To Be of Use

Chipmunk drinking at the pond

Yesterday morning, I was sitting next to the pond, writing in my journal. After I’d been there, and quiet for a long time, this chipmunk approached the other side of the pond, climbed down the rocks and took long drinks of water. After a couple minutes, it quickly climbed back up the rocks and ran back into the field behind.

If you’ve been following my posts recently, you know that I’ve been dealing with chronic illness causing me to have much less energy this summer. So my relationship with the garden has changed. It has been less purposeful and project oriented, and more, “Let’s see what the yard wants to do this season.” To listen more, to do less, to observe more, to try less–and I’ve learned so much, actually.

It’s true that we had already done a lot to shape the yard–we planted many fruit trees and bushes, let wildflowers grow, planted perennials, pulled invasives, and created the pond last year. Some of the plants that were in the pond didn’t survive the winter, and I did add a few more this spring. But it wasn’t enough to prevent algae from flourishing. So periodically, I get inspired to pull out as much as I can. But I’ve also noticed that bees love to perch on the algae, to get a drink of water presumably. (There is always enough algae left for them.) It gives me gratitude to know that this pond, imperfect though it is, has been of use to these creatures in a drought-burdened summer.

Bees on green algae

Lately, my old nemesis the squirrel has come back to start eating peaches. But since I was doing so much less to nurture the peach tree–less holistic sprays, less thinning of peaches, and so on–and since I had somewhat resigned myself to having no peaches after last year, I haven’t been stressed out about that. And the squirrel or squirrels seem more mellow as well. The peaches are actually very crowded together, and every couple days, I twist off a few tightly squeezed ones, even though they are not ripe yet, to make room for the others to grow bigger. I’ve put a few on window sills in the house to see if they will ripen. I tell myself the squirrel is also thinning the peaches. We are collaborators, rather than enemies. Who knows, maybe there will be enough for all of us?

Squirrel sitting on a branch in the peach tree nibbling on a green peach.

In a world with so many horrors that I can do nothing to stop, or even to protest, I am grateful to be of use to these small companions who share our back yard with us.

[And thanks to Marge Piercy‘s poem, To Be of Use, for its evocative and helpful title.]

Learning Passamaquoddy as a Non-Native

Photo: Snow covered tree at dawn.

What a beautiful dawn the other day, all the branches coated with light snowy adornment! I’ve been feeling grateful these days. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how lucky I have been to study the Passamaquoddy language with Roger Paul during the last 3 1/2 years. I recently saw an article published a few years ago, by Taté Walker, “3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Learning an Indigenous Language as a Non-Native.” It got me reflecting about the questions, some of which I had already considered when I began. #1 Why am I learning this language? #2 How will I center tribal perspectives as I learn this language? #3 How will I handle criticism from Indigenous people? Today, I also have a fourth question which I will explore.

I looked back to my earlier posts to remember my thoughts about why I was learning this language. I had asked permission from the teacher, and also from my Wabanaki friend who was going to take the class, and both had been very welcoming. Roger has talked about how his elders had decided it was time to share the language with others beyond the community. On a very practical level, it was hoped that by increasing the number of registrations, the class was more likely to be offered at USM, so more available to Wabanaki students who wanted to learn.

On a deeper level, I wrote that it was a way to begin to decolonize my mind, “I want to think differently”–Nkoti piluwitahas. I also had the thought that, ideally, any of us who came to live in Wabanaki territory should learn the original language of this land, as respectful visitors. Also, years ago, an Indigenous woman had said, “If you really want to understand our spirituality, you must learn our language.” It stayed in my mind though I can’t remember now who it was who said it. (This was during the time I was working on the issue of cultural appropriation by white people of Indigenous spiritualities.)

Today, thinking about it again, I know I had the privilege of retiring from work right at the time the class began, and there was a program for seniors to enroll in university classes for free. Everything came together so easily. My heart led me into it and the door opened. I think perhaps, too, though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a way to connect to my own Innu ancestors.

During the process of taking these classes, I have learned so much about the perspectives and history of Wabanaki people. I have learned how few people are now fluent in the language, because of forced assimilation, and because of the terror of the boarding schools and day schools, where children were punished for speaking their language. I have learned that for me to learn the language is a privilege that many Wabanaki people do not have, if only because they are busy trying to survive in the English-speaking world. I understand that if I were to speak the language in most contexts, it might be a painful trigger for Native people who carry so much trauma about the loss of their language. So mostly, I haven’t tried to speak it except in our class contexts. And though I am beginning to understand more than I could have imagined, I am humbled too by how difficult it is for me to speak any of it, except for carefully constructed dialogues. I am truly still a beginner.

But the question closest to my heart these days is this: Since I have been granted this gift of learning the Passamaquoddy language, how can I give back? From this course, I’ve learned gratitude and the importance of reciprocity: so what is my responsibility now, as the recipient of such a gift of knowledge? Bearing in mind that I’m not training to be a professional teacher, and I have so little energy anyway because of chronic illness. I have done some activities in solidarity to Wabanaki concerns–but these are not related to language. I don’t have an answer right now. But I am holding this question closely. How can I give back? What is my responsibility in light of the gift of this knowledge? It may be that by holding the question, an answer will be revealed.

Winter Solstice Dawn

Photo: Solstice dawn seen through trees in our town.

After the longest night, the shortest day dawns with beauty in the sky, and draws me outside into the cold and colors of morning. Snow is covering the ground at last, which has brightened up these last few dark days. Margy and I are learning to play backgammon for holiday fun during the isolation of COVID. After our first full game, we ate a Solstice Eve celebration dinner last night. Traditionally pork is eaten at this season in honor of the European goddess Freya. Later, we pulled out runes for a message for this turning of the seasons. My rune was Gebo, the rune for giving and receiving, for love and partnership.

