Notes from Windward: #64

The Chair of Wildcrafting Arts

      When people think of forest products, they're usually thinking about trees. Actually, there's a body of study which holds that the market value of non-timber forest products is often greater than the market value of the trees themselves; that the sustainable harvesting of these other products for market or for use in crafts which add value prior to market can lead to greater forest health as well as greater employment in forested areas.

      Windward is located on the eastern edge of a plateau created by the White Salmon river gorge to the west, the Klickitat river gorge to the east, and the Columbia river gorge to the south. This thirty mile wide "island" is home to an amazing array of micro-climates as it changes from the alpine rain forest near Trout Lake to the high, dry prairie land east of the Klickitat; from the Mediterreanian climate down along the Columbia, to the high alpine ecology flourishing on the slopes of Mount Adams.

      While there are homes and farmsteads along the edges of this plateau, most of the interior is wild. A few years back when we were learning about the challenges of raising dairy steers, we let some of them free range through the summer; come the fall we got a call from a farmer in Husum, about 30 miles due west of here on the White Salmon river, telling us that our boys had wandered into his feed lot looking for something to eat now that the fall weather had arrived.

      The more than a hundred square miles of forest land lying between here and there is owned by timber companies and the state of Washington, and for the most part is open to hikers, hunters and wildcrafters. A person could spend a lifetime studing the fascinating ecology of this area.

      The plants that make up this wilderness tract are a combination of species native to the Pacific-Northwest, and species which have been introduced and are now struggling to establish themselves, often at the expense of native plants. The forest may look tranquil and serene to human eyes, but for plants, it's a jungle out there.

      Examples of native plants commonly harvested from the wild would be morel mushrooms and Douglas fir boughs, the former going into the gourmet food market and the latter being used to make holiday wreaths.

      Examples of alien plants routinely harvested from the wild would be Scotch broom and elderberries; more on how those plants are used a bit further on.

      A profitable activity is one in which the value produced exceeds the value of expended, and a sustainable activity is one which is consistently profitable. And in a similar vein, there are two primary ways to increase your profit: find a market that will pay you more, or find some way to lower your cost.

      This is relevant to wildcrafting because you can either sell what you glean from the forest as a raw material or as a finished product. If you take the first path, you'll have to come up with many times more of whatever it is you're collecting in order to derive the same amount of income you would receive if you were to use those wild materials in the making of some finished product that you marketed yourself.

      The number of materials which will sustain you on the first path is small and the competition for those things is great; the number which will sustain you on the second path is many times greater, and the competition almost non-existent.

      Here's a specific example of what I'm talking about. Scotch broom is not native to the Pacific-Northwest, but it's proven itself to be very much at home here. In early spring, you can see vast fields of it's yellow blossoms along side the interstate, under power lines and most any where that the earth has been disturbed. The result is that it is not a protected plant, and so long as you have the permission of the land owner, you're free to harvest it.

      Broom is unusual in that it's structured more like a peacock feather than your ordinary plant or bush. Consequently, broom is often used in floral arrangments, and collected broom can be sold to the wholesale florists. At the other end of the spectrum, broom is called "broom" because up until about two hundreds years ago, it was what folks made brooms out of.

      So, one could either sell a lot of broom at prices below wholesale, or take oak or fir branches, make traditional brooms and sell them to city folk and tourists who'd like to have such a traditional item to grace their fireplace.

      Broom also raises other interesting possibilities. The bright yellow flowers can be used as a natural dye, or dried and used in a floral mosaic. The medicinal books I've read say that the fine leaves at the ends of the stalks make a soporific tea [note: no warranty expressed or implied, just a "heads up" for those who are interested in traditional uses for medicinal herbs].

      Before I leave the subject of brooms behind, the modern broom, often called a "straw" broom isn't actually made with straw, but rather with a plant from Africa called "broom corn" first brought to this country in the late eighteenth century. And for those taking notes, the flat style broom was a Shaker innovation.

      Anyway, back to the Chair of Wildcraft Arts. The forest produces a wealth of items which can be used sustainably in ways that are only limited by one's imagination. Oak gauls have traditionally been used to make ink, black walnut hulls to dye wood and cloth, and so on.

      Five hundred years ago, about ninety percent of everything a person needed was made within five miles of their home, and much of it came from the wild.

      It can again.  

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Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 64