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A Glimpse of the Past and a Taste of the Future: Dispatch from a Rewilding Trip to Hell’s Canyon

Since giving up farming a couple years ago, my interest in sustainable diets has only changed focus, not waned. Turning away from the domestic, I have been exploring wildcrafted food and medicine, including plants traditionally used by Native Americans. So this spring, when my former farming partner, Clara, invited me to visit northeast Oregon with her for the early summer harvest season of wild foods there, I was thrilled.

We spent six weeks in and around Hell’s Canyon on the Oregon/Idaho border, an area that’s abundant for foragers and has been for millennia. Fruit trees, berry bushes, wild roots and medicinal herbs can be found in profusion, mostly on public land. Most of this flora is native but some was introduced through European colonization. All of it is threatened to one degree or another by misuse of the land, both contemporary and historic, and by Climate Change. Indeed, every place we explored offered us a glimpse of the past and a taste of the future.

Once you cross to the east side of the Cascade Mountains, you are in ranching country. Nearly every acre of land is dedicated first and foremost to the cow. Most of the native sage-brush steppe ecosystem—along with its native denizens, flora, fauna and human—have been impacted or replaced by grazing and feed-growing. Even in the National Forest, cows and signs of their presence are ubiquitous.

Eastern Oregon is an arid place, so irrigation is required for raising cattle and its feed. The contrast is often stark between the bright green fields—sometimes circular in shape from center-pivot watering systems—and the dusty steppe land, dotted with grey-green sage brush. Sprinklers shoot misty sprays. often in the hottest part of the day when the majority of water is lost to evaporation. Streams are channeled and divided into ditches along the roadsides, where pesticides are used to keep the vegetation down.

The activity of the cattle industry is visible everywhere. Hay is cut, bailed and stacked in pole barns or out in the open and covered with tarps. Grain silos rise as tall as church steeples (and are no less sacred, given their importance). Barns, out-buildings and little houses shelter tractors, pumps and people.

Fences crisscross the landscape, interrupting migratory routes and otherwise interfering with wildlife. Pronghorn antelope, for example, are injured when they try to squeeze between the strands of barbed-wire, a problem that could be solved if only the top-most wire was barbed, but it would require a Marshall Plan-scaled project to retrofit the thousands of miles of fence that are currently strung. Sage Grouse, which are low-flying birds, are hurt when they collide with the fences, most often during pre-dawn courtship rituals when visibility is low. (All this being said, fences also play a vital role in protecting springs and streams from the stomping depredation of cattle, especially in remote areas where nobody’s watching them.)

One spot that is not as heavily impacted is the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. This is the place made famous in the winter of 2015-16 when its offices were taken over by a ranchers’ militia. They chose this location because they want the federal government to turn over all pubic lands to the states (or to the counties of the states) so they can ranch, mine and log on such lands. After witnessing the heavy-handed (and hoofed) impact of cattle on such a large amount of the land east of the Cascades, my view of their cause became even more skeptical. Really? They’ve got to take everything? What disgusting greed.

***

A couple days later, we arrived in Halfway, Oregon. Halfway is a small town without even one stoplight. Ranching is the dominant feature of the landscape in the valley, but most ranchers are just operators rather than owner/operators. That is to say, a few large companies own most of the industry and locals are paid to run particular parcels. Government is the largest employer in Halfway’s county, Baker. So much for the ideal of rugged individualism.

When it comes to groceries, the area is a food desert. A few properties have vegetable gardens—many of them impressively large by urban standards—but other than these, very little land is given over to raising food for humans, which is nearly all acquired from conventional grocery stores. The closest natural food store is in Baker City, over 50 miles away. But we had come prepared with our own healthy supplies and were there to take advantage of the wild food.

A friend of ours was staying in a cabin outside town and invited us to join him out there and use the property as a camp for our foraging activities. Many wildflowers were blooming, tended by bees and butterflies. Clara and I were also very pleased that there were three cats!

Sticking mostly to nearby National Forest land, where spraying is rare, our daily runs netted us buckets and buckets of saskatoons, cherries, plums and apricots. The saskatoons and plums were native, but the cherries were from bird-planted feral trees and came in several shades of red from bright lipstick to shimmery black. The black ones were my favorite. Reputedly, apricot trees in the area were originally planted by Chinese immigrants who worked as miners in the 19th Century—more on that history later.

