"Live With The Land"
"Live With The Land"
It is my belief that whether we happen to be a lone wilderness trapper, a miner, a corporate ceo, a rancher, a home maker, or a LNT Wilderness camper who imports all of your backcountry needs into the Wilderness, we all "Live off the land". For the land is ultimately the source of everyone's physical needs. Recognizing this fundamental truth, has inspired me to seek out ways to not just "live off the land", but to "Live with the land". Living with the land requires that we sustain our own lives and recreational activities without degrading the land and it's community of life. One of the beautiful things about nature is that nature tends to overproduce what it needs to stay healthy and self rejuvenating, thus if we only harvest the surplus of wild rice, deer, or walleye for example we can do so on an indefinite basis with no net loss/degradation to the ecosystem in the long term. Living with the land in many cases requires direct participation in nature to acquire ones needs, because in most cases the food we eat and the material goods we depend upon is not produced in conjunction with the land, from it's natural surplus, but rather taken from it at the expense of other important social and ecological values like wildlife, bio-diversity, clean air and water etc. We work hard to ensure that our bushcraft, hand craft, and wilderness activities do not degrade the land, and that our hands on participation in nature is done sustainably and in an ecologically sound manner.
Fortunately, there are many ways that our active participation in nature acquiring our physical needs can be done with out harming the health of the land. Even better, there are many ways our active participation in nature can even benefit the land and it's diverse lifeforms. Just as wild animals form mutually beneficial relationships with other wild animals and plant communities, so too can humans. Our natural resource managers who serve the public do it all the time through habitat improvement projects, as do ecological restoration professionals, and wildlife conservation organizations. Before these modern professional and volunteer organizations came to be many indigenous cultures formed mutually beneficial relationships with wild lands and animals they depended upon for survival. The indigenous/culturally modified landscapes of the New World were quite often mistaken by European conquerors and later by environmentalists as "pristine Wilderness". That is to say that the signs/impact of indigenous peoples active use and disturbance of nature quite often benefitted the land and mimicked natural processes enough to be mistaken as the work of nature.
John Muirs beloved Yosemite Valley and the sea of blue (camas) wild flowers that filled the valley floor, was actually the direct result of indigenous tending, weeding, burning, digging of native camas flowers, with the ultimate goal being to consume of the valleys camas resource. Today in the matter of 100 years, the beauty of those camas beds that John Muir fell in love with are largely gone, replaced by aggressive douglas fir trees. (see M. Kat Andersons book "Tending the Wild"). Indigenous tending and perpetuation of camas beds for their rich edible tubers took place all over the west, and all over the west this staple indigenous food source is being replaced by encroaching trees and agricultural development. The relationship between indigenous subsistence camas eaters and the camas bulbs themselves, is not unlike the relationship grizzly bears have with Glacier Lilies in high alpine meadows. Grizzly bears go to these wildflower meadows every year to eat massive quantities of lily bulbs they dig and rip from the sod. Where grizzly bears have been extirpated these glacier lily meadows are disappearing, while the meadows that still have active grizzly bear disturbance host vibrant and productive lily communities. Ecologists have taken to calling these glacier lily meadows, "Grizzly Gardens" (Mathews "Rocky Mountain Natural History"). Like the glacier lilys that disappear when grizzly disturbance stops, so too do camas beds in the absence of traditional indigenous disturbance regimes. In both cases when the disturbance is stopped, the land becomes less productive and less diverse. These are things ecologists and nature enthusiasts tend to agree are not desirable in our wild ecosystems.
