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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Nettles on the Way to St. Peter



The engine roared as we passed an auto parts depots outside of town - our car felt like a roadster -  I hoped it didn't burn too much gas.

The vehicle was a prepaid. The rental company gave us a silver hearse with sun-shaded windows, a retro design. Phlegmatic burps issued from the muffler. Our trigger fingers itched as we passed banks. We were mobsters on the lam.

Passed food marts. Not hungry. Deer browse constantly but most primates take a break from eating.

The soul borrows a body, which borrows from the rest of life. Is history the record of souls that flee from a reckoning? Banks here are on the lam too, unkempt signs, branches boarded up. How temporary it all seems, malls, Fairfield Inns, Marriots, Arby's, MacDonalds - built to last a few years. Soon they'll be piles of scrap metal. Gangs will fight over their metal remains,

We passed funeral homes and cemeteries - no stops. Life's trails are marked at beginning and end.

We passed farmers pulling trailers with their pickups . . . No one could see us inside - wary of a rented car, they moved over to the right.

Strip malls gave way to grain elevators, railroad tracks, corn fields . . . fallow meadows, groves of oaks and conifers clustered around old farmhouses. Each of the farms had gathered a small bit of forest, and seemed to be clutching the trees tightly to keep warm in the howling Western winter.

We made St. Peter in less than an hour.

Arjun noticed a sign. "Pull over. Native tall grass prairie!"

Sure enough. The county historical society had acquired a bend in the Minnesota river. They built a museum to house artifacts of prairie life. A university had excavated the area a few years back, and some old shards were on display. The place was closed, but we took in what we could through the plate glass.

Trails led towards the river.

The place was called "Traverse des Sioux" or, "Where the Sioux Cross". Here the Minnesota River became shallow and it was possible to make it from one side to the other, walking, or swimming.

In 1851 the Dakota Sioux reached a decision to sell Minnesota Territory to the white man. The historical society framed the event like a bailout. The bankrupt Sioux had not been able to survive or feed themselves and so capitulated to more powerful economic interests. They wrote it up like a wise business decision. According to this version of history, there had been much celebrating on the day the treaty was inked. There was even a wedding.

It hurt to read this. It hurt as much as looking up at two huge cottonwoods, with magnificent trunks, the bark peeling in arm-thick slabs, like a hickory, enough to run up with your hands. The trunks were massive, but the upper limbs were dead, or dying despite the attentions of years of tree surgeons. The primary cause was soil erosion at the bank. The cottonwood is ideally selected by nature to hold back soil, more effective than any system of levees, or machinations by an Army Corps of Engineers. Cottonwoods and other water loving trees once contained the banks of the entire Mississippi drainage during flood. They are now defeated. Their numbers are cut to nothing. Root loss means soil loss.

I once wrote a poem for a Sioux woman who I met online. She lived in South Dakota. Her name was Sioux Lily. I was practicing a type of poem called a lipogram. It was written by constraining the alphabet to just the letters of her name. That meant writing her a poem with just the letters S, I, O, U, Y, L, X. The idea was to use Sioux Lily's name as a kind of muse, and the alphabet that spelled that name as the myths that I could use to deconstruct forces in her life.

During this period I wrote many poems for people I'd never met. They were mostly poems for women, but I also wrote poems for couples, a baby, another for the giant food chain MacDonalds. Here is the poem to Sioux Lily:

     Sioux Lilly's solo is S, I, O, U, Y, L, X
     Sioux Lilly’s soul is ill . . .
     Sioux Lilly's loss is silly
     Sioux Lilly's IOU is six
     Sioux Lilly's ill is loss of soil . . .
     Sioux Lilly's ill is . . . oil.

I read Sioux Lilly's poem to her over the telephone. She lived in South Dakota somewhere, and was involved in politics. She was a powerful heavy woman, the kind that defeats the menfolk in elections. She was a force. She said it told the story of her life.

But the poem did not do any such thing. Instead her life was built upon the letters of her name, and those letters are each individually, a myth, with powerful histories and stories behind them. Sioux Lilly had created her own name. In it she put the whole plight of her people. The poem is hers.

