Biodiversity in the Pacific Northwest: Lessons from a Living Land

By Madronna Holden

One reviewer of a manuscript I wrote changed the Upper and Lower Chehalis peoples into the “North” and “South” Chehalis, in spite of the fact that these peoples traditionally lived (and still live today) along a river that runs east to west.  This man obviously thought that since north is “up” on a map, the Upper Chehalis must live north of the Lower Chehalis, imposing a standard modern map of the land and its squared off directions on the land.

Monoculture stems from this same type of thinking:  pick a favorite crop and impose it on the land according to your own  map of what the land should produce– in spite of the nature of the land itself.  Then all else becomes a weed—the dandelion, for instance, becomes the occasion for dangerous pesticide use in home lawns.

Wheat farming in the nineteenth century Willamette Valley was an example of this tactic. Planting wheat throughout the valley not only meant tremendous labor inputs to clear land and sustain this crop, but subjected the farmers to the vagaries of the national wheat market—leading to a cycle of boom and bust in the local economy.

The potato certainly seemed like a great crop to plant in nineteenth century Ireland—until the notorious potato blight hit and there was mass starvation, since there was nothing else to survive on.  Such examples give us cautionary lessons in looking to a “magic bullet”,  such as a single genetically engineered crop, to meet our agricultural needs.

The potato blight did not hit Peru with such devastation as it did in Ireland.  In Peru, farmers grow dozens of types of potatoes, drawn from hedgerows that flourish as wild seed sources. As with such hedgerows—once prominent in Britain and continental Europe as well– the strategies of Northwest indigenous ecological management entailed fostering the ecological “edges”where diversity flourished between habitats.

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest were “salmon people”, but they were not salmon only people.  Situated as they were in the midst the richness of local salmon runs, they still had diverse subsistence strategies to complement taking of salmon. Not incidentally, this allowed them to limit their taking of the salmon in order to sustain them.

In negotiating treaties with the US government, native representatives insisted on rights to traditional subsistence resources that included an encompassing diversity.  To the extent that they could make this clear in the rudimentary vocabulary of the Chinook jargon in which negotiations were conducted, elders at the Cosmopolis treaty proceedings on Grays Harbor asked to reserve for their peoples not only their favorite salmon streams but cranberry bogs, oyster beds, prairies where they took camas and deer, and beaches where they took advantage of the whales that washed ashore.

Those who insisted on maintaining these diverse subsistence strategies had generations of experience to advise them. In traditional times if a salmon run were poor, there were sturgeon, seal, clams, smelt, and eel from the rivers and sea—and elk, deer, ducks, geese, and rabbit from the adjoining hills and prairies.

But it was the vast array of vegetable roots and seeds, ferns, berries and greens that most indicates the biodiversity of native subsistence strategies.  In 1945, Erna Gunther documented the use of ninety-seven local plants remembered by Puget Sound peoples– likely a mere fraction of those once used by peoples relocated from traditional lands.

East of the Cascades, an ethnography done by James Teit (again, after much change in traditional subsistence methods) among the Thompson Indians found 46 stems, leaves and flowering tops “used extensively” for food,  another 26 eaten as root crops, 41 more eaten as fruits and berries, and 6 eaten as nuts and seeds.  That is a total of 129 different vegetable foods utilized for food alone.

Additionally, these people used 176 plants for medicines, chewed 9 species, used 13 for non-medicinal drinks, 7 for smoking,  53 for manufacture, 13 for making dyes and paints, 7 for scents, and 16 for various forms of purification.

They gave at least 23 plants a special place in their traditional folklore and mythology and recognized 29 more as good food for the animals that shared their landscape.

Such biodiversity expresses how sustainable human cultures are interwoven in reciprocal independence with the natural world. All nature operates in this fashion. If we wish to honor and nourish the salmon, it is necessary to protect their habitat, just as the decaying bodies  of spawned salmon feed so many other lives.

In the traditions of indigenous northwesterners, it is also necessary to nourish one another.  In Western Washington, potlatch feasts held both within and between tribes helped redistribute food to those without resources.  Sharing between the well to do and the less well to do was institutionalized by such potlatches, in which the wealthy affirmed their social status by giving away goods and food to others.  Most villages in Western Washington had a community potlatch house in which such ceremonies were held.

In Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee’s words, “This was a country that was free to anybody and if you a different tribe, they let you go up, they don’t bar nobody.  If you hungry for something, you go out and get it.”

With permission, that is, from its caretakers– the particular people who were “rooted to the ground” in each locale– and undertook care for their land, establishing limits on usage of particular plants and animals during particular years or seasons.

In this context, the Lower Chehalis seasonally moved into Chinook territory to fish the Columbia River; the Upper Chehalis moved into Nisqually and Mud Bay territory to fish the Sound.  At particular times of the year, the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Quinault came to the Lower Chehalis territory on Grays Harbor to obtain seal. In July and August the Chinook and Cowlitz came to Lower Chehalis territory once again to fish for sturgeon.  Along with the Satsop, they all dug clams on the beach there. In turn, the Lower Chehalis would travel to Cowlitz territory to dip smelt when they ran in the winter.

In contrast to fences, which Cultee observed stopped the flow of life on the land, native maps honored the diverse mixture of space, time and life in such flows of people into and out of one another’s territories.

Cultee inherited the knowledge of the Harbor’s “fish trails” from his people. That knowledge told him not only where the fish swam, but when. He quipped that non-Indians might think him lazy, since he did not always get up at dawn to go out fishing. But he didn’t see any point in fishing when the fish weren’t there.  Thus though he worked less hours than some others, he caught more fish.

An Upper Chehalis grandmother told me her people followed “streams of trees”, noting how communities of plants seeded themselves together. Following such “streams”, one would never get lost on the land.

Near Florence, Oregon a Siuslaw elder instructed a young pioneer boy to listen to the distinct voices of the various watercourses—since if one learned to recognize these voices, one would always know where one was on the land.

In such maps of the land, there was neither clock time nor squared survey grids that caused “up” to be “north”, but an intersection of time, space, and the diversity of life.

The richness of these maps reflects the richness of a living land—to which it was necessary to attend with care.  The biodiverse subsistence strategies that flow from such observations illustrate the understanding that nothing in the natural world nourishes itself.

Biodiversity in indigenous subsistence strategies is directly linked to establishing a partnership with the land that follows nature’s models rather than trying to dominate it.

It is a pragmatic approach.

A UN conference recently convened in Brussels cited the largest study ever done comparing biodiverse  “ecological” agriculture (which avoids chemical inputs as well as genetically engineered seed) to conventional agriculture. In 286 projects in 57 developing countries, ecological agricultural outproduced conventional “industrial” agriculture by an average of 79 per cent.

The ecological methods also led to reclamation of degraded land, as in the area formerly known as the “Desert of Tanzania”, where  agroforestry rehabilitated 350,000 hectares  in two decades–while substantially raising local household income.

Besides avoiding chemical inputs, ecological agriculture uses diverse local seed, and grows a number of crops together, including mixing trees with other crops. This is the method by which the New Agricultural Movement in Bangladesh reclaimed their own land in the wake of the failed “high yield rice”– by combining forest, farm, rice paddies and animal husbandry on the same land.

Notably, in putting forests back,  “ecological agriculture” reverses the trend which causes conventional agriculture to produce 14 per cent of annual global carbon emissions and to add another 19 per cent through the deforestation it demands.

Nature does not “monocrop”.   And neither should we.

In a world with a burgeoning human population to feed–and with rapidly degrading agricultural land and climate change linked to industrial monoculture, we need biodiverse alternatives.

This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link here, but any part of it may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

94 Responses

  1. Eating a variety of foods is something that everyone does, so it makes sense that farmers would benefit from strip farming or doing crop rotations. It’s also good for the soil. Different crops require different nutrients so rotating crops aids in nutrient cycling. Strip farming would probably help even more. It’s always intrigued me as to how natives were and continue to be able to meet their needs off what is available around them. They understand the value of land and hold their resources in high regard. In our society we try to grow crops in locations they do not naturally grow, causing us to use even more resources to obtain that crop. If we could simply take advantage of our local resources and trade the rest, as the natives do, our economy would expand and resources would be better allocated.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Megan. Strip farming or crop rotation is perhaps the closest thing modern commercial farming does to the “eco-agriculture” I mention here– but it is not exactly the same thing, since it gives precedence to one crop–even if for a shorter period of time or in a smaller strip of land. True eco-agricultural methods using inter-cropping, in which several crops are grown in the same field at the same time– focusing on perennials, since these do not require plowing. Animals such as bees, chickens, fish, etc., may be part of the same system, as is multi-story cropping (trees and middle stories and under stories). In this way eco-agriculture mimics some of the complexity of natural systems.
      To me one of the most heartening development in local resources is urban gardening.

