My guest for this episode is Arthur Haines, a foraging author and teacher, as well as a plant taxonomist with a deep interest in wild foods. In addition to his biology work with the New England Wild Flower Society, he also runs the Delta Institute of Natural History, where students can learn foraging, wildcrafting, and primitive living skills.
In this interview Arthur provides a broad overview of foraging and wild plants, including what a wild plant is, the difference between wild and domesticated plants, and strategies for efficiently collecting wild foods, so that anyone can make foraging for wild foods a part of their life. Along the way we also discuss reconnecting with nature and the role that plays with caring about the natural world, and how that can deepen our understanding of the interconnected nature of natural processes.
Though there’s a wealth of information in this interview, and I look forward to following up with Arthur in the future for more on wild foods, there are two points about mindset that I’d like to touch on a little more. First, by looking at some of these different perspectives and how they tie to thoughts on permaculture.
The anthropocentric view is where people play the central role on earth and focus on the use of natural resources from a purely human perspective. When considered in a utilitarian way, natural resources are to be used to aid the greatest number of people with the largest possible benefit.
Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28)
As I understand from conversations with a friend who is a Lutheran Seminary student, there’s quite a bit of leeway on how to translate the nuances of the Hebrew or Greek that leads to using such words as subdue or dominion, but you could easily argue, especially among Judeo-Christian societies, that this is the primary viewpoint among Western societies, and the global North.
Biocentrism, in turn, looks to use and value resources based on the impact these choices have on not only humans, but the rest of life on planet earth as well. One example of this idea is found in Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, expressed in his book The Sand County Almanac. His land ethic valued resources independent of their human usefulness or economic value, because a strictly economic view provides us with privileges to use resources, but not the obligations to take care of them. He also considered the interdependence of ecological systems, and how, even if we’re not “using” something explicitly, it is still in use by being part of the world we live on.
Another perspective on Biocentrism is the idea of Deep Ecology as posited by the Norwegian Philosopher Arne Naess and popularized by Bill Devall and George Sessions. The latter two set out 6 principles that explain the core philosophy of Deep Ecology. The did this in their book Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Those principles are:
1. The well being and flourishing of human and nonhuman Life on Earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs. [Emphasis in original]
4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
The last of these three viewpoints is Intergenerational Equality. This idea, which comes from Edith Weiss Brown and her essay What Obligation Does Our Generation Owe to The Next? An Approach to Global Environmental Responsibility, is expresses in three core principes. I’ve rephrased them here, using her original language.
Conservation of Options: That each generation should be required to conserve the diversity of the natural and cultural resource base, so that it does not unduly restrict the options available to future generations in solving their problems and satisfying their own values, and should also be entitled to diversity comparable to that enjoyed by previous generations.
Conservation of Quality: Each generation should be required to maintain the quality of the planet so that it is passed on in no worse condition than that in which it was received, and should also be entitled to planetary quality comparable to that enjoyed by previous generations.
Conservation of Access: Each generation should provide its members with equitable rights of access to the legacy of past generations and should conserve this access for future generations.
I find myself most closely aligned with the intergenerational equality viewpoint, because, as I’ve said before, I like being able to turn my lights on and like where many of our advances have taken us, but understand that there needs to be a change for the ongoing success and development of human culture.
I also think that permaculture ultimately leads to Intergenerational Equity, and is where we should try to guide decision making in the broader society. I say that because in each of Edith Browne Weiss’s Conservation principles, I see the ethics of permaculture repeated. I also see her ideas aligned not only with those ethics, but also with the Permaculture Prime Directive that Bill Mollison states on page 1 of Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, which states:
The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. Make it now. (emphasis in original)
Now then, with those three set forth, in order for us to have a societal shift necessary to implement the changes to build a better world with permaculture, I think that the Anthropocentric, or human centric view, has to be moved to one where we care about not only our own well being but also the other species upon it. Though I’m of an Intergenerational viewpoint, I would be nearly as happy with Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic becoming a the broadly accepted approach. If you’ve been listening to me for a while, you know I’m fairly middle of the road in many regards, and find that the Deep Ecology perspective is too narrow to engage a large number of people and actually move society.
However, I am thankful to those who hold a Deep Ecology viewpoint because, as Arthur said in this interview, the pioneers need to live a slightly more extreme version of the lifestyle than the people they ask to follow them. Also, these other ideas, of the land ethic or intergenerational equality, couldn’t develop as completely without the deep ecologists adding their thoughts, ideas, and criticisms, to the conversation.
After covering those different perspectives, where do you think you most closely align? Anthropocentric? Biocentric? Intergenerational Equality? Some combination there of?
In order to bring about that change, I think we need to get people back in touch with the open sky, the green of the forest, the beauty of the mountains, warm spring rains, the beating heat of a summer sun. Which, to break the seriousness for a moment, that heat also includes the awful humidity of the central Atlantic states here in the U.S.
“It’s a dry heat”, said no one in this area. Ever.
To make a generalization here, people are losing a connection with the wider world. If you’ve never read it before, I recommend checking out Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. In this book he discusses the idea of Nature Deficit Disorder, though is clear that he doesn’t see it as a clinical disorder, but as a way to encapsulate the notion that American society, at the very least, and it’s children have become disconnected from that world outside that’s not built by man. That we are animals, and part of the wilderness, even as we entomb ourselves in cities.
I know this has lead rather far afield from the conversation at hand with Arthur, but I think that the ideas he presents about wild foods and foraging are a way to begin to get people to reconnecting with the abundance of the world, and move them to considering why they need to care about what happens to those spaces that bulldozers and development haven’t yet touched. Food is a great way to bring people together, and an easy way to leverage a conversation about change. Especially if they’re eating, and enjoying, something you could teach them to find in their own back yard.
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
Natural Resources Law and Policy (2nd ed.) by James Rasband, James Salzman, and Mark Squillance
Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual by Bill Mollison.