The eldest first sister, Maize is at the center of everything, she is the supportive one with the strength to hold and carry. She sways with the wind her roots deep in Mother Earth her golden silk hair and green robe she is as tall as an elk and as thin in places as a reed but her many arms reach up and hold the grain in her hands that the people need. Her sister Tepary rises up and surrounds Maize with her many fingers of colorful beans adding to the nutrition of the soil and the people. Winter squash spreads her blossom necklace and wide leaves providing protection from smaller creatures hungry for Maize and Tepary. She prevents other plants from crowding the sisters out of their home and she holds the water in the earth for all the Sisters to drink. The people respected the sisters, believing the Great Spirit brought the corn, beans and squash to them and they hold great ceremony to celebrate the gifts.
The tale is ancient and many. The people of Turtle Island; Iroquois, Cherokee, Abenaki, Hopi and more loved the sisters as their own and cared for them. Often a fourth sister, Sunflower or Bee Balm was there to bring in the pollinators; bees and other beneficial insects to make sure the harvest was plentiful.
Over 5000 years ago Native Americans developed the companion planting method that has sustained the people of Turtle Island and the soil. The native people discovered that the three plants benefited each other and as time passed they continued this practice, passing the knowledge on to the next generation. These three plants are nutritionally sound for humans. Eaten together they provide essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals for good health. This type of agricultural also benefited the soil. By keeping the decomposed plant material in place over winter it provided much needed microorganisms and organic material for the next growing season. Fertilizer was naturally produced and pests and weeds were kept at bay. The soil was never degraded and water use was minimal. Seed diversity was maintained as the “farmer” saved seeds for the next years planting season. This seed diversity protected the plants from disease and pests.
Today the sisters are separated. In the interests of mega production large scale agriculture requires the cutting and clearing of forests, a monoculture is created and soil is degraded with the use of commercial fertilizers and too much tilling. Often, especially with the corn plant, GMO seeds are used further degrading the plants diversity. This loss of diversity removes the plants natural protection from diseases and pests. This type of farming contributes to climate change as trees are the main user of carbon and the main producer of oxygen, soil degradation means that the soil cant hold water so more water is needed to keep the plant alive and fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are needed in large quantities. The end result is a disaster coming back around in the midst of a many year drought here in California that could be reminiscent of the “Dust Bowl’ of the 1930’s.
To pay homage to the Three Sisters and remember the ancient ones combine 2 cups of cooked white beans with 1 cup of kernel corn a handful of fresh chopped sage, one diced onion, two minced cloves of garlic and 1 quart of water or broth in a large soup pot, bring to a boil then reduce the heat to simmer. Add 2 cups of peeled, seeded and diced winter squash to the pot then cook for about 20 minutes until the squash is tender then season to taste with salt and pepper. Don’t toss out the squash seeds! Clean them, then spread them out on a lightly oiled baking sheet and bake in a 350 oven until you can hear them “pop”. They will be slightly brown. Serve your Three Sisters stew with the toasted seeds on top.
Agriculture’s dark passenger is climate change. It will follow the farmer no matter where she is farming on this earth. We must be mindful of the needs of the planet for she is our life and livelihood. To save our sisters we will need to adopt more of the old ways of farming, sustaining our Mother Earth. She can feed all of us if we care for her.
Aldo Leopold said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” And he was right.
“Cause it’s the new mother nature taking over
It’s the new splendid lady come to call
It’s the new mother nature taking over
She’s gettin’ us all
She’s gettin’ us all”
No Sugar Tonight by Randy Bachman
(c)Debra Chase 2015 originally published April 16, 2015 Davis Vanguard