a hallucination about eating, living, and dreaming in the face of apocalypse, in three parts


From the Plant Diary of Blanche Derby, Northampton, MA

In the reoccurring nightmare, everything I know as home is destroyed.
It’s loud in the darkness. I am with my sister – I can’t see her but can feel her standing beside me as we face an agrarian dreamscape lit by an obscured moon, forced to watch again and again as the soy fields are cracking open. Soil streams away and falls into gullies of unknowable depth; I can’t move as the cracks divide rows of identical corn plants, moonlit, haunting, forever moving closer to where I’m standing and farther into a hazy horizon. I know I am dreaming, but I am incapable of separating this nightmare from reality. The fear I feel is real, even if its construction is beyond me.
The wind blows hard and this is more than even I can handle; I have met death, but the soil is screaming in pain. The fields of corn and soy which define my concept of home have been dead for as long as I have known them, and at least for as long as soil has been treated as a commodity instead of a source of life. My sister is singing softly – it’s the only way we know how to calm each other in the middle of the night.  This nightmare is a product of absence.  
There is no potential for healing. There is no return from this dream.  
There are two colors in the gray and clamorous nothingness. Red and green leaves on the edges of my perception; hallucinogenic reality, maybe, but I can touch them as the corn crumbles away from me and I struggle to find any footing.

Amaranth. Amaranthus palmeri. A tall stalk appears. I reach out to it, seeing my hands in the moonlight, gullies in my palms. Amaranth is soft; its redness is brighter than anything I’ve found in nature. A lattice of seeds falls into my open hands. This is power.

“Why do you care so much?” she asks me.  
“Because,” I respond, breaking out of the control of the nightmare. “We are facing apocalypse.”
I am eight years old again, barefoot in August.  Peter Gail stands above me – he pays me no mind but points my sister and me towards dandelion greens. Then, pigweed – one of the many colloquial names for Amaranth. I don’t remember him speaking, but I can remember the way he looked at the ground. Some things a child is uniquely positioned to perceive – like the wonder inherent in someone’s eyes when they look at the side of the path in front of the old barn and recognize everything that space holds. We later sat on the back porch of my farmhouse and sipped mint and wild quince tea. I never saw him again. I forgot he existed.
Across the country in Western Massachusetts, a place I have no concept that I will move to in just ten years, Blanche Derby has just received a message from Peter Gail – she advises him as he popularizes the use of edible weeds as an alternative to coffee. I’m not sure it works, but plant power touches different people in different ways.
At age eight, at least before meeting Gail, I knew little about plants other than that I was starting to hate the cornfields that raised me. Strings of childhood connected us across time and space, the roots of an Amaranth plant so omnipresent, so resilient, so immensely modest, yet also hated. Maybe this is power – the ability to come back again and again, against all odds. When I was eight years old, Amaranth was popping up in the genetically modified corn and soy fields of the American Midwest. It was resistant to the weed killer that had, at least for the previous 50 or so years, ruled all weed killers. Round Up—chemical component Glyphosate—inhibits EPSP synthase, an enzyme found in the majority of plants and essential to growth. The great American monocrops are modified to be resistant to herbicides like Round Up; otherwise, corn or soy would die within hours of coming into contact with the chemical. There is no resilience in what these plants have become; their lives are dependent on the death of others.
Amaranth, however, was never bred to be glyphosate-resistant. It just is.
“They grow so rapidly and prolifically that they are considered, worldwide, some of the most damaging weeds. At the same time, they represent some of the most nutritious foodstuffs known and have been an important food source for people throughout the world for thousands of years,” writes Gail on Amaranth. If Blanche hadn’t brought Gail up as we gathered around a dozen plant books in her kitchen, I may have never pulled him back into my present
Blanche, dressed in bright purple with her bike in tow, first appeared in my world when I was twenty and working at a community farm, seemingly worlds away from any true cornfield. She came for the amaranth which grew at the far back of the property. I liked the way she looked at the ground.

Amaranth, however,  has an identity of its own. There seem to be similar patches of amaranth all over the world –- people share a relationship with this one plant in a way that transcends both time and borders. Green or stunningly red bleeding into pink, Amaranth lies at the margins of our reality  – forever in the periphery of the rapidly accelerating world. “Amaranths are originally tropical plants with huge wanderlust! Over the centuries, they have travelled to almost all countries in the world. They are just as comfortable in Canada as they are in Brazil and adjust readily to most soil and climatic conditions,” writes Gail. “More than 50 species of Amaranthus are being used for greens, grains, and as ornamentals worldwide.”
As we walk in the woods together, Blanche’s hands constantly reach for something. She extends a palm into the mass of leaves and each time she pulls her hand back it comes with something special: autumn olive, sycamore, milkweed.