  2. “Nature does not ‘monocrop’.”

    Good point. It does make a lot more sense to follow an ecological agricultural method, but in our modern era, we do have a tendency to believe we can always do better than nature, even when there is evidence to the contrary, as in agricultural methods. It’s interesting that working with nature, as opposed to trying to control it or work over it, would solve many problems at once, including both feeding an ever-growing human population and combating climate change. As you said, “It is a pragmatic approach.”

    It’s amazing how many different plants were used by the Thompson for a variety of purposes. Reading that Teit recorded the use of 129 different vegetable just for food made me realize just how narrow my own diet is. I wonder if that is because of our insistence on monoculture–I know that the majority of the American diet is corn- and soy-based, which are products of monoculture-style farming. It also makes me wonder what we may be missing out on, not just in terms of flavor, but in the potential health benefits of a more diverse diet.

    I can’t help but think about quality of life when I read about Cultee and his perspective on fishing: “though he worked less hours than some others, he caught more fish.” (My boss has a saying, “Work smarter, not harder,” which seems appropriate here.) It just makes me think about how Cultee is more successful using his understanding of the natural world than those “some others” who try to outsmart it.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Crystal. You bring up many good points– all centered, perhaps, on what real wisdom might consist of– rather than, for instance, the “smarts” that allow us to use technological toys that are flashy, but hardly pragmatic in the long run. The thing about the real wisdom is it takes persistence and discipline rather than the convenience we are too often taught to value in this society.
      It is amazing to think of the richness of a natural world with all its biodiversity in tact.

  3. I thought the most interesting thing mentioned in the article was how these tribes moved and came back and yet respected those who they shared the land with. While I will say many people today have learned subsistence strategies, I think many people don’t practice them like the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest once did. For instance, my mom’s family are farmers and don’t just plant one crop. but they plant crops for production, crops for personal use, and also use animals as a form or food. It’s not the 97 plants used by the Puget Sound people but still it’s better than taking advantage of one crop.

    Finally, the end of the article noted that. “nature doesn’t monocrop,” and reminded me of how my aunt used to always point this out, and thus she planted many root vegetables all together noting certain plants give and take different nutrients from the soil. Many people thought at times her garden was a mess because of this, but it actually helped when harvesting and didn’t create such imbalance from what was originally there. Overall, it’s great to see an article on this.

    • It sounds like your mother’s family has the right idea, Christopher– small farmers who have a particular tie to their land over time often have strategies that are more sustainable–and wiser. It is loggers who actually began the models of sustainable logging practices in the Pacific Northwest (very different from the corporations with their clear cuts). Your aunt sounds like a wise woman as well–as you mentioned in another comment here, the land has much to teach us, if we are willing to pay attention and learn. And there are some, like your aunt, who model what more of us should be doing.
      From my own gardening experience, I also find such mixed cropping less subject to pest damage than those single broccoli set out like sitting ducks by themselves. They might as well have signs saying, “come and get me”.

  4. Biodiversity in farming has countless benefits. To put it in perspective, you don’t eat one food all day everyday. To be truly healthy, you need a diverse diet. In an ecosystem, there is a variety of plants and animals that compose it, and indigenous people recognize this. Their methods of farming practice biodiversity at its best. It was mentioned in the essay that the Pacific Northwest peoples were “salmon people” although they did not rely solely on this source of food. This ensures that they will still have food if the salmon population is down, or to prevent them from overfishing the salmon.

    One of the biggest downfalls of practicing monoculture is a disease that develops that destroys entire fields of crops, much like the Irish potato famine mentioned. If an entire society is eating a single type of crop, it is most likely genetically engineered, giving it less nutritional value and can lead to an entire society of undernourished people.

    • Good points, Kyle. Some sound reasons why it is dangerous to rely on some single “designer” food to nourish ourselves–and continue to nourish the world that feeds us.

  5. I was surprised by the contents of this article, because I have thought about how the vegetables I consume are being grown, but I have not yet thought of what kind of crops I consume. I always try to think of environmental affects I make to this mother nature, but I have not thought about the kind of crops I consume and their affects on the biodiversity.
    As a consumer, I think I can use my consumer power and my rights as a consumer to provoke the production of various kinds crops. This will be an indirect way to support the idea of biodiversity. In the industrialized farming system like today, its easy to monocrop with the massive scale which will exhaust the land fast and harm the biodiversity on this earth. One thing we should remember is that no matter how big the industry is, in fact, it is quite large, farming industry will follow the consumer taste. Just like the farming industry is busy satisfying the consumers taste with organic food these days, I think shifting the industry’s interest from massive monocrop production to multiple crop production with relatively smaller scale is possible. It is only the matter of effort and the patient attitude of us, the consumers.

    • It is important indeed that conscious consumers vote with their dollars, YunJi– for both the sake of our environment and our own health. I also think we need to take some of the perverse subsidies away from industrialized agriculture which not only ravages the land, and produces largely unhealthy food, but also causes starvation in its effects on global economic systems (see Bread for the World’s analysis of this– on the links page here).
      Thanks for your own care for the earth we share and thus for all of us who share it!

  6. Our “Advanced Society” seems less and less so as we begin to compare older, more time tested systems of agriculture against our current systems, all the way up to Genetically Modified Foods. One alarming thing that I have personally become more aware of is the packaging of our foods, which when looked at closely provides another reason to buy foods grown locally that are presented without being packaged with things such as foam-type plates wrapped with plastic wrap. This problem is magnified when you look at the quantity of disposable items that are provided with even the smallest fast food meal.

    This article also touched on the important topic of what is a “weed” and what is not. The use of pesticides by many of us to keep our yards “weed” free is astonishing, but I believe the attitude of a “weed free” yard is beginning to change. Many of us are becoming more educated to the harm done by pesticides and fertilizers on the entire ecosystem and are begging to accept and practice xeriscaping, a form of landscaping that utilizes native drought resistant plants to decrease the amount of water used in watering our lawns and also eliminating the use of chemicals that are harmful to the environment.

    • Packaging is a serious problem, indeed– one that makes products look like more than they are in the case of processed foods, since much of the package is empty. I understand that in some European countries, the manufacturer is responsible for recycling or otherwise disposing of packaging– so the consumer gives it back at checkout. Has reduced packaging a good deal! I sincerely hope the notion of a “weed free yard” is beginning to change– how about a toxin free yard instead? I do agree that there are invasive non-native plants like English ivy we might want to pull out– but the assault on things like dandelions does not, to my mind, have any justification. Xeriscaping will become more and more important as clean water becomes more scarce. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  7. One of the most striking parts of this essay is how in tune the native populations were to the simple subtleties of nature. It surprised me that their native maps were built using features such as the sound of rivers and the streams of types of trees. Obviously this type of relationship with nature was advantageous and worked quite well. The fisherman made a good point about not going fishing when the fish weren’t there.
    While many of these types of “tricks” (though they are far more profound than simple parlor stunts) would seem straightforward, I appreciate the dedication to the environment that allows such knowledge to be learned. Coming from the city myself, I had to be taught how to interact with nature in these types of ways. As such I have a great respect for the subtleties of learning how to interact with the environment on this kind of level. This really jumped out to me in the article.

    • This kind of knowledge/attunement is something that I think even many folks raised int he country might not exhibit unless they had generations of information about a single place to inherit. I am glad you have taken the opportunity to learn a connection to the land– something I don’t think any of us should be without if we hope to make wise decisions for the future.
      Thanks for your comment.

  8. “In a world with a burgeoning human population to feed–and with rapidly degrading agricultural land and climate change linked to industrial monoculture, we need biodiverse alternatives.”—I could not have said it better myself. We seem to be a “corn only” people. Almost all processed foods contain a corn byproduct; if corn were to disappear, the food industry wouldn’t know how to proceed. Even our livestock are fed corn (not the healthiest diet for grazers).
    The fishing industry practices exactly the same sort of exclusivity, but with more immediate consequences. The shrimp industry, for instance, is a 90 percent bicatch industry. This means that for every one shrimp caught, nine other organisms are caught, die, and are discarded back to the ocean. This includes endangered species such as sea turtles. How foolish to throw back organisms when so many are starving of hunger. And of more relevance, how foolish to practice such wasteful fishing practices! If not for government fishing subsidies, commercial fishermen could not get away with everything they do.
    If anyone has taken ecology, they know the importance that diversity plays in the health of an ecosystem. Diversity is essential in the theory of evolution as well. As any scientist knows, a herd of cows of the same species and descendant from the same ancestors is much more likely to be wiped out by one catastrophic event than a herd of diverse species from different parentages. Common sense seems to beg for us to follow the indigenous example in this sense.

