Xavier de la Forêt is the founder of the Sustainable Living Project and the Invisible School, both located in the Methow Valley, Okanogan County, Washington. His blog is filled with photos, videos, and instructions for activities like brain-tanning a beaver hide with the hair on; making a buckskin pullover; weaving a cattail mat; and gathering edible plants such as bearberries and chocolate lily bulbs.
Xavier grew up in France, but came to the United States in 1997 to attend Drury College in Springfield, Missouri, where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in psychology. In 2002 he was awarded a master’s degree in cognitive psychology from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and in 2004 a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the same university. He presented his research findings at psychology conferences around the country, taught at Millsaps College and the University of Alabama, co-authored half-a-dozen papers, then walked away from academia in 2004 and never looked back.
Instead, he pursued a more ancient body of knowledge—how to live sustainably on the Earth using only what one could make, or gather, or hunt. He graduated from the Wilderness Awareness School’s residential program; apprenticed with Earthwalk Northwest’s Primitive Living Skills program; and participated in Lynx Vilden’s Stone Age Project. Although he prefers that students come live and learn with him and his wife, Rosalee, at the Sustainable Living Project (where tuition is free), he occasionally shares his skills at various conferences and gatherings. His focus is on primitive, homesteading, and sustainable living skills, ethnobotany and ethnoecology.
Xavier’s website has an excellent vision statement, in which he lays out the principles that guide him on his path to sustainable living. The first step, he says, is to realize that the transition takes time. The second is to find a shelter that meets your needs. “The most important thing then,”he says, “is to take charge of your own food. Again, if you live in the city this may be more of a challenge; living in natural areas makes this much easier. I’m learning about as many edible and medicinal plants as I can and you’d be surprised how easy it is to collect a huge amount of food when you know what’s freely available to you. I go gather plants as often as I can and thus form strong relationships with them.”
He spoke with The MOON about his transition from modern life to an ancient one, his ability to collect plants to feed himself and his family, and the sense of belonging that has replaced his need to collect “stuff.” – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: You have a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. Your dissertation was on “The Effects of Spatial Attention on Unconscious Affective, Location, and Feature Priming.”What does that even mean?
de la Forêt: [Laughs] That’s a good question. Basically we were flashing a lot of words in front of people and then asking them to answer questions very rapidly. It was similar to subliminal messaging, but we scientifically evaluated the responses based on several other factors that we controlled.
“Spatial attention” refers to the way we distribute our mental attention to our visual field. To be effective, our minds have to limit the amount of sensory data coming in. The “spotlight of attention”is the focus our brains give to a particular task. So, if you have a broad spotlight—a wide focus—you can see a larger area, but the intensity of the light is diminished. If you narrow the beam, you can’t take in as much of the visual field, but you can see the details within the beam much better. Our brains work similarly. We can either take in a lot of data, but not as much detail; or we can focus on the detail and lose a lot of the bigger picture.
Our research combined this “spotlight of attention”with the effects of unconscious priming and found out that we humans are able to process some kinds of information even if they are outside of our spotlight of attention if their features are simple enough, like location or basic shapes. However other tasks, like reading random words on a page or screen, do require focusing the spotlight of attention.
The MOON: That’s interesting. Do you find a way to use this knowledge in your wildcrafting?
de la Forêt: Not in wildcrafting, per se, but I found a lot of parallels in my wilderness awareness training—which emphasizes being more attuned to all your senses and being aware of what’s going on in your environment. For example, you learn to become much more sensitized to movement in your peripheral vision. Deer, of course, or any prey animal, do the same thing. Their lives depend on being able to detect predators moving in their peripheral vision—which, in cognitive terms—is outside their spotlight of attention. Their subconscious is “primed”to be sensitive to that. However, if you’re counting the number of stamens in a flower, you have to narrow your spotlight of attention in order to focus on that level of detail.
The funny thing about all this is that, when I was in graduate school, everyone thought we were doing groundbreaking research—that no one had ever looked at this before. But of course people have been doing this—being aware of their environment and changing their focus based on the task at hand—for tens of thousands of years. It’s kind of funny how a lot of academics are so confined to their ivory tower that they don’t even realize that what they’re doing has been figured out a long time ago by so-called primitive people.
The MOON: Yes, but those other people didn’t count. They didn’t submit their findings to peer-reviewed journals.
de la Forêt: Exactly.
The MOON: So, your life trajectory said you would be teaching and doing research and writing papers at some prestigious university. You had like, what, a 4.0 GPA? What happened?
de la Forêt: A lot of things happened, actually, but the short version is that I was in that ivory tower mentality myself, thinking that what I was doing was so important, so groundbreaking, and so on. Then my advisor got tenured and basically quit working with me. He felt as if he had worked hard and long enough and had earned the right to take it easy. My research essentially came to a halt. Before that, I’d been loving graduate school. I was putting in sixteen hour days in a dark lab, never seeing the light of day, but I didn’t mind because I thought what I was doing was so important. And I thought my advisor thought so too. When he basically quit, it was a wake-up call, forcing me to reexamine all of my assumptions. I started having time to do a lot of outside reading, and the books I was reading discussed the effects humans were having upon the Earth and people in other societies who were living differently, without those negative effects. I started to become very interested in living more sustainably.
