Homepage and Blog: Exploring our Niche in Nature

Every creature has an ideal habitat, a place where it’s every need is met freely by the immediate environment. Habitat preservation is key to the survival of any species, which is why the wildlife refuge concept has been adopted worldwide. At a wildlife refuge, one may witness firsthand the ways in which nature consistently and sufficiently provides for her menagerie of flora and fauna. This may leave one to wondering: Why is there no such refuge for people? Examining the possibility of naturally sufficient environments for people is a primary focus of this website.
This blog follows my own efforts to restore a human habitat on a twenty acre site in Northeastern Washington. I'll also cover relevant events, from the bioregion and around the planet.
This website also hosts my articles, which discuss the ideas and concepts behind the mission, as well as methods for practical application. Click Videos to watch my films.

(I am perpetually collecting and trading seed/starts of usefull plants. Please contact me if you want to trade.)

Thoughts emerging from planning the Spring Foraging Project: An Ode to Meat Mammas, a Letter to our Videographer

posted Jan 15, 2017, 4:23 PM by Kyle Chamberlain   [ updated Jan 15, 2017, 4:36 PM ]

An Ode to Meat Mammas:

I feel both spiritually triumphant and childishly indulged, knowing my foraging project will be joined by more than one of the brutally badass women I call "Meat Mamma". My Meat Mammas are queens of carnage, pioneering leaders in the primal arts of animal processing and hide working. They surpass, humble, and horrify men, in their comfortable talent with gore. Yet these women are uncommonly nurturing people, innocently kind somehow, perhaps not in spite of their brave bloodiness, but because of it. They remind me of a side of womanhood which is underappreciated these days- the deep capacity to embrace what is visceral and morbid in life. Women must see and deal with violent realities, which so many men in this culture would rather turn away from. But my Meat Mammas are like priestesses who show me how move beyond fear, and see life and beauty emerging from pain.

It seems to me a good path, which is wound about with paradox. The joining of Meaty Matriarchs with a Man of Plants, on a botanical exploration, is a perfect irony, engendering a dynamic depth and balance. Caught up in such a mysterious and hilarious union, I feel close to the earth. I feel a closeness to the sacred feminine which I have coveted yet struggled to understand. I feel close to something like ancient Goddess worship, which maybe isn't religious at all, but a euphoric embrace of my my own primal nature, connecting me to all things real.

And, if that weren't enough to make me cry and laugh, this plant project is also joined by a brotherhood of sacred hunters. These tender spirited men-of-the-chase are giving pause, to appreciate the plant-friends beneath their feet.

This is my ART!

From my letter to the project videographer, regarding our artistic direction:

" ...I appreciate the questions, since I'm thinking that the biggest issue with filming this is the need to form some clear goals and messages. And I recognize that this is real work. I'm happy to work with you here.

So, even without filming or photography, this project is story-telling. I want all the participants to have a valuable story to tell about breaking out of the mainstream narrative. I want the collaboration to bring us all social currency usefull in the continued pursuit of our dreams. So, I think the film should be something than any of us could present (say at a conference) that demonstrates relevance and influence in our respective communities. Now, that won't do as a goal in art, but we should keep that in back of our minds. 

And it brings up what is an important project theme for me- alternative currency. I'm organizing this trip in a way that reflects my sense that the monetary economy is breaking down, and is hardly adequate anymore for average people trying to meet complex human needs. I think we're going to have to operate largely outside of the monetary economy to succeed. And I think the alternative is relying more on the magic of relationships. I decided I couldn't organize this project as a class, exchanging a service for a fee, because that feels like pretending we're all comfortable middle-class equals. But that's just less and less true all the time. I don't want to perpetuate paradigms of exchange that squeeze the vanishing middle-class. I want to create paradigms of exchange that promote free movement and resource sharing within this stratified society. I want to show the world how art and relationships command value necessary to bring about desperately needed cultural shifts. Our project is already an achievement in this regard. 

Related to this is my philosophy that affluence brings us full circle. Contemporary culture is weakened by its affluence, to the point of collapse. The families and communities who survive will be those seeking an original affluence, a tribal affluence, relearning barbarian strength and cleverness. The future will belong to those who can work together to defend vast pristine territories, rich in wildness, rich in animal wealth, rich in elemental challenges honing the body and mind. I want to introduce the rigors of wild nomadism to the leaders of the future, and rise with them.

The botanical element of this project also brings us to nomadism. This project must integrate nomadism, because our relationship with the plants asks for mobility. The plants have a lesson for us, about who we are, and the direction we've taken as a culture. They emphasize the difference between intensive and extensive resources. That's a huge takeaway I'd like to emphasize. Contemporary culture is psychologically maldeveloped because it doesn't know how to relate to extensive opportunities. Our agriculture is on a sick runaway intensive trend- it's utter control freakery. To use extensive resources you have to lean to relinquish control, and be discerning and flexible. And we're damn lucky to to have the indigenous example in this, considering that we're products of a culture continually bent on murdering theirs. 

And that's a an issue too, one that I don't pretend to provide a clear resolution to- how can a bunch of white people appropriately employ indigenous ecological knowledge? I think this needs to be an ongoing discussion in the group. How does this project relate respectfully to native people? If you had my sense of how sensitive these particular ethnobotanical relationships are, and my sense is limited, you'd count yourself guilty until proven innocent. And I will not be offering the group any moral rationalization for our involvement with these culturally sensitive things. And I'm not going to use my privilege to summon some sympathetic native "authority" to sanction our actions and relieve our consciences. I hope the ethical dilemma eats at all of us personally, and that that we each find our own way to get right with it. I think we each owe the systemic damage our personal healing abilities.

Another theme of this project transcends culture. I'm not going to make "Grandmothering and the Evolution of Homo erectus" required reading, but I'll be making sure that everyone is familiar with the thesis- that the "underground energy storage organs" of plants contributed to making us human. And they made us human by providing a means of intergenerational support. They made us a grandmothering and grandparenting species. And I feel every human should experience this relationship to which we owe so much. 

Matriarchy is another theme running through this project. These roots were traditionally harvested by women, women who brought home more than half of a family's calories, women who controlled the provisions of the household, and exerted a corresponding political influence. This sexual equality, lacking in our culture's history, is thought to be the prehistoric forager norm. And so female authority is also something the plants help us remember, perhaps independent of culture. I have a personal interest in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Goddess cultures of my ancestral Europe; and I hope the native plants can teach me how to revive the Goddess spirit in my own spheres.

Another theme: the native plants can teach us things about creating a well-adapted bioregional horticulture, which is something I've devoted much of my life to (the Human Habitat Project).

Another theme: our culture doesn't know how to relate to arid steppe. We irrigate everything, trying to re-create Northwestern Europe- not appropriate. Not fish friendly. We need to learn to be better stewards of our arid lands. We need more familiarity with their species. They are disproportionately imperiled.

Another theme: we need a proud and bioregionally distinct culture, on every level. History is a resource. 

This email doesn't address all of your points, but I think it is enough to digest for the moment, and something to go on. I'm glad for the opportunity to articulate these things in writing. Lets keep talking."

Spring Foraging Project (Letter to Participants, Public Promotional Version)

posted Jan 10, 2017, 11:34 AM by Kyle Chamberlain   [ updated Jan 10, 2017, 4:13 PM ]

Yeehaw Bananas!

This is Kyle Chamberlain. I'm checking in with participants of this year's Spring Foraging Project, now scheduled for March 26th-April 2nd. I'll be acting as project director, proposing the vision, organizing logistics, and communicating plans.

