Ethical Foraging: Striving Towards Sustainability

A question and concern that has been coming up for me lately while stewarding the Intervale’s uncommon natural community, the Silver Maple Ostrich Fern Riverine Floodplain Forest (a distinction bestowed by conservationists). Where have all the wild leeks and Ostrich ferns gone?  Afterall, the word Winooski is an English translation from of the Abenaki word, “Winosik” which means “onion” or “leek”, and the name assigned to this magnificent forest has the words, “Ostrich fern” right there in it!

But in fact, there has been concern about the status of these plant species for years now by many and more questions have arisen. Why is this disappearance happening?  Is there data to support this observation? If we know it is really happening, what is the cause?  Is it the flood patterns, previous land use patterns, or maybe deer browse? Is it the proliferation of invasive plant species or overharvesting from foraging?  Could it be a combination of all the above, or something else entirely?  

Recently, a group consisting of land stewards, herbalists, naturalists, researchers, foragers, Abenaki community members, New Americans and restauranteurs, have been coming together to find a collaborative approach in order to solve these mysteries.  The talks have led us to a concern that overharvesting of leaks and fiddleheads for commercial and personal use plays a contributing if not a significant role in certain areas.  But again, we don’t really know without more research and hard data.  If overharvesting of our sensitive native plant species is one of the causes of the observed disappearance of the wild onion and ostrich fern, can we as a community develop an updated, modern-day land ethic that helps to conserve our plant friends?  

What is a land ethic, you ask? In 1949 Aldo Leopold, a highly influential figure in wildlife ecology, environmentalism, and conservation, wrote the essay “Land Ethic” in his A Sand County Almanac.  Here, Leopold makes the call to have a sense of moral responsibility to the natural world.  He posits, that people have fundamental sets of values and a moral sense of right and wrong that influences the way in which we live in our communities.  These values or ethics can and should be applied to the way we care for nature as well.  These ethics will help guide us towards strengthening our relationships within our human and natural communities.  Leopold did not lay out a set of rules and guidelines to have a certain relationship with nature but rather proposes the idea that a land ethic is a “product of social evolution” and would evolve in the hearts and minds of the thinking community.  

It is important to note that this reciprocal way of relating to the natural world was a new concept to the colonized conservation world but nothing new to the Native American’s values of a human-nature relationship.  We don’t know for sure if Leopold willfully disregarded or was unknowing of Indigenous perspectives such as Kincentric ecology worldview held by Native Americans.   We do know there are striking similarities.  Unfortunately, this worldview has not been largely embraced in America as our population has arguably gone beyond our land’s natural carrying capacity, in many areas.  The land has been treated an infinite resource to be extracted from and used even to our own detriment.  Thankfully, with the willingness to learn, and the integration and amplification of Indigenous voices in our national mainstream culture (think Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass), we are becoming more aware of what our land is telling us.  And it is happening locally everywhere we turn. We ARE shifting our perspectives and behaviors towards a more reciprocal and sustainable relationship with nature. There is hope!

So!  IF we are in fact overharvesting leeks and fiddleheads—either due to the sheer number of us or our unsustainable practices—let us continue to work on shaping and defining an ethical way of foraging:  A way that benefits both our human, and our more-than-human community.   This way of being can and will evolve, and what we call it as well; is it an “Honorable harvest”, “ethical foraging”, “sustainable wildcrafting”?  Think of this and other attempts to define our ethics as working drafts and suggestions to embrace. There will never be a final draft.  There may be rules or guidelines posted by land holders and those play a crucial role in the current structure of how we have assigned ourselves the responsibility to take care of our land, but how we all steward and relate to the land is up to ALL of us.  

Leopold had a point when he said, “…Nothing as important as a land ethic can never be written”.  Yet, I am just one voice of many.  We are all part of the “thinking community” that needs to consciously shape a modern-day land ethic for the 21st century and beyond. To do that, let us continue to treat one another with respect for the mutual benefit of all.  Let us continue to engage in thoughtful and respectful dialogue with each other (including the land and non-human species), inviting a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds, and ways of communicating.  With all of this said, let our land ethic and our ethical way of harvesting always be held in our collective hearts and minds.

“Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the earth will last forever.

-From Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer



About the Author:

Duncan Murdoch is the Intervale Center Land Stewardship Coordinator, Nature & Forest Therapy Guide for Nature Connection Guide and is part of the Burlington Wildways.  Click for volunteer stewardship opportunities and e-mail him at if you would like to let your voice be heard around this issue.

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