I started visiting intentional communities in the Southeast and Midwest, just to get a feel for what was going on in the world outside the University of Alabama. I recall one occasion sitting next to a girl named Katie who asked me what I was doing. When I told her about my research, she looked at me blankly and said, “But what is that for?”
Now it was my turn to look at her blankly. That was the first time it hit me that “in the real world”what I was doing did not matter; it wasn’t going to make the world a better place. It was really a form of indulgence—especially as I saw that people who are living closer to nature know implicitly what I was working to demonstrate in the laboratory.
I went back to my advisor and talked to him about it, and what he said stunned me. He said that the state of the world was not my concern; that I was a cognitive psychologist and my concern was the mind. It was environmentalists’job to look after the state of the environment. He told me to go back to the lab and keep working.
The more I thought about it, the more senseless his answer sounded. It happens so much in our society: everyone passes the buck to someone else they want to make responsible for the state of the world. I thought, “By my advisor’s thinking, if I were an ax murderer, it wouldn’t be my responsibility to stop killing people with axes. My job, as a psychologist, would be to understand why I was killing people with axes. Stopping me would be law enforcement’s job.”No wonder the world is in trouble! That kind of thinking just didn’t make sense to me.
At that point, I decided that it was silly for me to continue to pursue something that made no difference. Much as I enjoyed research, I couldn’t justify making other people responsible for the way I was living. In other words, I couldn’t wait for environmentalists to succeed at enacting policies that would force me and other people to live sustainably. I needed to take responsibly for living sustainably myself.
It took me a couple of years to work through this in my mind, but eventually I quit my career and started learning the skills I’d need to take responsibility for my own impact on the Earth. I moved to Washington state and started learning all the skills I live by now.
The MOON: Going back to when your professor put his feet up on the desk and you started doing other kinds of reading: what motivated you to read about sustainable living, rather than, say, space travel, or murder mysteries?
de la Forêt: It started when I was an undergraduate at Drury College in Missouri. We spent a lot of time questioning who we were—as individuals, and as a culture. We’d read and think about how we got to be the way we are; what were the myths, or beliefs, that reinforced us to be that way compared to the myths, or beliefs, other people carry that reinforce them behaving differently, and so on. That sparked the realization that there are other ways of living. At the time, I was still focused on going to graduate school and doing research, but sustainable living remained an interest in the background.
Then, too, reading the news contributed to my interest. You don’t have to be paying a whole lot of attention to realize that things are not going well on planet Earth. My advisor’s behavior sparked another period of self-examination in me: what is my life to be about? What am I doing here? The mainstream answers I was getting were unsatisfactory: work hard, get my Ph.D., get a good job—though none of my professors were happy—and when I’d worked long enough I could retire and maybe then I could be happy. It gradually got so that I couldn’t lie to myself any longer that “everything would be okay in the end.”I was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and it was meaningless. Why were we—as a culture—doing this to ourselves? Was there really no other way to live?
I also read politics and economics to try to understand how and why things are the way they are. But in the end, I realized that there are still some people practicing other ways of living in the world; we do have choices; we don’t have to keep living the way society suggests we should; and so I moved to Washington to try to learn some of those ways.
The MOON: Why Washington?
de la Forêt: I was looking for a school. That was the mindset I had; you need a school to learn things. There are shorter programs—weekend and weeklong skills trainings—in a lot of places, but I was looking for at least a year-long immersion program. At the time, there weren’t that many and two of them were in Washington. So I attended Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington, in the fall of 2004. I stayed there two or three years, went through their apprenticeship program and taught skills to other people. I also completed a program—Earthwalk Northwest—in Issaquah.
The Wilderness Awareness Program includes an emphasis on community-building, as well as nature awareness. One of the founders is Jon Young, of the Eight Shields Program, who has spent a lot of time with Native people and incorporates a lot of their cultural practices into his teachings because it’s important to understand how Native peoples were able to live cooperatively and harmoniously together, whereas our culture tends to yield competitiveness and, unfortunately, dysfunction.
Looking back I find it almost ridiculous that I had to be taught how to listen, or to observe something, but I did. We spent a lot of time sitting still, engaging all of our senses, and asking ourselves questions such as “What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you see? How is it different from the last time you sat here? What has changed?”That was a big part of the training. We also learned a lot about animal behavior, wildlife tracking, and survival skills like friction fire, cordage-making, basket-making, wildcrafting, and so on.
The MOON: So, what is wildcrafting?
de la Forêt: Wildcrafting is simply the gathering of wild plants. I wanted to be more self-reliant and of course feeding myself was one of the first things I had to figure out how to do. A lot of people who want to be self-reliant start gardens. However, at the time I was reading books by Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn, and others who blame civilization for many of our contemporary problems, and agriculture is what makes civilization possible. Agriculture enables a society to produce and store enough food so that people can stay in one place and not have to follow their food supply; it also frees some people from food production. So I turned my attention to gathering wild food, rather than relying on a garden. Plus, the Wilderness Awareness School was not a gardening school; it was a school about surviving in the wild.
