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The Ground Shots Podcast

Apr 22, 2020

Episode #35 of the Ground Shots Podcast features a conversation with Zach Elfers, an ethnobotanist who lives in eastern Pennsylvania near the Susquehanna River. Zach runs the Nomad Seed Project.

From Zach’s website:

The Nomad Seed Project sets out to research, document, experiment, and propagate wild, native, and perennial plants which have exceptional value to humans and their ecology as food, medicine, shelter, materials, and beauty.

Imagining the world of nomadic gatherer-hunters invokes to mind a patchwork landscape with oases of human habitat along pathways of migration unfolding with the pattern of the seasons, plants, or animals. For thousands of years, humans lived in this manner. Along the way, they gathered useful plants and intentionally spread the seeds as a form of populations management. Ecology has been a co-creation alongside humankind for a long time.

Humans often acted as the legs of important plants, expanding them both in their range and abundance. It was humans who brought the pawpaw (Asimina triloba) out of the subtropics  after the last ice age and spread it around the eastern temperate forests, and it was humans also who spread the sunroot or Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) throughout the continent. Nomad Seed Project is interested in ideas of assisted migration, especially in response to climate change, and as a way to protect and conserve species in the face of a rapidly changing world.

The Nomad Seed Project is a re-envisioning of this old paradigm. By gathering and planting the seeds of native, wild, perennial plants that are important to us, we as humans have the power to impact the ecosystems we are a part of in positive and healthy ways, while also meeting our own requirements for food, shelter, medicine, and materials. Neither agriculture, gardening, nor preservationism, but something in between.

It may be a long time however before we can fully sustain our lives again from the wild plants growing in nature’s garden. While prior to colonialism the presence and abundance of plant foods and medicines was much greater, our ecosystems today have been degraded, fractured, or destroyed in the wake of farming, ranching, mining, urban development, suburban sprawl, and the highway system. Now it is more important than ever that we act again as the legs to the plants that we love, helping them gain new ground, ahead of mass extinction and climate change. The Nomad Seed Project describes work that could also be called do-it-yourself ecological restoration, at the hands of citizen scientists acting according to their own conscience. By working with these native plants, with the same stroke we expand our own habitat. There is a lot of work to do, but it all starts with the power of a seed…

In this conversation with Zach, we talk about:

some natural/ethnobotanical history of the Susquehanna River watershed in Pennsylvania where Zach lives

Zach's project 'Nomad Seed' which focuses on his experimental field research with native first food plants

Zach's experience learning plants while traveling and being out on the land and how this helped deepen his understanding of his 'home' ecosystem

specific 'wild foods' / first foods plants Zach tends and his methods for doing so like Spring Beauty, Dwarf Ginseng, Toothwort, American Groundnut, Harbinger of Spring, Eastern Camas, Chestnuts, Hickories, Chinkapins

how fire-stick farming may have been a wild-tending practice in the southeast

the importance of John Hershey's farm in Pennsylvania for preserving native fruit and nut species that were possibly selected at one point by indigenous peoples and Zach's research on how he thinks this happened

the importance of prioritizing the preservation and propagation of bioregional foods

Zach's experiments with and research on controlled 'burn' gardens on the east coast

different ways one can define 'agriculture'

ethnical foraging expanded: learning the plants entire life cycle and encouraging them to become more abundant by working with the plants all year

choosing love over fear in a time of collapse



Zach’s website (read his amazing plant profiles!) : The Nomad Seed Project

Zach on Facebook

Zach’s instagram @woodlandrambler

Zach’s Patreon page for The Nomad Seed Project

Blog page for this episode:

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Theme music: 'Sweat and Splinters' by Mother Marrow

Interstitial Music: ‘Cold Horn’ by Inger S

Hosted by: Kelly Moody

Produced by: Kelly Moody and Opia Creative