Ojibwe people are known to have burned ridges along the voyageurs highway to increase blueberry production, and to keep the forest from encroaching upon their favorite berry harvesting areas. Athabascan hunters burned: meadows where fox hunted, shrub lands where moose foraged, and blowdown/disease infested forests on their hunting lands usually in the spring when they left their wilderness hunting grounds for life in the village each year. They knew the best moose hunting in the fall was sure to be where they had burned/coppiced shrubby wetlands in the spring. The grassy meadows where fox hunt mice and voles, and indigenous hunters hunted fox benefited by creating fresh nutritious growth for rodents whose numbers would spike which in turn feed more fox, who could hunt easier in the cleaned out meadows. Finally, the Athabascan hunters who inhabited some of the richest fur bearing country in all of Canada knew that leaving a diseased and or wind damaged forest to "nature" alone would result in intense fires that would destroy the mature forest structure many important fur bearers like pine marten need for survival. Thus a low intensity spring burn in these damaged forests maintained important fur bearer habitat, by reducing the risk for intense fires that might make their hunting grounds unproductive for many years. Moose research in northern MN is showing that moose are using areas burned to reduce fuel loads after the 99 blowdown event preferentially toward unburned habitat outside the prescribed burn area. This burning of the blowdown areas during low severity fire conditions mimics indigenous burning techniques, and as can be seen by the annual moose survey work it has great wildlife benefits. Large natural fires in the BWCA like pagami creek, and cavity lake fires, as well as, the ham lake fire started by a human have also been shown to have great benefits too Moose, but it will be years before they benefit furbearers like pine marten. The young conifer stands will, at about 15 years of age, provide ideal habitat for snowshoe hare, and consequently lynx too.
On a smaller scale, disturbance from a bushcrafter like cutting down individual trees, or harvesting shrubs, or wild edibles like arrowhead (sagitaria latifolia) aka Indian Potato, can be done sustainably and often to the benefit of the resource. For example, when birch trees, basswood, maple, and aspen trees (most deciduous trees) are cut in a logging operation or killed by a fire, or other disturbance the stump/root wad will send up many new shoots (called suckers) to replace the old tree. In time if an ungulate does not eat all the new regrowth these suckers will grow above browse height and eventually mature, but not all the suckers will make it. The individual suckers which all spring up from the same root system compete with one another, and only some of them will survive. Because the suckers are all competing for the same canopy space they grow out to the sides and have arched/crooked trunks that are not suitable for many woodworking projects. So the bushcrafter, following good forestery practices can safely/sustainably harvest the suckers that are losing the battle to the other suckers, thus improving the growth rate/survival chances of the remaining suckers, as well as, their ultimate shape and suitability forwood working projects, or in the case of birch trees, the quality of the bark for canoes, and other crafts. The bushcrafter can even protect volnurable suckers from death by deer by using dead down trees/vegetation arranged around/near the stump suckers making it hard for the deer to get at the young trees/or shrubs. In tree planting/reforestation studies researchers have found that micro-siting seedlings near down woody debris greatly reduces the chances the young trees will be pulled out of the ground and eaten by deer. In an ecosystem driven by what deer like to eat and what they don't like to eat, protecting/improving conditions for favored forage species like birch, cedar, white pine, maple, and oak seedlings/suckers makes sense and increases the ecosystems biodiversity of trees, and the long term persistence of important deer foods.
These examples barely scratch the surface of all the ways our active role in the wilds can benefit the land and it's bio-diversity, but I do hope it's enough to show people that their is a way for humans to be apart of nature in beneficial ways, as well as, how living with the land and participating in nature is not senseless destruction of nature, but rather a thoughtful and informed approach to wilderness recreation. To do it successfully requires a deeper knowledge of the land than most people currently have, and a command of skills and knowledge not commonly taught in any wilderness program, or educational institution.
I do not want to perpetuate the myth that indigenous people were innately perfect environmental citizens, or worse that I am, but I do wish to express a fundamental belief that we are all a part of nature, and the belief that we are all capable of living with nature rather than against it. I believe we can form many mutually beneficial relationships with the land as individuals and as a society. We have many great examples to look to within the fields of wildlife biology/management, forest management, ecological restoration, and within the fields of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and Indigenous Land Management techniques. Furthermore, we still have the best teacher of all to guide us, Nature itself!