Karen Houle is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. In her essay, “The Case of Becoming-Plant”, she observes that Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “becoming-animal” is at a dead end – trapped in the architecture of western philosophy, which considers animals as essentially non-human. Houle thus focuses on “becoming-plant” as a working hypothesis to place thought back in motion and conceive of other types of relationships: “What would it take to actually think-otherwise, to truly think ecosophically? Might we be able to think-the-plant and avoid (re)onto-stabilizing ourselves? Might some aspect of herbivory help us to have a new thought without our domesticating them, and thought, in turn?” In her magnificent collection, The Grand River Watershed, A Folk Ecology, she continues her research in a poetic work in which scientific discoveries intertwine with ancestral knowledge of First Nations, observation of the river and all that is directly or indirectly connected to it, and more. Houle explores the whole world of living forms, observing shifting sociabilities that escape power relations. For this issue of PALM, I have invited her to share a few personal columns on her current reflections, to let her voice be heard among these “New Visions of the Living World”. Adrien Chevrot
There are many ways to divide up the days of the year. There are many ways of understanding the meaning and significance of what happens during those phases: who is born, who dies, what arrives, what vanishes. These are touchstones for human existence: always have been, always will. You could do it by the movements and arrangements of the constellations. This way of understanding the changes of the days by way of the sky changes is still alive in what we call “horoscopes”. Some people who study this more than the average person are called astronomers. Others who do the same are called “wackos”. This morning I was watching an interview with the Golden State Warrior (basketball) player, Klay Thompson. I find Klay humble, quiet, intelligent, funny and his story is moving. He was out for two years because of a blown knee. Two years. Then the pandemic on top of it, so four years of inertia and pain and grief. When he talks about it, his shoulders jiggle and he bends down and touches his nose as if to tend to a strong tingling feeling (how tears announce themselves to our faces before they arrive). Golden State just won Game 5 of the NBA 2022 final series. It didn’t look good after Al Horford sank the fourth three-pointer in a row for the Boston Celtics, but the Warriors are, well, magical warriors on the basketball court. They have incredible pluck and talent. Among them now, again, is Klay. In the interview, someone asked him how he got ready for Game 5. “I went out to the Bay” he said. “The Ocean is so powerful and healing. It’s not like a pool or a hottub or a ‘cold tub routine’. When I am in the Ocean, I am with something bigger than all of us, maybe God. I look up at the sky, I feel total calm. When you get out, your whole body tingles. It’s freezing!!” Then he said: “You know, I am an Aquarius, so I’m happiest in the water.” I smiled at that. These tough guys. These overpaid athlete superstars. And there he is talking about God and the zodiac. Everyone reading this is a human. Every one of us was born. Every one of us both hurts and celebrates. Every one of us will die. The way that the Earth, the Sky, the Water is the home we find ourselves in, and cradles us in all those moments: that is common to us all. It always has been. It always will be.
It is June now. Look up. How is the sun moving in its arc in the sky? How is it behaving?
Get up in your PJs and see: What is the moon doing tonight?
What did you eat for dessert, whether it was in the fields after long, sweaty hard work, or in one of the finest restaurants in the whole world: Noma, for instance. Or, in Guelph, at Artisinale or Mijiida? I bet it was strawberries.
There are many ways to name what I call “months”…. “moons”…. “seasons”…. And there are many ways of giving those months names. In the calendar of the white people in the Northern hemisphere, we say “June” maybe without knowing that this month is a tribute to Junius, Roman Emperor. Hmmm. Really! How about July? Julius Caesar, anyone? Histories weave or maybe push their ways forward like rivulets, into any fabric. There are many stories, many fabrics.
I write this on June 14th, 2022, just south of the lands of the Ojibwa, though I lived from age seven to sixteen in Ojibwa territories. In Ojibwas teachings, there are thirteen Grandmother Moons of Creation. We live on what is called by the First Peoples, “Turtle Island” which is better than “North America” when you think about it: the honoring of a wildly strange species made up of hundreds and hundreds of variations vs. one Italian dude. There are thirteen plates on Turtle’s back. There are thirteen moon phases, between the months we name and days we count to thirty or thirty-one. I used to count them to twenty-eight because my period came every twenty-eight days, from age eleven to age fifty-two, “like clockwork” my mother would say, but truly, it was like moonwork. I know the moons in my body, whether I pay attention or not.
Personally, I pay attention to June because of three things: 1) my older sister’s birthday is on June 13th, and it was usually the first time we went camping as a family in one of the provincial parks that dot the North of Ontario. Blackflies and mosquitoes notwithstanding. For me that meant endless swimming. Endless. Like: until my lips were blue and I couldn’t feel my hands or feet. The mineral feeling of the water. The way that it smells even when you are underwater, it has a special aroma that your whole body takes in. And that you are floating! With this bony awkward human body: an upright two-footer! Fins and scales and smooth darting like a minnow, bones notwithstanding. So: first swims in freshwater lakes is #2. I would only come out of the water because it was dinner time. Dinnertime on June 13th meant there was cake. We got to choose what kind of birthday cake we wanted. My sister always wanted “angel food cake”… and I still don’t know if angels eat cake. This was a theological riddle arriving as a culinary moment that baffled me. Nevertheless, the cake was so wonderful. What made it wonderful was not the weirdly poufy texture (Clouds? Air? Heavenly ether?) but what went on top: fresh strawberries and whipping cream; so, #3) Strawberries. If you were blessed to have been born anywhere near wild strawberries, and you found them (I used to find them by scent in the bush and on the open paths of the meadows), and ate them, then your whole life is blessed. It will never be unblessed thanks to the strongest most magical taste and smell of those first fruits of the season. I have written a poem about missing school (Grade 1!) because I never quite made it there, having been drawn by the scent of wild strawberries further and further into the woods, i.e. further and further from Miss Morrison’s Grade 1 class at English Catholic Central School in New Liskeard.
