Many mornings I start my day with a mind-clearing walk with my partner, up the road from his home of 40 years. We walk for 15 – 30 minutes before getting to the day. The most basic and quick of these weekday walks is to two mature oaks still standing at a curve in the road about a half mile up even after the 2018 Camp Fire burned much of this canyon last year about this time.
Perhaps 10 feet apart, and easily 50 feet high, maybe 200 years old, their canopies have met now and so too must have their root systems below ground, intermingling with their shared community of fungi, bacteria, mycorrhizae, and minerals. All around their bases are a skirting hedge of native buckeyes whose structural silvery branches stand out boldly this time of year, fully dormant right now as they have co-evolved to be after our long, hot dry summer. They will begin to form buds – swelling out in crumpled and vivid green fleur-de-lis forms come the winter rains. They are interplanted with late summer dry native and non-native grasses and the ghostlike skeletons of last spring’s native bulb stems and seed heads.
Scientists from around the world have been reporting more and more evidence this past decade documenting the intelligence of plants, their ability to communicate to one another, their ability to tend to one another. Dr. Rick Karban ecologist and entomologist at the University of California, Davis began as early as 2014 reporting on his findings that injured plants or plants under attack from disease or pests communicate this information to their larger community of plants, who in turn begin putting up defensive protections in advance of the injury or attack reaching them.
Dr. Suzanne Simard and her lab in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia, Canada has articulated an elegant community-of-care within the forests she is studying wherein plants communicate warnings, but also when there is a surfeit of resources in one area they are distributed back into the whole; where trees tend to their direct offspring with particular care, but they also tend to the whole of the forest simultaneously. Large trees with deep tap roots and epic dendritic root systems – the mirror image of surface watersheds flowing overland, the mirror image of the bronchi in our human lungs - bring ground water up to their own mid-level and surface level roots and in so doing make this water available to some degree to smaller, less deeply rooted plants around them in dry periods.
Here in Northern California initial small scale studies are showing the efficacy of many riparia plants and soil fungi for removing the heavy metals from the watershed post Camp Fire, making use of what might be toxic to others.
Some of the Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants - and changing the world in general while they're at it!
From the frontispiece of The Earth in Her Hands
The two trees on our walk with their circle of buckeyes, grasses, and geophytic bulbs, are blue oaks (Quercus douglasii) or blue-valley oak (Quercus lobata) crosses or cross-backs. They’re endemic to this part of the world and have co-evolved with the weather, the soil, the climatic duality of heavy rains, prolonged droughts, and intermittent fires. Each of these species has their distinct ranges, but they overlap in community based on geologic, hydrologic and topographic circumstances.
I think of the two trees, how they are interconnected and inter-dependent – how their position relative to the small slope, the sun coming up and the sun going down, their natural shapes and strengths and weaknesses have in fact been a constant forming/informing dance and conversation back and forth. Their roots, their crowns, the very air they take in, the soil they inhabit, their interactions with the buckeyes and grasses and bulbs all around them have, to some extent, formed who they are in a formula of the genetics they started out with crossed with their circumstances and the personalities of the land and plants around them. They have co-evolved together. They have grown each other into what they now are.
They are situated on this old settler and mining dirt road that is situated on the unceded homelands of the Mechoopda Maidu people and likely overlays the pathways of both wildlife and these Indigenous peoples here long before the dirt road and the settling/mining newcomers, and the non-native grasses. The dirt road mirrors the curve and bend of the creek, which has in turn forged the very shape of this little canyon – the slope of its sides, the cut of its rock formations. The line and force of the creek determined the topography of the canyon and the geology exposed, which in turn determined what plants would thrive where, how fire would move through the space, and then how the plant community would regenerate in its wake. These same lines determined where people chose the sites on which they would camp, fish, hunt, gather, homestead, and rebuild again and again.
Just as the two trees have directly informed the shape of the other, so too the creek and canyon have formed each other and informed the shape of the road and all of these have informed and formed the shape of the people who live there, and on and on: We grow each other. We are who we have grown one another to be for better or worse for eons – collaboratively or competitively – through defense, shared resources, and communication - of infinite (and many unknown but still absorbed and understood) varieties.
