Just before morning zazen the Eta Aquarid meteor showers of early May graze the eastern horizon, illuminating the hemline of black spring sky. In this eerie light the first crops of the season appear in an instant, vanishing in a flash. A dark circlet of pumpkin leaves dusted with frost pushes up from the nether world. Wild peas disappear into unkempt ground.
On this May morning I gather seed packages of Sweet Meat Oregon Homestead winter squash to plant at Indian Valley Organic Farm, a project of our local community college, where I have been teaching an organic farming class for the last couple of years. With the downturn in California’s economy and the acceleration of global climate change, this course is popular. A broad range of citizens packs the classroom, the youngest still in high school, the eldest a seasoned organic grower of three decades. My teaching partner is 27-yearold Henry Wallace, the supervisor of the five-acre college farm. A recent graduate in environmental studies and history, Henry is a dedicated mountaineer as well as a skilled builder. After working with him in the pioneer seasons of the farm, I recently learned that he also has a secret Vipassana practice.
This season on the Indian Valley farm we are planting in a “family way,” choosing crops that have been grown in a persistent agriculture that honors diversity, stability, soil, and human health, along with a commitment to provide nourishing food. Without hesitation our class chose to plant the New World “three sister” trio of corn, beans, and squash, traditionally grown for generations by Native American farmers.
When I consider sorting the traits of the vast range of plant families available to avid gardeners, I remember what the Zen tradition calls the “wind of the family house,” or that distinct and also subtle breath that animates the lineages of Zen. Suzuki Roshi taught that the wind of the Soto Zen house is memmitsu no kafu, or a careful and considerate style. Following this Zen example, I ponder what qualities characterize the different families of the plant kingdom.
On my home altar I keep a figure fashioned from a desiccated corn cob that an artist friend found on the edge of her compost heap years ago. She painted the cob copper and metallic blue, molding a face and tiny prayerful hands for the figure and standing her atop an old yo-yo for the wheel of life. This corn goddess summons the old breath of her ancient grass family. One of three essential cereal crops in the world, corn is characterized by the mystery of flowers and seed kernels growing separately on the same stalk. Known by native people as Ta’a, “the seed of seeds,” or the Old Woman Who Never Dies, corn was first domesticated 8,000 years ago in northern Mexico from wild teosinte grass and is now divided into six classifications, according to the distinct form of its dent, flint, flour, sweet, pop, or waxy family members. Although modernly maligned for the many ways agribusiness has mutilated and transgenically altered it, corn remains a primary food crop grown worldwide. In a few weeks at Indian Valley we will sow the seeds of Henry’s beloved popcorn, an open-pollinated variety growing eight feet tall with a rainbow of blue, mahogany, pink, yellow, and white kernels on each ear.
It is traditional to sow members of the bean or legume family at the base of corn, where beans climb for support. Legumes feed the ground where they are grown and nourish their gardeners. They provide the richest source of protein in the plant kingdom. First cultivated 8,000 years ago from Indochina to Mesoamerica, members of the bean family rank second only to grain as a primary food for humankind. The wind of the legume family house is characterized by perfect, butterfly-shaped flowers and the unique ability of all family members to absorb atmospheric nitrogen and fix it in the living ground. Once our popcorn plants are four to five inches high, we will plant seeds of scarlet runner beans around the corn, harvesting dark mosaic-patterned beans when they are ripe in early October.
The most ancient of the three sister trio, squash belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes gourds, luffas, melons, cucumbers, and pumpkins, as well as winter and summer squash. The wind of this family house is ancient and steady: members have tendril-bearing vines with alternate leaves, and all rely heavily on insects for pollination, since Cucurbitaceae plants produce separate male and female flowers. In combination with corn and beans, squash covers the earth with productive vines that shelter her two younger sisters. The heirloom variety of Sweet Meat squash, which we will plant between the corn and bean rows, produces a multitude of midsize fruit on vines that radiate out for 20 feet. One of the best keepers in the Cucurbitaceae family, Sweet Meat winter squash is harvested around Thanksgiving, continuing to cure and sweeten in storage until March.
The maidens of the Iroquois agricultural society who sang to the ancient three-in-one goddess of corn, beans, and squash understood the distinct qualities of the sisters, yet they celebrated the trinity of planting these crops as a community. Recognizing this, I return to what the ethnographer Eugene Anderson calls “an ecology of the heart.” He reminds us that without an intense, warm, and emotional regard for the natural world we will be incapable of preserving it or being nourished by it. In these uncertain times, perhaps the greatest mystery of the wind of the family house is the triple treasure of planting, eating, and celebrating together.
For more information about persistent agriculture, please see The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times by Carol Deppe and Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation by Gary Paul Nabham.
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