Three Sisters: Moundbuilding and Storytelling

“It should be them that tell this story …” (Kimmerer, 2015, p. 128).

Robin Wall Kimmerer is an inspiring storyteller, scientist, mother and Indigenous activist. It is no wonder that that our EDUC6106 (Indigenous and Global Perspectives) has gravitated towards her book, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013a) to explore our own journey in understanding and reconciliation.

One of the ideas I wanted to explore was the three sisters garden. I’ve long been a fan of companion planting and the science behind plant intelligence and communication is awe-inspiring (Kimmerer, 2013a; Simmard, 2021; Simard, 2016). I thought this would be an ideal time to explore this with my son. Not only will we try for three gardens (at home, at our community garden and at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre), we will also be participating in a community of gardeners whose experiences in this venture will be celebrated and shared. Community and reciprocity, giving and receiving, sharing and learning, these are some of the main ideas that both Kimmerer (2013a) and Simard (2021) observe in plants. These are gifts they can give us, if we’re patient and quiet enough to listen.

It all began on a warm day in early June. Well, it began long before that, but we’ll start this story here, with Gabriel swinging in the red hammock with the ash trees whispering overhead. The robins are singing and there is the long coo-hoo-coo-coo-coo-coo of the doves. The sun is warm where it flits between the leaves of the ash and rowan in our backyard. It hasn’t rained in awhile.

I settle into the white cedar chair I made for my Dad long ago and open Braiding Sweetgrass (Kimmerer, 2013a) to page 133 and begin reading: “It should be them that tell this story …”. Gabriel listens to the story of corn, the first sister, emerging from the ground, shooting up quickly like the grass it is. He hears about beans, the middle sister, and how they dig their roots deep, grow leaves and then tendrils to grasp onto corn. And the third sister squash, a little slower than the others and determined to go its own way in the world. He learns that corn grows tall but has shallow roots that love water, that beans contribute nitrogen to the three sisters through cooperation with the Rhizobium bacteria, and that squash shades the soil from the sun and reduces weeds. All contribute their own special gifts and enrich the lives of the others that grown near them (Kimmerer, 2013a, pp. 128-134).

Reading and swinging in the hammock.

Which is where the story of the three sisters comes in: they who arrived on a winters night when the people were dying of hunger, one robed in yellow, another in green and the youngest in orange. Even though there was little food, the people shared what they had. In gratitude and reciprocity, the sisters revealed that they were corn, beans and squash and gave seeds to the people so that they would never grow hungry (Kimmerer, 2013a, p. 131). A story of biological and social reciprocity.

As I write this, I wonder about the origins of this very important story. Does it tell of the beginnings of agriculture? Of communication between different groups of people? What other stories are there to be told about the arrival of the three sisters? Archaeologically, squash and beans were the first sisters, with evidence of domestication in Mesoamerica and South America respectively between 7000-8000 BC with corn (evolved from teosinte) joining them between 2000-3000 BC (Price & Feinman, 2003, p. 197). Peoples in Eastern North America appear to have another three sisters: squash, marsh elder and goosefoot (chia) around 2500 BC (Price & Feinman, 2003, p.254-55). Corn made her way north from 1200 BC in the southwest to AD 1-200 in the Eastern Woodlands (Price & Feinman). These are stories of human reciprocity with plants, choosing and selecting and observing how plants grow and slowing linking our own evolution and social interaction with theirs in a dance that has changed both communities. In the Western capitalist practice of monoculture, this dance has become less about cooperation and more about coercion. The story of the three sisters, aiding humans in times of starvation, is one we should all listen closely to.

The King Edward Community Garden. Our plot is the one with mounds! And the wheelbarrow.

Seeking to understand this story of cooperation, my son and I head off to our community garden where I mound the soil and rake it and make gentle craters in the tops as the webpages I researched suggested (list webpages). I ask my son if we should follow the webpages advice and plant corn first. He shakes his head. “No! That’s not what the book said. Beans take time to grown their tendrils. Let’s plant them all now”. There is, of course, some 9 year old impatience in this statement but Kimmerer doesn’t tell of planting separately and it is her story we’re following (though later I read another article by her which says to plant corn first! (Kimmerer, 2013b). And we learn as we go. And modify for next year. If this works and my son gets fresh corn to slather with butter and salt, we’re going to be growing this sister for a long time to come!

Planting the Three Sisters

My son helps me plant. Together, we put the corn in the top, marking the four directions. The beans are planted in the mound and the squash at the bottom. My son insists on planting a squash (we chose pumpkin and butternut) along the edge of the garden. I shrug and don’t comment. We will both learn if this is a good idea and whether this third sister can be convinced to grown around the mound rather than across the path and out of the garden! The sun is hot and my son is beginning to wonder when we will be be done. I think about the women long ago planting the corn, beans and squash. Were their children equally impatient? Or were they dedicated participants, understanding that this was important to how loudly their bellies would complain come winter? Would my son even have been part of the growing, or would he have been learning about hunting and tracking, the latter which I find fascinating but my son has little time for! Gardening has an eventual treat. But we are not hunters and deer tracks don’t mean food but a boring trek through the woods where you must remain quiet and not talk. Deer are also large and fast for all their silent, shy natures.

But here, in this garden, there are no deer, but a community of curious and dedicated gardeners. Our mounds look like something old and ancient next to the neat rows of lettuce and carrots. As we water our mounds, the water pours off the dry dirt, bonding with it and taking it with it, leaving dry slopes. I wonder if I have made the mounds too steep or if we are seeing the dusty dry nature of June this year. Time will tell. And the experiences of my other colleagues making gardens of their own.

Reference List

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013a). Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013b). The fortress, the river and the garden: a new metaphor for cultivating mutualistic between scientific and traditional ecological knowledge. In Andrejs Kulnicks, Dan Roronhiakewen Longboat & Kelly Young (Eds.), Contemporary studies in environmental and Indigenous pedagogies. A curricula of stories and place (pp. 49-76). Sense Publishers.

Price, T. Douglas & Feinman, G. (2003). Images of the Past. McGraw-Hill Education.

Simard, Suzanne. (2021). Finding the mother tree: Discovering the wisdom of the forest. Allen Lane.

Simmard, Suzanne. (2016, August 30). How trees talk to each another. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en .

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