Rewilding and decolonizing in the garden
On native plants
Being naturalized to a place means to live as if if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.
—Robin Wall Kimmerer, "In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place," Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants
For the most recent Way of the Rose novena, I wrote the following.
My devotion is to the Wild Mother, the Snake Mothers, the syncretic, mestiza Mothers. My devotion has been Hers/Theirs since long before I knew what to call Her. My devotion is Theirs even though I am an invasive species here, on what we call North America, my people immigrants from north and central Europe. My devotion is to the land I live on, for how could it be otherwise? This land whispered lullabies to me in my cradle. This land has nourished me my whole life with its food and water. This land has welcomed me and held me even as we human animals have tried to live abstracted from the earth, harming Her and us.
Thanks for reading The Enthusiast! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
[The writer and scientist] Robin Wall Kimmerer—whose people are native to this land, to the places that have nurtured me for most of my life, what we call Michigan (from michigami, "large lake") and New York—speaks to those of us who are not native about how we can become naturalized, how we can become good neighbors to the original inhabitants of this land.
One act of devotion that I have undertaken is to remove invasive plant species from the small patch of land that I live on and plant native species instead. Native plants support the insect life, local pollinators, and local wildlife that are otherwise disappearing. They support the soil and don’t hog resources for themselves. They live in gentle and dynamic harmony with other local beings. They live right-sized lives, which makes them good models and companions for we blundering hubristic humans.
I believe a Great Rewilding is necessary for human life on earth to continue. I think that settlers and colonialists are especially obligated to this work. A source of inspiration for me is the work of the Irish landscaper Mary Reynolds, who teaches how we can make the land around us an “ark,” a sanctuary for the survival of local wildlife. In addition to the intentional biblical reference, “ark” stands for “acts of restorative kindness” to the earth, in which we interfere as little as possible, but do remove invasive species of plants and restore natives so that diversity of local plant and animal life may thrive.
I’ve been working in my garden every spare minute of the last few weeks, pruning, weeding, mulching, building paths from old Ithaca brick, and planting. I am converting the land around my house (about an eighth of an acre; I live downtown) into a haven for wildlife, in particular birds, insects, butterflies, snakes, opossums, squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, the occasional lost deer, and even skunks (admittedly not my favorite). That sounds grand, doesn’t it? “A haven for wildlife.” What I mean is, I’m planting as many native species of plants as I can while clearing out invasive species.
Sometimes I’m surprised at how long it takes me to learn something. Both Lucian, who is 14, and I are preparing spring recital pieces, his for cello and mine for piano. I’ve worked diligently to memorize my piece; it has taken me about a month, and I’m almost there. He memorized his piece in three days. I am much more aware of the process of memorization and how it deepens my understanding of the piece of music than I was when I was a teenager, because I must attend to it with such deliberation. I am rueful about my middle-aged brain, but I also appreciate how learning happens in this phase of life.
I’ve been writing for most of my life, but it was just this year that I learned that writing retreats are how books get written. I had to have the experience of a retreat in order to learn that. It’s not just the quiet and lack of distraction of the retreat—though it certainly is that—but also acting as if one’s creative work is important enough to take time away from family and all responsibilities except responsibility to the work.
I’ve gardened on and off throughout my adult life, feeling how it connects me to my mom, who loved all things garden, and to my farming ancestors. But this year, for whatever reason, I’ve grokked the essential connection between native plants and habitat preservation. Plants and animals coevolved within their ecosystems. When we threaten one, however unintentionally, we endanger the other. And we live in a time of mass extinction. What we choose to plant in our yards and gardens and parks matters.
Turf grass—our lawns and parks and golf courses—is one of the worst offenders. It covers more than 40 million acres in the United States. It requires more irrigation than any other crop we plant. It is a monoculture on which we spray millions of pounds of pesticides each year.1 And it supports very little life.
Habitat loss is as big a threat to life on earth as climate collapse, and the two are mutually reinforcing. I usually think of habitat loss in terms of deforestation and melting polar ice, pollution and industrial development. (All important human-made problems that humans can help heal.) But introducing non-native plants to our environment, especially if those plants are invasive and escape from our human landscapes into the wild, where they overrun and crowd out our native species of plants, is also an enormous problem. I called my friend Katja Poveda, Cornell biologist and entomologist, to ask her about the biggest threats to insect life. As you might expect, pesticides like glyphosate are a big problem, as is monocrop agriculture. She tells me that the science is still out on whether invasive plant species are decreasing insect populations in general, since many of those plants still provide food and shelter. But the decline in insects that require specific plants, as the monarch butterfly requires milkweed, is traceable to the dwindling populations of those plants. (One gorgeous story about monarchs and how a woman without many prospects becomes a scientist is Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior.)
