Gathered by Plants: Some Decolonial Love Letters
By Lia Maria Barcinas and Aiko Yamashiro
[all photos taken by authors]
To my oldest friend,
We first met in Guagua soil. Placed in a hole by mango loving hands.
you wrapped me in your roots and grounded me to the land. I watched as you grew so much taller and wiser than me. You stay in place, keeping me always home no matter where I travel.
I remember the summer when you shook the mountains with your laughter. Standing strong in the ground as you said to the world “this is me”. Laughter hanging onto every branch. I watched as every fruit ripened and danced their way to the ground. A Mungge mess of giggles turning the grass to gold, calling our sisters to bring their baskets and carts. They cartwheeled with you. All the trees around you held the laughter too, but it was you that everyone most wanted to taste.
I think about you always from across the ocean. Thankful for how you hold me in the darkest soil and clay. Under the moon, I hold you in my memories you are standing happy beneath the mountain. In my dreams, I watched you dance. I saw fresh woven Guagua overflowing with your laughter. Children arrived and climbed up your branches. All of us laughing together in Guagua. I watched you start to smile as they cartwheeled again and again and again. Your daughters planted with them. All of us golden and pink and placed in Guagua by mango loving hands.
My grandparents’ home is located below a mountain called guagua. Gua’gua’ in Chamorro is a woven basket. On the mountain there is a river which flows down and wraps around our house. The river makes the soil rich and everything grows more abundantly in the area. It is our family tradition to plant our umbilical cords with mango trees. Growing up we would spend all year talking about and anticipating mango season. My grandparents would talk about all the different varieties they knew of, each of the characteristics and what made each mango so special. They would talk about their grandmothers’ mango trees and tell stories of how their mothers would smoke under the tree everyday for the mango to bloom. I know a mango tree in Guagua.
“What do you know about bananas?” – is how Aiko invited me to the East-West exhibit on Okinawan dance last November. On a Thursday afternoon we watched videos about the Okinawan traditional art of creating banana fabric and clothing. We shared our different stories about the plants our islands share–coconut, niyok, niu, banana, ito-basho, aga’, maiʻa, stories about how they grow, stories about what threaten them, stories about grandmas and their gardens of friends, how flowers are laughter not luxury.
Stories of hope. We wanted to further explore our families and histories in Guåhan, Okinawa, Hawai’i, but in a different way. We didn’t want to connect over our stories of trauma, colonization, militarization, yet again. Instead, we wanted to remember and explore our islands’ interconnections through the plants we share and love. What can plants teach us? How can plants carry us through our struggles?
We talked about coconut trees. How they give us everything we need to live. How they too are affected by militarization but also show us connections beyond it. We talked about rhino beetles, how they eat the heart of leaves till they cannot be woven. We talked about the feelings of despair and how when plants are sick we need patience. We talked about Belau, how their women teach us resilience. How when beetles came to their islands they kept planting coconuts and encourage us to do the same. How planting more can be the best medicine.
So much more than a thing in the ground. Plants gift us: sustenance, hold our memory, offer us a connection to places and people lost. Plants our creators of islands. A way to go home and grow home. They are moʻolelo. Medicine and healing, hope and resilience, adaptation and generosity. They are history, a way to remember childhood and family. They teach us navigation. They help guide our paths. They help us hold the connection we need to sustain resistance, the bravery to act.
Our list was long, but it was difficult to write about them while honoring their spirit and the relationships they create for us. We decided to write to them instead, expressing our love, offering gratitude, asking them for help with conflict and pain, for their wisdom, and trusting them in their thousands of years, that they know a better way.
When I pick mango with my Nana she will tell me stories of why they choose to plant everyone their own mango tree; “So no one will fight” she says, “all of you will have mangos to eat and when others come to ask for mango there will be plenty of mango to share”.
My favorite thing about both my grandparents and mango trees is that they are sweet and generous. In recent years when I have been able to share mango with friends I now understand that joy and appreciate my grandparents even more for not only teaching us how to be generous but also for growing the mango trees which allow us to practice generosity in abundance.
Our mango trees where the first of many ways that my grandparents taught us to love and appreciate the land. They taught me that when we take care of and love the land it will feed not only ourselves but our loved ones, and our community too. This to me is one of the sweetest forms of love we can experience.
