[Back to the Wild] Arthur Haines is Making Botany Everybody’s Business
You can access the full audio version of this interview here. This interview was originally conducted with Alison Ramsay and Arthur Haines as part of our Back to the Wild Summit. You can find the rest of the interviews in this series on WISH Radio.com.
“Man did not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.” This is a quote from 1854 by a prominent Native American Chief, Chief Seattle, that I found on the website of my next guest. It illustrates the interconnection of all life on this planet and makes note of the fact that as a species humans are not excluded from this beautiful and intricate web. Every choice we make, every dollar we spend, everything we consume has an effect on this web, on each other and on ourselves. No exceptions. Our health as a species reflects the health of our home, our planet.
The divorce from nature that has occurred in our distracted modern lives has acted as a kind of blindfold to this interconnection. If we are to restore our health and vitality we must also restore our connection to and respect for the natural world so that we may co-exist in a harmonious way with all life around us. I am thrilled to welcome our next guest, Arthur Haines, botanist, author, re-wilder, nature enthusiast and founder of the Delta Institute of Natural History, an organization which focuses on the development of self-reliance that promotes eco-conscientiousness. Arthur, thank you so much for being here to get a little wild with us today.
Arthur Haines: Thanks, Alison, for inviting me.
Alison: Yay. So, I’d love to start by learning a bit more about you, Arthur. If you could tell us a bit more about your background and what has led you to your passion for botany, wild plant nutrition and for merging our history with modern wild living.
Arthur Haines: Sure. What I have come to is the realization that the indigenous people who used to inhabit this world were all expert botanists. And so to follow in those footsteps I needed to get a degree in botany so that I could begin to really appreciate the depth of information that they had. You know the people that lived very close to the land had to recognize plants for food and for medicine, the different trees that they made tools from, the different roots that they used for various basketry work and lashing things together, dyes for coloring things, adhesives for putting different parts together.
And sometimes these may have been hunting tools or various other kinds of things that they needed to craft for their daily living. And all of this stuff requires people to be able to essentially take that wall of green that many people view and tease it apart into its different parts, which in this case are simply different species of plants that all have their own personalities, their own benefits to us, and the different ways that we can interact with them. And so through botany I really became very interested in really furthering my whole natural history understanding.
Because once I realized that there was so much that we could benefit from just learning about the plants in our environment, it became very obvious that learning the same about the different animals, whether those be birds or amphibians or fish or what have you – even the geology, the weather, et cetera – the more we learned about our world, essentially the more at peace that we can live. Because we have tools that we can use to get by dayto-day and not really be, say dependent from the marketplace if you will. And so that’s really then a major thrust of my wanting to learn more about the natural history and how to really be part of the ecology of my landscape and not simply as sort of an alien living beside it, if you will.
Alison: And I think it’s so wonderful that you have taken this journey. Because botany has kind of become something that’s passé, it’s kind of a science that’s fading into the background. And I love that you said, you know that people look at nature and they see a wall of green. And that’s so true, we’ve separated ourselves so much that we go into nature and all we see is grass and weeds and flowers, but we don’t see anything beyond that. And there’s an amazing living, vibrant world of ecosystems interacting with each other that when we start to uncover it, it’s fascinating and it’s really useful – this information still, even in our modern day. So I’d love to –
Arthur Haines: Yeah. Yeah. If you think about it, what’s happened in our sort of modern, suburban or urban world is that the need to identify and understand the properties of plants is essentially being done by other people for us. In other words we walk into the supermarket and what has been placed there are species of edible plants that have all been identified for us with little signs and placards so that we know where we can locate the carrots and the onions and the potatoes and species of this nature.
And our need to, say go out onto the landscape and find medicines for healing a member of our family, well that’s being done for us too by the pharmacies through the use of primarily now, synthetic drugs. In other words we’re still – our culture, our society is still using these plant-based skills, but we’re just having somebody else do it for us.
Alison: And I’d love to go deeper into that with you.
So let’s start with a passion of yours, which is wild plants and their nutrition. And I read somewhere that you’re called the Bruce Lee of botany. And I know you know a lot about plants. So talk to us a bit about this, and if we could begin simply and go deeper, that would be very helpful. So, what is the difference between a wild plant and a cultivated plant? And why do you consider wild plants to be nutritionally superior to cultivated ones?
Arthur Haines: Sure. Just to start with a really basic definition for your listeners, a wild plant is something that can grow on the landscape that doesn’t require tending by a human. In other words they still have their vitality, but they also have their ecological mechanisms of furthering their populations, of reproducing, moving to new areas and those types of things.
Whereas the cultivated species that we rely very heavily on in this day and age are species that require humans to plant them, tend them in various ways through their life cycle, and sometimes even perform the carrying on of these species. In other words perform their reproduction because many of the species that we now consume are either really incapable of seeding themselves very effectively, such as modern corn.
The grains have a very hard time escaping the husks, or we’re eating hybridized species that are actually seedless and sterile. So that these species without us maintaining a stalk of their progenitors aren’t able to seed themselves as well. So just to start very simply, wild are the species that can live on the landscape without needing tending by humans, though they may utilize human disturbed places such as roadsides and lawns and things of that nature, they could also very easily utilize natural disturbances.
