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Goddess "" Earth "" Cosmology "" Women's Health "" Reader Contributions "" Book Reviews "" Editor's Desk

Wisdom of Elders: The Three Sisters

In southwestern Wisconsin, country roads look like tunnels at Lammas. Corn rises ten feet tall or more on either side, mile after mile of it covering the sweetly rolling hills. Roadside stands offer fresh-picked ears for pennies. No one tends the stands, because even if someone stole all the corn, there would be plenty left to pick. Midwestern corn seems the definition of abundance.

Despite all that, we are growing corn this year. Blame my grandfather. This spring, I got a packet of free corn seeds as a premium for my excessive order from an organic seed company. My family jokes about the half-drop of Scottish blood we inherited through my grandfather's Gordon line. My mother, too old to sew, keeps a closet full of fabric scraps "just in case." And who knows, she might be right. My sister Kathy recently made something from a piece of yellow-and-blue Irish wool Mom brought back from the homeland 35 years ago. Our family seems genetically disinclined to throw out anything useful. So I knew what would happen when I opened those free seeds. They would have to be planted.

The Three Sisters stand as one of the treasures of traditional knowledge.

I was secretly happy. I would never have "wasted space" (more Gordon influence) on what was so easy to obtain around us, but I had always wanted to grow corn. Not by itself, but in companionship with beans and squash. The Three Sisters were grown together by Native American agriculturalists who recognized how these plants enhanced each other's growth. Their companion strength does not end after harvest: Eaten together, the three vegetables provide every one of the essential amino acids our bodies need for complete nutrition. The Three Sisters stand as one of the treasures of traditional knowledge.

Corn — maize, actually — has been grown on this continent for almost 10,000 years. Far more productive than its wild ancestors, maize probably resulted from intentional cross-breeding. Beans and squash, brought into cultivation more recently, are more closely related to their wild cousins. History does not record who first discovered that planting the three crops together made them more productive and healthier. While the plants originated in the tropics, their companionableness seems to have been a North American discovery. Indian gardens were owned and tended by women, so I like to imagine a genius granny, a kind of prehistoric Barbara McClintock with a "feeling for the organism," listening to the plants and learning of their natural affinity for each other.

The most vivid story of the birth of the Sisters comes from the Iroquois, who saw them as the parthenogenically-born granddaughters of the sky-woman Ataensic.

The most vivid story of the birth of the Sisters comes from the Iroquois, who saw them as the parthenogenically-born granddaughters of the sky-woman Ataensic. She was born in the heaven, above a vast blue lake filled with waterbirds, for there was not yet land down here below. When she fell from the sky, the pregnant Ataensic was saved from drowning by Ketq Skwaye, Grandmother Toad, who dove deep beneath the lake and returned exhausted, spitting up a mouthful of soil just before she died. The soil landed on a turtle's back and began to grow. By the time Ataensic reached the water — her fall broken by hovering waterbirds' wings — there was enough land for her to rest on as her daughter, Gusts-of-Wind, was born. But Ataensic's daughter did not live long, and when she died Ataensic buried her in the new earth. From her body sprouted the Three Sisters, intertwined from the start. Dyonheyko was the name of this Indian trinity, "life's sustainers."

I have known this story for thirty years or more, but I had never planted the Sisters. So I was thrilled at the free seeds, which arrived almost as unexpectedly as Ataensic herself. One cloudy spring day, we planted two rows of corn in the upper garden. Beside the corn, we planted various winter squash; on the other side, pole beans. We might have planted the Sisters in round patches, with corn in the center, surrounded by beans, surrounded in turn by squash. But we had rows tilled, so we planted rows. The Sisters do not seem to mind.

Now, every day on the farm, I run to the upper garden to see the Sisters. The plants grow at similar rates. The grassy corn stalks reach upwards just as the beans stretch out their tendrils, seeking support. Simultaneously, squash opens its broad leaves, shading out opportunistic weeds. Week by week, the Sisters grow, mutually supportive and energetically productive.

Beneath the soil, the plants further support each other. Corn is a heavy feeder; in Wisconsin fields, this means vast amounts of petroleum-derived nitrogen fertilizer. But in our garden, beans host nitrogen-fixing bacteria that thrive, fed by sugars released from the corn's roots. Without a single pellet of commercial fertilizer, our corn was knee-high by the fourth of July, held in a bean embrace. Nearby, squash kept this summer's fierce sunshine off the corn's shallow roots, allowing it to survive despite the stinting rain the heavens have provided. The prickly squash-stems repel hungry wildlife, an added advantage given our nearby oak woods.

The plot has taken surprisingly little tending. It is far less weedy than, say, the nearby carrots or peppers. One or two mornings with a hoe over the entire summer, and that's been that. Harvest will come soon, time to test out some of the recipes we found on an Oneida website devoted to encouraging reestablishment of the healthy horticultural and nutritional traditions of the ancients. As you read this, we should be eating Three Sisters Casserole or Three Sisters Stew, thanking the plants and the earth and that ancient granny for these gifts.

"We are all natives of somewhere."

Such grannies lived in my own ancestral land too; as my friend Barbara Flaherty likes to say, "We are all natives of somewhere." I remembered that the other day, when I scraped myself against a stinging nettle hidden near the Sisters. I have a fierce reaction to nettles, perhaps a skin memory of my first encounter, when I fell into a huge stand of them on my first trip — appropriate word! — to Ireland. This time, I started for the house, yelling for help, when the stinging started. I dread nettles, I really do, and with good reason.

Before I got to the door, I passed an overlooked stand of dock. I spend a great deal of time weeding out burdock seedlings, while Chocolate, our Labrador, devotes himself to seeding more. I have not had much sympathy for the big, broad-leaved things, but as the nettle sting began to feel like liquid fire pouring down my leg, I remembered some old herbal wisdom from Ireland: "Burdock grows with nettle to tell you it's the antidote."

Having no idea what part of the plant to use, I pulled off a few leaves, crushed them in my hand, and held them against the wound. Within moments, the stinging had stopped. A few moments later, I was back at my weeding. Only later that morning, chores done, did I remember I'd been stung. I will still avoid nettles, but I'll let a stand or two of dock grow uncut each year just in case I get stung again.

Who was it that first discovered this healing connection? Another genius granny? I imagine her in a little house at the edge of the village, collecting her simples and passing down her knowledge. Prehistory and history were filled with these botanical savants, women whose knowledge benefits us still, if we choose to listen.

The wisdom of elders tells us much we need to know. Now that I have known the Sisters, I see corn differently. Whenever I see it standing in soldier-like rows throughout the nation's great fertile breadbasket, all I can think is how lonely it looks. How hungry the corn must be, without beans feeding it constantly. How thirsty it must be, without squash shading its shallow roots. How sad the corn looks, without the friendship of her sisters.

The scientific discoveries of our foremothers were conveyed, not in formulae, but in myth and story. I suspect the plants themselves appreciate the stories, so as we celebrate Lammas and harvest the Sisters, we will tell their story back to them. And next year, we'll plant four rows. Or maybe five.

Graphics Credits

  • corn, beans, squash: Three Sisters at Lammas © 2005 Patricia Monaghan. Used with permission.
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