Dear mai‘a, dear banana, how often have I stood under the shelter of your arms. You turn the sunʻs heat into a cool green roof. The neighbor opened all his windows to see you clapping your leaves into thin strips, to better dance with the wind. You were happy and safe enough to grow a family, peeking from under the roof you built. Thank you for yellow yellow hands hands hands hands, teaching us to share sweetness. To bring gifts for ancestors, to leave gifts for descendants, to bring something extra for the unexpected stranger who will help you along the way. Thank you for clean green leaves to imu, umu, to tender wrapping fish, embracing rice. I remember the destruction of moving you–centipedes, wrestling your bodies to the ground. Sap everywhere. Carrying your keiki in buckets of cool wet earth. Planting you again in Kāneʻohe, with prayers for a new start. You begin all my mornings green, reaching for the sky. You begin again, growing a family out of happiness and hope.
I signed up for an Okinawan dance class at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, looking for my grandmother somewhere in my hands, my weak wrists, kachashii fingers, strong bones. Yukie Shiroma shinshii had our class attend a visiting textile art exhibit and dance concert. A video with English subtitles taught us about bashofu–the beautiful summer cloth made out of woven banana fibers.
We learned it takes years for bashofu makers to prepare the plants–first pruning and chopping them to soften and straighten their fibers. Then the sticky slaughter for weaving, then boil and soften the fibers, then weaver’s knot them carefully into longer lines, then chart out the design. And finally, weave by monsoon weather so the air is damp enough that the fibers won’t break. I remember the scene in the video where two people had to stand on either side of a large courtyard, using their entire bodies to stretch the fibers out.
Bashofu taught me that a cultural art form is a way of practicing and remembering loving and committed relationships between people and plants. Bashofu depends on the soil, the air, the rain, the memories of generations of women, the dedication between people and banana to create something.
My father, second/third-generation Okinawan in Hawai‘i, will tell me sometimes about the memories his mother didn’t want to talk about. The bloodiest battle of WWII left Okinawa devastated. People leaping from cliffs to the sea below, by the thousands. Killing their babies in caves so they wouldn’t be raped or murdered by the enemy, so their cries wouldn’t give them away. Later being herded into camps by the US military liberators. My grandmother as a young woman, standing in line for food rations for her sister, going back for herself later, being screamed at by a soldier for lying, for asking for more than one person’s share.
What happens when silences fall on soil, air, rain, memory. When war. So many stories about being hungry. Grandma’s brother catching frogs all night long to eat over the fire. How my dad used to hide in seigo palms to be safe when playing tag or chase. How she told him the stories because he was the only person for her to talk to. Later when he was older and he asked for these silences again she looked at him, asking: how did you remember that?
I am looking for my grandmother in a book by K. Hendrickx called Bashôfu: banana-fibre cloth and its transformations of usage and meaning across boundaries of place and time in the Ryukyu archipelago. She writes about another grandmother, Toshiko Taira. After the war, US forces cut down many banana plants to avoid the spread of malaria. Because Okinawans wanted to be American, traditional textiles were being lost. At that time, the desire for the crisp lightness of bashofu was fading. Into that silence, Toshiko Taira called women together to become weavers. Women who had lost their husbands during the war. These women wove and wove into a present reality where bashofu is a national treasure, a bolt of cloth something fine and even more precious than before.
When banana reproduce, the keiki are genetically identical to their mothers. Sometimes I wish for memories and stories to be passed down whole like that, perfect. Instead I try to learn the art of catching glimpses: my grandmotherʻs shadow dancing in the corner of my father’s house. Planting banana trees. This is the muddled journey of decolonization.
To the amagosu
I smelt you in his breath, days before he held you in his hands.
We used to eat your seeds like they were candy. Crack your fruits open just like grandpa did.
You were my first amot lesson as I nervously followed uncle Greg to your home in Billie bay. Sitting in the back kitchen with nana and papa, it was you that brought us health and practice. We filled up our cups as you gifted us with memories of when you filled nanan Rita’s morning pots. You hold stories of all the mothers and babies who would come to her door. She moves with you as you walk across the yard. Carrying the stories across the island and silently offering healing as you go.