The horticulture industry is responsible for 85% of non-native plants introduced into the United States. When our woods and parks and yards are invaded by garlic mustard, lesser and greater celandine, vincas, Japanese knotwood, English ivy, goutweed, multiflora rose, Norway maple, bamboo, and non-native honeysuckle, as they are in the northeast U.S. where I live, then our native plants become fewer and fewer. With loss of plant life comes loss of habitat for many species of animals. We risk creating food deserts for wildlife by planting invasive and non-native plants.
This is one of those problems that requires solutions at a policy level but also responds to efforts at a local, community, and individual level. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in homes with yards (or with acreage) can remove invasive plants and replace them with native plants.
Just last week I learned that there is a rose native to the northeastern United States up into Canada. It is Rosa palustris, or swamp rose, and as the name suggests it thrives in boggy places. The land I live on—like, my very yard—was once swamp. The swamp was filled in over time to form the flats of Ithaca. The Indigenous people of this place call themselves the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' (translated into English as “Cayuga”), which means “people of the Great Swamp.” To me this speaks to the importance of those liminal spaces teeming with life, the marshes, bogs, and wetlands, so often not honored or protected by (settler) human inhabitants. When Perdita Finn asked us to name for ourselves the Holy Mother who is local to where we live, I immediately thought of Our Lady of the Great Swamp. I appreciate the juxtaposition of “Our Lady” (in the church’s telling, she is pure and obedient, demure) with a swamp. A swamp is more like my idea of divinity than a virgin or a sky god.
The rose is Mary's traditional flower. In the Herbcrafter's Tarot by Joanna Powell Colbert and Latisha Guthrie, the Empress is rose. Flower garlands have been woven for the Holy Mother since before Christianity, and her traditional garlanded prayers are called rosaries. I could not have been more delighted to learn that Our Lady of the Great Swamp has her own rose—of course She does!—and that is the swamp rose, the rose that thrives in my local ecosystem.2
I bought a Rosa palustris plant from my friend Bradford Smith, who has a permaculture farm at our local ecovillage, and I’ve planted it next to the comfrey and my herb wheel.
My family is hooked on “Ted Lasso,” though we’ve been largely disappointed with the third season. The depictions of masculinity alone, with my son watching next to me, are worth the price of an Apple TV subscription. I saw a comment in my Facebook feed—I’m sorry that I didn’t note who said it—from an African American woman saying that she had never seen such compassionate portrayals of African men, noting in particular the sweet relationship between Sam Obisanya and his dad. It really is beautiful.
This episode of The Emerald podcast, called “Animism is Normative Consciousness” is fantastic.
I’ve been relishing episodes of Maintenance Phase, a super-smart and hilarious takedown of all things diet culture and healthism. I find that to counter the poisoning of diet culture, I need to surround myself with media like this. It is laugh-out-loud funny and will challenge the way you think.
Odyssey Choir at Opus Ithaca School of Music gave our spring concert on May 1. You can see video of it here. To misquote Dani Rojas, music is life.
David went to South Korea, and all I got was this fantastic sunscreen, from Beauty of Joseon (also, mentioned in my last newsletter). It’s my absolute favorite for my very sensitive skin. Now they’ve introduced a ginseng sun serum, which I’d love to try. I’m still looking for the perfect body sunscreen that combines invisibility, a light or dry texture, and NO SCENT. I got one from Neutrogena that satisfies the first two criteria, but the scent is horrible.
A trip to Ann Arbor in April meant a visit to my favorite bookstore, Literati. Y’all, the upstairs cafe closed during the pandemic, and that makes me sad. No more reading and sipping, or writing at a cramped table. I stocked up on Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s early books, now in reprint. I intend to be a completist, both in reading and book ownership. Right now I’m in the middle of Gods of Jade and Shadow, a fairy tale inspired by Mayan folklore, with a strong teenage female lead. She just tells such a ripping good story.
I reposted this meme on Facebook.
And then I suggested a Forest Hag Summer playlist. Last summer I made a playlist to honor Fed Girl Summer, featuring artists like Lizzo, Beyoncé, and Shakira, as well as a song called “I Eat Boys Like You for Breakfast” by Ida Maria. In the spirit of Forest Hag Summer, please send song suggestions.
Mary Lawson, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing A Backyard Habitat for Wildlife (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2017).
Those of you who have known me since I was young may recall that my first community theater role was as a shapeshifting swamp creature in “Wiley and The Hairy Man” at Circle Theater in Grand Rapids, MI. That amazing introduction to theater as a performer, under the direction of the inventive, creative, and kind Robin Nott, has even more meaning and resonance for me now.