    • Great examples, Allison. I think the issue of diversity highlights our interdependence with ecosystem we depend on for survival. It is in the best interests of all life to protect habitat for such diversity–and to protect seed and species diversity in our agricultural choices. Ecosystems exhibit different models of “efficiency” than growing or harvesting a single species that humans create and control.
      I have heard that the bodies of most mainstream US adult bodies now consist of a majority of corn– as traced through their cell codes– this fun fact is in the documentary King Corn.

  9. It always amazes me to hear how much native peoples were able to know and understand about their surroundings. To be able to “listen to the distinct voices of the various watercourses” and to notice how plants group together in order to orient oneself seems almost unreal. It makes our modern perceptions seem dull and our thinking very confused that we are unable to relate to our surroundings in such a way.

    For myself, it took several years to realize that looking out upon a field or in a forest that there is more there than a wash of green plants, but that there is almost an endless variety of form and color, even among the same species. This may have partly arose out of being surrounded by monoculture as I grew up, looking out towards the horizon in many places, I wouldn’t see anything but corn which was all the same color. If there was anything else growing, it looked out of place. It missed a sense of life that comes with variety and spontaneity.

    It is unfortunate to think how the people responsible for growing so much of our food can be so alienated from the land. These are the people who should be the ones who know it best, who know when it is healthy or sick, not just tricks to keep their corn green and tall.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Andy. I think you are right that monoculture trains our vision to be limited– something we can no longer afford. Just as they have found that restoring vision to those who have been blind all their lives is not very successful, since their brains cannot at first sort out the colors and shapes of their perception and turn them into something meaningful, we need practice in perception to see diversity in the natural world. There are those responsible for raising our food that do honor it: I am thinking of the work of Wes Jackson’s Land Institute in the midwest and Wendell Berry’s writings about the “agrarian mind”. Berry makes the point that one thing this “agrarian mind” needs for its perceptions is to be present on the land over time. I see many hopeful signs that we are coming to the point of seeing that the health of the land is also our health. One is the burgeoning of urban gardening (more of this later); in Eugene where I live, there are numerous small farms with CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs that link consumers to growers who practice ways of growing food healthy for both the land and for its human consumers.

  10. First of all I had so much fun reading this! Bravo on an engaging and informative essay. 🙂

    Your article underlines the necessity of biodiversity in our modern age. As you point out, our contemporary agricultural practices tend to favor “monocropping” which is not only risky as it changes the ecological blueprint of a landscape but it makes us dependent on one or few crops that if suddenly destroyed would leave us with few if any alternatives (i.e. the Irish potato famine).

    A good example of monocrop can be found right in our own backyards – many of the younger forests in the pacific northwest are monocrops consisting of two or less species of trees replanted after the original forest was cleared by logging. One of the many problems that arises from this practice is that the young seedlings are sewed unnaturally thick and unnaturally similar to one another in both size and age, so as they grow and compete for valuable space many of them die off creating a tinderbox prone to wildfires. This process also diminishes the diversity of life that flourished before the understory was destroyed. Without the original dispersal of flora you lose the fauna that requires it and eventually the health and integrity of the soil. Monocropping proves that simply replanting trees isn’t going to regrow a healthy forest ecosystem.

    Biodiversity is also the most sustainable agricultural practice available to us as noted in the essay. The indigenous populations of the Americas weren’t necessarily always guaranteed a meal, but since they knew from centuries of experience what they could eat and when & where they could eat it they were much better equipped to both obtain that food and not waste it like we sometimes tend to do ourselves.

    Mark said it best:

    “Our “Advanced Society” seems less and less so as we begin to compare older, more time tested systems of agriculture against our current systems, all the way up to Genetically Modified Foods.”

    That’s extremely true. Modern society contends its agricultural practices are just and faultless, yet at the root of these practices is immediate gain for a privileged few, not long term health & survival for the rest of society. Unless this suicidal management is replaced we’re due for another Irish potato famine on a much more frightening scale.

    • Thanks for the feedback, I am glad you enjoyed this! Excellent example in forest monocropping as we replant. We not only focus on one crop but use toxic herbicides to do away with all the forest plants considered competitors. Biodiversity is indeed a sustainable ecological trait: after all, it is the one nature designed over millions of years. The indigenous diversity you refer to does take intimate knowledge of the land: I think that developing this kind of intimate knowledge can only be a good thing– we couldn’t practice this kind of biodiverse use of the land from as a “factory farming” or ranching approach.
      You are joining a number of modern biologists in your forecast for the trouble ahead if we continue to focus on monocropping. I appreciate your thoughtful observations and responses here!

    • I completely agree with you that biodiversity is vital to our society, not just agriculturally. Indigenous people understand the importance of biodiversity in their food supplies, but also in entire ecosystems.

      It does seem like our modern society is moving backwards in regards to nature and environmental common sense. We seem to be ignorant to the fact that the people who came before us lived on this land for centuries without exploiting it. They took great care to use sustainable practices; ones that we should be using today. If only we took the time to listen and learn from these amazing people, we could solve so many of our problems and leave a better legacy for the next generation.

      • Indeed, Jamie. Failing to heed such knowledge is failing to heed the wisdom of survival– the differing results obtained from 10,000 years of sustainable use of the land versus 200 years of failure to stay within our ecological budget. We have no right to draw on resources that leave less for those who follow us. Thanks for your thoughtful response to Macland.

  11. We could all learn so much from indigenous people. They have such reverence for the land and nature, including understanding the importance of letting the land tell you what it needs instead of us taking from it whatever we can, without replenishment.

    I see many farmers today that still have this idea of moncropping in place. They are only growing one type of crop in all of their fields. I remember a few years back in the Midwest where there was an outbreak of disease in certain corn husks, leaving entire farms decimated because they only grew that one type of corn. I am not a farmer and I know it is expensive and time consuming to grow many different types of crops, but the alternative is devastating. These Midwest farms were entirely wiped out and bankrupt. Utilizing the knowledge of biodiversity would have been a lifesaver for these people. Biodiversity is the key to so many problems in nature and it is vital that we understand the importance of protecting biodiversity of all life.

    • It takes wisdom and patience to let the “land tell you what it needs” as you so aptly put it, Jamie. Thanks for adding another recent example to the problems with focusing on single cropping in our agricultural strategies. I appreciate your perspective.

    • I agree with you Jamie that farmers would see a great benefit from diversifying their crops, however, I think that our farm subsidies system as well as the presence of the farm insurance system through the USDA incentivize farmers who grow mono-crops. Many people don’t realize that only a few crops in the US get government subsidies like wheat, corn, cotton, and mainly other grains. That means that a farmer who is getting a government subsidy for growing wheat has little reason to rotate part of their fields to growing other non-subsidized crops. Also, the farm insurance program in the US is now very strong and protects many farmers against the loss of their crops no matter what. So while mono-crop agriculture is unsustainable, and can be less efficient in the long term than a diversified farm performing crop rotation, it would actually cost most farms more, due to a loss of subsidies, to stop farming mono-crops.

  12. It’s strange that when it comes to humanity,it is completely diversified. The world is made up of so many cultures and people. Why would we think that when it comes to nature, that it would be any different ?
    The indigenous groups understand this and it seems women do as well, I think because of our “mothering” nature. We understand that you cannot dominate or manipulate another without killing the spirit of another human being. The more one tries to dominate, the more the other shrinks under that authrority or rebels. With monocropping, it is only seems like a manipulation of the land and nature would not tolerate it and rebel against it. I for one , think when you walk through forests, it is an awesome experience because of how diversified it is. I have walked through fields of Nebraska and Kansas, and never found it that interesting to see rows of corn or wheat because it all looked the same. I think it is time to see that we are one and the same with nature and listen to the wisdom of the elders.

    • Your point on human diversity is interesting. It is also true that we are quickly losing human cultural diversity with globalization. Good comparison between monocultural fields– but you might also be interested to know that Barbara McClintock, Nobel Prize winning geneticist, declared that she found every single corn plant different from one another.
      Thanks for your comment, Tina.

