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Postcard From Eastern Oregon: When planting food is illegal

This Spring my farming partners and I found ourselves landless. For the past eight years, we had been actively exploring a variety of forms and practices of small-scale agriculture and restoration, including bicycle-based urban farming, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), plant-breeding and seed-saving, staple crops (grains, legumes and oilseeds) and the cultivation and processing of medicinal herbs (no, not pot). Last year I wrote an article, “Who Will Feed The People?”, discussing the challenges to small-scale agriculture in the United States, such as lack of equipment, knowledge, financial resources, and markets; the polluted wasteland left behind by conventional farming; increasingly volatile and unpredictable weather patterns brought by Climate Change; and, last but not least, the social barriers: people of the U.S. are by and large uninterested in significant changes to the socio-economic status quo, and resist cutting edge projects. It was the social factor — which can and did embody a profound hostility to Truth — that brought down our own farming efforts, at least for now.

With sadness and anger, we put our tools and seeds in storage, found foster homes for our perennial medicinals, and raised traveling cash by selling our home (a school bus) and an old but reliable Volvo. After tearfully parting with our beloved farm cat, two of us hit the road in an old pickup to see what we could see.

This journey took us to Eastern Oregon to seek out Finisia Medrano, a.k.a. “Tranny Granny”, a Shoshone elder who knows the ways of “The Hoop”, an ancient tradition of food gathering and cultivation that sustained the Native Americans and the land in good health for thousands of years until being violently disrupted by the European Invasion. The Hoop is not dead but, as we were to see, is severely threatened.

It was August when we arrived at Granny’s current squat, northeast of Klamath Falls. The land is a mix of ranchland, pine plantations, and table land, interspersed with a few winding creeks and marshy spots. Drought conditions were prevailing there, as they were over a majority of the continental United States at that time. The haze of forest fires dimmed and then concealed the hills at the horizon. Sunrises and sunsets were awesome displays of orange and red, apocalyptic.

The University of Oregon had just released a report predicting that the tinderbox conditions of this year are a taste of what Climate Change will bring over the next century. In the local paper, ranchers scoff that they don’t need anyone to warn them about drought because that’s what they prepare for every year anyway. Their tone is of the grade school playground: aggressively, ignorantly petulant. Meanwhile, another article in the same edition solemnly mentions the concerns among ranchers about when the flow from the reservoirs will be shut off this season.

Everywhere we drive in the area we see huge sprinkler systems, hundreds of feet long, spraying water airborne in enormous plumes during the hottest part of the day when a high percentage of it will be lost to evaporation. At least half the rigs sport leaks, and big puddles form at a rate of gallons-per-minute far exceeding any city person’s garden hose by a long shot. Next to one such pond is a bright yellow sign, one of many in the area, proclaiming, “Stop The Klamath Dam Scam”. This refers to the proposed removal of dams on the Klamath River, in part to bring back the salmon population.

Contrary to popular imagery, it is not lawn watering, car washing, and long showers that are depleting aquifers and draining rivers. As Derrick Jensen points out, 90% of the freshwater in the U.S. is used by Industry, including industrial agriculture, with the remaining 10% being split evenly between municipal users (such as people in homes) and golf courses. Here in Eastern Oregon it’s a small constituency — the ranchers — sucking up most of the moisture, and whining about it to boot. There’s your real scam.

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2000, I was so impressed (as I had been during visits as a child and young adult) by “all the beautiful forests”. But after I became involved with the tree-sitting campaigns and learned how to really look at the landscape, I saw what is really there: plantations of uniform trees, second- or third-growth; mature trees left only along the road to conceal the clear cuts behind them; entire horizon-to-horizon vistas of “managed” landscape with only tiny islands of Old Growth struggling to survive. A land not “pristine” but hammered. It was this type of revelation, but of the steppe country, grasslands, and pine forests of Eastern Oregon, that I was seeking by going to see Granny, and that’s what I got — at least an introduction.

Granny is of Irish extraction (a people she called, “carrot-headed, fat-cheeked, pus-gutted son-of-a-bitches”), but was adopted into Native American culture at an early age. The tribe grandmothers became her grandmothers and gave her much knowledge and perspective. She has been following The Hoop for three decades, on land both private and public, over several states, and has watched as what little remains of the native food plants — and of the Native rights to harvest and plant them — has been suffering ongoing assault. She is one of a handful of people keeping the practice alive, only some of whom are sharing their knowledge. “Long House says it is time to open the bundles,” she told us. “Not everyone is opening their bundles, but I am, and that’s why I am showing you these things.”