Soil loss means flash floods. Flash floods means New Orleans under water, destroyed agriculture, destroyed forests. Destruction that will take a dozen ice-ages to rebuild. An area with countless millions of cottonwoods, broader at the base than the largest wagon wheels, now a memory of wood ash, washed to Mexico gulf.

Arjun ran up the bark laden trunk.

Arjun is my son. All his life he has loved the forest, plants, birds. Nature in all it's forms. He's the only soul I know who at such a young age is content in the woods alone for five days. With Arjun it's easy to go hungry. He fasts constantly, by inclination. We named him Arjun after the famous Indian archer of the Mahabharata, then years later I realized, after writing his poem with just the letters in his full name, Arjun Brandreth Potter, in part why his own mythology was deeply involved with plants, birds, and trees. Here's a bit of it:

     Hear an ode on paper to Arjun Brandreth Potter
     Or be Dante here to tone a rap.
     Or Auden to pen a Bornean pantun
     . . . or a Borat to rune a rondeau
     A troubadour pater’ penned an epode tune
     To a Bhudda hunter, Arjun.
     A, J, B, D, E, H, N, P, R, T, U and O.

The words are Arjun's and only his. Somehow we live our names, if not becoming the words that our names contain, resisting them, and so becoming them anyway.

Further into the scrub forest we found another giant cottonwood, but this one was dead outright, trunk bleached bone white, the ghost of an enormous bison.

Its progeny were attempting to prosper, but the conditions just weren't right. Nature has a law, and that law is the law of succession. On destroyed land, first the pioneer species make a hasty ground cover, then scrub forest quickly take their place, a mix of grasses and trees, from there a long succession of species until the final occupants put down permanent roots. In the mountains of the Northeast the final acts were giant oaks and white pines. Here at the prairie river basins it was Cottonwood. In the groves of Illinois and Indiana, the American walnut was so prolific that wagon trains rode for days in the shade of giants, their hoops crushing the shells of walnuts. That great tree was later exterminated to supply gunstocks.

Oh the walnut has survived, yes. The Sioux have survived, and Homo sapiens, also, has also survived. At one point in human history man's numbers dwindled to a few thousand. But we survived.

Who is the final occupant of this Earth? Man? Will there ever be a final occupant?

And yet here, there is still green. Short trees are making it back. Birds sing. Chlorophyll thrives. We miss the mature trees but the world is still nature. We are nature, but are we mature? In numbers yes. Who is the top species on Earth, the plants, or us? Our myths claim we are, but we need it to be the plants.

Nature hasn't thought up much else that can feed us.

A sign explained that this land had been allowed to 'revert' to native flora and fauna. A difficult assignment. This part of Minnesota where the river weaves north, then south, then north again, like a sunning snake on the broad edge of the northern plains, prairie fingers penetrated the vast stands of mixed forest, creating a rich edge effect which fed vast populations of deer, wood bison, and bear.

Today the area bordering the river was a transition zone of scrub trees, a poor ground cover of nettles, and pioneer species like poison ivy, Virginia creeper, blackberries and raspberries. This was nature's bandage to damaged land. Where poison ivy boils and nettles sting, where blackberries scratch, the earth cries out "I'm hurt, leave me be. Let me grow back".

I thought of the colonial cry "Don't Tread on Me".

Further west the tall-grass prairie would have begun suddenly. The blue-stemmed grass was once so tall that it swished pollen against the chin. A heritage layer of rich soil piled thirty feet thick in places, and thick grass was so prolific that one felt the rise in the soil level as one stepped up to the prairie space. It seemed limitless, endless. . one could never imagine any of it washing away. All one could see were dizzying waves of grain before one's eyes.

Incredibly when colonists first arrived they didn't believe crops could grow where trees wouldn't, so they cut and cleared the forests at the edges of the rivers instead.

We saw a red-winged blackbird. Out here they don't have much of the bar of yellow that they have east. . . but the red patch is so big. A robin flew down the soft path ahead of us, alighted on the dirt, hopped, turned its head, and with a deft bob, extracted a worm. It did this three times, then carried a worm back into the cover of trees, to it's nest.