Background: The upcoming project evolved from my personal ritual of harvesting edible roots from the steppe in the early spring. Since my youth, this has been my favorite way to celebrate the greening of the land as the snow thaws. As a teenager, living Eastern Washington State, I became fascinated by what seemed to be an alternate reality whispered of by the land. The forests and steppes I explored hinted at a way of being, suppressed, but not totally obscured, by the recent taming of the landscape. Largely through the study of plants, I developed an understanding of a rich regional hunter/gather history. This legacy of intimacy with the wild nurtured me and made me who I am. I wrote this article about wild edibles in high school.

When I was 17, I put my ethnobotany knowledge to the test by living as a hunter/gather for a month, in the high-desert foothills of the Cascades. Later, I would work for wilderness therapy programs, teaching primitive living to troubled teens, in the backcountry of Utah and Idaho. When I was twenty-two I acquired acreage adjoining the wilds of the Kettle Crest in Northeastern Washington, where I've experimented with melding ancient skills and modern life. I've since worked as a botany technician for Colville National Forest, as a forester, and as a leader of youth conservation crews.

I was lucky to find community and role-models early on in my journey. I discovered people, like me, who were not of indigenous descent, yet treasured ancient ways of living and relating to the land. Among my youth's heroes were figures of the "primitive skills" movement, especially Larry Olsen, Jim Riggs, and Tom Elpel. I was also inspired by encouraging encounters with members of the Wanapum tribe and their cultural revival projects. 

Sharing my experiences with others in the primitive skills community, I've realized what a unique and precious opportunity these plants offer. In few parts of the country, are there expediently nutritious plant communities intact enough to experimentally subsist on (especially so early in the season). Anthropologists have compared the edible roots of my "Plateau cultural region" to those available to our proto-human ancestors in savanna Africa. These plants offer us a glimpse of what it's like to subsist from our immediate environment. They show us that our species has a natural habitat, like any other species. So it became clear this was something to share.

The first Root Camp was a gathering of forager friends and others involved in my Human Habitat Project. We all got the feeling that the experience should become an annual social event. That same year, I co-taught a month-long summer foraging course with my childhood hero Tom Elpel. Tom is a veteran forager, the founder of Green University, and the author of Participating in Nature, Botany in a Day, and Foraging the Mountain west. Tom and I enjoyed teaching together, and the next year we continued Root Camp as a two-week class. The plants gave us a botanically mind-blowing adventure I was thrilled to introduce. This group was privileged to be joined by primitivist pioneer Harmony Cronin, who brought talent and passion to the experience that clearly belonged in future Root Camps. 

This Year's Vision: This year, colluding with Harmony, I'm offering Root Camp as a collaborative art project. This may seem like an odd way to organize an outdoor expedition, but I see the "artistic model" making great sense from some important angles, and it's more in line with my personal values than a class. I need to be cutting edge, expanding my own skills, making valuable contributions to modern foraging culture. I think playing a supportive role in this kind of work is the best way to learn- better than a class. So I'm regarding this years participants as members of creative team who contribute to a vision according to their abilities. This opens up participation to people who may not be able to contribute tuition money. However, the level of investment I'm asking for is above and beyond what I'd expect of a student. Prospective participants are effectively auditioning for a role in the project, and I'm being picky about who I take on. 

I ask every participant to think about what they need and what the can provide. Organization will be informal and egalitarian, requiring discernment and cooperation. To varying degrees we will all be creators and benefactors. 

Travel Considerations: This is to be a week-long backcountry trip, away from roads and vehicles. We will adopt a hybrid nomadic forager lifestyle. So you will need to pack everything you'd need for a backpacking trip. If you've never been multi-day backpacking trip, please call me for help packing. The pack llamas will be carrying group gear, and depending on how many animals we bring, they may or may not have room for your personal gear. Our route will depend a great deal on conditions. I have an A,B, and C plan for where to go, depending on conditions and the ability/ambition of the group. All of the prospective locations are BEAUTIFUL canyonlands in the open steppe.

We will be in exposed, cold, windy environments. Rain or snow is possible. Definitely bring a good wind-breaking layer, lightweight insulating layers, and amply warm bedding. Prepare for mud. Full grain leather gloves and tall boots are indispensable for foraging. But we may also get sandal weather.

Needs: Confirmed participants will be sent the complete needs list. The following needs are those we most need sponsorship for. You don't have to hike in the mud with us to be a sponsor.

-An ultralight Kifaru tipi shelter with foldable woodstove. I'm pretty set on bringing these. I sent a request for sponsorship to the company. We might be able to get a pro-deal or something. If you can pledge cash to the project, it will probably go to this. I'm willing to co-own the tipi/stove with a group, provided I have access to it for the annual spring project.
-we could also use a leadable meat animal that we can eat on the the trail (goat/sheep/alternative)

Aesthetic Goals: As art, I view this trip as a dress-rehearsal for an optimistic apocalypse. What is beautiful about being nomadic and hunter/gatherer? I would encourage you to meditate on this and find ways to express this on our journey. Spring is a party and a reunion of sorts- we will be socializing with old and new plant friends. and so it is a festive celebratory occasion! Dress to kill. What creative ways can we express this strange crossroads of modern and traditional? For any culture to thrive, it must cultivate an artistic appeal. 

Okay, I think that's plenty to go on for now. Please be in touch. Happy Trails,


The Many Names of Cherry-Plum

posted Sep 4, 2016, 4:06 PM by Kyle Chamberlain

Old World botany can be intimidating for a North American. This is one reason why some nurseries forgo Latin.

From http://www.catalogueoflife.org/

Accepted scientific name:
Prunus cerasifera Ehrh. (accepted name)

Cerasus myrobalanos hort. (synonym)
Prunus caspica Kovalev & Ekimov (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. caspica N.N. Luneva (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. divaricata (Ledeb.) Schneid. (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. georgica G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. iranica (Luneva & Erem.) G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. iranica N.N. Luneva & Erem. (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. macrocarpa G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. macrocarpa G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. myrobalana (L.) C. K. Schneid. (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. nachichevanica Koval. (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. nairica G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. orientalis M. Pop. (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. ovali-putaminata N.N. Bregadze (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. pissardii (Carr.) J. Dostál (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. pissardii (Carriere) L. H. Bailey (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. sogdiana (Vassilcz.) Eremin (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera var. taurica G.V. Eremin & V.M. Garkovenko (synonym)
Prunus cerasifera subsp. turcomanica N.N. Luneva (synonym)
Prunus divaricata Ledeb. (synonym)
Prunus divaricata subsp. boreali-caucasica Kov. & V. Ekim. (synonym)
Prunus divaricata subsp. caspica (Kovalev & Ekimov) Browicz (synonym)
Prunus divaricata subsp. nairica Kov. (synonym)
Prunus divaricata subsp. pontica Koval. & Ekim. (synonym)
Prunus domestica subsp. cerasifera (Ehrh.) Arcang. (synonym)
Prunus domestica var. myrobalana Ser. (synonym)
Prunus domestica var. myrobalanus L. (synonym) 1
Prunus mirabilis Summ. (synonym)
Prunus monticola K. Koch (synonym)
Prunus myrobalana (L.) Desf. (synonym)
Prunus nachichevanica (Koval.) Kudr. (synonym)
Prunus orientalis (M. Pop.) Kudr. ex Vassilcz. (synonym)
Prunus pissardii Carr. (synonym)
Prunus sogdiana Vassilcz. (synonym)
Prunus sogdiana var. mirabilis (Sumn.) Bondar. ex O.N. Korovina (synonym)

Open Letter

posted Jul 24, 2016, 1:47 PM by Kyle Chamberlain

I’ve had the privilege now of co-teaching a couple of multi-week foraging intensives, with author Tom Elpel. There’s a lot I like about the model we’ve adapted. I love the collaboration and immersion element of what we’ve done. The experiences we’ve offered have been uniquely relevant. The learning has been prodigious.

