My family recently headed south to visit Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. Phipps is a wonderful place, a celebration of all things plant. And they featured a train display on the weekend we arrived. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Our trip was as expected: The babies pooped and peed all over their outfits and their parents; Henry, determined to watch trains for the duration of our visit, set the pace around the halls of verdure at a near sprint when we finally pried him away from the locomotives; and our pocketbooks were open to house moths upon conclusion of the trip to the Big City. Through it all, I managed to focus long enough on the concept of Canoe Plants illustrated inside the Hawaii Room to take note of an ingenious survival strategy.

Upon entering the room guests are presented with a question: If you’re leaving home to destinations unknown, for an indeterminate amount of time, with only the things you can pack in a canoe, what would you take?

Well, a knife. Two knives: a large for hacking and chopping and a small for precisely cutting up game for consumption. I’d take a gun, probably a medium caliber rifle that offers some versatility between bigger game and smaller — I like a .22-250. Obviously ammunition would be necessary. Some kind of fire starter, logically flint-and-steel instead of butane. A folding saw. A hammer. Tarps. Strong rope, large diameter and small. The list goes on, representing a collection of mechanical goods associated with everything outdoors.

Designers of the Hawaii Room seemed to anticipate the consumer-era response, and they pull guests in to the jungle with a wink that says, gently, “Oh, you fool.”

Polynesians who settled the islands we call Hawaii were travelers. The brave pioneers were facing just the scenario above: They didn’t know where they were going or for how long they were staying. Thus challenged, they decided upon a brilliant strategy to ensure longevity: Travelers carried plants in their canoes. And so begins the lesson.

Now, a gun runs out of ammo. A knife will lose its edge. Rope will fray and tarps will rip and the hammer will misplace its head, leaving a valiant survivalist standing at square one with his empty gun unless he can quickly construct in his new land the factory needed to supply the finite goods of the consumer. Unlikely.

Carrying familiar trees, vines and shrubs to propagate ensured a regenerative supply of building materials, fuel oil, food and medicine. In a sense, the plants become a factory that builds itself. Nobody needed to undergo a lengthy learning curve of local flora prior to inviting the rest of the tribe because they literally brought the environment with them. From this platform they could grow everything else they needed. Grow they did, and the people flourished.

It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to realize that the natives of what is now Western Pennsylvania had their own collection of Canoe Plants. I am certain that right in our own backyard are plants that provide food, rope, shelter, medicine, etc. A regenerative goods factory is there, and I don’t believe I could find it if I needed to. I posed the question to my family: What plants would you choose to keep for survival?

Dad suggested elderberry: It grows quickly, the fruits are superb for health, the stems can be hollowed and used as pipe or maybe even a blowgun. Blackberries are useful for food and the cane can allegedly be fashioned into rope or bindings, which I have tried to do and failed, although I think inexperience led to the failure and not the cane fiber itself. Ginseng must have some significant benefit since it was harvested to the point of near extinction, so if I could find it I’d take some of those roots. Sarsaparilla supposedly provides a boost of stamina and I can easily track it down so that would go in the basket, too. Nut trees take a long time to grow, as do most fruit trees. Everything else we thought of was a garden seed, e.g. peas, beans, potatoes, beets, etc. Not exactly natives.

It’s a good thing we’re not ancient explorers, huh? Nobody’s actually going anywhere, anyhow. Or are we?

In a great sense we are indeed going somewhere nobody has ever been: the future. And we have no idea how long we’ll live, so just like the ancient Polynesians we’re on a journey to parts unknown and we don’t know what will be there or how long we’re staying. Unfortunately we didn’t pack the plants. We are very much the explorer with his empty gun, hoping the factory can be constructed before he dies.

A farm is like a canoe. It is the vessel that carries supplies into the future so our tribe can flourish there. My canoe feels painfully empty when I think about it. It wants filled with those critical plants, some that need introduced and others that simply need identified. And it needs stories to be passed along to the young ones who will be steering our verdant boat after we fall overboard so they know what to do with all the good things surrounding them. We must grow the survival plants today so they will be there when our boat arrives tomorrow. It’s a time-proven strategy for success.