Readers write about Root

Tansy Count

A penny a plant: that's what my dad offered to pay my sister and me to pull up the tansy ragworts that had invaded our Tillamook pastures. It was 1960, the summer I was ten, my sister twelve.

Alkaloids in tansies, a species native to Europe and Asia Minor, were killing dairy cows in Tillamook County. New plants could generate from root fragments or from seeds. Before the introduction of flea beetles, ragwort seed flies, and cinnabar moths, yellow-blooming tansies seemed invincible in coastal Oregon.

Dad's a-penny-a-plant offer went something like this: “I want you to start in the fields closest to the road. Pull every tansy—tall or short. Be sure to pull out the roots. If the tansy has a root, I will pay you a penny. No root, no penny. Stuff the plants in a gunnysack and haul the sacks to the driveway near the milking parlor. Pile the plants on the gravel where I can take a look at them.”

We trudged out to the field, toting our gunnysacks. Some weeds were two feet tall, some almost three feet. Often it took a pull from the left and a pull from the right, and then a repeat pull from the left to free them from the ground. At the end of the first day, we tallied our stack of tansies: five hundred plants—all with roots. We had earned $2.50 each. Not bad, but not highly profitable.

The next day, we headed out again. We had learned that some tansy plants grew with a single stem, but some had stalks that shared one root system. We decided to separate the stalks while being careful to keep root hairs attached to each stalk. Hadn't Dad said he would pay a penny a plant as long as it had a root?

At the end of the day, we hauled our last loads to the driveway. We counted 2,200 stalks—all with roots. At a penny per stalk, the total was $22. We were rich!

Dad looked at our pile of tansies. He saw root hairs waving from every stalk. He examined our tally sheet. Slowly, he pulled his wallet from his back pocket. He counted out $11 for my sister, and $11 for me.

Then he gave each of us a look—a long look.

“From now on,” he said, “I will pay you by the hour.”

LINDA KIRK, Myrtle Point


My Roots in Oregon's Woods

The available history in northeastern Oregon didn't tell me that I had roots there. My father's small branch of the family had dropped, seemingly accidentally, from the family tree into La Grande.

I was surprised to discover, as an adult, that I am the daughter and granddaughter of African American loggers. Those two men journeyed west from Arkansas in 1923 to Wallowa County, Oregon, in a boxcar. Eventually approximately forty to sixty African Americans lived and worked in the logging town of Maxville.

Maxville is no longer on the Oregon map. Finding my roots in Maxville meant uncovering the town itself. Once home to about four hundred people, the town was the largest in Wallowa County between 1924 and 1933. It was a timber town—like so many in the Pacific Northwest—but unlike most timber towns, Maxville was home to both African American and white loggers. Maxville boasted a post office, a commissary, a hotel, and a doctor's office. African American families lived in segregated houses, attended segregated schools, played on segregated baseball teams—and worked with the white loggers every day in the woods.

Could my roots in the woods, I wondered, be connected to other ethnic minorities who didn't fit the typical Paul Bunyan image? In 2008 I founded the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, which collects, preserves, and interprets the history of Maxville and similar communities throughout the West. I found folks with firsthand recollections of life in Maxville, and, with the help of a video camera (and a few classes on how to operate it), I recorded those memories. Through these oral history interviews, I uncovered Native American, Greek, and Japanese logging families in the Maxville vicinity and throughout Oregon. Vernonia, for example, included African American, Filipino, and Japanese workers, lodged in separate quarters.

When I learned about my grandfather's and father's lives in Oregon's woods, I rewrote my personal history to include those roots. Now, the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center is rewriting Oregon history to include minority populations in our logging stories.

GWEN TRICE, Enterprise


Unrooted Epiphytes

When historians write about immigrants, they tend to invoke “root” metaphors. From Oscar Handlin's 1951 classic The Uprooted to John Bodnar's 1985 The Transplanted, scholars have stressed the rootedness or lack of rootedness of immigrants as a measure of their integration into this or that nation. The idea of roots implies people tethering themselves to a particular plot of land. This is not our reality today, nor has it been the experience of millions of people for more than two centuries.

