a faltering symbiosis.

As we become more and more disconnected with our foods, we are also more and more disconnected with our world and our culture.

I can remember my storytelling grandma taking me for walks on trails through the woods where she would point out the native plants and the animals.  We would go home to her gardens that were full of native Pennsylvanian perennials.  We’d pick lovage and other vegetables from the salad garden, then rush outside after dinner with some sun tea to watch the 8-o’clock Bloom Primrose open from the gazebo.

Her favorite flower was the trillium, so each April the woods remind me of her more than usual.  Every time a bird flies hardly in sight overhead and I don’t recognize his flight pattern or song, I’m frustrated because I’m sure she’s told me his identity before and that she’d tell me again if she were here.  She’s been gone almost 8 years already and I wish I’d remembered things better when I was younger.  I often wonder how much wisdom is in 8 years, the ones I didn’t get.

Feeling that separation in time makes me really appreciate the 16 years I did get, even the ones I can’t remember at all.  It’s 16 more years than a lot of children ever get with their grandparents, learning from the wisest, being shown the same things that their great-great-grandparents had shown their grandparents.  I might feel inadequate and incomplete, but I’m a lot fuller than most – and that saddens me.

How many kids never really see their grandparents or their parents?  How many kids learn all of their lessons from Dora the Explorer and other TV shows?  While my grandma told me tales about the animals that taught me lessons about how to treat others, children are learning their lessons from cartoons and video games and not even going outside.  My only exception to not being outside was reading, but even then I would often climb into a tree with a bag of birdseed and sometimes fall asleep with a book on a limb.

I remember when grandma taught me how to plant a seed.  It went something like this: “First, dig a little hole.  Gently.  Enough for part of your finger.  Now, drop the seed to the bottom.  Give him a little drink, but not too much – just some encouragement.  Add a little love, maybe a kiss, and pat the dirt back on softly and water again.”  But she especially showed me how to find things that were already growing, and we would observe the patterns of the animals in the woods as they used their own techniques to harvest.  I particularly loved sitting in the woods during the winter for this reason; I could see through the bare trees so clearly, the red berries standing out against the snow, ruffled birds landing on dusted branches, and mouse tracks giving away all of their secret hideouts on the ground.

The Potawatomi and Chippewa used to watched these mouse tracks, too.  Rodent kinds store nuts in the ground where they remain when the weather has stripped most of the harvest from the woods.  The people knew this and, instead of spending exhausting hours harvesting for themselves, they would find the caches and take some of the nut reserves instead.  My favorite example of cache raiding is the Lakota-prairie vole thievery/symbiosis: Prairie voles (mice, as they called them) would hide hog nut (“mouse bean”) seeds in similar caches.  Before modern agricultural techniques and dams raped the Plains states and deterred biodiversity of the ecosystems, Lakota women used to take sticks to poke at these caches and steal from them.  But they didn’t just take, take, take.  This is one of my favorites — they would leave gifts of other things, like animal fat or berries in exchange for taking some of the seeds for their own uses…and they would sing a song.  (‘You have helped sustain my children during this coming winter, and we will not let your children go hungry.’)

And now we have McDonald’s.  And now we take as we need and don’t think about the future.  Now we have separated ourselves and forgotten that everything is a web.  We have forgotten that, although one practice may mean a big harvest this year and for ten years, in one hundred years it may not.  We have forgotten that bad omens aren’t just omens, that less trilliums blooming in April and more birds choosing to not overwinter in the snow are signs because they mean the world is sicker than it was the year before.  And this sickness is only continued when our next generation won’t have any way to relate to those stories about the raven not sharing his box of light with the world because all he cared about was himself, or about the whole world emerging from the earth – symbolic of the planet’s importance and the need for reemergence and rejuvenation every spring.  The more artificial this world becomes, the less biodiverse it will be, and there will no longer be prairie voles to sing songs to or cares and concerns about his children.

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