When the moon stayed you called baby rita to gather your leaves, We joked at how she moved just like her nanan biha. She has always been that way.
On my morning runs you follow me. I find you at gotna too, growing in protest for the sacred spaces.
From Tagachang to Hagatna all of grandpa’s jungle neni love your seeds. Dark Red, slippery sweet, suck then spit – amagosu seeds. I look at my baby cousins who are jumping in the jungle and I asked them if they want to taste. They think you’re candy too.
My grandparents came from the WWII generation. There were a lot of big changes during the post WWII era and there was a lot of focus on eliminating our indigenous language and traditional practices. Much of this elimination process was conducted in schools where speaking Chamorro resulted in shame, embarrassment, fees, and physical punishment.
Traditional medicine has always been really interesting to me but growing up I was very nervous to talk to my grandparents about it. Traditional medicine is sometimes seen as a taboo topic (especially in Guam’s very catholic community). I noticed that Chamorro medicine was never something that my grandparents brought into our conversations in the same way they taught us about cooking, planting, weaving, or other traditions.
They would share pieces of knowledge like putting aloe on our cuts and burns, and eating certain foods for their health benefits but Amot was a conversation I felt I had to forced out of them. I was afraid to ask them at first, afraid to request it from their silences. I would tiptoe around the question by bringing books about plants of Guam and asking them every question I could think of. I would sit with them for hours working up the courage to ask for the information that I really wanted.
When I did finally ask them to teach me specifically about amot, they had so much information. The medicine was growing all around me. My grandparents had taught us about these plants since we were little kids, knowing that it was medicine but only sharing after we asked. Eventually we made medicine together. They shared stories of their mothers making medicine while they were growing up. All of us drank a little bit of the medicine that day, but the thing that healed us most was to break the silences. I could tell there was a peace for them to finally share their stories and I’m so thankful to have those memories with them.
There is a proverb that says “Maolekna manggagao ya ti mana’i , ki manai ya ti ma agradesi.” (It is better to ask and not be given, than to give and not be appreciated.) Whenever there is something I want to know about my culture or language, I try to remember this experience with my grandparents. Amagosu taught me that there is healing in asking.
One belief in traditional medicine is that the plants have a spirit and will grow where they are needed. Medicinal plants are especially found in sacred spaces. A lot of our sacred spaces are also places that are desirable for military and tourism.
The first protest I ever participated in was against a hotel construction at a beach called Gotña. After the ceremony my mom and I ran into some relatives who told us stories about collecting medicine from the area. They expressed their concern around development of the area because of how it grows certain medicines which are place specific. A lot of Guam’s medicinal plants only grows in certain conditions, so when new projects are presented our community searches for the medicines of the space. The endangered nature of our medicine has become a way to speak out against new proposals. When we hold actions or protest the amot of those places provide us courage and reason to persevere. When we oppose projects that could threaten them, it is giving the plants our commitment to protect them and our sacred relationships to them. Our demonstrations might only last for a few hours, but as long as the medicine is growing our connection to those spaces continues.
The TV is loud enough that my parents donʻt notice when I come home. I carve the bittermelon into canoes. The seeds packed softly away for the journey: red stories, brown stories. The lines on the outside curving, raised veins, old hands. “Like I told you, the only ones that ate it were me and my father,” Dad says. We fight about something else. He is quiet. “If I didnʻt like you I wouldnʻt say such things,” he says. “The more you cook it, the less bitter it will be,” he taught me. “You have to make your own taste,” his mother taught him. We both like the bitter, but we have to think about everyone else who is going to eat too.
Quietly, one door after another. A lucky night. Nobody forcing, just laying one quiet word at a time into the space between, hoping for a new pattern. Do you always use fish sauce? I ask. “No, I never did. At a restaurant, you spend all this time perfecting the perfect taste. But if youʻre a home cook, you just cook.” Today there is fish sauce and tomato. Once there was fish sauce and calamansi. I was proud that day too, making my own taste for the first time.
