Wayfinding: Hurt Birch

The birch trees at the corner of Fraser and E5th Ave have had a hard time. To me, birch trees never seem completely at home in this place, as I imagine they do from the photos I’ve seen of the birch forests, and the descriptions of the huge, flawless sheets of bark that were once harvested to skin canoes and wigwams in eastern Canada, and weave shoes and make seamless, waterproof vessels in Scandinavia and Russia. Birch trees grow here, and even if their own volition; but they seem lonely for crowds of their own kinds, and their bark is dark and gnarled with scabs.

It’s true that a birch tree can give its bark to a knowledgeable, skillful person without giving up its life; but it is a one-time gift, the tree is never the same again: wherever the bark was taken becomes a dark, rough scar.

At EartHand we take questions of ethics in gathering, foraging and wild crafting very seriously, because we are often the portal through which people do start to see what’s around them and reach for it. Many come to us almost starving for relationship with the land and ancestors, and so excited to learn “oh, I can use this for this, and this and this, and I found all this! It is very easy, in our innocent excitement, to be blind to the parallel extractive mindset that got us into this mess in the first place. Most of us are descendants of some kind of large-scale civilization of some kind, settlers and colonists from “the people who are always hungry.”

In the EartHand community we temper our sharing of knowledge with discussions of respect and reciprocity. There are old rules: build relationships, know whose land you’re on and ask permission; bring gifts for the people of the land and for the plants you’re hoping to gather (what is it worth to you? What does it mean to you?); take no more than one out of every ten. Ask yourself: what can I do for these beings in return? As our friends at ReWild Portland put it: good foragers are gardeners, not extractors.

These birch trees gave up many pieces of bark to someone, years ago; and all of us will live with that act through the scars that the trees will always carry. We invite you to share a little love and respect for the them by clearing away the bindweed (which you might be able to use for making rope or coil baskets) or picking up some garbage.

What can you do for the land that sustains you?

If you hunger to connect with the more-than-human lives around you and build relationships with them through spinning, weaving or dyeing, please join us at one of our many events so we may share our knowledge with you first-hand.

[The Walks were] a time for noticing, opening up and noticing. A lot of the people who came out were textile people or just starting out in natural dyes, and a lot of them were like “oh I can use this thing, and this thing!” And we’d talk about how that’s not really what it’s about. No extractive mindset.

Artist Nicola Hodges, in an interview with Rebecca Graham