Harvesting wild plants, otherwise known as wildcrafting, is one of my greatest passions and a primary aspect of my herbal practice. My relationship and instinctual exchange with plants is continuously informed and attuned by my seasonal seek and search for thriving, healthy, wild plant communities to gather from. One thing that I discovered right away about wildcrafting, is that wild plants are truly just that, wild. They grow where they will and are self-possessed so aren’t particularly concerned with what herbal preparations I might be in need of making at the moment.
And at this moment my stock of mullein leaf is low and the wild mullein community that usually grows about my garden and my land has been declining. I only have a few plants and need to leave them to spread (I haven’t had any luck cultivating mullein). I also haven’t found it in abundance in the wild this season, as of yet.
I decided to reach out on social media and ask my local friends and followers, many of whom are plant enthusiasts, if anyone knew where I could find some. I did get some responses but, unfortunately, many of the the suggested places were not places that I would be comfortable harvesting because of the potential that they could be polluted.
I have written and taught quite a bit about ethical harvesting of wild plants and thought it was a good time to revisit this vast topic. And it is vast.
Learning to wildcraft is usually initiated with first learning plant ID. This is definitely of major importance, but if plant foraging is to be truly ethical, the skills involved are far more complex than simply knowing what plant is what and how it’s used.
It is an art and skillset that has been part of the human tradition of plant medicine since ancient times.
But as time and human civilization has progressed the conditions where we engage with this longstanding cultural and survival activity has changed.
And we, modern plant gatherers, live in the Chthulucene.
The Chthulucene is a term proposed by university professor, biologist, and author Donna Haraway as a new way of understanding the epoch of our times. Our current era has been more commonly been called the “Anthropocene.” This started in the mid 1700s, as way to describe the time of devastating environmental consequences occuring as a result of human activity on the planet. Haraway suggests, in her book “Staying with the Trouble”, that the Chthulucene, is an epoch of much more innovated, fertile, and resilient character than the anthropocene, from which necessary “creative resistance” and regeneration can emerge.
The Anthropocene limits us to a scope that will continue our rapid-fire technological, capitalist itinerary with some capricious vision that we will invent our way out of mass extinction and climate destruction into ecological stability without having to change the way we live and interact.
"In the context of cultivating new places for biodiversity to flourish Haraway proposes a new term to add to the mix. Haraway’s Chthulucene evokes H.P. Lovecraft’s nihilistic mythology though eschews its racism and misogyny. She stipulates that this term is inspired by ‘the diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hime, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more.’ It is a concept that implies the blending of the human and the non-human, an assemblage of multiple species and beings in one. Haraway calls for a paradigm in which human beings and other forms of life come together to recreate a world that can sustain life, to recompose ourselves and reimagine ourselves as being human and non-human. We must act and think from a symbiotic perspective. We have to make kin with the fungi and the bacteria and the myriad species of life. Through this composting mentality, of constantly composing and decomposing, we can rebuild the spaces and time of refuge. Extinction, Haraway reminds us, is not just a metaphor."
The word Chthulucene is derived from the Greek word khthōn or “earthy” and specifically refers to the underworld, under the Earth, or subterranean. And -cene derived from the Greek Kainos for “now” or “new” and refers to time and place. From Khthōn we have also derived the word Chthonic that refers to where our underworldly deities or archetypal forces dwell. The chthonic deities are being generally perceived as gruesome, fearsome, and tentactular (having tentacles) or even monstrous, but not necessarily “bad”or "evil."
I understand the meaning of chthonic or tentacular as being quite fierce, devouring, and powerful, yet also visionary, creative, and potent in its capacity to inclusively and indiscriminately deconstruct and disentangle all and any aspect of life and turn it into the compost that makes our medicine, art, innovation, and beauty.
The chthonic and the Chthulucene are no less than the underground mycelium that tangle about tentactularly through our soils moving essential nutrients and information throughout the interdenpendent social stratum of the Earth.
The Chthonic are the rooted ones. So the Chthulucene is the time of what lives beneath, what is nourished by compost, what becomes of destruction, AND what become the elements of regeneration. Chthonic forces do not cower or run in the face of great trouble but, instead, inhabit it and make it into something beautiful. The Chthulucene will be inhabited by those that are not expecting utopia to save them.
The Chthulucene is not about either rescue or resignation but about “staying with the trouble” and is the:
“time of the enduring, ongoing….
the time of the ongoing, tentacular ones...
the time of the tangled ones…
the ongoing thickness of the chthulucene, which is dreadful in many ways,
this is not Mother Earth,
nor is it the enemy.
It doesn’t break down into good/bad, friend/enemy.
It breaks down into what will be onging and how?
Who will live and die and how?”
~Donna Haraway speaking at Aarhus University on: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Making String Figures with Biologies, Arts, and Activisms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHwZA9NGWg0
The Chthulucene is about using non-linear, patterned or as Haraway terms it, “tentacular” thinking in order to form collaborative and recuparative actions that will allow us to live embodied and present with the conditions at hand. The chthulucene empowers us to become “response-able”, creative, generative, and fully alive to the potential of not only surviving but even thriving amidst the compost of our destruction.
