“In honor of our teachers, the plants”

On Wednesday at the Wisconsin Wetlands conference, Robin Wall Kimmerer signed my copy of her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, “in honor of our teachers, the plants”. Reading her book, one thing to seep in early and strong with me was that the plants are the wisest among us. It reminds me of a lesson I keep forgetting, that often the quietest people in the room are the ones most worth listening to. Or, said another way – listen; don’t speak much.

Attending both her book club session and her evening keynote was a joy. Robin shared and invited much thought about the collective practice of gratitude, and about reciprocity – what can we give to the plants and the earth in return for all that we receive.

Questions were asked about how to relate to the invasive species in out-of-balance ecosystems that we work to remove and counteract. She spoke about remembering that these plants, too, have something to teach us while they are here. The invasive exotic Phragmites (giant reed grass), might be teaching us about the problem of excess nutrients that we have caused by our destructive land practices – and that we created conditions to invite their abundance.

This made me realize the teaching of the invasive exotic Phalaris (reed canary grass), in one wetland where we work. One year we really aggressively pulled it, quite successfully. We then got an unexpected and problematic algal bloom later that summer. The plant was, maybe, suggesting to us to take this incrementally. Remove a good amount at a time, but maybe not all at once. The presence of some, in the transition, helps take up excess nutrients, while waiting for the still-present native plants to reclaim their own abundance. Let the balancing act be in concert with our steps to control the invasive species.

Then Dan told me this: In another wetland, perhaps we unknowingly heard what the reed canary grass was teaching, or maybe it was serendipity. Here, as we pulled the invasive grass in late spring and early summer before it flowered, we hung armfuls of the pulled grass up out of the water on the waiting and willing stout branches of the ash trees. If we pull it and leave it connected to water, it re-roots and re-sprouts, so lifting it out of the water was necessary. The branches were a convenient place, seeming to invite us to take advantage of their nearness. As it turns out, this was a smart thing. Because… once the clumps of reed canary grass dry, and become inert, they also weaken and slide off the branches back into the water. Here, their carbon provides the necessary energy source for the decomposers to take in excess nitrogen in this not-yet-balanced system. Wisdom of the teachers. Thank you.

One of the posters by a young researcher, Brianna Kupsky from UW Green Bay, was about efforts to re-vegetate the altered, wave-ravaged Bay of Green near Cat Island with native Vallisneria americana (water-celery) and bulrush. In a prior step, Phragmites had been reduced with herbicide. The most successful re-planted Vallisneria were when planted directly into the remaining root-and-soil substrate of now-dead Phragmites, which provided perhaps a nurse environment as well as anchor in the otherwise inhospitable present-day lakebed. A departing teaching gift for us from the plant.

And thank you to Katie from Wisconsin Wetlands for the gift of the book.

- Nancy Aten

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