The MOON: What types of plants do you gather?
de la Forêt: Wildcrafting is very environment-dependent. You can only collect what grows wild in your environment. Here on the eastern side of the North Cascades, the big thing is roots. Our environment is somewhat harsh—long, cold winters with lots of snow and hot summers when it’s very dry. The growing season is quite short, so wild plants here have developed strategies for surviving and reproducing in their short window of opportunity. One of those strategies is storing a lot of energy in their roots so that when the weather warms, they can produce flowers and seeds fairly quickly, and then disappear back into the ground before they get fried by the sun.
When you’re wildcrafting, nutrient-dense foods like roots and seeds give you the most nutritional bang for your buck, so that’s why they’re important. Here in eastern Washington, I gather roots like spring beauties, bitterroot, yellow bells, and all kinds of lomatiums. We have a lot of arrowleaf balsamroot in the Valley, but I don’t gather the root. I gather the young shoots and the seeds—they’re in the sunflower family—and are really good and pack a lot of energy. I also gather a lot of berries—huckleberries, elderberries, Saskatoon berries, and more.
You have to be aware of where these plants grow, and when, because as I said, they have a short growing season, so you have a short window of opportunity to collect them.
The MOON: So how much time do you spend gathering food in order to feed yourself?
de la Forêt: I no longer gather as many wild plants as I used to because we live here in the Methow Valley where a lot of our friends have small, organic farms, so I can get my food sustainably from them. However, when I first came to the Valley and participated in Lynx Vilden’s Stone Age project we did a lot of wildcrafting—several hours a day. We spent three months gathering food in preparation for spending one month in the wilderness. During the root-gathering season, which is about three weeks in the spring, the Native Americans would spend all day every day doing it. If you need to gather enough to sustain you through the winter, you need to gather three times as much as you need for present season consumption. That’s when wildcrafting becomes a fulltime occupation—at least during certain times of the year.
Again, that’s one of the environment-dependent factors of wildcrafting. In the Methow, there’s so much diversity of plant life, as well as microclimates—different elevations, dryness, temperatures—you have to know your environment to know where to go when to harvest what is available. That’s where Native knowledge becomes so valuable. Survival depends on knowing where you have to be to harvest what is available there—without a lot of backtracking. Natives knew, “OK, I’m going into the hills for three weeks in the spring to gather the roots; then I’m going after the spring salmon. In summer, I’ll harvest berries; then maybe I’ll have time to go back in the mountains to gather more roots; then in the early fall I’ll gather elderberries; then the fall salmon,”and so on. They had an entire system worked out—an ethnoecology. Having that knowledge of how to move through the landscape in order to sustain yourself and make the most of the availability of wild foods is a huge advantage.
However, because we’re fortunate to be able to get local fruits, vegetables, roots, grass-fed meats, and grains right here in the Methow, I’ve shifted some of my attention and energy to doing other things sustainably, which I wouldn’t have the time or energy to do if I was wildcrafting.
The MOON: What do you do to preserve the food you collect in order to live off it throughout the year?
de la Forêt: You can, of course, eat some of it immediately. The guideline is to preserve two-thirds for future consumption. I dry a lot of my roots, which also makes them easier to transport. I use the dried roots in stews through the winter. Berries are delicious fresh, of course, but I also dry a lot of them as the Natives did: press them into little cakes and dry the cakes. Dried chokecherries, Saskatoon berries, and so on make great little snacks. The Valley is so dry in the summer that you can air-dry, or sun-dry, roots and berries. You can also smoke and dry meat and fish into jerky, or smoked fish.
Berry cakes will dry in a matter of days. Roots, it depends on the variety. Spring beauty bulbs dry incredibly fast if you split them in half. That’s the trick, because the roots tend to have a tough barrier on the outside to keep moisture in. If you cut them in half, the moisture can escape and the roots dry in a day or two. Yellow bells and some other bulbs that are a little more buttery take a little longer to dry—say three or four days.
The MOON: And how do these foods taste? What do you do about butter, or condiments, or seasonings?
de la Forêt: They taste great. Spring beauties have a potato-like consistency and taste. Yellow bell bulbs are my favorite—they’re really nutty and buttery. Bitterroot is an acquired taste; it’s quite bitter, of course; but the bitterness is concentrated in a red outer bark and in red hearts within the body of the root. If you remove all the red, so that you have a white bitterroot, it’s quite delicious. Plus, bitterroot tends to disintegrate as it’s cooked, so it’s good for thickening stews. It is also very nutritious and was one of the staples of the local Natives.
I’m not a purist in terms of feeding myself solely through wildcrafting. I pursue it because it connects me with my environment in a really intimate way, while making me more self-reliant. But I don’t limit myself in terms of seasonings, or other foods that I can get locally and sustainably here in the Valley.
