“What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn’t you dance it? Wouldn’t you act it out? Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story?”
While you are reading this text, think about how we could all live a Symbiotic life – a life for all to be happy – it is possible!
Let me tell you a story about symbiotic living. A story in which cooperation, not competition, is the decisive factor for development and longevity. A story told by plants, told on a universal language of movement, a story of food and much more.
The three sisters are a plant guild, assembled together from the Indigenous people of America. They are Corn, Bean, and Squash. Three very different sisters living in perfect harmony.
The first sister, Corn is the first to emerge from the soil. She grows fast and tall. Her aim is to reach as much sun light as possible. Corn is all alone at first, while the others are getting ready.
At the same time the other sister, the Bean is choosing a different way of development. Instead of following the example of the first sister growing up to take as much light as possible, this sister is setting deep roots that will anker her in the soil, will let her harvest nutrients from deeper levels of the humus layer. Only after the roots are secured does the stem bend to the shape of hook and elbows its way above the ground. Then she joins the Corn, which is already 15 cm tall.
The Squash is the slower sister. She takes her time. It may be weeks until the first stem pokes up and she starts growing and covering the ground.
But how will these so different sisters support their common existence?
Each of them will have their beneficial role in a completely different, but at the same time harmonious way.
The Corn is the first-born and grows straight and stiff. Making a strong stem is its highest priority at first. It needs to be there for its younger sister, the Bean. Beans focus on leaf growth while Corn concentrate on height. Just about the time when the Corn is knee high, the Bean extends itself into long vines with a mission to find and attach to a vertical structure, in this case provided from her older sister. Had the corn not started early, the Bean vine would strangle it, but when the time is right, the Corn can easily carry the Bean.
Meanwhile, the Squash, the late bloomer of the family, is steadily extending herself over the ground, moving away from the Corn and Beans. The leaves and vines are distinctly bristly, giving second thoughts to nibbling caterpillars. As the leaves grow wider, they shelter the soil at the base of the Corn and Beans, keeping moisture in, and other plants out.
The Corn is supporting its smaller sister providing her with vertical structure thanks to which she can also enjoy the sun and be far from predators. The Squash is acting as living mulch protecting the soil and not letting other weeds grow. And the Beans, they also have their contribution for the well being of the cluster. There is one thing that they all need that is in short supply: nitrogen. The Beans have the unique ability to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into usable nutrients. But they don’t do it alone, they make alliance with a new partner – a Rhizobium bacteria. Together, they create nitrogen fertilizer that enters the soil and fuels the growth of the Corn and the Squash.
The most important thing each of us should know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others. Being among sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become, when its members understand and share their gifts.
Together these plants — the Corn, the Bean, and the Squash—feed the people, feed the land, and feed our imaginations, telling us how we might live life in social order.
In order to protect our world, we must first observe and understand it. There is no greater mind, we are all part of an incredibly developed symbiotic system. We need to learn the silent language of our surroundings.
Nature is the teacher, let us be its best students.
Danail Petrov, Teacher at RVA.
Inspired by Robin Kimmerer book “Braiding Sweetgrass.”