Because of the huge and growing population impacts on the natural world, particularly those areas near cities and many agricultural areas of Southern Ontario, our relationship with these areas needs to be thoughtful and imbued with a conservation ethic. By this I mean we should not just go out into the woods and take any amount of whatever we find. We have a responsibility to maintain or play a stewardship role with the many species of our natural world. Stewardship comes from an understanding of the biodiversity of an environment, a knowledge of what can influence the relative abundance or scarcity of plants, mushrooms, fish, animals, and even insects.
I use the term sustainable harvesting because it is closest to what I believe our relationship with natural areas should be.
But sustainable for who and what is the point. Sustainable for the specific plant itself is fundamental. Sustainable for your annual harvest depends on this. How about sustainable for other species that rely on that plant for their own sustenance and well-being as well? You may think that a crop of elderberries is unaffected by how much you harvest and you may be right. But how many birds are depending on that patch to fuel up for their migration?
The blind disregard for the well being of our songbird populations has meant a diminishing of their numbers. Birds are an extremely important part of the life cycle of many plants as they are primary seed distributors. And many humans seem completely ignorant of the effects of building huge cities like Toronto in migratory routes, or dams that prevent endangered fish such as sturgeon from reaching those places up river where it was suitable to lay their eggs.
When asked what foods are there out there, an elder in North-Western Ontario replied: ‘Its all food for something’. So just because you come across something that has no value to you, it could be very important in the ecosystem.
It is true that there are some foods that cover vast areas like cattails, but even they have lost considerable habitat as the draining of wetlands went unabated. However there are those plants that require undisrurbed, deep forests to thrive. Of particular concern are the root vegetables such as wild ginger and wild leeks. Wild leeks, for example, have a seven year cycle from seed to plant that produces seeds. Common advice is that you never take more than 5% of the patch. However, that is if only one person is harvesting in a season.
Sustainable harvesting should also be informed by an understanding of sustainable consumption as well. Demand for some wild foods can overwhelm even common species such as wild oregano. There are times when the harvester has to say, that’s all that can be spared. Communities can get together and discuss what can be harvested, how much and what should not. Although a huge patch of chanterelle mushrooms may seem inexhaustible, many other life forms are not.
By Jonathan Forbes, March 2014
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