And I think one of the things that’s really important for people to understand – we’ve had a period of time where we’ve been traveling through – where we really have just considered calories to be what’s important to us. And we’ve really considered all calories to be the same. And it turns out that that just isn’t the case. There are really substantive differences and sometimes these differences are huge, they’re manifest between the nutrition supplied by wild plants and the nutrition supplied by cultivated plants.
And there’s four primary differences that I’ll share real briefly and then if you want we can go into some specific examples of those. The first difference is that wild plants are more nutrient dense on average than cultivated plants. And sometimes these are really huge differences. And so when I’m talking about nutrient dense, right now I’m talking specifically about vitamins and minerals.
What’s happened in the breeding and cultivation of the plants that we mostly eat these days, there have been losses in vitamins when we change these plants to give them uniform ripening so that the machines only had to go into the field once, or a longer shelf life so that they could survive transport across the country. You know things of this nature is what we have bred plants for, but we have not bred them to maximize nutrition.
A second way that they differ is their phytochemistry. And their phytochemistry – I’m simply referring to the compounds that are found in plants. And these are molecules that perform all kinds of functions for the plant such as frost resistance or defence against pathogens. And these chemicals actually exert very beneficial effects inside of our body.
For example some of the defence compounds found in plants actually work in our body as antioxidants or antimicrobials or anti-inflammatories or even things that bolster the functioning of our immune system. And what’s happened with modern produce is much of that medicine has literally been bred out of the plants.
You know if we look at the wild progenitor of lettuce, this is actually a very nutrient dense species that supplies us with medicine that relieves inflammation, that has a calming effect on our central nervous system and actually acts as an analgesic. In other words something that relieves pain. But I don’t think anyone would say those things are true of the modern lettuce that we buy in the store, and that’s because those bitter terpenes, those pharmacologically active compounds have been lost in the forms that we eat.
A third way that wild plants and cultivated plants differ are the essential fatty acid profiles. In other words omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. These are essential to us because we can’t manufacture them in our body, so we need to get them in our diet from the landscapes that we live in. And when we look at wild plants we generally find a much better ratio of these fatty acids, particularly in the context of a wild diet versus a modern diet. And what we notice is that now our diets are very skewed toward omega-6 fatty acids. And this is regardless of whether you’re eating a strict vegetarian diet or an omnivorous diet because of the way the foods that we’ve chosen to use as staples, or for the omnivorous diet the way the animals are raised and the foods that they’re fed.
We get way too many omega-6 fatty acids in our diet, which essentially do two really important things. It promotes inflammation in the body and suppresses the functioning of the immune system.
And a fourth way that wild plants differ from cultivated plants is they are less calorie dense. And what this means is they contain more fiber, both insoluble and soluble fiber. So they have benefits in their cleansing and the mechanisms by which they promote colon health and a number of other things that fiber can do for us. But what’s interesting is it means we have to do a little bit more work because wild fruits for example are not as large and sweet and as juicy necessarily, at least not all the time, compared with cultivated fruits that are very similar to those. And so we get fewer calories when we consume wild plants, but we get more of the total nutritional package.
Again, vitamins, minerals, beneficial plant compounds, essential fatty acids and fiber.
Alison: And I think our modern diets, as you said, we’ve really got the bulk down and we’ve got the calories down, but our modern diets are lacking in nutrients. And so what we have is a situation where people are actually starving for nutrition, but are overweight and are taking in too many calories. And what I’ve found since I started doing my little foraging practices and even something as simple as gathering some wild greens for a small wild salad is that just that small amount, let’s say with an avocado or something, is so satisfying to my body that I don’t really need to eat that much more.
So as you said, it’s really not the calories that we’re needing. Although we do need calories, we need the nutrients in our bodies; our diets are lacking so greatly in these nutrients.
Arthur Haines: Yeah. I like what you were talking about how you were combining the wild foods with our cultivated foods. And I think that’s really important for people because a lot of wild foods are absolutely delicious and can be eaten by really anybody who likes food. But some of the wild foods because they still contain their medicine, in other words they are still phytochemically very potent if you will, they sometimes present us with some stronger flavors. And I don’t mean repulsive and overly bitter, but definitely things that can be stronger to a palate that is not accustomed to these types of flavors.
And definitely the recommendation of don’t think that you have to start right off the bat with eating this 100 percent wild diet, but rather simply bring some of those wild plants in to replace a portion of the cultivated plants. So that for example your salad contains a mixture of wild collected and organically raised heirloom greens if you can. This would be sort of a goal to try to achieve.
And that way if there’s any stronger flavors you can dilute them with those things that you’ve grown up and become very accustomed to. Because certainly eating some wild plants is better than eating no wild plants.
Alison: Absolutely. I love if you could talk to us about some examples of wild plants and their nutritional profiles as compared to say some cultivated foods that are similar, or touted for their similar nutritional profile. Like you mention vitamin C in oranges compared to say wild rose hips.
Arthur Haines: Yeah. This is one of the really great examples to help people understand that cultivated foods and wild foods really aren’t equivalent. And I think a lot of people sort of continue to really be super excited about organically raised produce because – well A, that certainly is a much better way to interact with the planet than say conventionally raised produce or, you know genetically modified Roundup-ready produce, which is a class all to itself.
