a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Half a dozen women show up, all in sturdy shoes and carrying sharp tools. They are modest warriors for their task: digging out invasive Himalayan blackberries from a forest park near Portland, Oregon. Their pantlegs hang down over their socks to protect their ankles from the clawing brambles of Blackberry.
Each tool is a long telescoping pole with a hook-shaped blade at the end, a razor edge on the inside of the hook to amputate stems at their base, or to reach up and slice winding canes from the branches of Cedar and Grand Fir. For a while, after this cutting, air and light will reach the seedlings of Fir and White Oak, Cottonwood and Big-leaf Maple. The pale stars of native Trillium will have more space to grow. In the absence of its powerful cousin, the native Trailing Blackberry, Rubus ursinus, may also raise its head.
The work of these blackberry killers, a few hours given every week to this task by each person, is futile. Looking across the fields, great mounds of blackberry brambles rise, hillocks made of arching canes that grow to 40 feet long, bend into themselves and birth a new start each place they touch the ground. Blackberry mound and field, mound and fencerow and field, these go on forever until they disappear into a hazy grey exhalation of city and low cloud. For any blackberry killer susceptible to discouragement, this should be a landscape of grief.
Grief, however, is not evident. Before she hands me a cutting tool, a woman demonstrates the necessary motion: a double firm grip, a deft rotation and backward jerk of the forearm just as the blade is laid against the cane. I try it and the motion comes naturally; I learned long ago how good it feels to work with tools in the woods.
One by one as they greet me, I look into women’s eyes—some behind glasses and some crinkled down in pale wells of age. The warmth is here, the welcoming I expect from sturdy outdoor types of my generation, but also the expected imperative: “Let’s get going.” This feels like my family, though not my place.
The plants are different here from where I grew up in Oregon’s desert country, different from where I have lived for decades in Alaska. I recognize almost nothing—a few wild flowers, the conifers, and Blackberry. I’ve eaten these berries on roadsides when we’ve visited here in the late summer. Like Galway Kinnel in “Blackberry Eating,” I have loved every sweet mouthful.
Invaders are delicious, say the cartoon cannibals with their steaming pots.
I am jealous of this forest where everything grows rank. Compare the sheer diversity of species: less than 500 plant species including the non-vascular lichens and mosses in a forest study plot in southcentral Alaska, versus more than 1630 vascular species alone on this warm and fertile western slope of the Cascades. No wonder invasive blackberries wander into trouble here. I’d be glad to grow one blackberry plant in my cold, brief garden. I’m curious, too, about how the berry killers sort it out: what should be here from what should not.
On this early spring day there is no sweet blackberry fruit in sight, not even a pale flower to promise a berry. I follow the others down the path for a while; the women are impatient to start where they’ve left off or to grab a bit of cheer from a freed seedling. Because this is not my familiar place, I quiet my expectations. Whatever I do here in this cave of green life will be enough.
I look up and down the path, consider the forest with and without its cloying torturer. At a section cleared of blackberry brambles there are a few trilliums blooming, as they will in these early days of April.
The first time I saw Trillium, I was a teenager working on a mountain ranch in western Idaho with other young women. Our hosts gave us a break from building fence in the hot spring sun and suggested a hike up the mountain from a logging road. We drove high above the snow line, piled out of the back of the truck into a grove of old growth Douglas Fir so thick the woven canopy made a mid-day darkness. The forest floor was bare, except for patches of ice and the tripartite shining of white trillium blossoms. We walked 15 miles, first to a snowy meadow ringed by ridgeline cornices. We watched a cougar lope across the open. We mischievously filled each other’s packs with rocks, then clowned and jostled all the way down the other side of the mountain. At the end of the day we ate supper enormously and dragged our sleeping bags out into the trees. When I woke in the night, a circle of sky met my gaze. Framed by whispering black arrows of spruce tops, the lighter dark seemed lit by tiny distant trilliums.
I have a scar from that spring, a wound from throwing a coil of barbed wire into a pickup bed. One strand held me, its barb ripping deep into my wrist. Soon, though, it healed clean as a creek bed running through stone. In my old arm, the smooth scar looks like it came with me into the world.
