Saturday, September 28, 2013

Chaga and the Wild Harvesting Dilemma

There are many wild spaces where I love to walk and, when necessary, harvest herbs. Whenever I explore a new area or trail, I keep a record of what species grow there. For those herbs that I use in my practice, I will also estimate the approximate amount (in litres of tincture) that can be sustainably harvested from the area of any species that are growing in sufficient quantity. Since plant populations change, I update these records every time I visit an area. As someone who wild harvests almost all of the medicines that I use, this information is very important to me. I maintain a data base in which I keep track of it.

Every year I try to visit a few new areas. This is partly because I want to deepen my relationship with the region where I live and one of the ways I do that is to get to know its diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. However, in exploring new areas I am also keeping track of the medicines that grow there. I like to have as many locations as possible to harvest each of the medicines that I use so that I don't have to harvest them in any particular region more than once every few years. I am extremely anal about respecting the medicines and making sure that they are harvested in a sustainable manner. I have written about this in more detail in my post Wild Harvesting Herbs.

In my practice I use several medicinal fungi. One of the fungi that I harvest is clinker polypore (Inonotus obliquus), better known these days as chaga. The name chaga is an anglicized version of the Russian version of the name of the fungus in the language of the Komi people of central Russia. Since this fungus has been popularized as chaga, very few people know its English name.

Clinker polypore (Inonotus obliquus), better known as chaga.

Chaga is a fungus that grows primarily on birch trees (Betula spp.) in the region where I live. It has been used for various purposes by many traditional peoples throughout the temperate and subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere where it grows. Until the last decade or so, most people in our society had never heard of it. However, it has become popularized in recent years, which is not a good thing! This fungus grows very slowly and is difficult to cultivate. In addition, so far the medicinal properties of the cultivated fungus are significantly inferior to the wild harvested fungus. Another concern is that this is not your typical wood rotting fungus. Most of the conks or bracket fungi that grow on living and dead trees are actually the reproductive organs or fruiting bodies of organisms that grow as a network of filamentous mycelia beneath the bark or through the wood. When we harvest the fruiting body of a fungus, we are not harvesting the main part of the organism. However, chaga doesn't grow this way. The part that appears growing out of the side of birch trees is not the fruit. It is the actual fungus. Chaga rarely fruits and usually only after the tree dies. So, when we harvest chaga, we are harvesting the main body of the organism.

When walking through areas with a lot of birch trees, I used to see a fair amount of chaga. However, in the last couple of years what I am mostly seeing is a lot of trees from which the chaga has been removed and very little chaga itself. This is not simply a matter of a few people harvesting some for personal use. With the popularization of this fungus it seems that there are some people who think of it as a free resource that they can harvest at will in order to make some money. What I'm finding is that most of the people out there harvesting chaga are doing their best to gouge every last bit of it out of the tree. Remember, in this case they aren't just harvesting the fruit and leaving the organism intact. They are harvesting the whole fungus! In addition, they are doing a lot of damage to the trees that it grows on, leaving gaping wounds through which the trees can easily be affected by insects or disease.

When I harvest chaga, I only harvest it in areas where it is plentiful; I only harvest from a small percentage of the fungi growing in the area; and I only harvest part of any given conk and leave 50% or more of it intact. What I'm seeing out there is the result of people harvesting every fungus they can find and doing their best to completely extract it from the tree it is growing on. Needless to say, given that chaga rarely fruits and grows very slowly, this fungus is rapidly becoming scarce in the more accessible areas where it was once relatively common.

Chaga harvested correctly: not cutting too deep and leaving more than half of the fungus intact.

It is ironic that the demand for chaga is due to a growing interest in "natural healing". However, this is the antithesis of what natural healing is really about! Natural healing is about cultivating more balanced and harmonious relationships with ourselves and the world we live in. There is nothing balanced or harmonious about the consumerism driven and disrespectful way that chaga is being torn from the landscape. This is something that many people still don't get. Our lack of health in body, heart, mind and spirit is largely due to how we interact with the world. We live in a society that is way out of balance and as long as we continue to perpetuate the unsustainable paradigm that underlies the status quo we will never really be healthy!

One of the many fallacies of the current Western world view is that we are individuals. It's all about me! It's OK to rape the ecosystem to provide me with what I want. In truth, there are no individuals. Our life depends on the life of our Earth Mother and all of the beings that we share this life with. Everything we do affects everything else and will inevitably come back to bite us if it isn't done with respect and wisdom.