  13. What struck me the most in this essay was Henry Cultee’s thoughts of fences. He viewed them to “stop the flow of life on the land.” I grew up in an environment where every space has boundaries and ownership usually expressed through a fence. There are gated communities and everyone’s backyard is designated with a fence. Imagining a world where “time and life in such flows of people into and out of another’s territories” is quite a concept for me to grasp, although I do like the idea. I enjoyed the visual when I read about the different tribes moving seasonly into others territory when necessary. The song “This land is your land” immediately pops into my head. If this concept was practiced now in the United States our society would be drastically different. I think people would value overall community health and security rather than favor an “every man for himself” attitude.

    • Your experience is like that of many of us in this society today, Emily. I think the larger view helps us to relate to the land in a more open way–and observe it as a living fabric of relationships. Thanks for your comment, Emily. I like your observation about how an acceptance of the fluid notion of the land might also help us relate to one another as members of a community, thus strengthening our health and security that the “every one for oneself” attitude does not do.

  14. The methods of the Thompson Indians I thought were amazing. To be able to sustain an entire tribe by using only what mother nature has to offer is quite impressive. They were able to not only use the plants as food, but also for things like medicine and even fragrances. They were even used to help unite the tribe by associating some of the plants with mythology and traditional folklore. It seems as if we could all learn a lesson from the Thompson Indians. They did not need to kill animals, or build factories to live. They simply lived off the land and what it has to offer. They also helped the animals and found plants that were safe for them to eat. I think that there should be more efforts put towards doing what the Thompson Indians were able to do. Instead of building and contributing to pollution, we should be more inclined to use what is already there and replenishable and not harmful to the earth or any of it’s living things.

    • Hi Hana, thanks for your comment. I like your observations flowing from the ways in which the Thompson Indians lived in concert with their land. I think the idea that is especially important here is that the use of so much of the land’s biodiversity to sustain one’s life leads to valuing the complex mesh of habitats for more than human life.

  15. It is interesting that most cultures (indigenous and otherwise) did not largely cultivate mono-crops until recent centuries for the main reason that if one crop suffered there would still be food in the community. I think that many indigenous cultures also value a diversity of foods in their diets more than the dominant Western culture. Eating a diverse and local diet helps maintain not only environmental health but diversity of foods has also been shown to benefit people’s body health.

    Unfortunately, not only did Western culture adopt the unhealthy practice of mono-culture but through missionaries and colonial practices Western influences caused many indigenous peoples to stop eating many of the native foods that are so sustainable. For example, in a class I took over the summer on cultural foods, I learned that Christian missionaries were responsible for imparting a taboo against eating insects in many indigenous populations around the world. Insects, like locusts, are a very sustainable food source in much of the world and eating them also helped control the locust population which is now devastating the environment in some regions. Now, many of these cultures will not eat locusts but are starving instead.

    Hopefully, as we learn more and more about the disadvantages of mono-crops we can get back to sustainable and ecologically friendly agricultural practices like the indigenous cultures of the past. It is also important to note that crops produced today versus crops produced 50 years ago have less nutrient value due to decreasing soil quality. Meaning that a tomato eaten today does not contain as many nutrients as a tomato from 1960. One way to maintain soil quality is to reduce pesticide use and instead use crop diversity and crop rotation to minimize damage to crops by pests. Therefore, if we incorporate more balanced agricultural practices, our food will be healthier too.

    • You point out some important points and examples, Darcy. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond gives examples of peoples (like the Vikings in New England) who starved in a land of plenty because they viewed consuming certain food as beneath them. The nutrient deficit of today’s parallels things like the falling oxygen level in our air (and rising asthma rate). Time to gain some information and make some changes. Thanks for sharing these examples of what we should be attending to.

  16. This is a really good thought. In one of my other environmental classes we studied some of the asian cultures and how they too practice this ecological agriculture, where they have rice patties, fish and other animals, forestation, as well as things like aqueducts, all in one place to produce a wide variety a sustainable living.

    With the rapid growth of population in recent years and the continued way of western civilization, following our current trends our environment is degrading at an extremely fast rate. This idea of oneness with the world around us and really respecting nature is something that we need to adopt. This could definitely solve a lot of the problems that our world is currently facing like deforestation, degradation of land, and species diversity.

    On the other hand i feel that it would also be extremely hard to develop this mentality throughout our civilization. With so many people wanting so many different things it would almost be impossible to have this shifting of consumption based on availability. For example you brought up how when salmon supplies were low they would shift to another substance for their food. It would be impossible to shift all of society in this manor since we are such a great population.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jason– attending to the biodiversity of the land as we make our living there is indeed a “good idea” that allowed other cultures to sustain themselves for thousands of years. The problems that “ecologically” or biodiverse agriculture might address– as you outline them– are serious indeed. We can hardly afford to ignore a way to handle them that helps earth’s others as well as ourselves.
      Thoughtful idea about shifting to “other means of subsistence”, but consider this: there are many (the urban farming movement, for instance), who are doing precisely that. I do think that folks obviously can’t shift to another source of subsistence if it is not available to them– but things like urban gardening are beginning to make it available.

  17. I found this essay very interesting and certainly a beautiful way of living life. I hope that during my lifetime I and others are able to learn to live life with a partnership with each other and the natural would.
    However, I think that in order to do this we must first be willing to listen to each other and the world around us while keeping an open mind. Had the pioneers listened to elders like Mary Heck then they could have learned that what they were doing to her people and to the beaver was wrong, and then the wetlands along places like the Willamette River could have been saved.
    I believe that every person and every living this on this planet has something good to offer and something we can learn from; it’s just a matter of first being willing to listen with an open mind so we can learn.

    • Thank you for your comment. You have an excellent point that we must develop our sense of listening to other life (humans and more than humans) in order to enact a partnership worldview that respects biodiversity in this way. I like the idea that we should learn from all others.

  18. I find the positive findings of the recent UN conference on biologically diverse agriculture very encouraging Also interesting is the fact that these modern ecological techniques are often following indigenous traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) models and practices. These include indigenous Europeans. I learned stories from my irish ancestors about their love and respect for the land and sea before being colonized. And in regard to the reference to the potato blight, I also heard the potato blight was deliberately created, a non traditional poisoned potato was forced on the farmers and created a form of genocide. not unlike what happened to the Native peoples here on this continent. ( also my ancestors)
    When working in partnership with the land, sea life, animals and plants, there is a symbiotic relationship between humans and nature that allows all who partner to flourish. In the NW It would appear that the potlatchs were a way of emulating the natural give and take within nature so all can thrive and prosper together.

    • Thanks for sharing additional perspective here, Forcing a non-traditional (or something developed about from local natural systems) on a people can lead to disastrous consequences. I think this shows the effects of greed– and is all too coincident with Monsanto’s behavior today. You have a great point in emulating the give and take of the natural world: many traditional indigenous peoples will explain that they got their ethical systems from natural models. This was for them a matter of eco-spirituality, as they saw the operation of Spirit in the natural world as creating a model of the flourishing to life.

  19. As a hobbyist beekeeper, I was shocked to learn about the sheer size of some of these mono-crop fields. It is now necessary to have hives of bees placed inside the boundaries of a single crop in order to allow bees access to the inner rows. This doesn’t seem too exciting until you realize that a honeybee will fly up to three miles to forage!

    • Powerful example– and one can imagine how hard it is to maintain such a vast expanse of monocrops– so against the pull of the natural’s world own diversity. And I have actually read a number of estimates that bees will fly five miles to forage–and even one assertion that they fly six miles. Of course, they prefer to fly less to fulfill their needs, as biodiversity allows them to do.

    • I had no idea honey bees did that. Very interesting. Very good example too.

  20. I have to relate a lot of this article to experiences growing up. My father worked for the Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs back in the 60’s. I am not sure what all he did, but I know he was involved with the Nez Perce tribe during the planning of Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River and Dworshak Dam on the North Fork of the Clearwater River. These had major impacts on the salmon in this system. Then we moved to Grays Harbor where he worked with the same agency and worked with a lot of the tribes listed in the article. He had a good friend then who was a forester for the BIA. I am sure their influence in land management was for production and a monoculture of planting and over stocking Douglas fir after clear cutting. I my father remember spraying for those dandelions with 2-4D and the old lady down the street telling me all the uses for dandelions. Then when I was working for the Forest Service seasonally in the late 80’s when they were still clear cutting and replanting mono cultures of overstocked production level of Ponderosa Pine, Western Larch, and Douglas fir. Then the Spotted Owl on the West Side of the Cascades and Spring Chinook Salmon on the East Side were listed under the Endangered Species Act. That’s when I started seeing a trend towards biodiversity. I really think the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest had a really good thing going until the settlers with their western influence arrived.

