Bittersweet is Bittersweet

Bittersweet is Bittersweet

I know my relationship with plants is complicated. A quick search on which plants, specifically terrestrial ones, are invasive to Minnesota gave a list long and heartbreaking. Many of these plants have been in my landscape since childhood. They are familiar and constant. 

Curiosity will get me to attend any exhibit, opening, and artist talk, especially when it aligns with my artistic observations and exploration of climate and ecosystem dynamics.

Nicole Sara Simpkin’s How Will You Know When You Belong installation of botanical tapestries at the Silverwood Park Gallery transforms the space into a world of plants, the plants we know to be invasive. 

Forming an outer circle, hanging floor to ceiling, a series of bittersweet vine and tansy screen prints on translucent two-sided fabric surrounds the gallery windows.

Forming an inner circle is a series of linoleum and screen prints made of found materials and fibers, vintage lace, hand stitching, and cutting. These tell a story of relationships and a changing land.

In the center of her installation, Nicole has placed a bird’s nest, the size a bald eagle would make. Later, I learned it was constructed with buck thorn branches. Nests symbolize so much for us — a place of birth, nurturing, home, and safety.   

How will we know where we belong in the ever-shifting patterns in ecosystems and seasons?

And how are we going to change along with it?

Given I have never felt like I belonged anywhere and am sometimes at odds with where I am, these are confounding questions for me. I don’t know if I will ever have the answers. 

Nichole’s art asks philosophical questions about our relationship with plants and the changing environment. In the words of the artist, “It’s complicated.”

I know my relationship with plants is complicated. A quick search on which plants, specifically terrestrial ones*, are invasive to Minnesota gave a list long and heartbreaking. Many of these plants have been in my landscape since childhood. They are familiar and constant. 

Birdsfoot trefoil
Bull thistle
Butter and eggs
Creeping Charlie
Oyeye Daisy
Queen Anne’s Lace
White and Yellow Sweet Clover

*Aquatics invasive plants are a whole other category of issues. Don’t get me started.

Every count of disruption and degradation these plants are accused of, we will have an emotional response to them. In some cases, their flowers serve pollinators. Stating this, I understand the stern response would be invasive plants could never provide the same nutrient levels as native plants. As Nicole says, “It’s complicated.”

Just as people brought the Russian Olive tree to North America in the 1800s as an ornamental and windbreak plant, my dad planted the Russian Olive around our first house in Morris, Minnesota, for the same reasons. Dad built our home in a new developing part of town with its open lots, corn fields, and wind, lots of wind. Despite its thorns and gnarly bark, I loved the Russian Olive’s soft sage leaves, its pretty little yellow flowers in spring, and the fussy small olive fruit it produced in autumn. 

Where Dad planted the three Russian olive trees around our house, I never witnessed how they could overtake steam banks, lakeshores, and prairies, choking out native plants. 

Nicole gave us her introduction, asking how we feel about plants, how this feels in our bodies as living beings, and our relationship with plants, a mediation in its own right. We then adjourned to the Great Hall for a panel conversation with Nicole, Three Rivers’ Propagation Specialist Missy Anderson, and Invasive Species Supervisor Meg Duhr about invasive plant species, ecosystem impacts, and adaptation.

The science gives us all the data on how invasive plants have altered the landscape. It’s a depressing list of offenses, making it nearly impossible to justify my love of these plants. Once I learn the name of a plant, native or non-native, or invasive, I don’t want to pull her from my garden. We’ve been introduced. Now we are kin. 

a vibrant green stand of Queen Anne’s Lace flowering near a marsh.

This could be a scene from my neighborhood. Queen Anne’s Lace grows along the boulevard near a marsh. It’s a beautiful sight of delicate white flowers bobbing in the breeze.

As the conversation started to close and open for questions, one woman commented about our use of language and how harmful that can be. Invasive. It conjures images of monsters, of something evil. The same word is directed towards refugees and immigrants, calling them “invasive,” so let’s build a wall. 

Her alternative word for an invasive plant is persistent. I felt a shift in my body when I heard this word. It’s a synonym for perseverance, a value my dad instilled into my brothers and me while growing up. It has served me well. 

Persistent. It’s a softer, non-violent word. Heaven knows the everyday language in this country grows increasingly violent. The thing is, no plant has the intention of committing genocide on other species of plants. Its only desire is to grow, thrive, produce flowers and seeds, then die and return to the earth. 

As the climate changes and change is hard on us all, we face a challenging balancing act. We need bio-diversity to keep ecosystems healthy and resilient. We need plants to sequester carbon that builds and maintains soil health. We need plants for wildlife habitat. We need plants for food and medicine.

What can invasive plants teach us about resilience?

Will there ever be a way that we can live with invasive plants to our benefit?

Would there ever be the possibility that invasive plants could teach native plants adaptation on a swift timeline?

Meg Duhr, the Invasive Species Supervisor and veteran of many invasive plant battles ended with this: We have all the technology and methods for keeping invasive species from entering the country. The lack of political will and stricter regulations allows them to continue coming.

I will end with this. We’ve all heard the story of how the dandelion arrived in North America as that of an early colonist woman missing her beloved yellow flower from her homeland. Would her husband please bring her their seeds before he returns from Europe? 

The thing is, everyone immigrating to America brought the dandelion with them. Why? Leaving their home and everything and everybody they knew for an unknown land, they needed something familiar, a plant that provided food, medicine, and, yes, beauty. The dandelion represented home, like the nest, a source of known safety and belonging. 

To this day, it’s a universal act that a child as far away as Afghanistan will take a dandelion’s round puffed seed head, make a wish, and blow. 

It’s complicated.

How Will You Know When You Belong
Nicole Sara Simpkins  
March 14 – April 30, 2024
Silverwood Park Gallery
2500 Country Road E
St. Anthony, MN 55421
9:00 AM–5:00 PM, Daily

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