Restoring our ways
Everbearing strawberries (above) and blueberries (below) in raised beds produce fruit throughout the growing season.
Our village, Witset (formerly Moricetown), is the original fishing grounds of the Witsuwit’en people; culturally, this is a hunting, fishing and foraging culture. Because our traditional foraging sites are being destroyed by logging and development, we planted an edible forest in the middle of town.An edible forest is an orchard full of trees and shrubs that bear edible and medicinally significant herbs, fruits and nuts. The Witsuwit’en are less interested in how something looks, so our edible forest will be less manicured and not-for-profit. It has been planted as a future foraging ground.
Intended as a community-building exercise, I put out a call for volunteers last spring. At once, the entire Kyah Wiget Education Society got involved in the planting process. Our Large Equipment Machinery course practiced their backhoe skills digging holes for the trees and clearing some of the cottonwood forest. The local elementary school classes found rocks and built berms for the tree beds. The older classes planted the trees and shrubs; one of our trees has been affectionately nicknamed “Don Cherry.” The project became an excellent learning opportunity for all our students.
Traditional and modern
Our fruit trees and shrubs spent the summer getting established. We tended to weeds in the tree berms and the raised beds, and diligently watered everything all spring and summer. In response, the plants thrived. In August, everyone was invited to a Grand Opening ceremony. The press release attracted a lot of off-reserve attention. We did spontaneous interviews with CBC, CBC North, CFNR and the Moose FM. People from as far away as Terrace, B.C. came to witness this astonishing event, where traditional methods have been blended with modern ones.
We felt it particularly important to commemorate a member who, many years ago, wanted to start a community garden. As the idea of an edible forest was shared round the community, everyone mentioned Bridget Forsythe, a woman who had inspired many others. Bridget died tragically in a car accident at the tender age of 22. Her mother, Blanche Alfred, cut the official ribbon and spoke about a commemorative plaque.
The edible forest gets a lot of visitors. A legion of insects, birds and animals, for instance, have lent their support to this project. The remaining cottonwood forest filled with fireweed and wild roses, a nice habitat for such visitors. We left the downed trees and scrub in a pile at one end as additional habitat. One particularly warm evening, a hummingbird followed me as I carried the water buckets around; the next day, we put out small water stations.
The other visitor we are most eager to attract was spotted in September. I had stepped outside for a moment with my camera, headed for an event. Drawn to look into the orchard, I noticed a gaggle of young girls, heads down; they were gathered around the strawberry beds. Intrigued, I approached them.
Their guilty looks betrayed the common response here: is it okay, what I’m doing?
“What have you found today?” I asked.
“I found some blueberries,” one admits, opening her cupped hand.
“And a strawberry!” another squeals, astonished.
“We planted ever-bearing strawberries!” I gasp. “And look at the size of it!”
“Can I pick it?” she asks, still hesitant.
“Yes, please!” I tell her. “This is what the edible forest is all about.”
Our next goal is to quietly engage our elders, who have been foraging their entire lives in the wild. Would they be interested in something that’s being intentionally cultivated?
In late spring, our Adult Education class calculated the requirements and sizing of an elder’s gazebo, shrewdly located between the main village roadway and the Edible Forest. The aim was to attract passersby as a haven beside the companionable trees. With the orchard in plain sight and a modest gate to one side, elders might consider a walk along the switchback trails. This gazebo is now in its final stages of construction. Its attractive design adds further beauty to the location, and is already drawing the attention of our village members. We are hopeful that the Edible Forest project will appeal to all Witsuwit’en as a means to knit their past into their future.