We Can All Be Arks
“You, reading this essay: you are an ark."
From Asa West
From a car window, California fuchsia might look like just another ornamental flower. A few bright spatters of red along the parkway, surrounded by the kinds of no-fuss shrubs installed by landlords and people who spend most of their time indoors. Compared to the exotic species like hibiscus or ficus, species that simulate lush tropical landscapes, California Fuchsia might even look rather scraggly and small. Is it the type of plant a driver will notice at all? Maybe people appreciate the showy little tube-shaped flowers, or maybe it’s not impressive enough to warrant a glance.
But you don’t get California fuchsia’s whole story from the window of a car.
Epilobium Canum ssp Canum, native to the California Floristic Province, is an integral member of foothill and coastal ecosystems from Oregon to Mexico. If you suspect that the size and shape of the flowers would be the perfect size for a hummingbird’s beak, then you’d be right: it’s a favored flower of several species of hummingbirds, along with the white-lined sphinx moth, the giant swallowtail butterfly, and the California dogface. What’s more, California fuschia also has a long and beneficial relationship to humans; it’s historically been used by the Chumash as a vulnerary herb, healing wounds in the same way that calendula has been used by Europeans.
Speaking of vulnerary herbs, did you know that yarrow is a California native plant? The feathery plant with the corymb inflorescences, a favorite of #WitchesOfInstagram, grows around the world and may have been propagated by ancient settlers and explorers. Gardeners savvy to its healing properties will eschew the brightly colored cultivars and look for Achillea Millefolium, with its plain white flowers that work well in salves and attract butterflies and bees. But, like California fuschia, yarrow can look pretty plain compared to all the exotics.
In fact, that supposed plainness is why so many native plant communities have been obliterated by developers fixated on turning California into a hybrid of England and Hawaii. You can buy a white sage smudge at Whole Foods to go with your essential oils and appropriated dream catchers, but when you pass real live white sage on the street, it looks like a vaguely pretty but rather uninteresting background shrub. The elder tree (ssp. cerulea) is summer deciduous in California and looks dead during the hottest months. The seedheads of sages and buckwheat turn brown after flowering. The authors of California Native Plants for the Garden are stark in their description of the colonization of California: “Compared to the rich greens, bright flowers, and bold textures of subtropical species,” they write, “the natives must have seemed dull and gray.”
How sad, that a shallow and limited idea of beauty can lead to the deaths of entire ecosystems.
Last spring, my husband and I scoured Los Angeles for a new place to live. Our options were limited, especially since we had one kid and another on the way, but I found a listing for a two bedroom condo in Koreatown from which the commute to our jobs on the west side wouldn’t be too catastrophic. (Nine miles, only an hour each way, not too shabby by L.A. standards). We went to look at the place and found it had a back door, and outside were two neglected alleyways and a cramped ficus tree. My daughter promptly tried to climb the tree while I wandered the alleys to look at the soil, which was compacted and rocky and covered in garbage. The land was hurting, its surface a raw abrasion, and I knew as I felt the quiet weight of a geis settle onto me that this was where we would live. The spirits of this place had been waiting goodness knows how long for someone, anyone, to come and stick up for them.
After we moved in, I set about getting permission to clean up the alleys, install a small container garden, and plant some drought-tolerant natives. The backlash was immediate. Two neighbors dismissed new plants as against the rules and thus self-evidently bad, citing decades-old regulations in the building’s covenant. Another got upset and tried to get the building manager to shut me down, calling plants a fire hazard (although it was unclear how plants were a fire hazard when a path littered with junk apparently wasn’t). The status quo bias was formidable: anything perceived as unruly or out of the ordinary was attacked like a virus. I couldn’t make sense of it. I still can’t. Is this the same bias that makes people resist renewable energy and doggedly support capitalism, even as it sucks away their resources and erodes their lives?
If only, I found myself thinking, my neighbors could have heard Lili Singer speak.
My husband and I had taken one of Lili’s gardening classes at the Theodore Payne Foundation, a nonprofit in the San Gabriel Valley that propagates native plants. He and I had sat with 30 other gardeners in a little classroom with no AC, taking notes as Lili described plant communities and design principles. For the most part I happily geeked out over wildflowers and sages and coast live oaks, but at one point, the class suddenly turned profound.
Gardeners and conservationists preserve these native species, Lili told us, not to keep them on life support for all of eternity, but in the hopes that someday they’ll be able to flourish on their own again. “California fauna evolved alongside these specific plants, and they need these plants to survive,” she said. “If you save the plants, you’re also saving the insects, and the birds that eat the insects, and the animals that eat the birds. You’re saving whole ecosystems. Your backyard can be an ark.”