Back at the camp, we processed our hauls several ways. Sun-drying was our most common method since dehydrated fruit is stable in storage, easy to transport and retains the majority of its vitamins. We dried berries whole and larger fruits halved and also made fruit leather using an old-fashioned hand-cranked food mill. We also canned some jelly and other preserves. Since some of our harvests were so large that there literally wasn’t time in the day to process everything in these ways before it went off in the heat, we also made wines and meads from cherries, apricots and saskatoons, using both wild and store-bought yeasts.

Some other folks were in the area doing the same thing we were and we visited their camp in Hell’s Canyon. There, the plums were incredibly plentiful and we also found blackberries and lots of elderberries. Everyone was set up next to the Snake Lake Reservoir, which was green with algae from agricultural run-off. I took one look at it and decided I wouldn’t touch it, even though it was so hot out. Clara rinsed off her legs and they were itchy afterwards. The reservoir is also contaminated with heavy metals from mining activities. The dam itself inundated a riparian ecosystem and continues to wreak havoc on fish. So much that was once so beautiful is now so messed up. Grrr…

Clara knew some of the folks in Hell’s Canyon from previous adventures. Since we had shut down our farming efforts, she had been spending time traveling with people dedicated to “rewilding” and had met them in that context.

“Rewilding” is a loose counter-cultural movement focused on reviving skill-sets that predate civilization (that is, the urban-agricultural complex) and also on freeing the self itself from the constraints of social domestication. Rewilding is a kissing cousin of anarcho-primitivism, a philosophy that has fascinated me since I first read Chellis Glendenning’s classic, “My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization,” almost twenty years ago.

Rewilding is usually based on Native American methods and lifeways. In the Pacific Northwest and Great Basin, this entails learning about “the Hoop,” which was the traditional migratory lifestyle of many tribes, in which they moved from place to place over the course of the year to gather, hunt and tend in season.

The “tending” component is a key activity often missing not only from the popular understanding of nomadic cultures but also from many anthropological conceptualizations. Its function, however was essential. The Hoop was not merely about wandering around picking berries and catching game—just taking and not giving; it also included different methods of plant propagation including seeding and root division, as well as the shaping of landscapes to encourage both flora and fauna. Setting fires was a common technique, along with some earth-moving. When exploring a place where such activities once took place, the signs can still be read by those who are looking for them.

For example, Clara took me to some old Native American gardens in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. In a hilltop meadow flanked by pine forests, there were dozens and dozens of mounds of fairly regular size and spacing. Between the mounds were zones of rocks, many of which seemed to be fitted together almost like puzzle pieces. Out of the cracks between the rocks grew a species of Biscuitroot (genus Lomatium, of which there are many species). At that time of year (July) they had already flowered and gone dormant: their stalks were brown, their leaves desiccated, and their umbels empty of seed. Didn’t look like much.

But when we pried up and pulled away the stones, we easily exposed the plants’ perennial roots: round, dark brown, and ranging in size from a pea to a marble shooter. The puzzle-piece placement of the stones now seemed intentional. If harvested earlier, the seeds would have been very effectively planted when they fell to the exposed soil and were covered by the rocks when they were replaced, resulting in an easy harvest the new plants in following years. Now I was impressed.

That this was indeed an old garden site of the Native Americans—in this case, the Nez Perce—was confirmed when Clara ran across an old grinding stone, now covered in moss, that would have been used for making flour from the dried roots. Apparently, such stones were more commonly found in the past but have since taken as souvenirs or to put in glass cases for display. Back in the day, they were left on site as there was no need to haul them around or fear for their theft. We left the stone where she found it.

The roots of this Biscuitroot need to be peeled right away, whether one is eating them fresh or drying then for grinding or storage, so we got to it at our camp. It took me over four hours to peel what I had harvested in two, and the total amount was perhaps sufficient for one meal. Obviously, the Nez Perce dug and processed them more quickly, and their labor would have involved a community of more than two individuals.

But the Nez Perce were driven out of the area almost a hundred and fifty years ago and forced to reside in an area comprising only 10% of their ancestral homeland. They were more fortunate than many tribes, whose reservations were located hundreds of miles from their original homes, such as the vast majority of Native Americans east of the Mississippi. But for the US government, this was more a matter of convenience than benevolence, so I’m not handing out any kudos here.