Granny took us up onto “The Table” first, because I said I wanted to meet Yampah (botanical name: Perideridia gairdneri). The Table is a mesa. It is a flat area elevated above the surrounding grasslands with steep sides that are broken occasionally by “draws”: tree-filled ravines running down to the bottom. On top it is rocky and dusty, crisscrossed by a few rutted roads, with hills rising still further up along its northern edges. She stopped the jeep and jumped out, announcing that we had arrived at a Yampah patch, and that this was the time of year to gather the mature seed.

At first I saw nothing but dried vegetation, undistinguished. We gathered around her as she showed us a Yampah plant right next to the road. About 18″ high, with no apparent leaves and three or four umbrella-like crowns of seed. Each seed, of which there were 50-100 per head, were about the size and shape of Caraway. Indeed, another name for Yampah is “Wild Caraway”. She demonstrated how easily the dried brown seed falls from the umbels when it is fully mature, but clings, plump and yellow-green, when it is still developing. I tasted the seed and it was delicious, much like Caraway but with an extra zing. At first I stayed right there, crouched down, examining the plants right around me, and ate quite a few seeds at the different stages, until my stomach gurgled with liveliness from the strong essential oils so characteristic of seeds in the Umbel Family (see also: Fennel, Dill).

One of Granny’s students offered me a Yampah root he had just dug. It was about 3/4 of an inch long, roundish at the top end, and tapered at the bottom. The flavor was very much like a carrot but with, again, a “wild” edge. After a few minutes, I began to feel a kind of high from these samples; an earthy rush of energy, like a warmth spreading out from my stomach; a sensation of real substance. When I arose and looked around, I got the now-you-don’t-see-it-now-you-do experience so often reported by mushroom hunters; where before I had noticed only dried vegetation among rocks, now I was seeing the Yampah everywhere. It had been there, of course, but before being able to see it, I had to “get the eye for it”. And maybe in this case that happened partly through my stomach!

Unlike most of the domestic vegetables in European/U.S. cuisine, Yampah is a perennial plant. A five-year old specimen might have just three tubers on it. One with seven to nine could be more than a decade old. Like many plants of arid regions, it grows slowly. This results in a more powerful nutritive punch than domestic vegetables offer. The minerals and other constituents are denser since that’s what the plant needs to survive and thrive in such a challenging setting. These attributes are passed on to the eater, and not only in the form of calories. Granny said that after 40 days on The Hoop eating only wild foods, your body begins to transform. The animals react to you differently because your smell has changed. If “you are what you eat”, then domestic food might make you tamer and wild food might make you more feral. Modern, chemical-laced, processed food certainly seems to be making people toxic in both body and mind.

As we dug roots and harvested seeds, we also sowed seeds. The planting part of the activity was a revelation to me. Previously, when I had thought about “hunting and gathering”, I had pictured an exclusively acquisitive activity, in which people simply harvested what was available, but had no other interaction. But as a form — or perhaps the primary form — of hunting and gathering, a Hoop also includes planting and tending. Tellingly, Granny referred to the various patches of Yampah, Biscuit Root, Coush, Looksh, and Camas, etc., as “gardens”.

“Gardens” are not what the European invaders saw when they arrived in the Great Basin, where the Shoshone and other tribes had been walking their Hoops for millennia. Gardens are still not what non-Natives see in these places. Then, as now, Europeans saw “emptiness” to fill and “resources” to take (or, in the modern parlance, to “manage”). These things they did, and continue to do.

Granny remembers when more of the local landscape was still gardens, not the grazing land or fodder fields that it is now. In the springtime blooming season, the sight was spectacular: Along the water was a sea of purple (Camas), surrounded by a band of yellow (Biscuit Root) and bordered in white (Yampah). “You couldn’t take two steps without stepping on food,” she said.

In terms of acreage, ranching is and has been the principal means of destroying the gardens of The Hoops in the West. The domesticated cow as an animal evolved in moist forests in Eurasia, so its needs are not well served by the sparsely treed, dry climate of the Great Basin, where only 2% of the land area is riparian. The cow’s intensive grazing habits are not comparable to the migratory browsing of the native ungulates, and the plant life did not evolve to live under such heavy pressure. So far more acres are needed per-head to attain market weight as compared to back East.

