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Material World

Plants not only provide a cornucopia of food and a storehouse of medicines, but also supply the raw materials for innumerable objects that make life on earth more comfortable for us. Wood is a primary resource for building materials, paper, tools and firewood. Flax and other plants that are rich sources of fibres are used to make anything from rope to Jeans, to sails. Rubber was originally derived from tree latex and without it the industrial development of the past century would not have been possible. Plants produce oils and resins used in anything from varnish to dentistry - to name but a small selection of infinite examples.

Yet, it is precisely in this aspect of 'raw materials' that we least respect and appreciate the source plants. For all these gifts they offer, all that our human society is concerned with is the potential for economic exploitation. The plants themselves or the ecosystems of which they are a part are rarely considered.

Thankfully, some voices in the wilderness have recently begun to remind us that nature is a finite resource and that plants, though they have the ability to regenerate, will only do so if managed in a sustainable manner, which means that their 'goods' must be harvested with due consideration of the plant and the ecosystem of which it is a part. If plants are damaged or killed they must be replenished if the supply is to continue.

Of course this obvious wisdom is not particularly new - though over the centuries of mindless exploitation the majority of the world inhabitants have become so used to the idea of just taking without asking questions that this concept does in fact seem revolutionary. Yet, many tribal societies have managed their ecosystems sustainably for aeons and have only been forced into exploitative practices as the economic pressures of western civilization has bulldozed its way into their worlds.

Sustainable use philosophy recognizes the fact that the environment with all its species has a value beyond their immediate profit potential. To sustain the ecological balance of the environment of which we are a part, ultimately also ensures a healthy environment for future generations - as well as for ourselves. We cannot separate ourselves for the wholeness of the web of life - each part affects all others. And just as the value of a human being cannot simply be counted in terms of his or her contribution to the gross national product - the same goes for other species with whom we share this planet. To live sustainably on this earth we have to evolve from exploiters to guardians and recognize once more the inherent value of all of nature, whether we directly profit from it or not.

Here is a little story to illustrate the point:

One day a carpenter and his apprentice were travelling through the countryside. They came upon a beautiful ancient tree standing by an earth altar. The carpenter's apprentice was admiring the ancient being but the old carpenter exclaimed: look at that useless old tree, it is no good for anything. If one was to cut it down to build a ship with it, the ship would soon sink or if one were to make tools from it they would soon rot, it's a completely useless old tree.

Later that night the two retired at an inn nearby. During the night the old carpenter had a dream. The old tree appeared to him and spoke: You want to compare me with your domesticated trees, like hawthorn, pear, apple or cherry or whatever else bears fruit for you? No sooner as they produce their crop for you they are abused and violated. You cut their branches and slice their bark. Thus their generosity is their own demise. By merit of their blessings they endanger their own lives and rarely reach their ripe old age. Such is the common practice. Therefore I have long since tried to be as useless as possible. You, mortal! What if I had some use to you - I would never have reached this age and size, I would have been cut down for my wood a long time ago. And besides, you and I are creatures alike, why should one creature pass judgement upon the usefulness of another? What do you, a mere mortal and useless human, know about the 'useless' trees?

When the carpenter woke from his dream the next morning he thought deeply about its message. When his apprentice later asked him why this tree in particular came to serve at the earth altar the carpenter answered: quiet, now, lets not speak about it anymore. The tree chose to grow there because otherwise those who did not know him would have abused him. Had he not grown by the earth altar surely he would have been cut down for his wood and died.

The materialistic attitudes that shape our world today we place more value on the things that can be fashioned from plants than on the plants from which these things are derived. Yet, all of nature has an innate value, which it is not up to us to judge. Only by cultivating an attitude of appreciation of nature will we cultivate abundance.

These pages provide information on useful plants from both economic botany and ethnobotany perspectives. Ethnoforestry systems, sustainable harvesting methods of economically useful plants, and information on the many plants that make our lives easier through their gifts.

© Kat Morgenstern 2003, all rights reserved.

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