I think I know which green I want, which green is better.
Your hand cooled in mine as you slipped away.
Scooped into a measuring cup of stars aimed toward true north,
you melded into greening columns of light in a northern midnight sky.
While the world was Juning, you Novembered, Decembered, and disappeared.
Un-sistered, I sat and wept. Brothered, I stood, my head to his shoulder, as a plain brown cardboard box with the shell of you inside slid into the oven, a scorching two thousand degrees, till nothing was left but ash, a chunk of femur, and pieces of tibia.
You migrated to the next place as people do.
Missing you, I gave up growing things. I let the garden lie fallow.
But defiant, the greening came anyway.
Chicory and Clover.
English Ivy and Italian Arum.
Poisonous or healthful, these hardy plants we call invasive
sought to drive their roots into the soil and shoot green leaves toward the sky.
Once upon a time, our Irish great-great grandparents were young, green, and growing.
They worked the Emerald Isle as tenants to British landowners.
Sheep and pigs and grazing cows,
Chickens and eggs,
Barley and wheat,
Rabbits, fish, and honey.
But the poor Irish farmers lived on potatoes.
Until the mold arrived, blackening the green leaves, rotting tubers.
Historian Christine Kinealy writes, “People were so deprived of food they resorted to eating grass. They still talk about people’s mouths colored green as they died.” Evicted tenant farmers lay along roadsides, green-mouthed.
This was not just a potato famine. The blight destroyed the potatoes, yes. But English laws killed Irish peasants. An Gorta Mor, they call it, The Great Hunger. So those who could sought refuge in America, became Americans. Became us.
“What’s wrong with being Irish?” I asked Mom in the parking lot of Buttrey’s grocery in Helena, adolescent girl brows and chin cocked upward in challenge. I had three Irish grandparents. The connection whispered in my blood and bones. I wanted to know it.
But Mom focused on the hard-working German ancestors—Dad’s Mom and her Grandpa, my great-grandfather. She blew out one of those exasperated exhalations—air expelled as an exclamation point.
“Your Grandpa…” she said.
Mom had already told me the stories. But I never saw my grandfather or anyone drunk, loud, abusive, like Mom described her dad.
For me Grandpa was a friendly old man who brought a brown paper bag of hard candies every time he came to visit us grandkids at Grandma’s house. He sat in a recliner next to the front door, lit up his pipe and let the smoke—sweet and pungent—curl around his head. When the tobacco was gone, so was Grandpa.
“Your Grandpa...” Mom said, “well, I guess I just got tired of hearing ‘Saw your dad passed out on the sidewalk last night.’ We’re not like that, we work hard. Besides, we’re not from Ireland, we’re from Montana.”
I’d be a young adult before I’d understand drunken and Irishman as an American stereotype with roots in reality. And many more years before I’d theorize that my own Grandpa’s drunkenness likely related to his time in the trenches of a Great World War rather than his ethnic heritage. So much more time before I’d contemplate the long tail of trauma in an Irish psyche, in any culture’s psyche.
The Irish fled starvation. They boarded rickety ships, over-crowded, over-insured—not meant to make it but we’ll make out nicely on the insurance ships.
For 173 Irishmen, women, and children that ship was called The Carricks, and it sailed from Sligo in 1847. They packed into this coffin ship head-to-toe and toe-to-head, starvation having made them already halfway dead. As they watched the final slip of home disappear under the swells of blue-gray ocean, were their mouths green?
The Carricks crashed into Canadian rocks and “one mighty sweep of ocean swell cleared her decks”. The crew all swam to safety, but few of the ill-fed passengers had the strength. Their bodies washed ashore and the Quebecois hauled them to a mass grave.
We thought we could roll back the wave, even as it came for us. Cancer couldn’t win, neither would climate change. You in Montana my sister, and I in Oregon, we went through each room of our houses, getting cleaner, going greener. Changing out plastic for ceramic and glass, trading chemical for herbal, synthetic for natural. We thought we could survive any wave, thought we’d change the world.
Now from your verdant celestial field lit by a sprinkling of stars, perhaps you don’t see what I see. Or maybe, you see it all. Lives darkened by crop failures and starvation, guns and violence, disease and pestilence. Genocide by design, by apathy, by greed.
In 2011, just when you were morphing from cancer-ridden human to starlight and shooting yourself into a northern midnight sky, a storm dredged up old skeletons on that Quebec beach, the bones of those who didn’t survive the Carricks. In 2016, 18 more skeletons washed up on the sand, adults and children, femurs and tibias curved from rickets.
the Central American dry corridor
drier and hotter than ever.
millions facing starvation.
(Have we forgotten so soon?)
Hungry migrants risk everything: gangs and thugs and border guards. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”
(Isn’t that what they always say?)
Mothers and fathers and small children
huddle in hot trucks and vans
cross swaths of waterless desert on foot
Without even grass to eat
will they, too, become femurs and tibias
picked clean and bleached
bones found a hundred years on?
Even a tsunami of grief can’t keep me out of the garden forever. My Irish-transplant Grandpa, the farmer who refused to put those new-fangled chemicals on his Missouri crops, my dad’s dad Grandpa, his blood runs deep in me. I can’t say no to the garden.
I think I know which green I want, which green is better. I tug at Crab Grass and Dandelions, to rip them out. Like Grandpa, no chemicals for me.
But I’m tired; I give in and let the weeds stay. We make a kind of peace. Lean our heads together like sisters under the covers at night. I listen to their whispered secrets. Dandelion leaves are nutritious as Kale. Chicory Root is chalk full of fiber. Clover gives essential nitrogen to soil. These weeds have a wild will to live. I sister them, they sister me.
As the world Junes again, I June too. Plunge my hand into soil enriched by home-made compost. A fat earthworm wriggles away toward the tangle of Dandelion roots that lurk at the bed’s border. I tuck the thready root ball of a tiny Collard into a freshly dug hole, then another, Broccoli, Tomatoes, Squash and Green Peppers. I work leaves and compost into another garden bed. I cut tubers into quarters and I plant Potatoes.
I live and write in Portland, Oregon, where we haven’t actually been on fire for decades (as some have said). Or maybe we have. We’ve burned with passion for literature and art, for food and sustainability, to repair our racism, to build a future with a bit of hope in it. Yep, the Portland now famous or infamous for ongoing protests, sometimes called riots. Woods, small towns, and suburbs around Portland are burning with unprecedented fury, the flames of climate fires. Our air is filled with smoke. Friends and acquaintances had to evacuate their homes. People and pets have died. Untold numbers of wild animals, trees, hillsides, homes, businesses incinerated. I’m deeply afraid for the world, for trees and animals, for water and air, and us. Soil and water and sun and a seed eventually offer a tomato so bright and juicy and fresh I can taste sunshine (after I wash a layer of ash off it). I take my inspiration from the natural world. A tomato gives me hope that perhaps we can turn away from ugliness and hate toward beauty, our own and the world’s. Maybe we can begin to repair all that’s broken. That’s why I write. Maybe, it’s not too late. My essays, both prose and prose-poetry, have been published at The Normal School, The Rumpus, Nailed Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Hip Mama, Fugue. maryamandeville.com