Three Perspectives on Buckthorn Relationship and Land Reciprocity

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8 minutes of reading

Introducing the Buckthorn Burn, by Anja Claus 

The heat rising above the field fire, stacked with Buckthorn limbs, began undulating in the cool Midwestern air. Some of us drew closer to its power, like so many moths to a flame, instinctually attracted by the light and the heat. Others watched from the woodland edge, still busy lopping branches. The fresh prairie air braided with the Buckthorn smoke creating a delicious inhale for all. We worked, we prayed, we talked, we watched, we thanked. We were removing Buckthorn.

We held each other, the humans in attendance, as we dove into the woodland line greeting the Buckthorn, asking of them to now rest and to recharge the soil in new ways. We lopped and covered their exposed possibilities with heavy duty, charcoal-colored, plastic bags. We tied and sealed, eager to take the slow and ever connected path taken when honoring a change in relationship. This was a new direction, at least for me, and for the Buckthorn as well. For me it was an opportunity to play, without toxicity meeting the ground and wafting in the air. A grounding and exciting possibility was afoot.

My chosen role for this day was to guide the Buckthorn from root to place of metamorphosis. Awaiting us was that heat and smoke. I gathered and lifted and pulled their strong bodies toward this fire. Conflicting values stirred in me and, thus, emotions emerged. I knew there was death, but also rebirth ahead. What sorts of rebirthing possibilities might lay ahead…? 

High hopes settled in as the smell of Buckthorn souls blanketed all who were present. Their souls wafted up caught by the winds above, then blown onto the trees, onto the prairie and onto our clothes, skin, and hair. We were now enveloped by the souls of possibility. Thoughts of novel beginnings that might lay ahead birthed these land-based hopes, an energy that continues to nudge us forward as we reimagine our human role in land reciprocity.

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A Conversation with Adam Kessel and Anja Claus

After this day of gathering, Anja had the opportunity to be in conversation with Adam Kessel, the guide on this cultural field day, to learn his perspectives, reflections, and thoughts about the possibilities ahead. Adam brings with him cross-cultural knowledge rooted in diverse Indigenous perspectives, and on-the-ground, urban-nature restoration. He also brings with him grace, groundedness, creativity, and a sense of play.

Anja: What was the most important part of the cultural field day for you?

Adam: I really enjoyed feeling safe to explore land reciprocity techniques that reflect the relationship we seek with the life of that place. CHN created a dialogue in a way that allowed me to feel supported in designing this culturally based workday.

Anja: Why did you have an interest in leading this field day? Is there cross-over with your day-to-day work with the work of the field day?

Adam: I seek opportunities to create safe spaces for the community to work, share stories, and best practices. I really valued the opportunity to teach and learn from others in my community at the workday.

Anja: How did you envision the day? What were your goals?

Adam: The day was focused around rebuilding our relationship with Buckthorn. Even the most seasoned conservationist can have a strained relationship with this invasive species. In community, these species are often referred to as species that human relatives have lost their relationship with. The most important part of the work day was sharing the story of Buckthorn and its relationship with the immigrant communities that brought it here. Only after sharing that story did we begin to harvest the Buckthorn for the fire and provide opportunities for youth to repurpose the cut Buckthorn into instruments to be played during an impromptu nature jam around the fire. We did not get to the instruments or the jam but that was the goal.

Anja: How do you think about “invasive”—or what you called “strong”—species?

Adam: Invasive species are strong and resilient species that need to be in relationship with humans for the balance of these ecosystems. In many cases it was our relationships with these species that brought them here, and it is our relationship with these species that will bring them back in balance with the places they choose to live.

Anja: What is the Buckthorn removal method you chose and why did you choose it?

Adam: I chose to bag the Buckthorn because it does effectively stop the growth for most cut Buckthorn. It is not 100% effective but no measures are. This strategy also reduces the use of herbicide in places where we want to harvest plants and have youth live in wellness. In many instances, the use of herbicide is the most effective tool but planning the workday with CHN gave me the opportunity to use a different approach that is safer for all the creatures in that space and cultivates the relationship that we seek with the environment.

Anja: What are your reflections on our human responsibilities to each other and to the whole community of life?

Adam: I feel that we are responsible for working together to create safe spaces to live and to build relationships with one another and the natural world.

Anja: How can the Center make a home in this new place and be mindful of and supportive of the intersection of the many different social & ecological evolutions we humans are currently navigating?

Adam: You have started off on the right foot by inviting in communities that you hope to work with to share in your visioning process. Walking and talking through the spaces in organic ways can have a transformative effect on the way you and your partners conceptualize the spaces and their uses.

Anja: What could be the role of the Center’s community in enacting/practicing land reciprocity?