The MOON: What about people who might not live in an area so blessed with wild plants, or who might not have access to them? Are there enough wild plants that are ubiquitous—such as dandelion greens, or chickweed, or miner’s lettuce—that even urban dwellers could gather them? Or is the whole point of wildcrafting to find out: get to know your local environment, wherever you are, and find out what might be edible and sustainably harvestable?
de la Forêt: I have two answers to that. The first one is regarding greens, such as chickweed, plantain, amaranth, dandelions, and other plants that have followed humans everywhere. Some of them weren’t always weeds, but, like dandelions, were actually imported because they were such an important food source. It’s ironic that we now eradicate them from our gardens when they are so abundant, so nutritious, and were once highly prized. So, a lot of these common green plants, now thought of as weeds, are available all over the world, including in urban environments, and can definitely be harvested. However, although these plants are nutritious and important to a diet, it would take a lot of greens to sustain a person, in terms of calories, particularly through the winter. That’s the advantage of roots, which leads to my second answer: roots tend to be a lot more localized. They don’t propagate as easily as greens, so they don’t follow humans as readily. To learn the wild edible roots particular to a given area, I recommend people contact someone who knows the local flora quite well.
For readers on the west coast of Washington I can recommend Pacific silverweed and springbank clover as abundant, edible wild plants. There’s actually a lot of evidence that Natives made gardens along the waterways to encourage their growth because they were such a valued food supply. But we don’t have those plants on this side of the Cascades; they’ve evolved to thrive in a specific environment, whereas some of the “weeds”have evolved to succeed everywhere.
The MOON: What about wildcrafting medicinal plants?
de la Forêt: We definitely do some of that too. Right now it is elderberry season, and elderberry is great for colds and flu, as science has demonstrated. Hawthorn berries are great heart support; and chokecherries, which have the highest antioxidant content of any plant in the U.S., are incredibly abundant here. People tend not to eat chokecherries because they’re astringent, but they have great medicinal qualities. We infuse the chokecherries in vinegars and honeys. Valerian also grows here, which is a useful herb with sedative, antiseptic, anticonvulsant, and pain-relieving properties. I am not the herbalist; that’s Rosalee’s department. I can just tell you what we collect.
The MOON: Speaking of honey, do you gather wild honey, too?
de la Forêt: No. Again, we’re fortunate to know a lot of local beekeepers. We don’t have to collect or raise our own honey because we have friends who do it. That’s one of the things you learn about the hunting-gathering lifestyle: it takes a village. And that’s a good thing; it means you don’t have to work all the time. You collect what you’re good at collecting and share it with your friends, who are good at collecting, or growing, or harvesting what they’re good at. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Some people get discouraged by the fact that they’re not completely self-reliant. But I couldn’t wildcraft, hunt, gather my own honey, gather and distill my own medicines, tan my own hides, make my own clothes, cut my own firewood, and so on. It would be too difficult.
Here in the Methow Valley we’re so fortunate to have so many people who are interested in caring for the Earth and living sustainably, even if we might not agree one hundred percent on what that means. So I can feel good about getting some of my food from them. I trust them to know what they’re doing and provide me with the best foods they can, which frees me to do other things with my time.
The MOON: What would it take for an average reader to become a wildcrafter? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent their childhoods learning what, when, where and how to gather and preserve wild foods. Can modern adults really emulate that lifestyle when they haven’t been properly prepared for it? How do you advise people who want to get started?
de la Forêt: That’s a big question. I find that a lot of people get discouraged because our society doesn’t encourage us to do the right thing by the Earth. They lament that they weren’t born into a different culture. But you know, Native people who lived sustainably weren’t necessarily better people. They just happened to be born into a society that pushed them to do the sustainable thing, instead of into a society that pushes them to participate in mass exploitation of the environment.
It’s easy to feel sorry for ourselves and blame our society. I fell into that myself when I was in my late twenties and wanted to learn all of these skills—which seemed so difficult. Why couldn’t I have been learning them effortlessly when I was five? But it’s like learning a language. I learned English as an adult, which wasn’t as effortless as learning French when I was one, but it wasn’t impossible, either. I just learned it a little at a time.
Life is a process. Things take time. It’s easy to forget that in our society, where we can push a button and get the results we want. Learning to live sustainably is not like that. There is no “sustainable living button.”It takes time to learn to live sustainably—and it takes time to live sustainably. When you’re living the way I’m living, you don’t have time for other activities that modern people spend their days and lives doing. You can’t work forty hours a week at a job, for example.
It has taken me ten years to acquire the sustainable living skills I now have, and from a purely objective point of view, I’m nowhere close to living sustainably, or living the kind of lives the Natives were living. For example, I’m talking on a phone right now, and that phone was not made sustainably. I have a website and work on a computer that was not made sustainably. I drive a car, which burns fossil fuels, which are not sustainable. So I am nowhere close to living a truly sustainable life. I can either beat myself up about that, or I can realize that I am doing the best I can and doing better than I used to.
