by Mike Curran
Welcome! Have you met little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), the perennial grass that turns a deep copper after the first frost? Perhaps you already know Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), which dwells in roadside ditches, inviting a variety of visitors, from honeybees to monarchs.
The Garden Under Your Breath acquaints you with some of the species that inhabit local prairies. But to truly know these plants, we must venture beyond naming. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist, member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, reminds us of this: “When we name something, this name becomes almost an end to inquiry,” she noted in a recent interview. “We sort of say, well, we know it now. We’re able to systematize it and put a Latin binomial on it, so it’s ours.” Kimmerer expands this logic, proposing an ethos of reciprocity where living beings are regarded as subjects, not objects; an ethos where plants are not simply ours, but we are theirs—where we are kin. Though what good does it do to realize this relationship now, out on this frozen lake, where the plants we’re meeting have been isolated from the land they laid roots in?
Tallgrass prairies once stretched from present-day south Texas to Saskatchewan. This continuous, 170 million acre range was among the most complex ecosystems on the planet, hosting an immeasurable number of interspecies interactions. Its enormity has since been parceled off, violating the ecosystem’s defining quality—its interconnectedness. Only 1% of the continent’s native prairies remain, and still the degradation continues: in Minnesota alone, nearly two million acres of grasslands were converted to farmland between 2012 and 2019. This very history is emblazoned on the state’s seal, which depicts a white farmer tilling a field, fracturing soil row by row, while a Native American caricature rides toward a fading sunset, away from a land suddenly systematized and converted to an object. Under the weight of this cascading catastrophe, introducing yourself to these plants now might feel a bit like meeting an estranged family member only to find they’ve received a terminal diagnosis.
The Great Seal of the State of Minnesota, as adopted in 1858.
And yet, despite the dislocation, to love this garden’s goldenrod is to love every goldenrod that has come before. We’re meeting these species in the thick of winter, when plants across the Midwest’s prairies have gone dormant. They know when to stop and start growing again because of the memories they inherited as seeds, when their mother plants imprinted the knowledge of previous temperatures on the genes they passed on, giving their seeds the ability to germinate when conditions became ideal. By following this line, we might start to see ourselves: embedded in these genetic memories are recollections of human-induced disturbances, of shifting germination timelines caused by the seasonal unpredictability that climate change inflicts—the memories of emerging from dormancy during a warm stretch in early spring, only to be shocked by a late freeze. Tapping into dormancy’s ancient knowledge, these plants remember you even if you don’t yet know them.
So what happens now that we’re more fully seeing these plants, attaching their names to a tangible, profoundly complex ecosystem? We might be compelled to restore these lands, helping to re-establish perennial communities wherever possible—in front yards, street boulevards, atop formerly tilled fields. But no dirt can be moved until we recognize that we are kin and that, just like the plants before you, we too are on thin ice.
Transporting the plants from Tom Bierlein's studio to Lake Harriet.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, “The Intelligence of Plants,” interview by Krista Tippett, On Being, Krista Tippett Public Productions, February 25, 2016.
“A Complex Prairie Ecosystem,” National Park Service, December 18, 2020, Link.
Jennifer Bjorhus, “Conversion of Minnesota grasslands to crops threatens wildlife, water, climate,” Star Tribune, October 23, 2021, Link.
Université de Genève, “Seeds inherit memories from their mother: Maternal and environmental control of seed dormancy is carried out through novel epigenetic mechanisms,” Science Daily, March 26, 2019, Link.