Vital Organs

Vital Organs, one of six pieces in Boston Be the Change in Fenway, is about the interconnectedness of the well being of humans and the rest of the natural world. Making this piece brought me more into conversation about how a deep culture of caring for those we share land, air and water with will determine our ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions and even find abundance. Vital Organs has been coming into being over the Spring and Summer in conversation and shared stewardship experiences with friends and neighbors in my community of Egleston Square in Roxbury. Throughout this journey, I’ve been both tending to the gardens and also learning to embody a sense of interconnectedness and balance with my community, which includes humans with many different identities, animals, trees, plants, soil, and so many more beings. Caretaking and being cared for in these relationships is an ever evolving practice that this sculpture embodies.

From late May until mid-August, the sculpture had been situated in the back corner of the garden space behind the Egleston Square Branch Library, next to Mr. Spencer’s raised bed gardens and down the slope from garden mounds that I had planted with friends and neighbors. Mr. Spencer has lived next door to the library for 41 years and holds court under the shade of a chestnut tree in the corner of a pocket park with plantings and benches that are generally occupied by his friends and family. He and the librarians have included Vital Organs in their watering rotation, keeping the plants alive throughout a major drought and heat wave. The garden space behind the library is not just home to our gardens and my sculpture, but also fruit trees, medicinal plants and other vegetable gardens cared for by neighbors and Friends of Egleston Library group. Rats, squirrels, rabbits, and different kinds of birds also thrive there, nourished by what we are growing, and other less nutritious offerings, such as a birthday cake I found under the tree one morning. After 2+ months of caring for the land behind the Egleston Library together, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the gifts that have been given and received, and how I am learning how building a culture of care for the land and stewards of the land can be a foundational piece of what is needed on a larger scale to restore balance with the Earth and mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

Fellow gardeners shared their unique perspectives on various topics that came up during our time together in the garden. Anthony Romero, artist, writer, and organizer committed to documenting and supporting artists and communities of color, offered several resources that helped me rethink Western models of land stewardship. One of these was the book Fresh Banana Leaves by transnational Indigenous scholar, scientist, and community advocate Jessica Hernandez, PhD. She writes, “Indigenous knowledge can adapt to new climates, spaces, and environment. It is no surprise that due to their resilience and adaptive capacity, Indigenous peoples’ teachings can serve as solutions to the environmental degradation and crisis we are currently facing in a changing climate. However, these Indigenous teachings lose their holistic worldview when applied to the Western linear way of thinking, as Western ideologies do not incorporate culture in their teachings or beliefs.This is why it is important to incorporate Indigenous peoples and their Indigenous teachings when trying to find solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change into the environmental narrative.”  

Indigenous teachings about relationships are often told through stories about plant and animal kin, which shows the value of the more-than-humans in the community. Inside the rib cage in the Vital Organs sculpture is a planter originally envisioned to contain a 3 sisters garden. I had also planted 3 sisters garden mounds up the slope in the ground behind the library with friends and neighbors. There are many different versions of the story, and this is my truncated version of how I understand the story: There were 3 sisters who were having a really hard time getting along. They fought and fought until they just started avoiding each other all together. Their mother braided their hair together so that they couldn’t go anywhere until they worked it out. They sat for so long that their hair went into the earth, turning into roots and they became plants: Corn, Beans, and Squash. It was in plant form that they finally and truly learned to work together. The corn sister provides tall stalks for the beans to climb so that they would not be out-competed by the sprawling squash vines. The bean sister provides nitrogen to fertilize the soil while also stabilizing the tall corn during heavy winds. Beans are nitrogen-fixers meaning their root system can take nitrogen, a much needed plant nutrient, from the air and convert it into forms that can be absorbed by the roots of the corn plants. The squash sister has large leaves and a trailing habit which shades the ground around the other sisters and helps retain soil moisture and prevent weeds. This reciprocal and harmonious relationship has been nourishing the land, people’s bodies and imaginations, and offering wisdom of how to live in balance for thousands of years across Turtle Island, the indigenous name for the lands now known as North and Central America. The story of how these lands got this name is full of teachings about gratitude and being part of a culture of care.

