Learning to Grow and Find Food
[Essay from A Sick Logic book, 2016]
Anna Chrystal Stephens

Agroforestry is an approach to growing crops which mimics the natural state of a developing woodland; an ‘agroforestry system’ is designed around the properties and benefits of the plants involved.

The combination of plants in a ‘forest garden’ is a balance of species. Because of their varying needs and assets the plants can mutually support each other through ‘plant communities’. As in a developing woodland, layers are created with different growing conditions for plants with different requirements: shade loving plants are grown underneath sun loving ones. With an agroforestry approach to growing food, less work is needed than with ‘traditional’ agriculture because the ecosystem regulates itself in many ways; the gardener’s role here is to help keep things in balance. For example no weed killers are needed, and little weeding, because there are not necessarily ‘weeds’, therefore the soil is not damaged. If a plant is virulent another organism will be introduced, which will usurp it. If a particular plant is being eaten by an insect, an organism would be introduced which will attract the predator of that insect.

This kind of growing is often called sustainable agriculture, or permaculture (permanent agriculture) and supporters propose it as a viable and even necessary alternative to modern industrial agriculture. However, the challenge of implementing it on a wider scale would mean radically reassessing the way we grow and distribute food.

Martin Crawford explains that Forest Gardening has ‘significant economic, social and ecological benefits’ whilst generating a more varied and abundant yield than the same area of conventional farmland. Forest gardens are also more resilient to environmental changes and produce little or no greenhouse gas emissions.
Martin has a particular approach to climate change: he recognises that the climate in the UK will be closer to that of the Mediterranean in a few decades and suggests we should consider this when devising a planting design. On one hand this seems pessimistic, but, on the other, a very realistic way to confront climate change and, through the promotion of diversity of species, help to lessen its impact.

Under the soil there are thousands of strands of mycelium, of which fungi are a fruiting body. Plants communicate with each other through the mycorrhizal layer: a network within the soil through which they are able to share nutrients as well as information about diseases or predators. The mycorrhizal layer has been described as ‘the wood wide web’; conceptually it provides an insight into the interconnectedness of all organisms.

As well as relating specifically to plant systems, the word ‘permaculture’ is also used to describe an approach, a philosophy, or an organisational structure. Consider these natural systems at work: the symbiotic relationship between plants, their mutual aid, their compromise and tolerance. Considering the ecosystem in this way could help us to understand it and re-imagine our relationship with other organisms; maybe it is revealing of a natural model for co-operation between different species.

When I was younger I didn’t feel a great desire to learn to differentiate plants. I thought they were colourful, attractive shapes and interesting smells, but some were spikey or scary and after eating some unidentified berries as a small child I realised that some made you sick.

Now I regard learning about plants as an important way to navigate my surroundings, like learning to cross a road. But I came to this knowledge late and there is still so much to learn. The learning process is easier than expected; distinguishing leaves is a case of looking and recording, like we do automatically when we are introduced to a new face, it gradually becomes easier to identify a plant from a distance by catching a glimpse or the scent of it before you see it.
“That certain green, the way it catches the light, gives away its identity, like recognizing the walk of a friend before you can see their face.”

I have been actively learning about plants since 2011. My knowledge has been gathered from courses, workshops and books but, whilst this learning process is unfolding, I am wondering why it was not an instinctive activity for all my life. Previously, despite plenty of exposure to the countryside, I supposed I couldn’t really know it. Contrasting with my history of ignorance are the cultures, which are still in close contact with this knowledge. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a biologist who has a Potawatomi heritage; she talks about the fundamental necessity of learning to identify plants, not necessarily with their given scientific name, but perhaps instead with a name which refers to their significance to you or your community.

Ffyona Cambell talks of learning how to intuit a landscape from her Indigenous Australian teachers. She applied this understanding to her local area in Devon and generated an example of Mesolithic era nomadic movement in the region in relation to the availability of wild food. Here is a summary of her findings:

As winter ends, the consumption of roots tapers off as fresh spring greens and flowers appear; spicey and cleansing, they thin blood and strip cholesterol, cleaning the lymph system. The full moon after the equinox triggers birds to lay eggs, which are then combined with spring greens, which helps balance hormone changes. Women give birth, using lichens to prevent infections. After a while the greens get tough, the air gets muggy and the eggs run out. Insects appear so people head to the sea following a river with fish on a migratory route. On arrival at the beach there are many varieties of seaweed, fish, crustaceans and shellfish. The sea reveals foods, medicines and aphrodisiacs (this is the time to conceive). The seaweed provides iodine, heals wounds and nourishes skin. There are edible coastal greens, roots, seed heads and grasses from which bread can be made. After the summer people collect wild carrot seeds (for contraception) and follow the river (and the fish) back in land, picking fruits and berries, then nuts too, heading through the woods to a cave on high ground where there is wood, lichens, roots and lots of mushrooms. It might have been possible to catch a deer, only the oldest and slowest, and soften the meat with the berry juices.

Since the Mesolithic era, populations have grown, land is owned, technologies have arrived and things have changed. Certain wild plants are endangered and in environmental terms it is unsustainable as well as ethically questionable, to eat meat at all. Rather than a lifestyle to attempt to follow exactly (presumably this would be impractical, if not impossible for most people), perhaps this line of thinking is an information gathering exercise which can inform decisions about our consumption and sourcing of food. From this vantage point looking back several thousand years, points of compromise become visible, such as a the possibility of mainly consuming seasonal food from nearby, or noticing that weeds in a vegetable patch or field are often edible plants too.

Remnants of land-based knowledge are passed on through folklore, some persisting today. Many of these superstitions, when unpacked, have a scientific basis linked to the way the ecosystem functions. For example the Larch tree is sometimes said to have a fertility connection: if you fall asleep under one you might become pregnant. It actually contains a biopolymer called arabinogalactan which boosts the immune system so could possibly promote fertility.

Many indigenous communities continue to have a sustainable, respectful relationship with the land emerging from deep environmental knowledge, this awareness might be observed, inherited or intuited and does not necessarily mean learning every plant by its taxonomic name. There is much to learn from the way plants interact and co-operate with each other, this learning may start with paying attention to seasonal changes, beginning to recognise plants which can harm heal or feed us, perhaps leading to the awareness that endless fields of monoculture crops are a strange and perilous spectacle when you consider the biodiversity lost for that monoculture to exist, in soil which could produce more food if only it was permitted to yield different crops.

“We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Indigenous proverb