It’s also become clearer to me that the conventional pedagogical model doesn’t work for me. Formal student/teacher roles chafe my personal learning style. The knowledge and perspectives I most value did not come to me in the passive student role. And the authoritative teacher role seems seems inadequate to communicating my passion.

These experiences I’ve helped create are visionary- they are lifestyle artistry, and it’s time I represented them as such. Future experiential offerings will not involve students or teachers. Rather, I’ll be advancing a model connecting lifestyle pioneers with sponsor/participants. The goal will be to advance the culture of foraging, learning at the cutting-edge, through inspired relationships.

As our planet faces ecological cataclysm, I’m not content merely transcribing old information onto the contemporary mind. Expression of our boldest dreams has never been more important. My vision is to radically transform humanity’s relationship with biodiversity. The Edible Arboretum, as paleontologically inspired primate habitat, is a physical manifestation of my vision that must be supported by the learning experiences I offer. Each foraging mission must also be a seed collection mission, a nutrient cycling mission, and a stewardship mission. I’d like to see the Edible Arboretum seeded across the bioregion, but my prototype at the Kettle Falls property is ground zero. In the field of agroforestry, no other project aspires to such mythic and evolutionary depth. I’ll be adapting future learning experiences to support, sponsor, and protect the Edible Arboretum. The property is also a prime gathering place which could use some caretaking residents and infrastructure improvements.

It’s also inseparably important to me to advance megafauna restoration and “Pleistocene rewilding”. I’m in research stage of a project using grazing allotments on public land for experimenting with proxies for extinct/extirpated megafauna, including bison, camels, llamas, and horses. A pastoral element within such a project could support a small community. In the meantime, I’ll be fencing my land and aiming to acquire a breeding pair of bactrian camels. I’d like to use camels as pack animals for supporting foraging expeditions.

How can you be a sponsor/participant in these visions? You need not necessarily be a benefactor of financial means. Being a sponsor/participant could be as basic as shuttling a group to a foraging mission in your vehicle. It could mean playing a role in an expedition (cook, packer, guide, creative contributor, ext.) It could mean providing or loaning equipment to help projects sustain themselves. It could mean contributing time and energy as a seasonal intern. It could mean helping develop niche business opportunities like seed sales, value-added animal products, ext.

Future experiential offerings will not be limited by tuition funding. Rather:
-I’ll plan the most excellent adventure possible
-Itemize everything that adventure needs to fly 
-Define how the adventure can be sustainable for all involved 
-Solicit support and participation accordingly
-I’ll aim to incorporate the finest collaborators, the primest locations, the greatest learning opportunities, the most appropriate equipment, and high aesthetic standards.

In 2016 and 2017, I’ll be pursuing experiences based on the following themes:
-LATE WINTER Habitat stewardship. Edible Arboretum sponsorship. Planting, silvicultural thinning, prescribed burns, hide tanning, megafauna projects.
-SPRING Exploring the wild root vegetables of the shrub-steppe, the role of plant’s underground storage organs in human evolution, the future of frost-dependant plant communities, and the possibilities of native forbs in horticulture. Comparing the productivity of prime wild root patches to horticulture. 
-SUMMER Exploring the biodiversity of feral fruit trees in Hell’s Canyon and beyond. I would like to get some horticulture authorities and possibly geneticists on board with this. There is opportunity for a canoe-based expedition. Collecting hardy and distinct seed for the Edible Arboretum. Minimalist food preservation. Defining ecological amplitudes of feral fruits. 
-Tour of food forest pioneers. Visit Feral Farm in Rockport, Mt. Vernon Research Station, The Hell’s Canyon Plant Prodigy. 
-FALL Wild walnut exploration. Wild rice harvest in Idaho. Bear processing. Hide tanning. Flint knapping. 
-And more....

If any of this interests you please email me- practicalnaturalist@gmail.com

I am seeking additional folks to “co-instruct” with, and someone who can help me set up a seed sales co-op online.

I’m already grateful for the tremendous support I receive from my community. I think transitioning from pedagogue to experiential art director will be still more rewarding for everyone.


Sitting Bull and Tupac

posted Mar 1, 2016, 11:10 AM by Kyle Chamberlain   [ updated Mar 1, 2016, 12:10 PM ]

I've been sitting on this essay for years. Mother Earth News wouldn't publish it, so the joke is on them.

Like a lot of people, I thought I knew what it meant to live the good green life. I got married and bought twenty acres in the country. We grew a garden and planned our energy efficient dream home. I felt well I was well on my way to an eco-friendly American dream.

Fast forward.

As I draft this, I am lounging naked on a dirty sleeping bag, on the floor of a crude plastic-covered tipi. I am alone except for the glow of my laptop screen and the flicker of flames from beneath my pot of rice. Outside are the rotted ruins of abandoned homestead projects. Its amazing how quickly things fall apart (or, in the case of bears, how quickly things are crushed, shredded, and scattered). The dream house never happened. All that survives my old dream are an a few neglected fruit and nut trees in wire cages.

I am depressed. I am aimless and chronically broke. My neighbors must think I'm crazy. But in a way, I feel so... ...right.

There is a popular image of what the good 'green' life is. It's a tidy domestic scene- a quaint straw-bale house, solar panels, neat rows of kale, stuff recycled into other stuff- and don't forget the milk goats. There are magazine's devoted to this dream. Leading the movement are a handful of dedicated people who manage to make a living growing organic vegetables or crafting soap. In the city, it is the bicycle riding eco-entrepenuers, with their commitment to greener technology, who are lighting the way. Apparently, all we need to do to save the planet is follow their lead (or at least buy their products). We won't even have to give up amenities like flush toilets and hot showers. If only more people would see the appeal of the good green life, it would usher in a golden age of sustainability- Ecotopia.

So why aren't more people doing it? Of coarse, there are many too embroiled in poverty to contemplate a major lifestyle change. But what about the rest of us? The average environmentalist seem blind to a quality of the green ideal, which any teenager could point out: it's lame.

The 'green' lifestyle we're presented with is sedate, boring, vanilla, bourgeois, and definitely not sexy. It should not surprise us that the average teenager doesn't want to be an organic chicken farmer, or a biodegradable carpet manufacturer. And most of us end up doing whatever distracts us from the fact that we couldn't be a professional wrestler, or a rapper, or a marine biologist. The responsible 'green' thing is lost on all but the most mellow, maternal, responsible human beings. But the world is full of drama queens, meat heads, thrill seekers, and serial spouses. Is a Mormon style conversion strategy really our best hope? I hate to break it to you, but if it takes converting these masses to save the planet, the planet is $%#ed.

What's ironic, is that the last people to actually live sustainably on this land went out in a blaze of gunfire. The native peoples who fought white settlement were anything but sedate. By many accounts, they were warriors, artists, prophets, travelers, gamblers, and loiterers, hunters, lovers, and fashionistas. They were adventurous, brave, and fiercely independent- the kind of people a teenager can look up to. As a popular figure, Sitting Bull has more in common with Tupac than with Al Gore.

Many Natives scoffed at the idea of sedentary homestead life, however 'green' it may have been. Settling, even on pristine or picturesque acreage, chafed the souls of those who had known total freedom of movement. Native leaders like Chief Seattle are famous for their environmentalist and traditionalist ideologies; but one wonders how much of their 'Mother Earth' dogma was developed in response to the extreme ecocidal dogmas of our culture. Was it spiritual discipline, or were native people were simply too busy enjoying life to destroy their environment? Perhaps they were too busy traveling and telling stories to bother with inventing sawmills or plowing up every arable acre. Yet, we're not talking about docile vegetarians. These were people who hunted grizzly bears, who broke mustangs, and who weren't afraid to kill a man if they had to.

