chokecherry drupes, Salt Spring Island, 2015 August 13
Focusing on traditional indigenous fruit trees: Revisiting traditional experiences of gratitude
For most of us, fruit comes as a gift unless we’re working full-time in orchards or vineyards. Even if we buy fruit, it is typically under-priced. Fruit wild trees can be free. There is a movement to make new orchards where the fruit can be freely picked with a monetary exchange. Fruit in many culture carries symbolism as very special gifts. In the monotheistic religions, fruits such as the apples of Eden and the dates of desert oases link providence and knowledge.
Both the recent human societies of Western Europe and on the West Coast of North America were build on the fruit of a small number of gene pools especially:
Malus species including apple, pear and crabapple;
Prunus species including plum and cherries;
Corylus species all producing similar kinds of hazelnuts;
Rubus including raspberry and blackberry;
Fragaria, strawberry; and
Vaccinium including blueberries and huckleberries.
While many of these wild species in both Europe and in North America are under-documented, there are a number of archives with precise, scientific photographs. In contrast, we have not been able to afford, in recent years, the medium-format photographic equipment with which I was educated and on which I developed my career. In recent years, Julian Castle and I started photographing and making video clips with the best equipment that we have been able to find: old (un)smart, mobile telephones — without the focusing functions of more recent smart phones.
The images are blurred and crude but at least we found these wild trees. Some of these groves were carefully cultivated and protected by Salish communities as late as the mid-twentieth century. These trees hold many stories and layers of culture within the landscape. Celebrating this fruit and carefully harvesting it for food can be part of a decolonial recovery process when there is full acknowledgement of the ownership of these sites and resources by the traditional communities that nurtured and have protected them. This decolonial process, linked with gratitude, could eventually lead to many more areas returned to their rightful owners with traditional stewardship and harvesting re-established.
In Canada, we are currently reconsidering a swath of damaging over-generalizations about the diversity of indigenous cultures and religions.[*] After well over a century of cultural genocide, this recovery is sometimes painful. But while indigenous cultures in the Americas often have ‘loved’ the Earth, there is as much richness in those experiences and practices, and as many contradictions, as those across European and Asian cultures.
Two relatively common experiences around the Salish Sea, related to food resources, ecosystems and sites, are rich feelings of gratitude, especially around fish and fruit, often expressed in quiet practices, prayers and reflection embodying ‘conversations’ with those plants. In Salish cultures, people engaged in rich sets of horticultural practices from planting to burning and pruning, often ‘talked’ to plants particularly ones that they ate (and in harvesting rarely killed entire plants outright). So the blurred aspect of these photographs is not just about temporary economic constraints and as about finding ways to enjoy, learn from, and protect these often dwindling groves and legacies of indigenous communities now struggling to recover their cultures. The blurs are the beginnings of new conversations.
Last year, we ate more fruit in the Rubus and Vaccinium gene pools. This year has been one of the warmest and driest on record so those berries dried early. These days, we have been fortunate to find early ripening crabapple and chokecherries, both genetic linked to similar apple and pear (Malus) and cherry and plum (Prunus) populations in Asia and Europe.
These drupes (little tasty and very edible cherries) of chokecherry, Prunus virginiana subsp. demissa, are from Salt Spring Island on August 13, 2015. This fruit (with medicinal bark) was a crucial fruit in the formation of Salish society and there are sites at the eastern end of the Fraser Valley with many thousands of cherry pits in old pits going back at least 8,000 years. As well as still important to the W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) First Nation and the Shhweenustham ‘u tu Quw’utsun Hwulmuhw (Cowichan Tribes), this slender tree (preferred on the prairies for teepee poles) is important for maintaining woodland and vegetation cover, more generally, because it is poisonous and is not eaten by deer and (introduced) rabbits.
Along with berries, these crabapples was perhaps the most important fruit in terms of quantities eaten. Crabapple groves often held powerful nutritional, spiritual and cultural importance.[†]
The rich gene pools of Rubus, including raspberry, and Vaccinium, including blueberry and cranberry, also span Pacific Canada, Asia and Western Europe. There are four native Rubus species on Salt Spring Island: salmonberry, thimbleberry, trailing blackberry, and blackcap (raspberry). Salmon berry, Rubus spectabilis, starts blooming in late February and will be fruiting as early as late April with blackcap raspberry, Rubus leucodermis, fruiting from late June into August. And of the native Vaccinium species, red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvifolium, is more common but vulnerable as damper forests are cut and the climate heats.
salmonberry, Rubus spectabilis, Salt Spring Island, 2014 May 27
blackcap raspberry, Rubus leucodermis, Salt Spring Island, 2014 June 26
red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvifolium, 2012 July 26
All of these species are the objects of ceremonies to celebrate the first fruits of every year. Reflecting on these practices linking gratitude, conversations, horticulture and ecological protection is for another year and another essay.
[*] Garneau, David. 2015. Indigenous Criticism: On Not Walking With Our Sisters. Border Crossings 34(2) (#134): 78 – 82. http://bordercrossingsmag.com/article/indigenous-criticism
[†] Nancy J. Turner. 2014. Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America. Volume Two – The Place and Meaning of Plants in Indigenous Cultures and Worldviews. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. See pages 90, 189, 196 – 198, 211 – 214, 271, and 344.