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A Meditation on Pokeweed

I grew up in rural eastern Kentucky surrounded by garbage.

Garbage lined the roads and the railroad tracks near our house. Garbage littered the yard of our house that wouldn’t qualify as being a shack only because it had more than one room. It had four rooms. No running water, no bathroom and sometimes no electricity when there was no money to pay the bill. We certainly didn’t have money to pay for the trashman to throw our bags of trash onto the back of his pickup truck that he then drove to a random remote, rural area and unceremoniously make our tiny town’s garbage that landowner’s problem. So we kept our garbage our problem. It was the job of us children to burn the garbage in large stinking barrels, the tendrils of toxic burning plastic snaking into our lungs.

I used to ride the school bus to school and home again gazing through the thick window at the massive globs of garbage clotting the small stream next to the thin gray road that fed our smaller gravel road that then rambled between the two massive hills that silently watched us perched at their feet. They watched the dust clouds rise and slowly fade as our neighbors’ cars meandered up the hill to their own houses with large garbage-free yards.

I think growing up surrounded by people so happily unwilling to see the destructive, horrifying environmental destruction they were committing by believing it was their right to just dump their garbage wherever they saw fit instilled in me an absolutely rigid, uncompromising devotion to protecting the environment, to devoting large swaths of my awareness to that central, core devotion to the environment. This informs not only my art itself but the materials I use to create my art. It informs everything that I am and I am grateful for seeing so early on the gray apathy and black sneering entitlement that every adult I knew possessed when it came to dumping their garbage and running a disgusting “straight pipe“–a pipe run from a house directly to a nearby stream to flush raw human waste directly into the water supply and table. Growing up straight pipes, litter, dumping were all not just normal but unquestionable. But every single day, staring out the bus window at the clotted creeks my resolve to spend my life fighting for that creek and all creeks, rivers, streams, hills–the whole fucking earth.

In eastern Kentucky I also grew up surrounded by pokeweed (Phytolacca americana L.). It is a huge, intimidating plant that many people dislike precisely because it tends to grow with an unfettered zeal for being alive almost everywhere left unattended. It self seeds easily and is widely spread by the birds eating its’ truly beautiful but highly toxic to humans and pets berries. I remember desperately wanting to just put the black/purple berries in my mouth when I was a child. They look so juicy and sweet. I never did but even now when I see them have a vestigial, primitive desire to feel them burst on my tongue. It would have been a potentially fatal decision for me as a child and if I ate them now I would “only” have potentially simultaneous projectile vomiting and diarrhea. Poke berries are described as a “violent” emetic, after all. And according to the same Wikipedia entry it is a potential carcinogen too. It kind of makes sense, then, that I grew up only knowing how much adults hated pokeweed with a venom reserved for only the most despicable. It could poison them, poison their children, poison their cattle, horses and pigs. It grew unbidden, unwanted. It was a cursed thing and had to be removed by mower, by bush hog or by fire.

For the past four years I have devoted my yard to native plants with a specific devotion to pollinators. My suburban/urban yard is a shrine to bees, wasps and butterflies. I carefully cultivate and encourage native plants for eating and nectaring and sheltering insects. Before this I did what most suburban/urban people do with their yards: I mowed, I trimmed and specifically I pulled up and destroyed any pokeweed that emerged from the soil. Even after I started my devotion to native gardening I would pull up pokeweed seedlings that threatened to overshadow prettier, more manageable native plants. Last year I decided to stop pulling them, though. And my yard now has several 10-12 foot tall sprawling pokeweed plants covered with stems full of toxic green and black purple berries. My backyard birds I feed are happy with my choice.

Sadly there is a bird that would have soundly endorsed my choice as well if it was not wiped from existence by humans. I was reading about pokeweed/pokeberries a few weeks ago and learned for the first time in my life that pokeberries were a staple food source of passenger pigeons. My silly memory of being a child and salivating over the juicy black purple pokeweed berries became a manifestation of infinite sorrow and grief over a species destroyed by human beings. I remember learning about the passenger pigeon in elementary school and being overwhelmed with anger and disgust at previous generations ignorance and gall to obliterate this species. It reinforced my 8 year old devotion to the environment and allowed me to see that yes, the ruling zeitgeist of an era can be very, very wrong and should be questioned and rejected, even if doing so brings with it a great sacrifice.

Now when I see pokeberries I see ghosts of birds hovering over the berries, flocking on the stems, calling a call I will never know. They are now, to me, tombstones marking the both the grave of a species and also the blackest, most disgusting aspects of human nature.

I recently went for a hike as a second date with a guy I met on a dating app. We went to a large, beautiful park outside the city. It has large swaths of milkweed and other native plants, including pokeweed. I pointed out the pokeweed and told him about it was once a staple of the passenger pigeon. He had no idea what a passenger pigeon was, let alone anything about their destruction and extinction. He shrugged and claimed he just didn’t really like plants.

There was no third date.