It was modest, hard working, small-scale, organic farmers who justified pushing truly sustainable indigenous cultures off of their traditional lands, and who built the framework for the abusive economy we have today. Some kinds of farming never were sustainable. In his book "Against the Grain" Richard Manning describes the prehistoric the spread of 'wheat beef' agriculture, which has been gobbling up grasslands, depleting soils, and extirpating indigenous people for ten thousand years. Grain agriculture has consistently resulted expanding human populations. Multiplying mouths were once fed by plowing new ground, but now that almost all of the worlds planet's land is under cultivation, it is only innovations like chemical fertilizer that stave off a massive population crash. And the mouths continue to multiply.

The difference between native hunter/gatherers and the farmers who ousted them runs deeper than technology. Colonization is as much about one kind of psychology replacing another. On the whole, settlers of the American frontier were insecure control freaks. Most of them were the losers of a financial game- misfits, eager for a ticket to utopia. They had little real independence. They were unable to meet their needs outside of the economic hierarchy. They were strangers in their environment- afraid of the wild, ignorant of native survival skills. They were hoarders who sought accumulation and control. They were patrons of domestic animals and exotic crops as defenseless and maladapted as themselves. They were fiercely defensive of private property, granted to them by the government and protected by the army. They lived dark cabins, paranoid and isolated from their neighbors, where god knows what happened to women and children. They feared a jealous god who cast the disobedient into hell. They were nobodies who had only obedience and hard work to legitimize their existence, and this became their psychosis. Ultimately, they were pawns to government and commercial interests, creating markets, debt, and a tax base.

Contrast this profile with that of a hunter/gatherer, whose existence is social and psychologically secure. The hunter/gather is born into a tight knit band which never questions his right to exist there. He is never charged rent. He is intimately familiar with his environment and how to use it to meet his needs. He can meet his needs totally independently, if need be. But having proven this in a right of passage at puberty, he prefers company and cooperation. There is no need for him to control the land, because he has a good relationship with it. He knows how to take what the land provides. There are no laws or police among hunter/gatherers- conflict is resolved through social influence alone. Social life in a band is largely transparent, and obligations hold weight. It is better to invest in relationships than material accumulations. It is the ideal environment for developing keen social skills. Success in such a culture requires a blend of cleverness, physical prowess, spiritual power, artistry, and charisma. Autonomy is not only possible- it's extremely valuable among hunter/gatherers. This kind of independence and security could be called maturity.

The encounter of natives and settlers on the frontier was like a gritty public school playground becoming overrun with sheltered home-school kids. The newcomers couldn't help but be jealous and afraid of the local kids who could cart-wheel, fight, kiss, and swear. And the locals surely treated the newcomers with a mixture of ridicule and pity. Unable to keep up, the misfit majority were left to fierce competition amongst themselves for letter grades and gold stickers. But gold stickers meant nothing to those who could have their way with an act or a smile. Predictably, the teacher's pets turned on the cool kids. White conquest of the frontier was not survival of the fittest- not anymore that a hereford is fitter than a buffalo. It was survival of the suck-ups.

Understanding the psychology behind indigenous sustainability may lead you to question your own psychology. Is my green lifestyle about to pursuing freedom? Or am I driven by the same guilt and fear as my colonist ancestors? Is there an environmental imperative to work hard at my desk job and purchase real estate for my green homestead? Do I have to sell something to have legitimacy? Consider land ownership:

Land Ownership

The modern institution of land ownership has an agricultural basis. It is necessary for farmer to totally control a defined area, because his harvest is so vulnerable. In earlier agricultural societies, land was often owned by the state, or feudal lords. Today, our world is carved up into millions of rectangular, individually owned plots. In and of itself, this institution of private land ownership drives expansion. If wealth means having a piece, it's better to have some forlorn piece somewhere than to have no piece at all. Thus, the barrenest deserts and coldest mountain tops became owned. And this why one finds so many 'green' homesteads miles up winding gravel roads- roads nobody would use if not for a piece of 'mine'.

Land ownership is a novel system on the Columbia Plateau, where I live. Only 200 years ago, the hunting and gathering people that lived here had a very different system of land rights. Individuals did not own land. Within one's tribal territory, one was free to camp, hunt, and gather wherever one pleased. In the winter villages, any family could build their lodge wherever there was room. People were free to move between villages. Villages were not high commitment "intentional communities", but rather fluid groupings of autonomous families. Tribal territories were roughly the size of modern counties. 'Tribes' were comprised of villages speaking the same dialect, and thus were linguistic units, more than they were political units. Relations between tribes were generally peaceful. Intermarriage commonly strengthened ties, and resulted in multilingual poplutions. There were large inter-tribal gatherings to share the bounty of fishing places and camas meadows. Provided good relations were maintained, people were free to travel and subsist almost anywhere. This level of freedom was probably common in human societies before agriculture.

A free way of life has a very different effect on the land than a way of life defined by private ownership. One notable difference is the replacement of free ranging bison, elk, and pronghorn herds with small confined cattle herds. The wild mixed herds were at least as productive as range cattle are today, and required no tending. Tribally organized people could harvest these great herds, using drives and corrals, without partitioning the prairies or halting migrations.

Much as the great herds followed the best grass, people took their food only where it was offered in abundance, gathering in large numbers where the foraging was prime. This is in contrast to the modern practice of demanding a livelihood from whatever piece of marginal property one happens to own. Needless to say, such demands severely strained soil, water, and biodiversity. Timber export was unheard before white settlement. People adapted their construction to use on site materials. Driftwood accumulations provided villages with fuel. The contrasting health of land and it's creatures, under their indigenous stewards, was not due to effective government, or saintly personal restraint. The land flourished because people were free in the original context of freedom. The land was wild because the people refused to be tamed.

Do our 'green' dreams leave the planet more wild? Does our dispersed farms and pastures aid the return of elk, wolves, beavers, and grizzly bears? Do our sedentary lifestyles teach us the independence necessary to thrive in a wilder world?

Even if industrial civilization somehow collapsed, organic farming could still devastate the planet. Easter Island was rendered treeless and nearly uninhabitable, by farmers with stone axes. Entire mountain ranges in the Andes were cleared and terraced under the rule of a brutal communistic Inca empire. China's fertile Loess Plateau became and eroded wasteland. Some scientist believe global warming began thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution, as forest fell to multiplying farmers. How does our land use guard the future against such nightmares?

During the time after many of the worlds largest animals were hunted to extinction, while a few cultures became the first farmers, cultures elsewhere found other ways of coping with rising populations. Fishing was one of the most successful strategies. Fishing allowed for permanent populace settlements without farming. People on the Columbia Plateau harvested salmon sustainably for thousands of years, despite living in greater numbers than local game could support. It stands to reason that the restoration of fisheries and wetlands, and the creation of ponds for aquaculture, would provide future people with another option.

Another way people prospered without farming was by utilizing mast from trees, as native Californians used oaks. Acorns once filled granaries, and supported villages of hundreds of people. Chestnuts filled a similar niche in the historic Mediterranean. Sustaining diverse and adaptable stands of nut trees could give future people yet another option. The same is true of fruit trees, and perennial vegetables.

Our good bottom-land has been fenced off into a million hobby farms. There is nothing natural about keeping goats and sheep on lowland pastures, where they require constant paranoid defense. In the wild, goats and sheep only survive in the protection of steep mountain terrain. And there's nothing natural about keeping two or three horses confined to ten acres. This only frustrates the recovery of wild herds. However, holistic grazing practices, utilizing portable electric fence, or carefully placed stock tanks, have been shown to improve range-land for wildlife. Historically, nomadic cultures developed ways to keep animals without a lot of fence. If your backyard animals aren't worth such shepherding, you probably don't really need them. The owner of small acreage should consider getting out of the livestock business, planting perennial wildlife forage, and becoming a lazy hunter.