On my walk this morning, picking up and admiring the varying colors of the autumn oak leaves and acorns, two mental threads intertwine, crossing and crossing back with one another. The first is my college-age daughter arriving home for the break and expressing this: “In elementary school we learned about a Thanksgiving at which the pilgrims were saved by the generosity of the Indians sharing the game they hunted, and the corn, beans, and squash they grew. By high school the narrative was about Cowboys and Indians, Manifest Destiny, and Westward Expansion, and in college it’s clear now that it was genocide.”
Hers - and all of ours - is a difficult and evolving understanding of the problematic history of the Thanksgiving holiday and our collective culture in myriad ways as we look to the winter holidays and the end of this decade.
For many, especially Indigenous, Hispanic, and Black and other brown communities, the Thanksgiving holiday just past and the religious winter holidays in front of us have profound pain and suffering embedded within them for their families, histories, legacies. An online acquaintance whom I admire, Seeding Sovereignty, refers to the day as Truthsgiving, and works to shine a light on the razor sharp contradictions within the day. There is no going back and fixing these, there is no way around the bitterness of this past, but there is going forward acknowledging these truths and making different choices on the other side of now so that some do not give thanks blindly to the detriment of the rest.
My friend – despite all evidence that marriage stands only a 50-50 chance, and that children going forward will live in a very different world born of climate crisis, greed, and corruption – wants to try her hand at making a shared life anyway. The second thread is a younger friend who has recently asked me to be the officiant at her and her partner’s upcoming wedding.
Somehow in this season that composts the waste and leftovers from a year of growth into pure nutritional gold, these conflicting truths of life intermingle.
I want to offer this to my daughter, as a blessing or a spell to ward off crippling skepticism and despair; I want to offer this to my young friend who has the brave, brazen audacity to believe in the promises and power of a union forged with another: you are choosing to cultivate a space with others, you are choosing to seed the future, you will grow each other from here on out.
You will grow one another in how you respond to success and to grief, do you share the surfeit of resources, do you help carry surfeit of struggle?
You will grow each other in how you respond to reaching sharp rocks that might lay between you as you grow nearer to one another: do you grow over and around them or do you grow away from one another as a result of them?
You will grow one another in what and whom you nurture around you - at your outer edges and even in closest proximity.
You will shape others in how you choose to spend your time at work, at play, at rest.
You will grow each other in how you do the dishes, fold the laundry, and clean up vomit or shit from a sick dog or child or each other in the middle of the night.
You will grow each other in the way you wake each morning and look into the others’ eyes.
Relationship – between two trees, two married people, a mother and daughter, at a holiday table, in a healthy forest, an impeachment hearing, in a gardening podcast and community - is a conscious and unconscious call and response that will result in who we will one day be – tomorrow, next year, in 60 years. It is mundane, magnificent, tender, and devastatingly brutal. It is co-evolutionary.
Love has a powerful co-evolutionary nature, as do its opposites – disdain, disregard, neglect, apathy, ignorance. Each choice we make all along each tiny branching of time and space, grows us all.
We grow each other - for better and worse. Now into the heart of this last holiday season of this decade, in this country, I’m thankful we’re at liberty to choose the world we want to grow. Together. Evolving.
and the Cultivating Place Team
PS: I will be the speaker at the December 11th meeting of the Western Horticultural Society, for more info on this and events coming up in January as well, make sure to check the CP EVENTS page.
LINKS to November 2019 CULTIVATING PLACE PROGRAMS
(just click the live link that is the green title of each program to get to the audio file and listen in....)
11/28/19: Unabashed Gratitude, Delight & Structures of Care, with poet & gardener Ross Gay
11/21/19: Talking About A Revolution, Foodscape Revolution with Brie Arthur
11/14/19: All the Herbs, with plantswoman Sue Goetz
11/7/19: Firescaping with Butte County Fire Safe Council & author, Doug Kent
My new book - being published March 3, 2020 in celebration of Women's History Month is AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER:
Signed from my website before January 15th: cultivatingplace.com/books,
And anytime: at IndieBound: indiebound.org; Barnes & Noble: barnesandnoble.com; or Amazon: Amazon.com.
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