All my life I have kept an eye out for my companions of that spring. I look under every floppy hat, curiously scrutinize the inhabitants of sturdy shoes. As if we still owned that near-dark.
Another of Trillium’s names, “wakerobin,” suggests it is a messenger.
Repeated cutting of above-ground blackberry canes will eventually succeed in killing a particular plant by starving its root crown. From each root crown, strands down in the soil can extend up to 10 meters in length. Canes spring from that root, or propagate from any cut piece of root or cane, or grow from one of the 13,000 seeds the plant can yield per square meter—seeds that are viable for years. If you want to kill blackberries fast, the tools are mechanical root rakes, fires, or chemicals—each method with its disadvantage. Machines spread pieces of the plant unless all the slash is removed; fire and some chemicals encourage its re-growth. All the fast methods take out chunks of the real estate and native species along with the blackberries. No matter how you kill Blackberry, dead canes left lying on the ground are stiff with thorns, a tangled biodegradable version of barbed wire.
Effective as a method, cutting the canes above ground and meticulously removing cut pieces requires the perennial patience of returning blackberry killers. One by one, robbed of their food from sunlight, Himalayan blackberry bushes will die and the plants around it will live. One control guide estimates that clearing an acre of blackberries by this method requires upwards of 1000 volunteer hours. Perseverance is the most effective talent in these woods, whether you are Blackberry or its aspiring killer. One little park at a time.
Consider the patience of gatherers and gardeners, their expectations balanced between looking, thinning, allowing and waiting. Here live the repeated tasks of our mothers and grandmothers, farm wives and schoolmarms: washing dishes and clothes, mending, teaching successive generations of children to tie their shoes, explaining why the difference between ‘loose’ and ‘lose’ sometimes matters. In spite of us, memory and assumptions mix, erasing more of those subsumed lives, the women swinging tools, heaving buckets or bales or wheelbarrow loads. We are the fair and delicate sex, pushing boulders of children through our bodies.
My eastern Oregon grandmother, when she sat down to rest, did so with a basket of socks with holes in them. I remember Grandma heaving a sigh of pleasure to be off her feet, me tucked against her apron, watching her hands weaving soft darning cotton across the broken heels. Could it have been so happy if it wasn’t so endless?
People move against the flow of profits and power in a curious invisibility, accepting constant erasure. Accustomed to receiving advice from people they long ago taught it to, old blackberry killers gaze mildly at industry-driven foresters trying to convince them of their unimportance.
When are endless tasks worth our time? Taught, carried, storied knowledge is important. How and when is knowledge “rooted”? The seeds of plants taught us gardens and the making of pockets. Their flowers taught us beauty. We carried plants’ beauty and usefulness to all the places we wandered. But we move faster than plants can gather themselves to follow us. And when we bring them along, they are sometimes dangerously out of place. Sometimes when sadness overtakes us for all the changes we’ve carried, we long for the way a plant rises from its own place. We call ourselves “rootless.”
I found a patch of canes to clear, a continuation of someone else’s work on another day. I’m good at snipping canes off just above the ground, but the twiney things are spring-loaded and grab my legs as I try to move. A few prickles reach through my gloves as I push the canes aside. As I turn a leather finger inside out to remove a tormentor, I question the work I have been given.
OF BENEFIT TO MANKIND
Himalayan Blackberry’s road is paved with good human intentions. Ambitious to improve the lives of American homesteaders in the late 1800s, plant breeder Luther Burbank developed more than 800 varieties of fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers. He believed that his imported Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus, so productive, would be a great boon to settlers.
But Trailing Blackberry, the one that was here before, is the Being blackberry killers want to encourage in this forest. With other humans, they have decided this. Rubus ursinus lived for thousands of years alongside Indigenous peoples who used it for medicine and food. I don’t see its three-lobed leaves where I am cutting, but I try to be watchful.