Roots link people to the soil and give them a sense of place. But being tied to a particular place is increasingly uncommon in a world where the United Nations estimates that there are more than 240 million migrants. Even in the nineteenth century, an era of unprecedented mass migration around the globe thanks to new steamships and railroads, being born and dying in the same place was becoming rare. 

Liberal historians have emphasized rootedness to advocate for immigrants' rights within the context of the nation, but such a vision blinds us to the multiple affinities that migrants have to diasporic communities that may not be rooted in any particular nation state. Many immigrants, especially middle-class ones, do assimilate and come to see themselves as part of their adopted countries; but what of those who do not?

Instead of roots, the metaphor of the epiphyte captures the fleeting, diasporic communities formed by many migrants as they move around the globe. An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant, such as a tree, by harmlessly deriving nutrients from it. The distinguishing feature of epiphytes is that they are not rooted in the soil, which is why they are commonly referred to as “air plants.” An epiphyte may over time send its long roots down, overtaking and replacing a tree. 

The idea of the migrant as epiphyte opens our eyes to the many people who live among us without putting roots into the earth. One day these epiphytes may extend their roots to the soil and replace the tree. In the meantime, let us celebrate the rootless epiphytes.



99 Percent

Last September, I saw a general surgeon about having a growth removed from my shoulder. All summer I'd been disciplined, getting stronger and fitter after having weathered a stressful life transition. The slight swelling bugged me. Why not get it removed, I thought. I felt vain, but tried to justify a snip of self-improvement.

A massage therapist found it. Almost certainly a benign lipoma, he said, but being a cancer survivor you'll want to be sure. Yes, my oncologist said, a lipoma, see a surgeon. Then this extra-careful surgeon, reviewing my history, also conducted a breast exam. Oh!

“I'm 99 percent sure this is a cyst,” he said, “but I want you to get an ultrasound.” A couple of panicked hours later, smearing the cold gel around, the radiologist said, “I'm 99 percent sure this is not a cyst, so I want to send a biopsy to the pathologist.” To be sure.

That 99 percent thing. Is that something they teach doctors to say? A technique to present bad news? To dunk you in a fresh horror like a tea bag dropped in boiling water, clinging to that thin cotton string dangling above you—your 1 percent link back to the world you occupied just a moment ago, a thread too slim to climb, too fragile to pull you back out, its only function to swish you around in hot hell until your old, safe self is fully steeped in this new black brew?

So began my return to cancer-land, a place I left nine years ago and felt was finally behind me. Uprooted? Picture a sturdy Douglas fir flipped on its side by a rough coastal storm, its heavy anchors ripped from the foundational soil of its life, that huge root ball gripping rocks and dirt and smaller plants in the claws that had held it firmly upright in the earth for decades. Now rawly exposed, you can examine its underside. See what it looks like in the place where it had been attached, settled and strong, for so long. Right there is the seam between the seen and the unseen.



Nomadic Roots

In most every military home hangs a sign that reads, “Home is where the Army sends you.” Below it dangle wooden plaques, each attached by two chains to the plaque above, listing places the family has been transferred: Fort Rucker, Alabama; Fort Lewis, Washington; Heidelberg, Germany.

I'm not enamored of country décor, so I never opted for one of these signs. Now I wish I had just to see how high it would have to hang on the wall to include all nineteen places we lived in almost thirty years with the military. And those were just the moves after we married. We could add more if we include the many moves my husband and I made as children with our dads both working for the military, not to mention our own individual pre-marriage military moves.

It might seem like a life without roots, but we see it differently.

The dandelion is known as the official flower of military children, or military brats as they are affectionately called. Not just because the seeds are scattered, blown to all winds, but because the dandelion swiftly puts down deep roots, survives in all kinds of climates, and coexists with many different kinds of plants.

With each move, we'd swiftly put down roots. We'd explore our new home in depth, often introducing new local friends to places they didn't know about. Why? Because they had their routines and ruts and put off exploring to “someday,” a luxury we didn't have. We created community quickly, engaging with strangers who often became lifelong friends despite continued moves.

When Greg and I moved to Manzanita in 2006, we were choosing where we'd live for the very first time. Now, after eight years, we've both lived longer here than anyplace else in our lives. We've put down more permanent roots.

Instead of hanging a wooden heart, we built our nomadic history into our home.

