Friday, May 21, 2010

Safeguarding Wild Edible Heritage

I was at work when I heard the news. My friend and colleague had gone to dig leeks at the magical hillside where Ooga and I have gathered for almost a decade now. "Did you know that they are logging up there?"

"How close?"

"No, I mean they're logging right in the leeks."

Our leeks? How bad? Is it too late? I don't even know who owns them. Don't they know what they're doing? That's got to be the finest show of spring ephemerals in the county. I've got to do something.

Before I continue with this story, I should say that I made two promises to myself last December. I'd had doubts about my life and work. I had felt like I was losing touch with the very things that I had wanted my life to be about. So I swore to myself then that on every day of 2010 I would do two things. I would do some kind of work related to my dreams of living wild off the land, and I would do something to make the world a better place. This event cut so close to my heart. I was obliged by my promise. I had to do something.

Shortly thereafter, I ran down the familiar trials to the leeks. They were indeed cutting there. A wide skidder road ran all along the leek patch. The loggers had cut a few trees, but many more were marked. Much of the patch was intact. There was still time to do something.

I went to the town hall and used the tax maps to find the owner of the property. Then I drove down the road looking for his house. I knocked on the door of an old farmhouse, uncertain of what to say, nervous that the owner might become angry. I had visions of running back to my car while an old farmer brandished a shotgun out of his screen door. I waited on the doorstep. No one answered.

"Maybe it's the house across the street," I thought. That house was a ramshackle trailer with a Confederate flag in the window and gun rack on the truck. "Or maybe I should just try the phone book."

Back home I took a deep breath and dialed the numbers. There was an answer. Yes, this was the person I was seeking. Here goes. "Sir, I know this must seem presumptuous, and I don't want to stick my nose in your business. But . . . you are logging in a rare and sensitive habitat. It's a small spot. Just a few acres. . . anyway, I was wondering if there was a way you could cut trees from somewhere else and leave the trees that are on the more sensitive parts of the property. I'm not against your logging. I know this may not be your greatest concern, but it would be great if we could do what we could to minimize the damage in that one spot."

I braced for it. But I needn't have. The landowner listened carefully. He had no idea, he said. He never went back there, and as long as it didn't cost him any more money with the forester that was fine with him. He gave me the forester's number.

The forester didn't know about the place either. "Do you mean all that skunk cabbage back there?" Skunk cabbage? I guess wildflower ID is not a required course for foresters. But despite any weaknesses in botanical skill, he agreed to let me flag off the area.

That weekend, I tied pink ribbons all along the leek patch, speaking reassuringly to the leeks along the way. Some people write Tibetan mantras on their flags, hoping that the winds will carry their sacred messages up to the gods. My prayer flags are neon pink. There is nothing written on them. But they still bear sacred messages.


  1. Wow, Thag, you are a man of action! That's such an inspiring story of how a little bravery and action at the right time can make all the difference. I hope you feel proud of yourself.

  2. As a forager, I highly disagree with these kind of actions. Forage on YOUR land, forage on public land, but respect and do not trespass on others' land. Ramps are not a protected species in any state, and saying so is an arrogant use of someone else's property. To truly protect this area, put up some money, buy the land, and pay taxes on it.

    And your condemnation of the forester is arrogant. It is not his job to "identify" what grows where. His job is to cut trees in a certain area, not indulge YOU and your hobby of identifying and eating plants.

    How would this post read if the tax-pating land owner told you to F-OFF. and took you to court for trespassing? What if you got injured while trespassing on this land and tried to sue this landowner for not posting clear property boundaries? Thought before selfish action!

    AKA: How would you feel if someone foraged something on YOUR property? Something you coveted, like morels or ramps, or dug for some gold or other valuable goods? Would you feel so righteous then?

  3. Dear 3 foragers,

    Thank you for reading our blog. After we read your post, we checked out your blog as well and we're delighted to have caught the eye of such accomplished foragers. I'm sorry that we have become the subject of your ire rather than your fellowship. I'd like to write a few words in our defense.

    Please do not think of as arrogant, righteous, and selfish. We do not make a habit of foraging on private property, and we try to treat all landowners and their land with respect. (Incidentally, we don't make a habit of gathering on public land without permission either. To do so is also poaching.) We would never dig for gold or forage for coveted plants if we were acting counter to the wishes of a landowner. However, it is not a criminal activity in the state of Vermont to walk (or even hunt)on unposted land. It is part of a long tradition of treating Vermont's private woodlands as a sort of mediated commons. This is a unique privilege. I know of no other state like this. It is one of the reasons we choose to live here.

    You are correct that ramps are not a protected species. Yet this particular patch is also home to a number of uncommon plants that (in our region) grow only along this rich calcareous rock outcrop. None of these species is protected or listed as endangered, but this habitat is rare and the plants are not common. This site deserves special consideration. Perhaps it is forward of me to ask another landowner to change what he is doing with his land, but I felt, and still feel, that I have the right and responsibility to do so. The world is too small and too precious for us all to do whatever we want to the land simply because we claim to own it. Foresters are trained as stewards of land, not only cutters of trees. The foresters we know take professional pride in planning their cuts to reduce impact as well as to optimize yields.

    (Incidentally, if the landowner had told me to F off, that would be the end of it. I would have no recourse and would not pursue the matter further.)

    That said, I agree that is is important to obtain landowner permissions before gathering. It is always incumbent upon a forager to ask.

    I hope that these words serve to explain our position and extend our goodwill. I sincerely hope that we can continue to count you as readers and fellows in foraging. We will certainly follow your blog. It is excellent.


    This is a discussion group you may want to subscribe to. There has been a recent and often heated discussion about foraging on other peoples' land with and without permission. I also find some good topics and am happy to contribute to discussions when I know an answer to a question.

    As someone whose family owns a large plot of land adjacent to a state forest, I am familiar with trespassers of benevolent and sinister motives. People fishing a river is much different than the punks on 4 wheelers, but the land is posted for legal protection reasons; protection for us.

    Sorry if I sounded overly righteous myself, but I our property has been logged and we permit hunting to people we know personally. If someone we did not know approached us, we would be the folks that gave the F-OFF. Perhaps here in CT, we are a little more possessive of the little bit we have. Karen

  5. Oh dear. This is such an old post that I hesitated for a second before commenting, but I felt that you should know, Thag, that your blog is a wonderful inspiration. It's fun to read, very informative, and you and your family have such a unique experience and share it so well that you deserve a hearty thank you. I am shocked by the needless ire 3 Foragers showed you in the initial comment. I'm relieved not to see such heinous self-righteousness in the rest of the comments that I've read- saying you're sorry (unconvincingly, I might add) for being self-righteous and then going on to be self-righteous some more in the rest of the paragraph...well, I assume Karen's sense of irony isn't nearly as strong as her sense of needless outrage.

  6. you are awesome Thag!