The Natural Connection That Arises From Foraging

A member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi shares the lessons he’s learned from his relationship with nature.
Illustration by Claire Harrup

Cusi Ballew describes the ritual he observes every time he goes foraging: “Before we go out, we lay down sema, and then we talk about our intentions,” he says. Ballew is a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, whose territory ranges through Northern Indiana and parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. And sema is tobacco, a powerful medicine for the Potawatomi, given as a gift to enable humans to communicate with the spirit world. Offering sema is the first step in any communication with the spirits, including the plant spirits. “When we harvest plants, we also lay down sema and talk about our intentions and tell the plant why we’re harvesting them and what we need,” Ballew explains.

Ballew, who was taught to forage from a young age, treats his interactions with the natural world as “a relationship in the deepest of senses,” founded on gratitude and reciprocity. “Think of [plants and animals] as the ‘old ones,’ those who paved the way for us humans, who made a place for us and who have given so much and continue to give,” he says. In other words, he acknowledges the sacrifices nature makes to sustain him, and he takes action to sustain nature in return.

Raised to view the forest as full of things that “could be climbed, smelled, touched, and eaten,” Ballew can recall knowing common plants from his earliest memories. He felt no sense of danger in wandering the woods of the Ohio River Valley as a child. Instead, he was taught to identify the plants and animals that could harm him so he could easily avoid them or know what to do when he came across them. “Everything is dangerous if you don’t know how to do it … I encountered some copperheads and ticks with Lyme disease, fell out of trees, and had run-ins with stinging nettle. But all of this was treated as normal and not a reason to restrict my access.”

Ballew credits his parents, grandmother, and other members of his family and community with turning the outdoors into a classroom—but the forest itself was also his teacher. While what he learned on his early foraging trips was relatively limited compared to the wealth of information he now possesses, the most lasting lessons came from discovering on his own and developing a sense of comfort and closeness with the natural world. “What my parents gave me, most importantly, was the confidence to explore the world with an understanding that I was connected to all of creation and was as safe as I was likely to be anywhere,” he says. He now shares everything he has learned with his own children and through his work as the Pokagon Band’s cultural sustainability lead.

The generational passage of knowledge and the method of learning through careful exploration and observation are rooted in enduring Potawatomi customs. Ballew explains that, historically, among the Potawatomi, an ogema, or leader, was appointed for each wild staple their community subsisted on. For example, the job of the mnomen ogema, or the ogema of wild rice, was to be aware of the rice all year long.

“They would be surveying the whole lake, and they would tell people when to harvest and when the harvest was done,” Ballew says.

The ogema’s skill in reading the signs of the rice—what kind of year it was having and how much could be taken—was passed down through generations, because understanding the plants’ health and knowing when to stop harvesting was as important as knowing when to begin. The Potawatomi have long abided by the principle of taking 20 percent and leaving 80—a practice European settlers called lazy. But this was a part of the core “mindset of abundance” with which the Potawatomi approached their relationship with nature, not simply extracting whatever they could get away with, but encouraging their natural surroundings to thrive.

“Yeah, we probably could have taken 50 percent, and the rice would have sustained itself,” Ballew says. But the point isn’t to take as much as you can get. “We concerned ourselves with how little do we need, so that we don’t take more than we need.”

Ecologists often refer to this sort of low-maintenance curation of the natural environment as “forest gardening,” and there is evidence that it was a common practice across the pre-industrial world, with notable examples in places like the Pacific Northwest, Sri Lanka, and Central and South America. Michelle Evans, Domestic Trades manager at Conner Prairie, tells of the scores of hazelnut shells found underneath the floorboards of William Conner’s homestead, left there by mice centuries ago: evidence of a large number of hazelnut bushes that once covered the area. Evans believes they may have been so bountiful due to the effort of the Miami or Lenape communities who lived along White River.

But scientific terminology doesn’t capture the depth of the Potawatomis’ fellowship with their environment. Ballew emphasizes that what he is doing is communicating with and sharing gifts with a loved one. While an analytical approach can reveal data that helps us understand our world and adjust how we interact with it for the better, it lacks reverence for how profoundly our lives are tied to its balance. “I sometimes worry that science is too invasive. If you want to know what’s in the heart of a loved one, you listen to them. You ask them questions. You pay attention to them. You don’t cut them open and look in their heart,” Ballew says. “There’s so much that can be gained just by listening and just by watching and observing. In the end, science often misses the whole picture. They don’t see the forest for the trees.”

When you consider the extreme threat so many animal and plant populations on our planet are at and how depleted our resources are becoming, the sacredness of the practices the Potawatomi still observe makes sense. Collapse based on the overexploitation of resources is a tale as old as time.

Ballew points out that there’s a reason the Potawatomi developed their mindset of abundance and that the rituals symbolizing its importance, like offering sema, endure. “You’ve probably seen quotes throughout the years of—not just Potawatomi—but of Native people telling colonizers, ‘If you keep going on this way, you’ll see that the fish stop running abundantly, and the waters become poisoned. A lot of times, if you’re not part of the dominant culture, your significant stories, be they spiritual or physical, get cast off as mythology. But I think that sometime a long way back in our past, we found out the hard way.”