And so this isn’t to say that organically raised produce is bad for you because it’s not. What I’m trying to do with this discussion, Alison, is really just help people understand that even organically raised cultivated plants are not the top of the mountain when it comes to nutrition.
That’s really a seat that’s occupied by wild plants. So if we were to ask somebody, you know tell me something that is rich in vitamin C, rich in ascorbic acid. Almost always people will bring up the idea of the orange. And the orange is something that certainly contains vitamin C at least most of the time – I’ll get to that. But it’s really a wonderful marketing campaign that has led us to the idea that this is loaded, loaded, loaded with vitamin C.
It turns out that actually like many plants, the nutrition of the orange is dependent on the conditions it’s raised in and how long it’s traveled. And in fact there have been some oranges tested for their vitamin C content that have had zero vitamin C. They’ve literally had no ascorbic acid within them.
Arthur Haines: But if – yeah, if we were to use the general standard measurement, sort of an average measurement of its vitamin C content we would find that it is about 50 milligrams per hundred grams of tissue. And the units don’t really matter for our comparison here, it’s really that number 50 that I want people to try to remember. There are all kinds of wild greens that easily surpass oranges.
Even the violet leaves on your lawn, or at least on many peoples’ lawn contain about five times the vitamin C content of an orange – of the average orange. But if we really want to go to an extreme when we’re talking about vitamin C, there are species that most people are familiar with such as roses. And their aggregate fruit, called a hip, that often turns bright red and is fleshy and has a number of seed like fruits on the inside of it, that structure, particularly that flesh on the exterior, contains far more vitamin C than any orange that we could get from the world. For example there is a species of rose that grows along the Maine coastline called the beach rose. And this has been tested, and remembering that number 50 for the orange – in this particular case what we found is 2,730 milligrams per hundred grams of tissue. So you’ll notice that that’s – that’s many times more than we would find in an orange. And that’s true of most rose species.
They contain orders of magnitude more vitamin C.
But if we go a little further than that, what the roses actually give us is those seed-like fruits that we find on the inside of a hip are also very rich in vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. So we have a food that has a better well-rounded nutritional profile.
Alison: Wow. That is incredible. I had no idea.
Arthur Haines: Yeah. And they’re free.
Alison: And they’re free. Exactly. That’s the real beauty of foraging is that it’s free and it’s just sitting there waiting for us. And it can be intimidating at first to think of going out into nature. We kind of have this fear, there’s a lot of obstacles to going out into the bush and starting to identify plants and look at them as food and then to even try them. So it is good to take a foraging class before people go out and do this kind of thing. But rose hips are something I think most people would know and are easy to find. What are some of the ways that you use rose hips, Arthur?
Arthur Haines: Well we gather and dry rose hips, and drying was just a primitive method of food preservation because without the moisture content pathogenic bacteria and fungi – or I really mean to say putrefying bacteria and fungi weren’t able to utilize these as foods. So once we dried them we simply stored them in a relatively airtight container out of the sun. And then we use them in a host of different ways. For example sometimes we simply do what many people do with roses and that’s brew tea from them. And the vitamin C is a watersoluble vitamin so that we can actually get this in our tea.
It’s a way of bringing this nutrient into our body, particularly during the long winter seasons that we have here in Maine where fresh produce is sometimes hard to come by. But we’ve actually ground them up into flour and baked them into breads. And we use them to make mead, which is sort of a honey-based wine that we put a lot of wild plants into so that we have a way to continue to bring the medicine of plants through different channels, including the recreational enjoyment of having a wild mead.
These are the sort of the most common ways that we use them, but there are lots of people who are fantastic cooks and do a lot of experimenting with things who could come up with all kinds of other ways to utilize rose hips in their diet.
Alison: Beautiful. I love that idea of having roses in our food. And they’re delicious too, rose hips are actually very tasty.
Arthur Haines: Yeah, there’s a species that grows here that’s native that remains on the shrub late into the winter so that we’ll actually gather them often in February and even early March wearing snow shoes, which is actually really fun.
Alison: And I love how nature really provides you with the nutrients that you need during those seasons. So the rose hips they get ripe in the winter when we need higher levels of vitamin C. Could you give us another easy example, Arthur?
Arthur Haines: Yes. Let’s do vitamin A. Because that’s another one that has a lot of interesting facts about it. I guess the very first thing that people should be aware of is there’s no plant that contains vitamin A. Even though if you were to look on the food labels of things that you purchase in the store they would list a vitamin A content. And that really is very misleading.
Plants in this particular case, when it comes to vitamin A, don’t contain an active form of the vitamin that our body uses. In other words our body must convert it over to the animal form of the vitamin. So in plants we get provitamin A, sort of its precursor, and these are called the carotenoids. Now the carotenoids are really beneficial for us because they act as antioxidants in our body, and to some extent get converted to the active form of vitamin A that our body uses for a host of things including our immune system.
Now, if we were to ask people, you know identify a rich leafy source of vitamin A, many people who have done some reading would mention spinach. And spinach actually is a good source in this case of pro-vitamin A. And again I won’t have people worry about the units as much, but let’s just focus on the number. Spinach contains a value of 8,100 international units per 100 grams of tissue of pro-vitamin A.
