In preparation for Lynx Vilden’s Stone Age Immersion program, I need to gather 5lbs of dehydrated wild plants. I know I could gather and dry wild greens (most berries are not ripe yet), but they won’t give me the calories I need out there in the woods. I wanted to get some roots and pound them into flour for a starch. For years now I have known and interacted with Finisia Medrano (aka “Tranny Granny”) over the web. So much so that when I hear the words “roots” I think of them synonymously with her and “the hoop”. This was a great excuse for me to stop “suckling the teet of babylon” long enough to get a glimpse of life of the hoop, as she has always emphatically encouraged all rewilders to do. After spending a few days on the hoop, I am finally starting to understand why she carries such a passion for this life.
For thousands and thousands of years, traditional “hunter-gatherer” people lived and worked in specific nomadic circuits across the land known as “hoops”. These hoops are routes on the earth with various camp sites along the way in which the people have tended the wild to create an abundance of food at each stop. Grandma Fin, as people affectionately call her, is someone who discovered remnants of the old hoops and… never left. She has catalyzed the rewilding movement to reclaim the spirit and root gardening techniques of the hoop. Her enthusiasm, passion, sense of humor and light-hearted fierceness have inspired and continue to inspire more and more people to get on the various hoops and return to a life of tending the wild gardens of native plants.
I drove six hours down from Portland, out to the desert where Grandma currently resides. As we got closer, I noticed that nearly every house we passed is abandoned. There is no industry out there but a few cattle ranches. It is too spread out to be a “ghost town”–it’s much more a post-apocalyptic runway. We arrive at dusk. Half of the camp is heading out to set rat traps in the bushes of this wasteland. Everyone in our culture hates rats. You don’t need special permits to trap and eat them. Grandma says there are too many of them and they eat the seeds and roots of the plants we want to tend. The first part of tending our garden is thinning the over-run animal population of rats. Rats which they will skin, cook and eat if and when they catch them.
In the morning we get up early to head up to “the table”. Tables are a geological phenomenon where a hill or mountain has a flat top, giving it the appearance of a tabletop. I am familiar with most plants of the west side of the cascades. Out in the desert, up on the table, everything but the sagebrush looks foreign. Our first stop to dig is not far from camp. I learn my first plant: yampa. The peanut-sized root bulbs are sweet, nutty and delicious. We lazily gather yampa for thirty minutes, stopping to chat and make jokes. My pockets are over-flowing with them. I am begining to notice that yampa is like a ground cover up there: you can’t take a step without walking on it. Grandma says this table is around seventeen square miles.
We move on to digging Luskh (pronounced looksh), a lomatium known commonly as “breadroot” or “biscuitroot”. Then coush (pronounced cow-sh) another lomatium. Then frittilaria, various greens, and a teeny-tiny potato-like root that I can’t remember the name of. In a just a few lazy hours of digging, we had gathered enough starch for days of eating. Grandma fin is sitting by me and my friend Thor. My friend Potlatch is a few feet away, digging down deep for a luskh. The rest of the gang, the real root diggers or “hoopsters” as they are jokingly called, are scattered around with some digging, some laying on the earth and staring up into the sky. Grandma cracks jokes here and there, then lays down some heavy shit: this is a garden that is thousands of years old. The only reason it exists is because it’s too rocky to farm, graze cattle on, or build. The rocks are considered worthless. The river valley just several feet below the table is a grassy, cattle grazing field now. The whole valley was an easy to dig garden just a hundred or so years ago. Civilization’s settlers released pigs onto the land, and those pigs destroyed this indigenous garden. Grandma looks at Potlatch. He’s begun to peel the inedible bark layers off the roots. Her eyes fill with tears. She says that this is what she lives for: seeing those little piles of root scraps scattered across the Table. My eyes fill with tears of grief and gratitude. In this seeming desert wasteland of apocalyptic abandonments, we’re literally sitting on top of something more valuable than a gold mine. It’s breath-takingly beautiful, hopeful and so very sad, all at the same time. It’s lonely out here she says. Where are the women and the children?
The roots are dug with a digging stick known as a Capun. In the old days, people would make these sticks from carefully fire-hardened wood. These days, in order to dig out these hard-to-get-at roots, we’re using titanium. We live in an interesting time where modern tech is sometimes needed just to live a more simple life. If we could replant the valley, we would not need titanium capuns. As civilization collapses, as gas gets too expensive, the cattle ranches will dwindle and the root diggers will move down to replant, to rewild those valleys. At some point the titanium capuns will be buried and forgotten in an easy to dig, river of abundance. For now, we find a balance in using new tools to bridge us back to the old ways.
Here is Grandma Fin demonstrating how the titanium capuns are used:
After taking a midday nap (life on the hoop is a crepuscular existence) we head out in the SUV to scout for more locations. We stop and get out at a possible camas patch, but there is nothing. The land has been trampled by cattle. At the end of the field a single tiger lily is just starting to bud out. “Kill it!” They shout. My heart stops. Are they really going to kill a rare species like this? The tiger lily was once much more populated than it is now. It was a food source for humans, which means it grew in many places. Now, it is very rare. How could they do that? As they pull up the root bulb I feel like I should say something but I hold back. Then I see it: tiny rootlets stuck to the main bulb. Dozens of them. We dig a dozen or so holes and drop in a few rootlets in each one. Next year, there will be more than just one Tiger Lily, there will be many. At that moment, things clicked and I started to understand on a fundamental level what I already have read and know. Tiger Lillies are endangered because they are no longer eaten. If there is no one there to tend the plant, to help it along, it will die out. Just as we humans will die out without the plants to help us along. It’s not the killing that is destructive, it’s how you go about killing that matters.
The best example of this is the harvest season for most of these roots. Once the flower has gone to seed, and the seeds begin to fall, it’s the best time to harvest the root. When you pull the root out, you plant the seeds at the same time. Grandma calls this “the reach around”. Life on these hoops is defined and maintained by the reach around. This was a principle that I have read many times in modern books on sustainable hunter-gatherer land management, but reading about it wasn’t enough. There is a mindset and experience of tending the wild that needs cultivation. After over a decade of rewilding, I haven’t felt that anywhere other than on the hoop. Not at a permaculture class, not at a skill-share, not even with my friends playing out in the woods. Perhaps it’s because, on the hoop, you are not starting from scratch. You’re building on what the wild has already provided, and what the Native cultures left in the land as their legacy. On the hoop, I felt an immense support already there from the earth. You don’t find that when you’re planning your permaculture garden. The hoop is a permaculture garden. One that has been there for thousands of years and survived the encroachment of civilization by living up on the tables – the fringes, where civilization doesn’t deem important. Out on the hoop I tasted freedom, and like the roots we dig, it was bittersweet.
You really haven’t even begun to rewild until you’ve gone out on the hoop and spent some time with Grandma Fin. This story is really just one big plea for you to join up with Tranny Granny and get your asses on the hoop! My only regret was that I couldn’t stay longer. I promised Grandma that I would return, with reinforcements.
Read Finisia’s autobiography to learn more about her story: “Growing up in Occupied America.” Friend her on Facebook and send her a message.