It’s helpful to recognize that there are a lot of barriers to living this way full time so that you don’t get discouraged by them. For example, our culture is very sedentary, and if you want to be a serious wildcrafter you have to be nomadic. You can’t be a “commuter” wildcrafter—at least, not sustainably. Like our Native ancestors did, it makes more sense to go where the food is and camp there while you collect it; then move on. This is difficult to do today—especially when the main gathering grounds are either on Forest Service or state-owned land, or on private property. Unless you can get permission, those areas are off-limits to food gatherers.
Nevertheless, even if you only wildcraft for a small portion of your food, or even for a single wild meal, most people find it very beneficial. It connects you to the wild world and makes you attuned to how it works. It also fills you with gratitude, because you realize that nature is taking care of you all the time in ways that we usually don’t stop to appreciate. Some people tell me that if they can’t live one hundred percent sustainably, they don’t want to bother. I think that’s silly. If that’s your choice point, you’re choosing to not live sustainably at all. How can you justify that?
As I said, I think it’s far better to do the best you can where you can. I have very little impact on decisions made in the larger world. I have no input on Syria, for example; or U.S. policy on any number of issues; I’m just one person. But in my own life, I have a lot of influence. The least I can do is try to carry my own weight. So that’s my recommendation to others: trade in that baggage that makes you think the weight of the world is on your shoulders. It’s not. However your own fate is on your shoulders, and that’s what you should focus on. Even if you start out taking baby steps, at least you’re taking steps. You won’t take baby steps forever.
If you want to be a wildcrafter and don’t know anything about it, the first thing to do is get to know the plants. If you can find a mentor, great; if there are Native people around, even better! But if you’ve only got a field guide, start with that. You will spend more time with the plants; you will see whether other animals eat the plants, or not; you will understand their growing cycle; what conditions they prefer; you might even start considering how you might help them grow better. If that’s all you can do to live more sustainably, just focus on that.
The MOON: What is the Sustainable Living Project?
de la Forêt: The Sustainable Living Project is the name I gave to what I’m trying to do here on the land where Rosalee and I live. As I said, you can’t live one hundred percent sustainably by yourself; it takes a village. The Sustainable Living Project is my open invitation to others to come and be part of our village.
When I first started visiting intentional communities I was looking for the perfect place with the perfect people so that I could join them and start living sustainably. I never found that perfect situation, and I think a lot of people get stuck there. They want to live sustainably, but they’re alone; they travel around to gathering after gathering trying to find the perfect situation, and they never do. I didn’t either. Things are not perfect anywhere. So I decided to start where I am, right now, instead of when conditions are perfect.
In the long run, though, I realized it would be great to have a community of others join me. So I have an open invitation to anyone: if you’re interested in living sustainably, come and join us here on the land. See what we’re doing and participate with us. If you like it, stay for a week, or a month, or forever. We’ll build community around the people who come.
When I attended the Wilderness Awareness School, most of the other students planned to start their own schools to teach other people, who would start their own schools to teach other people, and so on. That got me wondering, “How many schools do we actually need?”Also, people who spend all their time teaching don’t have time to live the skills they are recommending. That seems silly to me; everyone is teaching the skills but no one is applying them. A lot of knowledge, or wisdom, can get lost that way. No one really knows from personal experience: they’re all repeating what they heard from an instructor, who read it in a book that was written fifty years ago by someone who thought it might be possible. I think that misses the point of what sustainable living is, and especially of what sustainable living is now.
I chose to think differently about the entire concept of a school. The present model is that students pay you money to learn a curriculum and then are entitled to all sorts of expectations about what they acquire as a result of their “education.”I don’t want to live my life chained to a teaching schedule; I want to be able to do what is necessary for me to live sustainably, and show other people how to do what I am doing. We’ll do it together. I call it the Invisible School, a term I learned from Wilderness Awareness School. That’s the way Natives pass along their knowledge. It’s also similar to the old apprenticeship system. If you wanted to learn a skill, you went to someone who practiced the skill and worked alongside them.
So that’s how the Sustainable Living Project works: no matter what happens—whether people are around or not—I do what is important for me to do that day. If people want to do it with me, that’s great. If you want to learn how to make a basket, you’ll have to show up when it’s the right time of year to harvest the materials and work with me to process them the right way. Then, when it’s time, we’ll make the basket.
That’s something that was really missing from my own education. I remember making a beautiful cedar bark basket and, a year later, I wanted to make another one as a gift. But I realized I didn’t know where or how or when to gather the materials, nor how to process them; I only knew how to assemble a basket from materials that had been provided for me by the class. So I couldn’t make the basket. If you don’t learn the whole process, you might as well not learn it at all.
The MOON: How is the Sustainable Living Project working out? Do you have people living with you now, or who come and stay for a while?
de la Forêt: Sometimes. I’d have to say it’s definitely a terrible marketing strategy. I don’t charge people in the first place, but if I did I would still be broke. I know that when I was starting, I too was looking for a school that would teach me what I wanted to learn. There was one school, run by Tom Elpel out in Montana, who teaches very similarly to the way I approach it—but I was scared to try it. I was afraid of the lack of structure. I was afraid I’d spend all this time and I wouldn’t know in advance what I would learn by the time I got out.