The health and abundance of large wild ungulates, like elk, bison, pronghorn, moose, and bison is an easy measure of wildness. The presence of beavers is another good measure of wildness. Beavers create wetlands and expand riparian zones. Domestic horses and burros retain the potential to contribute to wildness. We could diversify that potential by keeping other kinds of livestock, and more camels and llamas in particular. Sheep stand no chance as wild animals. Goats might survive in rugged terrain. If you believe in rewilding in the truest Pleistocene sense, you might also harbor elephants, tapirs, peccaries, capybaras, armadillos, jaguars, lions, and cheetahs. All of these animals were native to the North America, before a mass extinction some attribute to humans.

Thinking in the broad terms of future wildness, there is seems to be little one can do on any particular small plot of land to make way. In the ideal scenario, your garden space will be forgotten and shaded out by trees. Your single family house will decompose. Even if you build such a house with stone, it will probably sit empty because people naturally congregate in multifamily groups. If you live in a river valley, or along travel route, perhaps the descendents of your hardiest orchard trees will survive to be dispersed by people.

Most of us don't have the resources to construct wetlands or establish game reserves large enough to be significant to future wildness. If you raise conventional crops or animals using conventional methods, perhaps you only postpone a truly green future. Dare you cut the fences? Dare you let the coyotes howl? If you aren't aggressively battling environmental atrocities like fossil energy, then cherishing freedom and keeping a pocket full of acorns may be the best you can do. We should not pretend that more elaborate designs benefit a wilder earth. There is plenty to scavenge and forage. Planing your personal green transition, during breaks at your corporate job, probably burns more carbon than dropping it all for selfish art. The earth doesn't crave our meddling. No doubt, many 'green' projects can't offset the carbon emissions incurred just in vehicle access.

It is true that we vastly outnumber our nomadic fore-bearers. Many would dismiss the return of an egalitarian paradigm because "we couldn't possibly feed everyone that way". That is a twisted argument. It assumes that "we" are responsible for feeding everyone everywhere, and that we must not upset any grand plans for this. Actually, there is no plan. If there were a plan, the planet would not have become so overpopulated. Yet the argument implies that everyone should commit to the trajectory of "our" food system, and that figuring things out for yourself somehow starves other people. The dominant system is already starving people. Why not trust individuals to figure it out? We'll figure it out, or die. You only feel guilty about that if you're already hoarding disproportionate share of the planet's resources.

"Food security" has become a hip term. No doubt, hunger causes a good deal of suffering and conflict in the world. But at the root of famine is the quest for a guarantee- the entitlement to consistent fodder in an unpredictable world. This
has been the problematic aspiration of farmers for thousands of years. If "food security" means a small scale version of the commercial farmer's gamble, it is an oxymoron. The supermarket food system, as it exists, was predicated on a false notion of security and comfort. Perhaps "food freedom" is a more worthy pursuit. The forager exemplifies food freedom. She knows how to take what comes, with an eye for the alternatives. Her knowledge and capacity for judgment must be extensive. She recognizes and prioritizes hundreds of edible species. Rather than exert herself over-managing the environment, she manages human needs first. She would not confine her family to any narrow enterprise. She knows when to move on. When plagues of crickets devour the crops, the forager has a cricket roast.

It is ironic that relatively affluent 'green' folks are devoting their lives to food production in the global north, where food scarcity has always been artificial. One can hardly give a squash or an apple away in the rural U.S. In this fat land, where the waste stream alone could feed multitudes, a resourceful traveler could leave dining entirely to chance, and be much healthier for the occasional fast. The real dilemma, for any half-friendly Westerner, is declining excessive offerings. Yet, there are still well-meaning zealots bent on growing all of their own food, as if it were the good old-fashioned thing to do. But old-fashioned hunter/gatherers had friends instead of freezers, and potlucks instead of cash or canning jars.


Largely thanks to young people, the colonist paradigm has slipped back a little since the pioneer days. It turns out that the idea of private land is worth more than its products. Homesteading was a gimmick, it doesn't add up. A lot of the time, even industrial scale farming doesn't pay- it has to be subsidized with our tax dollars. Our livelihood doesn't come from the land, it comes from cheap oil, government escapade, and swindling the global populace. Country life is a farce. Young people have bailed for the cities, for company of humans, despite the high price. Our ancestors tamed the wilderness, sacrificing themselves for a vision of future of prosperity. And here we are, with student loans, a smart phone, and no furniture to show for it all. They dammed the rivers just in time for us to discover white-water rafting. They built the great roads now used to access rock climbing. They killed everything that could kill us, and now we have to find weirder ways to risk our lives.

We are, to an unprecedented degree, living in a society characterized by the kind of insecurity rampant in nursing homes. The high tech life support system we rely on (for amusement, for comfort, for movement) is just one superficial manifestation of a deeper psychological phenomenon. We have a scared crippled culture, unreceptive to youthful courage and intuition. It goes without saying that elders reserve respect. The great cultures of the past respected and heeded their elders. Still, we are in a bizarre and unnatural situation in which the old, flabby, and infirm are the economic engines. The most powerful among us are those who have lost or sacrificed their vitality. In traditional societies, energetic people in their twenties and thirties were the bread winners. The young and the old depended on them, for protection as well as food. The old rightly enjoy greater influence and social status than the young, but it is novel for a society to have no practical use whatsoever for youthful energy. Shouldn't there be a place for young people outside of spectator sports and foreign wars. If you consider the values of youthful and confident people vs. jaded insecure people, it becomes clear that we live in a culture that stifles the young. And to be clear, there are many jaded insecure young people, just as there are many youthful and confident old people. At age 82, Native matriarch Mary Moses would ride for days alone on horseback, visiting relatives.

Values of jaded and insecure people:


-status via accumulation





-dependence on gadgets

Values youthful and confident people:


-status via image





If you agree with this list, you agree that ideal lifestyle of a youthful person might involve: looking cool, ample leisure, rambling around the country, camping out at large social gatherings, scoping out mates, surviving on feats of athleticism, strong social bonds, art, and emphasis on self expression. This may sound like Spring Break or Burning Man to you. But read it another way, and you'll see striking similarities to traditional cultures of the hunter/gatherer past. What happened, to make modern culture less youthful? Technological change since then since may account for many differences. But does technology alone suppress exuberant youthful values? Cars and computers may be a boon to the aged, but do they necessarily weaken and geriatricize the young? Hopefully, cultural priorities have room to shift.

There is an insight here, very relevant to our settlement pattern and its environmental impact. We live in bipolar urban/rural culture. The ideals of our nation force us to choose between commitment to isolated rural land ownership, or a more flexible and sociable urban existence (nonetheless and expensive one). Both ways of life have serious, perhaps insurmountable, obstacles to sustainability. Indigenous hunter/gatherers and college kids show us that this is an artificial problem. For all most of human prehistory, we lived in small dispersed mobile groups, as resources permitted, yet still enjoyed all the benefits of settlement at bustling seasonal gatherings. The salmon fishery at my home in Kettle Falls, before it was terminated by the dams, hosted thousands of indigenous fisherman, from tribes far and wide, over the summer fishing season. It was a gaming gambling singing,dancing salmon-feed! In a show of their youthful prowess, the young men put in long hours spearing salmon for communal distribution. Guests and locals alike received an equal share. Wild plant resources also brought people together. The Chelokam root grounds, near Kittitas, hundreds of Indians gathered annually to harvest camas and other roots. In this case it was women, especially enterprising young women, who provided. The well worn horse racing track there was visible into modern times.

