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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About Ads

It’s ironic: since I am using the “free” version of WordPress to publish, they occasionally place ads at the end of my posts.  I want to point out that I have no control over the content of any ads that appear, and sadly, they usually advertise products that are the very opposite of the values that I am writing about.

I apologize for these incongruities!  Isn’t that the position in which we find ourselves so often? We are embedded in systems that infiltrate all aspects of our lives, even as we imagine a better way of living.

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This Grandmother Pine Lost

White Pine Cut with markingsIt must have been a big machine that cut down the grandmother pine tree.  I found no disturbance around the stump when I climbed up to it to offer my grief and respect.  The weeds and small brush nearby were there as before, with only fresh wood shavings and pine sap falling over the edges of the stump.  Nothing huge crashed to the ground when they took her. So it must have been a big machine.

I discovered her absence on my walk near Capisic Brook the day before, but didn’t have the strength to approach her while there were lots of workmen in the Rowe school construction zone nearby.  Ironically, they were making a children’s playground, spreading wood chips and such–perhaps that was that her wood they were using?  But why?Workers at the school

I met this tree last winter when I was measuring old white pines around my neighborhood, after I discovered that our white pine was definitely over 100 years old, and perhaps even 160 years, according to her circumference.  At that time, I was also mourning all the cut pines for the construction of the new elementary school.  I found this pine with a yellow tape around her trunk.  She was one hundred and two inches in circumference, just like the white pine in our yard. That is when I knew she was one of the grandmother trees.  I made an inquiry on the school’s Facebook page, but the person who responded didn’t know about the situation of the tree.

And now the white pine is gone.  I went to the place where she had stood, and expressed my sadness, and I did the best I could to honor her.  I counted her rings, making small markings after each 25.  (You can see those marks if you look very closely at the photo above.)  I got to 100, and then the outer rings were too difficult to see clearly–but I guess there were at least 20 more–so 120 years old?  Maybe even 130?  That would mean she was likely a small sapling in the year 1897 when both of my grandmothers were born.  She observed a century of animal and human life from her vantage point above the brook.

People in U.S. society are still thinking of trees merely as resources for our needs and wants.  But we have to begin opening our minds to the idea that the trees have their own lives, their own being-ness.  Scholars are learning that the forest is a living community of trees and other plants and animals and fungi, all interconnected in a network underground, supporting each other and all of life.

Recently, I had a chance to read The Overstory by Richard Powers.  The novel tells the story of several people, all with some significant connection to a tree or trees, who come together to protect old growth forests in the northwest United States.  Powers borrows from actual science and activism in telling his fictionalized version.  I especially loved the character of the woman botanist whose research suggested that trees were communicating and caring for each other. Because of that hypothesis, she lost all her funding and academic connections.  Eventually she found her way into work as a forest ranger, until decades later when other scientists caught up with her insights.  Two other characters spend a year living in one of the oldest redwoods, to try to protect it from the logging company.

Of course, the forest between the Rowe School (formerly Hall School) and Capisic Brook is already badly degraded. It is not old growth or pristine.  It is encroached upon by invasive plants and runoff pollutants. But it is still a living system, a wetland, a wild community in the midst of city streets and buildings.  And so I walk along its path, I cherish it, I pick up litter. I try to bear witness.

Capisic Brook Forest

The Lottery

fallen-needles.jpgI had almost forgotten about the incredible doom of the draft lottery of 1969 and the years following.  But recently, I happened upon two fictional accounts of lives being undone by this lottery, and it all came back to me.  One came in the television drama This Is Us, in an episode about the back story of Jack’s time in Vietnam. (Spoiler alert!) Jack and his younger brother Nicky are at a bar on December 1, 1969, waiting to see what birthdays will be chosen for the draft call-ups. Nicky is portrayed as a gentle, glasses-wearing kid, not tough, not cut out to fight. Jack is his protector. Nicky’s birthday, October 18th, is chosen as number 5, which means he is sure to be inducted. Their dad tells him only, “Make me proud.”  Jack and Nicky consider options, maybe Canada, but Nicky succumbs to the pressure and joins up.  We learn that Jack himself had had a deferment because of a rapid heartbeat condition.  But when Nicky writes from Vietnam that he has gotten himself into trouble, Jack finds a way to enlist, so he can watch over his brother.