Indeed, the impact of human activity on the earth—and of agriculture and industrialization in the lands the Potawatomi call home—is undeniable. When European colonists first came to the land many indigenous people knew as Turtle Island—what eventually came to be called North America—they marveled at the abundance, not realizing that, in many places, this abundance existed because the indigenous people were cultivating it. “They didn’t know what they were looking at,” Ballew says.

And so, in the face of all that abundance, a campaign to capitalize on the land and its fruits ensued, with settlers spreading across America. As a result, forests were cleared, wetlands were drained, and animals like bison and passenger pigeons were over-hunted. The impact in Indiana alone was so severe that it resulted in the decimation of the country’s largest freshwater wetland, the Grand Kankakee Marsh, which once spanned 500,000 acres—large enough to earn it the nickname “Everglades of the North.” The Potawatomi relied on this wetland, only remnants of which exist today. Another fact for Hoosiers to chew on: While our state may be known for its sprawling fields and wide-open sky, it was once 90-percent covered in hardwood forest. There were so many trees that Indiana was the country’s leading producer of lumber throughout the 1800s—a thriving industry that, along with agricultural clearing, accounted for the loss of 80 percent of those woodlands.

Because of habitat loss, Ballew says wild rice is hard to come by these days. So, too, are cranberries. Bison have made a comeback through conservation efforts, but the last passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

Despite the devastation of their ancestral landscapes, Ballew and other Potawatomi continue to practice the rituals passed down by their forebears. Ballew describes how he plants ginseng often but never harvests it because it’s so scarce. This year, many Potawatomi forwent maple sugaring season because unusually warm winter weather exhausts the trees. “When you’re overworked and tired, and stressed, and hungry, and thirsty, you don’t have a lot to offer, and you don’t want anybody to ask anything from you,” Ballew says. He encourages this empathetic approach especially with plants that are at risk, like ramps and ginseng. “Just remember how alive they are, and what they’re giving, and that they have needs.”

Ballew also chooses not to wage war on invasive species. While our fear of invasives is more than reasonable, controlling them often leads to herbicide treatments—which Ballew says might be winning the fight, but not in a good way. He also points out that invasives flourish in disturbed soil. “And our lifestyle as a society disturbs a lot of soil. That’s why we have so many of these invasives that are so tenacious. We’re not going to beat these plants if we’re just continuing as a society to live the way that we do. Plants have so much to teach us. So, it’s kind of a kill the messenger thing. These plants are a messenger of the imbalance and the problems of our society,” he says.

Ballew seems to have this calmly measured attitude toward all things—wisdom gained not just from a childhood spent absorbing the teachings of his elders and of the wilderness, but also from years spent rebelling as a young adult and his subsequent reflection and growth.

By the time Ballew hit high school, he was struggling in school and had increasing problems with discipline. He dropped out at 16. Yet, he still spent most of his time in the woods—not applying the lessons of his early years by foraging but “doing things with friends that we didn’t want adults seeing us do.” In the woods, Ballew and his friends felt they could escape adult rules and judgment, but he eventually came to a stark understanding: “No longer in school and no longer defining myself in opposition to it, I realized that all I had in common with my friends was doing drugs and getting in trouble.”

Ballew began to understand that while he didn’t thrive within a traditional schooling environment, that didn’t mean he had to accept or lean into being defined as a “bad kid.” This started him down the path of embracing his connection with nature in earnest. “I hadn’t dropped out to stop learning,” he says, “but rather to stop being constantly disciplined and judged as a bad kid. So I spent all my time in the forest, who had always sheltered and held me close. I got a Newcomb’s field guide, picked up garbage, made shelters and hideouts. Through the years, I have learned from many people both human and other than human. Despite having cut short my formal education, I continue to learn always.”

With this thoughtful point of view, Ballew gives guidance on how foragers—or anyone, for that matter—can promote greater harmony between ourselves and the world around us. While he acknowledges how disruptive our increasingly detached and tech-dependent way of living is to the environment, he also recognizes the power of technology to build cohesion in the foraging community, urging people to take advantage of email, texting, apps, and social media to create networks and foster cooperation. It’s no secret that many foragers keep their spots to themselves so they don’t have to share supply. Many also keep locations a secret to try to protect those locations from becoming depleted. Despite these intentions, good or bad, there is no way to know or guarantee that other foragers won’t come along and harvest the same spot again. To combat over-harvesting, Ballew suggests creating trusted foraging networks in your community, notifying others when areas are harvested, and collaborating on keeping those areas thriving.

He also advises cultivating your own yard, especially with plants that help repair the ecosystem, like milkweed. Milkweed is edible (when harvested and prepared properly; otherwise, it can cause mild illness) and is an significant cultural food for the Potawatomi, but Ballew also importantly mentions that monarch butterflies, whose population has declined by 90 percent in just two decades, depend on it. He also advises planting other plants that feed both you and wildlife, like wild strawberries and sunflowers, as well as bushes and shrubs that grow berries, like chokecherries, because they require little watering. In general, native pollinator gardens and rain gardens—which rely on runoff from your roof—are excellent ways to combat grass monoculture, foster abundance of local plants, and build relationship with the earth—which will gift you with edible plants right in your own backyard.

And remember: They are gifts. Don’t take them lightly.

Finally, to help with this, Ballew advises building a ritual around foraging wherever it is you do it. “Just go out there, and stop, and breathe and listen,” he says. “Figure out a way to talk to plants. Even if you might feel silly or whatever. Because it’s a start. It’s a way to move into a new mindset.”