If we are trying to live "green" or "natural" we have a responsibility to investigate the reality behind the latest "green" or "natural" products. We can't necessarily trust the word of anyone who is trying to sell us something. That doesn't mean that they are always manipulative or deceptive - but they often are. Even people who mean well are less likely to dig too deeply into something if their livelihood depends on it. Inevitably, we need to do some research for ourselves. For example: electric cars aren't green or sustainable if they use electricity that is produced by coal plants; solar panels are not green or sustainable if it takes more energy to make them than they will produce in their lifetime, or manufacturing them requires the use of rare and/or toxic elements; shipping exotic "superfoods" half way around the world when there are foods of similar or better nutrient density growing in the area where we live is not green or sustainable - and who knows what environmental transgressions may have been committed where they were grown or harvested? Farming and harvesting practices are not something we can easily verify for plants that come from distant regions. Similarly, wild harvesting foods or medicines on a commercial scale is almost always unsustainable.

Getting back to chaga, the use of this fungus has been popularized in several books and articles, and by the people selling it. As a result, it has become one of the latest and most popular fad herbs. Proponents of its use are recommending it be consumed as a tea and that it be drunk liberally. Some people recommend drinking the tea several times per day for many months or even indefinitely. Looking at the bigger picture, there are several concerns with this scenario. Firstly, chaga is the strongest medicinal fungus that I have used. It is not appropriate for liberal use on an ongoing basis. Like all medicines, it needs to be used with respect. Secondly, using it as a tea requires that it be used in much larger quantities compared to using it as a tincture because the amount of herb required per unit dose is much larger for teas. With the amount of chaga that will keep someone in tea for a few weeks, I can make enough tincture to supply my entire herbal practice for several months! I realize that it was traditionally used as a tea, however, I have found the tincture to be as or more effective at least when prepared by the method that I use (for more information see my previous post Making Medicine, Part 3). Finally, because of the way it grows, chaga simply can not be sustainably harvested on any kind of scale. If we want to harvest a fungus on a very limited commercial scale, it should be one that is very common and produces abundant annual fruitings that can be harvested while leaving the fungus undisturbed. An example of a fungus that might possibly fit into this category is birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus), which has some similar properties and constituents as chaga, although they do have there differences. However, even "limited" commercial harvesting is not really sustainable because who is going to control how many people are doing it and how much they are harvesting? We're not talking about a village healer harvesting it to supply the needs of a small village in a remote area. If there is a demand for it and money to be made, it won't be long before the amount being harvested reaches detrimental levels. Harvesting the fruiting body might not kill or harm the fungus, but it will reduce its rate of reproduction. In reality, the only fungi that should be sold commercially for medicines and especially for foods (since they are consumed in much larger quantities) are those that have been grown commercially - certified organic of course!

A fruiting of birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) growing out of a fallen paper birch (Betula papyrifera) log.

Saying that wild harvesting medicines is unsustainable might sound like a contradiction coming from an herbalist who uses almost exclusively wild harvested medicines! However, what I am saying is that there are very few herbs that can handle being wild harvested on a commercial scale. A few herbalists wild harvesting herbs for their healing practice and a few more herb enthusiasts harvesting some herbs for personal use is sustainable if they are harvesting the herbs in an ethical manner. In fact, these days most herbalists don't wild harvest very many or any of their medicines. There are many reasons for this. One of the main reasons is that it is extremely time consuming. At the most, if I harvest the medicines in a respectful way I can only harvest enough to make a sufficient amount of tincture to practice two full days per week (6-8 clients per day)! Personally, I only practice one day per week. The rest of the time I am teaching and doing other work. Even practicing one day per week a significant proportion of my time is devoted to wild harvesting from April to November. During the peak harvesting periods (May to July and November) it takes up the largest proportion of my time.

There are still a few herbs that I either can't harvest in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of my practice, or for which I haven't found a suitable substitute that grows in the region where I live. I need to purchase these herbs, fresh whenever possible, to make a few of the tinctures that I need. I always purchase these herbs certified organically grown. If I can't wild harvest an herb myself or get it from a certified organically grown source, I don't use it. I never purchase commercially wild harvested herbs.

That being said, due to the increasing popularity of herbs and herbalism coupled with our unsustainable population growth, there may come a time when it is no longer possible for me to continue wild harvesting the herbs that I use. The wild populations of herbs simply won't be able to handle it. At that point I will grow as many as I can and purchase the rest. But I'll still go out there and continue to deepen my relationship with the wild herbs and the lands where they live.