I had almost forgotten about the lottery.  The feeling of foreboding, its random terrors.  My own age peers were affected by the lottery of February 2, 1972.  We were freshman in college, then, and my male friends would have received college deferments, but if they dropped out, or when they graduated, they would once again be vulnerable to being called up.  My friend Tom’s birthday was September 16th. He was sorting out what options he might have as a conscientious objector to the war.  When his number was above 200, we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Before watching that episode of This Is Us, I had been reading the novel, The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman.  She introduces us to a family of young witches: two sisters, Franny and Jet, and their younger brother, Vincent.  Their history included an ancestor tried for witchcraft back in the 1600s in Massachusetts, and continuing suspicion towards their magical family.  Vincent is an artist, a singer, and a young playboy, though he eventually comes out as gay and finds true love with a man.  He has eerily known for years that he faced doom: it comes in the form of the number 1 pick in the draft lottery of 1969. His birthday is September 14th.  (The actual number 1)  The family is devastated and knows he cannot serve in the military–a witch must “harm none” lest it come back three-fold.  They try to figure out a way for him to escape, but ultimately it means that he is forever cut off from his family.

Hoffman compares the lottery to the witch hunts of earlier times, and writes the most haunting description of its effects.  Her words stirred that memory in me of our fear and our relief, of the randomness of horror cast upon the lives of young men and those who loved them. How we were divided into the lucky and unlucky. How we almost took it for granted.

It came on the wind, the way wicked things must, for they are most often weighted down with spite and haven’t the strength to lift themselves.  On the first day of December 1969, the lottery was held.  Men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six would be drafted to fight in Vietnam according to their birthdates. Lives were interrupted and fortunes were exchanged. A cold drizzle hung down and flurries of snow fell in swirls. There were no stones thrown or drownings, no pillories or burnings. Those chosen were computerized, their fates picked at random.

Life went on in spite of the lottery: traffic headed down Broadway, men and women showed up for work, children went to play. The world breathed and sighed and people fell in love and got married and fell out of love and never spoke to one another again. Still the numbers drawn had the weight of ruin and sorrow; they turned young men old in an instant. A breath in and a man was chosen to walk on a path he’d never expected to take. A breath out and he must make the decision of a lifetime.  Some would leave the country, some went to jail, some were ready to take up arms and die for the country they loved despite the heartbreak of leaving families and friends.  All were torn apart.  It was said that fate could not be altered, except by one thing, and that was war.

After Vincent watches the lottery, he gets drunk, and is brought home by two veterans, who “pitied him the war of his time. Theirs had been terrible, but it had also been just and worth fighting.”  From Vietnam onward, I believe that none of the wars fought by our country have been just or worth fighting.  In each war, so many were wounded, so many broken in body or spirit.  And always, some resisted.  So strange to recall these old tragedies that linger beneath the surface of so many new tragedies.  And as always, some resist.

Why I No Longer Support Leonard Peltier

For many years, I supported the campaign to free American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who had been convicted, many said wrongly, of the death of two federal agents in a shoot out on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Even Amnesty International signed on to his case.  But after moving to Maine, I learned more about the murder of Annie Mae Pictou Aquash, and I began to have reservations.  I stopped my support, but didn’t really know how to speak about it.

Yesterday, via my friend Sherri Mitchell’s Facebook feed, I started to listen to a live feed of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls that was taking place in Montreal. Denise Pictou Maloney was testifying about the death of her mother Annie Mae.  I listened for an hour and a half, and then after she had completed, I went back to hear what I had missed at the beginning of the tape.

Anna_Mae_Pictou-AquashAnnie Mae was a leader in the American Indian Movement, originally from the Mi’kmaq First Nation at Indian Brook Reserve in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia.  I first learned about Annie Mae in the song by Buffy St. Marie, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, in which she sang,

My girlfriend Annie Mae talked about uranium
Her head was filled with bullets and her body dumped
The FBI cut off her hands and told us she’d died of exposure

The implication, the narrative, the story so many of us believed for many years, was that she was killed by the FBI.  But in fact, the truth later came out that she was killed by other AIM members.  In 2004 and 2010,  Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham were convicted of her kidnapping and murder.  They also implicated AIM leadership in her death, though no one was ever charged.  You can find out a lot more if you listen to the tape of Denise’s testimony, or even if you look up Annie Mae on Wikipedia.