"The robins listen for worms." Arjun explained. "People think they are looking with their eyes, but they're not. They're listening."

These robins had mastered an art, staying ahead of the occasional tourist on the path, and catching the worms before they dove for safety in the dirt. Arjun and I were functioning as beaters, making noise and driving game into the hunter's pitch.

Then we saw a Yellow-headed Blackbird,

"Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus!" Arjun burst out. "I've never seen one."

I took a picture. It was bolder than the Red-winged . . . and larger, near the water, singing like a trooper's patrol car.

A grosbeak taunted from a tree . . . it had picked up the native accent and sounded like a robin.

Then not far from the river's edge, amidst this park that is trying to recover a lost bit of riparian forest, and prairie flora, stuck a plaque, that enigmatically described the area as "Land Seas".

The writer of this enigmatic bit of mythology went on to write how a people who had arrived after months of hard travel by train and by wagon, confused grassland with ocean. But the writer is telling the truth is he not? There's a way to read history if you want to find out what really happened. The secret is to listen to sound, not just to read words as they are spelled. Indeed it was a 'Land Seize' . . .

I thought of that book where the older Zen teacher calls his student 'grasshopper'. I imagined him saying to me "Soft ears grasshopper, soft ears. "

All of us are students, though many of us drop out. To be a student only requires listening.

If the confused and seasick colonists were in some way morally disoriented, were the policies of the U.S. Government towards the Sioux therefor forgivable? Who is being excused here? The inhabitants here have to live alongside what is left of the native Sioux population. There can't be a lot of pride in what happened. Was this pun purposeful, or subconscious? Either way it embeds a hard and bitter truth, into an overall falsification of the record. The land had been taken outright. The treaty was merely the legal flourish executed to pry the land from a defeated people, ex-facto.

I imagined this unsung writer, disguising his opinion of events that took place in 1851, amidst alliteration, He slips his word play into the public record. Tourists walking past will not get it at first, but later, in the car, they will.

The writer's a poet I thought. A grosbeak singing a robin's song.

Arjun was captivated by the nettles. "We don't have these like this in Connecticut". There were two species. Urtica dioica, stinging nettle, was smaller, with a serrated leaf like a beech, and a much larger variety, Wood Nettle, Laportea canadensis.

He rested the back of his finger against the stalk. "If it stings and my finger swells up, it's nettle." he pronounced. Sure enough within minutes his skin reddened, . . and swelled.

He tested the second variety . . . same immediate effect.


"Tom Brown says you have to get to know everything that lives around you. Learn to pick nettle so that it won't sting you. This is not impossible. You just have to know how to grab it. . . If you are afraid of nettle it will sting you. If you aren't you won't even feel the sting as you pick it."

"Why would you pick nettles? Is it a medicine?"

"Absolutely. It makes wonderful tea. The original contents of spanakopita was nettle. It's one of the most nutritious of plants. " Arjun explained how it was loaded with iron, potassium. "The colonists used to flog themselves with nettles to cure rheumatism, and relieve themselves of other chronic pain."

"Urtication means to flog with nettles."

We spoke for a few minutes about the similarity of sound. Urticate, and Hurt . . similar sound. The grosbeak spoke again, it's imitation of native robin. Land Seas and Land Seize.

They learn to speak in tongues, birds do. That's half the life of a songbird. . . singing. Birds are great masters of ritual. They sing as much because it is fun, as for any other reason. Their song evolve in patterns that bear structural similarities with Brahman rituals in India, or Catholic intonations by monks in Europe. These patterns equip the user with a flexible mind, a memory, a voice, and an ability to communicate instantly, if there is such a need. But most of the life of a songbird is not spent in fear of hawks. . . so it sings sweetly . . .

I looked in awe at the broad green leaves of Wood Nettle . . . taller, darker, like rich spinach. We could soak them in the mud of the Minnesota right now. . and the poisons would be neutralized. . . a more nourishing salad one would never eat.

Yet from where we stood we could see trucks bolting along the highway. Three in a row bore the logo "Green Giant". They powered down the highway, headquarters nearby, shipping frozen spinach from everywhere to everywhere. . . . .

They left the Nettles to us.

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