Decolonization Lessons from Plants

Bittersweet around a tree trunk

 Bittersweet vining around a tree trunk.

After spending a week going through soil to remove bittersweet roots, I have been thinking about invasive bittersweet as a visceral metaphor for colonization. Bittersweet comes into an area by seeds or roots, and then reaches for the sky. It vines around any support, living or dead, to keep climbing higher and higher. When its vines first wrap around a tree trunk, like in this photo, it may look green and healthy and beautiful. It may even seem to appreciate the tree on which is grows. But eventually, it can kill the tree, either by suffocating its trunk, or by the sheer weight of its leaves and branches.

Below is a photo, taken by my partner Margy Dowzer, of a huge bittersweet vine, 4-5 inches in diameter, tightly wrapped around the trunk of this tree.  It has been cut near the bottom, which is the way to stop it growing. But you can see how it has warped the trunk and become embedded in its flesh. A huge maple tree next door came crashing down after it was covered in bittersweet vines and flowers. Bittersweet will spread to a whole area, and kill other plants that are trying to grow. Bittersweet embedded in tree trunk

And this is like colonization. When Europeans first came to this land, they planted themselves in several locations and tried to grow as much as possible. They wiped out many Indigenous communities through disease and warfare. They used the lands cleared in this way to grow crops and build towns. They kept spreading out across the whole continent, bringing destruction to Native peoples and ecosystems as they took over. They imagined that their own growth and reaching for the sun was the only thing necessary and valuable, and took no notice of the harm they were causing.  And of course, it isn’t just past history, it keeps happening today. Our whole economic system is based on continual growth. “More and more and more!” might be the mantra of the colonizers and the bittersweet.

Might there be another option? There is a different sort of plant that was brought to this continent by colonizers. In fact, it was called “English-man’s foot” or “white-man’s footprint” by Indigenous peoples because it appeared wherever the settlers showed up. Its familiar name is broadleaf plantain (plantago major). It too spreads all over, and especially in disturbed soils. However, it is a humble plant, and a useful medicinal herb. Indigenous peoples soon discovered its healing properties and added it to their herbal pharmacies.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when I had a bite from a black fly appear on my hand, itching like crazy. My friend Sylvia (who is an herbalist) suggested plantain. I made a poultice by chewing up some leaves and then putting that mash on the bite, letting it remain until it dried. It helped to ease the itching right away. Plantain is also good for all sorts of wound healing, stomach troubles, fevers, and is anti-inflammatory. You can eat young leaves in salads, and cook older leaves in stews. It is also useful for breaking up compacted soil, and combatting erosion.

So perhaps we who are not Indigenous to this land might learn from the plantain a new model of how to be here, in this place we now find ourselves. Perhaps we too might become humble and useful, growing only close to the ground, paying attention to healing and the easing of pain.

Plantain

Plantain

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Transplanting the Mulberry Tree

One of the principles of permaculture is to observe, and then adapt.  So last year, we had planted a mulberry tree in a particular spot, but it was not doing very well, not getting enough sun. (I got fooled by the fact that it is called an understory tree–but our tall trees are at the south of our property, and this one was getting shaded by them.) So with some advice from Mihku, Margy and I found a new spot, on the other side of the back yard, and carefully measured the ten foot radius a mature tree might need. It feels like a great spot for the tree, especially since one of our goals for the tree is as a gift to the birds who might otherwise eat up our future cherries, blueberries, and peaches. This spot is next to the undeveloped land next to our yard.

Myke sorting through dirt

Sifting through soil. Photo by Margy Dowzer.

But the whole project has taken days to finish!  First, we had to deal with the ever present bittersweet whose roots run through our soil from the undeveloped edges all around.  Asian bittersweet is an incredibly invasive plant that can spread by any roots, or by its seeds.  At this time of year, there are hundreds of small plants popping up out of the grass.  Margy has been the primary bittersweet warrior for our land, going round the undeveloped edges and cutting vines and freeing trees that have been almost strangled by them.  (Some were already lost.) We don’t want to use any poison, so it’s a constant process of depriving the roots of active vines, and pulling up any new shoots. (Someday, I might reflect on the parallels between invasive plants and colonization. I certainly have been thinking about it this week.)

