You have a reputation — a clique of stories chatters you back into being. The most popular one says that you were found in a clay ball on Menominee lands, dug up after 850 years by a group of students from my parents’ hometown, who brought you back to life in their university garden. A Diné writer tells us that the Miami people held you through centuries, sheltering you with their bodies, ceremonies, stories and silences as violence scraped their lands like glaciers or receding seas. Others say that Miami women cultivated you all along, for 2000 years, tucked safely into the folds of your presumed extinction. Then, when you were ready to resurge, they shared you, made other peoples your pollinators. You were not taken, discovered, or removed without your will. You were shared and shared yourself freely, circulating with intent.
I prefer, and desire, these latter stories. But some of the Grandmothers and Aunties like the first one. This is one of the bumps that jar our conversations, that make our meanings slide just shy of each other. I need to be kinder, they keep telling me, to my own people, to myself. I need to let myself be claimed by our violence, our intentions, our estrangement. Even if these are the conditions of our kinship.
I have become an uncertain surrogate of your seeds. J. gave them to me. She wanted me to grow you and share your seeds and fruits with people who will resurge with you, absorbing your pungent energy as they sit on blockades, walk shorelines or care for the land beneath the streets. You are an unexpected part of the medicine I went to gather and learn how to make for an Aunty moving through her final seasons. She was supposed to come up north with us – the trip was a parting gift to her. Instead, in her absence, J. showed me how to make pain medicine for her from the inner bark of a certain willow, a teaching recently returned to her. Other women donated their fragrant peelings to bring back to our Aunty, even though they have their own pains to nurse. I had hoped she could grow some of your seeds in the spring, amongst the tobacco plants, grass, and figurines in her urban hill garden. I wanted her little gray cat, the one she took for midnight walks around the block, to roll around your roots, to sniff and bat at your vines and flowers. I wanted her to see you grow, to be a part of your return, for you to be a part of hers. Now, I’m asking you to grow in my unfamiliar hands.
My torn thumb throbs as I chip away at the roots of the grass to widen your bed, but I want to make this space for you. I get used to the taste and scents of the soil bruising my cuticles, my callouses, the pads of my feet, the blood blisters on my fingertips. I learn how to move my fingers with just the right pressure to tense one of your ringlets around a pole. I wonder how long I will be in this place, whether I can care and commit with the abandon I want. I am embarrassed by my transience, and by my still- presence. I shift heavy cans of water, knowing that I am disrupting my healing, and that I need to feel the pulse of falling water as much as you do. But you don’t really need me; you will reclaim this land on your own. You have everything you need: every gender and gene, uncurling in the length and lean of your tendrils, in the pursing and breath of your blossoms.
I feel guilty to be living with you, to have the pleasure of this time and space, this growth. But A. tells me to be careful about assumptions, that his kin can’t be expected to do all the work. I have to learn and help and sweat and dig and deal with setbacks, too, if I want these changes to happen, and these beings to return. Two of your seedlings are growing in his new garden. You release yourself there, with the ancient corns and tobaccos and sunflowers etched into the slope of the hill. A. tells me that you can still bear fruit, even though July is ending, even though my gift was late.
It alarms me, sometimes, the ache of you breaking the ground, your tendrils crying towards the next branch or leaf, even if it is part of your own body. Sometimes you pin down twigs, stones and grasses, gather up the ground around you, or wrestle the beans sliding up the dowlings. Exactly the kinds of spats you’d expect between sisters. Or lovers. You are always pulling your kin close to you, holding them tight, binding them to yourself and to each other. I have to let myself be held, too, in ways that don’t come easily to me. I learn to peel back your folded blooms and spread your pollen with my own finger tips, standing in for the missing bees, for the disappeared.
I wish I could see you move. You are living much faster and slower than I am, vining and dying in a less than a year, and growing so slowly that I can’t see your motions and gestures. I can only sense their echoes in the curves of your spines, or the twisting of your bodies as you interpret the light. You are hundreds of seasons younger than me, and thousands of years older. We share space and moments, our bodies touch, but I can’t fall into time with you.
Sometimes a part of you dies, and I have to accept that, open your roots to the air, offer that piece of twisted flesh or early fruit to the earth, make space, so that the rest of you can thrive.
