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My neighbor Phyllis, across the alley, has for years grown a little garden that reminds me for all the world of Native American planting practices, whereby a fulsome vegetable garden can be grown in almost no space at all.

This year, Phyllis has mostly tomatoes and a few sunflowers. Usually she grows at least two out of the Three Sisters, beans and squash, but the neighborhood wildlife is such that there’s not much point in growing corn.

She does this all in a rickety box no bigger than 4’x4′.

Sunflower and tire track on my side of the alley

Sunflower and tire track on my side of the alley

The Three Sisters

Once in an Iroquois village, the Three Sisters ā”€ maize and beans and squash ā”€ were raised and the people were prosperous and contented. But after a time, the crops began to fail. The corncobs were bare of grain, the beanpods were empty and the squashes withered before harvest. Even game was scarce, so the people began to starve.

One day, the clan Chief went walking in her field, contemplating the misfortune of her people, when she heard the sound of weeping and found that the maize itself was crying. So were the beans. And the squash, too.

“Why do you weep?” the old Chief asked gently.

“You place us in the ground to grow,” the Three Sisters answered, “but you do not perform your further duties. You do not cover us with sufficient earth. You do not hill up the earth around our feet so that we may stand firm. You do not dig the earth around us sufficiently to help the water reach us. You sometimes even forget to give us water. You allow our enemies come and strangle us to death.”

The Matron wept bitterly all the way home to her lodge. She told her people what had happened, and explained what they had done wrong. They rushed to the gardens to help the Three Sisters, but it was too late. They resolved by Council that the following year, and forever, they would mound the earth and dig around it to make it mellow when they planted. They would water sufficiently and remove the weeds. They took great pains to do this with care and love.

But toward harvest time, they discovered that someone was stealing the crops. Watchmen took up stations in the evening and toward morning noticed a number of persons tearing of the ears of maize and gathering bean pods. Others were picking up squash. The warriors rushed in, took the night thieves prisoner and brought them to the council lodge. The intruders faced the Chief who asked, “Where do you live?”

“A long way from here. In the forest.”

“Are there many of your people?”

“We are a large nation.”

They bound the thieves and all the people came and struck them with staves. The faces of the maize thieves became striped and their tails ringed from the blows, so they became raccoons.

Other thieves had their upper lips split, so they should never again be able to eat the squashes. They became hares and their lips are split to this day.

–from Joseph Campbell, The Way of the Seeded Earth, Mythologies of the Primitive Planters: the Northern Americas, Vol. II, Pt. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988)

“The Three Sisters,” 1937, by Seneca artist Ernest Smith (1907-1975)

I’ve recently been re-reading (more closely this time), EcoFeminism and the Sacred, and am at Chapter 14, “Animal Vegetable, and Mineral: The Sacred Connection,” by Carol Lee Sanchez. She writes:

“The Pueblos of the Southwest United States, particularly Hopi, Suni, and Acoma, still maintain precontact agrarian practices noted by 20th-century scholars as examples of “perfected farming techniques.” These techniques include: terracing of fields; leaving fields fallow for a minimum period of three years; periodic burning of corn stubble before turning the soil, and finally, always planting crops of beans, corn, and squash (the Three Sisters) together. Today’s Western agricultural science supports these practices as ecologically sound methods of preserving precious topsoil.”

— Carol J. Adams, ed., Ecofeminism and the Sacred (New York: Continuum, 1993)