Thursday, December 14, 2006

Book review: Keeping it Living by Nancy Turner & Douglas Deur

I'm not that well versed in her works, but Nancy Turner has for decades been researching and publishing books on Pacific Northwest cultures and especially ethnobotany. I believe most of her work has been in British Columbia, but her books usually cover down to northern California. She's on my list of "authors to check out more".

I just finished reading a collection of essays edited by Turner and Douglas Deur, entitled Keeping it Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America. The basic goal is to prove that indigenous peoples in this region were actively cultivating crops prior to European contact. Apparently the assumption amongst Europeans since the start, and thus subsequently amongst anthropologists through the 20th century, was that Indian people cultivated a local species of tobacco, harvested and ate and preserved a hell of a lot of salmon, and hunted and gathered a small amount of plant and other animal foods. This volume makes the case that plant foods were more important than previously realized, and especially that tribes deliberately cared for and cultivated berry patches and root crops.

I found the writing rather dry and had to push myself through a lot of the book--it's written by anthropologists for other anthropologists to debate fine points of anthropology. It's definitely accessible by laypeople, but not written for us per se. Not knowing much about anthropology and the details of the debates, I'm convinced by its claims, but what do I know? Anyway, I was mostly focused on practical applications to modern times. The main take-home points I got from the book are:

  • As I've read for other Indians elsewhere (such as in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson and Changes in the Land by William Cronon), Indians in this region maintained berry patches through pruning, burning, and fertilization. Berries included blueberries, huckleberries, cranberries, salal, Rubus sp (salmonberries, blackberries, etc), strawberries, currants, and gooseberries. Some berries were transplanted to the edges of village sites. Also, the native crabapples were maintained, although I only recall pruning and maybe fertilizing being mentioned for those.
  • At this time, remaining Indians do not engage in the same kind of maintenance practices. Obviously prescribed burns are out of the question. Many historical berry patches have been wiped out by logging and settling, or made inaccessible because they can't be found anymore. Although Indians do still gather from the wild, the existing patches are too unpredictable for Indians to put energy into maintaining--they could be cut down next month for a logging road. This warns me not to expect that in a homestead situation we can reliably harvest large quantities of berries as people did in the past--things have been trashed, and the work required to achieve the productivity of the past in a given patch may not be worth investing so long as logging and other civilized destruction is still a threat.
  • Fireweed shoots (Epilobium angustifolium) and Rubus sp shoots were prime spring vegetables. Indians broke them off at the base, encouraging further shoots. They knew how many rounds of shoots to harvest before leaving the shoots to grow to maturity. I plan to control domesticated blackberries, raspberries, etc by eating unwanted shoots, and to pay attention to how Rubus sp and fireweed respond to the shoot harvesting.
  • Native people cultivated multiple roots by weeding, working the soil, removing rocks, pruning and removing encroaching woody plants, prescribed burns, replanting tubers, perhaps facilitating the spread of seed into turned soil, altering the environment in the coastal estuarine flats to expand habitat for desired plants, perhaps selecting superior varieties, and hunting or scaring off predaceous wildlife.
  • Roots cultivated included:

    • Wild carrot (Conioselinum pacificum)
    • Camas (Camassia sp.)
    • Rice root (Fritillaria camschatcensis)
    • Chocolate lily (Fritillaria lanceolata)
    • Pink fawn lily (Erythronium revolutum)
    • Tiger lily (Lilium columbianum)
    • Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia)
    • Springbank clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii)
    • Pacific silverweed (Potentilla anserina)
    • Nootka lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis)
    • Brackern fern (Pteridium aquilinum)

  • Some or many of the root plots were monocultures, though at least some were polycultures of these species. It's not clear to me how many were managed as polycultures or what the exact species mix was.
  • It sounds like the Indians put a lot of work into their plots, making multiple trips to their plots during the year for preparing the beds, weeding, and harvesting. It would be nice to find less labor-intensive ways to grow these roots. Wapato seems to have been an exception, being pretty much a show-up-and-harvest kind of crop. (Though the harvesting method of wading into the water in the cold months of the year, sometimes as deep as one's neck, has its drawbacks.)
  • All or almost all the root plots were owned by clans, kinships, families, and individuals. The most productive berry patches were similarly owned. This allowed people who put work into a particular crop to benefit from the harvest, avoiding "tragedy of the commons."

I'd like to try many or all of the native root crops listed. Half of them are aquatic or at least boggy plants, which makes it harder to experiment with them now, and limits their use to a homestead with significant water resources. (My ideal homestead site has, of course, multiple ponds for aquaculture and aquatic plants!) For berries, it seems we'll need to plan to grow most of the berries we consume, not relying on abundant harvests from wild areas until it's reasonably certain that industrial logging and civilization's expansion has ceased. Although I assume blackberries are a widely available weed in rural areas, as they are in the city...


Anonymous said...

I went on a guided tour w/John Kallas of Wildfood Adventures in Portland. I seem to recall him saying that the harvest of wapato may have been what stimulated it/s growth. He described learning how to harvest wapato (he found that working the same area with his tows would eventually cause the bulbs to work loose & then float up).

Anonymous said...


Mary said...

I recommend blueberries and grapes around the house in the city. Grazing on these is very satisfying. If your yard is not full sun, the season is extended. My large blueberry ripens fruit from July to about November. The grapes do not ripen all at once either, which I like.

Mary Saunders