Words from Weeds: The Practice of Mutuality

wild garlic in seed against a blue sky

Wild garlic, GilChrist

Weeding around my two-year-old blueberry bushes yesterday gave me plenty of time to worry about whether the soil around them was acidic enough for their liking. We had an exceptionally hard winter here in Three Rivers, Michigan, and I didn’t want to add “gardener error” to the list of obstacles these young ones have to overcome.

Much of what I pulled out and placed around the bushes as a layer of mulch was lamb’s sorrel. I knew enough to realize that sorrel is edible, with delicious little lemony leaves. However, I’ve been trying to be more conscientious about learning the various uses of what grows wild here at GilChrist, and I didn’t know if sorrel served any other purposes for humans, plants, or animals besides adding a nice zing to my tacos. I reached the end of my weeding, washed the soil off my hands and pulled out The Uses of Wild Plants by Frank Tozer. Imagine my delight when I learned that not only does sorrel like acidic soil, which is a sign that my blueberries are on the right track, but it also contains oxalic acid, so theoretically, using the uprooted plants as mulch will continue to ensure the quality of the soil that blueberries love. In addition, the leaves are useful as an antiseptic and a stain-remover—you know, for all of those berries I’m going to pick!

Back in the garden today in the cool breeze that followed a merciful drop in humidity, you would think I had learned my lesson to pay attention to these connections as I resurrected an ornamental bed from the weedy abundance of the late spring rain and sunshine. But it wasn’t until a wild garlic flower got tangled in my hair, literally turning my head, that I realized I should be setting their fragrant bulbs aside for eating, and that I should consider what their proliferation under the weeping cherry might tell me about why the tree looks so stressed. (Tozer advises that wild garlic is also useful as a topical insect repellant—“this may also repel people though.”)

How easily we forget to look and listen for the evidence of interdependence in the world around us. Our devices, our endless to-do lists, our anxieties, our greed—all kinds of clutter conspire to distract our senses, lure us into isolation and capture our imaginations. But, in the meantime, the earth waits patiently for us to quiet down and listen. Just checking in…don’t worry about the blueberries…I’ve got it covered…but the weeping cherry would be grateful for a little pruning…. We need to take good care of each other, which is not always a lesson we can learn from watching ourselves interact with other human beings, even when we’re not testing out our new wild garlic bug spray. Sometimes, it’s the still, small voice of a common weed that calls us back to mutuality, to the economy of gift that is as necessary as oxygen—and equally taken for granted, either until we find ourselves without, or until we remember again to pause, notice, and give thanks.

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma is a caretaker at GilChrist Retreat Center, where Frank Tozer sits on the shelf of the library in view of the blueberries. Kirstin and her husband Rob co-direct the nonprofit organization *culture is not optional and help run a fair trade store in Three Rivers, Michigan.