I’m in the Maryland Piedmont outside of Washington DC, and a few days ago I was exploring the landscape of my adolescence. For 6 years, I walked a mile and a half to and from school daily through this patchwork quilt of maturing hardwood forests, open agricultural fields, and hedgerows of trees surrounding paths, streams, and boundaries between fields. I got to know the red foxes, skunks, raccoons, barred owls, red-shouldered and Cooper’s hawks, cardinals and bluebirds and Carolina wrens here like my kin. I wandered through the mysterious holly groves, majestic old white oak and tulip-poplar stands, hidden swamps and dense streamside thickets, looking for stories and mysteries from nature.
On top of my personal connection to this place, the landscape abundance here has always impressed me. At least 40% of the mature forest canopy is Eastern White Oak, producing huge quantities of low-tannin, high-quality acorns, especially in mast years. A handful of mature black walnut groves produce some of the highest-quality hard mast in North America, carpeting the ground with their green-and-brown husked nuts. Along the buffer strips between fields and along roads and streams, massive mulberry trees virtually rain black-purple berries in June while smaller, easy-to-miss American Persimmons produce sweet, caramel-nectar orange fruits that ripen into the late autumn. Secret groves of pawpaws bear heavy, custard-rich tropical-looking fruits if you know where to look. The spring forest understory is carpeted with wild onions, garlic mustard, and spring beauties – all delicious edible wild vegetables. Stinging nettle and many other sun-loving edible “weeds” grow along the edges of fields. Greenbriars vine up from the forest floor while wild grapes hang down from the branches above. There is food everywhere.
And, interestingly, this is all without any human management. The structural characteristics of the landscape (along with the existing diversity and abundance of the mid-Atlantic oak-tulip-hickory hardwood forest), namely the patchy diversity of fields, streams, buffer strips, and maturing forest, create the level of plant food resources that exist. I can’t even imagine how fertile the wild and semi-wild plant foods would be here with a group of hunter-gatherer-horticulturists tending the landscape.
But one heritage plant in particular isn’t doing so well in these conditions.
Dogbane, or “wild hemp” or “Indian hemp”, is one of the most remarkable wild fiber crops of North America. The long, straight stalks of this herbaceous perennial produce incredibly strong fibers that can be wrapped into string or rope, and even woven on a loom. Wherever dogbane occurs, it played a role in the traditional economy of native people, supplying sturdy, plentiful fiber for countless uses. Imagine life without machine-wrapped string and rope, and you can understand how valuable a plant with long, strong fibers like dogbane can be.
But – and this is a big, important but – dogbane has some very specific habitat requirements. It only grows well in moist (but not too wet) soils under full sun. It’s a plant of meadows, moist prairies, and open stream sides. It’s a relatively fragile-growing plant and can’t compete with vigorous, sprawling, fast-growing woody plants. Those conditions (moist soil, full sun, and free of vigorous woody competition) are rare in the present-day landscape of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, so large, healthy stands of dogbane are correspondingly rare.
Five years or so ago, one of the biggest dogbane patches I’d ever seen was growing in an abandoned agricultural field about 3/4 mile from my childhood house, within this larger patchwork landscape described above. I harvested from it extensively and was excited to come back over the years for cordage supplies. This week I returned, a few years having passed since I visited it last, and found this:
The lighting isn’t great, but you can probably see that there’s very little dogbane growing here anymore. Mostly it’s vigorous, thorny woody perennials like blackberry and multiflora rose.
And hey, what’s that white tube wrapped around the tree in the foreground? Well, here’s who else is in the neighborhood:
I’ve increasingly been thinking that landscapes are, perceptually speaking, like giant, living Rorschach tests, huge multi-sided mirrors that reflect, through our perceptions and interpretations, our own worldviews back to us. As the Talmud says (via Dave Jacke), “we do not see things as they are. we see things as we are.” So this landscape tells a story of the relationships at work between the people and the natural world in this place. The housing development’s landscaping grades into the old field succession: planted drifts of bronzy grasses (for aesthetics) and trees planted with tree protectors as a carbon offset and reforestation program. In other words, they’re planting native (but non-economically valuable – red maple, redbud, etc.) trees into a rapidly disappearing stand of a hugely valuable and quite rare native heritage plant!
Because here’s another piece of the puzzle. Not surprisingly given its habitat, dogbane responds well to fire and regenerates easily after a burn. Dogbane stands were historically managed by native people using prescribed fire, to keep out fire-intolerant trees and shrubs and promote healthy regrowth of the stand. So we have a chicken-and-egg dilemma where all people would need to do would be to burn (or, more labor-intensive but legally easier, weed) the dogbane meadow every few years, which would both exclude the thorny fire-intolerant plants and help regenerate the stand for the future. But no one would ever think to do that if they didn’t have an intimate relationship with the dogbane and a worldview that included humans as active ecosystem participants!
Because what was completely clear to me from cutting my feet and legs everywhere I stepped in that overgrown meadow was that no one is using this landscape. No one is harvesting dogbane, no one is picking blackberries or rose hips, no one is machete-ing back the thorny shrubs or weeding out seedling trees, no one is maintaining paths or tending to mast-bearing trees or planting companion crops or guiding succession in any way. Which is a perfectly reasonable choice to make. But in this case, I’m willing to bet that it’s not really a choice. If land stewardship isn’t in peoples’ worldviews, if their current lives don’t include any embodied nature connection, or any regular family activities based on the local seasonal cycles, then “no management” is an unconscious default rather than a conscious strategy.
And that’s the tragedy of the “Leave Nature Alone” ethic – while trying to preserve and protect land, it unintentionally deepens peoples’ disconnection from the living world, while quickening the disappearance of landscape types that have historically been managed by land-connected people. And this has many consequences that we may not, upon reflection, actually want. Because it’s not just heritage fiber crops that most people don’t ever use anymore that we’re talking about here. It’s also the food security gap between a stewarded ecosystem and an unstewarded one. It’s the resilience of full-spectrum, multi-sensory, holographic knowledge of place from wildcrafting and tracking and tending the wild in all seasons, versus being unable to find food or clean water or medicine or shelter or fiber or tool materials in a time of need.
So let’s do it! Let’s put ourselves back into the wider ecosystem as gardeners and stewards. It’s a lot more resilient, a lot more interesting, and a lot more fun.