This is art.
And as author and anthropologist Anna Tsing’s writes, it is the time to cultivate the "arts of living on a damaged planet.”
And plant gathering and wildcrafting in the Chthulucene is one of those arts.
Through my years of wildcrafting I have developed some personal guidelines for ethically gathering wild plants on a damaged planet. These are not “rules” per se, but more moveable guides. We have to be able to adapt and flow with change so these are suggestions that are open and receptive to new information that includes the insight and experience of others.
Probably the most fundamental component in this is the understanding and acceptance that there are not pure, untouched places on our planet anymore. We ourselves are not.
There is a dominant cultural imperative that has promoted the idea of purity, perfection, and detoxification that is not only impossible but, in my opinion, hostile. It is not that I don’t believe we absolutely must take every possible action to reduce and eliminate ecological violence, but that we also must learn how to continue to innovate, grow, and, create in the process. We are not separate from nature, we are nature, and therefore also beings of the Chthulucene. The exile of our wounded selves and places denies creations propensity for healing and resilience.
That said, part of wild gathering in the ongoing now involves a strong commitment and presence to the qualities of place. The more we understand the characteristics of the bioregions we gather in, the more likely we will be able to make optimal choices about where to gather.
To learn more about the bioregion your in, try making a bioregional profile. I have made a workbook to help with this which can be found HERE
Tools for Ethical and Responsible Wild Harvesting in the Chthulucene:
Determine whether you’re gathering for your own personal apothecary or if your planning to make preparations to sell to others our use with clients. If you’re harvesting only for yourself, the quality of the plants you gather must only be aligned with your own requirements. If you are gathering for others it is important to be impeccable with with these guidelines.
Determine the urgency of why you’re gathering. If someone is bleeding and needs yarrow to stop it I would use whatever is nearby. Make the best choice in the moment. Use what’s at hand. Acquiring organic or pure-as-possible herbs is a privilege in our times and in dire situations access is the first priority.
If you are gathering on private or protected land make sure that you have permission.
Come to your senses when you are in nature or a wild place. This means becoming aware of all that you can sense in the moment. The smell of the air, the feeling of your feet on the ground, the sound of the birds or water running down a stream, all that you can see, how you feel in your body, and so on. Notice what’s on the edges of where you are standing or walking. Look up, look around.
Pay attention to the wake you leave as you hike or walk in nature. Notice where you put your foot down. Don’t trample.
Make sure that you have positively identified the plant your gathering. Some plants have poisonous look alikes.
Determine if the plant you’re harvesting is endangered or at-risk. Do not harvest protected or endangered plants. Even if you find an abundance of an endangered plant it is still endangered. Go to United Plant Savers for a full list of at-risk species and their free download of a Species At-Risk Assessment Tool
Avoid harvesting native North American plants in general unless they are known to be prolific. ***some native plants can even be considered invasive if they have spread out their range, are choking out other native plants, or are otherwise creating ecological distress.
The USDA plant database is a good place to check on native and invasive plant species.
Never harvest the first stand you see. Make sure there’s more. Humans aren’t the only ones who depend on the plants.
Never harvest more than 10-33% of any stand of plants. The percentage depends on how widespread the plant is. For instance, Dandelion populations are extremely resilient and almost impossible to damage.
Harvest from healthy, happy plant communities but don’t harvest the “mother” plant. The “mother” plant is the one that stands out to me as the largest and healthiest, or the one with the greatest presence. Don’t harvest the strongest out of respect and also to ensure a continuous supply.
Substitute invasive or more abundant plants for native or non-invasive plants. Read Invasive Plant Medicine by Timothy Lee Scott.
Only harvest the flowers or tops of plants that can regrow from the roots. Some plants where the roots are traditionally harvested have just as good medicine in their tops. An example is wild leeks/ramps. Ramps should be either completely avoided or very selectively harvested by only the tops although, traditionally, the bulb and whole plant was gathered.
Cultivate your own area or patch of wild plants if you have the space and necessary conditions.
Plant and spread seeds.
Leave any area where you gather looking untouched as if no one had been there.
“A good wildcrafter should be able to increase the population of plants instead of decrease it.” ~Herbal Ed Smith
To avoid pollution and chemicals:
Don’t harvest close to main roads.
Don’t harvest near old homes or barns that may have been painted with lead paint.
Don’t harvest near conventional corn fields or commercially sprayed areas. Many parks and school yards are sprayed.
Avoid powerlines, old railroad beds, and old building sites.
Avoid unfamiliar lots/fields.
If possible, fiind out the environmental history where you are gathering.
Finally, always give thanks in whatever way you are accustomed to doing so. Some folks choose to leave an offering, a song, a poem, or a prayer. Appreciate the nourishment and healing we are afforded by the plants and the Earth from where we all emerge.