So I know a lot of people are turned off by the lack of structure and by the lack of money exchange. You know, if you don’t have to pay $10,000, it must not be very valuable. But to tell the truth, I don’t work very hard at getting the word out there. If you are looking to learn primitive living skills, you will find me, and that’s fine.
A lot of people contact me at the end of the summer for some reason, which is the end of my wildcrafting season. In the fall, I’m preparing for winter. If people contact me in September and say they want to come, I say, “Great. What we’re doing is cutting firewood and dragging it up the hill to the house.” Most people decline my very gracious invitation to have them help me carry heavy logs up a hill.
I have had a handful of people come through. Two of them stayed for a couple of months, and one of them is still in the Valley.
The MOON: Where do they stay?
de la Forêt: They stay on the land with us. That’s another difficulty: we don’t own this land; it belongs to our friends. Even though they have been incredibly generous in letting us and others stay, we don’t want to impose on their generosity by having too many people on their land.
So people who come to learn camp out on the land. In the summer it’s great, but it is pretty difficult to live in a tent during the winter. We can’t build permanent structures for them here right now, so come October, they have to move on, unfortunately.
The MOON: So what sustainable skills do you practice here?
de la Forêt: My daily activities change with the seasons. I do forestry all year-round, which means felling, bucking, and limbing trees with a handsaw. I don’t use a chainsaw. Then I carry or pull the logs up the hill to the house. It takes a long time, which is why I do it year-round.
Learning how long things take is part of the sustainable living skills curriculum. It doesn’t take very long to learn how to fell, buck, and limb a tree: you can learn that in an hour or two. What takes longer is acquiring the mindset of sustainable living. Knowing your body so that you know how much you can do in a day without overdoing it; knowing the work, so you know how much time it will take you to do a particular task; and so on. When I was at other schools, I saw that people typically want to go all-out. They do too much and hurt themselves, or they burn out; and then they give up, thinking they gave it their best and it just wasn’t for them. That’s why I really like people coming to stay and immerse themselves in our lives; they acquire not just the skills, but the mindset. They fall into the rhythm. They learn how to think ahead and to pace themselves and to conserve resources.
In addition to forestry, I spend time going into the field. That usually takes place in the spring. Sometimes I’m collecting; sometimes I’m teaching others how to collect; sometimes I’m just building my relationship with the plants. Sustainable wildcrafting is not just about taking plants; you need to give something back. What is appropriate to give back requires knowing the plants.
I find that a lot of people are very insecure in nature. It’s not just that they’re unfamiliar with it; it’s that they’ve been told that human beings are bad; they destroy things. That’s not only sad, it’s not true. If you look at Native history, you see that Natives had a huge positive impact on their environment. The species they depended upon coevolved with them. So I try to help people see that we humans can have a positive impact on the plant world.
The MOON: How did Natives—or how can modern humans—have a positive impact on the plants?
de la Forêt: We are part of millions of years of coevolution among species. The classic example is between pollinators and flowering plants. The bees pollinate the plants and get the nectar; it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. But we forget—or never knew—that many species coevolved in this way. Native root plants have coevolved with root-diggers, which include gophers, badgers, bears, and also humans. We have evolved a mutually beneficial relationship with these plants. The way it works in our region—again, this is bioregionally dependent—is that we have harsh winters and summers. Summers are so hot and dry that the soil tends to crust over. For seed-bearing plants, this is a big challenge. They need to get their seeds buried because seeds that stay on the surface are going to get fried by the sun or frozen in the winter, eaten by animals, or washed away when it rains. Left to their own devices, plants have to rely on luck: on some fissure in the ground that their seed will fall into.
Then, along come root-diggers, creating fissures in the ground that seeds can easily fall into. When you wildcraft sustainably, you dig up one plant, but you leave the plant next to it so that its seeds can fall into the hole you’ve created. That’s another reason that timing is important: you gather the roots just as the plants are going to seed so that the ground opens up just as the seed is ready to fall into it. That’s one example of coevolution. Another benefit that root-diggers provide is that, by digging and turning over the earth, we’re aerating the soil, which plants appreciate.
Particular species, such as yellow bells and chocolate lilies, have unique reproductive strategies. They do produce seeds, but they mainly rely on propagules, little bulblets on top of the main bulb. Those twenty or thirty bulblets will not grow unless they’re disturbed—broken off from the main bulb. Although the single bulb will reproduce a single plant year after year, if a root-digger removes the bulb and breaks off some of the bulblets, five or ten yellow bells or chocolate lilies will grow instead of one. That’s how humans can have a positive impact on the plants they’re collecting, so that they are at least as abundant in the following year as they were before.