The old egalitarian way of life did not preclude participation in horticulture or industry. In the 1800's nomadic Indian people in the Northwest made farm labor part of their seasonal round, harvesting commercial crops like hops, in the Yakima Valley and elsewhere. Nor did it preclude permanent communities to return to, or retire in. Native people on the Columbia Plateau used permanent winter villages for thousands of years. A new egalitarian life would not necessarily mean a return to the stone age. Perhaps such culture could support the nobler aspects of modernity: libraries, condoms, chocolate, and whathaveyou. Still, a culture with youthful egalitarian values would have little use for many of our high tech excuses. Microwave ovens are nice, but at minimum wage itinerant work, not worth it; and definitely not worth investment in a high-income geriatric lifestyle. Gimme a few sticks and a pot. Remember Mary Moses, the lone rider? She continued to live on the rugged edge, in spite of her claim to comfortable ranch house and farm, won by her husband, in negotiations with the government.

There is a great deal of inquiry into why hunter/gatherers had such a sustainably low rate of birth. The various theories involve physical exertion, late weaning, and contraceptive knowledge (there is a wild plant on my land that Great Basin Indians used to induce lifelong sterility in females). There are economic incentives for farmers to have a high birth rate, and the farmer mentality has held sway for thousands of years, imbedded in our very religions. But those of us living modern adventurous and active lifestyles obviously don't want to be burdened with a lot of children. In this regard, we probably have more in common with our hunter/gatherer ancestors than we do with our lonely farmer grandparents. If Japan is any example, selfish leisure turns out to be a better contraceptive than puritanical toil. The famous Russian fox domestication experiment found that foxes breed for docility also had higher than natural birthrates. Human tameness may be producing similar results. If living like a hedonistic college kid can foster population decline, why, in the name of green, would we toil at desks to solve the 'inevitable' problems of growth?

Wildand fire suppression is the perfect metaphor for the modern predicament. Fire is a force of nature that civilized people simply cannot tolerate; it obliterates our tediously arranged landscape of dream homes, and it consumes the timber far less profitably than said edifices. This all seems very logical. But those who came before us had a different logic. Hunters, the world over, once torched the forests regularly. It was imprecise, dangerous, and unpredictable, but it worked for thousands of years to make wild foods more abundant. Deliberate ongoing disaster held ecosystems in a kind of equilibrium. Claiming they were saving the forest, industrial folks in the Intermountain West stamped out wildfire for a hundred years. The result of forest salvation has been a forest apocalypse. Instead of lightly searing every twenty or so years, now dense diseased forests wait to be incinerated in enormous catastrophic burns. The ecology of entire regions has been destabilized. The vicious cycle set in motion has turned the vibrant forests of Colorado? into a net source of pollutive carbon. For all our benevolence, we've only managed to accelerate the literal burning up of the planet.

Global biodiversity, human genetic diversity, human cultural diversity, and even human intelligence have been on the declined since the Middle Stone Age. This downward trend eclipse the so-called "ascent of man". We have sought salvation, from the vagaries of nature, and from our own wild instincts. The affected nobility of "saving the world", from the Neolithic Revolution and the Manhattan Project, through to The War on Terror, have only disguised naive and ignoble motives. Our culture's wishful thinking about it's own permanence has only hastened it's imminent implosion. Did the world ever ask to be saved?

In the civilized paradigm, meeting ones needs means painstakingly tending and protecting a thing, by patronizing it, deceiving it, extracting from it- like a tedious bargained marriage. A hunter's paradigm is the opposite. With the touch of a torch, not entirely certain of the outcome, he makes himself felt in a big way. He isn't shy about taking what he needs. He imposes himself, but not out of insecurity or self-consciousness. The impact is stark, but the land is cleansed and renewed. The new growth is greener. In the end, the hunter's brash treatment is kinder.

One cannot conceive a salvation without also contriving a hell. Chief Luther Standing Bear once remarked, "Time was when the Sioux, a brave people, were not afraid to die. But the missionaries came among us with their story of the Christian endless hell, and now they are afraid to die." All of us descend from ancestors who were not afraid to bleed and burn. Fear of death is the mark of a civilization set futility against nature. Fear of death and delusions of invincibility have only perverted the inevitable. Mass extinctions snowball in the face of our mortal denial. Afraid to decay, we burn ourselves alive.

Its not so much that the world needs to be saved, but that we need to to fall apart. We're all keeping a straight face, regurgitating a lie, as if each of is personally responsible for the upkeep of industrial civilization. The real irony is that the thing already failed. It failed the human beings, it failed life on earth. That shit already hit the fan. But it is never too late for dignity. It's not to late to respect the earth's wildness by respecting our own.

An Example of How I Think: Questions Arising from Listening to the Oxford Megafauna Conference

posted Feb 21, 2016, 4:46 PM by Kyle Chamberlain

-Franz Vera works with a horse/cattle rewilding system on fertile marshland in the Netherlands. He asserts that his system is stable without predator regulation, that it is "bottom-up" regulated by plant productivity, and that plant diversity is protected by the succession of thorny shrubs. He even claims that there is no carrying capacity. Are there herbivores or natural systems in nature which are likewise 'forage limited' versus 'predator limited'? Is it on a spectrum?

-What is the recommended irrigation amount for arid pasture? What amount of moisture creates the most fertile "no carrying capacity" pasture? What nutrient budget?

-How is the recommended commercial stocking rate of optimal pasture different from what Franz Vera gets with natural mortality?

-Are there categories of plants which would suffer under Vera's unregulated grazing and shifting thorn mosaic system? Or would there still be a niche for all of them?

-Yellowstone is elk do have a carrying capacity, and require predator regulation, right? What about Yellowstone bison? What if Yellowstone bison had access to significant bottomland pasture?

-Are buffalo in Africa possibly limited by forage, and not by lions (the largest predator)?

-Obviously, elephants, and perhaps giraffes and camels, are less limited by non-human predators. But these species have low fecundity. Do these species merit their own 'fecundity limited' group?

-Cattle may be the largest herbivore species with a high fecundity. Perhaps this is why they are such popular meat livestock.

-Perhaps herbivores fall into four groups: mobility limited (goats, sheep, cliff habitat), predator limited (elk, pronghorn), forage limited (cattle? buffalo?), and fecundity limited (elephants, camels). This would have implications for rewilding and grazing.

-For instance, forage limited herbivores would want to dominate the most productive sites, regardless of predators. Predator limited herbivores would want to be more mobile across more marginal sites. Perhaps marginal lands have a long relationship with predator influenced species, whereas productive lands have had herbivore distributions and densities less influenced by predators.

-Particularly in the arid west, it is clear that herbivores have a choice between intensive use of fertile bottomland and extensive use of less productive rangeland. How were these resources partitioned by megafauna?

-Where would cattle go if there were no fences? Would they concentrate in the bottomlands as do buffalo? Would they migrate over grasslands like bison? Is ecologically less than optimum to stock rangeland with livestock adapted to bottomlands?

-How does topography influence wild ungulate distribution? Are there species that avoid slopes? Is Africa a good analogy to the North American megafauna when so much of Africa is relatively flat? There must be ridge seeking and ridge avoiding herbivores- how do thier movements differ?

-Can regional plant communities be predicted by topography and aspect? I think so.

-If Alan Savory seeks to optimize grass production by harmonizing their ecology, would the methods be different in the mountainous Western US, where topography influenced migrations were presumably the norm? How are intermountain grasses ecologically different from plains grasses? What does Savory have to say about the influence of annual precipitation timing (winter vs. summer)?

-What were the bottomland grasses in the Intermountain West before canary reed grass and common reed? Could they support a forage-limited fauna?

-When are predators influencing herbivore distribution and movement, and when are they influencing population?

-Buffalo may herd for mutual defense, zebra may herd to decrease individual risk?

-What kind of herding is Joel Sahlitin productively mimicking when he does daily cattle rotations on fertile humid pasture? Could the herding of forage-limited animals look anything like this?

-Did aurochs migrate? Did woodland bison migrate?

