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becoming naturalized

finding your relationship to place


red berries with yellow petals and brown stems.  american bittersweet vine
bittersweet berries

holding patterns are funny things.


as one half of a couple who's worked through the stresses and strains of infertility, i am no stranger to the sin of living perpetually in the future. "when we get pregnant, we'll do XYZ"... "when there's a baby, we can finally get around to PQR"... specifics of fertility aside, does this sound familiar? is there any time in your life (or perhaps, maybe, now?) when you've put off something that would be healing, nourishing, or growth-related until a time when you got to some theoretical or imagined future possibility?


i can apply for that job, but not 'til I have a degree.


a career change would be nice, but not 'til the kids are grown.


a bikini would be great, but i need to lose weight first. (sidecar: you don't. get that bikini!)


i use examples from my own life not out of a need to talk about myself (*introvert criiiiinge*), but rather in the hopes that you'll hear something of your own life and worry and struggles in what i share. in my life, in a very big way, i've been living for a future time with children.


for me, this shows up in a neglect of household and yard projects, which wouldn't be a big deal, except that we moved into a 1790's fixer-upper in 2017 whose yard has been going feral since several years before we moved in. i don't think this is at all a conscious thing, but i can feel myself, somewhere under the tide of day to day life, putting things off until "we're a family"--pushing projects forward to when "there's a kiddo in the house", when things need to be fixed, and safe(r), and clean(er).


the house itself is a big project, but the thing that's been on my mind even more recently is the land, the eleven-point-something acres we have the privilege of stewarding, that i'm somewhat ashamed to say i don't yet know very well. "this," i think, "is where my garden will be." "that," i imagine,"would be a great place to clear a trail out to the back of the property." i see the glint of metal through the winter-naked trees and wonder what wild and wondrous treasure is in that old midden pile. i know there are blueberries (zillow said so!), but where? what i'm noticing, with curiosity and self-compassion, is that i'm basically drowning in a pile of "wills" and "woulds", and in the process, i'm neglecting to get to know the land and to really become (and deserve to become) a part of this ecosystem.


******


when i woke up this morning, i started planning out my day. because of a crunch to finish work for two training programs that i'm in, winding down midwifery obligations, and a backlog of volunteer work, i'd gotten behind on writing. so that's it--writing day! over the past 3 weeks, i've been slow-savor reading braiding sweetgrass by robin wall kimmerer. it's one of those books that so densely rich that you want to linger over every single page, and it's something that goes into the category of "have read once--need to read several times more".


it was so incredibly warm and sunny out (and for a short and quickly dwindling time, blessedly bug free) that i couldn't imagine plunking down in front of my computer all day. i decided to cue up braiding sweetgrass on audible, grab my headphones, and finish the listen on a long walk. halfway down the tenth-of-a-mile gravel driveway, an amazing piece of synchronicity stopped me clean in my tracks.


one of the banes of my yard is an invasive ornamental called bittersweet. it grows mind-blowingly fast and sends out curling ropes of vine. you could make beautiful wreaths and baskets from it, but then that would just encourage it to grow. the roots send out wild runners, spreading it like stringy, insatiable, tumorous growths just under the grass to pop up here and there and everywhere, choking out everything around it--even trees. (southerners, think kudzu if the stems were made of steel and the deer wouldn't eat it.)


i'd already passed (and anxiously ignored) the huge patch of bittersweet threatening to claim the little "front yard" area of our land, but in this synchronous moment, i simultaneously saw a stand of bittersweet that had made it under the driveway to the other side of the yard (BLAST!!) and heard kimmerer's soft voice invite me into the process of "naturalization" with the land around me. "becoming indigenous", she said, was off the table, since on so many levels i am an immigrant to this homestead of mine. but, kimmerer's voice through my headphones suggested, i could and should work to build a relationship of understanding and of sacred reciprocity with my home place in an effort to become "naturalized" to this place.


in an instant, i realized that it would be a kind of sacrilege to leave my land to go for a walk while listening to a potawatomi elder tell me of the importance of becoming embedded in my home environment. my land was right there, needing me to know it, needing me to pay attention to it, needing my help, and i'd been ready to just abandon it for a walk or a hike or a million other things.


i approached the little stand of bittersweet and pulled on the hard stems, exposing a tightly clinging network of orange-skinned, white-runnered roots that led back up the driveway to the big stand in the front yard. i stopped to listen, as kimmerer had asked, and the land pulled me back, asking for my assistance, for my love, for my participation. i spent the rest of the day, work time and all, out in the yard, pulling piles and piles and piles of bittersweet out of the earth in an effort to officially, and without continued future-focused hesitation, enter in a responsible relationship with the land that i inhabit.


******


braiding sweetgrass is a marvel. part botany, part indigenous history, part storytelling, part cautionary tale, part first nations philosophy, part invitation to notice the urgent need to do better by our land, it's an absolute goldmine. it's what i think i really wanted when i read if women rose rooted, which spoke deeply and richly of place, but of a place far away from where i call home. sweetgrass was an invitation to consider, through the eyes of its first and displaced stewards, my relationship with and obligation to THIS place--my home place. it was an invitation to see turtle island through the eyes and stories and language of the first people to enter deeply into right relationship with it.


the story challenged me to see and to start to understand how something as fundamental as language shapes how we see ourselves, how we see the ground upon which we stand, and how we see (or don't see) the relationship between those two things. language, grammar, and syntax... all of these lay down the framework in our brains that set the stage for our tendencies to objectify or to consider as integrative parts of a whole. they determine whether we focus on might and right or on relation and collective responsibility. on power over or harmony with.


as i pulled and pulled and pulled the the threatening, invasive ropes of bittersweet, brought to the yard by an overenthusiastic gardener so many years ago, i unearthed the sunlight-starved native inhabitants of the yard, i smelled the soil, i found and gently replaced big fat worms and startled pill bugs, and i watched in awe as, under my hands, the shape of my outdoor home started to come alive. the land which i am privileged to call my home was starting to be less of a "project for later" or a "thing to make nice when there's a family to enjoy it."


there's a family to enjoy it now. there's me, there's stephen, there are turkeys, there are deer, there are blueberries (found 'em and will check back in july). there's rhythm and season and movement and change and growth. soon there will be loads of black flies and mosquitoes, but even that gives way to clouds of dragonflies. ticks are annoying, but through turkey gut alchemy, they'll become the little poult heads bobbing in the grass behind turkey moms in a few weeks. this place is alive. it hums. i'm part of it. i have a responsibility to it, and that responsibility doesn't and shouldn't live in an imagined future.


and i'm humbled and grateful for the wisdom of an elder who reminded me to be here now, to be in relationship to my land, to tend what i want to grow, and to become natural to this place i call home.


how do you connect to the land that you call home? if you don't, how might you? remember that "land" can be acres and acres of yard, or it can be the tenacious weeds that poke up from your city sidewalks, or it can be the green spaces in your local park.


be well, keep growing, keep going.


abby hall luca

the hearth chaplain



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