Despite these facts, the Europeans considered the Great Basin to be perfect rangeland. The Spanish colonizers were the first, starting from the south, with their missionaries who preached that humans have “dominion” over nature, thus excusing any damage in advance. Later in the North came other whites. Though some of them were family homesteaders, the major players were men from wealthy backgrounds, a few from Europe. As state legislatures formed these men placed themselves in prominent positions, and to this day their brethren are over-represented in public office from the county to the federal level, ensuring that their perks — such as running their cattle on 70% of Western public lands, including National Parks, at rates that are far below market — are protected.

As detailed in the excellent book, “Welfare Ranching”, the beef production of the Western states comprises a low single digit percentage of total national output, but, as mentioned, at a much higher acre-per-cow ratio than back East. The efficiency is low. The economic significance of ranching is grossly overplayed, but its effects on the ecology and original non-European inhabitants of the West have been and continue to be devastating. Native animals are hunted to extinction or its brink, or their habitat is destroyed; precious water sources are diverted, drained and polluted; Native people are decimated and disallowed from continuing The Hoop. Granny put it plainly: “It’s still genocide, active today, not history.”

Granny showed us the effects of cattle grazing firsthand on a visit to another garden in the area, in a moist meadow in the forest. This Spring she had seen the place filled with Camas, of which the bulb is the edible portion, harvested in the Autumn. She was hoping we would find mature seed heads to collect. But though we walked all around the area, we didn’t locate a single one. What we did find, however, was plenty of proof that the cows had been brought in to graze there. The ground was densely marked by hooves, and the spring had been trampled, its banks smashed, and its course choked. The Camas bulbs, which do not live too deeply in the ground, had been crushed. Incidentally, this area was the victim of an allegedly progressive ranching policy that limits how long the cattle are kept in a particular place, rather than for the entire season. This is intended to mitigate the effects of grazing, but in this case a garden was devastated with enough time left in the season to destroy another one, or more, somewhere else, with the same animals. This is spreading the damage around to more acres, not reducing it.

The proliferation of exotic (non-native) plant and animal species due to ranching has also severely impacted the Great Basin ecosystems. But though Granny witnesses the deleterious effects of such “invasive” species as Cheat Grass, she has no goal to restore and maintain native-only environments as they existed historically. First, she is interested in any and all food plants that can successfully “rewild”, including European imports. An effectively “rewilded” plant is one that can propagate itself with a minimum of human attention, and which will retain its desirable nutritional and palatable qualities without degenerating. Certain mustard greens, for example, might rewild well, but she has found that the domesticated carrot does not, and turns woody like its uncultivated ancestor, Queen Anne’s Lace. Her approach is pragmatic, not ideological, and as such is a direct challenge to the native=good / exotic(“invasive”)=bad dichotomy stiffly held by most white restorationists and permacultists.

Secondly, in her decades on The Hoop she has seen the effects of Climate Change. Many native food plants are suffering in their historical areas of distribution, and need to be moved by reseeding, transplanting, and other forms of propagation. She describes these plants as “refugees without legs” and insists that we — humans — must be their legs. She talked about plants in Nevada that need to be brought north to Oregon, and perhaps ultimately to Saskatchewan. She pointed out how many of the Yampah plants in the gardens on The Table did not produce seed this year because they were attacked during their flowering stage by mites. The plants were weakened and the insects strengthened as a result of weather abnormalities this year that included unseasonably hot weather in late Winter followed by extreme cold in the Spring. So the Yampah must be seeded elsewhere to provide some amount of insurance.

However, the essential work of being the legs for these refugees is, in almost all cases, illegal. Except for a few tiny pockets of Indian Reservations, all the land is owned either privately or publicly. Private landowners don’t look kindly on “trespassing”, and sowing seed on public land is, Granny told us, a felony.

Here we find ourselves approaching the heart of the matter: The lack of communal land. Private land is by definition not communal, and what is called public land is simply private land owned by a nominally public institution, and is also not communal. (If you think “public” means “communal” or “open” or “free”, try finding a spot you’re allowed to camp without paying on the Oregon coast, all of which is “public”!)

It is useful to remember that the Forest Service is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and does not exist to protect forests as dynamic ecosystems but to “manage” them for timber and other forms of resource extraction. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is similarly charged, with more attention given to cattle ranching. Each agency has its token areas that are “preserved” from development (at least for now) or are undergoing “restoration”. On the face of it these both sound like good ideas, but in typical practice, neither preservation nor restoration is recognizing at least two vital factors.

