The Land and Ways of Knowing

We’re walking down a forest trail, alternately pointing things out.

‘This is trillium,’ she says, pointing at a brilliant white flower.

‘Sorrel,’ I say. ‘It’s edible, in small amounts.’

‘Pepper root…red huckleberry…miner’s lettuce…nettle…’

We trade back and forth, bits and pieces of knowledge about the plants and what you can do with them. Sometimes one of us picks a leaf or flower and presents it to the people we are guiding to smell, or to eat. We ask them if they can guess what something is. Sometimes the smell is familiar, and sometimes it’s not.

‘What’s this,’ she says, holding a leaf under one of the men’s noses.

‘I like it,’ he says, sniffing it deeply, taking it and crinkling it, looking at it. ‘But I don’t know what it is.’

‘Bay laurel,’ we say together, and he seems surprised.

Bay laurel is something that comes in bottles in the store for adding to soup; a single dried leaf or two. He’s cooked with it, but he’s never seen it out, growing like this, right there for the taking. Anyone could just pluck a leaf right there, take it home, and use it. As we walk, a uniformly lush and green landscape is suddenly opening up to them and they’re starting to see that it contains multitudes, and suddenly they’re curious about everything.

‘What’s this,’ they say, pointing at a plant, grasping a leaf.

‘Can you eat this?’

*

‘I want to go on one of those Audubon bird walks,’ my father tells me, leaning against the kitchen counter in the sun. ‘I see all these birds around and I’m tired of not knowing what they are.’

‘I think you can just go,’ I say. ‘You don’t need to sign up or anything.’

‘Does it cost any money?’

‘I don’t know,’ I say, and he drops the subject, but I know he’ll bring it up again later.

He’s been doing that a lot lately.

*

‘How do you know what all these things are,’ our guests ask.

‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Growing up here, I guess? Living in the woods?’

‘Did you take a class or something?’

‘Not really, I mean, I had a class with Ryane Snow in high school, but I already knew a lot of things then.’

I don’t want to play the quaint country mouse; I don’t want to be the person with mystical knowledge that gets gawked at and viewed as a figure of amazement. I don’t want the knowledge of edible plants or useful herbs to be all that fascinating. I don’t actually know all that much, I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as she is, I don’t wildcraft nearly as much as she does.

This is all natural to me because, well, it just is. You wander around in the woods and you meet people and you pick these things up. You hone an appreciation for things you like to eat and you make a point of finding more of them. You learn where they grow and you figure out how to steward them so they will keep growing. You recognise what you shouldn’t eat and you stay away from it.

*

People often talk about a disconnect from nature and the land; this is a big part of the whole food movement right now, how everyone is disconnected. I often feel disconnected, spending days on end in my office, looking out the window at the lawn as it goes from green to brown and back to green again over the course of the year, seeing the trees flush with bright green in the spring as new growth appears, and then turn dull and waxy as the summer winds on and their burst of chlorophyllic enthusiasm wanes.

I know bits and pieces of the land. I chide myself for not knowing more, I drag myself on walks to remind myself of the feel of earth under my feet. But then I meet people who are even more disconnected than I am and I wonder what kind of world we are living in. Our visitors, they were from the City, so of course they didn’t know anything about the environment here; one of them, though, knows where to find porcini in Golden Gate Park, knows the ways of the edible things there, could lead me on a tour where I’d be equally baffled and amazed.

So there is nothing particularly special or outstanding about my knowledge, you see. Both of us go outside in the areas we live in, and both of us have picked things up, helped along by people in the know. Both of us have access to ways to learn more, just like my father (or I, for that matter) could go learn the names of the birds we see playing in the trees if we went on a bird walk some foggy August morning. I wonder, sometimes, when I see them gathering around the birdbath, what their names are and where they all come from, knowing that a birder could name them in a flash and tell me their history.

This knowledge isn’t arcane or mystical or mysterious, or even impossible to find. It’s there for those who want it, and many people who have it are willing and delighted to share it; birders want to guide people on bird walks, wildcrafters want to teach people about the places they love (although they may not show you their spots). Why, then, do we turn this kind of knowledge of the land into some sort of sacred and amazing thing, when it should be ordinary and accessible to anyone?