On Developing a Wildcrafting Ethic
As the name implies, harvesting wild plants well requires skill. It is a craft, and one that can produce much fruit if engaged in earnestly. This fruitfulness is found in connection to place, in knowing inter-dependence, in being healed by the earth. It is a ripeness of wild things, things that lay beyond the edges of our constructed modern world.
All of us have lost parts of ourselves, and in that absence we are aching to be whole again. In gathering wild plants it is tempting to think that we can patch our holes with arnica, angelica, oshá…we can feel with sincerity that we need these things; we can’t wait, we must take.
A curious thing starts to happen when we choose to wait, when we commit to relationship with the plants we are after. If true relationship is reciprocal, then the act of giving respect and attention to wild things can leave us with a sense of fullness, of being given back too. In this way I often find I have gone to the wild not to take, but to let go; what I actually needed in going was something immaterial. I leave empty-handed, with a smile and a full belly.
But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t harvest. If you are called to wildcraft, you will. Your task then is to develop a wildcrafting ethic, one born out of care and appreciation for the plants and places you seek in healing.
What follows are signposts as taught by my mentors and as distilled from my own experience. They are general guidelines. There is no one right way.
These, along with the resources gathered at the end of this document provide a fairly comprehensive body of knowledge for the budding wildcrafter. Complement this information with time spent in the field.
If you are not 100% sure that the plant you are looking for is the one you have found, then DO NOT PICK. This is really the basis of all of wildcrafting, and is why relationship is so important.
Relationship implies at a minimum that you are familiar with a plant, know how to identify it botanically in all parts of it’s lifecycle, and know the ways to harvest it that will incur the least impact. You will also need to know how to make medicine out of it and have the time to do it.
Make sure to examine your “need” for medicine.
Ask yourself,“Will I use this medicine, and what for?” “Do I need it?’
Maybe, taking a part of plant and placing it on an alter or leaving it to dry on your car dashboard is all you need if what you are seeking is a connection to the wild.
Consider carrying a small amount of dried material in a medicine bag around your neck or in your pocket.
If you would like a bit of tincture, less is more, so start with four ounces when getting acquainted with a new plant. If you like the medicine, then you can return later in the season or next year for more.
Every time you find yourself in nature, you are wildcrafting.
Wildcrafting is not just the act of picking plants
When immersed in nature there is no substitute for keen observation, stubborn patience and a willingness not to be rushed. Strengthening these faculties will make you a much more effective wild-crafter and healer too.
Take thorough notes, keep organized records
Recording your activity is crucial in coming to know the impact you (or others) are having on a stand of plants.
Keep in mind that seasonal fluctuations can produce dramatic changes in stand size and health, due to moisture and other climatic influences.
I have been watching a small stand of Angelica in a drainage near my house for the past four summers, and to my surprise, each year it has produced a widely varying plant population, individual plant size, and distribution.
Visiting your stands multiple times each year will give a much broader view of the health of the stand and the complexity of the ecosystem in which it is found.
Harvest plants from stands that are very abundant
It is tempting to harvest from the first spot you come across.
This can be damaging, because many plants are only locally abundant and not widely distributed. In Colorado, some species that appear abundant are the edge outliers of their range. Oshá in and around Boulder is a fantastic example of this. Just because you can find a hundred plants following a drainage up into the foothills doesn’t mean you should pick the plant there.
In general, you should travel to spots in which the plants you seek are so abundant that you would have to go out of your way to do lasting damage to the stand.
No matter what, you will have an impact on the stand
Sometimes your impact can be beneficial, though most of the time you will effect some amount of damage to a stand when harvesting. The point is to minimize impact as much as possible.
Becoming well educated about what might harm a plant before harvesting is essential. For plants in the Mountain West, Michael Moore’s and Gregory Tilford’s books are valuable resources for this information.
Soil compaction is a concern for some species, such as Arnica. When harvesting, it is best to stay on the edge of the stand and not walk through the middle of it. Deciding to go barefoot while harvesting and walking towards the balls of the feet mimics the way a deer might walk, and can minimize soil compaction. Dry earth is less prone to compaction than wet.
It is also your responsibility as a wildcrafter to be aware of any threatened or endangered plants in the area you might be going. The local Forest Service can give you this information.
When in doubt, don’t pick
“Above all, do no harm,” that Vitalist maxim, aptly applies to wildcrafting.
If you are holding doubt in your heart while harvesting, you don’t have the proper emotional state. In this case it is best to reassess, to walk around the stand, to walk over the next hill to see if bigger, healthier stands are nearby, to get a birds eye view, to walk away and commit to observing the progression of the stand, to get to know the plants and the ecosystem before harvesting—some call this stewardship.
Ceremony does not absolve you of critical observation
If I may personify, it is my experience that plants appreciate a thorough and thoughtful assessment of whether or not it is ethical to harvest them as much as they welcome ceremony.
The action of ethical assessment itself can be a type of ceremony; the two can be one and the same. We should all find our own ways in which to incorporate both practices into our wildcrafting ethic, even if ceremony is but a simple gesture of gratitude.
Along side this I would also like to point out that it is entirely possible to observe critically with a caring and open heart. All senses should be active in the art of wildcrafting.
My own practice is steeped in critical observation, though is also highly intuitive. For me, the last straw always comes down to instinct. If I deem the stand in front of me robust, healthy and capable of shouldering my harvest without lasting impact, and my gut instinct tells me not to harvest, I prefer to listen.
You will make mistakes, and that's okay
We learn much from doing things incorrectly. Think of mistakes as lessons to expand your awareness. You can always give back if you feel you have done something to damage a stand of plants, such as returning to spread seed or educating others on what not to do as to protect future populations.
You are seated in the center of your own medicine wheel; the four directions are your allies
The four directions model is a tool to come back to in times of uncertainty, which will happen sooner or later when you’re sitting in the driver’s seat. The four directions provide a framework for a balanced perspective, so we don’t become too short-sighted in our approach.
North - tradition, mentor’s teaching, ancestors
East - botany, ethical assessment, wildcrafting checklist
South - personal experience and that of your community
West - intuition, imagination, and instinct
The art of wildcrafting will require that you sit in the fire of open questions.
You have to be okay with not-knowing, with meeting inquiry with more inquiry.
So keep coming back to your curious beginner’s mind and take the long way ‘round!
In the bank of gravelly wash,
a mile from a road,
in Saline Valley, I found a desert
paintbrush—not a rare plant,
just one I didn’t have in my collection.
The brilliant scarlet-tipped bracts
of the inflorescence were still
enfolded. Kneeling down, I gently
pulled them open to inspect
the corolla—then saw: still a child.
It’s not that anyone else
would come by here.
That you live to blossom
alone, here beneath an empty
sky, means that somewhere
a soldier won’t die;
or that on a dry planet
somewhere in Cygnus
it will rain.
with an empty press.
— Dale Pendell, Living with Barbarians
Acknowledgement and Resources
- The Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism, Boulder, CO/Paonia, CO — www.clinicalherbalism.com
- University of Colorado, Boulder, Herbarium
- The North American Institute of Medical Herbalism, Portland, OR — Paul Bergner – www.NAIMH.com
- The Columbines School of Botanical Studies, Eugene, OR — Howie Brounstein – www.botanicalstudies.net
- Northeast School of Botanical Medicine, Ithaca, NY — 7-song — www.7song.com
- jim mcdonald’s school and website — www.herbcraft.org
- All books and information by Michael Moore — www.swsbm.com
- All books and information by Gregory Tilford — link
- United Plant Savers — www.unitedplantsavers.org (Founded by Rosemary Gladstar and Gregory Tilford)