But when we look around on our wild landscape there are many, many species that surpass spinach in terms of this vitamin A content. In fact what’s really interesting to me is if we were to look at lettuce – if we looked at lettuce in the store, like some of the really most bred and least nutritious forms like iceberg lettuce have only 330 international units compared to spinaches 8,100.
But if we look at the wild progenitor of spinach – excuse me, the wild progenitor of lettuce – in other words the species that they originally started with and bred into the form that we have today, the wild lettuce is actually a really rich source of vitamin A that surpasses spinach.
But again going back to a species – and I’m trying to use really common species that people would be familiar with – if we simply go back to the violets that I was mentioning that grow on many peoples’ lawns, those species have 20,000 units of pro-vitamin A.
Arthur Haines: In other words they have about two and a half times the vitamin A content of spinach. And remember that is used by our body to essentially promote the functioning of our immune system, the carotenoids act as really potent antioxidants that protect us from free radical damage, premature aging, cancer, et cetera. And so every time that we sit down to a meal and we eat less nutrient dense plants, it’s actually the systems in our body particularly our immune system that armors us from all of the sort of modern insults that this world is throwing at us that is really suffering.
Alison: I’m sure the list goes on and on and on
Arthur Haines: Yes.
Alison: – when you compare wild plants to cultivated plants. And that sort of takes me to my next question. And that is in discussing foraging and wild plant nutrition it kind of adds to the mountain of conflicting information we have on nutrition and healthy living. We have people saying eat meat, people saying don’t eat meat, people saying polyunsaturated fat is good, some saying it’s the worst fat you can eat; don’t eat it. Or cook your food or don’t cook your food, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, to the point that it creates an apathetic response and people don’t know what the heck to do. So they just keep on doing whatever they’re doing or go on these pumped up fad diets that create vicious cycles that take them nowhere on the path to health and healing.
So, in your opinion how can we deal with this overwhelming amount of conflicting information and maybe simplify how we view nutrition and more importantly how we eat?
Arthur Haines: Well, that’s a super good question. And the reality is there is evidence now – there are research projects that can support or refute literally any single stance that you want to take on nutrition. And it’s a really good place to be if you are into nutrition because no matter what you believe you can find research to support it now.
The reason that that has happened is because we have taken and analyzed microscopic components of food out of context of the diet. And as soon as we do that our research biases really can play into what we identify.
And there are a hosts of other reasons as well, you know to look to animal foods. You know there are lots of parties discussing, you know potentially red meat for example; you know is this good or bad for you? But what they have done is they’ve never actually looked at how the animals were raised. So they didn’t ever distinguish between say a cow that was raised exclusively on green growing grass, what it’s biologically designed to eat, versus a cow that was kept in a cage and fed grain its entire life, was dealing with some level of sickness and disease and then fed to humans.
And so some of the issues are simply not distinguishing between the different types of food. For example organically raised produce versus conventionally raised produce. I mean those are two very different things. One of them exposes us to huge amounts of toxic chemicals that are sprayed on them as herbicides, fungicides and pesticides and one of them doesn’t. And I think everyone would understand that.
And if we simply amalgamate all growing plants together as one class of food, that really isn’t a fair comparison because we need to distinguish those two different types. But to take this concept further – I’ve really lost faith in a lot of these microscopic analyses of food out of context of the diet and the lifestyle practices. And that’s because I see how much completely contradictory information we’ve produced using this approach. So what I do is I take all of the research that’s published and I view it through the lens of traditional use.
In other words do we have knowledge of wild or traditional societies consuming this food and experiencing health?
Now if we don’t have that it doesn’t mean that that food is necessarily automatically bad, but it does throw up a red flag for me. But when we can view traditional societies experiencing health, longevity and really importantly being able to produce well-formed children. When I say well-formed children I’m talking about children that don’t have essentially altered facial structure with crowding of teeth, impacted wisdom teeth, crooked teeth and these kinds of things that we see very, very commonly in our modern society because people simply don’t get the nutrition to build this ancestral form that humans always did on wild diets.
So just to back up and sort of summarize what I’m doing I’m going to take an example. Let’s look at grain for example because grain is a plant that – or excuse me, is a food from grasses, it’s the fruit of a grass that has long been sort of a foundation of the American diet because we get it in so many different kinds of foods. Now of course we’re primarily eating a refined version of this, one that’s had much of its nutrition stripped out.
But the advocates of the Paleo diet recently had been remarking that grains are not particularly good for us and they’ve really noted all of the problems and the allergens and the anti-nutrients that are found in wheat and suggest that maybe we should try to avoid this or completely exclude it in our diet. And they have a lot of benefit with saying this. In other words, benefit to the health of the body.
But what the people who focus on the Paleo have done has gone a little further than that and said we should remove all grains from our diet because of the effects of wheat. And so I’ve taken that statement and said well, can we look around and can we notice any populations who relied on grains as a staple and experienced health? And we can.
We can look to Gaelic populations in the Scottish Isles who used heirloom oats as a staple combined with foods from the ocean – so again that context is really important, how they combined foods to have nutrient density to have a balance of essential fatty acids. And these are people that had long life who produced well-formed children, and we have great photographic documentation of that through the work of Weston Price. So clearly there’s an example where grains could be combined into a very healthy diet.
