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My Saint is a Weed
Saint Lucy for blindness and eye troubles. Saint Anthony for lost objects. Saint Peregrine for illness. Saint Christopher for safe travel. Saint Jude for impossible problems. In medieval Europe, there was a saint for every problem. Yes, a fever necessitated an herbal remedy. But it also needed a saint. Saint Patroclus of Troyes to be specific. Christian saints in the middle ages were syncretic animist deities from pre-Christian pagan practices. These beloved figures survived imperial control and Christian conversation by slipping sideways into the silhouette of Christian figures. Good examples of this are Saint Brigid, the chaste counterpart of the earlier Celtic fertility goddess Brigid and the mysteriously dog-headed Saint Christopher who harkens back to legends of the “dog-headed” Cynocephalus people who once lived in Europe. What we tend to forget, post-Enlightenment, is that early European Christianity was hardly monotheistic. It was a polytheistic romp of theriomorphic animal saints, magical grove and spring madonnas, and specific land spirits that saw the opportunity to survive by fusing into symbionts with Christian symbolism. Christianity was a cult of saints: unruly, folkloric, and inextricably entangled with the oral mythology of the people it tried desperately to convert.
Saints lived in certain places. Their relics were nestled in grottos and churches built over stone formations that had been sacred for thousands of years prior to the life of Jesus. You went on pilgrimage to a holy place, knowing full well that place and saint were synonymous. To touch the soil of a certain place was to touch the body of a being that could heal you. Saints were medicine. They were prescribed for ailments and heartache and conflict. Cunningly smuggled into the sterile realm of celibate sky gods, saints offered the feral medicine of specific ecosystems and landscapes. Covertly costumed as human beings, they continued to offer the medicine of the plants and animals and mountains and forests they had originally been understood to embody.
Hundreds of years and an ocean removed from the saints of my European ancestors, I wonder whom I should ask for help? Who are the landscape saints of North America? Who is the saint of this current moment? Who will provide a personalized medicine for me and my tricky body? Who is suited for this particular flavor of patriarchal capitalist death cult collapse? I think the answer is growing next to my car. And in the field near my house. And in-between countless rows of soybean and cotton plants. I think the answer likes disturbed soil. Polluted landscapes. Likes to salvage and adapt. Most of all, it likes to mate. So quickly, with half a million seeds per plant, that it genetically outpaces all the pesticides thrown at her. I think the answer is studded in cow manure. I think it is drifting, glittering against a gust of photons shot from a blistering August sun. I think my saint is a weed. Pigweed. Palmer Amaranth to be exact.
Palmer Amaranth is the bane of American monoculture. And, like the European land saints, it predates both Christianity and modern agriculture. Pigweed is a staple of indigenous people’s diets and medicines stretching from South to North America. The tender spade-like leaves can be cooked like spinach or added to a salad and the emerald seeds are high in protein and useful as a grain-substitute. The plants are high in Vitamin A and C, while also providing niacin, iron, and calcium. The Hopi and Pueblo also used the seeds to make a rust-colored dye.
A New York Times article was recently published about the threat of Pigweed. It is officially resistant to the pesticides Dicamba and RoundUp. Recent studies show that it is uniquely equipped to outwit novel pesticides. The article characterizes the plant as invasive. As a bully. A poison. A problem. It says that the only way to get rid of it at this point is something called “flame-weeding”, where fields are literally set on fire. But it is important to remember that Pigweed was here before colonial agriculture regarded it as fodder for pig’s at best, and a weed at best. It is not an invasive. It is not a bully. It is an original dweller of American ecosystems.
Let’s adjust the lens of the story. Let’s center pigweed rather than late-capitalist monoculture. Maybe Pigweed is a gift. A saint providing a medicine again and again. Saying, “These crops you insist on growing are not good for your body or the land’s body. What if you tried eating me? What if you tried listening to me? I’ve lived here much longer than you.”
The most salient aspect of pigweed is its ability to metabolize and survive constant chemical assault. Pigweed is no victim. Pigweed survives. Pigweed is resistant to Dicamba, a poison so potent that only a teaspoon could kill a human being. I think of my grandmother. Just this last year it was legally proven in a class action lawsuit against RoundUp that she was one of the victims of that chemical pesticide. Her heart-failure following Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was caused by the chemicals she used on her roses. I think of my own body’s tendency to adversely react to every chemical and pollutant with which it comes into contact.
We are in a toxic soup of our own making: cultural and chemical. We will not be able to escape contamination. It is well known that pesticides drift. And so do conspiracy theories. And panic. And bad stories. There is RoundUp in our drinking water. Flame retardants in breast milk. The answer is not to try and escape. But, like Pigweed, to send down a deep tap root, and start to chemically, creatively, metabolically adapt. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, writes Audre Lorde. And pigweed is a tool the master of American Capitalism does not recognize. This tool doesn't dismantle the house. It overgrows it. Digests its stone walls. Grows up through the floorboards.
As we seek to survive in an age of ecological collapse and cultural chaos, perhaps it is to the weeds we should look for advice. I think of Pigweed, invading Europe as Europe colonized America. As Europeans took over America, Pigweed flowed back on the ships, into the countries that were invading its original ecosystem. It performed a reverse colonization. Pigweed originally only from the Americas is now dispersed across Europe and Asia. Pigweed says plant me in disturbed landscapes, dirty soil, chemical sludge. Plant me where the pain lives and I will learn how to survive. I will learn how to turn this poison into greenery, into stalk and seed and a tap root so long and sturdy it is almost a sword, capable of sucking up water not available the shallow rooted soy and cotton plants. My body needs to learn how to adapt to an increasingly chaotic environment. It needs a saint that teaches me how to get I touch with the wily, cunning knowledge of place. My saint is a seed on the wind. A vegetal plague. Pigweed.
Happy to share this winding conversation with my friend David Abram that we had on All Hallow’s Eve in preparation for my course Rewilding Mythology. You can watch here.
And deeply excited to share my conversation with Ayana Young on one of my favorite podcasts For The Wild. You can listen here.
The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine comes out November 29th! You can order your copy from any online bookseller or local bookstore.
If you live in the Hudson Valley and are around on November 20th please come to my costume party bacchanal book launch at 3 pm in partnership with The Golden Notebook. The event is open and first come first serve. More details here. I’ll also be doing an event with my favorite local shop Chicory Naturalist on December 10th at 1 pm in Kingston.
My course Rewilding Mythology started last week and will be open for enrollment during the entirety of the 8-week journey. You can sign up and access past recorded sessions, resources, and the bumptious online community. Join me in the compost heap here! This Monday we have mythopoetic geniuses Tom Hirons and Josh Schrei discussing cycles and storm gods.
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I am overwhelmed with gratitude by how many of you have showed up here (and throughout the past year across platforms). As someone struggling to balance chronic illness (and just how expensive it is to be sick in America) with writing, know that you are very practically keeping me alive, keeping me afloat. Thank you deeply. I love you all so much.