Bittersweet roots (tiny ones)

                                                  Bittersweet roots.

In any case, because of the bittersweet, we couldn’t just dig a hole and plant the tree–we had to dig a much bigger hole, and pull out several huge orange roots. Then we had to sift through all the soil that we’d taken from the hole, to remove any tiny orange roots. I have been doing this for so many hours that when I close my eyes I still see tiny orange bittersweet roots. I think I could identify them by feel in the dark as well. Here is what they look like when they are tiny:

For most of our yard, I’ve tried to use a no-till sheet mulching/lasagna gardening method. This is done by layering a mix of brown and green organic matter on top of the soil. So even though we had to dig a huge hole for the mulberry tree, I used the sheet mulching method as I began to fill it.  The soil was pretty barren and sandy below the top few inches, so adding organic matter would help to enrich it.  I used layers of soil, compost, dried grass, seaweed, coffee chaff, and included the broken up grasses from the sod I’d removed from the top.  Here is the hole after some layers had already been added.

Mulberry transplanting hole

The hole beginning to be filled with layers.

Myke layering the mulberry bed

Raking in another layer of soil. Photo by Margy Dowzer.

For the past week, I’ve put in a few hours each day alternately sifting soil from around the edges of the hole, adding the soil to the hole, or adding other layers of compost, dried grass, or seaweed. Margy took turns sifting soil as well. Some days it seemed like it would never be completed.

Finally, today, the last soil was sifted, and the hole was transformed into a mound. I dug a smaller hole in the center of it, and gently moved the small tree, still in dormancy from the winter.  (Last year it didn’t wake up until the end of June, so we were trying to finish before it woke up.) I tucked it in with water and more soil and more water.

Mulberry transplant

Mulberry tree transplanted!

To finish it off, I covered the mound with thick layers of newspaper (to prevent weed growth), and then wood chip mulch.  We were expecting rain in the afternoon today, and tomorrow.  It’s good weather for a big move. I offered a blessing to encourage the small tree to prosper in its new sunnier location, near the crabapple tree and the blueberry bushes. May it be so!

Myke adding wood chips to mulberry

Adding wood chips to mound. Photo by Margy Dowzer.

“Friends of the Indian”

Chives after rain

Chives after the rain

Permaculture teaches us to observe the patterns in nature, and I thought of patterns when I saw this circle of chives after the last rain storm. Plants are so beautiful, especially when they bloom. Especially when they form a circle after rain.

Everything is green now. I go outside and do what I can in the garden. Inside, I finished watching the Ken Burns series The West. One of its stories has really stayed on my mind–the story of a well-meaning white woman who tried to help, but ended up causing harm to Native peoples. I think about how often that pattern has repeated itself in the last 150 years. And I wonder, how do we keep from repeating it again?

Alice Fletcher was a white upper-class feminist, one of those women that we lesbians of my generation have been so thrilled to discover–because she lived and worked with her romantic companion, Jane Gay.  Born in 1838, she went to “the best schools” and was active in the feminist and suffrage groups of New York city. Eventually she found a mentor, the director of the Peabody Museum, to study anthropology and archeology.  In 1881 she lived with and studied the Omaha Indians of Nebraska. She appreciated the culture and became close to many people there, even adopting a son, Francis La Flesche, who himself became a professional ethnologist.  She and he published a multitude of articles and books about Indigenous culture and music.

But she also came to the conclusion that Indian people needed to be brought into the mainstream life of America culture. According to PBS,

Containment had been the goal of federal Indian policy throughout much of the nineteenth century, but in 1883 a group of white church leaders, social reformers and government officials met at Mohonk Lake, New York, to chart a new, more humane course of action. Calling themselves “Friends of the Indian,” they proposed to remold Native Americans into mainstream citizens and to begin this process by re-educating the youngest generation at special Indian schools.

Alice Fletcher devoted herself to pressuring the government for the allotment policy: the breakup of tribal landholdings into individual holdings. “Friends of the Indians” thought it would be good for Native peoples to become more like their white neighbors, to farm, to own their own land individually, rather than collectively.