She was referring to Noah’s ark, of course, but stories of devastating floods can be found in mythologies all over the world, a specter of annihilation that haunts our collective psyche, a warning whispered by the gods. In the Epic of Gilgamesh,* a group of gods decide to destroy the world, but Ea, “the cleverest of the gods,” warns Noah’s predecessor Utnapishtim:
Reed fence, reed fence, listen to my words.
[Utnapishtim,] King of Shuruppak, quickly, quickly
Tear down your house and build a giant ship,
Leave your possessions, save your life….
Then gather and take aboard the ship
Examples of every living creature.
In this version, the gods are not unanimous in their decision to destroy humanity; in fact, they quickly come to regret it, “cower[ing] by the palace wall, like dogs” to escape the rising water. To me, this version feels truer to our experience of climate change than the Noah myth, in which the instigator of the flood decides which humans are virtuous enough to survive. If climate change were a punishment, then the corporations, lobbyists, and politicians responsible, rather than the most vulnerable and innocent among us, would be hit the hardest. Indeed, we can almost see the 1% in Gilgamesh’s council of gods: foolishly believing themselves to be above destruction, deciding that the world is theirs to destroy and all its lives theirs to take, only too late realizing that they, too, are vulnerable.
I thought about just going ahead and planting the plants, even doing it in secret to avoid getting fined, but after I experimented with a little flower bed and someone kicked it to pieces, I realized my neighbors were not above simply tearing up anything mysterious they found. The sickness plaguing our land isn’t just physical. A dark and troubling thing happens to people’s minds when they live long enough under capitalism. They begin to hold life itself in contempt, seeing any other organisms not as partners and companions, but as competitors and threats. They view the new family down the hall with suspicion and anxiety, ready to attack if property values sag. They grow used to monocultures and conformity and balk at the sight of an unruly hedge. They forget how to be a community; one neighbor plays loud music at 3 a.m. and shrugs at the thought that it might bother people, while other neighbors call the police instead of knocking on his door. There are literal floods happening, yes--and droughts and famines and hurricanes and wildfires--but we’re drowning in something else, too.
We can be arks, I found myself thinking after the class. On the first full moon after we moved in, I brought my ritual supplies to the roof of the building to perform my first esbat in our new home. Not for the first time, I found a part of myself preparing to instruct my daughters in witchcraft when they come of age (if they want it, of course). This is how you’ll explain the compass, a little voice said as I conjured the quarter spirits. This is how you’ll teach scrying, it murmured as I closed my right eye and gazed at the moon in my bowl of water. Then I thought: I am an ark. My body, my mind, my knowledge, the traditions and wisdom I’ve stored up inside me. I carry them through the years so that I can pass them on, and so that their recipients can pass them on, and so forth until the calamity has passed.
You, reading this essay: you are an ark. The god Ea whispers to you through the reeds. What are you carrying that’s worth saving? What do you hold that must be protected and sheltered until conditions are right for it to fly free? Your devotions to the old gods and your knowledge of the Ways? Your friendship with the good folk? Your gateways through the hedge? The mass-produced books on Paganism, as lovely and important as some of them are, are not living knowledge. The written word kills the witchcraft. What’s alive lives in your body, and nowhere else.
Happily, I eked out the majority board approval I needed to plant my natives. I bought my seedlings--some fuchsia and sagebrush and golden currant and blue-eyed grass and elder, plus some California poppy and baby blue eyes seeds, and a compact Cleveland sage that wouldn’t tolerate the clay but might do all right in a pot--and, after a good rain, put them all in. I was afraid the soil was just too bad for them to thrive, but as I dug, I noticed it was teaming with earthworms. The land was impatient to be healed.
Gardening might seem to some like a paltry, even indulgent form of activism when Nazis are killing people in the streets. But the nurturing of threatened species requires radical hope--which Jonathan Lear defines as hope that “is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is,” and which Junot Diaz says “is not so much something you have but something you practice.” There’s a chance, and not a small one, that someone will kill all my native plants after I move away; after all, people all over Southern California are still hard at work tearing up natives to replace them with sod and concrete. But the act of planting keeps despair at bay. Perhaps one of my plants will release one seed that will fly somewhere safe and carry the species forward. Besides, liberation becomes easier to imagine when you get a tiny glimpse of what lies on the other side. Your body remembers a future with gardens, and that promise propels you to action.
After I put the plants in, I tamped the moist soil down and made the berms and offered each plant a little breastmilk to welcome it. I went inside and fed my children. My husband and I hope to move out of the city in a few years, to a place near a forest where I can tend a real garden instead of an alley, but my geis puts me firmly in this place until these plants are established and the birds and insects have learned of their presence. I hope that when I leave, the spirits will be able to protect these plants, or at least that status quo bias will work in their favor. I hope this patch of land will be a sturdy ark, sailing patiently towards a time when riotous, joyful life will thrive again.
*Translation by Stephen Mitchell