Durable, No. #7 1
On the last day
of first grade
I was coming down from the sandy part
halfway to the schoolyard part —
the path decided or maybe I
decided to strike out
on the perpendicular…
Like in life.
Filtered quiet, and wild strawberries and June
crested like an old bike
I was young then I ate them
one after another like small dots
my opposable pinch red
ink stamps splattered happy […]
I ate so many. They are tinier than my adult pinkie fingernails, and squish oh-so-easily as you pull them from their green spider-like crowns. Nothing could stop me from eating them and following the paths they made in the open meadow and the welcome finally-warm sun of mid-June on my blond head. Did you notice that they are shaped like the human heart? Not like the heart of a Blue Whale. Not like the heart of a yellow warbler. A human heart.
The Grandmother Moon of Creation during this phase is called:
ODE’MIIN GIIZIS (STRAWBERRY MOON) – JUNE
“The sixth moon of Creation is Strawberry Moon. The medicine of the strawberry is reconciliation. It was during this moon cycle that communities usually held their annual feasts, welcoming everyone home, regardless of their differences over the past year, letting go of judgment and/or self righteousness. The strawberry is the first berry to ripen. It is thought to be a good medicine for the heart and the teeth” (Muskrat magazine)
Which brings us to Turtle Island of the Present, in particular, to Southern Ontario, in the middle of the Global-Chemical-Industrial-Agricultural shitstorm that is our food. It’s still June. There are still strawberries, wild strawberries, in hot meadows (the biggest ones are at the edges, under the long waving grass). But we are not there. We are in the city, and there are grocery stores selling strawberries in green plastic “baskets” with plastic cellophane wrapping and an elastic, at, um, 7.99$ a pint. Who the fuck knows where these were even grown? What soil? Was it even in soil? Did these strawberries enjoy the early breezes of May when they were green-headed dinglers? Whose hands picked these berries? Were they white or brown or red or yellow? Were they old or young? Were they paid well or not well? Did they love strawberries at first but came to despise them by mid-June? (Hello Karl Marx, you were often very very right). Does eating these still break past all that sad and bad to make our mouths smile and our kids ask for more? I think so. If they have flavour and smell. If they are made of old insulation, painted red with stale sesame seeds glued on to appear to be strawberries, well, those ones go for 2.99$ a pint.
We all know food prices are nutso. We all know that this means rich people get to eat whatever they want, whenever they want, and if it doesn’t taste good, they can throw it out and order another. We all know that that means MOST of the rest of us have to “make it work” on less than we need to actually “make it work” (i.e. eat well, eat happily). But please, nevertheless. Get thyself to a store or farmer’s market that sells ONTARIO GROWN CERTIFIED ORGANIC STRAWBERRIES or find a grower nearby (we get ours from the Villeneuve Family in Guelph) and buy a pint. Or, if you can’t afford a pint, ask the rich lady next to you in line to buy your one. Or, if that’s just too silly, then ask the vendor to buy a single berry. Seriously. I bet you can get one for fifty cents. If I were selling these boxes of red angels, and you asked to buy a single berry, I would hand you a box full and we would smile like it was our same-day birthday all of a sudden.
Close your eyes, beloved of the Earth. Put it in your mouth. Stay with the intensity. It’s okay if you rub your nose, like Klay, to dissipate the rapidly building feeling of The Good overtaking you. And your life will be blessed.
Last night, I invited my daughter Kuusta, and her son, Cade, over for ice cream, fresh local certified organic strawberries, and of course, the gilding of the lily: whip cream. “A Sundae on a Monday!” she declared. We ate outside. Cade went into a sort of trance, slowly slowly curling the spoon into the tennis ball of ice cream, withdrawing an even scoop, then he would move the spoon gently under a single strawberry, then tilt it slowly toward the whipping cream, so that each spoonful ended up with a teeny white wizard’s hat. Then he actually did close his eyes and put it in his mouth. This mini impromptu ceremonial strawberry eating ritual was repeated about 30 times. Watching this is watching the magic of ODE’MIIN GIIZIS, our common sweet grandmother, do her thing to weave the sweetness of the Earth into the sweetness of children’s bodies. We are stunned and happy and grateful beyond words. Happy Strawberry Moon.
We would like to express our deepest gratitude to all the teachers, human and non-human, who had a role in showing us this sweet path. There are too many to name, and we don’t know all their names anyhow. May they know we have found the strawberries, and are grateful for their guidance. This author would especially like to bend my head and touch my nose to Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass “The Gift of Strawberries” made me laugh to the bottom of my toes with recognition of common exhuberant life. Thank you, Robin. May you know by this post that not all is lost with us stupid white people.