-Do humidity and migration of large herbivores correlate?

-Can faunas be snow limited? Topography limited? Plant dormancy limited (summer and winter)?

-How much can herbivore biomass fluctuate annually due to winter mortality?

-Can snow depth predict the distribution of of browse-sensitive plants such as willows and poplars in bottomlands? Can snow depth also predict the distribution of thorny plants like hawthorn and buffaloberry?

-Does snow depth explain the pattern of more palatable and less animal-dependent vegetation toward the poles?

-What woody riparian plants replace palatable poplars to the south of deep snows? Sycamores? Is coyote willow palatable? Would ginkos function?

-Is there a good pollen record for prehistoric trends in poplar cover?

-What are the productivity-optimizing grazing regimes of the distinct types of intermountain grazing zones? Bottomland, winter range, summer range, mountain pastures. How much are these are these respective communities capable of the productive change described by Savory?

-Where is the productivity of the plant community limited by factors other than fertility? At what slope does erosion undermine the fertility gains of grazing?

-If we let ecological communities, including all plants and birds like sharp-tailed grouse, determine the timing of and intensity of grazing, what would they dictate? Would there be more conflict or more general consensus?

-How would we get the best quality standing "hay" on winter ranges in the mountain West? Would it be first or second cutting?

-Do Savory's techniques assume year-round potential grazing? Might this be appropriate to Africa or Texas but not the Intermountain West? Would periods of non-use optimize productivity? How much did snow limit foraging by the full suite of megafauna?

-Is there a pattern of difference between steppe herbivores like pronghorn and grassland herbivores like bison?

-The Ecological History of North America describes a theory of how humans transformed bison morphology and behavior. Did humans change bison from a forage limited species to a predator limited species? Did we expel them from bottomland sedentism and make them smaller flightier herd animals?

-Why did some Ice Age herbivores "shrink" in the Holocene, and why did some remain the same size? Did we create predator limited-species out of previously forage-limited species? Size is an asset in non-human predator deterrence, but a liability when humans are the dominant predator.

-If there forage/predator limited herbivores are defensible categories. We could expect that predator limited species would move constantly for high quality forage, as fuel for flight. Whereas herbivores limited by other factors could handle coarser forage and longer gut residency times (horses versus cattle).

-What explains the superior forage use of goats and sheep? Do they have a longer gut residency than leggier ungulates? Is this because their ancestors were limited by cliffy territory more than predators? Does a cliff-protected ungulate have more time and evolutionary flexibility to digest food? A big male bighorn almost rammed my brother off a cliff. The bighorn was obviously more concerned with fight than flight.

-The dominant predators would have had control over the most productive pastures, where prey density was highest and 'windfalls' were more frequent. Predators in the most productive areas would be characterized by size and opportunistic carcass claiming (lions, grizzlies). Predators in less productive areas would be characterized by smaller size and greater commitment to pursuit of prey (cheetahs, wolves). Can we expect that herbivores in marginal rangelands were more influenced in their movements by predators?

-How does cover/visibility determine herbivore distribution?

-What prey density is required by a pride of lions? By a pack of wolves?

-Can we expect that predator limited herbivores form larger herds than forage limited herbivores?

-If we overlaid a map of the Northwest with strips of land running perpendicular to contour (from peak to river), where would the strips contain the fewest property boundaries?

-What ecological processes cause mosiacs? Which cause shifting mosaics? Which cement mosaics? Did the intermountain West have shifting or stable mosaics?

Persistent Fallacies in Native Plant Permaculture

posted Feb 21, 2016, 11:17 AM by Kyle Chamberlain   [ updated Feb 21, 2016, 11:59 AM ]

There are some well intentioned ideas about planting native foods going around, but I want to be clear about something.

I DO NOT recommend planting biscuitroot, or any of the native perennial root vegetables, for food.

I'll tell you why.

In extreme cases of land degredation, it may be appropriate to plant these things, for restoration purposes. But for the most part, these plants have very specialized habitats, and are already growing where they should grow. These plants don't have a seed distribution problem, they have a land use problem. Appropriate stewardship of perennial native root vegetables would involve changing grazing/haying practices, reversing development, and/or mitigating climate change. Most of these plants are as palatable to cattle as they are to people, are are among the first to suffer under poor grazing management.

Biscuitroot is a great food for foragers because it grows extensively and offers an excellent return on calories when harvested from the wild. This does not mean that biscuitroot makes sense as a garden plant. Biscuitroots are perennial. They may take decades to reach a harvestable size. If you've invested any energy in cultivating biscuitroot, you've undone it's chief value. Edible biscuitroots generally grow in extremely stressed soils on arid ridgetops, which alternately frost heave and bake dry. Planted in normal garden soil, biscuitroot would be out-competed by almost any other plant. So you would have to weed them for twenty years to get a yield. Biscuitroot is an appropriate food in the context of extensive hunting and gathering- not intensive horticulture. If you have a small plot, you might plant a few for novelty. If you have a large plot, you should be asking if you actually have biscuitroot habitat, what your native species are, and if your native species are somehow suppressed. If you don't have frost-heaving basalt lithosols, you're just not in the habitat of the best biscuitroots. Most biscuitroot habitat is marginal public rangeland, and could never be developed for agriculture.

Camas was more intensively used. But camas was only a sensible food in prime habitats where it grew densely over many acres. There are only so many of these prime locations, and their historic locations are well known. Many of these locations have been drained for hay, wheat, or urban development. If you love camas, restoring these historic sites would be appropriate stewardship. Otherwise, the sparse camas of other sites is a novel occasional snack. I suppose one could invest enormous energy into creating a large artificial camas swale, but you'd get a better energy return on other crops. Again, these foods cease to make sense outside of a forager context. Some indigenous people have been offended by the attempted domestication of these plants.

I've said that seeding perennial native root vegetables may make sense in restoration projects. But another caveat is that the restoration projects we most need are focused on threatened species and global carbon. If you've got resources for restoration, please do what you can for native grasslands and creatures like sage grouse. Biscuit scab-lands are not conservation priorities.

Appropriate plants for intensive horticulture include biennial root vegetables (like yampah and thistles), and perennials with an annual yield (like golden currants and hazelnuts).

I advocate both responsible foraging and appropriate horticulture. But it is important to understand the difference. Intensive practices like sowing and weeding are not appropriate to foraging. Practices like extensive burning, and branch-breaking incidental to harvest, may be appropriate to foraging. 

A last word on biscuitroots, to those who care about them, is that they rely on frost-heaving, and that warming temperatures may mean losing biscuitroots. The most important species grow on basalt soils, which are attitudinally and geographically limited. The present rate of climate change may end some biscuitroot species. If nothing changes, foragers should be looking to California to see how root-foraging looks in a place without severe cold. Foragers further south used more grass-competitive species, like hyacinths, segos, and soaproot. Southern foragers relied less on roots overall, and more on mast from trees like oaks

Individualized -January 13th, 2016

posted Jan 13, 2016, 12:21 PM by Kyle Chamberlain   [ updated Jan 13, 2016, 4:53 PM ]

"Hi Kyle! Hope you are well. I noticed that you had attended the Saskatoon Circle gathering and wanted to reach out about the show 'Alone' on the History Channel. I'm not sure if you have seen or heard of it, but I was curious if you'd be interested in doing the challenge. We are definitely looking for some amazing people for our next season. Let me know if you'd like to chat!" 
    -a message from a new Facebook 'friend', who turned out to be a reality television recruiter, sent just hours after I published this essay

Among my life's great ironies are the recent inquiries from television producers,
who've sought me as reality television character.

This is not an unusual experience for those of us identifying with the
"primitive skills" community, or whatever you want to call it. Some
friends of mine get barraged. Our connections are mapped and mined. We
 are under strategic siege.