First, Climate Change is significantly altering the ecological conditions of every area, so that restoring the exact make-up of plant and animal populations that existed in any one area is no longer feasible. Secondly, the actual conditions of these lands before the European Invasion is not that they were “untouched” by people — “preserved” from them — but in fact included humans as integral participants. This is how it was for may, many thousands of years: the gardens were peopled, but now this is illegal.

When land is viewed as property, whether private or public, and is not recognized as communal — which, it is vital to understand, means non-ownable — no true sustainability can exist. No new “policy” for public lands will change this reality. As for private property, it was central to the European Invasion, the American Revolution, and Manifest Destiny, and remains the cornerstone of the current socio-economic system. That’s unlikely to change without some massively catastrophic upheaval that is beyond anyone’s ability to induce or guide. But the fact remains that without relinquishing “property”, there is no path forward to truly sustainable living.

Granny sees whites as belonging to a “culture of death”, and she is not alone among Native people worldwide in this perception. The values of the opposing cultures are entirely at odds. I believe that the difference can only be understood experientially, not intellectually, which poses a great challenge for people of the techno-industrial cultures. In my own observations of West Coast New Age culture, it has seemed to me that for whites to cherry pick a few concepts, symbols, or totems from Native Americans and consider themselves actually connected — or worse yet, somehow absolved — is the height of pretension: just “playing Indian” really. Even so, Granny declares that it is time for “cultural appropriation”. Referring to the bundle she is opening, she said: “These things need to be coopted so they’re not forgotten. But people need to assimilate THIS way.”

Granny told us how living on The Hoop is an existence of “symbiosis” with everything else that lives. And everything is equally alive: animal, vegetable and mineral. Though each season brings variation — more or less elk or onions or acorns — a solid state exists, on balance.

Or did exist. For though Native peoples still live — and so too do their “bundles” of knowledge, wisdom, and experience — the threats to their survival are a current event. This situation endangers not just them, but all people. For, as it was put before a UN conference of indigenous people in the 90′s, though Natives around the world represent a tiny percentage of the population, they are the repositories of the vast majority of knowledge for how to live on the earth in a truly sustainable way. This is a use of the word “sustainable” that leaves no room for prattle about special light bulbs, low-flow toilets, or bringing your own bag to the store. These measures are like bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon. Of course such an action does, mathematically, “make a difference”, but it is not a difference that makes a difference. If we want to make a real difference, we need to set everything aside and listen, listen to the Native people.

Granny does not mince words. In reference to the eager but inexperienced young white people who have been coming to her to learn, she says, “I feel like I’m sifting through human garbage. They are spoiled, stupid infants.” It became clear to me while spending time with her that I could not think of myself as better than that. Indeed, for as hard as I have worked — at farming, in political activism, on my own spiritual wellbeing — I remain stupid and spoiled when it comes to knowing how to actually live on the earth without participating in its destruction. How different am I than Gandhi’s “Englishman” who “fills his pantry and thinks of himself as self-sufficient”?

When we had hit the road a month before visiting Granny, we were full of questions about what direction our farming should take next, or if we will be able to find a way to continue at all. We had already been growing weary of market-driven production farming, onerous government regulations and corporate rules, and the rank ignorance, petty narcissism, and passive-aggressive obstructionism of Society. We were increasingly suspicious about whether stay-in-one-place agriculture — even if organic, biodynamic, or permacultist — could be sustainable in any real sense. We were, then, consciously receptive when we arrived at Granny’s, and after a few days of catching the pearls she spit out whenever she opened her mouth, we felt a little more clear.

Shortly before we left her place, we talked about Truth. What is Truth exactly? Experientially, it is obvious: “It’s like a door opens in front of you and light comes shining through,” Granny said. “Most people slam that door shut and forget — or try to forget — what they saw.” In my opinion, not being able to forget what you saw is a gift, but can lead to pain. “When I don’t like something, I know it must be true,” Granny said with a smile. Nonetheless, she added, “it’s not enough to hate the lies. You must also love the truth.”

* * *

To learn more about Finisia Medrano, a.k.a. “Tranny Granny”, you can purchase her book, “Growing Up in Occupied America”, and visit her Facebook page.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a farmer between farms (maybe). Some of the fruits of his labors can be found at daggawalla seeds & herbs. Kollibri can be contacted at: jules_jardinier [AT] riseup.net

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