One of our excursions on our vacation here in Grand Marais was a visit to an Ojibwe Indian village at Grand Portage on the northern shore of Lake Superior. This is the spot where local fur traders and European traders met to exchange furs for food and European goods. While there were many interesting things about the fort and the Indian village, what most struck me was the explanation of the Indian planting.
The interpretive guide spoke of planting the “three sisters,” corn, string beans and squash. The corn was planted in the center of a mound of dirt, with string beans planted around the sides of the same mound. This made a perfect pairing, as corn leeches nitrogen from the soil and the beans put nitrogen in the soil. In addition, as the corn stalks grew, the bean tendrils attached to the stalks, allowing the stalks to serve as support as the beans grew, obviating the need for any supports or other trellis-type arrangement. Zucchini was planted on surrounding mounds. As its large leaves grew, they spread out and sheltered the surrounding mounds from the sun, meaning less water was needed to keep the mounds from getting dry.
The Indians also planted a “fourth sister” around the edges of the plot – sunflowers, which grew larger than any of the other plants. The seeds from the sunflowers fed the birds and the height of the sunflowers meant the birds would not swoop in to eat the corn.
Now, I’m no troglodyte opposed to innovation and invention. I am, after all, blogging on my computer from a place far from my native home. But as I reflect on the guide’s explanation, I am struck by the beauty of operating within the natural order. We so often think of an artificial way of addressing a problem. Too little nitrogen? Let’s put some artificial fertilizer in the soil. Pests bothering our crops? Let’s put some spray that will keep them away. In contrast, the Indians managed a way that naturally kept the soil working and a way to protect their crops while feeding the birds.
God created the earth and made humans – those God created in God’s image – stewards over all of creation. We could learn something from the Ojibwe Indians about how we exercise that stewardship.