Garlic Mustard Meditations
When we moved to the house on the west bank of the Susquehanna river last spring, before the dandelions or violets, or chickweed or henbit had gotten started, this plant started coming up everywhere - their purply glossy green leaves beautiful and visible in the drabness of early spring.
I asked around about it and Gayla Trail let me know it was garlic mustard - edible, invasive, something to pull up wherever we found it. I went back into the woods behind the house and pulled up giant handfuls of it, feeling like I’d barely made a dent before it seeded.
We tried cooking it - it was so bitter we could barely eat it. It was better raw, slipped into salads and sandwiches over the next few months - washed and wrapped in a paper towel, it kept in the fridge for weeks. Eventually, like everything left too long in the salad drawer, it yellowed and molded.
As I read about garlic mustard, I learned that european settlers brought it across the atlantic with them. Like so many others, it escaped their gardens and began covering roadsides and forests across the continent. Garlic mustard thrives in these places because it poisons the ground so that no other plants can grow around it.
I think there is much we, the descendants of white settlers, can learn from relationship with other invasive species. (Don’t we poison the ground, too?) I question our obsession with “stamping out invasive species” as they thrive in the out of balance, diminished ecosystems we and our ancestors have created.
I thought about this a lot when pulling up the mustard - work that felt like the smallest threads of a beginning, a kind of building of relationship, a commitment to and with the land around this house.
Over the past year, as we planted a garden in the yard, pulled up a blanket of ivy, finding the feathers of a cardinal underneath it, and watched a duck try to sit on a brood near the house, I learned how difficult it is to hold relationship with the world around you when you’ve never done it before. I’d forget to ask, to talk to the plants before we tore them up, cut a tree root, move too fast and startle the duck.
This feels like a kind of learned inattention, passed down to me by people who had had their own roots cut, lost their understanding of themselves as human people among all kinds of people - plant, cardinal, turtle, deer. And when I catch myself in it, pull myself out of that inattention, I feel a kind of grief that I can only hold around the edges, a loss bigger than me that stretches back, far, far.
I keep coming back to garlic mustard. To think about garlic mustard is to think about relationship, the small and large ways we build our connections with, and the ways those connections have been lost, given up, forgotten or destroyed.
So this year, as I pull the garlic mustard around the yard and behind the house, I practice keeping my attention with it. One afternoon I put the tender tops of the stalks in my mouth and ate them as I pulled up the thin purple-white roots, thinking about the people who lived here when it began spreading along the river, and the ones before that.
As I pull this plant, I practice being with it. I make a little wreath of garlic mustard and set it on the spring altar. As I do so, I hope I am also learning to be with the people, the settlers here, and my own ancestors, in their knowing and unknowing violence to the land and the people who have lived here, who still live here. Some of those ancestors planted garlic mustard, one of hundreds of plants that altered this landscape, for nourishment, for connection to the places they came from. And now I pull it up, change things again.
I went back up this spring and found that where I’d pulled up garlic mustard last year, the ground was mostly clear of it. The rest of the hillside is filled with it, tiny white flowers, bitter leaves. They wave in the breeze, catch the late morning light. There’s more to pull up. In many ways it is the work of a lifetime, and more after that. It’s a kind of work that calls us to be with what was done here, and to imagine what could be different.
And I wonder, what kinds of lifetime work, generational work, are calling to you, these days?
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