Submitted by Joel Johnson
When I moved to the Pacific Northwest and began work as an agricultural interpreter at Fort Nisqually, about eighteen months ago, I was eager to learn about the region’s history of indigenous agriculture. I grew up in Tucson, AZ, where recent excavations have uncovered 4,100 years of continuous agriculture near the Santa Cruz River. Amazed by the greenery of the Northwest, I naturally assumed the rich landscape of the Puget Sound would have a similar, if not even more abundant, history of cultivation.
In reality, quite the opposite is true. Though the indigenous inhabitants of the Northwest maintained extensive camas fields to propagate the starchy native bulb and made regular trips to well-known berry stands and fishing grounds, the land was simply too fruitful to require much agricultural toil. As ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan writes in Enduring Seeds, “Why go to the trouble to domesticate a species when you live in the thick of it?”
As its best, agriculture is a bridge between a community’s needs and the land that holds that community. It is both relational and regional, so it should not have surprised me that the historic lifeways of the Sonoran Desert didn’t necessarily translate to life on the Sound.
That said, as you pay attention to the interactions between plants and people in communities around the world, you begin to notice that while plants and techniques change, some things are universal. I have lived and worked on farms in Zambia, Arizona, Costa Rica, Pennsylvania, Fiji, and now Washington, and in every setting, there are historic parallels between the environmental ethics that have shaped and guided the relationships of the oldest and longest inhabitants of these landscapes.
I understand it in terms of convergent evolution. If you look at similar biomes in totally different regions of the world, you notice plants and animals that adapt to their environment in nearly identical ways. Euphorbia and cacti are completely different species, but as they respond to life in the desert over many generations; their form and function have converged. The same is true for those people who have lived close to the land for many generations, and the lessons they have learned are invaluable.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, plant ecologist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer explains it this way:
Collectively, the indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest. They are rules of sorts that govern our taking, shape our relationships with the natural world, and rein in our tendency to consume—that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own. The details are highly specific to different cultures and ecosystems, but the fundamental principles are nearly universal among peoples who live close to the land.
The principles Kimmerer describes have influenced the traditional practices of people groups across our continent. I have heard them described by my Navajo cross-country coach, a Puyallup magazine editor, and a Kiowa author. Though she recognizes, “The guidelines for the Honorable Harvest are not written down, or even consistently spoken of as a whole . . . if you were to list them,” Kimmerer explains, “they might look something like this:”
- Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
- Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
- Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
- Never take the first. Never take the last.
- Take only what you need.
- Take only that which is given.
- Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
- Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
- Use the harvest respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
- Give thanks for what you have been given.
- Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
- Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the earth will last forever
Whether you work the front desk at your site, interpret trades and artifacts, or coordinate volunteers, by engaging in the work of interpretation, you are engaging in the work of storytelling. And as Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares, “Stories matter.” Although “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign . . . stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
The principles of the Honorable Harvest not only heal landscapes, they heal relationships. And because of that they are as relevant to our lives today as they have ever been—especially to the sacred, storytelling work of interpretation.
As we engage the public at our many various sites, I can only imagine the environmental, cultural, and personal healing we might facilitate if we truly internalized these principles of place and put them to work as gardeners, interpreters, and storytellers.
These are lessons that have been learned by many so many different groups over so many generations, and when we forget them—when we allow them to be forgotten—we do a disservice to those who came before us and those who will follow us as the next stewards of our homelands.
Images: Fort Nisqually Living History Museum
Joel Johnson is the Trades and Agriculture Interpreter at Fort Nisqually Living History Museum in Tacoma, WA. He is passionate about plants, people, and the stories that unite them. When he’s not dabbling in a 19th century garden, he runs his freelance business, Narratives of Place, providing writing and editing support for all things agriculture, ecology, and environmental stewardship.