    • Hi Bob, Perhaps you know that the Quinault actually had to physically blockade a bridge onto their reservation to stop the incoming logging trucks under BIA auspices who ravaged the environment– since they had none of the strictures or regs of other Washington State logging. They logged, for instance, right up to the river and did not often replant. The idea was that the Quinault were under BIA economic management and couldn’t manage their own logging– so they were just paid off a percentage of logging receipts–and just about lost everything until their protests, after which they were able to exert some care for their lands
      As for the actual Grays Harbor tribes mentioned here– they never got land back in their home territory, since they refused to sign a treaty at Cosmopolis in the nineteenth century which would remove them from their land–but that is a whole other story.
      Thank goodness for “old ladies down the block” who can give us information about things like the benefits of dandelions. You might also be interested to know that I heard from Indians who worked in logging up around Makah that they would just go off the job “sick” if alder were to be cut, since their traditions specified alder were so important to the land, they didn’t want to have anything to do with cutting them down.
      Of course, not all modern day Indians follow these values, but I find it striking that any do after the three generation attack on their culture in forced boarding school attendance.
      It sounds like you have quite a bit of personal experience in this area to relate to as the course proceeds!

    • This is so true Robert. Western influence did ruin a lot of what the Native Americans had built on. This is saddening. How can they keep what they have built though when all the government wants to do is take it away and make money off of it? Could that be why Native Americans have resorted to building Casinos on or near their reservations so that the government will still be happy Great way to build two birds with one stone.

  21. I think it is great that farmers are now focusing on more than just one crop at a time because nowadays if the need for one crop isn’t very high then business tends to fail. We need to mass produce in an organic way so that we are all getting the best of the best instead of just eating what we think may be beef but instead could be something else. Yes, it is more costly, but worth it. I think that if more people shop local organic than the prices will start to come down. Growing up in Port Angeles, I grew up with several Native Americans and always thought their culture was very interesting but never really learned much about them, just was friends with a lot. I think that it is great that Natives have rights to fishing still and that that isn’t being taken away from them yet. I have been on an Indian reservation and observed many different things but what I really notived was that as the days go on the Native population is disappearing. Their culture is not being preserved because the younger ones really don’t care to learn it all, they want to stay modernized and up with the rest of the world. I don’t consider myself having an actual culture besides the normal American culture. I quite enjoy hearing and reading about other cultures though.

    • Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment. I also find the trend toward multi-cropping rather than mono-cropping heartening. Unfortunately, “factory farming” still use vast fields of monocrops: check out Sheryl Turse’s reply on this forum a day or so ago (about the vast single crop fields beekeepers are brought in to pollinate).
      The idea that multi-cropping is “more costly” is based on short term gain ideas and stereotypes that indicate we can “manage” farms as we do assembly lines. But, as we are finding, the costs of soil and human health in this process are very serious indeed.
      I would disagree that the culture of native peoples is not being preserved because younger people “do not care about it”. Please be careful of sweeping statements about other cultures. Just as it is a stereotype to say that the culture is disappearing (it definitely is not: check out the recent Elwha negotiations with the Washington State Highway Department to preserve their burial grounds when WSDOT tried to build a bridge nearby), it is a stereotype to say that one is an environmentalist just because he/she has some Indian background. And in this respect, it is important to honor your own experience and to set it in historical context. I think it amazing and profound that there are still native peoples who care deeply about these issues given the removal policies mentioned in your last comment and my reply.
      Thanks for your comment.

      • As soon as I moved away from that area, I’ll admit that i didn’t really care about any of it. Then again, I was a very young person and cared more about having fun rather than whats going on in the world. Now, as I grow older with my own little family, I have come to realize that “the future depends on what we do in the present.” ~Ghandi. The idea of being able to manage farms the way we do an assembly line doesn’t work, I agree with that. Farming in general is a very tough business to be in because of health and safety issues on the workers, crops, and animals. I think that a lot of people are trying to find an easier route than doing things the hard way and are finding that it just isn’t working if you know what I mean.

        • You have a very important point to remember, Jenn–that what we do now effects the future of our children (not to mention, our own futures). We no longer have the luxury of limited views of our actions and our choices.
          And it is an odd thing to persist in doing something that does not work (in the hope that eventually it will?) rather than changing course to something that might work.
          Thanks for your comment.

      • I agree, we must be careful not to make generalized statements, which stereotype different cultures. It seems more and more frequent, that a variety of cultures are claiming “the young people just do not care”. If that is the case, then why are many young people taking classes, such as the Philosophy 443 class, and majoring in studies with environmental and/or cultural values in mind?
        My mother is part Native American and works for the Native American Rehabilitation Association, which primarily deals with Native American health issues. She also hears many Native American elders, making the claim that “the young people do not care”. That is a stereotype, because there are still many young Natives and non-Natives working to preserve the Native American culture and way of life. I also see similar claims and stereotypes, living in Hawaii, with the Native Hawaiians.
        It is unfortunate, that some people within different cultures have this belief about their young. Luckily, this belief/stereotype is not true for all young people. Thus, cultural environmental values and practices will continue to be passed down from generation to generation.

        • Hello Leah, thanks for your sharing your perspective here. I myself am heartened by how much and how many young people do care– as I have been fortunate enough to see in my classes over the years. My own sadness is that you should have to deal with so many issues that you did not yourselves create. But we have no choice but to tackle those problems together at this point.
          Thanks for being one of those who care!

  22. What struck me most in this narrative about the importance of bringing “Biodiversity” back to the conversation about how best to use our Earth, and specifically…the Pacific Northwest, are the statistics that solidify such a conclusion.

    In the article the Author cites a very striking fact about how much better subsistence strategies that employ the precepts of Biodiversity are at producing food. “In 286 projects in 57 developing countries, ecological agricultural outproduced conventional “industrial” agriculture by an average of 79 per cent.” This statement is surprising, but also leaves me with serious doubt as to why subsistence strategies have not already taken into account this information.

    One common argument that I hear in favor of “industrialized” agriculture, agriculture which uses genetically engineered seeds, and the concept of Monoculture, is that with the world’s population increasing at record proportions…it is necessary to adopt industrial methods to feed the Earths’s people. Seeing this fact directly refutes this argumentation, leaving me with more questions left unanswered, and also hoping for a better plan in the future.

    From analyzing the successful track record of subsistence strategies employing a Biodiversity theory, the solution for feeding our world’s plants, animal, and human populations lie in this direction. Before we can achieve any real improvements it is first necessary to look towards the indigenous peoples who have lived on the same land for thousands of years. Once we can take example from those that lived in unity with the Earth and all her Flora and Fauna, then maybe we too can hope to improve our planet’s heath.

    • You have hit on the central point of this essay, Shana– monocultures may seem convenient in the moment and may produce more of a single favored crop, but when you add everything together, including sustained fertility of the soil and undepleted water tables, it is biodiverse agriculture that comes out on top. Unfortunately, the profit motive (as for those who sell gmo seeds) too often overrides the real hard work of fitting agriculture to place specific knowledge and technology–which is, of course, what indigenous subsistence strategies in the Pacific Northwest did for thousands of years.
      Thanks for your comment.

  23. Wow! I didn’t know that the biodiversity of Cascade was that rich. I was trying to draw a picture in my head when I was reading about the salmon, “sturgeon, seal, clams, smelt, and eel from the rivers and sea—and elk, deer, ducks, geese, and rabbit from the adjoining hills and prairies.” It must be a masterpiece of nature. Also, information about plants was terrific. It seemed like nature provided Puget Sound people everything from foods and medicines to art supplies and cigarette. It would be great to live in place where everything was just behind your back yard.
    I love author’s idea about ecological agriculture uses diverse local seeds. It will do our mother Earth a favor. I remember when I was little kid, my grandpa used to tell stories about land, and farmers. He said that in the old time farmers don’t have fertilizer and chemicals. Thus to keep land alive, farmer had to grow different type of crops on the same land. My grandpa taught me that if we only grow one type of crop, one day the land would go dead. Each crop took away something and put back something. Some crops would create bug-resistance for other crops. A wise farmer would know how recycle the land with appropriate crops so the land never goes out of nutrition. In economic perspective, multi-crops agriculture is beneficial too; more jobs, more options to choose, better nutrition, ect..

