Go to the window and look at your landscape. Can you identify each plant, shrub, and tree along with their edible, medicinal, and utilitarian uses? Can you name each bird and animal, their behaviors relationships and current location? Are you aware, based on the evidence provided by plant species and conditions, animal tracks and sign, elevation, and drainage, of the soil quality and characteristics? If this sounds too far-fetched, it’s because you’ve been raised in an artificial landscape superimposed on the real and natural one. Our ancestors knew all of these things as a matter of survival. More so, their diet was healthier, their cranium larger, and their concern for the environment based on a direct correlation and relationship with the health of their community. At a glance our “primitive” ancestors could predict the weather, locate water, read the tracks and sign of insects, and animals, interpret the language of the birds, and read the forested landscape to determine what plants, medicine, cordage, dyes, and tools could be gathered. They could also tell the health of the ecology of the area. Can you?
Imagine you did know the answers to the above questions. How would that change your behaviors? Would you eradicate all of the mint for one year of tea? Would you harvest all the sweet fern in a rush to stock up on diarrhea medication? Of course not! Saving seeds, drying herbs, and cultivated the land for more diversity has been going on since long before the bronze age. The “care taker attitude” has been expressed and well documented in the history of this land and every continent by it’s indigenous cultures.
This in-depth “native” knowledge of the landscape has had important historical ramifications for our success as a species. Arguably, whether you are a “back to the lander”, “prepper”, in to “nature education”, or just want to get in touch with something real and important, there is nothing as effective at addressing the foundational skill sets to all of these approaches as primitive skills.
Our ancestors refined their relationship with the landscape over countless generations. Motivated to be efficient and successful by their own mortality, hunter-gatherer nomadic tribes were a far cry from the club toting dolts portrayed in cartoons and insurance commercials.
So, let’s get to the nitty-gritty details. How does this look? What are the ways that would make our landscape a biodiverse wild “garden” that would sustain multiple layers of life for generations to come?
First, start with the people. We use the “Thanksgiving Address” as a structure to build awareness and community from. Caretaking your landscape is no exception. What talent can you tap in to in your community? What would they feel motivated to do and how would they feel most valued? Our programs rely heavily on work-study and apprenticeships so that the people are learning as they share their skills and hard work. The key to make sure they are valued, because all hands are certainly needed.
The soil, our unspoken wealth, needs to be addressed next. Test your soils in different locations and map out what you need to do. In most cases it makes sense to adjust what you grow than to adjust the soil. Exceptions include things like high bush blueberries or other high yield or important species that you just can’t do without.
Map the understory, but include the tracks and sign as well as the important herbaceous plants. Garden pests equal meat on the table. Finding the balance will help you optimize populations of plants to attract mammals as well as provide your community with food and medicine.
Pay special attention to shade loving plants and their relatives. A healthy tree that is allowed to grow increases in value over time. Be sure to make the most out of the trees you do have to remove. Milling or using raw timbers to make out buildings, raised beds, fire wood, charcoal for your forge, ash for soap making. Like the natural world and our native ancestors, the key is maximizing a return on energy investment.
Weather, the sun, the moon and our intuition also play a role. Just like the “Thanksgiving Address” we expand our awareness across the landscape with the intent to create bounty and leave more for the future generations than we found.