Adam: Find ways to share in the abundance of the land from hunting to harvesting. Make sure the process you design to engage with the Native community is not arduous and cumbersome. For example, the act of harvesting happens at certain times only and requests to harvest certain plants happens only when needed. Make sure your process for land access is one that can happen smoothly and timely. Another way to address land reciprocity is building co-management plans with Tribal Governments and/or Native serving organizations. This will allow you to anticipate some harvesting requests by having the reintroduction of culturally salient plants into your planting strategies.

Anja: What is the role of art and human creativity when giving to the land?

Adam: Music, language, ceremony, and celebrations can all be gifts to the land. These gifts can also carry into the overall management of the farmhouse/office space and its footprint on the land. For example, renewable energy integration, composting, recycling, and any other facility operations that can give back to the land should be an integral part.

Anja: What do you think are important components of a new land-based program?

Adam: How are you or can you integrate land diversity as a component of instructional differentiation? We often get stuck on the native vs. non-native paradigm without fully acknowledging the context that led to the introduction of the said non-native species. It is this relationship that, when explored, yields the relational approach to the land that we hope participants in programs and individuals on the site carry with them.

Anja: How will we interact and honor the deer, coyote, fox, cranes, and other living beings who call this place home?

Adam: Maintaining a healthy ecosystem that includes hunting and trapping of some wildlife. CHN can think about what sustainable harvesting and balance looks like for your organization.

Anja: How do you think about intergenerational engagement with the land?

Adam: Providing spaces for elders to both participate in the physical restoration efforts are important but also providing space for congregation and storytelling are equally important. The fire acts as both an important function of the workday and a gathering place for storytelling. It is important for the organizer to be mindful of creating multiple spaces for gathering and intergenerational learning. 

Anja: How do you envision co-management of land with respect to both the Chicago Native community and regional Tribal Governments?

Adam: I believe organizations should have a two-tiered approach: 1) engagement with local Native communities through Native-serving organizations, and 2) partnership-building with Tribal governments to incorporate Tribal land management best practices. In our region it is the Native-serving organizations that are directly serving the Native community and Tribal Governments often depend on relationships with those very organizations to better reach their Tribal members. Many organizations that care for land are looking to Tribal Governments to inform them of their care of sacred sites. While this is very important, it does little to allow for entry points for cultural use by the contemporary, regional Native community. Both approaches need to happen for these sacred spaces to return to health and be given the respect they deserve. To me, all of nature is sacred but some spaces carry more stories than others and need a different type of care as a result.

Reflections and Photos, by Cassandra Castillo Valentin

Throughout this Buckthorn story have been photos gifted to us by Cassandra Castillo Valentin, a Chicago-based artist and photographer who attended the day’s events and captured our adventure with the land. Below you will discover more of her images and her written reflections of the Buckthorn day.

I heard from a relative that there was going to be an event to remove some Buckthorn, which is an invasive species in Illinois that disrupts the ecosystem in natural areas. I was offered the opportunity to photograph the event; I happily agreed and I had much fun doing so. This gathering was the perfect opportunity for me because I love the environment and photography.

Before everyone got to removing the Buckthorn, we opened the space in ritual by acknowledging the land and the first peoples of the land by smudging. It’s a beautiful experience to be a part of something that is very sacred to Indigenous peoples. Everyone present introduced themselves and we learned what Buckthorn is, what it looks like, how to remove it, how to prevent it from growing again, and where to place it for a burn.

Following the ritual and some instructions, people started removing Buckthorn and I began documenting the process. I took photographs of people working collaboratively to remove Buckthorn, the burning of Buckthorn, the covering of the cut Buckthorn, and some pictures of the house on the land. There was still plenty of Buckthorn that needed removing, but together we were able to remove quite a bit in just a couple hours.

Final Reflection, by Anja Claus

The day’s events closed with both new and renewed relationships among the humans, and with the Land and all she holds. I looked forward to creative community adventures ahead. I think we all did.

  • Adam Kessel

    Adam Kessel is the Nature Center Director at Forest Preserves of Cook County, Illinois. He has taught urban ecology programs extensively throughout the Great Lakes Region. Adam is also the author of Tales of the Plant Guardians, a book that offers an opportunity to find that magic in nature in places that one might overlook.
  • Cassandra Castillo Valentin

    Cassandra Castillo Valentin is a young Chicago based artist and photographer, who loves caring for plants, being outside, and listening to music and people. She is interested in many mediums of art which you can find on her Instagram @cassaaanovaaa.
  • Anja Claus

    As Senior Editor, Anja guides the development of Humans and Nature Press Digital as well as co-edits submissions to this publication.  She spearheads the Questions For a Resilient Future's Cosmos series—a series focused on reimagining our inter-connections with off-Earth environments.
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