Our cooktop is cut out of Greg's dad's old wooden chopping block from his days as a meat market manager in a military commissary. An antique hutch that we bought in Europe together while we were dating has been incorporated into a bar attached to the wall with plumbing. Another antique German hutch, purchased in Tongeren, Belgium, is built into our office bookshelves.

And my old black leather Women's Army Corps boots, planted in the garden and filled with succulents, are slowly dissolving into the ground.



Tracing the Bloom

It looks like this when you try to trace the bloom back to its roots: What did I do wrong? Did I eat the wrong foods? Not exercise enough? Treat people badly? Was I not kind enough? Not ___ enough? Or perhaps too ___?

You run your hand over your skin, over and over. You feel the changing texture, each bump or blemish sending a tiny electric charge through your heart. You stand in front of the mirror, hold your belly in, imagine how you will endure another round of needles and tubes. You look for clues in family photos: your grandmother with her sullen glare, your mother's wide-open smile, her mouth curved around a cigarette. Was it planted there? The hardscrabble life and nicotine taking its toll? There is a black-and-white photo of your father, perched on the hood of a jeep, someplace in the South Pacific in World War II. You wonder, was it planted there? Amid the gases and chemicals he inhaled?

It's likely we will never know how or when the seeds were planted, but we do know how they flowered. First one sister and then the next and the next, each discovering the small telltale bump that blossomed into confusion and fear first, and later into doctor's appointments, surgeries, chemo, and radiation, and the endless questioning of what went wrong.

From the same seed came different outcomes: recovery, surveillance, denial, and, for one of us, eventually hospice. Our family came together and flew apart. We rallied and gave up, showed up and stayed away. We moved through decades of hope and despair, each of us learning to recognize the sound of the phone call, the terse tone of voice, that signaled a return.

As I write, the incisions on my chest are tight and painful, reminding me that the roots of this dance are deep and long.



Native Tongue

I've always known the basics: turn off the light, close the door, shut your mouth, and my favorite, you are a rusty sheep.

This is my favorite joke to tell. My cousins laugh, my teacher laughs, and the white students at my school, learning Arabic as a résumé booster and an excuse to spend the year abroad, laugh. I'm placed in a special class for what the school calls heritage learners, people who they don't expect to have a problem making the sounds or understanding the way culture affects language and the other way around. This is a good fit—the other people in my course are both women. One, an Afghan, wants to read the Quran. She can read sentences on a native level, but when asked what they mean, she shrugs her shoulders and purses out her bottom lip.

The other, a white woman from the States, has a lot of Arab friends back home. Her pronunciation is awful at best, but she knows the phrases, like may God bless your hands, and peace be upon him, the things you say in between the things you say, and this gets her far. The people love this blonde-haired woman coming to their country and saying their words with her foreign tongue, and they don't laugh at her, of course not; they tell her inty shatoora, you're doing great.

At first I'm bitter, and then I'm jealous, but mostly sad, over how different it must be to be able to come to a country to learn a language to connect better with your friends at home and not the other way around, to come to a country and learn a language and have the people say that's wonderful that you're doing this instead of why haven't you always known?

And the answer is always different, whatever explanation best suits the person questioning you and the life you have lived, before standing in front of them with a weird hybrid mouth, half-empty and half-full of tongue that does not know which direction to move.



Family, History, Immigration, Land, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Place, Home, Global and Local


1 comments have been posted.

Mary Sepulveda, your "endless questioning of what went wrong" resonates so deeply...we ask ourselves what we did and didn't do and could have done and we try to live fully with the knowing that we can't go back, only forward, yet our way is often crowded with rocks. Does it help to share our stories, to cry out within range of another's hearing? I take some strange small comfort in our shared geography, that as neighbors and fellow Oregonians we're experiencing our lives here, in some form of company with one another, even though I don't know you. But I'm reading your words in this special Oregon-centric magazine and maybe I passed you on the street once or twice. I wish you peace, friend.

Bija Gutoff | May 2016 | Portland

Related Stories

Also in this Issue

The Gift of a Known World

Just People Like Us

A Tremendous Force of Will


Not Built for Ghosts

Stolen Land and Borrowed Dollars

Between Ribbon and Root