Harvesting Food, Making Medicine, and Planting A Forest

See our new forest peeking out of the Salmon-berry? Young shore pine are settling in here at EEC Forest. We’ve planted them, along with Cascara and some Vine Maple, on a slope that was thinned of Red Alder last Summer during our barn build. It was also a grove slated for replanting in our Forest Stewardship Plan. Many of the groves here at EEC are Red Alder dominant, which means they were clear cut and then grazed like pasture long enough to prevent seedling evergreens from surviving into new forests. On a hillside, this creates erosion issues, even when the smaller deciduous trees, like Alder and Bitter Cherry do come back. By thinning out those initial pioneer species, we offer an opening in the canopy to assist the new young plantings in establishing for long term forest restoration.

Where are the Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, Hemlocks, and Sitka Spruce in our replanting? Well, with summers getting so hot, more traditional native trees, especially Hemlock, which rely on wet soils, will not survive in the long run. It’s hard to comprehend that a Western Red Cedar would not be able to make it in a Western Washington forestscape, but this land has been so altered by continual clear-cutting and overgrazing, that the nutrient poor soil with no banked biomass for topsoil renewal prevents trees from fully maturing. That’s why we’ve folded in animal systems as part of our recovery plan, and have selected drought resistant trees that will better adapt to climate change. \I really wanted to put in Western White Pine, since they were the original dominant species of most western forests- not Douglas Fir (myth pushed by timber industries to justify replanting mono-cultures of the fast growing fir species). Genetically modified White Pines, resistant to a rust blight are now being developed. The blight which took out these Western giants was much like the blights which took out our East Coast Chestnuts. We’re still hybridizing and grafting chestnuts to produce nuts, but are still struggling to replant any native Chestnuts to reforest The East Coast.

We chose Vine Maple as our dominant under-story for this small stand- small in the sense that it’s less than a quarter acre in size. It’s also a great hillside species, as it happily lays over and spreads out over any angle. Here at EEC, this species, like most of the other mid-story shrubs and small trees, were completely eradicated by intensive overgrazing many years ago. In our stream buffer, established by laws back in the 1980s. That narrow area has Vine Maple, along with other species that would remain in a protected regrowth landscape. This is also the area where my oldest trees grow. Everywhere else on the land, under-story plants will have to be replanted. No trees on our land are over 60 years old. Only a few stumps remain to remind us of the original giants who once towered above, and the under-story layer still lacks the gusto of diversity an intact forest produces.

Though our landscape is degraded, it’s still supporting a verity of plants which still serve as food and medicine for their human stewards. While checking on my young plantings, I picked up a few fallen cottonwood branched with fat resinous buds. These sticky leaf buds are full of good medicine, which I draw into olive oil over a year, producing a topical antiseptic healing salve. Black cottonwoods are the fastest growing trees in our region, and often dismissed as worthless hazards. The poplar is known for shedding large branches in the middle of summer, without warning. These limbs can crush cars, puncture roofs, and even mortally injure people. Cottonwoods do drink up a lot of water, so they are great sponges in wet areas of the landscape. We have only a few maturing trees on the land here at EEC, but I don’t regularly plant them, as they are prolific enough, and given ample time to seed out on our land. Several young saplings are well on their way at this time, and a few are in need of cutting, as they develop too close to our buildings. I’ve already pulled many roots from under one of our garages, where it was literally lifting up the foundation of the structure, cracking the floor and letting in water during heavy rain events. Even with the challenges, cotton woods offer amazing habitat to animals, great water management, and medicine, so we welcome them on the land, with good oversight.

While wandering beneath the cottonwoods picking up bud branches, I also came across one of my other favorite plants on the landscape. Stinging nettle is often overlooked as a hazard species, much like cottonwood, but again, all plants have a purpose, and that endeavor may precede human needs. In the case of nettle, human needs are met in so many perfect ways- this plant is edible- and more nutritious than spinach. It is a medicine, both topical and internal for different ailments. The stalk produces workable fibers, and offers a great soil conditioner to build up great fertility in disturbed ground. In the Spring, it’s best to harvest the young top leaves of nettle. In Summer, harvest the seed and stalk, and in winter, cut the stalks down to condition soil. I often see this plant pushing up new growth in January, so its one of the earliest edibles to come on as the seasons change. The sting is also a blessing in disguise, offering a zing of pep to the nervous system, and easing arthritis inflammation. I picked a handful bare handed for lunch, rounding out my gathering venture with healing and sustenance. What amazing gifts the land offers to those who know what to look for.

When we take a step back and realize how much the ecology around us produces, all the roles it fulfills in its act of existing, we start to realize how much we loose when we remove that ecosystem. Even without removing them, we can still inflict great harm through our actions of carelessness with industry, nearby development, and human caused climate change. There is still a narrative of dismissing the environment as something outside ourselves, when it is still deeply a part of us, and will ultimately decide out fate on this earth. We can choose to put ourselves back in context, within that wilderness and encourage thriving environments for people, plants, and other animals, or we can continue to bring great harm to ourselves through its destruction. You don’t have to go save a rain-forest single-handedly, just get out and be in nature, learn from it, and beguine to rewrite your story as part of the living world, not separate, but deeply rooted, like the forest around us (what’s left of it) here in The Pacific Northwest. Seasonal planting and harvesting is a great way to give back to the land and receive its bounty with appreciation and sensitivity.

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