AND THOUGHTS ON AMERICA’S HISTORY OF RACISM
Last night and the night before I watched violence in the streets of Seattle on TV as events unfolded before the eyes of the public. Live news coverage of protests continued for hours, but it only took a few minutes for me to feel depressed, weary, exhausted, and hopeless. A reporter made the point that these protests – or was that even the right word for burning cars and looting? – looked different from Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests, when a World Trade Organization meeting was confronted with tens of thousands of protesters blocking delegates’ access and an overwhelmed, unprepared police force. That time, protestors had a clear target: globalization. In contrast, there was a randomness to these protests; as a woman expressed disappointment that her planned, peaceful demonstration had been hijacked, looters ran behind her with North Face jackets over their arms and cars went up in flames.
Underpinning it all, the driver of the current crop of violence and protests is our long history of racism, a history that, in my mind, we have not even begun to address. No wonder George Floyd is dead, no wonder Trayvon Martin lost his life. No wonder Eric Garner is dead, no wonder Ahmaud Arbery lost his life. The list goes on and on, back to the men and women who died on slave ships on their way to what – the promised land? Our country hasn’t faced what we did and keep doing, we haven’t made restitution, we have turned away. The turning away is profound and results in so much loss – loss of life, loss of dignity, loss of possibility.
I grew up in profound ignorance of this part of America’s story. Surely there were discussions of slavery in our grade school history lessons, but in our all-white classroom it wouldn’t have seemed very real. I don’t remember even seeing a person of color until I was ten, when we traveled from our quiet, upstate New York neighborhood to southern Georgia. My eyes were wide as we drove past a black woman weaving baskets for sale by the side of the road. My heart leaped at the sound of a quartet of black men singing spirituals on a sultry night. My mind puzzled over a black woman baking biscuits for her white employer’s family and my grandfather’s racist remarks. I longed to understand what seemed like a different reality. And different it was, because of the legacy of white culture’s investment in slavery.
After I left home my understanding of the other reality that was black America took shape down a rocky road of close friendships, interpersonal violence, even a drowning. I was deeply entangled in a fraught inheritance as victim, and on some level, as perpetrator. I’m far away from those times now but many incidents left deep scars on my psyche. Often it seems there’s no making sense of any of it. That’s the despair talking. That’s how I felt watching TV last night.
Retreating into a pretty world of graceful plants – and the Maidenhair fern certainly fits that bill – is tempting but I couldn’t simply proceed with this post as if nothing else was happening. Between racism, the pandemic and a changing climate, there is much to mourn today. Making sense of it seems impossible but we need to make the effort. And we need to turn away at some point, if only to breathe. Yes, I used that word “breathe” intentionally. George Floyd literally couldn’t breathe and so he died. We all need to breathe some better air. I offer this brief respite in the hope that you will come away from it breathing better, if only metaphorically. In Zen practice I learned the Three Precepts: to cease from evil, to do good, and to do good for others. In another iteration: to not create evil, to practice good and to actualize good for others. I see it as a continuum. We can at least try to place ourselves on it, somewhere, once we catch our breath.
And now to the lovely Maidenhair fern, which you may already know. It’s graceful fronds invite contemplation. They sway in the breeze on long, impossibly thin stalks, they shed rain but love wet places, they please the eye with the regularity of their patterns, like small green ladders in the woods, arrayed in circles.
The Maidenhair fern is sold as a garden plant and grows wild in many places – North America, China, the Andes, New Zealand, Europe – even Bermuda has its own Maidenhair fern. There are around 250 different species of Adiantum, a genus name that means unwetted, for the way water beads up on the leaves.
The species found in my area is called Adiantum aleuticum. Aleutian maidenhair fern ranges from Alaska to Mexico and is also found on the other side of the country, from Newfoundland to Vermont. I don’t remember where or when I saw a Maidenhair fern the first time. Maybe it was in a conservatory that I was first captivated by the graceful, delicate patterns of its leaves. Every time I find one my breath draws in sharply. Oh! A Maidenhair!!
There aren’t many colonies here on Fidalgo Island; we’re too dry for this moisture-lover. The few places I’ve found it growing here are rocky, wet cliffsides in shady locations. Further inland it can be found in rich, moist woods. Once I saw it entwined with Sword fern AND Lady fern – a trio of repeating patterns in bright green.
Fern reproduction is a complicated business. You probably know that ferns have spores rather than seeds. On many, but not all ferns, spores are carried on the undersides of the leaves and that’s the case with Maidenhair ferns. Sometime in summer, the margins of fertile leaflets curl under and spores begin to grow. Tiny, dust-like spores are piled in sori (from the Greek for ‘heaps’) also called fruitdots. The sori are covered by a thin membrane which is pushed aside once the spores are ripe. In the case of Maidenhair ferns, the membrane protecting the spores is simply the rolled edge of the leaflet. In some of these photos (e.g. #13 & 16) the rolled margins of leaflets can be seen – that’s where the Maidenhair fern hides it’s precious spores.
When they ripen, the spores will burst out of their cases and get blown around by the wind. Ferns produce prodigious amounts of spores and since there are so many, some are bound to land in just the right place. But spores don’t create ferns directly – first, there’s an intermediate stage, the gametophyte. A little hair anchors it into the soil and it grows, cell by cell, into a very small, heart-shaped body on which the sexual organs form. With a little moisture, male sperm will swim across to the female organs and eggs will be fertilized. An egg then develops a root, a stem, and finally, the first little leaf. Every time I read about fern reproduction I think, why can’t I find one of those little heart-shaped fern gametophytes? They’re just too small. My eyes are distracted by so many other things.
The fine, dark smooth stems of Maidenhair ferns have been used in basketry by North American tribes, and there was some medicinal use as well. In some European countries a sweetened syrup is made with Maidenhair fern leaves. Called Capillaire or Capile in Portugal, it’s been used in cocktails and to treat symptoms of illnesses like sore throats and bronchitis. The medicinal uses of Adiantum in Iranian traditional medicine are discussed in a recent scientific study. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses Adiantum plant species, too. And a Seattle-based school of herbalism and foraging is called Adiantum School of Plant Medicine.
A plant with such a wide distribution has probably had many other uses through the ages. For me, it’s enough to just look at it. This fern never fails to delight, no matter how many times I might see it.