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The Three Sisters
Let's go back to an almost forgotten time. http://undefined/Early May in North America, the year 1420. People from coast to coast are preparing fields for planting along Riverbanks, in Fields, and in Forest clearings. Digging sticks in hand, Men, Women, and Children are preparing the spring-soaked Earth for seeds. They make small flat-topped mounds, about the diameter of a beach ball, in the rich brown Soil. We will visit one particular group on the banks of a River with a distinctive planting method. The wisdom of innumerable generations is evident in their work. They make clusters of seven mounds, arranged in a honeycomb-like pattern; like a Berry. Each cluster of mounds is separate from the other by a space of about 15 feet, and they span the length of the Riverside they are planting for miles. This way the Plants that they are sowing won't interfere with one another.
The Crops being planted are referred to by the people as The Three Sisters - Corn, Beans, and Squash. The Three Sisters are an example of a polyculture; an agricultural system that is characterized by diversity. When you think of a Corn field, you'll typically envision what’s known as a monoculture: endless rows of stalks perfectly aligned and manicured to destroy all chances of growth for any Plants that are not Corn. But The Three Sisters are different - they encourage diversity, and the plants themselves hold each other in respect. Each supports the other in a special way, and the benefits are shared amongst the whole.
We now see the Seed planting begin. The People approach each mound, and singing gentile Songs welcoming the Seeds to the Earth, they place the Corn in each mound. One kernel for each of the cardinal and intermediate directions, and one in the center for a total of nine plants per mound. Beans are planted in the same hole as the Corn. Squash is planted at the intersecting points between the mounds and around the perimeter of the mound clusters. The Springtime Rains and alluvial Soils provide a welcoming home for Seeds.
By August, the diversity and respect held amongst The Three Sisters is apparent. The Corn stalks sway in the breeze, straight and proud with their high golden tassels. Native Bees shake loose grains of pollen which fall like an unexpected Midsummer Snow. Silky locks of Corn silk catch them, dancing ever so slightly at the tip of the newly-formed bright green ears. Bean stalks twine gently up the Corn, accenting the stalk in a way that is very pleasing to the eye. The Beans with small pods and pale flowers of white, purple, and yellow accessorize the tall Corn stalks. The Squash trails along the ground below. Like a dazzling castle of green and gold surrounded by a prickly moat of tendrils and dazzling yellow flowers, The Three Sisters stand in glorious cooperation.
Each plant has a unique gift, and they work together in holistic synergy. Corn, the eldest Sister, stands straight and tall. She is the strong one, but her strength means little without her other sisters. When Corn is planted alone, she is prone to blowing over in a strong Breeze and drying out in the Summer heat. Corn stalks provide a pole structure for the Beans to grow on and the Beans provide a lashing. With the special type of knowing that plants have, the Beans put out their leaves opposite the Corn's; a marked display of respect. The Beans, as Legumes, are capable of fixing nitrogen in the Soil. This helps with fertility, as Corn consumes quite a bit of nitrogen in a season. In what might be thought of as an act of reciprocal gratitude, the Beans fertilize the Corn, and the Corn supports the Beans. The Beans are the thoughtful Sister. They help fertilize the Corn and Squash. But it doesn't end there. Beans and Corn are susceptible to Insect damage and drying out. That’s where Squash comes in. The spiny leaves and stems of the Squash plants keep Cutworms and small herbivores like Rabbits at bay. The broad Squash leaves also shade the ground completely, collecting the dappled Sunlight that passes through the Bean and Corn leaves. The Soil is kept cool and moist in the oppressive Summer heat. What's more, Squash grows vigorously along whichever path she choses. When grown in this particular setup, Squash travels away from the Corn and Beans, providing a season-long line of defense against herbivores. Squash might be thought of as the protective yet humble sister. She keeps on the defensive while staying close to the Earth.