As the light returns, and the days lengthen, may our human hearts turn toward generosity and compassion, in reciprocity with all of the beings with whom we share this planet.

Garden Lessons

Today is the Celtic celebration of Lammas, the early grain harvest festival. I’ve always connected it to the early corn harvest–the time to start eating local corn on the cob in the places I have lived. Our little group that celebrates earth rituals together hasn’t met since COVID, and I feel sad not to see them today. But this morning I was able to bring some zucchini and kale to the Resilience Hub, where a volunteer was collecting produce from gardeners to share with immigrant families in the Portland area. That truly felt like the best way to celebrate this holiday–sharing the surplus of our own harvest for those who need it, in the spirit of reciprocity.

Myke behind the zucchini

Myke standing behind the hugelkultur zucchini! Photo by Margy Dowzer

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather overwhelmed by the gardening endeavor. Take note of my photo behind the hugelkultur zucchini–you almost can’t see me at all. There is watering to do each morning, and I’m harvesting raspberries, the last of the snap peas, chives, zucchini, and kale. Oh–and one cucumber so far.  I learned how to freeze zoodles (zucchini noodles) so that we can save some for the future. I am also freezing most of the raspberries and chives. So all that is wonderful, but still a lot of work.

Added to that, however, has been discovering that each new plant I add to the garden seems to come with its own ecosystem of insect pests and diseases. I was used to Japanese beetles, and shaking them from the leaves of trees into soapy water. I was used to picking off cabbage worms from the kale and squishing them. But then I learned about the squash bug and the squash vine borer. I don’t see any significant damage yet on the zucchini plants, but I’ve seen the bright red and black flying parent of the grubs that can burrow into the stems. This morning, there were some zucchini leaves with powdery mildew. Another yuck.

Now we also seem to have grasshoppers eating the carrot tops and the kale–except for a new variety of kale that I got from a friend, which is too prickly for my taste. (That is ironically maddening! Why don’t you eat that one, grasshoppers?) I did some research and if I wanted I could try garlic spray, or flour on the leaves. But right now I’m just hoping they don’t eat enough to wipe out all the plants. Also, I put more bird seed in the feeder in hopes that some of those birds might also eat grasshoppers.  But there is so much to know, and so many possible pitfalls, even in the context of our organic permaculture polyculture systems.

So like I said, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all of it lately. I was thinking back to my original intention with this land–I wanted to restore our mutually beneficial connection to the earth, via this small piece of the earth we are lucky to live upon. And what I am learning is that it is not so easy–I’ve lost so much of the knowledge of plants and ecosystems that my ancestors might have had in the places they called home. I am sure there are long-time gardeners who find a way to learn what they need from the practice of gardening–but I am coming to it late in life, and I can feel that it could take a whole lifetime to become adept at working with ecosystems to nurture wholeness and balance.

It’s not all flowers and romance, this relationship with earth. It’s crabgrass and ticks and mosquitos and so many unknown insects, (beneficial or destructive?), not to mention diseases, viruses, bacteria.  Some aspects of earth are not so easy to love. It’s invasive species and drought and climate change. It’s beyond what I can learn and I’m discovering the limits of my capacity.  So I come to the garden like a prayer: sometimes with awe, sometimes with gratitude, but often with a cry for help, often with a deep painful longing for all that has been lost, often with loneliness. If I can pay close enough attention, finally, I come to the garden with surrender, surrender to this larger dance of life of which I am only a very small movement.

The Ongoing Struggle

I learned another new word in Passamaquoddy:  Mocahantuwok, which means wicked devils. I am not sure if the word is used in a friendly teasing way, or in a serious condemning way. But in a serious way, I have been thinking about using it for certain people in Washington DC who are bent on undermining the processes and hopes of democracy in this country.  You can guess who I mean.

It is not the worst time in our country’s history.  That might have to be the initial conquest of these lands, and the direct genocide of millions of Indigenous people.  (That oppression still continues of course, but perhaps in more indirect ways.)  Another contender for the worst time would be the 250 years of enslavement of captured African peoples. (That oppression also continues, also in more indirect ways.)  I don’t believe there was a golden age of American democracy, that we are now on the verge of losing.

But I do believe there was a dream of America that had something to do with democracy, cooperation, and reciprocity. I think about the poem of Black American, Langston Hughes, written in 1938.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

…Let America Be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed! This dream was not only dreamed in America either. In learning more about my ancestors in Europe, I was struck by the ongoing struggles between the forces of domination, empire, and greed and the forces of reciprocity, cooperation, and shared power.  For example, my East Frisian ancestors valued their freedom and resisted domination, resisted being forced into feudalism. Friesland actually means Free Land.

But those relational values were even more striking among my early Innu ancestors on this continent. I remember reading parts of the record that the Jesuits wrote about the Innu during early conquest times. How horrified the Jesuits were that the Innu people would only follow the lead of their leaders if they agreed with them. (Democracy!) How horrified they were that a man might agree to a contract, but if he went home and his wife disagreed, he thought he should be able to get out of that contract. (Power was meant to be shared!)

Those are the same values we are now struggling over, in Washington, and all over this country, once again and still. Will we create a society in which all people are included, in which power is reciprocal and we cooperate for the good of all? Or will some mocahantuwok create a society in which they dominate over others, accumulate as much as they can, and destroy the rest of the people and the world?

It is no easy struggle.  I don’t know how we achieve our goal.  But I know I choose to live by the values of reciprocity, cooperation, and democracy in every way possible, and I choose to align myself with others who share those values. Perhaps each time we do that, in all areas of our lives, we contribute some spark of energy that makes the dream more possible.

Sunrise

Winter dawn