It’s a brisk and beautiful April morning when I arrive at Mosquito Cove. I join group of roughly 15 people gathered in the parking lot. They’ve come for the last day of a six-part traditional food and medicine class, and they’re eager to get on the trail.
“How many people have eaten wild celery before? Any of you? How many of you how many of you have had a rash from wild celery that was awful and makes you go, ‘Why did she just asked me if I want to eat it?,'” Vivian Mork (Yéilk’) says, addressing the class.
The traditional food specialist is one of two Tlingit educators who’ve come to share their traditional knowledge with the community. She says while there are countless methods out there, there’s no one size fits all technique to prevent overharvesting.
“You’re going to hear some people say harvest one in four, one in eight, one in two, 10% of something, 20% of something, 30% of something. But for Indigenous people and Indigenous knowledge systems, it’s more important to learn each plant or thing that you’re harvesting individually,” Mork explains.
While the class presented an opportunity for people to explore what edibles they can harvest from the understory, many, like attendee Alex McCarrel, hoped to learn more about how to harvest.
“I used to work at a plant nursery. So I know a lot about the garden side of plants. But I don’t know much about plants in the wild as much. And so I’m really interested in learning more about sustainable harvesting,” McCarrel says.
As wild food harvesting becomes more widespread in Southeast and beyond, Mork says the topic of sustainable harvesting is more important than ever, and passing on traditional knowledge is an integral part of that.
“I believe that one of the ways that we steward our land is by passing down our indigenous knowledge systems of how we utilize our resources and how we share them with each other,” says Mork.
Ethnobotanist and co-teacher Naomi Michaelson (Kaasei) echoed the sentiment, citing the loss in biodiversity she’s witnessed as a result of reckless harvesting practices.
“Even in my short lifetime, I’ve seen many foods that aren’t available anymore, or it’s harder to get. And so I’m really motivated to keep those areas sacred and special and to pass on some of the knowledge or ideas,” Michaelson says.
Class organizer Chandler O’Connell says the series was held with just that in mind. It was planned, in collaboration with the Herring Protectors, as an extension of the herring spawn celebration or Yaaw Ḵoo.éex’. O’Connell says this time isn’t just about the importance of herring, but also about strengthening connections to the land and the community.
“The big hope with the foods and medicines series was to continue that conversation about how we are all interconnected and how we can take care of this place and learn from one another,” explains O’Connell.
After a few hours exploring the forest, class members were invited to share a meal. The group incorporated their bounty of wild greens like watermelon berry shoots, wild celery and black seaweed into a stir fry that they enjoyed alongside licorice root tea. Sitting in the sun, bellies full of wild food, it’s not hard to see how much there is to protect.