Today, yesterday, tomorrow, the US-Japan government started construction of a new US military base in Okinawa, in Henoko Bay. Dredging, laying concrete blocks, setting up floating fences and guards to keep out the protestors, who have been guarding the bay for over twenty years. From Oʻahu, I watch a video on YouTube of a grandfather being bundled and dragged away by police. Please give me the gift of stopping what you are doing, he says. Itai, itai, he says.
itai itai. where does it hurt. it must hurt in the memory, in the coral memory beneath the ribcage. where the bay lives. where the fish live. itai itai, where does it hurt. does it hurt all the way across the ocean, here. does it hurt in my grandparents, in their parents. does it hurt in salt water, in sururu, in nets, in dugong mouths. does it hurt behind the riot gear, in gloved hands. itai itai, in fences and patrols. it hurts in the singing, in naked feet. itai, itai, it hurts in the unborn children too. to bind up and drag away this place. it must hurt. it must hurt.
Norman Kaneshiro shinshii shared with us that we are vessels for our ancestors’ emotions, thoughts, memories, to which we add our own. Poems and songs should remind us of the stories we already know in our guts, bones, memories. That week, after uta-sanshin class, we talked about Henoko, and how hard that war generation fought. How they could meet pain with a resolve we can barely imagine. How they could commit their lives to peace.
What do we do when we are faced with losing a place we love? I am remembering the lesson we learn from Aunty Pua Case and the Mauna Kea protectors: how we fight with aloha to protect our sacred places. How this fierce commitment to aloha is what will save our own lives too.
I will watch my teachers carve themselves into vessels to carry Henoko Bay. Hump coral mountains, ocean forests of paddleweed, walking goby, mangrove, anchovy and black tern, sailing dugong, moon tides and bright anemone–all of you, rushing forward into our homes, rushing into our families, filling our connections again.
Dear goya, how do I become a good vessel, strong, buoyant? How do I navigate the warships, the unexploded ordinance, the masked faces? How do I set sail by every memory in the sky? I know you are a waʻa to his bright bays, full of fish and clear water. I know you are a waʻa to where his mother is waiting to hold him. I hold your old wise hands, ready for the journey.
You are ancient dreams.
Brother and sister our Beginning, and Daughter our Rebirth.
Pontan Niyok – heavy, brown niyok -our clans begin when you drop.
Ancient canoe plants, voyager and navigator – we are islands. You teach us
that that there is honor in migration, that there is innovation in mistakes,
and that we must plant our hopes from the ground up. Ancient mothers
carried you across the ocean to grow our homes away from homes.
Nana says if we have a coconut tree we will have everything we need to live.
You are my first dance teacher. Your spine bends and sways with full futures, wound with your strongest fibers. You crash bravely into my world, breaking open parking lots, car boundaries. My father used to sit in the car,
sit in front of the TV, and say that trees destroy pipes, walls, houses. I crack open your dreaming to find a clean white moon,
rising, rising to dance with you in the sky.
Meeting you was like dreaming of an old friend. As if part of me has always
been here waiting with you. You sit in this valley calling
to the mountains, singing a gathering song. You hold and you hold us.
In ancient and sacred space. I feel your resilience and breathe it in.
Thankful. You offer me your ocean in a shell. Waves roll back
and forward. Futures and past
You gather and you gather us in new patterns, folding us into aunties’ hands, into uncles’ laughter. I hold your fingers and follow you to Waiāhole, to Heʻeia, to Kāneʻohe, to Maunalua, to Pauoa, to Kamoku, to Mānoa. To bridges, streams, grassy hills and elementary school classrooms, to Marshallese Consulates. You fold us into new responsibilities, new relationships. Pull until the weave is tight,
until all our stories are touching.
Lia Maria Barcinas is a lifelong student of coconut trees. She is a daughter of the Marianas Islands from the village of Malesso’. She is thankful to Aiko for this opportunity to remember and explore our island connections that are deeper than military fences, and base relocations. She is thankful for all the plants that have gathered them in this space.
Aiko Yamashiro is on a path to better learn and fulfill her kuleana to Okinawa and her family. She works with HOA (Hawai’i-Okinawa Alliance) to create fiercely loving community spaces to talk about peace and militarization. She is so grateful to Lia for deepening her relationship with ancestors and their green green leaves, and for all the friendship and adventure grown out of this weaving. She is so grateful to the plants for their decolonial lessons of healing, compassion, and resilience.