Over the last year I have been immersed in the study of a beautifully written book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which is dedicated to the plaiting together of supple strands of indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. The author of this book, Robin Wall Kimmerer, is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a trained botanist and Distinguished Teaching Professor at New York’s SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
This season Kimmerer will offer a daylong teaching on Three Sisters Farming and Native foodways at our local community college and organic farm. Unfolding in the heart of the five-acre Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden, this teaching will honor the sacred crop trinity of persistent agriculture: corn, beans, and squash.
At this time of bounty I return regularly to a chapter in Robin’s book titled “The Honorable Harvest.” Here she reminds the reader that traditional ecological knowledge is rich in prescriptions for sustainability and alive with detailed protocols for maintaining vitality in the more than human world:
- Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
- Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
- Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
- Never take the first. Never take the last.
- Take only what you need.
- Take only that which is given.
- Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
- Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
- Use the harvest respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
- Give thanks for what you have been given.
- Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
- Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the earth will last forever.
Although the exact ethos of the honorable harvest is buried in the ground of antiquity, its noble litany rises up from the earth, filling body and mind. To my chagrin, I noticed when I first began to study the book that I am far more reverent and mindful in the presence of botanical and human Native American elders than I am in the privacy of my boisterous home garden. With grateful humility I ceremoniously harvest a single ear of Seneca white corn, while in my home paradise I cut buckets of heirloom roses with wanton abandon.
Up until a few months ago I wondered at this unusual wobble in my moral compass. Then wonder dropped to disoriented shame when I learned that our Buddhist-trained family was overusing its modest irrigation water allotment for Muir Beach home gardens. In this bone-dry season of drought and climate disruption, what would the Coast Miwok people do? Offer thanks, take only what is needed and given from the land, and share a meal of pale ash acorn mush garnished with redmaid flower seeds.
This water fiasco shook my Zen world. I returned to the guidelines for honorable harvest to find ballast. We live on the banks of Redwood Creek, a seven-mile wild run stream protected for silver salmon, members of the endangered Coho line. Although irrigation water is never drawn from this creek, in a healthy watershed system all waters are connected. So with water bill in hand, I followed the low brown thread of Redwood Creek out to its mouth in the Pacific. Rather than introduce myself, I stood in the cold briny waves of the ocean and apologized for unmindful overdraught of sweet water. Then I dried off and got to work.
First I took stock of our backyard realm. For the vegetable garden beds I collected fallen alder leaves that were choking the surface of Redwood Creek and mulched our well-harvested Siberian kale. We have a small area in Muir Beach, Dragon Coast Nursery, where we grow organic plant starts for neighbors and friends. My farmer husband has been collecting huge barrels of rain and roof runoff water since last winter. We pledged to rest our hoses for a time and siphon only from dark rain to irrigate nursery stock and steaming compost piles.
Our home is ringed with 20-year-old heritage roses growing in the leafy shelter of two stately crabapple trees, one of whom succumbed to drought this season and stands as a withered corpse in the heart of the garden. These days the roses receive only collected dish and bath water, bucketed out to long-stemmed French and Persian aristocrats who sip up the gray slop. Occasionally, in the respectful harvest of the perfumed Ispahan rose, I catch a subtle whiff of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Castile Soap.
Although it is challenging to accept the responsibility and shame of unmindful consumption, I am fit for the task. The Buddha called conscientious or moral shame a “bright guardian of the world,” since it has the capacity to soothe bruised honor and give rise to beneficial action.
Now at the edge of winter, the thirst for bottomless irrigation has been slaked. Water harvest grows honorably lean. This morning after meditation I noticed three large and somber red-legged frogs, Rana draytonii, asleep in the fetid shallows of an old water lily pond behind our kitchen. These frogs are high on the endangered species list, having disappeared from at least 70 percent of their native habitat. Red-legged frogs are found now in fewer than 260 streams and drainages in all of California. And yet here they are this morning, dozing in the cold muddy water and offering a gift beyond measure. May we be sustained by those who sustain us!
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