I was excited to see what I would learn from growing a Three Sisters garden. Kristen Wyman, co-founder of Eastern Woodlands Rematriation (EWR), was a key part of the gardening team. EWR is an intertribal network of indigenous peoples who are “working to sustain spiritual foundations of our livelihoods through Indigenous food and agroecological systems”. Kristen had shared with me a workshop video about growing a three sisters garden, where I learned about a type of corn called Weeâchumun, also known as King Philip Corn. This historic Wampanoag native landrace flint corn from New England was named after Wampanoag intertribal leader Metacom, who was also known to early settlers as King Philip. I was able to order seeds, and was so excited to begin a new relationship with Weeâchumun. 

Tears sprung from my eyes when she began to grow. I felt that she was a super social being, as I kept visiting her and meeting with people at the garden. I had so many conversations around Weeâchumun with neighbors I may not have otherwise chatted with. Neighbor George talked about his feelings on how people treat women the way they treat the Earth and that humanity needs to do better. Ralph and Nasahwn, father and son, spoke about the wildlife in the neighborhood, and shared with me what they had guessed the sculpture was about, which was pretty close. The building manager in the adjacent building told me that the secrets to a healthy life are eating vegetables, yoga and meditation. Someone asked me when the rib cage would turn into a dinosaur. Each visit to the garden also revealed the interest of the animals we shared the garden with. After a month and a half or so, a few stalks had been eaten by critters, but the others had grown knee high and strong. I thought they had grown too big to be vulnerable to being eaten, and then, within a week, one by one each plant was munched to the ground. Even the ones I had put a wire mesh fence around in the rib cage were overtaken. Some sprouted back up in a powerful display of resilience, but then they too were munched again. So we wouldn’t be harvesting corn this year, and I was in mourning. 

This loss got me thinking about a lot of things. How do you live in reciprocity with beings that eat ALL your corn? The story of the Three Sisters is about relationships, so I started thinking about the other relationships I was forming in the space that were in reciprocity. Also, not all vegetable matter was lost, the beans and the squash seemed to be doing just fine. Planting the garden mounds was a great way to build community, and on the planting days we shared food and conversation that nourished us each in different ways. Perhaps we were even sowing seeds for future gardening projects together. The gardens would all be dead if it were not for Mr. Spencer and the librarians who watered it consistently during an incredible drought and heat wave. Mr. Spencer and a regular at the library named Philip came through in a major way when I needed to hire a few artist assistants to install a sculptural installation. I told Mr. Spencer the project details and he told Philip – between the two of them they found three hard working folx who were up for the task. Corn was lost and these other important relationships had grown.

In opening myself to the possibilities of building community through gardening, a more capitalist view can be applied to understanding the benefits: we built social capital that has enabled me to finish a project on time and budget, and three underemployed people from my community received fair pay for a few days of work. While I would like to have been able to offer more work, now that I know them and a little bit about their professional goals, I can send along job descriptions and be a person with a positive association to encourage them to follow through on their goals. Even though the sculpture isn’t there, I still stop by weekly to check in on how people are doing. I do truly believe that the connections we have made open up a channel for resource sharing that is mutually beneficial. They continually remind me that if I ever need a hand with other projects they are up for the task. 

Indigenous Botanist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her essay entitled The Serviceberry, An Economy of Abundance, describes the concept of the gift economy. She writes, “In a gift economy, wealth is understood as having enough to share, and the practice for dealing with abundance is to give it away. In fact, status is determined not by how much one accumulates, but by how much one gives away. The currency in a gift economy is relationship, which is expressed as gratitude, as interdependence and the ongoing cycles of reciprocity. A gift economy nurtures the community bonds that enhance mutual well-being; the economic unit is “we” rather than “I,” as all flourishing is mutual.” This article was shared to me by fellow gardener Taina Vargas of Sankofa Anacaona Botanicals whose deepened relationship with Juneberry a.k.a. Serviceberry this season led her to this article which she shared with me, prompting me to explore alternative economies in this way, which has been extremely helpful.

Mr. Spencer is a major resource in the gift economy of Egleston Square, connecting people and giving away food he has grown in his garden. This time of year, he is daily giving away fruits and vegetables he has been tending to.

