An Unforgettable Year in Native Plants
The other day, I was listening to a recording of a talk that John Trudell had given in the year before I was born. One of his statements particularly struck me; “Farmers are today’s Indians”. Trudell was a Native American intellectual leader, who in his earlier days, had served as the spokesman during the occupation of Alcatraz Island. The intent of his statement was not to downplay the role that heritage plays in Native identity. Instead, he was saying that having a continuing relationship with the land around us is an important part of what it means to be Indigenous... He was right.
Amy and I have both dedicated big parts of our lives to helping empower the community to revitalize Indigenous Choctaw culture, language, food, and history. Through the Nan Awaya Farmstead, we've dedicated another big part of our lives to actively practicing these things on the land. We've been paid the compliment of being called the Choctaw Amish, but I've got a confession to make. Two years ago, when I went into any of the pastures on our farm, I was only familiar with a small handful of the plants I encountered there, mostly the ones I use in making traditional arts, or that we gather for food. What about the others? If I can't tell you the stories about most of the plants that grow on our own farm or even their names, how Indigenous am I, really?
I'm going to share a story of 2020 that has been both positive and hopeful on several levels. At the beginning of this growing season, I set out to learn to identify every native wildflower and every native grass species that lives in the pastures of our farm. This journey has changed the way that I see the land and the world.
2020 has been our first full year living on the farm. When the pandemic unexpectedly shut down my work-related travel, I was given what may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend at least a little bit of time out in our pastures almost every day through an entire growing season. Since we set up the farm 5 years ago, we've been implementing management practices to try to help the soil and native plants recover from years of over-grazing. This, combined with the fact that this land has apparently never been plowed, means that today, there are quite a few native plants out there to be found in these pastures. To learn how to identify them all (at least all of the flowers and grasses), I took a socially distanced course in prairie botany. For those who might be interested in learning more about the native plants in our region, the Oklahoma Native Plant Society and Tallgrass Prairie Center are both fantastic resources, with knowledgeable, plant-passionate people who are patient in teaching someone new, like me.
I won't lie; plant identification can be tedious. Sometimes very different species look almost the identical. The process of sorting them all out teaches you to be observant of small details in the natural world that I had never paid much attention to before. From Mad Dog Skull Cap to Carolina Elephant's Foot, some of the plants growing in our pastures have pretty colorful names. To me, though, the interesting part is that once you can identify a plant species, you can begin to the learn the stories that it has to tell.
This, year, I discovered that one of the native plants growing by the hundreds on our farm has never been documented in our county before. Another is considered critically imperiled in the State of Oklahoma. Each time that I encountered and learned how to identify a new native plant, one of the first things that I did was to look up a range map that shows all of the counties in the United States where that plant can be found. It is so interesting to see the places around the continent that Nan Awaya Farmstead is connected with, through the presence of a particular species of plant. Some of the plants in our pastures are unique, local species that can only be found in a small area within Oklahoma and Texas. For other plant species, our farm is on the edge of a much wider range that may center on the Upper Midwest, or the coastal margins, or Mexico. I learned that a pretty healthy percentage of the plants on this farm also grow in the tallgrass prairies of the American Southeast. In getting to know them, Amy and I reestablish a connection that goes back hundreds of generations in our own families.
For each plant, I also tracked down what I could about the relationships that it has with the soil, microbes, other plants, animals, and ultimately people. Western science is really only just beginning to learn about these things, but what is known is quite fascinating and humbling. I am amazed by how yucca plants are pollinated by only one particular species of moth, and the intricate ways that this plant and this moth have perpetuated each other over the past 40 million years (see here). Equally fascinating, was learning that the flower of the Maryland Meadow Beauty is tuned to release its pollen at the particular frequency of bumble bee's wing vibrations. The web of interesting and life-supporting relationships that these plants have with the world around them just goes on, and on, and on, whether humans are aware of it or not.
It could be said that some of my favorite musicians never really performed the same song twice; their talent allowed them to innovate endlessly . I've come to appreciate something equivalent to that in native pastures. They never present exactly the same landscape from one growing season to the next. With so many different plant species present, constantly changing conditions will always favor some of them over others. The ripples of this never ending progression of plant composition expand out to all of the different lifeforms that depend on the specific plants or habitats within that pasture. In this beautiful and almost incomprehensible complexity lies a resilience that has allowed prairie to survive everything except some of the more destructive practices of western land management.
Each native plant has its own spirit. Walking out among them on the farm can take the mind to interesting places. Coming upon a native wildflower, it's not hard to wonder about the faces and stories of all of the Native women who must have stopped to admire the same particular species of flower, during the past 15,000 years. To me, a clump of native grass coming up on the farm is food for our grazing animals, bird habitat, and all of that, but it is also a direct connection with all of the landscapes through time that that same species of grass has covered. What impressive feats of prowess took place in fields of that same grass, back in the days when warriors hunted giant bison and woolly mammoths? I wonder what was the most practical use that Native people conceived for each of these plants that has been forgotten as a result of colonization? If we could only comprehend their language, what urgent and practical things might some of these plant species be able tell us about working towards a livable future on this planet today?
Over this growing season, I have invested hundreds of hours in getting to better know the plants that are native to our farm. I've only just barely scratched the surface of what there is to learn, but I feel like this has been time well spent. Being able to identify and know something about the changing array of plants coming up in our pastures from one year to the next will definitely help us to be better grazing managers. Getting to know these plants has provided a deeper understanding of traditional culture and has helped me become more Indigenous to our home. Ultimately, I feel that in making me more aware of such impressive lifeforms, this project has exposed me to just a tiny bit more the character of God.
When the pandemic clears, come out and experience the farm and these plants with us. Until then, I'd like to share this video, which quickly introduces 130 of the coolest native wildflower species that came up at Nan Awaya Farmstead in 2020. All of these photographs were taken on the farm, and are presented in the order that the plants appeared this year. Each of the pictured plants came up from seeds that laid dormant in the soil. None of them were planted by human hands, although our form of pasture management has definitely provided the conditions for many of them to reappear. As they come up on your screen, try to see them for more than just their beautiful appearances; think about the deep stories of the American heartland that each of these native plants has to tell.
For those who may interested, below is the full list of the species of native grasses (27) and wildflowers (151) that I identified growing in the pastures on the farm in 2020, along with their Latin names. This list doesn't include two plants that I just could not identify (one grass and one flower), other plants that I'm sure I missed, or any of the sedges, shrubs, or trees, of which our pastures have quite a few. 180+ native species is a pretty high level of diversity for actively grazed pastures. We still have a long way to go in our restoration efforts, but I'm excited to see how these pastures will change in the future as the native plant community continues to rebuild.