Marla R. Emery, a research geographer, speaks fluent Spanish and French, has a background in international relations and has worked with scientists around the globe. While working with the U.S. Forest Service’s Office of Research and Development, she discovered that rather than managing and writing for scientists she wanted to be a scientist with a focus on how people and ecosystems interact. So she completed her doctorate in geography at Rutgers University and began work on understanding how and why people use forests. Emery works at the agency's Northern Research Station in Burlington, Vermont.
Much of your work in research has little to do with a lab and a microscope. What does a Forest Service research geographer do?
The goal of my work is understanding how people see and use forests throughout the year. Understanding that has important implications for how we manage forests. The research unit I work in is People and Their Environments. On a good day, one of those people will take me out in the forest and we will walk around and pick up things that we can eat or use for medicine or use for something else. They talk to me about how they see that forest and how they use that forest throughout the year.
A great deal of my work is done sitting in people’s kitchens talking to them. It is amazing. It’s truly wonderful. I never go in to someone’s kitchen where they do not give me something to eat or drink while they are sharing all kinds of information with me.
A few years back, I was invited to do some work in Scotland. There are very few forests left in Scotland, and their assumption was that the relationship between forests and people in that country had been broken. I’m here to tell you that it’s not true. Once, in Scotland near Inverness, I was interviewing a fellow who was chronically unemployed or underemployed, and he was renting a little fisherman’s cottage. A few days later I talked to an Earl, an actual member of the House of Lords, in his castle. A part of it was built in the 1400s and part in the Edwardian era. Both of these men invited me into their homes. They each made tea for me. And they each began to talk to me about what picking mushrooms means in their lives. They used almost exactly the same language to describe how much it means to them. And they didn’t even know each other. I’ve heard similar stories from people with all kinds of ethnic backgrounds through the eastern United States.
It is such a privilege to do this work. People’s generosity of their time, their knowledge and their enthusiasm for what they teach me about the relationship between people and their environment is so rewarding. It doesn’t matter whether you are an unemployed guy in a fisherman’s cottage or an earl in a castle, whether you are a retired prison guard in northern Michigan or a librarian in Vermont. People are just passionate about their ability to go out into the forest or in the open spaces and interact immediately and directly with nature. It creates deep, intimate relationships between people and places, people and ecosystems. Understanding those relationships tells us something important about how people and ecosystems interact.
I started doing this research in 1995. More than 15 years later, I’m still hearing from people how deeply important it is to them and how it hits them directly where they live. And, of course, gathering is especially important to Native Americans. It is a part of cultural and material survival. Many tribes throughout the United States have treaty-guaranteed rights to gather in their traditional territories.
People forage for their own use and some have lucrative businesses using permits to find non-timber products in national forests. Why just national forests?
Actually, this doesn’t just happen in national forests. My most recent line of work is with a small group of colleagues researching urban foraging and darned if there haven’t always been people gathering plants and mushrooms in urban areas. But it’s a growing movement. One way we are collecting data is you cannot believe how many blogs there are on this. We have Google trolling for us, and we get several hits a week. There are groups all over the country and now all over the world teaching people how and what to gather in an urban environment. It turns out that the relationship between people and their environment is not that much different from people who live near a forest. There are people in rural and urban areas that are really connected. And there are people in rural and urban areas that are really disconnected
Surely there cannot be that much available in an urban setting, can there?
We did a small pilot project with eight people in New York City in 2008. We put together a list of 60 things people were able to get in New York City. Many were invasive weed species. Others came from street trees. There were Chinese chestnuts; ginkgo nuts in particular were high on the list. There are several invasive weeds that turn out to be edible and some medicinal uses as well.
We also are very interested in this project in what kind of spaces and what kind of places people use: city parks, cemeteries, street trees, in medians and along neighborhood areas. Any place where a plant grows, someone could be gathering.
It’s really important to not over romanticize this activity or the people who participate in it. Most are conscientious about sustainability. But not everyone is that thoughtful. Maybe they won’t chop down a tree, but they may break a branch to get to the fruit. We are very interested in the stewardship practices and the sustainability concerns and issues.