In 1882, the Bureau of Indian Affairs hired her to make a survey of all Indian lands for their suitability for allotment. The same year she was hired to manage the allotment of the Omahas’ lands. After the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which provided for the eventual breakup of all Indian reservations, she managed the allotment of the Nez Percé’s remaining lands.

But allotment failed drastically in so many ways.  First of all, it failed to honor the choices of Indigenous peoples–most of them did not want allotments but were forced into it. And ultimately, it robbed Native nations of millions of acres of their land, and undermined their cultural sovereignty as nations.

Between the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 and its repeal under the New Deal in 1934, allotment continually deprived Indians of many of their remaining lands. The outright sale of “surplus” lands — parts of reservations left over after allotments had been assigned — and the subsequent sale of allotted lands themselves shrunk the Indian estate from about 150 million acres before the Dawes Act to 104 million acres by 1890, to 77 million by 1900, and to 48 million by 1934. By the time of its repeal, according to one study, two-thirds of the Indian population was “either completely landless or did not own enough land to make a subsistence living.”

Alice Fletcher thought she was a friend, helping, doing something good for Native peoples.  But her help caused harm.  No wonder Indigenous people are cautious about those of us who might show up eager to “help.”  Patterns.  And how do we know that what we think of as help might later be revealed to have caused harm?  Let’s ponder that question for a while.

Sea Kale blooming

The perennial sea kale in bloom smells like honey.

Civil War Addendum

I want to add this update to my earlier post about my German Missouri immigrant ancestors connection to the Civil War.  In checking out my notes from another family source, I see that my great-great grandfather, Johann Heisler came to Cole County, Missouri, via New Orleans, arriving in New Orleans on January 13, 1840, ten years earlier than another source had suggested.  His three brothers came to this country in 1850.  One of them, his brother Anton, served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

He enlisted in October 1862 and served as a private in Company D, 42nd Regiment, Missouri Infantry.  He was discharged in December, 1864.  While he was on duty in October 1864, six miles from Jefferson City, he was captured by General Sterling Price’s command and held prisoner by the Confederates at Fort Scott, Kansas, until December of 1864.  He came back to St. Thomas, Missouri in much weakened health, and later applied for a pension related to that health condition, but was denied it.

Missouri Germans in the Civil War

I felt an odd sense of relief and satisfaction to learn that my German Missouri ancestors were on the Union side of the Civil War.  While recovering from my latest gardening exploits, I was watching episodes of the Ken Burns documentary “The West.”  I was surprised by the series’ level of truth-telling in stories about colonization, about racism, about the violence endemic to the history of the United States. It has been quite an eye-opener about the “settlement” of the West, and I recommend it to all students of decolonization.

In the episode about the lead-up to the Civil War, I learned that Missouri and Kansas were the site of the heaviest civilian conflict and bloodshed before and during the war.  Earlier, in 1820, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, in conjunction with Maine being admitted as a free state, in the compromise to keep a balance between the free and slave states.  When the Kansas territory was “opened for settlement” in the 1850s it was decided to let the residents vote on whether they would be a slave state or free state.

[“Opened for settlement,” of course, meant the removal and theft of the land from the Arapaho, Comanche, Osage, Kansa, Kiowa, Missouri, Otoe, and Pawnee peoples, plus a dozen more eastern tribes who had been relocated to Kansas/Oklahoma in what was to be their land forever. But moving on for now to the slavery question…]

This new Kansas territory turned into a tinderbox of the national tensions between slavery vs. freedom for African-Americans–white Abolitionists from New England, and white pro-slavery Missourians (with their enslaved people with them) were among those who rushed to live in Kansas to influence the direction it would go.  Eventually, after much bloodshed, burning, looting, and turmoil, Kansas joined the Union in 1861 as a free state.

