A few weekends ago some friends and I rented a cottage on Grand Manan Island. Our agenda was to eat, talk, and hike. We hiked a lot—through shaggy woods, and fields still rife with wild flowers, along vertiginous cliff tops, whales breaching in the water below. It was glorious. As always, we talked too much, sometimes shouting over each other in sheer exuberance. We also ate too much, at least I did. There were cabbage rolls and vintage tomatoes, pesto and homemade sausages; cookies and cake and chips, all kinds of cheeses and bagels, and, and, and! Did I mention the vodka and wine and cider?
Greed overtook me.
I’d argue that greed is a distinctly human problem. The 1995 musical Little Shop of Horrors features a gluttonous plant named Audrey II who offers the hero, money, fame and most of all, “the girl” in exchange for just a smidgeon of human blood, maybe a touch of flesh later on. But as we all know, a deal with the devil starts out well and ends up badly. Audrey II, the cute little plant, is insatiable: “Feed me, Seymour!”
The thing is the playwright Howard Ashman had it all wrong. Plants are not greedy. On the contrary, Nature is abundantly generous. It is we humans, driven by greed, who take advantage of Nature’s generosity. No plant seeks excess in the crazy way we humans do. No plant amasses resources for self protection or tries to fill a spiritual vacuum with something material, or chases after pleasure trying to catch the wind.
Tonight, particularly in the face of those who suffer from want all over the world, I am pondering my own greed, my tendency toward excess.
We have way too much wood for example (we heat with wood, but still…). Last fall we ordered four cords, ran out in the spring and ordered two more. This fall, determined to get ahead of the game, we ordered six cords, even though we still had most of the wood left from last spring. The result is we now have the contents of a small forest in our front yard! I feel guilty whenever I look at all those stacks or maple and birch logs, the dry bones of what once provided a canopy of green shelter, and structured the forest floor.
“This didn’t come from a clear cut, right?” I asked our wood guy, coyly. But my innocence was as false as the pitch of my voice. I knew too well about giant harvesters and skidders. I’ve seen the acres and acres of strafed land in northern New Brunswick, the stark spikes of ashy wood in a wasteland no moose will ever graze. Of course our wood came from a clear cut. We didn’t say take it all, but we know we are complicit.
Reader, be careful about greed. Nature is, as I said, extravagantly generous. Plants in their season overflow across the landscape. Take as much as you want! they seem to say. Fields of dandelions, of clover, of yarrow. I behold all this opulence and feel like a kid trick-or-treating at Halloween, dragging a bloated garbage bag of candy behind me. Like a miser with her gold, I gather this bounty of medicinal plants and lay out my riches on screens to admire the day’s catch. Chamomile and lemon balm, wild thyme and pennyroyal mint, rose petals, and purple heal all. On and on. Now there will be oils and tinctures and teas to make, jars and bags to label. Behold my stash of herbal medicine!
But forager, beware. Those delicate elderflowers gathered so enthusiastically in July will only last a little while. By next year they’ll be as medicinal as dry confetti. All you can do is turf them in the compost pile. Therefore, pick only as much as you’ll use this winter. Let the rest of those flowers become berries for the birds to eat.
And that only-as-much-as-you-need rule must be further modified, depending on the number of plants you encounter. Never take more than a fifth of what’s there, and cut the plant with a knife or scissors (remember to have such a utensil in your pocket whenever you go meandering). Don’t pull up the plant and destroy its roots. Cut the plant at the stem carefully, gratefully.
Here’s something that happened to me recently. I was out walking through the woods after a rain shower and spotted the unmistakable pot-of-gold glow of chanterelle mushrooms under some conifers (they’re not particularly medicinal mushrooms, but oh so delicious). I bushwhacked my way there and knelt down to gather them. No knife. Oh well, a thumbnail will do. No, dear reader, a thumbnail will not do. As carefully as I tried to slice the mushrooms at their base, they were felled by my clumsiness, pulled right out of their leaf mulch. I stuffed those few into my pocket and wandered deeper into the woods in search of more, led by the fairy glint of orange. Here? There? At last, more chanterelles; I was sure of it. As I headed toward them, I stumbled into rabbit holes ducked under branches. When I finally came to the spot where the chanterelles were, they had morphed into orange leaves!
Now I know this is magical thinking, but I became convinced that my crude and greedy foraging practices, my disregard for the delicate mycelium just below the moss caused the chanterelles to disappear. Moreover, I got good and properly lost in those woods and had to let my dog Sierra guide me out.
Greed—some of us, alright, I, have these strange black holes in my soul. More always seems to be better. Store up for the hard days ahead etc. Buy a hundred rolls of toilet paper; it’s on sale; you’ll save ten dollars! One bottle of wine? Get a case. Ten beautiful paintings? Why not a hundred? More of that which gives pleasure means more pleasure, right? One brownie? Eat the whole pan!
This greed of ours, of mine, is connected not only to pleasure, but to time. The idea is that you can cheat the erosion of time by filling in the holes in advance. Greed is an exertion of power, of protection. If I have all this, I will be free, and if I am free, I can have all this. It is a shameful human thing, this amassing of material things, even the amassing of medicinal plants, which is my form of greed, specially given the desperate plight of so many human and non-human creatures in this broken beautiful world.
Unlike humans, plants are not greedy. They do not take; they only receive. They have no illusions about saving for a rainy day, or grabbing more than their fellow dandelion, which isn’t to say they are not competitive. But on some level, they know they will die and come back, over and over again. The rain will soak, the sun will warm, butterflies will land and flit away. And plants will simply live and glory in that flash of life that is theirs. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet… even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6: 28-29)