The Nez Perce called themselves “Nimíipuu” (often spelled “Nee-Me-Poo”), which means, “our People.” “Nez Perce” is the name given to them by the French and literally means, “pierced nose,” though this adornment was not common among them. Contemporary members of the tribe use one or the other or both names.

The Lewis and Clark expedition encountered the Nez Perce in 1805, had a positive impression of them, and left their horses with the tribe when they decided to finish their journey to the Pacific Ocean by river. In 1855, seven years after “Oregon Country” was acquired from the British, the Nez Perce signed their first treaty with the the US, which created a reservation for the tribe by ceding nearly half of their ancestral territory to the US. By the terms of the treaty, which Congress ratified in 1859, the tribe retained their hunting and gathering rights in the ceded areas. (The text of the treaty is worth checking out. It includes sneaky provisions intended to undermine tribal autonomy and cultural integrity, which was typical boilerplate at the time.)

This state of affairs would not last long. When gold was discovered on Nez Perce land in 1860, European and Chinese colonists flooded in. The US government refused to deal with these trespassers as law-breakers and instead called another treaty council to shrink Nez Perce lands by 90%. Some bands of the tribe refused to negotiate and walked out. They became known as “non-Treaty Indians,” a label they still use today. In fact they hold an annual pow-wow in Joseph, Oregon, that attracts attendees from near andfar.

The new treaty became known as the “steal treaty” and led directly to the “Nez Perce War” of 1877, which lasted from June to October. During the conflict, the Nez Perce, led by several individuals including the famous Chief Joseph, fled and fought for nearly 1200 miles through four states in an attempt to reach Canada. Forty miles short of the border, however, the majority surrendered due to hunger and hardship. They were sent to Kansas and Oklahoma, though most were able to return to the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho eight years later.

The mistreatment and theft didn’t end there. The General Allotment Act of 1887 instituted a policy in which reservations were divided up by the Federal Government and allotted to individuals and families, though such privatized ownership was alien to Native American culture. Once this division took place, leftover land was considered “excess” and sold to European colonists. In this way, the Nez Perce lost all but 90,000 acres, scattered in individual portions. This policy assaulted not just the geographical integrity of the tribe but also its cultural bonds. To this day, the Nez Perce must work to assert their sovereignty.

***

Clara took me to an apricot grove in Hell’s Canyon. As stated earlier, it is believed that the apricots in the area were originally planted by Chinese immigrants in the 1800’s. They lived or passed through the area as gold-seekers, either working independently or employed by mining companies and brought other plants, including the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)—which they call “chouchun” (臭椿), Chinese for “foul-smelling tree”—a commonly used plant in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The experience of 19th Century Chinese immigrants in Oregon is another chapter in the narrative of exploitation and racism that makes up so much of US history.

According to Richard Cockle, writing for the Oregonian, “Chinese workers began immigrating to the ‘Gum San’ or Golden Mountain, their term for the frontier-era American West, during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s, historians say. Their numbers probably peaked at an unofficial 132,300 in 1882, [author R. Gregory] Nokes says, and some scholars believe they made up fully a quarter of Oregon’s population as early as the 1870s.”

As long as the supply of gold was abundant, it seems, the Chinese were accepted. When it began to run out, however, greed and then xenophobia took hold and anti-Chinese sentiment began to raise its ugly head, not just in Oregon, but all along the West Coast. Locals of European background, sometimes with the backing of the elected officials and sometimes not, began driving out the Chinese, who settled in cities like Portland. [For more details, see “History of Chinese Americans” in Wikipedia.]

The Federal Government brought down its fist with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which forbade the immigration of laborers from China. This helped fuel the fires of prejudice to new intensity and acts of discrimination against Chinese increased.