But my own curiosity shifted from Kansas over to what happened in Missouri, where my Heisler/Gerling ancestors had settled in the 1850s. I had thought they were on the side of the Union, so what were they doing in a slave state?  Ken Burns didn’t tell their story, but I went hunting on the internet to sort it out.  There I found the rather satisfying news that the German emigrants in Missouri were in fact opposed to slavery, and avid supporters of the Union.  They had emigrated after a failed revolution for democracy in 1848 in the German lands, and held dear the ideals of freedom and equality.  According to Patrick Young, in an article that was part of a series, The Immigrants’ Civil War,

[German Americans] saw parallels in the military coups in the German states in 1848 that ended the democratic dream in Europe. One of the exiled revolutionaries, August Willich, wrote after the attack on Fort Sumter that Germans needed to “protect their new republican homeland against the aristocracy of the South.”

Their influence was part of what kept Missouri in the Union.  According to another article by Patrick Young,

Missouri was a border state. That meant that it was a slave state lying between the Confederacy and the free states of the North. In the 1850s, Missouri had been the staging ground for pro-slavery terror raids against free soil towns in Kansas, but by 1861, the state’s wealthy slaveholding class was being challenged for power from an unlikely quarter.

German immigrants had moved into the state in large numbers in the 1850s. Most crowded into the fast growing industrial metropolis of St. Louis. Others started small German-speaking rural communities, [Note–that would include my ancestors] where they found themselves expected to defer to nearby slaveholders who expressed their worth in the number of humans they owned. The Germans had come to America for freedom, and they resented both slavery and the power it gave slaveholders over Missouri politics. When the Germans became citizens, they quickly formed the state’s most consistently anti-slavery electorate.

Thomas HeislerWhen I look at the lists of Union and Confederate soldiers from Missouri, none of my direct ancestors are included, though there were two Heisler men listed as Union soldiers. It’s possible that my great-great grandfather, Johann Heisler, was too old to enlist–he would have been 40 years old in 1860, with young children. My great grandfather, Thomas Heisler was born in 1857–only a toddler when the war began. Maybe they just tried to farm their land, and keep the peace with their neighbors.  One family story says the four Heisler brothers had left Germany to avoid being drafted into the military there. [Note: see addendum about another brother’s service in the Union Army.]

But it sounds like the war came to everyone’s land.  From the same article:

Even before the war, pro-slavery raiders had tried to drive German farmers out of rural Missouri. Now bringing about the submission or eradication of the Unionist German community became an imperative for Confederates.

Historian Ella Lonn wrote that after the Germans foiled the takeover [by the Missouri Confederates] of the [St. Louis] arsenal and fired into the mob:

“The hatred that Missouri Confederates felt for the Germans was frightful…German farmers were shot down, their fields laid waste, and their houses burned.” 9

German immigrants responded by supplying nearly half the soldiers raised by Missouri for the Union cause over the next four years.9 In that state, the war would take on the vicious character of a guerrilla struggle between Germans trying to make a place in a free America, and native-born Confederates trying to drive them out.

The Germans refused to leave.

So, in the midst of so much that is soul crushing about the history of this country, that’s a satisfying story to learn! There were many other stories about the Germans in Missouri of that time–too numerous to include, but check out the series, The Immigrants’ Civil War. I am inspired in my own work against racism to know they were carrying those values of equality and freedom from their homeland.

 

Pruning

Our friend, Mihku, who is a master gardener, gave me more advice about pruning last Sunday.  We looked at all the orchard trees, and she reminded me that these first few years are all about creating a good shape for the tree, thickening up the trunk, and creating strong scaffold branches, while not letting them get too leggy or long.

So for example, here is the peach tree before pruning (on May 27th).  It looked bright and happy, and even had a few flowers, (which you can see if you zoom in). But the branches were quite long, and the tree is too young to give energy to making fruit this year.  On the right foreground of this photo, you might also notice a very leggy branch from one of our cherry trees, dividing into new shoots at its tip.

Peach tree before pruning

Peach Tree before pruning

The next day, I went back to my Holistic Orchard book to read what Michael Phillips had to say about pruning, too.  It seems I need to read it at least once a year, because in between, I forget.  There are different methods for different fruits.  Apples and cherries prefer a central leader, with several scaffold layers of branches nicely spaced out as you go up the trunk.  Peaches prefer an open vase style, in which there is no central leader, but the center is opened up to give good sunlight to the flowers and fruit.  But it is far beyond the power of any book to give what a wise friend can give–especially for gathering the courage to actually do it.  (It seems counterintuitive to do all that cutting of new branches.)