My first encounter with the television industry excited me. I helped a
producer get some footage of deer-butchering, in a cave.

(It was kind of ridiculous. It was a pain in the ass to carry an
un-quartered animal cross-country to a cave. And the dusty fecal cave
floor was a terrible place to butcher. I also borrowed my friend
Katie's loin-cloth, which was not designed for male loins, and my
loins were inadequately girdled. Despite working with deer hair a lot,
I have an embarrassing allergy to it. When I carried the deer into the
cave, for the camera, my pale chest and shoulders broke out in a
fierce rash.)

The experience left me wondering if television could help me be
influential. Of course, most television influence is pretty useless.
Even the most popular movie stars are politically stifled. But I can
think of a few notables, like Carl Sagan, who used television to
bolster their overall career.

Television perpetuates a dynamic which anyone doing anything "old
fashioned" already deals with. To cope with antagonistic outside
pressures, we become celebrities to survive. Subsistence living will
get you locked up. I've faced criminal charges just for eating
roadkill. Yet authorities gave my producer friend a free pass, to use
a roadkill deer for her scene, just for mentioning the Discovery
Channel. I don't forget that I live underfoot of the same culture that
had to slaughter the indigenous to exist. Anyone who leads a
quasi-natural existence is under pressured to amuse the dominant
culture, or face annihilation. Sitting Bull's last refuge was Buffalo
Bill's Wild West Show. Even animals have to play celebrity to survive.
If wolves weren't television stars, they would only be a liability to
your Big Mac.

I have purist hermit friends who would never capitulate to television,
but it doesn't change the fact that they have to cater to other
people's notions to maintain their niche. If you don't prove you're
some nostalgic American ideal, you're a frightening pariah. You can't
just be primitive- you have to sell your primitivity. An ironically
evangelical primitivist is what the culture really loves. I'm
convinced that we citizens of the American West are all living within
the boundaries of a National Spectacle Park, convincing ourselves how
free and natural we are.

I've become sensitive to the toxicity of individualism.

In a Skype interview with a casting director, I was asked, "What
advice would you give to someone who wants to be completely
self-sufficient?" My response- "That person suffers from psychosis and
should seek counseling."

My private home, my property, is a tipi in the woods. TV people love
that. They want to hear all about how difficult and dangerous it is.

You know what? I fucking hate living alone, in a tipi, in the woods.
Living in a tipi isn't necessarily more exhilarating or challenging than
living anywhere else. It can be downright boring.

You know how I ended up living alone in a tipi in the woods? I'm there
largely because I felt deeply wounded by my childhood and my failed
marriage. I've been depressed for most of my life, without anything to
contrast it with. I've been caught in a vicious cycle of floundering
social confidence. Living in the woods is really convenient when you're
socially anxious, and prone to ugly bouts of depression.

You know where I prefer to spend my time? My refuge is a boring house
in the suburbs where my girlfriend and her daughter live. Because when
I stay there, I feel like part of a family, and part of humanity. We
play board games and do the dishes. It's beautiful.

Do you think anyone will make a television show about a dejected
outsider finding emotional healing? Do you think they'll make a show
about the honest trajectory of the loner impulse? I doubt it. A novel,

Rugged individualism is not the antidote to civilization's
discontents, but an equally toxic mirror-image. Pioneering
individualism is the origin-myth of industrial consumerism. Americans
descend from paranoid pioneers bent on an anti-social utopia. Stories
of mountain men and isolated families against the wilderness are
essential to the justification of the antisocial way we live today.
Television is ravenous for that narrative. The mob doesn't want a way
out. The mob wants to feel feel justified in its desperation.

I didn't learn to be an iconoclastic loner from nature. I learned to
be alone from consumer culture. I learned to be alone from public
schools, movies, corporate employers, divorced parents, and the
internet. It's hard to sell widgets to people who rely on
relationships. But when people are individualized, they need every
kind of gadget and gizmo imaginable to live. My solitary squatting in
the dirt is a much a response to the ills of modernity as pornography
and diabetes.

Contempt for society doesn't defy the dominant culture. Contempt for
society fuels the dominant culture. When you flip the bird to your
fellow humans, TV cameras come running.

Trying to escape society, I'm left with celebrity shtick as my only
leverage, and I have been worn down to the point I'm not hesitant to
use it. Maintaining a small personality cult is how I've come to make
my way in the world. Self-aggrandizing has helped me pay the bills and
meet women. I've used and abused public perception.

My relatives are always telling me I should write a book about my
eccentric outdoor adventures. But if I'm qualified to write about
anything, it's profound immersion in the loneliness of modernity. If
I'm qualified to write about anything, it's spectacular depression,
sexual frustration, and loss of religion.

I think most of my relatives would prefer television. In fact, I think
some of my superficially interested relatives would rather close their
eyes and scream than read the exorcism of a contemporary identity.

If you see me on television, I am only a reflection of the audience,
working a mundane job to make the most of an isolated existence.

As for me now, I am broke and despondent. My New Year's resolution is
mental health. I'm going to do whatever I can to make my life stable
enough for regular positive human interaction. I'm going to get a
regular job and build something like a regular house.

While the collapsing climate imperils human survival, I will be
cultivating tidy domestic habits. I'll be marking the calender and
licking envelopes.

Adrift -January 13th, 2016

posted Jan 13, 2016, 12:00 PM by Kyle Chamberlain   [ updated Jan 13, 2016, 4:41 PM ]

There is the possibility, that much of what we are is irrelevant to evolution. More than efficient survival machines, our minds are also expressions of chaos, adrift. Perhaps the moods and proclivities we inherit are thinned only by the odd ice-age, volcanic eruption, or genocide. Perhaps we carry emotional mutations, as yet untested by a brush with death. We may harbor senses and capabilities which will again never serve the survival of our species. We may express utterly random inherent tendencies which only obscure adaptive habits. And yet, some innate inkling which persists uselessly now, could save humanity from future extinction. Our path has always been so unpredictable. Our minds are not prepared for the present, much less the future. Our feelings may find no natural purpose or resolution.

Which of our interwoven motivations are adaptive? We can only speculate. And if some modes of mind seem useful, perhaps they are only useful to arbitrary appetites.

To the extent that our sophisticated brains ensure survival, they accommodate superfluous nonsense, irrelevant to survival. We are over-adapted, wielding mental capacities seldom necessary for our continuity. Our lives are punctuated all too infrequently by any natural imperative; the intervening space is as potent as it is vain. The fate of intelligent animals is to pass the time, with dangerously frivolous games. Our hard-won consciousness is left with nothing to do but entertain itself.

Perhaps, as long as vague instincts spur on the occasional reproduction, human experience is free explore, whimsically, furiously. We may be decadent apes, wandering freely in a forest of feeling. A wide realm there must be to wander. Modern minds must know just a narrow slice of what is possible, our lineage having dwindled, in times past, to just a handful of closely related individuals. Life's diverse and endlessly shifting physical forms hint at wild possibilities for thinking, feeling, and experience.

The looming possibility of humanity's extinction, at it's own hands, should make the absurd freedom of the mind all the more apparent. What excuse is there for the mundane? What excuse is there, for anything less than the explosive flourishing of life, into the unknown?

YouTube Video

Botany and Foraging Intensive with Tom Elpel and Kyle Chamberlain

posted Dec 17, 2015, 1:35 PM by Kyle Chamberlain   [ updated Dec 17, 2015, 1:39 PM ]

Tom Elpel and I are at it again! In 2016, our Botany and Foraging Intensive will begin March 20th, and I can't think of a better way to revel in the Spring green-up. The learning will be prodigious. Tom Elpel is the author of the acclaimed reference 'Botany in a Day', and 'Foraging the Mountain West'. Reserve a spot soon to join us! CLICK HERE

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