On this continent, here in North America, we can look to the Anishinaabe. These are indigenous of the Great Lakes Region, who relied on two species of wild rice combined with wild game from that local region to produce health and well-formed children again.
So when I see blanket statements like, you know we should all avoid grains, I look and I see wait a second, we can notice that there are cultures who consumed grains and experienced health. So clearly that statement needs to be modified into we should be very picky about the grains that we eat, you know choose certain kinds like non-gluten containing kinds. And we need to be careful what we combine them with to make sure we’re offsetting any particular deficiencies that may be present in grains. And we need to diversify our diet so that we’re not eating just grain, which is almost what happens here in the United States with the standard American diet. And so I’ve gone on a big circle there and I hope it’s clear that what I’m trying to do is look around the world, identify cultures who may have eaten said food and say, did they experience health? And if they did, well then that’s a food that we can enjoy in our lives and know that if we combine it in the appropriate way in the context of a good diverse diet, it’s something that can bolster health in our life.
Alison: And I think that a lot of people maybe would find that overwhelming to have to research themselves, and I know you probably have some good references. And you mentioned Weston Price and he has an incredible book called Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Would that be a book that you would recommend people use as a reference? Are there any other sort of easy tangible ways that people can learn more about this?
Arthur Haines: Yeah. Alison, you’re exactly right. This is a huge topic and to supply some of the information that I’m supplying here today, I literally had to read hundreds of resources; books, research papers and these kinds of things. And it’s really hard to get all of that information in one place and then synthesize it down into sort of an easy to read reference. And right now I don’t really think that exists.
And there are good references just like Weston Price’s work, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration that you just mentioned, that does supply this information, but it doesn’t do it in a nice sound bite way. In other words I don’t want people to have to essentially redo all of the research that I’ve done. I mean it’s taken years to get to a point where you can sort of understand the value of wild plants. That’s why really this book needs to be written.
There was a gentleman whose last name is Schmid that essentially summarized many of Weston Price’s points and his book was Traditional Foods are Your Best Medicine. And it really takes this pretty large work of Weston Price’s and brings it down into a smaller paperback that would be a lot shorter to read. But that still really doesn’t get into the details, the differences between wild plants and cultivated plants.
You really – you’re giving me a great impetus here to actually write this book that pulls all this research together.
Alison: Yay. Write it, Arthur; write it. Okay. So, we’ve covered that and I also wanted to mention – we talked a little bit about degenerative disease. And we are suffering quite alarming rates of degenerative disease now compared to the past when we lived outside as nomadic hunter-gatherers and were mostly quite robust and healthy.
But there is this idea, and possibly myth, that we are living longer, therefore the general public think we are doing better, know more about health and have advanced in our ability to live better. And we touched on this a little bit with the nutrition, but I’d love to go a little bit deeper with you and what your thoughts are on this and what in your opinion is causing this rapid increase in health problems?
Arthur Haines: Well, that’s a big question. And so let’s try to – yeah, let’s try to do our best to break that apart. Let’s start with the longevity issue. And it’s certainly true that – like take us here in the United States. We generally do on average live a little longer than indigenous people around the world did. But what’s the difference in the length of time? You’ll often hear people talking about indigenous people, you know living to only 35 years of age and their lives were considered nasty, brutish and short. That’s a classic quote on hunter-gatherer life. And that’s really very misleading and very untrue. If we look around the world we can certainly identify some harsh climates where people may not have lived long past 50. And I’m not talking about going back to the Paleolithic time when we’re talking about Neanderthals. And clearly comparing a really old group who were still learning how to extract nutrition from their environment to modern humans is a really unfair comparison and that’s what’s constantly being done.
What we really need to compare are people who lived on their traditional diets, and these often were wild diets, and they lived in isolation of the modern foods that we see circulating the world today. So refined flour and other carbohydrates like white sugar, cage-reared grain-fed animal foods and all of these kinds of things that came to people once they were contacted by European explorers and European colonists.
If we examine those people from the 1800s, the 1900s – and there are very few of them left today, but when we look at the documentation of those people we see that they actually lived fairly long lives. 70s, 80s – and there were groups that actually had people that would exceed a hundred years of age. But for example the indigenous people in my part of the world that were examined by some of the early people that were really interested in the indigenous and their lifestyle found them to be living into their 70s, but completely free of chronic disease. And so that’s really important. They may have had slightly shorter lives – we’re talking on the order of a decade or something like this, but they lived a higher quality of life.
You know, recall that so many people in our part of the world, when they get to be 50 and 60 years of age, it is a staggering percentage of people that are actually dependent on a prescription drug to get them through their daily lives at this point. But if we look at some of the statistics on health, one in three children born in the millennium – in the new millennium in this country, in the United States, will develop diabetes in their lifetime. One in three.
Alison: Oh, my goodness.
Arthur Haines: And so diabetes reduces life expectancy ten to 20 years. So that’s really – not to mention all of the complications of diabetes that they might be dealing with like neuropathy and retinopathy for example. One in nine children born in this country have asthma. One in 50 are now born somewhere on the autism scale. And even to just get into psychological and emotional health, one in five – and this is not a made up statistic – one in five high school students have thoughts of suicide.
