This September we had the opportunity to be presenters at the World Environmental Education Congress in Vancouver, BC. The lineup of plenary speakers was illustrious, including some of the most famous names associated with environmental issues, education and philosophy in Canada and beyond: Jeanette Armstrong, Wade Davis, David Suzuki, Tara Cullis, and Elizabeth May, among others.
On Monday, EartHand hosted a Community Outreach Session; delegates came to tour Means of Production Garden and Trillium North Park with us and play with some of our favourite materials and techniques. About half of the delegates who visited us were from Canada, and the others represented dry climates — desert country in Wyoming and United Arab Emirates. It was fascinating to hear from them about the plants that they have and how they thought they might be able to incorporate some of what we do into their own practices.
On Tuesday we hosted a ‘Novel Format’ session at the convention centre. Sharon and I introduced ourselves and our practice; we brought in a big tarp full of stinging nettle and invited participants to learn how to crack the stems and release the fibre from the pith, creating long strands that will eventually be made into twine for a fish net as part of EartHand’s Land & Sea Project. Once everyone had got the knack of that, we went round introducing ourselves and embarked on a discussion about foraging best practices. We wanted to hear from this group of professional environmental educators how they approach issues of foraging, access, rights, responsibility, stewardship, etc in their own practices. Here are a few of the highlights, paraphrased from my notes:
- Emphasizing ‘Regenerative Cycles’, and the importance of nourishing those cycles
- “Social Contract” messages left in the environment, as in Braiding Sweetgrass, knotted grasses indicating “this patch has already been harvested.”
- That there is an absence of social contract when it comes to the land — Tragedy of the commons — that ‘unowned’ in our culture means ‘exploitable by anyone, to any extent’. Who is accountable to whom?
- That the notion of ‘ownership’ is a very ‘boxed’ word in colonial culture, very specific; in indigenous communities the meaning is something more like “Responsible for the management of, in order that the resource continues to be available in perpetuity”
- The more a practice is shared generously, the teachings of how to do something in a respectful way, the better things get.
- “Ownership is the responsibility to pass on those teachings and caregiving and conduct”
- There’s a word for a concept in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh that means more than law; it’s responsibility and conduct and way of being all in one
- Teaching is the most important way of giving back.
- Things are not just free for the taking, there must be reciprocity
- Readiness for learning — not everyone may be ready to go out and forage; “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
- There is a goldrush mentality when it comes to mushroom picking, it’s ugly. Mushroom pickers will ‘hoard’ knowledge of their patches, but then they will share that knowledge when they meet others who are careful and respectful and honestly also seeking knowledge.
- Urban foraging — I go pick nuts in parks, figs and plantain out of alleys; if it’s in an alley and I watch and see that it’s not being used by others, then I go and gather some. It’s about knowing my neighbourhood.
- I have the privilege of having a vehicle, I can go around and gather 400lbs of apples from trees in my neighbourhood and still leave 600lbs on the ground rotting.
- Some things there is so much of — garlic mustard in Toronto is so plentiful that it’s beneficial to pick it, to help bring it back into balance.
- RECIPROCITY — take a moment, a sacred moment before harvest. Say ‘Thank You’ in the language of the land. Brings us back to Wade Davis’s question, “What does it mean to be human and alive?”
- “I’m grateful for the conversation, and don’t want it to end; can’t we just keep going?”
- “Best novel format at this conference.”
One of the things that was most interesting to Sharon and I was how few of the participants actually know about the plants in the lands where they live, and how to work with them. Many of them spoke about how thrilled they were to gain knowledge of working with plants for fibre and weaving, and nettle in particular. One of our participants, Gillian Judson, has been so inspired by our session that she’s followed up with a post of her own based on what we did:
Finally, these comments from a participant at our session on Monday graciously summed up the feelings of many:
I would like to thank you all once again for a very rich day of learning, and the opportunity to slow down, to work with the earth and our hands, and to learn from each of you.
Your initiatives are inspiring and I am grateful for the opportunity to be introduced to your work and your community.
Throughout the day, we felt well taken care of even through a difficult few moments – as Maryum stated – these are the realities of the place and peoples lives, and we can not always predict how they will go. The “work” and the ability to create and learn helped to settle and to reconnect us.