The Underside of Leaves
I reach my arm out, moving the Indian Celery, and step into the salmonberry bushes. Bright orange berries hang above my head. I close my eyes and see words: Orlando, Shooting, Gay. I reach to pull the branches down but my arms feel weak. I let go and inhale. My body aches in response to stress, especially my arms. I pluck a berry and drop it into the bucket, making a hollow sound.
The dense salmonberry thickets provide excellent escape habitats.
The morning’s sorrow, outrage, and fear crammed my Facebook newsfeed. Due to anxiety, I don’t have T.V. and I don’t watch news—even on Facebook—making navigating social media difficult. Finally, I read one article. I sucked in my breath. Typically I write early, but after I read the article, I couldn’t concentrate, so instead I put on my hoodie and boots and headed out to pick berries.
Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.
Orlando is a long way from my salmonberry patch in Southeast Alaska. But the hate is insidious and it is everywhere. I consider the hate it took to plan and execute a massacre, how that hate is blind to the spectacular biodiversity in all life. Biodiversity is interdependence and essential to our survival. I hold the bright berry up to the sunlight. How can someone not see that? My berry bucket fills until my chest tightens and I consider I’ve forgotten my blood pressure meds, but then I realize it’s not that.—
The deadliest incident of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the history of the United States.
I pick a few more berries. A yellow tour bus has passed by on the small highway beside the bushes where I’m hidden from view, its exhaust trails a memory: I’m a 13 year old girl on the school bus and another girl, in the seat in front of me, turns and says, “You kissed Audrey. Ewwww!” My face reddens. Murmurs rise and fall in the half-filled bus. My arms collapse into my body, my schoolbook tumbles from my hand. “She told me,” the girl added. I deny. Later, I stop seeing my kissing friend. Instead, I spend time with other kissing girls, the secret ones who don’t tell.
Salmonberry flowers often appear before or with unfolding and expanding leaves.
Now, I reach for another berry and consider the natural order of salmonberry plants, having both male and female identity, sharing the same plant body. On that bus, long ago, I didn’t have a name for how I felt or who I was. Instead, I hid and was ashamed. I had no one to talk to and I did not know how to look at science and nature for answers.
Salmonberry bushes are monoecious, possession both male and female reproductive organs on the same plant and are capable of reproducing both sexually and asexually.
How can we recover from this, create our own healing possibilities? Life layers itself, story upon story: a tragedy in Orlando, solace in the berry bushes. Salmonberries’ asexual reproduction is considered layering. Basically, the stem touches the soil and grows roots. Birds and insects, too, help with salmonberry reproduction. There is something about layers, and making connections, reaching out, that makes me consider how is it that we’re going to restore our lives. It’ll take a community to accomplish that, I decide.
We are dealing with something we never imagined.
First, though, I must take care of myself. Take time out; or rather in the bushes. Traditional medicine experts say you can chew up salmonberry leaves and spit them on burns. You can even use the bark in the winter. Pound the bark to a pulp and place it on toothache or wound for a painkiller. Boling bark in seawater as a medicine to lesson labor pains, clean wounds, and burns. I could use good medicine. This country, my town, could use good medicine.
The salmonberry may also act as shelter and protection for various smaller animals.
I am alive. Many are dead. I can’t understand, and yet I can understand that, how this can be the same day carrying both pain and beauty. I am soothed here picking berries, while families across the U.S. are in anguish. My offerings to the universe of solace and hope and despair and shame and joy are the same: They are the berries dropped at my feet for the birds and mice.
If you’re alive, raise your hand.
I raise my hands over my head; the bucket’s string is heavy on my neck with the nearly full bucket. I consider the dancers and celebrators of love and life at the Pulse nightclub, their families, and their friends. I wonder if anyone on our island will organize a vigil for the shooting victims. Probably not.
The shooting could have lasted a whole song.
I consider my friend Audrey’s boldness, how she wasn’t afraid, even back then, to express love. She might’ve loved me. It’s likely that tonight, somewhere she will be holding a candle, wax dripping, leaning against her partner’s shoulder. What about the secret kissing girls? Are they reaching out for healing? What about me?
Vigils were held around the world.
My vigil began with the body-memory of berry picking, something I’ve done every summer since I could walk. I lift the leaves beside me; there, in the underside of leaves, half-dozen large red salmonberries bulge with sweetness. Novice berry-pickers often glance at a bush and decide there aren’t many berries so why bother picking. But I know how to look, how to lift the leaves. I know these intimate leafy veins, the hairy underside, the thorny stalk, the astringent smell, triggering memory after memory as I continue to pick.
As producer organisms, the salmonberry creates its own energy.
Salmonberry bushes, if they’re damaged, can heal themselves, sending roots out from the stems, burrowing into the soil in order to sprout other plants. They keep going. They thrive. I reach for a big ripe salmonberry and instead of putting it in my bucket, I put it in my mouth. It’s juicy and sweet. My plant-body is grateful.
The fence has been decorated with vibrantly-colored banners.
The first part of June is often called salmonberry days because this is the time when harvesting begins. I plop another berry into my bucket. I pick another and another. I think about the candle vigils in other cities and towns that are likely to be planned. This is June and it’s Pride Month. The folks in Juneau are participating in Pride month activities and I know there will be nothing like that here. All I’ve done so far is to change my Facebook profile photo to the pink, purple, and blue Bi colors and say nothing. I step carefully through the bushes, heading deeper and deeper into them. The salmonberry is a riparian, meaning their roots help prevent erosion. If salmonberry bushes near streams are cut down the dirt can slough off into the stream. Our ecosystem’s biodiversity is enhanced by thriving salmonberry plants; because removing them can cause invasive plant species to take hold. I want to hold onto this; this feeling of plant-body connectedness. I have to.
Restoration: Salmonberry is a useful shrub in created wetlands because it transplants easily, with good soil- binding qualities once it is established, and is well adapted to eroded or disturbed sites.
In a bulldozed landscape, a small green tendril emerges, lengthens; then another and another. A salmonberry bush begins to grow. It only has two blossoms this year and is a couple feet tall. But next year…
A year after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando something on our island changes. I use the terms “transforming” or “life-changing” and some might even say “miracle” to describe what has happened to our island’s LGBTQIA community since the summer of 2016. Someone organized a Southeast Alaska LBTQIA group on Facebook, which morphed into a Wrangell specific group. Someone moved to town and needed friends. Someone reached out to me. A root reached out and embraced life.
Salmonberry is strongly rhizomatous, so one needs to watch its growth carefully.
This past year, a handful of LGBTQA and allies in Wrangell gathered and organized our island’s first Pride March, and then on July 4th, we rode on the first Pride float my small community had ever seen. Rubus spectabilis.
Pulse has served as a place of love and acceptance.
There aren’t many salmonberries this year due to last winter’s lack of snow, our late-coming spring, and torrential summer rains. Basically, we’ve had a short, rainy growing season. I probably picked only two buckets of salmonberries. But I’m patient; I have hope for next year’s season. I have hope for our island community. We call ourselves Community Roots, the first LGBTQA group of its kind in Wrangell. We are planning a TDOR (Transgender Day of Remembrance) vigil in the fall for all for all those who’ve died in the past year because of who they are. I will be there with a candle. I will be there with my people.
To mark themselves as "safe."
**Author Vivian Faith Prescott lives and writes at her Fishcamp in Wrangell, Alaska. She co-hosts Planet Alaska on Facebook.
*Previously published in Alaska Women Speak THANK YOU, EDITORS.
*Italics: Found lines from news articles on Orlando shooting & Salmonberry, USDA Plant Guide.