Arguably the worst case of violence during this period occurred in Hell’s Canyon in May of 1887, when a camp of 34 Chinese miners was attacked by a group of white horse thieves. The resulting massacre is well described by Michael Nove:

“One hundred and twenty years ago, in May of 1887, a band of horse thieves entered Hells Canyon bent on evil. There were six men in the band, and with a lust for gold and a hatred of the Chinese, they systematically gunned down no less than 10 miners. By some accounts as many as 34 Chinese were murdered, making this crime one of the worst in Oregon’s history…. The gang members ambushed the Deep Creek miners as they worked. Armed with high-powered rifles, the killers systematically took one life after another, shooting at their targets from the surrounding cliffs. One of the Chinese men survived the initial onslaught only to be captured and stoned to death as he tried to flee. Some of the victims’ bodies were then thrown into the river, others into the boat used by the miners, which was then set adrift with holes punched through the bottom. One of the accounts published years later indicated the gang members killed another mining crew that arrived the next day at the massacre site to visit the Deep Creek crew.This, and a possible third killing spree, is why the actual number of victims is unknown.” [Michael Nove, in the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, Nov. 2007]

“It was really a savage act of racial hatred,” said historian P. Gregory Nokes, author of the book, Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon.

But in the time since then, a living testament to the historical presence of the Chinese has been thriving in the form of the apricot trees that they planted. They grew continuously in the area, producing their own form of gold on branches that sagged under its weight, each nugget containing a seed. Considering that Apricot trees can live for well over a hundred years, it’s probable that the trees we harvested from are separated by fewer generations from their original plantings than are any current living descendants of the immigrants themselves.

We filled buckets and boxes with about 200 pounds of fruit altogether from various locations and dried them in the sun, halved and pitted on screens, or milled them into mush that we spread out on parchment paper for fruit leather. Being that this was also a seed-gathering mission, we rinsed, dried and bagged up the seeds to plant elsewhere and in so doing will carry on the original immigrants’ mission that started over a century and half ago. Now that I know more of the story of those who first brought the trees there, the bitter notes in the sweet flavor of their fruit have a resonance beyond my taste buds.

***

The legacy of the evicted Native Americans and slaughtered Chinese: this past is prologue to the present that Clara and I found when we visited the area. In the two counties where we spent the majority of our time, Baker and Wallowa, Native Americans make up only 1.1 and 0.6% of the population, respectively, and whites 94.6% and 96%. Asian-Americans comprise about 1/3 of 1% of both counties. As for the whites, whether they are direct, blood-line descendants of the original pioneers or not, they remain beneficiaries of the historical brutality, as do all people of non-Native origin in the US. Which includes me and most likely the majority of people reading this.

What to do with this privileged position? Attempts to answer that question have consumed entire books, and my own thoughts about what to do are constantly evolving, so I will only touch on them here, with what currently comes to mind.

First, learn the facts and accept them. When living in or visiting a place, research the history of it. Don’t shy away from the ugliness you might find, and celebrate the beauty that’s there. Accept it. And by “accept” I don’t mean “approve,” but rather “don’t deny.”

Second, support efforts to prevent new crimes. Are there Native Americans in the area fighting to have treaty rights recognized? Grassroots environmental activists resisting the latest corporate push to destroy ecosystems for profit? Offer what you can to such struggles.

Third, examine the big picture of the social forces of destruction and creation and—most importantly—dig into your own inner participation in them, which is probably in part unknowing. A logging company seeking to cut down more forest is a problem, but larger still is the edifice that empowers that company—Capitalism—and the cultural foundation—Patriarchy—which birthed that. I am speaking here of the crisis of consciousness that afflicts humanity: our disconnection from life’s inherent vitality. Our ecocidal actions are the product of this crisis, and indeed would be impossible without it.

All our lives, we have had our minds prejudiced and our hearts poisoned by these big picture social forces, as delivered by our families and friends, our churches and employers, our government and media. With different voices, the same chorus is repeated: Conform. conform, conform. There is no alternative. Follow the rules or face the consequences. You will be lonely/poor/damned if you don’t.

This brainwashing—and that’s all it is—must be utterly rejected and completely rooted out. The path to this liberation is ultimately solitary because no one can get into your head but you. As the layers are unpeeled—little by little or in quick, dramatic succession—your best choices will reveal themselves with clarity.

In my case, one choice has been to explore and participate in “wildtending”—that is, to learn about traditional food and medicine plants of the Native Americans and how they were harvested, processed and propagated, and to practice those skills myself. In this day and age, this logically includes plants that were introduced by the European invasion which have gone feral. Like me, they are here now, by accident of birth, making their way. This journey focuses not just on practical knowledge and skills but also, necessarily, on the self and its nature. How have I been domesticated? How have I been an agent of domestication? How do I free myself and others? Some would call this quest “psychological” and others “spiritual” but the label is unimportant to me. Likewise, I am uninterested in joining any particular scene or school or of engaging in purity tests either as their object or executor. Such structures and methods are, in my opinion, manifestations of the same crisis consciousness.

