Faces of Cascadia: Elona Underwood works to empower local food and farms in her community

Elona Underwood joined the Little White Salmon Biodiversity Reserve in May 2016 as a farm manager after searching for a farm outside Portland to work on herbalism and provide local food.

The reserve is a learning watershed and serves as a model for mutually beneficial management practices to be a steward of a critical habitat and provide land and facilities for education and research in sustainable forestry, energy and agriculture.

“It has been a really interesting experience and big learning curve,” she wrote in an email interview.

Born in the Soviet Union, Underwood moved to Chicago at four years old in hopes of being a veterinarian, farmer and chef. She chose to pursue a career as a chef.

“I've always followed my intuition on what would bring me the most joy,” she wrote. “After working in the industry for a few years, I saved up some cash and traveled for 8 months throughout Central and South America. There, I came face to face with the consequences of global capitalism and decided that in good conscience I couldn't return to the restaurant industry and do work in a good way without being a part of the production process.”

Underwood then moved to British Columbia where she farmed on various land projects and became involved with Indigenous Sovereignty issues and reconstructing local food sheds. She moved to Portland out of curiosity for its reputation as a hub of eating local and took part in the Occupy movement bringing her knowledge of the bio-regional narrative from Dawn Morrison of the Indigenous Food Systems Network.

“From 2011 - 2016, my focus has been on working with other self-declared Cascadians who wish to empower their communities to develop local resilience,” she wrote.

Underwood published a zine titled ‘Welcome to Cascadia’ which provided a guide to local organizations meant to help detach from global industrial capitalism.

“I also advocated for the education and action needing to happen in Cascadian circles around supporting Indigenous communities to have the space and resources to restore their cultures,” she wrote. “Additionally, restoring my own ancestral cultural traditions has been an important thread in my maturation, which is why I am currently focusing on herbalism and food preservation.”

“My main mission, currently, is to align our food habits with our medicinal needs and name the local plants that can straddle both spheres. "Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine thy food" (Hippocrates). I'd add "let thy local food be thy medicine,”” she wrote.

Underwood takes an hour every morning to walk the goats for a morning browse and studies herbalism as a use in medicine.  

“I'm very much interested in recontexualizing medicine in my life, and to understand what is being provided to me by the landscape,” she wrote.
“I think that as bioregionalists, or place-based action-oriented thinkers, we really need to look to all the work that's been done, that isn't available through a google search,” she wrote. “Planet Drum, a clearinghouse of bioregional information started by Peter Berg is a really important resource for us and few of the newer folks in the movement are aware of its richness. They're currently working on getting their archives up and I know that Cascadia Now! has archived much of the resources that were hiding in a garage in Olympia. Let's make sure we don't reinvent the wheel where it's not necessary and save our energy for the forge.”

The following is an edited email interview with Elona Underwood

What are the most difficult and most rewarding parts of working with the Little White Salmon Biodiversity Reserve?

"What I find most difficult is finding people willing to invest in a vision that requires fundraising and the creation of cottage industry to pay ourselves. I think most of us come from a world where we "get jobs" but the idea of "making a job" requires empowerment that many in our society don't feel… Learning herbs from watching what the goat herd chooses to munch on has been one of my most rewarding experiences - as a budding herbalist I watched them eat the leaves of the Ceanothus integerrimus (deer brush) and tasted them myself, learning they were mucilaginous, astringent and would make a fine tea to help movement in the lymphatic system. I look forward to planting intentional herbal meadows to encourage the goats to self-medicate."

Farming, agricultural, environmental, and cultural education and activities happen in regions all around the world. How does your membership and work with the reserve highlight Cascadia and show it as a movement and culture? In other words, what makes the program unique? 

"The educational model that Hank Patton (founder) has been pioneering, called "Curiousity-based Learning" is the essential key that sets our model apart. Most projects assume what a child or adult will be interested, pre-creating curricula and streamlining the experience. When people arrive at our farm and forest location, they have a multitude of paths to choose and we believe all the educational goals (math, systems theory, scientific methods, history, writing skills, etc) can all be met via these possible paths of curiosity. For example, a young boy arrived who showed little interest in learning carpentry skills (which happened to be the main project of the day) and was able to step into the kitchen, with my guidance, to create and can tomato sauce, instead. He still needed to study difference recipes, to measure and calculate in order to create the final product, and learned the history of the colonization of the new world when I asked him to find out when tomatoes became available in Italy. This type of learning, including recontexualizationor learning the story of, is one of my main focuses as a bioregional educator."

What inspires you about the reserve?

"The Little White Salmon Biodiversity Reserve is a special place that has been held in trust to support the education of today's children and adults to preserve a world worth living in for future generations. The spirit seed of this project is exactly what needs to be planted in the hearts and minds of people around the world. If we're screwing up the livability of this world for future generations, what's the point of having kids? If we can instead find a way of living that doesn't exploit people on the other side of the world, a way of living that meets our needs for good food, health, safety, security, purposefulness, why not try?"

What inspires you about Cascadia and the people who call it home?

"That idea of right livelihood, non-exploitation, good food and health, these are all concepts that have strong roots here in the northwest corner of the North American continent. Instead of attempting to start from the bottom up in a part of the US that doesn't have a strong narrative of such values, I find it incredibly nurturing to have that kind of base from which to build examples. Living stories are what our society needs to be inspired and many of these are being lived and told in Cascadia. Additionally, the sense of bioregionalism or (place-based consciousness, as the more modern writers say) is incredibly strong here. People are willing to stand up to fossil fuel extraction, old-growth destruction, show positive examples like riding bikes and growing food in the backyard, etc. Of course there is criticism as well, like the little addressed inequities caused by almost two century's worth of racism towards Native, Asian, Black, Queer and Differently-Abled populations, but I believe that when the matter is engaged in a healthy way, progress is made… This kind of work is less emotionally comfortable than the empowering action of planting seeds in one’s backyard, but planting the seeds of care and consideration for our fellow human beings is just as important."

What does Cascadia mean to you?

"Cascadia is a living, breathing interaction between the moon, other planets, sun, airs and waters that blow in from the Pacific Ocean, the tectonic plates that shift beneath our feet, the zillions of microbes and fungi that build our soil and the root masses of plants that hold it together, the energies moved by our winged and crawling ones, the two leggeds, the four leggeds, our own contributions as two-legged creatures doing our best to meet the needs of ourselves and the ones we love, and it's also a call to consciousness, to acknowledge that we belong to a land and that we must take one's place in this cycle of life in order to strengthen the health, abundance and resilience of all our relations. By taking this path, I believe that we'll make global industrial capitalism irrelevant."

Taylor McAvoy is a Junior at the University of Washington pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. She has been a writer and photographer for the university's newspaper The Daily for more than a year focusing on editorial reporting and arts event coverage. She is currently vice president elect of the Society of Professional Journalist’s (SPJ) University of Washington chapter. She is also working on her own as a freelance journalist and photographer. 

Twitter: @TaylorMcAvoy105