Seattle building a foraging park last year. We meed to do more of that.

      • Becky,
        I couldn’t agree more. Instead of trying to stop people from foraging, we could actually encourage restoration of the environment. How? By encouraging everyone to turn their front lawns into natural habitat. Half the reason we are having to concern ourselves with over harvesting is because we have taken away the environment they live in and replaced it with monoculture oriented lawns. What if we encouraged native grasses, camas, service berries, native wild flowers, and even some trees. Think of what we could do with those streets. Line them with native trees. We wouldn’t have to mandate it. We could give real tax breaks to encourage it. Not the little one year only ones they do now. We could get this habitat back and be part of the solution.

        I live on a quarter acre, and I have over 50% lawn. My wife and I disagree on this subject, but she and I came to an understanding. I landscaped out yard with natives largely leaving the lawn intact for the kids.I planted serviceberry, thimbleberry, fireweed, camas, choke cherry, native strawberries, bunch berries, streambank violet, waterleaf, wild ginger, red huckleberry, blue elderberry, red elderberry, all three forms of oregon grape, salal, evergreen huckleberry, and wood fern. Lets not forget the glacier lily, and miners lettuce (claytonia siberica).

        Funny thing is once you start converting your yard into native habitat other things follow. Western hazelnut was already here, Wild monkey flower showed up out of the blue as did self heal. I didn’t plant the indian plum, but it’s growing like a weed now on my property. Now if I can just stop the lawn guy from ignoring my tomato cages trying to save the false solomons seal.

        My yard was a typical yard. I have put very little effort in converting it. It is doing it mostly by itself with just a little push from me. I really believe this could be the answer. As a matter of fact I’m such a lazy gardener I know anyone can do this. You have an open invitation to take a look see anytime you want. And if you like I’ll show you blue elderberry forest.


        P.S. you would have to answer 10,000 questions from my boy though. He does that to everyone.

      • I just may take you up on that offer! I would love to go harvest elderberries with you guys in the summer. And your idea is right on. I agree with you – I think we need to allow nature to do what nature knows how to do, and simply act as facilitators.

    • That would be the perennials like Solomon’s Seal and famously ramps. I think I grow more of the Solomon’s than I do harvest them because of past abuse of the land.I also leave jack in the pulpit and trout lilies be. One can see when there is enough. I do say when asked selling often comes to their mind. Its not for sale. You can get it yourself. Its the commercial abuse since no way is personal use going to make a negative impact.

  4. Becky,

    We have a good example in our woods and forrests. What if we were eating the garlic mustard like they do in Europe. A plant that seems to be made for us as it gives us our primary vitamins in power house format. Yet it can be very destructive when we humans don’t do our job by harvesting it. We have essentially made ourselves extinct when it come to our meaningful role in nature. Instead of harvesting it, we poison our water table by spraying it. I love your section in your book on this very thing. I can’t harvest a huge blackberry and oregon grape patch do to this very thing. Those blackberries and wild cucumber (spikey things that look like grape vines at times) keep coming back, as does the Oregon grape they keep trying to kill. So it really doesn’t work and poisons the earth. What do they say the definition of insanity is?

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