By November all the Fields are brown. Dry and papery Corn leaves dance on the rhythm of the Breeze, accented by the rattle of dried Beans in their pods. The Squash vines are dead and scattered in the spaces in between mound clusters are Gourds of every conceivable size and color. While they are planted in Spring, The Three Sisters are very much Fall and Winter crops. They spend the Summer capturing the energy of the Sun and Rain, turning it into food sources to carry the People through the long Winter months. People in ancient times would have planted the many Fall varieties - Gourds and Pumpkins; Kidney Beans and Black Beans; Flint Corn and Popcorn to name just a few - in the mounds previously mentioned. The manner in which the early-season varieties would have been planted is largely a matter of practical experience. Summer Squash, Green Beans, and Sweet Corn, if available, would have been planted in much smaller groups along with other plants such as Tobacco and Sunflowers for ease of harvest. When the Sisters ask to be harvested earlier, the People must consider their gifts while planting. In this case, their diversity demands respect.
Observations about the growth habits of The Three Sisters do not cover the full impact of their display of respectful diversity. Corn, Beans, and Squash, after all, are food crops. Their synergism is just as much at play on the Dinner Table as it is in the Field. Corn provides carbohydrates to offer the body quick doses of energy as well as a small amount of protein. Beans also offer some carbs, but they are a much more significant source of proteins. The Human Body requires a certain amount of dietary amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, to function properly. Beans offer a nearly complete array of essential amino acids, but not all. That’s where the Corn comes in. It just so happens that the proteins available in Corn complete the dietary requirements of amino acids. But there is a problem. One cannot eat a full meal of just Beans and Corn kernels. Not only would supplies dwindle before Winter is half over, but other key dietary components such as vitamins and fats would be lacking, and while minimal dietary requirements might be met, it is hard to feel full eating just Corn and Beans. Squash yet again saves the day. Squash is an excellent source of vitamins and although there is not much to offer by way of protein, Squash fills the pot and completes the plate, with flavor and fullness.
Knowledge of The Three Sisters is a gift to Humankind. They have shaped Lives, Agricultural Practices, Dinner Plates, and Cultures just as the People have shaped them. It has been told that The Three Sisters were once lost and separated from one another, only to be brought back together by a fearless Seeker. The Three Sisters appeared at an adventurous Boy’s Lodge one night as strangers, in Human form, seeking shelter. They became very amicable to the Boy when he offered them respite. But over the next few days they disappeared one by one. The Boy went on a perilous journey looking to reunite his newfound Friends. When the Boy had succeeded, the Sisters revealed their identities as Plant Spirits and agreed to stick together in the place where they were finally brought back together - the Field outside of the Boy’s Home. It was there that they came to live in Harmony with each other, and in co-creation with Humans.
The respect The Three Sisters show each other, and the synergistic character of each Plant can serve as guides for us Humans in several ways. Their interactions in the Field and the Dinner table serve to remind us of times when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. An acre of Three Sisters plantings provide more Food, more Nutrition, and greater space for Biological Diversity than an acre of monoculture. Each plant occupies a specialized niche, too. As such, room for Cooperation rather than competition is created. Vertical space is efficiently utilized in a way that is uncommon to most Gardens. In such a setup diversity and respect become functions of a Community rather than codes of individual conduct. The Beans do not become the Corn or the Squash, nor does Squash become Beans or Corn, nor Corn become Beans or Squash. Each relies on the Gifts and Strengths of the others, and so it is.
I hope this description of The Three Sisters has been inspiring. There are innumerable lessons, metaphorical and literal which the Plant Kingdom can teach us concerning the concept of Diversity With Respect. The Three Sisters are not the only ones who offer this lesson. Sauce Gardens of Tomato, Pepper, Basil, Parsley, and Oregano; Bird Gardens of Thistle, Millet, Sunflower, Peas, and Beans; Jam Patches of Strawberries, Mulberries, Blackberries, Black Raspberries, Grapes, and Red Raspberries are further examples. But there are some Plants that do not grow together. Beans and Garlic, for example, stunt each other's growth. The list of companion and rival Plants expands based on location, for every locale supports a host of native and non-native species that might cooperate with each other when their essences are discovered and respected. Those that do not cooperate with their neighbors can still be respected for what they are - for every Plant has a place regardless of origin. They may be, after all, lost Souls seeking belonging.
I would like to thank Peg Robbins for asking me to write this article. I encourage readers to find out more about the Plants growing in your Communities and the Traditional Ecological Knowledge that exists there. You will probably learn something about Yourselves in the process. May the Light always shine upon you!
Author’s Note: I have intentionally capitalized certain words and phrases to highlight Diversity With Respect. I have also disavowed the use of the word “it” in reference to Plants for the same reason.