Of course, another thing we want to look at is what about toxicity in an urban environment? People in our study are concerned about it. “I won’t pick any closer than five yards from the road,” one will say. Or they’ll pick from uphill because things will pretty much wash the other way. We also heard just in our small sample of eight people that “I pick preferentially in cemeteries because they don’t spray.” Then another person who says “I won’t pick in cemeteries because they spray a lot.”
We are all really excited about this research.
But what can be gained by talking to people who pick fruit from a tree in a cemetery?
For me and my colleagues there are four policy issues that are very important when looking at urban gathering: 1. relationships between people and nature; 2. food security; 3. public health; and 4. environmental justice.
Those four policy issues are all central to why we are looking at this because in one way or another urban gathering as a practice has something to say, something to contribute or, more pointedly, some things to contribute to each of those areas. But again, it’s important to not romanticize it. It’s important to understand what’s actually going on here.
For example, in terms of food security, there’s starting to be a lot of scholarship and a lot of policy and grass roots activity around urban food deserts. Those are areas where there is no grocery store but maybe a food mart that only has processed foods in it. What are the ways that municipalities and non-profit organizations can begin to produce and distribute fresh food in urban areas? Vacant lots often have these invasive weeds in them that are edible that people in the know may be eating. But there are a lot of people who don’t have that information.
Implications for food security and for public health are much the same. These foods are fresh, and you have to get out and talk a walk in order to get them. This obviously has potential value for public health.
Environmental justice is an area where there is a whole lot of work to be done. Income and access to green space has an impact on people’s health and well-being. Green space is not just an aesthetic amenity or backdrop. For example, some weeds are producing something, too, if you recognize them as food. But who has access to that information? We were at a community garden in Brooklyn, and they were showing us their gardens and were really proud of their vegetables, and they did look fantastic. But we were looking around at the weeds around the edge of their garden, and those weeds were edible but they didn’t know it. Food security is also an environmental justice question.
This is a really interesting moment in history. People are starting to think, “Can we make our urban landscapes productive?” I spoke with a rabbi in Baltimore who wants to start an urban fruit tree program. There are multiple projects in Seattle. In an urban context, the line between agroforestry and wild gathering is blurry. They are very complimentary. If you think about it in terms of the four policy issues, it’s a distinction without much of a difference.
So what sort of things can we look for in our backyard?
One of the things I always find in backyards, sidewalk cracks, all over the place, is plantain. The scientific name is Plantago majora. It’s a plant that came over from Europe but it’s ubiquitous. If I scratch or scrape myself, if I have a cut that’s not too big or too deep, plantain is what I want. It’s an amazing healer. You use it, oh, the technical term is a spit poultice. You grab a leaf from it, you chew it up a little bit, and put it on your problem spot. It’s an amazing healer. That’s a plant you see all the time but you don’t notice it. Of course, it would be one of the casualties of intensive lawn care.
My mom lives in a second growth redwood forest in California. When I visit my mother there is a state park nearby where we often go for a walk. I usually try to come back with California bay laurel. Inevitably some of the branches have fallen down, and I grab a stash of bay leaves. That’s what I cook with for the year.
There’s also the weedy stuff like garlic mustard that people want to eradicate. Early, after the leaves have emerged, you can make pesto with it. Mustard of just about any kind, the leaves are edible and the seeds are edible.
Nettle is another useful weed. Nettles are a fabulous green and also have a medicinal use. There are people who think that nettle is helpful in treating pain from arthritis. The Latin name for nettle is Urtica dioica. The process of using stinging nettle by lightly striking the painful area with nettle leaves is called urtication. I’ve been told, though I’ve never tried it, that the fiber in the stem of nettle can be processed the same as linen. Or you can make nettle soup with the tender leaves.
Milkweed. Oh, I love the little buds of milkweed before they open. They are like broccoli but only better. And a young pod is also edible. When the pods are mature, the silk of the pods can be used as a filler or stuffing. During World War II children were sent out to get milkweed fluff as a substitute for kapok, which comes from Africa, South America, and Asia. During the war, shipping lines were cut off, so they used milkweed fluff to stuff life vests.
All photos courtesy of the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database. Information about medicinal plant uses is provided for educational purposes only. It should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment and is not a substitute for consultation with a licensed physician.
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