I was nervous when I planted your seeds, just three at first, staring each morning at the short row of pots and watching you push, stubbornly stooped, through the surface of the soil. I was too late in the planting season, partly because I did not know how to think time in reverse, to let you feel the seasons fully, and partly because I was afraid of failing you. At first I covered you with netting, hoping to discourage but not hurt the racoons and rats, the big skunk that slopes out from behind the rotting shed and devours the peanuts we leave at the base of the big sugar maple. It was only weeks before your tallest leaves grasped at the mesh, pulling it down around you, penetrating it with your vines. Reminding me that you are there to share yourself, that this is your choice and right. I learn to think of your growth in this way, as a deliberate gift for other plants and animals, for the pollinators, for the soil and air. Even then, I come back after five days away to find gnaw-marks in your largest fruit – squirrels who have mistaken you for green nuts – and I feel punished, as though my own skin were punctured. D. came over with a bottle of capsaicin water to drizzle around your fruits and the soil beneath them, to warn off nibblers, to give you a chance to see your descendents. She knows how much they are needed.
I didn’t bother to deter the crows – I know I’m no match for them. They snipped the heads from all of the corn sprouts earlier in the spring, leaving you to grow around the roots of your missing sisters. They were suspicious when I set up the garden in this spot near the maple, croaking and hopping on the limbs above you. But they seem to have made their peace with our presence, or at least with yours. H. reminded me to offer them shiny gifts, and I did, leaving them pieces of glittering copper, a few strawberries and fallen blossoms, beans and roots. I put them a little distance from your bed, acting casual, not wanting to deprive them of the pleasure of theft, of taking what’s theirs.
H. has grown you now for a few years, for feasts and gatherings, so she’s figuring out how to help you get along with others. She helped me to separate your seeds from the slime of your cooked flesh, which we had eaten in heavy darkness at the gathering up north, zipped into winter sleeping bags and gloves but still numb with cold. It was October then, and I had months to think about your future. I took you back down south to the city, where I lived then, surrounded by spit-and-salt stained concrete, aggression, and open-wounded earth. We could survive there, we could exhale after years of clenched breath, but we couldn’t grow. In the belly of that autumn, I dried you tentatively, following the instructions, turning each seed several times, careful not to disturb the onion-skin slip that covered your sleeping seedbodies. In the spring, I offered your seeds as gifts to people who would know better than I did, who knew how to help livings live and let beings be. I kept a handful to grow, so that I could keep spreading your seeds, uncertain of the soil you would find for us.
Since I’ve lived with you, I’ve begun to pay attention to insects, wondering which ones you nourish, which ones will carry your future generations, dirtying the fur of their legs, and which will hollow your body, nesting, possessing it for their own offspring. I wonder which ones you will allow to feed on you, which ones you invite and shelter, which ones you help to die. I learn which ones you need me to destroy, and I learn to kill. I barely noticed insects before but now when I sit outside in the evening I am immersed in their intimacies.
I have started speaking with you, knowing that you are fluent in vibrations, even if not in my colonial tongue. I am beginning to speak again without stuttering or scattering my words. But now I can feel my brain shifting and clunking; my thoughts are heavier, less playful. When the weather changes, when the clouds plume and darken, I am dizzy, sometimes too nauseous to read or write, so I crouch down next to you instead. As your biggest leaves drape themselves into the 43 degree heat and stiffen again into the dew, I am trying to learn to move with the weather, too. I feel anxious for you, overprotective, during the storms, even though I know you love the rain. L. is worried when I run into the thunder with my metal-headed shovel to dig a trench beside your bed, so that the runoff coming down the hill won’t overwhelm you. I do it anyway, and so does he.
L. says that this is a love story, and I think he’s right. Sometimes I love you too roughly, cleaning crumbs of soil from your leaves and peeling back leaves in search of future fruit. One day in early August, I snap off one of your buds while trying to clean the dirt from her furred curves. But you are not broken by me or my struggling love. You continue reaching, grasping, creeping, blossoming, offering yourself into futures that I can’t feel, that you will enter without me. You are taking your time, your space, your land, your lives. Preparing the ground.
* I live on the Ancestral lands of the Neutral/Attawandaron, a confederacy of Iroquois peoples who are no longer with us, largely due to the effects of diseases brought by French and other European fur traders in the Great Lakes region. These are also the treaty lands of the Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mississaugas of the New Credit. In Onkwehonwe/Haudenosaunee gardening practices, Corn, Beans and Squash are known as the Three Sisters because they help each other to grow. The corn provides stalks up which the beans can grow; the beans fix nitrogen to feed the corn and squash; and the squash leaves and vines offer shade and retain moisture, which helps the corn and beans to flourish. The peoples of the lands around the Great Lakes have depended on this type of gardening – this sisterhood – for thousands of years.
All photos of Gete Okosomin by Audra Mitchell, 2017-18. Please do not reproduce without contacting me first.