Where are your roots? As the cosmic clock shifts this fall equinox and daylight is noticeably less, we begin our movement toward the inward, resting season. I have been pulling out some garden plants which have produced, been gathered and preserved, and are now dying back. As I heard the ripping of the roots from the soil, suddenly it felt like a violent act. What is the plant feeling?
Roots are amazing…they are the major adaptation that evolved plants from their marine origins to land dwelling. Marine plants collect carbon dioxide, water, and nutrients directly from water. However, on land, plants evolved two collection systems, roots and stems, which work together above and below ground to circulate information and nutrition.
While many people overlook the importance of prairie grass, a National Geographic 2015 study found that the largest part of a prairie grass plant is its roots, with anywhere from 8-14 feet (!) of roots. Jim Richardson took this photo of Indian grass. On the Canadian prairies where there is less water, these massive hidden root balls bring water up, store carbon just as trees do in the forest regions, nourish soil, protect from soil erosion, and thus enhance the productivity of the prairie ecosystem. As the native grasses were ploughed, over 80% of this grassland ecology became cropland. As Trevor Herriot says in Grass, Sky, Song and in Towards a Prairie Atonement, we lost not only the buffalo, wolves, bears and other large mammals in this ecoregion, but now the prairie birds are reaching precariously low numbers. There is a movement for regenerative farming or holistic farming that gives back to the land, stores carbon and increases biodiversity, including restoring native prairie grasses and their voluptuous roots.
Roots serve numerous important functions for plants: absorbing water; taking in dissolved minerals such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K); anchoring the plant to the soil; the primary storage compartment for food and nutrients; and for reproduction. Root architecture is complex with many types of specialized roots, including storage roots, some that we eat such as carrots, beets and turnip, or tuberous roots such as sweet potato. I was pulling bean plants out. The plants were not only to grow dry beans, but for their nitrogen-fixing role that was feeding companion crops, such as corn. Yet, this does not need to end.
In no-till organic gardening, one cuts the plants at the surface, composting the top stem and leaves but leaving the roots in the ground to continue feeding the soil organisms with whom they have developed a relation. The soil microbes slowly decompose the roots as well as feed worms, beneficial bacteria, and fungi with whom a beneficial sugar-nutrient exchange relationship occurs. This is how gardeners and farmers build their soil more effectively.
All plants in fall, such as trees, are shifting their goals from photosynthesis to strengthening their roots and storing energy there, to withstand winter conditions. In the coming cold season, the life force of the plant is in the roots, as they drop their leaves, fruit, and seeds. Some plants produce a type of antifreeze as they prepare for winter. And yes, according to Daniel Chamovitz in What a Plant Knows, plants have a sensory apparatus that sees, smells, feels, hears, remembers, knows where it is in space, and yes, knows when they have been damaged. As plants die back this fall season, we can respect and work with them as they shift their life force, as part of winter readiness-making and toward regeneration in the next growing season.
As I think about roots and prairie grasses, I think of my own family roots. I remember when the book Roots by Alex Haley came out in 1976 and how it generated so much interest in genealogy and in the slavery history of African-North Americans. It was at this time I noticed my own family collecting stories and trying to determine our origins. So many questions were unanswered, particularly how and why our families came to Canada. Were we ripped from the soil of our ancestors in the same way I was removing roots from the garden soil?
It seems that colonization and the spread of empires has uprooted the lives of so many people…and always has. Traditionally, family history was kept orally by people called bards, griots, senchaidh or any number of other cultural titles. While oral history has been suspect in the modern world, it has been the most reliable way for cultures to maintain the stories of their family and their people over millennia. I was never impressed by the biblical Old Testament’s recounting of so-and-so begat so-and-so who begat…and so forth…until I realized this was originally a oral history meant to preserve the memories and genealogies of the Jewish people and the genealogical origins of Christianity.
Modern society is a society that is always looking forward and so we have an ahistorical perspective that dismisses what is old. As one movie actor has said, “What’s behind me is behind me!” Yet, we are living blind and without any context that could give our lives far more meaning. Despite the secrecy surrounding our family history, I could feel the spirits of my grandmothers now encouraging the search to make meaning of who we are as a family. On a bigger scale, the time has come for all of us who were exiled or chose to leave for the safety and wellbeing of their families, to understand who we are. We need to re-member this as individuals, as families, as peoples, as humans in relation to the places and histories of the world. This is vital not only for our children and grandchildren, but for living in harmony with the Earth. If we know who we are, we know where we fit and our responsibilities. We can redevelop a sense of posterity.
I spent about 15 years searching out my ancestral history and could only get back 5 generations, without a professional genealogist fluent in 4 languages. It was painstaking work that connected childhood stories with photos with family interviews of my grandparents and parents with multitudes of documents from ship manifests to church baptism and marriage records to historical books and maps. While it was difficult at first to find a story line through the morass of information, eventually all the stories began to fall into place, though mysteries remain. Nevertheless, my parents were deeply glad to finally know the social, cultural, political, and economic factors that led our families to leave the German plains to go to the Russian plains then to the Canadian plains. It is common for families to find that their settler ancestors often chose places that reminded them of their home. I found that my people were plains people on three different continents…for whom prairie grasses, songbirds, broad rivers, and diminutive trees were home. My obligations to the prairies are part of my family history.
Developing a Kinscape
Australian Indigenous scholar Tyson Yunkaporta, in his brilliant book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, suggests we explore the places our people have been in relation with, as a way to redevelop our “ancestor-mind”. In the oral tradition, elders used many memory devices to remember, including mnemonic devices such as their hands where specific memories are stored in each row of knuckles, as one example. Re-teaching young people to search out their ancestral history and prodding adults to “re-member” and record their history and teach it to their youngest members is vital to understanding our personal, historical and natural place in the world.
This month, can you begin recording important family stories you remember? Can you recite by memory “I am the child of /// and ///; my mother was the child of /// and ///…; my father was the child of /// and ///…all the way to your great grandparents? Learn this and then don’t be shy, teach it to your children and grandchildren. If you are a teacher, ask your students to do this kinship mapping and recount it orally.
Finally, can you trace the movement of your ancestors to know what lands have been imprinted on your body memory and to which you have some connection? Doing these three activities brings you one step toward developing a kinscape…an beginning understanding of the landscape in which your kin have been cradled.