***

In the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, we found two fields full of Yampah (genus Perideridia), an important staple crop for many Native American tribes throughout the West. It most often grows in rocky soil and the roots can be quite challenging to dig up. Clara had a special tool for this task called a “cuppen,” the design of which is based on traditional Native American digging sticks. Hers was made of titanium, which was certainly helpful for opening up the stony ground. We fried some up for dinner that night in a cast-iron skillet on a Coleman stove in olive oil. They taste a little like carrot, but fixing them this way made them the best french fries ever!

At about 5000 feet elevation, we found a spectacular meadow, measuring many acres in size, with a noisy stream running through it. Despite the remote location, there were cattle there, too, but not too many and their impact was minimal compared to other places we visited. The meadow was ringed by trees, both pines and firs, and forest fires had clearly swept through lightly in the last decade. As a result, post-fire herbaceous plants were growing in the area, some of them medicinal. Such natural succession is too often interrupted by logging, spraying and replanting.

One was “Oshalla,” which is a common name for more than one species in the genus Ligusticum, and is a medicinal herb for respiratory issues. The root is the part that’s used, but we also dried some of the foliage since it had a strong flavor and aroma. This plant was much easier to dig than the yampah, as its roots form a clump rather than growing in a long tap-root.

Another medicinal plant we found that occupies a post-fire niche is Cascade Canada Goldenrod (Solidago elongata). This one is good for treating allergies, fevers, sore throats and coughs as a tea and for kidneys as a tincture, according to herbalist Susun Weed. Weed also mentions that it’s a myth that people are allergic to Goldenrod pollen, which is too sticky to become airborne. Instead, she suggests, people react badly to the pollen of Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisifolia), which blooms at the same time and could have a superficial resemblance to Goldenrod to people who don’t know plants well.

My favorite part of the trip was our week-long stay on the western rim of Hell’s Canyon. It was some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen in my life. Hell’s Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America, delving down 7,993 feet. Despite its spectacle and uniqueness, it is not a popular destination, and we saw only a handful of other people there. We found an established campsite with a fire-ring among pine and fir trees about 20 feet from the edge, and that’s where we stayed, sleeping in the open air.

We harvested huckleberries and black elderberries and processed them on-site, drying the huckleberries in baskets hung from trees and cooking the elderberries into a syrup combined with brandy for preservation. Elderberry syrup is a traditional European herbal concoction for driving off winter illnesses when they try to establish themselves. We also dug Sweet Root, aka Western Sweet Cicily (Osmorhiza occidentalis), another herbal medicine, and tinctured the roots.

Seed collecting was equally as important as fruit-gathering and medicine-harvesting for us. We collected seeds from Yampah, Biscuitroots, Wild Garlic and others. Clara also got seeds from some of the companions of these food plants, like the wild buckwheats.

Where will these seeds be planted? Wherever they might do well. That won’t just be in areas where these plants have historically grown and have since become more scarce—which would be called “restoration”—but also in new locations where they might do better as climatic zones shift. Climate Change is real, as borne out not only by science (where there is a 97% consensus) but by the stories and memories of people and cultures who have been paying close attention. So yes, the Yampah has thrived in these particular meadows for the last 120 centuries, but should it now also be seeded at higher elevations and further north?

One famous teacher of rewilding, who has been observing the effects of Climate Change for decades, coined the useful phrase, “refugees without legs” to describe plants that are suffering in their home ranges but who cannot move to new places quickly enough on their own given their lack of locomotion and the increasingly fast rate of change, and who need us humans to help them out. This idea has yet to penetrate mainstream environmental science or conservationism, but in time it probably will, as events become more drastic.

For hundreds of thousands of years, people fed themselves from the land, wildtending it with sharp observation and deep dedication. If any humans survive the oncoming calamities, that’s how they’ll have to do it again. Perhaps some of the seeds that Clara and I gathered will provide nourishment for these souls, as yet unknown and unnamed, in a future that we tasted this summer.

This article is adapted from a photo essay with over 250 pictures by the author that you are invited to check out here.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press

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