People often tell me that I shouldn’t be harvesting native wild plants; that there are non-native species that should be killed instead. They assume that I am decimating a threatened resource. They don’t understand, in particular, why I would harvest roots because that kills the entire plant. What they don’t realize is that during the root harvesting season, a single Native woman would gather sixty pounds of roots a day for three weeks straight. If you multiply that by five hundred adult Native women in the Valley, gathering sixty pounds of roots a day for three weeks, year after year after year, for ten thousand years, you realize that the plants were able to sustain this level of harvesting. In fact, this level of harvesting is what made them so abundant. Those plants have evolved expecting us to interact with them, but we’ve dropped the ball. No one is aerating the ground; no one is creating a bed for their seeds to fall into; no one is knocking the propagules off the bulb to increase propagation. Our native plants are suffering from neglect!
The mindset of “stay on the trails and leave no trace”is appropriate for people who are ignorant of the flora and fauna; who would leave trash, or destroy wantonly. But as matters stand, we are neglecting our half of the relationship with native plants because we’re not fulfilling our part of the coevolutionary process.
Nancy Turner, an ethnobotanist in British Columbia, who has done a lot of work with the Native Americans and written several books about their relationships with the plants, explains that Europeans didn’t recognize Native gardens as such because they were used to fenced monocrops planted in rows. European gardens also were based on annuals, which had to be planted each year and watered throughout the growing season. Natives didn’t do these things, so Europeans believed they had no gardens; that they were ignorant of agriculture. Dr. Turner has documented that the quantity of wild plants in western Canada was incredible and that the Natives had been actively tending them for ten thousand years!
I was talking about this the other day with Mary Kiesau, of the Methow Conservancy, who said, “Well, I have noticed that spring beauties do a lot better when there are gophers around.”That is because gophers, like humans, are root-diggers. So, just like with our domesticated gardens, we can have mutually beneficial relationships with wild plants, which is part of sustainable wildcrafting.
The MOON: On your website is a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “No European who has tasted savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.” Do you believe that humans can truly, happily return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle…all seven billion of us? Or any of us?
de la Forêt: I think that one of the reasons the mainstream environmental movement has not been able to solve the environmental crisis is that they arelooking for a solution for seven billion of us, and I don’t know that there is one solution for seven billion of anything.
In the 1700s, when Benjamin Franklin made that quote, there were still Natives living in the wild and Europeans were interacting with them to such an extent that many were leaving their jobs and communities to go live with them. Virginia even passed a law to forbid people from doing that. But there are no such people living that way today. Even the Natives are caught in the same cultural challenges whites are, and in many ways their situation is worse. So we can’t jump ship. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make incremental progress. I’m doing my little bit, which is not perfectly sustainable, but it’s an improvement over the way I was living before, so I’ll keep on doing it. If everyone did that—took one step forward to see how it felt—they might enjoy it so much they took another step. And that’s how we’d progress.
The reason that indigenous peoples have lived sustainably for so long on this Earth is because, rather than expect the environment to conform to however they arbitrarily decided they wanted to live, they asked the environment, “How can I live sustainably here?”That’s what needs to happen again. We may not be able to sustain seven billion people, but I think we could sustain a very large number of people if we brought everything back to the local level and asked the landscape, “What do you afford me right here? What kinds of food will you provide? What kinds of shelters can I construct with locally available materials?”And so on. I think our lives would become much clearer to us if we each took responsibility for asking the questions and implementing the answers, rather than waiting for experts in ivory towers, or in the halls of Congress, to tell us what the solutions are. Humans have lived sustainably on the Earth for ages. The knowledge is there; we just need to get on that bus.
The MOON: What about people living in cities?
de la Forêt: Cities are definitely a big, black hole on the landscape, dependent on importing resources from other places. I can’t really tell city-dwellers to move to the countryside, because if they all did that at once it would overwhelm the countryside. But, as I said, life is a process. Things take time. Some people may move to the countryside. Some people may plant urban forests or community gardens. And many people will probably choose to progressively limit reproduction so that we slow, or reduce, population growth. If not, Earth will do that for us. Our population will crash, big time.
Reducing population is not a very popular idea in a culture that reveres growth. Even the idea of limiting our growth is spurned, to say nothing of reversing growth. I don’t trouble myself too much with that. I trouble myself with overcoming the barriers to living sustainably myself. As I said, one of them is the difficulty of living a nomadic lifestyle in a culture that wants people to have a fixed address. When a nomadic lifestyle is all you know, then it’s normal. Even when times are hard, or you don’t have enough food to last the winter, you are used to braving the elements and you have the stories of others who have weathered hard times before. But once you have tasted comfort and convenience, or grown up in a culture that surrounds you with comfort and convenience, it can be pretty tough to let go. Those are psychological barriers that people have to overcome.
Ten years ago I’d never have imagined living the life I’m living now. My parents still can’t imagine the way I’m living. [Laughs] But it happened one step at a time. Now I cut my own wood; we generate our own electricity using solar panels; I make my own clothes from deer hides that I tan myself; we collect and preserve quite a bit of food.
We do have a car—we live eight miles from town. I do use a computer and maintain my wife’s online education business, as well as my own website. So we’re not purists, by any means.