    • Thanks for sharing the wise perspective of your grandpa, Vu. It certainly applies here. I very much like this model of each crop putting something into the soil and taking something out– so we have to use many crops to make sure we have vibrant soil that does not “go dead”– as has, unfortunately, some of the soils where industrial farming has taken place for years. There are a number of soils in the central valley of California, for instance that can no longer support crops without chemical inputs– and these same chemicals have burned out all the natural bacteria, so that they would need a good deal of care to come back to their natural fertility.
      This land was (and is in some places still) remarkably abundant and diverse. All of these lives– including humans– learned to live together over thousands of years. It is my sense that we must return to such fine tuning and harmony as your grandpa expressed.

  24. AH! This is weighing so heavily on me, where do we even start? What are the big steps to get back to a mediated type of nature friendly farming? Beliefs and goals are not the same as they were in the past-money is the driving factor with agriculture it seems. Faster, better, cheaper. And if that means pesticides and growing only one crop (oh but its a money maker), then it is deemed ok by those who are monetarily motivated. It seems like we are too far gone to come back, especially with a huge booming population.

    • It seems to me that we can as well look for many small steps done by each of us as well as a few big steps. It is true that much has to be done to treat the earth that sustains us (and to treat one another) with respect and care-and sometimes it seems overwhelming. But there is that wise saying that you can only climb a mountain by taking the first step.
      I absolutely agree that using money making as a decision-making tool leads to many disasters. I hope you join those who will help to change this, Samantha. Thanks for your comment and your care.

  25. “Additionally, these people used 176 plants for medicines, chewed 9 species, used 13 for non-medicinal drinks, 7 for smoking, 53 for manufacture, 13 for making dyes and paints, 7 for scents, and 16 for various forms of purification.” This sentence and the idea of monoculture made me think about our use of grass as a ground cover. I think pulling up weeds and replacing the area with grass is a harmful trend. We are losing biodiversity when replacing such fields with grass, even if it is the center of the interstate. I am very interested in natural medicines and have gone out trying to identify plants such as St. John’s wart in the wild. In Maine St. John’s Wart grew everywhere along the roadsides and in fields. Many people may look at it and see it as a pesky weed that should be pulled and nothing more, but it has medicinal value as a mood enhancer. This is just one example of what one may find in a field of weeds.

    • You have an important point to ponder, Tiffany, is the ways in which planting and maintaining lawns not only labels everything out a particular grass a “weed”– but uses vast amounts of chemicals and water to maintain. This is why many forward-thinking municipalities are suggesting native (and even edible) landscaping instead of lawns.
      It is with a bizarre sense of hubris–and loss of many useful plants– that we label only certain plants as legitimate and the rest as “weeds”.

  26. This was a great article about how biodiversity is a partnership. This reflects not only a partnership between humans and the natural world but also a partnership between all the components of nature’s web. Once anything is removed it affects all the other parts of the system that rely on that part. To produce only one crop has been determined to be detrimental to our entire system. Corn for instance, has affected the economy, the environment and the products that we consume. Since corn was subsidized it was mass produced and therefore corn products were everywhere, even given to cows for feed even though a cow’s digestive system doesn’t allow for corn to be properly digested. Antibiotics are given to compensate for the lack of digestive fluids able to break down the corn. In turn, the antibiotics are being indirectly consumed by humans. Too much antibiotics in a human system breaks down the good bacteria that humans need to fight off disease and they get sick more often. All this due to a monocrop and its effects.

    The lack of biodiversity with the monocrop corn has been the target of many environmental groups. Corn has had detrimental effects on the land it is farmed on, such as soil degradation, large fertilizer requirements and insect infestations. As corn was being touted as the next alternative fuel source, many farmers plowed huge, natural areas to plant the new super crop. Of course this affected everything around connected with the area. I hope in the near future farmers realize the need for biodiversity and the negative side of monocrops.

    • Your comment echoes John Muir’s: “‘When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.” Corn is an excellent example of monocropping: in addition, corn syrup is now a predominant sweetener is all processed foods–and it is laced with mercury, which may be one of the reasons why corn syrup is linked to so many current health problems. Corn ethanol takes more energy to produce than it yields, not even counting declining land fertility.
      There is a documentary called King Corn which measures the cell components (signatures of the chemicals they are built on) of the average American and finds that most of us are largely– corn.
      Moreover, there are differing types of corn: there is the single gmo corn grown predominantly in the US. But there are dozens of types of indigenous corns. Unfortunately, a number of these seed stocks have been compromised by the planting of gmo seeds nearby (from development and globalization protested by local farmers in Mexico, for instance). Then one also has the effect of corn ethanol on the global price of corn and the takeover of subsistence lands globally to plant mono-corn, which has led to rising hunger worldwide (see Bread for the World).
      On the balance scale are those like Wes Anderson’s Land Institute in the Midwest. Hopefully, we will all get the point in time to address the problems such mono-cropping is creating. Thanks for your comment, Renea.

  27. With the extensive history of colonialism in the world, many cultures have learned that qualities like domination and control are desirable, and many surviving cultures exercised domination and control in order to be present today. There seems to be a relation between our past and current domination of others and our domination of nature. We think we know best and we can force the production of favored crops. While we often succeed in doing this, it is at the expense of the environment, as well as future generations. Soil becomes degraded when crops are harvested too often or when crops are transplanted to areas in which they do not natively grow.

    The !Kung Bushmen from the Kalahari Desert, a group I studied in a previous Anthropology class, have a more sustainable way to produce food. The !Kung consume the crops natural to their region. The article describes natives hoping to preserve not just a few areas for livelihood of their people, but rather a large number of sites, as they depend on each to survive. Multiple food sources serve the purpose of ensuring that even in times of hardship when one crop fails, there are other options. A study was done on the !Kung to monitor their subsistence strategies, and it showed they depended on certain crops during specific times of the year, but depended on others at different times. They also had favorite foods, but at times had to eat less favorite foods to survive. The !Kung were successful for so long because they adapted to their environment rather than attempting to force the environment to adapt to them. This is an understanding that I feel modern civilizations have yet to realize, but I also feel that soon we won’t have any other option. The environment doesn’t need humans to survive, but we need the environment, and someday we will give it the respect it deserves.

    • Hello Kelsey, I think you are absolutely right that there is a link between the domination of other humans and other natural lives– and that “forcing” certain crops only to grow is a form of agricultural colonialism that comes at great costs.
      Another interesting thing about the !Kung and the Hadzabe elsewhere in Africa who have a related language and lifestyle is that DNA evidence indicates that these cultures may be the real cradle of humanity: that is, they are the parent cultures of all of us. This evidence of !Kung subsistence strategies (Richard Lee’s article) is mentioned in the essay, “Indigenous Peoples” posted here that I wrote for an academic “green” encyclopedia. Thanks for bringing up this telling point here.
      I hope with you that we will soon give the natural world, in all its astounding diversity, “the respect it deserves”.

  28. In contrast to my recent comments on your essays, I’m going to relate a quick story that I think is relevant to what you have said here.

    When I was younger (10, 11, 12 years old…?), I used to fantasize about living off of the land. I used to make plans to learn about the dangerous and edible plants and learn how to be a hunter-gatherer (before I knew what that meant). I remember eating what my father called “miner’s lettuce” that grew outside of my home in California. I once boiled roots I dug myself and ate them (that only happened once as it seemed I had chosen the species poorly and it made terrible table fare). Those experiences always made me envious of those who could sustain themselves using their own knowledge. I understand now that this knowledge originally comes from indigenous peoples and their wise decisions not to monocrop.

    After reading this essay, I am faced with a new envy of knowledge which I would like to pose as a question. You spoke of the re-agroforestation of over 350,000 hectares in Tanzania. Who made that happen? Was it the indigenous people taking back their land slowly over time, or was it a group using advanced technology to plan/execute the re-agroforestation? Are there organizations out there that specialize in analyzing converted land and determining the best methods to return them to their original agroforest state?

    Thanks in advance for any light you can shed on the subject!