One understands why the problems are so apparently us, the recent humans. We were always gardeners. Even unconsciously, my presence here prunes nature toward my idea. Hoe or hammer, I am a shaper with my very breath. But freed from limitation by our harnessing of industrial fire (guns and machines), we now live in a human-preferenced world, where our abilities and aspirations have even greater power over the landscape.
Nature does not choose which blackberry. Nature does not not choose which blackberry. In this place, we are the choosers, opening a Pandora’s Box of debate about what this park should be. Suspend the assumption that each thing humans touch is soiled or ruined, or that some Eve was responsible for it all. Here’s a replacement mythic explanation of us: we modern humans kicked ourselves out of the garden before we had a chance to know what grew there, and so we have become that creature who must choose.
INVENTING THE FOREST, NATURALIZING OURSELVES
A forest path dreamed empty of Himalayan Blackberry, dreamed profuse with indigenous plants, imagines a particular point in time and space. It is an abundance these blackberry killers have enjoyed or had remembered to them through books or stories. It is believed to be a point when a certain abundance of beauty and diversity existed. Insofar as that moment ever was, I believe in it too.
Michael Pollan, in his essay “The Idea of a Garden,” dismembers the assumption that a place can be returned to a particular “natural” state:
Even if possible, even if desirable, our longed-for transformations are returns to an assumed reality. Choosing for the future, we must be entirely awake to this moment. What brought us here?
At a writing conference, a poet talks about her poems and reads her poems, including many words from Miwok. She does not translate these words, and by this immersion or exclusion of listeners and readers illuminates invasions past and present. She flings words like spears. She is a warrior. She is very handsome, very beautiful. She is radiant and I am in love with her in this moment and I want her to have this future that does not have me in it, this past that does not have me in it.
Here together now, can we ever find a true place or make a place true? We cannot all be Indigenous, but to survive can we be “naturalized” to see all the Beings who live here? How do we come to believe that “all flourishing is mutual,” as Robin Wall Kimmerer offers us from her Indigenous teachers? Where do we start, to find the true places we must return to?
A park is a place that when you go there, they have to let you in. The act of creating and maintaining a park, even the smallest park, considering all it may mean to anyone, is so generous and so brave that only very patient people with tools and sturdy shoes and open hearts could ever conceive of it. For anyone in these divided times, small arms fire is likely to come from both left and right, one side purveyors of the purity of the wilderness, an imagined place without influence from humans, and, on the other, those who imagine no other Being but human, no other use for the earth than human use. The word “progress” is pulled thin between these opposed intentions. Importantly, says Pollan, the neverland of argument between proponents of “untouched” wilderness and proponents of development is not useful for helping to repair or prevent environmental damage:
At issue here is “us,” meaning whether or not there is such a thing. There is an odd ideological phalanx raised against common lands, common good, and public spaces—not only geographic but in our responsibility toward other humans and other Beings—a public good in the largest sense. The inclination to even think in that inclusive space, or to educate from that principle—is trolled with ugly reaction in every media and venue. But a park is recognition that each of us is a part of the whole, must take responsibility for every motion in ourselves that somehow effects a motion in everything else. Our fate is connected and/or we will be erased. It is the very soul of practicality not to doom ourselves. It is the work at hand.
Nearby, just down the blackberry-choked road, there’s a group of frog transporters who escort thousands of Northern Red-legged frogs, Rana aurora, a species in decline, back and forth over the busy four-lane US 30 in five-gallon buckets. The frogs have to get from a large park to a heavily industrialized area of diminished wetlands along the Willamette River where they breed and lay their eggs. In 2013, some people noticed that frogs were getting squished along paths and streets, on the railway and on the aforementioned highway. Since then, volunteers have organized to work all hours on rainy winter nights for the several months each year when the frogs are moving up and down the hill. Each frog must be gently nabbed, a slippery 3” amphibian in camo, endangered by drought and pesticides, fungal diseases accelerated by climate change, loss of habitat. Red-legged Frog is an unwilling lunch for their own invasive cousins from back east—the big, delicious-legged Bullfrog. Frogs amaze me, now that I have been made to see them. The frog transporters amaze me too.
