Three Sisters (From Braiding Sweetgrass)

In Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, an essay called “The Three Sisters” delves into the traditional practice of planting corn, beans, and squash together in a mutually supportive triad:

“For millennia, from Mexico to Montana, women have mounded up the earth and laid these three seeds in the ground, all in the same square foot of soil. When the colonists on the Massachusetts shore first saw indigenous gardens, they inferred that the savages did not know how to farm. To their minds, a garden meant straight rows of single species, not a three-dimensional sprawl of abundance. And yet they ate their fill and asked for more, and more again.”

This system of planting is one that could be understood as complexity-coherent. It forms a relational system within which each plant serves a powerful supporting function–a demonstration of reciprocity that offers the lesson, as Kimmerer puts it, “Respect one another, support one another, bring your gift to the world and receive the gifts of others, and there will be enough for all.”

I was most fascinated to learn about how the bean facilitates nitrogen exchange for the other plants:

These glistening nodules house the Rhizobium bacteria, the nitrogen fixers. Rhizobium can only convert nitrogen under a special set of circumstances. Its catalytic enzymes will not work in the presence of oxygen. Since an average handful of soil is more than 50 percent air space, the Rhizobium needs a refuge in order to do its work. Happily, the bean obliges. When a bean root meets a microscopic rod of Rhizobium underground, chemical communications are exchanged and a deal is negotiated. The bean will grow an oxygen-free nodule to house the bacterium and, in return, the bacterium shares its nitrogen with the plant. Together, they create nitrogen fertilizer that enters the soil and fuels the growth of the corn and the squash, too. There are layers upon layers of reciprocity in this garden: between the bean and the bacterium, the bean and the corn, the corn and the squash, and, ultimately, with the people.

The primary lesson in this chapter obviously isn’t about plant ecology. It’s about relational, complexity-coherent systems in general.

The way of the Three Sisters reminds me of one of the basic teachings of our people. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others.

Of course when I read this, my mind went straight to my continued experience in the military, as someone whose “gifts”… whose neurodivergence, idiosyncrasies, and individuality have often felt like flaws and liabilities in the compliance-oriented, variance-limiting culture and design of this obsessively ordered institution.

I am not a stalk of corn. I am a winding, wandering bean amid a seemingly endless field of cornstalks. I have only gotten by all these years as a result of pretending, hiding my gifts, and often being sheltered and shielded by more corn-like figures who recognized that my flaws were in fact gifts.

In indigenous agriculture, the practice is to modify the plants to fit the land. As a result, there are many varieties of corn domesticated by our ancestors, all adapted to grow in many different places. Modern agriculture, with its big engines and fossil fuels, took the opposite approach: modify the land to fit the plants, which are frighteningly similar clones.

Once you know corn as a sister, it’s hard to unknow it. But the long ranks of corn in the conventional fields seem like a different being altogether. The relationships disappear and individuals are lost in anonymity. You can hardly recognize a beloved face lost in a uniformed crowd. These acres are beautiful in their own way, but after the companionship of a Three Sisters garden, I wonder if they’re lonely.”

I have been thinking about the complex systems of teams in this manner for a number of years now, inspired by writings that deviate from the Scientific Management-derived view of organizational structures which convinced us that the tasks of a team can be reduced to component parts, paired cleanly with desired competencies, and the human system could then be shaped to perform rote, repetitious actions in a standardized manner to minimize variance… like identical stalks in seemingly endless rows. We must recognize that the tasks before us are complex, and therefore the human systems themselves must be complex, and various types of variance must be fostered and fit to the context. The most threatening liability we face at this point isn’t an incapacity to produce standardized outputs at scale… it’s our incapacity to deviate from that function, stuck as we are in a mode of monoculture.

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