    • Hi Gabe, thanks for the comment. Perhaps you know that miner’s lettuce received its nickname because it is very high in vitamin C–and saved many a miner from scurvy. Many pioneers who came overland by wagon train arrived at the Cascades on the verge of autumn with all their supplies exhausted and were both fed and informed of what to eat by native peoples. Changes in the land makes some native crops hard going for sustainability: habitat degradation and dams have cut the northwest’s native salmon population such that we cannot now harvest one seventh of what native peoples along the Columbia annually harvested without endangering the fragile salmon population. A technique local people term “cool burning”, along with harvesting techniques of native women, caused wild strawberries to be comparable in size to modern garden varieties– and camas roots were dug in a way that caused future harvests to plump up. You will be interested in why the Willamette Valley was nicknamed the “gourmand’s paradise” by early pioneers in a future reading here.
      You ask some interesting questions here: firstly, we need to define “advanced”– if it means using techniques that support the fertility and biodiversity as well as abundance of the land, I’m with you. Interestingly, as we shall see, many times what has been called “advanced” agriculture (monocropped factory farms) are responsible for denuding the soil, and native techniques in Bangladesh and Mexico, for instance, have restored lands and water tables of ravaged lands. (In “Indigenous peoples”, a Mexican farmer was awarded a prestigious environmental prize for using traditional techniques to help his peoples’ lands to recover.
      The info on Tanzania came from the Brussels conference linked here. In some cases, it is just a matter of getting out of the way in order to allow native peoples to care for their lands once again. You might be interested in some of the links under farming on our links page; check out especially the work down in agro-ecology by a researcher at Berkeley: This site’s case studies include many indigenous initiatives. Happy browsing!

  29. It seems that we choose convenience over sustainability time and time again. I had never thought about nature in it’s pure form being an eco-agricultural system. Due to efficiency we have transformed many parts of the land to fit our need when we want, and how we want. I think a lot of us have ignored the fact that the way nature survives is pure and natural. There is no need to tamper with something so pure, and doing so in such a harsh and rapid fashion leaves us with climate change and global warming.
    I’m quickly realizing how magical our environment really is, and how much we have harmed something that we are all dependent on for survival. There are so many points you state in the article that shows how mono-cropping may be “efficient” but in the end, produces less crop and releases more emissions that are negatively impacting our environment. I believe people are just beginning to recognize this, but I think it will be years and years before nature receives the proper treatment.

    • Thoughtful response, Melinda. I think we might rather say that industrial monocropping creates convenience rather than efficiency, since small scale diverse farms produce more total crops than do large scale monocrops– but the latter can be managed more lazily– with a few simple techniques. But they are not very efficient when you count fertility loss, chemical inputs and lesser production.
      As you intimate, the “eco-agricultural” system models diversity and specificity to place for us: something built up as effective over thousands of years which we would do well to follow.
      I hope that we will learn some of the lessons necessary to treating the land (and sustaining ourselves) well as quickly as we need to in order to avoid spreading hunger and drought.

  30. This essay saddens me a little as it really reflects what we have done to the environment. It describes how we have used and abused it – compared to what it was and could have been. Respect for the land and one another reminds me of the term chivalry which we do not see present in society as much as we did in the past. It is helping others when possible. The essay describes potlatch feasts and a sense of comradery. There were no barriers, but just a sense on honor that could be trusted. Each tribe would help others when they could. They would share space and resources when available.
    This essay mentions the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest and how they sustain the salmon. There is not much we have sustained. Can you imagine what our environment would be like if it wasn’t for man’s negative impact? So much of our upcoming generations are focused on instant gratification and convince. It makes me nervous to think of what will happen to our surroundings if something doesn’t change.

    • Hi Ellie, I think your grief over what we have lost so far and fear over continuing our mistakes is something shared by many of us. I hope for a time when future generations look forward to a world of joyful vitality instead. Nature is resilient; we are only one part of it, and there is much left to care for in being generous to both one another and the natural lives that sustain us. Thanks for your caring comment.

  31. This is a great topic, biodiversity, especially in relation to agriculture. With most of today’s farms in a monocultural state both in time and space, it’s important to understand the effects that this has on the quality of the current and future crops. As noted with the potato blight in ireland, increased monocropping means an increased risk. Although agriculture is shifting to at least rotational cropping, the fact remains that we are planting the same cultivars on the same land. When disease or a bad year hit, there is nothing for us to fall back on. Unlike the PNW peoples or the folks from the Andes.

    This also relates to the diversity of cultures found around the world, each holding their own knowledge and abilities. I really liked the idea of one not being able to get lost on the land if they can hear the sounds and know what they are looking at. Also, that boundaries are not physically fixed, but flow with space, time and needs. The greater the diversity on all these planes, the less risk and greater the survival along with quality of life. Why fish if there are no fish running today?

    • Why fish when there are no fish running today indeed, Anna! Unless of course, we feel we can make them run whenever we want them to. This attempt at domination is also entwined with agricultural mono-cropping. We choose ONE crop we think is the “best” (for us) and allow nothing else to grow. I find it telling that the journals of early explorers on the Plateau wrote that they put in gardens not for the produce, but to show native peoples how to “control” the land. Such an emphasis, however, is liable to control us right out of existence.

  32. I found this essay very interesting. I had never thought of biodiversity in relation to agriculture before. The diversity of indigenous food systems is something lacking in modern industrial food systems. This diversity made native systems much more resilient to shocks. Once again we see examples of how important local knowledge is to sustainability. The indigenous cultures worked with the environment and the land to allow it to provide for them. They saw their relationship with the land as a two-way relationship as opposed to the one-way relationship modern societies have.
    I also found the UN study very interesting. My question is if the ecological agriculture was so much more productive, what is keeping industrial agriculture afloat? It seems to make very little economic or environmental sense.

    • You have an excellent question, Melissa. I think that it is more convenient (and more profitable to a few) to do large scale monoculture– for all its negative impacts on the environment and on productivity and sustainability. I think we have grown too enamored of our own technology, not to mention, short term profit and lazy ways of thinking (easier just to plow up the land in large parcels and plants what we want rather than to run a truly biodiverse farm).

  33. In this essay, the Chehalis grandmother explaining how to follow ‘streams of trees’, and the Siuslaw elder instructing to listen to the voices of distinct watercourses, illustrate an aspect of teaching in indigenous cultures of listening and observing while accepting movement, change and uniqueness.

    A contrast for many people raised in Western Culture is passive listening and observation- being able to leave the mind without any thoughts and really absorb the uniqueness of a certain place or thing. Most children are capable of this, but many adults quickly make conclusions and categorize what they see or hear into groups, families, and systems. Western education teaches us to believe that facts and explanations are valid because they can be repeated in independent observation. Establishing a fact is still primarily influenced by our values because what we believe to be relevant or important leads us to even begin any scientific process. This is way of thinking is erroneously applied to explain natural phenomena and can turn into a dangerous way of thinking where we start naming and grouping individuals or community members based unnecessarily as well. To begin to appreciate biodiversity one must first observe the uniqueness of each individual, different communities, and new and changing environments.

    • I like your perspective on being able to listen to a vital world and recognition of the essential uniqueness of each species (and individuals/cultures within species like our own).
      A contrasting “grouping” of individuals into stereotypes is, as you point out, a “dangerous” alternative: this allow us to objectify others and abstract natural lives into “things” put there for our use as well. This yields neither the ethical treatment of others– nor real knowledge of them. Goethe once said that every “fact” is already a theory– in your sense here, it is already bound up in value– in the way we see the world.
      Thank you for your thoughtful perspective, Emily.

  34. I agree that farmers should practice having multiple crops because that is the way nature designed it. You never see plants growing single file, segregated from each other. Lands and crops flourished before mankind’s touch and I see the only way back to profitable and sufficient production would be to broaden our biodiversity and allow nature to run its course. The different crops and plants feed off each other just like the rest of the world. The plants deposit various nutrients into soil that fertilize new crops or are carried away by wind and erosion to other sites.

    I understand that industrial agriculture provides work and large scale production, but ecological agriculture could be just as efficient, if not more. We could rely less on super sized markets and prices and focus more on local markets and taking care of our communities. Taking the time to create a substantial and biodiverse local land can be extremely time consuming and a lot of work–which is probably why you don’t see if happen as much as it should.

    • Thoughtful response, Morgan. Perhaps biodiverse or ecological farming takes more work in the short run (since it does not let chemicals and machines do the thinking), but it is “time consuming” only in the sense that it takes thought and long term investment.
      I think many of our choices are done out of habit or convenience– rather than rationality. It does not help that farmers are subject to so much manipulation by biotech and chemical companies.
      Thanks for your response.

  35. The article demonstrates how Native Americans let nature lead, and followed its course in their farming, fishing and food gathering. They did not question whether nature was handling matters in the most productive manner. They trusted nature and knew it would provide what was needed. True to form, when negotiating with the US government, they carefully considered all aspects that would be needed for their survival- not just the obvious ones.

    The sentence about a dandelion becoming an occasion for home pesticide use hit close to home. Just today, I was out walking with my sons and they were holding fistfuls of dandelions and blowing them out, making wishes. My neighbor walked by and commented – “Oh no- don’t do that, you’re spreading the seeds!” I looked around at the 2 lawn care trucks parked on my street and the lawns being sprayed with pesticides and thought about how most people simply do not understand. The thing to be upset about is the poison being put into the ground (and air…and trafficked into homes), not the dandelion seeds being spread.

