A few weeks ago Forager founder Miles Irving took a trip to The Warren in Folkestone on the Kent coastline to talk about the rich diversity of plant life at our fingertips and what wilderness really means.

‘One gains respect for nature by using it judiciously. By using a plant or an animal, interacting with it where it lives, and tying your well-being to its existence, you can be intimate with it and understand it. The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with - that one should respect nature by leaving it alone - by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or an animal.’ - M. Kat Anderson.

Here we have pristine, untouched wilderness, says John Muir. And here the arrival of Europeans, and with it the onset of agricultural transformation, says our history books. The result is the loss of our wild places, so says the story we have told over the years. But increasing knowledge about indigenous practices and land-management has changed the story; and in turn has changed human’s role within it.

In M. Kat Andersons Tending the Wild, a study of Native Americans in California, she interviews countless elders who tell her the same thing; that plants do better when they are gathered and in fact some depend on it for their survival. ‘At first this was a jarring idea - I had been taught that native plants were here long before humans and did best on their own without human interferences...California Indians had established a middle ground between the extremes of overexploiting nature and leaving it alone, seeing the themselves as having the complementary roles of user, protector, and steward of the natural world... If it was true that native plants did better with our help, it meant that there was a place for us in nature.’

Tellingly, the Native Americans in California and many other regions had no word for ‘wilderness’ and ‘civilisation’, there was in fact no distinguishing between the two. Our current ‘hands-off model’ of land management removes a key component of ecological preservation; that of culture. Our intimate relations with the land are an essential feature of our appreciation of that land. With an understanding of nature’s inherent ability to renew itself, indigenous cultures had many ceremonies and celebrations to mark the arrival of migrating animals and seasonal crops. The word ‘resource’ which now denotes ownership and in most cases exploitation, comes from the old French ‘resourdre’ - ‘to rise again’.

So, back to John Muir, staring in wonder at his beloved Yosemite Valley, the postcard image definition of wilderness. ‘Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb, and greens gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting, and seed scattering.’

Read more: Humans are a Keystone Species by Miles Irving

Resources: M. Kat Anderson (2005) Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. University of California Press.