Arthur Haines: One in ten actually make an attempt on their life in this country. And suicide is virtually unknown in isolated hunter-gatherers who are not being affected by European explorers, diets and lifestyles. So yes, we might life a bit longer, but to argue that that translates to a better life I think is really misleading. Not to mention then just as a final note on this concept.
Of course we here in the United States live longer, we have incredibly easy lives. That is not to say that there are not hardworking honest people who really break their backs day after day providing for their family, but in general our society has it extremely easy and we have the advantage of essentially a society that takes resources from the rest of the world and uses them to make our lives really easy. So of course we’re going to live longer because we are free from some of that hard dangerous work that people in the rest of the world need to experience.
Alison: Wow. That’s a lot to take in.
Arthur Haines: Yes, it is.
Alison: And quite alarming statistics. And I know the next question I’m going to ask is just – it’s huge as well, but there are so many factors that contribute to this. So what are some things that we can do in our own lives, in our own family circles – to increase our nutrition and try and find more nutrient dense foods?
Do you have any other solutions you can offer?
Arthur Haines: Well, I think it’s really important that people stop considering medicine to be a cure. And whether that be herbal medicine, that I would practice and teach people about, or that be modern medicine, like Western medicine when we’re dealing with pharmaceutical drugs and surgical interventions. Those are not cures for anything.
Really, all of that is dealing with symptoms of larger problems. And so what we need to start realizing is that diet and lifestyle are the cure. Let me give you one example just to really help people understand this.
Let’s take staph infections, okay? So these are sometimes very serious infections by the staphylococcus aureus bacterium. And staph infections are really painful, they can be scary, people do lose their limbs, they do lose their life from these infections especially if they’re not treated. And we’re noticing a high degree of resistance to the drugs that we use to treat staph infections.
When somebody gets a staph infection they go to the doctor, the doctor cultures this, they identify it, okay, that’s staphylococcus aureus and they prescribe an antibiotic. The person takes this antibiotic for a period of time, it knocks the staph bacterium down to levels that their body can tolerate and they say I’m cured. What’s really happened is nothing of the case, and they’ve actually set themselves up to be more prone to staph infections in the future. Really, the root problem was not the staph infection, that just sort of highlighted a chink in their armor. The problem was an immune system that couldn’t fight off the pathogen.
So they get an infection, which is really a symptom of a larger problem, they go in and the doctor treats the symptom. And in fact the symptom is treated in a way using broad-spectrum powerful antimicrobial medicine, which ends up damaging their intestinal flora, which they need to derive nutrition from their food, which means their immune system has actually been knocked back a little bit. And it’s going to take time for them to rebuild that probiotic flora so that they can fully maximize the nutrition that’s housed inside the foods they eat.
So through this symptomatic medicine always focusing on the symptom, we’re often actually making the root problem, our immune system, worse.
And so hopefully this is making sense. The real issue here was yes, we need to treat the staph infection because it can be threatening to life and limb, but once that’s done we’ve got to get people on what would be called a building diet, one that is exceptionally nutrient dense and contains the key nutrients and tonics that they need to build their immune system.
And some of those key tonics are even exposure to clean air, sunlight, clean water and things of that nature. So again, diet and lifestyle is the cure. That medicine they took to treat the staph infection was only treating the symptoms of the larger problem. And we could give so many examples of this. Really, this is where re-wilding comes into its own, Alison, because it’s exposure to the elements – safe exposure, conscientious exposure.
We’re not saying stay in the sun until you have severe burns on your body, but we are saying that your body is designed to manufacture vitamin D, which is a key part of your immune system, so that you can be resistant against – using the organism in our example – be resistant against the staph bacteria.
People really need to understand that humans are hardwired to be immersed in nature. There’s a lot of emerging research showing that – I mean even our cognitive function is dependent on exposure to the elements. Our ability to heal has been shown to be advanced if you will, with a view out a window that sees a natural setting, such as a tree or a pond or a stream, as compared to a patient in a hospital room who’s looking out a window and seeing a parking lot.
So recognizing that we are designed to be immersed in natural settings, we simply need to do everything that we can to fulfill that requirement of a healthy life. And hopefully that’s really clear to people.
All I’m saying is be outside in nature as much as you can. It’s a really easy thing to accomplish. Hike, swim, climb, do everything you can outside and your health will improve even if you have yet to start down that path of identifying what are some of those wild foods on your landscape that you can bring into your diet.
Alison: And I go into the elements with the call with Daniel, so we get a bit deeper there with him. But I love what you’re saying and it’s a great segue into my next question and one of my personal favorite topics. And it’s about our connection to nature and looking at all the detrimental things that happen to us, and especially now our children when we lose that connection or we neglect it or we underestimate it.
And nature has now, in our modern day, has largely become something that we have separated from ourselves and we think of it as something that is separate from ourselves, but in reality it’s not separate. It’s become something that we look at, but we don’t touch it. Something we visit, but we don’t participate in it. Almost like a tourist attraction where we snap photos and move onto the next visually stimulating experience. And I’d like to talk to you about why you think this has happened and why – I mean we’ve covered a little bit why it’s important for us to get back in communication with nature in a way where we actually co-exist with it instead of dominate and destroy it.
