As I write, it’s the first day of spring. I’ve been busy with tasks ordained by the season: checking the gardens for winter damage, deciding what flats of sedges and flowers to order, starting seeds in the greenhouse and considering what vegetables to put in. The sap is finally rising; the tall maples have gone fuzzy at the tips of their branches, as they do when in bloom, and the bur oaks have developed the sort of knobbly look on their twigs that announces the swelling of buds. The trees are moving more limberly in response to the wind after prolonged winter stiffness. Still, everything remains, briefly, just barely, in abeyance before the sudden mad rush of April and May.
Right now, I’m supposed to be answering some basic questions posed by a person new to native plant gardening: How do you start learning about native plants? If you have discovered that the plants in your yard are not native, how do you find out what plants are native to where you live and could go in your yard instead? What do they look like? How do you learn more? Where can you get them? There are practical suggestions that one could make, but somehow, memories come to mind instead.
My own awareness of plants began early, so early I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of them: the texture of the grass in the backyard; the roughness and crinkled edges of strawberry leaves and the berries’ sweet sun warmed taste; the funny mouthfeel and surprising spicy taste of the mint that grew near the spigot; the startling yellow-orange and intense scent of the marigolds our neighbors would let me help put in; the dappled shade beneath the stout silver maple that had a bench all the way around it; the ancient lilac in an empty lot two doors down, growing in tall, un-mown grass, its four sturdy trunks arching far enough apart to form a sort of bower where a small girl could go with a book to read, secluded, yet mysteriously part of a larger world than that encompassed by block and neighborhood. Only the silver maple a native, but these were beginnings.
Beyond the neighborhood was the Lake Michigan shore, not only the plain, sandy beaches, but also, farther away, the dunes with their grasses and cottonwoods and blueberry bushes. There were the woods of the forest preserves, too, where I first became acquainted with spring ephemerals in their pale pinks and blues, and first understood how the rugged oaks had a different presence than the arching elms and rounded maples. Later there were camping trips to Michigan and Minnesota, where the great humming “is-ness” or, as Gary Snyder has it, the “thusness” of nature tending to its own affairs made itself indelibly, overpoweringly known to me, to the extent that ever afterwards I could tune in nearly anywhere, even in the beat-up piece of oak woodland and prairie I am beginning to restore. Or in my own backyard garden.
Along the way, some adult would casually say something about the maple or lilac, or name the marigolds, the mint, or further afield, the oaks, wild geraniums, goldenrod and asters in the woods. And my interest evident, I was allowed to take a nature class or two, though I don’t remember exactly where or when. For me, it was always the intricately entwined worlds of cultivated garden and wild area, at first not really differentiated. Later, when awareness of definitions and separations and boundaries grew, the one remained incomprehensible without the other, though a tension grew between them. Later still I became aware that biological nature, the complex system that is the biosphere, doesn’t actually do boundaries but deals in relationships and energy flows. I began to wonder what could be the relationship between cultivated garden and wild natural area. In particular, how could a garden stitch itself back into relationship with its ecosystem, or make that relationship plainer? And so I became an ecological gardener.
I was lucky: I had a plant and nature-centric heritage stretching back generations, and not for nothing has it been said that it takes three generations to make a gardener. But telling an adult who has suddenly been awakened to new aspects of the plant world and the complexity of ecological relationships that they need to go back and start when they were little kids learning from their grandparents is not much help. For these folks, the green curtain, that backdrop consisting of general categories of “trees,” “bushes,” “grass,” and “flowers” has suddenly revealed itself to be vastly more complicated than they thought. It’s as though reality has shifted, has bifurcated, and they’ve walked through a portal into a new part of the multiverse where nothing is and never will be again quite what it seemed. One’s notion of what is normal in one’s surroundings, and concomitant assumptions about the world, has perhaps fractured, as though upon discovering the existence of a whole different, hitherto unmentioned, branch of the family. Suddenly, the family and you, yourself, are not who and what you thought. For some people, this comes on gradually, for others as a sharp moment of insight. With this passage, perhaps one’s notion of citizenship begins to change as well, since where one thought one lived turns out to be an entirely different place.
There is another aspect to this question of how to garden and of how to live as a citizen of the ecosystem, or watershed, as well. As I began to learn the true history of the US and of my own region and understood how regionally adapted ways of living carried on for thousands of years before a bunch of non-native people showed up a few hundred years ago, I began to understand colonialism in a new way and began to relate colonialism to gardening (and, of course, farming). While it’s true that all immigrants take their plants, especially food plants, with them when they travel, or use them as trade—or else maize would never have made it to Illinois in pre-conquest days—colonialists do something different. They extract resources, and they make an effort to obliterate and replace much of the existing landscape with their own plants and animals. With the attempted blanking out of indigenous ecosystems, with their complex suites of plants and animals, comes the attempted obliteration of the indigenous, land-centered human population, along with their spiritual and material culture. This is, of course, very old news, but fresh as the election of Brazil’s new president.
In consequence, I do not feel that in the US it is too much to say that to garden unthinkingly using almost exclusively non-indigenous plants is an unwitting affirmation and expansion of that earlier destructive impetus. These days, the colonial enterprise has metastasized into the familiar, government-approved, modern form engaged in by large corporate entities practicing landscape-destroying, species decimating, climate change causing capitalism on everyone on this continent, whether they are the descendants of the erstwhile colonists and their slaves, or recent immigrants, or native peoples. Despite notable exceptions, this modern form continues to be buttressed by cultural norms that endorse the objectification of land, see nature as something to be dominated and controlled, and assume that only extracting profit from land matters at all, regardless of the broader damage being wreaked. Further, propaganda and advertising extending even into our schools have contributed mightily to the broad American ignorance of our own landscapes and the preference for flagrant, ostentatious expressions of the colonial/industrialist viewpoint that so many gardens and landscaping styles represent.
