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

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.

Bittersweet Basket Weaving

Bittersweet Ugly Basket

My first “ugly” bittersweet basket.

What does it mean to make a relationship with parts of the natural world that we ordinarily think of as trouble?  I am wrestling with this question as we wrestle with the bittersweet vines that surround our yard.  Asian Bittersweet is classified as an invasive species, because it takes over an area and can wipe out other species.  It is very hard to get rid of it.  This has provoked some places, including Falmouth, Maine, to plan to use horrible pesticides in its eradication–which seems to me an even worse problem–and a never ending one, because they admit that they won’t be able to ever completely eradicate it.

Some folks are taking a different approach however.  Yesterday, Margy and I attended a workshop led by Zack De La Rouda about weaving baskets with bittersweet vines.  I loved  Zack’s attitude–since we brought this plant here, then we need to find ways to deal with the consequences.  And with climate change and other pests threatening species like ash and willow, which have traditionally been used for baskets, we need to keep looking for options.  So he brought us into his experiments with making useful items with bittersweet. Which, as he said, is everywhere. The vines had been cut, dried, and then soaked in water for a couple days. I have to say it was not an easy material to work with–hard to bend and shape, at least for a beginner.  But Zack assured us that everyone has an ugly basket–when our first attempts to learn the skills result in less than usable outcomes.  So I took a pic of my ugly basket.

Another presentation in April got me started on this question.  Tao Orion, author of Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration spoke at the Resilience Hub.  We might think of getting rid of invasives as important to promoting a balanced eco-system.  But what she discovered is that in the professional world of land management, what usually happens first is a complete destruction of the “invaded” area with powerful pesticides.  She helped us to look beyond “the war” and explore other options for dealing with invasives.  For example, we can look at the function invasive plants are playing in the ecosystem where they have taken root, and address imbalances in the soil and other factors that may need attention.

Bittersweet shoots

Bittersweet vine shoots.

Orion was from the west coast, and didn’t specifically address bittersweet.  Margy started cutting off huge vine stems that are surrounding other tree trunks, to try to save those trees from choking.  But the vines are so resilient.  Tiny shoots start coming up in the lawn, from root networks spread beneath the soil. Non-pesticide ways to deal with them include pulling out what you can, cutting off what you can, and ongoing cutting, to keep the roots from getting the nourishment they need.  (Even people who use pesticides have to do all that, by the way.) In the final analysis, there is no way to completely eradicate them, so you have to learn to manage them.

On the plus side, bittersweet is a remarkable example of resilience.  They propagate by seeds, by roots spreading through the soil, and can re-grow from small root segments. You’ve got to admire that multi-functionality. And birds love the seeds in winter.  There are dozens of birds who live in the uncultivated area just west of our yard–which is overrun with bittersweet, as well as raspberries and blackberries and grape vines growing wild.

But on the other hand, I can’t help but compare it in my mind with the European peoples who invaded this continent, including my own ancestors from France and Scotland in Quebec, and my Germanic ancestors who came later–as immigrants being used to settle the west. Just like an invasive plant, the European invaders took over the landscape, wiped out other communities of people, and destroyed the balance of the eco-system.  On an even wider scale, modern human beings as a whole species have overrun our planet and are destroying our ecosystem.

So perhaps the most important lesson bittersweet might teach us is to look in the mirror, at our own invasions, and together we might learn about how to live within respectful boundaries with all of our siblings on this planet.