Ecological Economics is a more academically oriented framework to consider that Robin Wall Kimmerer discussed in her essay as well. It is a Western trans-disciplinary field, not just including ecology and economics, but also psychology, anthropology, archaeology, and history. While standard economists aren’t integrating the fact that exponential growth will eventually lead to environmental collapse, Ecological economics recognizes that the economy, like any other subsystem on the planet, cannot grow forever, and that it’s important to learn how people have interacted with their economies and environments in the past, across different cultures and apply that learning to envision a more sustainable future.The framework seeks to use governments, institutions, and community structures to shift and change markets. 

Ecological Economics incorporates the fact that humans are embedded in their ecological life-support system and not separate from the environment. Without paying homage to Indigenous Peoples for their thousands of years of practice living in balance with the Earth. This theory runs the risk of harming Indigenous people’s by co-opting their knowledge, who have often suffered the most from the capitalist system and climate change impacts.

Kimmerer writes: “Continued fealty to economies based on competition for manufactured scarcity, rather than cooperation around natural abundance, is now causing us to face the danger of producing real scarcity, evident in growing shortages of food and clean water, breathable air, and fertile soil. Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle: genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”

While our capitalist economic system isn’t going away anytime soon, investing more energy and resources in relationships with people and plants will build our social capital and increase our ability to find our own version of abundance. Being part of different economic systems is a way to build new skills to live in balance with the earth.

As Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman articulates her article ‘Personal Choice’ Won’t Stop The Climate Crisis. Join A Movement Instead, she writes, “Nothing but sweeping systemic policy change will make a difference at scale, and nothing but massive, organized social movements have ever accomplished such reforms.” In an effort to find some collective measures that will lead to systemic shifts, I’ve started to tune into what policy changes could be enacted to hold corporations and governments more accountable for the harms they continue to inflict. In collaboration with the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), I found two different acts and an ordinance in January when I started looking into these issues. The two distinct acts are at the state level, and the Tree Ordinance is in the City of Boston.

The S504/H905 – Municipal Reforestry Act prioritizes tree planting in environmental justice communities, however I was recently informed by David Meshoulam, Executive Director and co-founder of Speak for the Trees Boston that the funding stream has dried up. He indicated that not much advocacy can be done to bring it back until after the election in November. 

An Act to Improve Outdoor and Indoor Air Quality for Communities Burdened by Transportation Pollution: (H.2230 & S.1447, sponsored by Reps. Barber and Connolly/Sen. Jehlen) is described as focusing on low-income and minority environmental populations and those communities burdened by air emissions from highways, ports, airports, and congested roadways, and sets ambitious air quality targets for 2030 and 2035. 

However, David Albright, Legislative Director at JALSA said that not much can be done right now to move the two bills at the state level, as the legislature is now out of formal session. 

Ordinance Establishing protections for The City of Boston Tree Canopy would create a permitting process that would protect trees on private property from being cut down for development at the whim of the developer and property owner. 

Joining a climate justice movement and/or calling or emailing elected officials listed on these acts and expressing your support are some actions you can do. In the city of Boston, you can request a tree to be planted in front of their home or business by calling 311. Watering trees during droughts and heat waves is an important way to care for and protect trees. If you have a yard, consider planting a tree in it! 

Look for clues on what shifts you can make to be a more conscious and caring steward of the land and other people through learning about the original inhabitants of where you live, how they traditionally cared for the land, and the barriers they face as they try and continue to care for the land. Boston is located on the traditional lands of the Massachusett Ponkapoag Tribe. Other tribes in the area, including the Nipmuc and Wampanoag also consider Boston their home and have long term and precontact historical connections to the Boston region and Massachusetts Bay. Eastern Woodlands Rematriation engages tribal femmes, youth and families in rebuilding historical alliances and regional foodways. Consider how you can support Indigenous caretakers of the land. 

My first season trying to grow a 3 sisters garden in the Vital Organs sculpture has been meaningful because I immersed myself in the story of learning to live in reciprocity with beings who I didn’t have a lot of experience with. I do feel a more embodied sense of interconnectedness in my community. Growing a 3 sisters garden did nourish all the critters that ate the corn, but also the pollinators, and all the people involved I think have a greater sense of care for each other’s well being. With this foundation of care, we can become greater stewards of the lands we occupy and can make more informed decisions that will make our communities more resilient. Building towards balance with the Earth and social equity requires that more people realize the need for our role not as passive recipients of The Way Things Are, but as expansive thinkers and collaborative shapers of our communities and relationships. 

Want to do a deeper dive? Here are further references and resources 

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