The MOON: What are the joys and riches of this “primitive”life you live?
de la Forêt: I enjoy a lot of free time. That’s one of my rewards. Once you unhook from the nine-to-five world of work, and the notion that you have to stay until the end of your shift even if you’ve done what you need to do—you realize that you don’t need to work so hard all the time. I work hard when there’s something I have to do, but when I’m finished I relax.
I also don’t get up to an alarm clock. No one else tells me what to do with my time. There are real-life constraints, of course; if I don’t cut enough firewood I’m going to freeze in the winter. But I can choose how and when I get the work done. So I typically don’t know what I’m going to do each day until I wake up in the morning, make breakfast, check the weather, and see how I feel. If I feel like cutting firewood I do that; if I feel like tanning hides, I do that; if I feel like making a pair of shoes, I do that; if I feel like doing nothing, I do nothing. That freedom is wonderful. I think that’s what was so appealing to the whites back in the time of Ben Franklin. Once you’ve tasted the freedom of living your own life, doing what you decide to do each day, it’s very hard to go back to a 9-to-5 job. For me it would be impossible.
I also enjoy staying home. I go into town once a week, but ninety percent of my time is spent within three hundred feet of our cabin. I really like that. It gives me a good relationship with the land we’re on; I have a lot of interactions with it, and I really enjoy the exchange between us. I’m so grateful for the trees that give their lives to keep me warm in the winter, and I really hope that the care I give to the forest does them some good, too. I thin the forest, so that the trees get more light. I keep the brush cleared so that they’re not vulnerable to fires. I limb the trees to fifteen or twenty feet so that if fire comes through it won’t get into their crowns and kill the trees. That kind of relationship-building is pretty priceless.
My wife Rosalee works here at home, too, so we’re together all the time, enjoying our lives. I remember when she had to leave the house to go to work in town in the morning and wouldn’t come back until dinner time each night. That was not a lot of fun.
The MOON: The theme of this issue is “Collections: The Search for the Missing Whole.”How would you address that? Do you think our attempt to collect things is compensation for a hole at the center of our being?
de la Forêt: I think that’s pretty obvious. Look at how people are constantly seeking to buy happiness, even if it only lasts for a few hours, or even a few minutes. We say that we’re a “connected society”because we have the internet and cell phones. But it seems to me that all our connection technology is just showing us what people are looking for. They want connection, but obviously they’re not finding it, because they replace their cell phones every year with a new one. It’s as if they’re saying, “Well, the iPhone 5 didn’t give me the connection I needed; I sure hope the iPhone 6 can do it.”People don’t even know there’s a different way to live.
I remember being terribly depressed in grad school because I thought I had no choice. Everyone around me was miserable, but I thought this was the only life possible. When I finally realized I didn’t have to live the life that had been programmed for me; that I could do something else, even if I didn’t know what it was, that’s when my depression lifted. But so many people never have that realization. They know they’re miserable, but they don’t know what they can do about it. So they keep buying one thing after another because that’s what everyone else is doing.
I’m not saying that the way I found happiness, or fulfillment of the hole inside myself, is the way that everyone will find it, but for me it was connection with nature; not more stuff. Human beings are looking for connection, but we aren’t going to find it through the phone lines, or wi-fi. We find it through connection with other species and through realizing that we do belong. That’s one of the myths of our culture—that we don’t belong to this world—that we’re either above it, which gives us the right to destroy it; or we’re below it, the only species that doesn’t know how to live sustainably and harmoniously with other life on the planet. I think both views are incredibly narrow and biased. We do belong. How could humans be the odd man out—the only species out of hundreds of thousands—that doesn’t know how to live sustainably on this Earth? That’s crazy. Of course we belong, but we have removed ourselves, which is where the malaise comes from; the holes that need to be filled. We’ve removed ourselves from interactions with the greater world.
The solution for me has been to reconnect with that world. Some people may say that when I’m cutting firewood, I’m just killing trees. And of course, I am killing some trees, but I’m doing it in a way that benefits the forest I hope. Similarly, when I’m collecting plants, particularly roots, I’m killing those plants. But I’m also doing it in a way that will enable future generations of plants to come back even stronger. They’re feeding me, but I’m also having a positive impact on them.
I had a funny thought this morning when I was out cutting trees with my handsaw. Across the way, a neighbor started cutting trees with his chainsaw. At first it was incredibly depressing to me that I work so hard all year round to cut trees by hand to get my firewood, and my neighbor was going to spend four hours with his chainsaw and be done. But then I saw the squirrels going up the hill, grabbing one pine cone and going back down the hill and storing it. Then they went back up the hill and got another pine cone. I thought, “Hey, that’s like me. I’m going up and down this hill storing firewood.”That gave me a tremendous sense of belonging. I was doing what every other creature is doing right now, preparing for the winter, one nut, or log, or pine cone at a time. I know that I belong in this world. There is no hole left inside of me.
The post Collecting one’s food | An interview with Xavier de la Forêt appeared first on The MOON magazine.