Hearing the pain in Denise’s voice moved me to want to speak publicly this time.  It feels risky to do so, because, as a white person who tries to be an ally, a co-conspirator, with Indigenous people, I know that I will always know too little about all of this.  I do know that the FBI tried to sow dissension in the ranks of activist movements, especially those of Indigenous people and people of color.  This included planting informants within the movements, and also casting suspicion on dedicated activists to cause others to suspect that they might be informants.  This is one theory about the motive for killing Annie Mae.  Another theory claims she was challenging AIM leaders on their behavior, or that she had heard Leonard brag about killing the agents.  I don’t know the answers to that.

But I want to speak today, despite not knowing all the answers, because I have in the past spoken in support of Leonard Peltier.  Denise talked about how painful it has been for their family, every time there is more public support for Leonard.  So I want to interrupt my own participation in that process, (which most lately has been through my silence), and let my friends and colleagues know that I can no longer support Leonard Peltier’s campaign for release from prison.  And I also want to acknowledge how difficult a journey we make when we intend to be allies or co-conspirators.  We often make mistakes and get it wrong.  But that does not make it less worthwhile to try, to show up for what is right.

What I carry away with me today is sadness and anger.  Sadness and anger for the fall of heroes–the leaders we wanted to be better than they were, because the cause they fought for was so important.  Sadness and anger for the children and family and friends of Annie Mae, who have waited so long for the world to know the real story, and often feel as if their voices are not welcome because the truth interrupts the stories people want to believe.  Sadness and anger that in my ignorance as an outsider, I was drawn in to the narrative, and thus contributed to their sorrow.  Sadness and anger at the insidious complexity of colonization and oppression, and the brokenness within all of us left in its wake.

 

River of Rock

river of rock

Yesterday, with the ice and snow thawing, I ventured all the way down the path by the brook and discovered that the way was blocked by this new river of rock. There used to be a small wooden bridge over a small drainage ditch that led down to the brook, but now there was this huge thing.  And an orange mesh barrier blocking the way on both sides.

Today I went back and discovered that someone (a dirt bike?) had pushed the mesh barrier down, so I stepped over the mesh too.  I walked across the rocks consciously imagining that the path will be restored with a new little bridge.  Don’t our feet have some sort of magic to trace the energy of our intentions, and create or preserve the trail we want to walk on?  As poet Antonio Machado wrote, “Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”

So perhaps all of us who walk or ride this small path are preserving it by our collective energy, by our love and attention, and by moving through barriers. Perhaps there is a lesson in this.  Thank you kindred travelers.

mesh down

 

Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island

Margy and I are packing up this morning to drive north for a special ceremony.  It has been difficult to pull everything together.  This packing, the 2-3 hour drive, finding the strength it requires to travel–all of this is really a part of the ceremony.  We bring our complete selves, with our own wounds and brokenness, our own love for the earth.  We ask that our participation may be a blessing.  Send us your blessings too.  It is quite an amazing gathering and hundreds of people from around the world will be together from July 14-17. Here is the call and description from the event page posted by Sherri Mitchell:

Prophecy of the Eastern Gate

Our ancestors tell us that the Eastern Gate is where we will gather to begin the healing of this land. It is here in the East where first contact was made between the Native peoples and the newcomers. It is here that the first blood was spilled between our people, and our history of violence began. So, it is here on this same land that the healing must begin.

The Wabanaki, the people of the first light, are the keepers of the Eastern Door. We are the first peoples to greet Kihsus, the Sun, each morning, and Nipawset, the Moon, each evening. Now, we open our hearts and our homes to greet all of you, so that together we may begin to heal the wounds of Turtle Island and set a new path forward for all life.

This ceremony will be a coming together of people from all over the world, to acknowledge the common wound that we all carry from our shared history of violence. No matter where we come from, we all carry the wounds of historical trauma within us. Whether we were the victims, the perpetrators, or the witness to that violence, that wound is imprinted on our spirits. Now, the time has come for us to acknowledge that wound, together, so that we can heal it and begin working together to heal Mother Earth.

Structure of Ceremony
The first day will be for healing the wounds carried within the hearts and minds of the people. The second day will be for healing the wounds of Mother Earth. And, the third day will be for healing the energetic and spiritual imprint of that wound that lays over the Earth.

The ceremonies will be conducted by spiritual elders from Indigenous communities around the world, and by spiritual leaders from other traditions. We will be gathering on healing ground, along the Penawahpskek (Penobscot) River, at Nibezun in Passadumkeag, Maine.

People from every corner of the world, and from all walks of life are welcome. We ask that you come with a good heart, and good mind, and carry the intention of healing with you.