At this point the dominant culture is harmful even to those of us who are white and non-indigenous, though we remain privileged within it. A pernicious effect of this relative privilege is that many of us are blind to a whole lot besides nature. We may not even comprehend how deadly our culture is and how we ought to be making common cause with native peoples, with people of color and with others resident in this country who understand and bear within their bodies the true costs of the cultural dedication to extraction, obliteration and replacement. As Linda Hogan has written in her essay “Creations,” “Emptiness and estrangement are deep wounds. We have been split from what we can nurture, what could fill us. And we have been wounded by a dominating culture that has feared and hated the natural world, has not listened to the voice of the land, has not believed in the inner worlds of dreaming and intuition, all things that have guided indigenous people since time stood up in the east and walked this world into existence, split from the connection between self and land.”
Lately I’ve been reading some of poet and essayist Gary Snyder’s writings from the late 20th century in which he discusses the theory and practice of “reinhabitation.” This seems to have been somewhat different from the “back to the land” movement, in that its proponents weren’t necessarily trying to become farmers. Their aim was to settle in somewhere and learn the ways of and adapt to the ecosystem where they were, while living light on the land in radically local fashion. By now some of those folks—like Snyder, who has rooted deep into the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada—have reinhabited their watersheds pretty thoroughly. They’ve become the inhabitants of place-based communities.
In retrospect, both term and attitudinal stance could seem patronizing: indigenous people never stopped inhabiting, and much of their struggle has been simply to keep on doing so, in the way the land has needed, since land needs to be known and the inhabitants, whoever they are, need to be known by the land. Yet Snyder also has recounted a native American elder’s telling him that anyone, even a white person, who lives in a place long enough and in right relation to the wild community will become deeply influenced, will change in deep and redefining ways, forming a new identity. The land is working on all of us, all the time—but only some people listen. Vine Deloria talks about this also, in “God is Red,” another old classic. This is the impetus behind reinhabitation, I think. It’s the desire of the descendants of conquerors and colonists to leave that culture and to become true citizens of the ecosystems, watersheds and regions in which they reside. To make the deliberate decision to reinhabit, to let oneself be influenced by the land, by the ecological community, to be drawn into the web of relationships is to step away from the domineering cultural regime under which we all labor, turning towards something that might seem hidden at first but becomes more evident over time.
Snyder writes that people who truly inhabit a place are culturally adapted to that particular region or ecosystem. They know the plants, animals, weather, waters, soils—and draw their identity, lifeways, and material culture—individual and collective—from that place. (We must be very careful to distinguish ecosystem inhabitation from ideological “blood and soil,” race-based nationalism.) This kind of cultural adaptation is a fact of settled indigenous cultures worldwide, and something that colonialism—whether political or corporate or the modern deadly amalgam of the two—has always directly attacked. And no wonder! To live that way is antithetical to its profit-taking project.
Writer and ecological landscaper Ben Vogt makes the point that when we garden using exclusively non-native plants along with soil depleting chemical fertilizer and pollinator killing pesticides, we are perpetuating and endorsing industrial colonialism. It may seem a small thing, one small piece of the larger landscape, but thus do ecosystems fray. And on a larger scale, when we substitute a plantation of trees for a forest, or a monoculture of commodity crops for a prairie, or build a subdivision over a filled-in wetland, we up the ante immeasurably. We are, in a sense, attempting to substitute an artifact, a simulacrum, for a complex, living entity. Under the weightiness and true dangers of the present moment, both environmental and political, it might seem trivial to propose that becoming familiar with the true nature of the ecosystem where one lives, that changing landscaping choices and planting indigenous plants could count among the necessary actions we can take to help carry us through. But so they do.
For thousands of years, indigenous inhabitants of any given region have gardened mostly—but not entirely—with the plants native to their place, whether for beauty, food, fiber or medicine. Unless fortunate enough to have a particular, earth-centric kind of upbringing, most people in the US who now set out to garden with wild native plants will be learning how to connect to this ancient worldwide tradition. And by continuing to garden this way, by learning more and then doing more to help the plants as well as the wild creatures that inevitably show up—by practicing gratitude and enacting reciprocity—we begin to live in our place in a way that goes beyond human society only, and help create a path to a livable future. The wild native garden lays its stamp on us through its regional appropriateness. It changes us to something other than what we were. We settle in, become of the earth. Our perceptions of reality might change, and with them our allegiances. We might become more critical of the dominant culture. We might travel away from the colonialism being practiced on us, away from acceptance of the status quo. We might begin to learn other skills, might meet other gardeners who are making the same journey, might find we are part of a different community than the one we thought we belonged to.
So I can’t exactly answer those questions about how to learn native plants. Oh, I could recommend books, or native plant nurseries, or organizations. Some answers will come from getting to know some new people, attending a talk or taking a class. But here is what I think might be the best way to begin. One fine warm day, when the trees are green and the sun is out, go to a nearby natural area where indigenous plants flourish in relationship with all the non-human species proper to that place. Go there without your phone, and sit quietly for a while. Just sit, perhaps by a stream or pond, and look at the lay of the land. Observe the shapes of the trees and how the ground layer plants grow; listen to the birds, the water, and the breeze, letting the “thusness” flow into to your awareness. Keep going to this place, regularly. Keep practicing. It’s as good a way as any to begin learning where you really are.