This kind of pruning at this season of the year is meant to encourage growth in the right form and direction.  Mihku suggested cutting about 1/3 off from the long branches, and once again staking the cherry branches to make a better “crotch angle” (where the branch angles from the trunk.)  They tend to grow almost straight up, and should be reaching out to form a 45-60 degree angle.  Flat cuts at the end of branches will also help them to thicken up. Header cuts on the central leader, will encourage lower branches to grow–which was especially important for the Lapins cherry, which had a big gap between lower branches and higher shoots. I was excited to see that there were some new branches starting to form at a better height.

After I did the cherries, I went to the peach, picked off the blossoms, and cut away branches that were growing inward, to favor those that were growing outward. And those that I wanted to keep got about 1/3 headed off to help them become stronger, choosing a spot just above an outward facing bud.

Peach Tree after pruning

Peach after pruning

Finally, I checked our semi-dwarf apple tree, which is still quite small, and found that there were three branch shoots reaching upward at the central leader–just like Michael Phillips suggested there would be, and I chose the strongest to be the leader, and snipped off the other two.

Pruning accomplished for the season! Thanks Mihku!

Myke & Mihku in the garden

Photo by Margy Dowzer

 

Raccoon/Espons

One of the great things about our cats is how they alert us to visitors in the yard.  This morning, Billie suddenly leaned over into the bedroom window, all focused attention, and then she hurried off to the kitchen.  I looked out the window, and then I too ran to the kitchen–to look out the French door windows to the back.  We had both seen a raccoon, walking right onto our deck, checking things out.Raccoon on the deck

Sadly, this was not a great nature photo–I didn’t capture the raccoon’s adorable face.  And when they saw us at the window, they decided to move along, leaving only small wet footprints behind. I barely caught their distinctive striped tail as they hurried past on their way toward the steps to the driveway.  Raccoon tail

Compost barrel holeThe Passamaquoddy word for raccoon is Espons, and it means the one who leaves a mess. I pulled on my boots to go outside to see if Espons had left any messes anywhere in our garden–but the only thing I found was a tiny hole dug into the side of our compost barrel.  It looks like that compost is ready.

I think this is the first time I’ve seen a raccoon in the yard, though I saw one in a tree down by the brook a while back. As much as Margy and I love to play in the soil, plant trees and bushes, and tend to the growing plant life all around us, the most thrilling part of connecting to this land is when the critters visit us.

Many small birds and squirrels live here all the time, but we’ve also seen turkeys, a very occasional deer (and not in the last year), the skunk, the groundhog, a few chipmunks, the fox, the hawks, the turkeys (they visit a lot–though not this spring–they must be raising young somewhere else right now), not to mention tiny toads and salamanders. I call them visitors, but really, we share this urban environment. They live here as much as we do–but not usually on the deck!  We try to find a balance between welcoming them, and reserving certain garden foods as our own “territory.”  (Since we don’t yet have much food in the perennial food forest we’ve been slowly creating, it hasn’t yet been a big issue.)

I am reminded somehow, by the joy of this unexpected visit, that my spiritual “marching orders” during this past cycle of seasons have been rather clear.  I was not to try to “make magic”–which I understand as to focus my intention and will to create something or to make change in this world.  Rather, I was to flow with the already flowing magic of the deeper River, to let the Earth move my feet, let the Wind guide my mind. I was to rest, and let the Fire of joy carry me through the days.  That joy has carried me into some marvelous learning–the Wabanaki language class comes to mind.  That joy has carried me out into the garden to plant and tend and haul wood chips around.  That joy has carried me to the pages of this blog site, to write and reflect.  But it isn’t really about creating a garden or a blog.

It is about observing, being quiet, listening to the trees, tuning in to the flow of interconnected life. It is about moving beyond doing into a different way of being.  A way that is alert to the many beings who visit us, whether we notice them or not. It is about noticing.

Margy's clover & daffodils

Margy’s clover & daffodil garden in the front yard.