Arthur Haines: Yeah. That’s again one of those questions that we could spend a long time on. And I really enjoy being given the opportunity to speak to this.
If you think about how people in the United States live, many of us live in suburban communities, sort of well removed from where the resources that they use for daily living are extracted. For example their food is shipped from across the country from California, Florida and other distant places. And so the people who live there, they don’t value their local landscape for the acquisition of food because it’s not where their food comes from.
What they really value are those California fields, those Midwestern fields and the road systems that transport them to their supermarkets where they can get them. And because they don’t ever gather any of their food, whether that be plant or animal or fungal food, from their local environments, they really have turned a blind eye to what goes on. And when a new big box store goes in that sells more items from a different country that they really don’t need that are cheaply constructed or maybe even constructed of materials that harm their health, no one stands up and challenges this.
Because that patch of forest that was cleared to make the parking lots and the space where the store will sit really wasn’t being utilized by those people at all because again they’re not interacting with their landscapes, they’re interacting with roads and the interiors of buildings. And so that’s what they value.
We really need to make it clear that people say, I know what I like. And it’s really the opposite of that – they like what they know.
And that’s true of people. The more they get into a topic, the more details they learn about a particular topic, often the more jazzed they become to learn more about that topic. And the same is true of their local landscape. The more time they spend on it, the more time they listen to the birds, they forage for mushrooms, they swim in the stream or the pond that’s in that landscape, the more they become connected to it and the much more willing they will be to fight for its continued existence.
But if you simply don’t ever interact with that landscape, you stay on the trail, you take pictures, you leave only footsteps, but you never taste those blueberries, those huckleberries, those black berries that are found along the sides of the trail because well, we often believe that the way to preserve something now is to actually block human interaction with it, then we feel we’re doing our job in protecting that.
But the reality is, if we don’t let humans interact with that space, to eat the foods, to walk in the leaf litter, to swim in the water, to do everything that wild humans do in an area, they will simply never ever gain that connection. They will never champion that area’s conservation.
What I mean by conservation is its protection from development, and it simply gets lost. And every single patch of forest that falls is a tiny little fragment of our self-sufficiency, our ability to gather food, our ability to gather medicine or materials that we might need to use for our daily living that has been taken away from us. Now, clearly there are some areas that see such high visitor traffic – and these would be parks and other outdoor areas that are located very close to large urban centers that really do need to be protected from the volume of visitors that they receive.
There would simply be too many people on those landscapes. And I understand that. But we have taken this approach of how we protect something is to eliminate human interaction with it and we have applied it to the world even in areas where it’s very rural and those areas don’t see very much human traffic. Places that can support conscientious harvesting of food and medicine, particularly once people learn the details of how we gather using non-lethal methods, or at least methods that promote next year’s population.
It’s really, really important and fundamental that people understand that if you don’t interact with something you will not learn anything about it and you will not care what happens to it.
Alison: And it’s so beautiful the way that you’ve just said that, Arthur, and I love that. And I’d just like to add something that I’ve been pondering and hear your thoughts on it. And I wonder if this disconnection has had something to do with our technological world and how we engage with technology. And we engage with technology in a kind of a way that is separate from ourselves. We dissociate from our real time environment. We suspend our disbelief as when we watch a movie, and we participate in an experience that’s external and outside of us.
And perhaps this has become a conditioned way of being for us because we do it so often and therefore we do it with nature too. We see it as an external experience where we watch it and snap a picture and get bored and move on to the next experience to give us that adrenalin hit we’ve become almost addicted to. But what we fail to realize, and I say this again and again, is that we are nature. It is not separate.
It is part of us and we are part of it. But overtime we’ve lost this communication with that part of us and somewhat divorced ourselves from the natural world. But as you said, it doesn’t take much to open up those communication lines again. And when we do it there is a reawakening of that innate intelligence that’s inside us, that’s in our DNA. And it has a ripple effect and we start to feel better and want more, whether we resonate with the nutrition and the foraging or just the inner peace or the heightened awareness. And all of that increases, adding to our overall health as we spend more time with nature and our desire to protect it. And overall that’s just a really important thing we need to be doing right now.
Arthur Haines: Yeah. I completely agree and I think you’ve said that in a really nice way, Alison. I guess the really important thing for me is to understand that we’re really not going to get rid of the technology that we have today. Humans really are addicted to technology and very fascinated by it. And in fact a movement that suggests that we need to abandon all of it is a movement that’s probably not going to be successful. It’s sort of like when you’re using a really modern, fast computer and then you have to go work on a computer that’s several generations back and it’s churning away thinking and thinking, and you’re hemming and hawing and getting upset because you’re waiting for this computer.
It’s kind of once you’ve gotten use to technology, it’s really hard and it takes a special kind of individual to go backwards and abandon that technology. And certainly society’s not going to be willing to do that. At least I don’t believe it’s going to. But we can look around the world and when we look to for example, the Anishinaabe, the indigenous of the Great Lakes Region here of North America, we see that they have this wonderful prophecy that’s called the Seven Fires Prophecy.
And this is a long story that they have about essentially the origin of how they came to be in their land, special aspects of that land, and what they need to do to move forward in this world. And I really love this message because this message talks about the union of the material knowledge of the whites.
