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Back to Roots

What to do when we are living in self-imposed exile from our own ecological niche...

Back to Roots

Shouldn't that title read 'Back to our roots', I hear you say?

Actually it’s as I intend it, as a comment on the fact that in so many respects we have no roots. And this comment is intended as a starting point for stating, most emphatically, that we need to get back to having them... Animals are what they are, have their identity in how they relate to their surroundings. The nature of a species lies in one sense in having a particular kind of relatedness to particular surroundings. This identity roots them in a place. And of course, we ourselves are animals, who evolved to have such deep delving roots into places, evolved to occupy a particular ecological niche, although it is clear that we are presently not occupying it. This is because the roots, the vital connections which formerly linked us to our surroundings have one by one been severed. We are living in self-imposed exile from our own ecological niche!

The word niche describes the role a species has in the ecology of a place and it’s a good metaphorically descriptive word: a niche is a hollowed out space which has a perfect fit with the thing that occupies it. Like a hand in a glove.  But whilst a hand can exist without a glove, a species cannot exist without its ecological niche. Nor can the particular arrangement of other species and physical features which constitutes this niche, exist without the species.

To give a not so specific example, a fish out of water cannot continue to live. The breathing apparatus of fish has evolved to obtain oxygen from water but this is only one aspect of how their anatomy and physiology makes them inseparable from water. The shape of a fish, its scales, its swim bladder, the food it is adapted to need, obtain and digest- marine-based food -, its behaviour – lots of swimming of course-, how fish think: all these locate the fish in water. Each one of these adaptations is a functional joining and a structural coupling between the fish and the kind of environment the fish lives in. Each of these aspects of being a fish enables the fish to be in that environment and do well- to flourish, by means of being ideally suited to interact with the way water is. Of course, each characteristic has been encoded in the genes of fish through a very long process of adaptation. So the genes of a fish are a record of the very many interactions of its many increasingly fishlike ancestors with watery environments over a very long period of time.

This is a broad analogy for adaptations and ecological niches in general- of course there are many types of aquatic ecosystems for which specific fish will have a specific fit, just as land animals fit into specific land-based ecosystems. But the point is that each adaptation is a hand in glove type fit which joins the species to the kind of place it lives in principle so that in practice an individual animal or community of animals is thereby joined to a specific place of that kind. So these adaptations are like bonds or roots which ground the species there and enable all kinds of exchange to take place by direct living contact. Animals feed on what is here – perhaps feasting on berries- and defecates here- though some distance from the berry tree, thus returning modified and enhanced substance to the ground, whilst inadvertently planting seeds from the fruit. The flow of nutrients and seeds is therefore enhanced, not just by the animal and the tree being here but by the vital contact taking place between them.

The gradual development of a good fit between species and place (which remember includes other species) makes for an increasingly favourable state of affairs for the species and also for the likelihood of a particular ecosystem remaining in place. For the species this means it will thrive and reproduce more than other species there which have not yet achieved such a good fit. So this fitness is in essence a stable and settled condition. Change is essential to life, but in evolutionary terms it’s really slow and gradual: for a species it takes a long time to hollow out an ecological niche at the same time as you yourself change to better fit it as it takes shape. So the experience of individuals who have found a good niche is not one of rapid change but of being rooted in a place in a state of stability and flourishing. Note that I said being rooted. Rootedness is essential to the being of the species: its being or presence – what and how it is- is inseparable from this state of being rooted, this interdependence with a very specific context.

Take an animal out of this context and put it in a zoo and it ceases to be. In a very real sense it is dead. Because the nature of this animal is to act on and in its surroundings through its body which is evolved to fit a certain place, allowing its anatomy and physiology, its neuropsychology expressed in all kinds of behaviour to interact directly with that place and get what it needs and also make its own unique contribution to the overall functioning of that ecosystem. Out of its place, in a zoo it needs feeding- can't feed itself-, it may need housing, it may need other artefacts to keep it from boredom because it no longer has any active engagement with a place. It has in effect become a non-entity: because its being is inseparable from the place it is adapted to be, when separated from that place it is unable to be. It is dead.

The last ever California condor was kept in a zoo until it died. California condors are now extinct. However, the California condor in fact went extinct the moment the last one was removed from its place in the arid land environment of California and its associated thermal air currents.

And of course all this description of an animal in a zoo relates to us. Everything we need, pretty much, is provided for us by mechanical processes which take place somewhere else (though it doesn't much matter where as such processes are not generally expressions of place), transported long distances then obtained by money. Our highly evolved anatomy, physiology, neuropsychology and social behaviour is precisely developed to enable a highly functional fit between us and our surroundings. However, first farming, then mechanised social and economic relations (hierarchy, empire, bureaucracy, capitalism) then industrialisation and consumerism have bit by bit replaced this functional ecological fit and all its direct contact and mutually beneficial exchange between people and places. Physical contact with soil and species in our surroundings is not only no longer necessary for us to eat, find shelter, stay warm etc.- in many places it is no longer possible. Such  places are where most of us spend most of our lives. I am thinking of buildings and city streets. Social contact which links us to where our food comes from is also no longer necessary and for most no longer possible. Whereas for hunter gatherers if you didn't hunt you at least heard the story of the hunt and observed others preparing the kill to eat. Or vice versa for plants gathered (more usually by women and children).

In these ways there is very little difference between us and an animal in the zoo. We are here but not here, because there are no vital connections between us and where we are. We don't touch the soil. We don't know any of the other species. For us it has also become normal to not know people who live or work in close physical proximity to us. Our contact with people is largely through machines. We move through landscapes in machines. Whereas our ancestors would have known each species and each small portion of their landscape and each person who habitually shared their space. Connections were practical and profoundly intimate because embedded in a culture as finely tuned as their anatomy and physiology to the purpose of exchanging the life giving stuff of life in a particular place.

So we need to get back to roots. Back to anything and everything that forges that vital connection between us and our surroundings, be that physical geography, other species or other people. There are few things which accomplish all three more effectively than gathering and cooking wild edible plants with other people. As soon as you bend down and pick a dandelion leaf growing on a lawn, you bypass all the mechanised and commercialised de-contextualising layers of mediation which exist between people and where their food comes from. Do the same thing with others on a regular basis, taking foraged foods home to cook and eat together and suddenly threads of food culture begin to be weave peoples' lives together in pleasurable, satisfying and meaningful ways. At the same time, there is pleasure, satisfaction and meaning in this as a way of relating, of responding to a place by recognising and making use of a plant which grows there of its own accord. And of course there is a direct physical connection as health giving nutrients and medicinal compounds gathered by the plant from the ground via its roots and concentrated in its leaves enter our mouths, descend into our guts and are released into our bloodstream to become part of the very substance of our bodies. Out of the ground, into our bodies and into our lives. You can't get more roots and culture than that!

Miles farmdrop.jpg

Written by Miles Irving

Miles is a forager, author of The Forager Handbook (2009), and has spoken around the world on wild food culture.

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