Saturday, April 30, 2011


When I was ordering seeds in February, I also ordered a few books from the Seed Savers catalogue. One that caught my eye was Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians. It is one of those interesting things about ordering books from catalogues or online-- you are never sure what you're going to receive. The reviews of the book listed in the catalogue included: "A gem of a book useful for today's gardener," (Organic Gardener); "One of the best gardening books around," (City Pages); and "Every gardener and agricultural scientist should find gems of practical wisdom in these pages, borne from an age-old tradition when sustainable agricultural practices... made the difference in sustaining life" (Foster's Botanical & Herb Review).

The Hidatsa are from North Dakota, and lived with the Mandan in a place called Like-a-fishook village. One of the Sisters at the monastery where I work, Mara Faulkner, OSB, wrote a memoir called Going Blind set in the same area, and so that further piqued my interest. And the catalogue sells dried bean seeds called Hidatsa Shield Figure beans that look interesting (for another year).

The book arrived, and it is basically an anthropological text. After a long introduction and foreword, we get to Buffalo Bird Woman's text. It is a very readable oral history of her farming life. It follows a nice structure too, including sunflowers, corn (lots on corn), beans and squashes, which they saw as the four basic foods.

I have read parts of it, but still have lots to go. But what has stayed with me the most is the part about her grandmother clearing land for a garden. She used a "digging stick," and some of the women used bone hoes (there are diagrams of course). All she was doing, really, was loosening the soil. She'd dig/pull up any plants and shake off the dirt, then gather them in drying piles. After a few days, she'd burn the piles. It clearly took weeks to loosen up enough soil to plant. What was also pointed out was, she didn't loosen all the dirt in the plot. She just loosened the areas where she put the seed. Digging down with the stick, she could loosen areas and drop seed in. Then, throughout the summer, she'd return and keep loosing more soil between the plants. When that was done, she'd start going at the land with her digging stick around the edges, so that the following spring, more land would be cleared.

It just reminds me that really, the miracle of plants is that they grow in dirt. They grow in more or less any dirt. All you need are seeds, dirt, water and sun. I spend a lot of time thinking about the nutrients in my soil. I have a mixture of compost and soil for good drainage. I add manure, chicken and cow, as well as more compost each spring. In the new boxes, Steve put a mixture of manure compost with soil dug up from near one of our ponds. It is not as rich as the dirt in my other boxes-- will stuff still grow in it??  Well, of course it will!

Recently he dumped two more small loads of dirt wher I want to grow the squashes and potatoes. Well, it doesn't go down very deep and is sure to be full of weeds. So I went out with my shovel and tried loosening up the soil, mixing it with the hard soil beneath it. I'm not as strong or as patient as Buffalo Bird Woman's grandmother.

On YouTube, there are a few humerous videos of people with backyard gardens where they grow gigantic vegetables. I would never want to eat a beet as large as large as a pumpkin, but yes, it is impressive. They pour in fertilizers, and grow in beds that have very complex formulations of earthlike substances. Some of it is even organic.

In that way, I appreciate Buffalo Bird Woman's account. Because when I look around, I can see that I do indeed have a lot of dirt! And if my seedlings can withstand the wind pounding down today, and more to come this month, it should be a good summer in the garden.

image found here:

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