In defiance of despair, ducking slings and arrows, unimportant persons tote buckets of frogs all night. They hope to carry our ideas from funny cartoon frogs and frogs in blenders to empathy for one third of the world’s frogs at risk, those frogs hopping at the rate of 3-4 percent of frog species per year off the curb and into oblivion. Easy to ridicule frogs, Snail Darters, Spotted Owls, funny stuff like that, people crying wolf.
But enter knowledge, again: our disappearing diversity, pollinators, soil. People starving, poor and rootless people starving first. Funny stuff like that.
Fifty years of data says up to one million species of plants and animals worldwide are facing extinction in the next few decades. All dying is mutual, too.
Meanwhile, like brambles, incursions against our very perception of environmental harm are growing everywhere, including insidious changes in language altered by politics. In Alaska, a state historically hungry for development of minerals and oil, recent administrations have changed the mission statements of our land and water agencies. A 2012 Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, now a US Senator, presided over a change in the agency’s mission statement from “conserve and enhance natural resources for present and future Alaskans” to: “Develop, conserve and maximize the use of Alaska’s natural resources consistent with the public interest.” In 2019, the Commissioner’s page for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation was changed to omit any reference to controlling pollution. Big mineral interests work the political back doors to erode environmental controls in resource extraction permitting processes. Robbed with the point of a fountain pen, our earth.
Our allegiances fracture along faults of privilege and fear, happenstance and propaganda. We are “tribal,” another shot launched at the past that contains us all, the future that contains us all. I look for grandmothers who were young women in the woods. I look for young women and young men who, like me, want to remember what we have not learned.
Where I live, some neighborhood volunteers pull invasive White Sweet Clover, or Hawkweed, or Bird Vetch, along with other species that outcompete native flowers and berries and disrupt the fragile handshake between native plants and the species that depend on them to live. As much consideration as is possible is given to what may be doing damage, what may be benign. The Red-legged frog that is rescued by heroism in Oregon is invasive in Alaska, a bully to even more fragile cousins. Choose what to do. Choose what to keep.
What grows in the place we want to return to?
Mostly unthanked, volunteers learn and re-learn the shifting knowledge they need to do their work. Without power and agency, they work alongside biologists and environmentalists and poets who speak for the animals and plants that have no voices but ours. A friend tells me that the pulling of weeds and writing of letters feels “like administering CPR to a patient who is already dead.” Some choices seem clear, she says, like salmon over gold, but all choices are complicated, must be arrived at through education and discussion. People must be engaged over and over to pick up the tools.
It is work in wan light. You pull a piece of darning cotton through this side of the hole and anchor it in with one, two stitches, then you go to the other side and anchor it, back and forth. Then weave the threads the other way, over and under with your needle, tight and as close together as you can, a way of mending holes as old as socks and shoes, as old as feet.
My grandmother often asked me to thread the needle for her, the light coming from the window behind her not enough. Not enough for me now. Is this my own aging darkness or a gathering dark for my species? The stars are tiny flowers, accelerating away.
What is a word for all of us? In what language will we find it? The long histories of women and men together are sharp and grabby as thorns and wire. Other Beings wait for us to remember we are not alone here, that we cannot pack ourselves for Mars without them. There is no us without them. There is no future that does not start here.
On the side of hope, there is this: tools have shaped our hands. Our sweat tastes like the ancient seas inside us. It is good to work hard. We have companions we have not met.
Mary Odden grew up on the dry side of Oregon, has lived and worked in rural Alaska places as a wildfire and aviation dispatcher, counselor, teacher, and small newspaper owner. She earned an MFA in creative writing from UAF. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Alaska Magazine, and Cirque. Odden’s book of memoir/essays, Mostly Water: Reflections Rural and North, was published in June 2020 by Boreal Books/Red Hen Press. Mary lives with her husband, Jim Odden, in Nelchina, Alaska. Her current project, Sky Wheels, is a book-length fiction about western Alaska that incorporates non-fiction environmental and historical voices.