    It seems like people have become almost fearful of nature and are attempting to control it. Control and dominance is a common theme in our culture and there seems to be pride in achieving victory over nature. Turning the beauty of nature and producing weed and bug free lawns with straight edges and neat rows of monocrops is indicative of this.

    • You have an essential point on dominance here, Valerie. I absolutely agree with you that we should be far more horrified at the wholesale spraying of pesticides to eradicate dandelions than at their appearance in our lawns even those we did not given them “permission” to be there.
      Such hubris this takes to think we can mandate the order of “our” pieces of nature– as if the natural world itself and interdependent lives in ecosystems had no part in this. It is very true, as you indicate, that the attitude of domination underlies our mono-cropping–and my sense is that if there is anything one thing that will be our downfall in long term survival, this attitude is it! Thanks for sharing this point.

  36. I agree that monoculture is not the way to do things and that we really should be following the example that nature has set for us, an example that indigenous people all over the world seem to never have forgotten. Not only does monoculture style agriculture go against the design of the natural world, it has led to a reduction of small family farms, increased chemical use to keep the crops producing and reduction in the ability of people to eat locally (thus increasing environmental impact), to name a few. I am, however, encouraged by two things, one is the increased awareness that people seem to be developing now that this is not the way to a healthy environment. The second is the increase in people’s desire and willingness to support farms and people that are trying to reduce the amount of chemicals we apply to our food, shorten the travel distance from field to plate, and grow crops in a manner closer to a more natural state. I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to the style of subsistence that the indigenous people employed, or if that is even a feasible option with the amount of development and sprawl we live with today, but any change from monoculture to a more varied, diverse style of growing food is a step in the right direction.

    The other thing that I found interesting about this article was the large variety of different plants and food sources utilized by traditional peoples. It seems like another result of monoculture is the lack of variety most Americans have in their diets today. Go to the grocery store and if you find three different types of tomatoes that’s a lot of variety, when there are at least dozens of different kinds that can be grown. With the increased awareness of heirloom foods, people are starting to rediscover a huge variety of food types, and often learning that the heirloom varieties are tastier and healthier but not common simply because they don’t produce as much per unit (meat per animal, vegetables per plant, etc) or they don’t ship well.

    • I am encouraged by the same things you are encouraged by here, Sarah. And I concur that we may not be able to “go back” and live as we once were: what I hope is that we are able to apply more enduring values to our technological and economic choices. And as you point out, there are many small steps (that add up to large ones) we can take in the direction of honoring diversity in our food production choices.
      Good observation about what we have lost in the process of the homogenization of our foods.

  37. To me, this essay spoke about long-term versus short-term ideas of survival. It related the ideas of long-term survival through the indigenous people’s patience and knowledge of the interdependence between humans and non-humans. For example, they knew to harvest a variety of species versus few or only one in order to sustain their food supplies; they knew how to use the local vegetation and plants for medicine, drinks, dyes and even smoking; most notably they held potlaches to help the less fortunate in their communities, and these are just a few well known examples. The concept of short-term survival is sadly widespread and demonstrated by the “gotta have it fast” attitudes fueling GE monocultures, and brazen disregard for biocultural diversity.

    My favorite part of this essay is the simple fact that using a diverse local seed supply (emphasis on local), mixing various types of vegetation with crops and the need for a sustainable food supply for a growing world population can be accomplished through ecological agriculture, yet our world leaders continue to ignore the simple science and knowledge handed down from generations in favor of failing, ecologically destructive monoculture crops. It is a mind boggling and disheartening example of the sheer duplicitous nature on which many of the world leaders operate. When is it going to change? What will it take to make our concerns legitimate to them? Inquiring minds want to know.

    • I very much like your perspective on short term versus long term perspective here. “Gotta have it fast” doesn’t leave much for future generations– or even other lives with whom we share our planet.
      You press an important point in your final questions: I think we must hold our leaders (including certainly corporate leaders) accountable for their acts- including their lobbying to create “perverse subsidies”– or to remove themselves from their fair share of taxes (see “action alerts” sidebar on this site. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  38. Everything you said in the essay speaks directly to the quiet voice that lives inside me- and I assume inside of most of mankind. We rape these lands and harvest field after field of pesticide-laden corn to feed cows- to feed ourselves meat and now our people are sick. Many of us are obese, have diabetes, are depressed… the list goes on and on. It is all right there in front of us- the Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest were on to something by watching and living as the land itself lives. Diverse and varied is the land’s truth and it should be ours as well.
    It feels as though a return to living like the essay describes, in tune with the land and it’s natural patterns, a return to life like that would be the beginning of the healing for us as a people. A new chance for us to be peaceful, both with one another and with ourselves.

  39. I enjoyed reading this article, and your description of biodiversity. It takes numerous variables to make an equation work, just like in nature. The potato blight is a good example of how lack of diversity can cause problems. They put all their eggs in one basket, and it turned against them when the potato harvest struggled. Diversity is an important part of every successful environment, and can also be applied to humans in aspects like companies and families. When you have diversity you have a broader range of skills, personalities and problem solving abilities. “Monocropping” can work in the short-term, but can lead to serious issues in the long-run.

  40. I am often perplexed at some of the choices we have made over time as far as crops are concerned. I just read something the other day regarding water scarcity in which it was suggested that in areas where water in scarce, that the crops that are planted should not be those that need large amounts of watering. Doesn’t this seem like common sense? I find myself asking why someone hadn’t mentioned this before the situation got so out of control – and I suspect the answer has to do with money, as it usually does. Reading this article about “monocropping” falls into that same category, I think. All you have to do is look around in nature to see that things grow best in partnerships; healthy ecosystems thrive when all of their parts are working together. If you start removing parts, or separate one from the whole, the result will be lesser. I’m probably making this a lot simpler than it actually is, and admittedly I am not farmer of anything, but this is how it seems to be, at any rate. Look to nature for an example of a functioning model, and try to replicate that – not reinvent it.

    • Sometimes, as you indicate, our “common sense” is buried by our search for convenience– not to mention, profit. As you point out, we can look to the natural world for functioning models–and be smart enough to work to follow them. Thanks for your comment, Kim.

  41. Monoculture reminds me of a proverb I heard, “Too much of any one thing is a bad thing”. Although Mark Twain was talking about bad whiskey, I think it applies to so many things in our culture. Monoculture and overuse have proven to be “bad things”. People were not surviving in monoculture societies, yet those who referred to the indigenous views did not feel the plight of a singled failed crop. Biodiversity seems to be the most self-sufficient way to ensure peoples survival. The idea nature had of using different seeds found in an area and growing differing crops together appears to be a more efficient use of the resource. Also, when I read this article, I thought of all the organizations that have formed to ensure we keep our natural resources from diminishing. Then I thought, if we had had “care takers” who would have watched the overuse of resources, as did indigenous people, we would not have ended up with limited resources. Ergo, we wouldn’t have the need for laws and such organizations.

    • Thoughtful points, Desiree. It is true that nature never created monocultures as a model of survival–and it does not seem very wise for us to do this. And if we, as you note, our population had values of care for the natural world, we would not need regulations and laws in this respect. However, such regulations can also teach us better habits in the absence of such values–and our pressing environmental crises.

  42. I really like the idea of a living land and having a partnership with the land instead of trying to dominate it. We break land up into counties and states having different rules and regulations once you cross these invisible lines. The problem with that is a stream or animals don’t know what these lines are. They move with the land, not with the regulations that are placed upon it. What happens upstream also affects what happens downstream. If we are going to have regulations on what can be done to nature we should view it as the whole system, not break it up into parts because each part affects the other.
    Monocroping is obviously not the way to go. Having a variety of plants in an area only strengthens its resilience. It can better fight off disease and pest, if one crop is failing one may be blossoming to make up for the other. The problem is that it takes more effort to plant, and harvest a field with several different crops in it. With the human population growing and are increasing demand for food this only seems like it will be harder for us to handle.

    • Indeed, neither streams nor animals know what our borders and fence lines mean: one reason it is important to make passage corridors for them (and connect with one another in the process).
      It takes more human energy to plant and harvest a diverse field, but less of the other sorts of energy (like fossil fuels) that are getting us into trouble. Given the yields and land conservation of biodiversity, it seems that our growing population mandates we must take some form of sustainable agriculture into account. (You may be interested in looking at the essay on the “problem with progress” we will be reading a bit down the line).

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