Where the Wild Things Grow: Nature, Politics and Indigenous Ontologies


It is spring and my yard and the nearby forest are bursting with a bounty of edibles. I do not mean items in my garden. I literally mean my yard and the forest. It surprises people when I tell them that I eat out of the forest and munch on “weeds” growing in my yard. Over the years, I have come to expect the questions, “Are you that poor?” or “How often do you make yourself sick?” I enjoy explaining that many indigenous peoples and those embracing the wild crafting phenomenon take joy in eating wild foods that live around them and work hard to keep their growing areas undisturbed. I garden as well and I have been known to let Poke and Pigweed grow amongst my vegetable seedlings. This shocks many of my gardening friends until I tell them that both are excellent greens when served at the right time. During the rest of the year, these “weeds” serve as pollinator attractants.

You may be wondering why I am writing about wild foods for a Reflections essay. The briefest response is that eating is a political act and we need to raise critical questions about how our actions reproduce agricultural and development policies. A more in-depth explanation would include a discussion of the intersectionality of agricultural policy, development processes, food insecurity and indigenous ontologies. Pressing deeper, I find that my own life experience, in particular being exposed to traditional Cherokee and Appalachian food practices early in life, engaging deeply with members of various Native American nations and living for two years with indigenous people in Uzbekistan, has greatly influenced my worldview about the connections among Nature, politics and foodways.

The modern world now sits on the precipice of a great transformation. The wild, in all its beauty, is shrinking. Many of the “persistent cultures” that Nabhan (1989, p. 83) has argued are instrumental in “retaining sets of values not found in the modern marketplace” are being forcibly integrated into the neoliberal world we have created and are finding their values superseded, ignored, or jettisoned in that process. With each generation, more people forget their connection to Nature and the land, air, fire, and water (see Louv, 2008). Agriculture, as a cultural product, is profoundly stressed, and yet technocracy tells us to place hope in genetic manipulation and technology.

Some of us are delving into indigenous knowledge systems to learn what other approaches to thinking about our modern “wicked problems,” including ensuring safe and healthy food for all of our population, are possible. Taking time to ponder and highlight the “old ways” can challenge us to live more sustainably and potentially be more open to new possibilities for social transformation. Given this reality, I find myself pondering the ongoing trend to devalue and dismiss wild things, specifically foods, as that impetus fuels our modern agriculture system and on-going development and to consider what this might mean for our society.

Gary Paul Nabhan (1989, p. 45) has lamented our collective loss of a sense of the wild in our lives and how that trend is reflected in our culture of food production:

These plants are being separated from one another as their cultural habitats are being torn apart. Something that has long kept our cultigens and even our peopled landscapes healthy and tolerable is now disappearing. That valuable entity is wildness. If it is lost from the world around us, we will lose something within ourselves as well.

Nabhan’s observation led me to think about seed and planting ceremonies in which I have participated. Each event aligned with the belief that without intact landraces (seeds), entire ecosystems begin to wobble; these rites have greatly influenced my own relationship to food.

One of the most profound seed ceremonies I have attended occurred in October 2013 on the Taos Pueblo. We made a sacred circle comprised of both native and non-native people. Tribal leaders proudly read the “Declaration of Seed Sovereignty” that had been deliberated over, ritualized and thereafter presented to the United States Congress as a statement of the rights of seeds and the self-determination of the tribes in protecting them. It was an honor to be a part of the ceremony. Some might be surprised to learn that these rites and oaths are still being commemorated as a living tradition. Others might say that we were engaged in a fantasy world by imagining that humans and seeds relate to one another. Indeed, still others might argue it is foolhardy to try to save seeds against the onslaught of genetic manipulation and rapid urbanization.

Nevertheless, for Native Americans, other indigenous peoples and those honoring their beliefs, these ceremonies are not unusual. They represent the continuation of an ancient tradition. As both Hurt (2002) and Shiva (2010) have observed, indigenous people, specifically women, have been seed keepers for more than 7,000 years. During that time, a sacred relationship between humans and wild things evolved into a sophisticated spirituality. As Brascoupe noted in Reflections of a Native American Farmer (1999, p. 160): “A relationship with the land, plants, animals, rain, thunder, and lightning makes one’s religion more meaningful than simply going through the motions.”

The “ecology of the heart” (Nabhan, 1989, p. 84) practiced by many tribal peoples creates a sacred place for wild things to live peacefully among cultivated plants and among humans. Historically, early explorers’ drawings evidenced these practices. For example, renderings of pre-contact villages depicted their agriculture styles inside and outside of the village boundaries, including the arrangements of corn plants with wild plants, groups harvesting wild rice in the tributaries and migrant groups moving about to tap maple trees for syrup (Hurt, 2002). Across the globe on the African continent, tribal peoples also created deep relationships with wild plants, specifically the yam, and enacted an “ecology of the heart” that allowed for harmonious and resilient living in the rainforests (Yosuoka, 2013).

This human-wild things relationship yielded deep knowledge of the rhythms of plants and became a symbol of tribal identities as a result (Cajete, 1999). Brascoupe (1999) recalled his grandmother teaching him to pay close attention to the environments of numerous healing plants; their deep bond was kept alive by his people’s desire to share this intimate knowledge generation after generation. Brascoupe (1999) believes, as his grandmother did before him, that if this connection between individuals, the land and its vegetation is ever lost, the tribe’s members will also lose their identity.

Worldwide, indigenous peoples are rising up to voice their ontological beliefs concerning the human-nature connection and the heritage practices that have arisen from that bond. I wish to emphasize here that we can learn by listening intently to the wisdom represented in these traditions and that we may find benefit in asking two difficult questions. First, how can these beliefs about the integrative and integrating role of Nature’s wild things influence our society’s agricultural and development policies?  And, second, once a wild thing is lost, will we ever discover the true cost of its extinction?


Works Cited

Brascoupe, C. (1999). Reflections of a Native American farmer.  In Cajete, G. (Ed.), A people’s ecology: Explorations in sustainable living, pp. 151-174. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.

Cajete, G. (Ed.). A people’s ecology: Explorations in sustainable living. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.

Hurt, R. D. (2002). American agriculture: A brief history. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University.

Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Nabhan, G. P.  (1989). Enduring seeds: Native American agriculture and wild plant conservation. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Shiva, V. (2010). Staying alive: Women, ecology, and development. Brooklyn: NY: South End Press.

Yosuoka, H. (2013). Dense wild yam patches established by hunter-gatherer camps: Beyond the wild yam question, toward the historical ecology of rainforests. Human Ecology, 41, 465–475.


rachael TurkeyRachael Kennedy is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, & Community Education. With an orientation toward Community-Based Participatory Research, she views her role as that of a scholar-activist. Weaving together an 11-year Public Health career, Peace Corps service, and work as a journalist, combined with extensive international travel, she aims to use the remainder of her career as an opportunity to promote cross-cultural understanding and community engagement strategies.

Kennedy researches community viability/resiliency with a focus on the social and cultural aspects of alternative food networks. As a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar she will soon travel to Turkey to research food systems there. Additionally, she is working toward specialized certifications in Collaborative Community Leadership, Multidisciplinary Research in International Development, and NGO management.

When Rachael is not writing or engaged in research, she is active in local community endeavors, pursues gardening, and tends bees.


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