I just finished reading a book for my book group, Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She’s an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and a scientist with a focus on botany. It’s a fascinating combination, and her essays exploring both these territories have shifted my thinking about our world in small and large ways that will take me a while to fully process.
I’m kinda overwhelmed, actually. Once I get more settled, I see a lot more blogs about this in the future. But for right now, the thing I am able to focus on is the Ginko tree. I guess I need to back up a bit.
Robin explains that Indigenous people consider plants and animals to be non-human people. So there are human people, tree people, animal people, etc. Because the plants and animals have been here longer than us, they consider these non-human people older and wiser than us. I can’t argue with that. Maybe it’s because of all the paddling and camping I did last year and the friluftsliv winter walks in the woods when I can’t get on the water. One of the things that has helped me get through the pandemic has been seeing a huge rock or towering tree with a trunk that is bigger than my arm span, and knowing they will outlast me and a lot of human nonsense. I know feeling insignificant in the face of the natural world in not everyone’s cup of tea, but it works for me.
Robin also talks a lot about the reciprocal relationship among the people, human and non-human. And part of this is introducing herself to trees like her ancestors did, especially if you are going to take the tree or a part of it. It’s just good manners. She has the benefit of knowing them through their western scientific names and through the knowledge passed down by what is left of the Indigenous people. That kind knowing speaks to me. It’s kind of like dating or meeting someone who will become a good friend, right? In order to get to know someone better, you need to spend time with them. Looking around the woods and being able to tell each plant by its name and how it conducts its life seems, in this pandemic world of human hate and confusion, quite attractive.
I have a shit memory (don’t get me started on the periodic table of elements) and the last 2 years have not helped in the least, so I can’t memorize the names of all the trees. However, I can still get to know them. One at a time. I learned the basic ones in childhood from the people I grew up with — maple, oak, and birch. But even in the city there a lot more trees and plants than that. I have a plant identifying app that was really helpful when everything had leaves and seeds and berries, but winter is a whole different story.
During the week I walk nearly every day in my neighborhood, and instead of ruminating over all of my problems or how much people can really suck, I decided to try to identify some trees and bushes on the way. I saw a tall tree with distinctive branching that caught my eye. The branches came out straight from the trunk and there were uniform inch-long knobs on each the branches. Just distinctive enough to try my app. The first photo of the bark produced an answer of “Butternut.” Cool name. To cross reference I then took a photo of the branches, and it came back with “Tamarack.” Hmmm. The third picture of the bark and the branches got me “Honey Locust.” Frustrated and cold, I shoved my phone back in my pocket and continued on my walk. I’ll look it up when I got home, I thought, and then of course completely forgot.
But the tree didn’t forget me. I was walking in another part of my neighborhood, stewing and muttering, when I remembered to look at the trees. I looked up and there was that tree again. Actually a whole row of them. The light was better and so I took another photo of the branches with the knobs. “Screwbean mesquite.” What the heck? While the branches in winter looked right, the rest of the photos when the plant was in bloom were definitely wrong as was its Southwest location. I took anther photo of the bark and the branch. “Sweetgum.” Sweet jesus. I was still irritated, but also slightly mollified by these increasingly charming names. OK, no people to help, and no app. Maybe Google reverse image could help.
And that’s when I found it: Ginko. I had a memory of another book we read in my book group about Ginkos, how there are male and female trees, and the female trees develop fruit that stinks when it drops. I do remember that fruit along this route, and I also remembered that maybe I had discovered this before. But I hadn’t paid attention to the tree all year around and clearly forgotten about it, never mind introduced myself. I added Ginko to my plant app and learned it’s a living fossil (dating back to 270 million years ago and is considered one of the earliest plant species (*ahem* people) cultivated by humans. It can live well over 1,000 years, is a native of China, and was brought to North America in 1785.
OK, so it’s not a tree the Indigenous people would have a long history with. And Robin makes a point to encourage us to develop a relationship with the land, but also not through merely appropriating Indigenous beliefs. I can’t say I entirely understand that nuance yet, but I do know like me, the Ginko is an immigrant to this land, and I can learn something from it. Hello Elder Ginko. My name is Sandy. I’m very pleased to meet you and I hope we can be good friends.