In other words, the people originally of European descent who have this amazing technological understanding and how to craft things that we get from the earth with the nature philosophy and the nature respect of the indigenous people. That we need to bring these two things together.
And if we do that we actually come up with some really wonderful inventions that can benefit the earth. And I’ll just give one very quick example. I have a very tiny backpacking stove in my home here. And this is a stove that’s constructed of five sheets of metal. Very simple design, weighs almost nothing. And of course the mining of that metal and the refinement of that metal, its shaping and the shipping of that product to my house, all did damage to the world. I don’t dispute that. However this is an amazing little stove that uses sort of an air-jet technology so that I can literally cook an entire meal for a few people on a tiny handful of sticks. So now I have a way that I can go into the landscape and no one will ever even know that I gathered fuel wood for a fire to cook my food.
In other words, we took that material knowledge that the people of European descent had and we thought of how we interact with the world – especially a world with seven billion people in it. And we created a way to minimize ultimately – minimize our impact on this world so that we consume less and leave more of the natural world intact.
Re-wilding to me is about that. It’s about combining material knowledge with a reverence of nature and bringing those two together. Because when we marry those two concepts, those two technologies, we come out with a really great way forward for this world – at least in my opinion.
Alison: And that is again a beautiful segue into my next question and maybe it even answers it, which was going to be what is your vision for the future and how can we make this work?
Arthur Haines: Well, I mean I’ll be honest with you, I would love for the world to return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And it isn’t just for the nutrition, but it’s really that egalitarian nature that I’m really drawn to. And this is not to say the hunter-gatherer cultures were not perfect – excuse me, are perfect because they weren’t. We do know that, you know there were certain cultures that were at war with each other and fought over resources. And we know that, you know slavery to a small extent did exist. And I just want to make clear that I’m not idolizing and romanticizing about the hunter-gatherer way of life. Except to say that we can certainly document that they were much more egalitarian, they did enjoy greater health than we did, and they had real community. You know family and community members were so important to them and this really benefited their health, having those strong bonds to both their human counterparts and their other than human persons that they shared the world with. And I really am drawn to that. But we’re not going to return to that. In fact we can’t.
There simply isn’t enough space left on the world. Hunter-gatherer lifestyles require hundreds of miles for a small band of people to live. Hundreds of square miles for their seasonal migrations, for the food resources that they use, for the medicines that they use, et cetera. And so we can’t do that. What we need to do is recognize that people do have – like we talked about – an addiction to this technology. We simply need to steer that technology to less harmful products, in other words computing systems that are not filled with flame retardants that then go out and become persistent environmental pollutants in our landscape. We need to steer that in a way that instead of just sort of stroking human ego, that we’re actually thinking about how are we going to make something that uses less – uses less energy to create and does good things for people and the planet. And I’m not talking about convenience. You know a remote clicker for the TV is not a good invention. It does nothing for anybody, right? It promotes inactivity, laziness and jumping from topic to topic.
No, I’m talking about real inventions that promote both humanity and the earth. And that’s really what I love so much about this Seven Fires Prophecy of the Anishinaabe is they get that.
Here is an indigenous people that have not been long away from their hunter-gatherer roots, and they already understand that this material knowledge is important when you have this many people on the planet.
Alison: Hallelujah, Arthur. Now a lot of our listeners are going to be interested in learning more about you and your work. And they can get in touch with you at your website, which is Arthurhaines.com. And you do offer some classes. And there are a lot of things – other things that you do and workshops and you have a book and a lot of other resources that really we don’t have time to touch on I’m afraid. But is there anything else you’d like to share before we wrap up?
Arthur Haines: No. I would say thank you for that mentioning of those resources that I offer, and I just hope people get in touch. I really like making connections with people and I spend a great deal of time trying to help people answer questions about health, about wild food, about re-wilding.
And I would just encourage them to please visit my website, subscribe to the mailing list. I send out, you know an infrequent newsletter, I do not like filling up people’s inboxes with mail, so this goes out only a few times a year. So I promise you will not be burdened with too many emails. And I put real practical information about wild alternatives to domesticated things and real topics to help generate health and self-reliance. So I think they’ll be really interested if they have a chance to peruse the website a bit. So thank you for that.
Alison: Wonderful. I just have one last question for you, Arthur, before I can let you go.
Arthur Haines: Okay.
Alison: And that is what is your wild wish for the people listening to this call?
Arthur Haines: My wild wish. Well, it’s easy for me. Really think about the way you’re interacting with this planet in long term. Stop thinking short term. If you truly love your children and your children’s children, or if you don’t have kids, your friends’ children and their children’s children, you have to start making decisions in the long term.
If we continue to make our decisions based on what helps me right now, which is an incredibly egocentric point of view for us to take, all we end up doing is really degrading the world and making it a harder place to live for the next generations. I really – my wild wish is to get people to start thinking long term. And if you’ll let me, it’s isn’t just to start being better stewards of their physical health, but really to start being better stewards of their genomic health because that’s what they ultimately pass on to the next generation.
Alison: And that is so important. Arthur, thank you so much for your generosity of your time and sharing your knowledge and being so open to communicate. I have so enjoyed sharing this time with you and I’m sure everyone else has too. Arthur Haines: Thank you again for including me in your Summit.