Abundance and resilience

Walking composition

“Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.” —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Friday afternoon I was working on a textbook that was teaching 5th-graders about suffixes. I like my copy editing job most of the time, but dealing with suffixes and prefixes is a headache because I have to check all the little hyphens and commas to make sure the appropriate stuff is italicized, and slow down and carefully read all the little letter combinations. It’s easy to go too fast and miss when -sion turns into -ion. These weeks remind me of when I first started copy editing textbooks about 20 years ago and cycled through K-2 phonics lessons for a long time (phonics are a bear to copy edit—all those diacritical marks need checking and there’s more than one phonics system). Except in those days we used red pens, Post-Its, and big printed layout sheets. It was easier on the eyes.

Peering at a screen for hours reading text is hard no matter what* but when I started reading several lines over I realized I was done for the day even though I’m behind in my work right now. Being a freelancer does grant the small luxury of being flexible (I make up a lot of time on weekends and early in the morning), so I logged off and took my daughter huckleberry picking for a couple of hours.

I’m never more grateful for our access to wild food than on those summer days when I can close my laptop, fill water bottles and grab bear spray, and head out to eat berries and preserve their gifts for winter.

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Last week the local paper had an article about how the extreme (for northwest Montana) heat is affecting huckleberries, though it focused more on how the decreased crop is making prices spike for local businesses—like places that make jam for the tourist trade, or restaurants that serve huckleberry pancakes—and I was more curious about the effects on the berries themselves. Which of course made me worry about our climate change future and whether or not huckleberries will survive it.

I interviewed a local wildlife biologist a few years ago for some articles (she studies grizzly bears, and spent a few years studying huckleberries since they’re a main food source for grizzlies), and one thing she found was that the bushes are rejuvenated after wildfire, but that the hotter, more intense kinds of wildfires we’ve been seeing can destroy entire rhizome systems and they don’t recover from that.

But as my daughter and I headed into the woods, my concerns were more about commodification. The bushes closest to the road had been stripped; I couldn’t tell if it was from commercial pickers, but I’d seen picking rakes in vigorous use at other locations, and the damage looked similar. It’s perfectly legal to pick wild berries for profit, and possible to use the rakes without doing much damage to the bushes, but I’ve been wondering for a few years now how much for-profit picking these lands can take. For now, and for the near future, there’s enough for everyone. It seems abundant beyond belief, impossible to imagine running out.

Settler Americans used to think that about beavers, too. And passenger pigeons. And buffalo. And water. There is nothing magic about huckleberries that could save them from the ravages of commodification if the price were high enough.

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We did find berries with just a little extra footwork (and agreed that my choice of Tevas was a poor one, knowing the terrain we’d be in). And they didn’t seem to be smaller or less abundant than last year, even with the heat.

I needed that break—from work for the sake of my eyes, and from wrapping my mind in socio-political discourse and worry, which is constant. Recently I had a few nights when sleep was elusive, and I started rereading Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, which had been helpful for my “worry about everything falling apart” compass in 2017 when it came out. (Age of Anger is about, loosely, populist uprisings worldwide over the past few centuries, and how they often erupt out of frustration, globalization, and a sense of placelessness as well as impotence.) Whenever I pick up that book I know that I’m worrying (either consciously or not) about several possible crises at once. (For balance, the same urge also has me re-watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy in the evenings.) It’s like how—I don’t know if anyone else ever experiences this—I don’t like orange juice much because it’s too sweet, but if I drink some and it tastes tart I know I’m coming down with a cold, even if there are no other symptoms.

These are the things I have to keep reminding myself to hang onto, to circle back to the real-life, physical, in-the-world grounding that I believe is vital for our well-being. Picking berries, looking forward to my first elk hunt this fall and the snow that will eventually cover up all the sins of my gardening (the peas did great! the cucumbers look like a formerly healthy teenager who suddenly took up smoking and staying up all night), spending time with friends and family locally. Trying to care for said friends and family, feeling out the resonant shifts of reciprocity, with the land and with one another. Reminding myself and others over and over, as often as it takes, that we are not alone.

Walk often, placing these feet upon the planet that sustains us, let the paces spool out our caged thoughts. Build community, human and non, care for one another in any way we can, try to ensure a future of huckleberries and the time to pick them.

*I can hear someone about to suggest Flux as I’m typing. I have Flux—it’s great!—but I can’t use it when I’m copy editing because the color washes out the proofreading marks from other editors. Unfortunately, I need to see those.

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Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • It’s been a while since I linked to a Pondercast episode, and I really enjoyed this one on tabula rasa. What do we really mean, host Laurie Brown asks, when we talk about a “clean slate”?

  • A cool episode of Talking Headways (an urban planning and transit-oriented podcast) with UCLA geography and urban planning professor Dr. V. Kelly Turner about urban heat islands: “Public health is about shade. When you’re talking about the outdoor environment, heat island is about that reflectivity.” (Incidentally, if anyone ever wonders where I find all these random articles, the host of Talking Headways, Jeff Woods, has a subscription service called the Overhead Wire with a selection of the hundreds of articles he reads every day. I’ve been subscribing to it ever since I first started writing about walking.)

  • This essay about Scottish naturalist and author of Design in Nature James Bell Pettigrew and his obsession with the ubiquitousness of the spiral form in nature was a nice interlude: “Overwhelmed as he was by the world’s archetypal whorl, he was sure of one thing — these marvelous spiral arrangements could not be of purely physical origin.”

  • Poet A.E. Stallings writing in The American Scholar on “the Sacred Band of Thebes, made up of 150 pair-bonded male couples,” a fighting force that overcame Sparta and remained undefeated for 30 years.

  • Final installment of the four-part series on AI in hiring from MIT Technology Review’s podcast In Machines We Trust on deep fakes, AI interviews, and getting a grip on tech before it cements its grip on us.

  • Building on that, the most recent episode of Your Undivided Attention takes a crack at what we mean by “choice” when it comes to tech, manipulation, and ethics with philosopher L.A. Paul: “If I know enough, I can just set things up so I’m not influenced by these bad sorts of technologies. Or now that I know about it I just won’t be influenced in that way. The problem is, it just doesn’t work that way. . . . Part of the picture is that this beautiful experience is both corrupting you mentally in some sense, it’s changing what you prefer and how you think, and also you’re not able to recognize that that’s what’s happening.”

  • Archeaologist Anthony Sinclair writing in Sapiens about the research on the hominin species Homo longi asks if this might be a close human relative.

  • David Gessner fans might enjoy this bittersweet homage to his friend and fellow author Brad Watson, in The American Scholar: “If you asked Brad, ‘How are you?’ you better have some time on your hands.” I have friends like that; it makes a phone call that much more valuable, an intentional spending of time with a relationship as well as a person.