There is no doubt that there are a few wild herbs that can handle some level of commercial wild harvesting at this point. However, there aren't many and a lot of them are not well known or commonly used. The criteria that would need to be met for an herb to fall into this category are: it must be very plentiful and adaptable, more or less invasive by nature; it must prefer to live in the kinds of habitats that humans create when we change the landscape; it must be able to be harvested without negatively impacting the ecosystem where it lives. In North America, most of the herbs that fall into this category are Eurasian plants that have naturalized here, such as common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), burdock (Arctium spp.) and red clover (Trifolium pratense). In my region, the only native species that I would include are a few species of asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) and goldenrods (Solidago spp.). Obviously, it will be different in different regions. Another possibility is using the parts of some commercially harvested tree species that are discarded during the harvesting process, such as the leaves and young twigs of conifers like white pine (Pinus strobus).

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is one of the few native Ontario herbs
that could be wild harvested commercially to some degree.

One of the reasons that people like wild harvested herbs is because there is a belief that their medicinal properties are superior to those of cultivated herbs, even if they are organically cultivated. For the most part this is true, but it doesn't have to be! Wild harvested herbs have a lot more strength and vitality than cultivated herbs even though cultivated herbs may sometimes look better. This is partly because cultivated herbs are often grown in conditions (soil type, moisture, amount of direct sunlight, monoculture, etc.) that are not typical of their natural habitat. However, the main reason is because cultivated plants are pampered. We all need a certain amount of stress to maintain a decent level of health and vitality. Plants are no exception. Too much stress can weaken them, but so can too little stress. For instance, a certain amount of drought stress is good for most plants. How much depends on the species. Watering them every time the soil gets a bit dry usually isn't a good idea. However, letting them dry out completely isn't either. Also, every organism needs some competition. This can be accomplished by careful companion planting. It is also a good idea to allow some "weeds" to grow, as long as they aren't allowed to get the upper hand by crowding out the herbs we are growing, above the ground or below it. Most "weeds" are useful anyway, either as medicines or foods.

So that is my rant about chaga and the ethics of wild harvesting. Once more, for more information I recommend reading my earlier post Wild Harvesting Herbs. In the mean time, the chaga is rapidly disappearing from the more accessible areas of southern and central Ontario. Although chaga is a great medicine when used correctly and with respect, I strongly recommend considering other medicinal fungi that are available from organically grown sources such as lacquered polypore or reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), hen-of-the-woods or maitake (Grifola frondosa), or oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus).

You might also be interested in my follow-up post More On Chaga and the YouTube video Michael Vertolli On Chaga.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Thank You Summer, Welcome Fall!

Yesterday was like a typical summer day. It was warm and humid and the sky was full of thin misty clouds. Although there are many signs of late summer/early fall, it felt like July. The clouds thickened through the day and into the evening, and then around 10:45 pm it arrived: the last rain of summer!

Thank you summer!

As always, I greeted the weather beings and gave thanks for their sacred rains; these rains that moisten the soil and fill the aquifers, wetlands, rivers and lakes. These rains, without which life as we know it would not exist. I sat outside under the overhang on my front porch, as I often do, and watched, listened, smelled and felt; in awe of the beauty of this world!

At the same time, their power was palpable. Under different circumstances they could unleash severe wind, lightning or flooding; or by their lack of presence ... drought! These have always been a part of our reality. They are a necessary quality of a world that is constantly changing and reshaping itself. But in recent times the mood of the weather beings has changed. They aren't happy with the way we are in relationship with them, or our Earth Mother and all of the other beings we share this life with. We continue to live as if we are separate from the world. We live this way at our peril. We are part of the world and it is part of us. The quality of our life is based on the quality of our relationships, not the amount of stuff that we "own".

Tomorrow, at 4:45 pm EDT, is the fall equinox. Although it is the spring equinox in the southern hemisphere, I will speak of it from where I stand, for our relationships are always rooted in the place where we live. Either way it is an important time of transition in the cycle of the seasons. It is a time when for a brief moment the day and night are in balance. On Monday, the night will be longer than the day. Fall will have arrived!

Welcome fall!

The equinoxes and solstices are important times when we can acknowledge our relationship to the world, reflect on the cycles and changes in our lives, and the quality of our relationships. Tomorrow I will give thanks for the blessings of summer: the experiences that I have had; the medicines and foods harvested; the time spent with loved ones; the time spent walking on this sacred Earth. The greatest blessing of all is to have had the opportunity to live through this season once more. I will also welcome the fall and look forward to its teachings. It's great to be alive and have the honor of experiencing this sacred time once more!

Have a great fall!