by Fireweed, for the Island Word, April 2015 edition
On a whim one day, I nicknamed a plant in my garden. Nearly two decades later I'm still boasting about 'Barbara'! Each spring this magnificent rhubarb unfurls to reclaim a vast domain and produce an over-abundance of juicy red stalks. Every summer I put up with the inconvenience of having to circumnavigate leaves the size of elephant ears! You might say we're bonded. With a taproot extending half way to the Southern Ocean, Barbara has made it perfectly clear that relocation is not an option.
Coincidentally, I lived on a farm with another non-human 'Barbara' years ago – a sentient being appropriately stubborn in her own particular ways. Ba-ba-Barbara looked a lot like the ewes mothering offspring right now in my current rural neighbourhood. She taught me that sheep are incredibly sensitive and aware animals, and that every flock has its trusted leaders. She had her own unique personality, expressed affection, and responded to her name like a dog or cat might come when called. The notion that sheep are unintelligent is certainly common place, but definitely misguided.
Researchers in Cambridge, England have discovered that sheep can remember the faces of as many as 50 other sheep (and also individual humans) two years after their last encounter. Another study, demonstrating their well-developed spatial memory, documented sheep navigating their way through a complex maze. They got better at repeated attempts, clearly exhibiting their ability to learn. As animals vulnerable to predation, sheep are naturally timid in situations of uncertainty, but a mother will exhibit great courage on behalf of her young. They have very strong social relationships for life, and have been known to forge special friendships with members of other species.
Ba-ba-Barbara might have lived four to five times as long as she did, but the burden of carrying multiple babies (an outcome of contemporary breeding practises) can lead to fatal complications during delivery. She never made it to her 3rd birthday. Of course, most of the lambs frolicking in local fields right now will be traumatized by separation from their mothers and sent to slaughter for their flesh anywhere between five and twelve months of age. The bucolic air they lend to a daffodil-dotted landscape in springtime is deceiving. Relative to their 'natural' lifespans, any semblance of blissful freedom is extremely short-lived.
With no apparent disruption to the longevity of my 'garden-variety' Barbara, I have managed to cleave pieces of the massive rhizome for propagation elsewhere. And I've read about rhubarb planted on homesteads over a century ago still going strong!
I'm not in the habit of personifying plants, generally speaking. Referring to a robust rhubarb the way I relate to a human or non-human animal is completely tongue-in-cheek for me. But I am concerned about the number of locavores I hear blurring distinctions between plants and animals - to the point of equating the harvesting of one with the slaughter of another. I wonder how it is that such folks can claim to detest factory farming and support what they refer to as 'humane' killing, without advocating for similar 'best practises' when it comes to the fruits and vegetables they imply are also capable of suffering. I just can't imagine putting faith in any farmer who really believes the difference between slicing a crown of broccoli from its stalk and cutting someone's throat is negligible if that someone is a nonhuman animal. And yes, I've met these sincere people.
Plants lack the central nervous system common to animals that facilitates our experience of pain, and the subsequent ability to flee from danger for self-preservation. Plants have evolved different, mostly stationary means of discouraging certain forms of potential harm. In some instances they may actually benefit from activities that would be fatal to an animal –like heavy predation, or fire.
We can argue about whether or not a plant's ability to respond to external stimuli means they are capable of experiencing suffering comparable to what we animals do as sentient beings. But at best that's a diversion from this straight-forward fact: only through trickery is any animal led willingly to slaughter.
Lambs are very vocal about their distress when taken from their mothers, and vice versa. Plants, on the other hand, have certainly not evolved to communicate through sound what so many animals with ears are capable of sharing with one another – actual feelings. When it comes to the animals humans choose to dominate, I think what social justice activist and writer Arundhati Roy has to say about oppression in general applies: “There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless.' There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
This month's recipe reunites rhubarb with its origins as a vegetable! Classification of the plant as a fruit was simply the result of American farmers lobbying for tax breaks in the early part of the 20th century. Sweet or savoury, rhubarb is versatile and nutritious. Give this unusual combo a try...you'll soon be adding it your own rhubarb repertoire!
Fireweed's Rhubarb Rhapsody Soup
Soup ingredients (preferably organic):
1/2 T. olive oil
3 carrots, thinly sliced
3 celery stalks, thinly sliced
1/2 an onion, diced
1 cup of red lentils
1 cup of chopped rhubarb
2 .5 herbal bouillon cubes
(I like Harvest Sun Organics)
4 cups of water
1 tomato, chopped
a handful of parsley, chopped
sea salt, and fresh ground pepper to taste
Tofu sour cream ingredients:
1 box of organic Mori-Nu Silken tofu
1 T. lemon juice
pinch of sea salt, or season to taste
Saute carrots in olive oil over medium heat just long enough to begin to soften before adding celery and onions. When all are tender, set aside. Rinse lentils, and add to boiling water with bouillon cubes. Turn down heat and cook gently with lid on for approx. 10 minutes. Add rhubarb, parsley and tomato with seasoning and cook for another 10 minutes (less time if you prefer the rhubarb soft but intact). Add other veggies during the last few minutes. Garnish, if you wish, with a dollop of tofu sour cream (made by simply blended the three ingredients together.) Bon appetit!