“Every walk with me is like a walk and stop,” she says as we turn towards the river that runs through our shared world. Her white hair falls in a braid, nearly to her waist. Blanche is slow and practiced, knowing exactly where and when to stop and show me a plant or a tree as we make our way down the uneven path. Fall holds its breath and the river has never been so quiet; it too wants to hear Blanche Derby talk about plants.

“It’s an ancient crop, raised before corn,” writes Blanche in her plant journal, which she shows me as we sit together in her kitchen. The pages, where she outlines where, when, and how to harvest a multitude of plants, are pristine – her precise handwritten notes just beginning to fade with age. “Amaranth is a weed in my garden,” she tells me. “I eat it in oatmeal.”
“I have always been called to plants,” Blanche replies when I ask her how she came to foraging. “Birds are great, but they fly away. We can commune with plants.”
When Blanche was eight years old, she started to practice plant identification. “I felt called to know them,” she tells me, explaining how she would go to the library, check out whatever books about identification she could find, and slowly and meticulously draw each of the plants to remember what they looked like. It was this slowness, this care, that cultivated Blanche’s love for art parallel to her love for plants. This slowness allowed her to remember.
Each female amaranth plant is capable of spreading nearly one million seeds. Amaranth loves valleys, microclimates in which warmth is held and soil is fertile. Young leaves are rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, potassium, the list goes on. As a result, the plant moves fast, and love runs deep.  “I learned to cook with weeds when I got married,” Blanche explains.  “I was looking for something different to feed my family, that’s how Amaranth came into my life.” As we sit and smile together in her kitchen, a man walks in.
“I’m Charlie,” he says, eyes soft and focused. Blanche’s husband.

“We’re talking about plants,” states Blanche, almost like an invitation.
“Well, what else would you be talking about?” He responds, aged hand reaching towards the tiled counter for support.
I look up to him from my seat as a guest at their dining room table. The collection of Native-American art arranged on the walls surrounds him like a halo. Part Wampanoag, Charlie has come far from his childhood on the shore of the Atlantic but, informed by stories, still searches for nourishment in nature. He smiles and shuffles out of the kitchen. Blanche tells me his grandmother was an early influence on how he should interact with the world – she too cooked with wild edibles. She too knew that if you spent the time to truly commune with plants, that plants would talk back.

The fields at the bottom of the valley are separated by canals. Over the year, rain from the mountains pushes nutrients lower and lower and lower as it drags the soil down, slowly but surely making its way to the base of the valley and into the canals.  At the bottom of the canals, as a result of the rain’s journey, lies the most nutrient-dense soil imaginable. Every spring, the people who live in the valley dig the collected sediment from the bottom of the canals, moving it uphill again. Then, they plant Amaranth seeds, having created the perfect environment for seedling care – modeling a form of agriculture that prevents erosion and cares for the soil in a way that transcends time. The plants decompose. The rain comes. Ad infinitum.
This Mesoamerican form of agriculture, called chinampas or sometimes floating gardens,  has been practiced since the Aztec civilization and is a culturally specific way of cultivating, an example of how humans have become a part of ecosystem and biological processes. By pulling soil out of the canals and piling the infinitely soft silt and clay into floating gardens, humans became inseparably linked to nutrient recycling – a process they’ve been a part of for as long as they’ve known amaranth and that they will have to continue to practice for as long as they wish to know the plant.
I’ve never been to central Mexico or seen chinampas seemingly floating in bright lakes, but Ania Madalinska has. Ania, a member of the Amaranth Institute, USDA employee, and social entrepreneur, tells me this story clearly:  “In these chinampas, amaranth cultivation has been there since the Aztecs.” She goes on to tell me something that I hadn’t heard about amaranth yet: that places still exist in Mesoamerica where amaranth is staple food. “In Xochimilco, the community’s economy is based around just Amaranth.” Ania speaks quickly. She is everything she needs to be; her fieldwork brought her to the chinampas, and she has been obsessed with the ancient grain species of amaranth ever since. “Have you talked to Dr. Brenner?”
Industrial agriculture in the United States stands in tension with a world where Amaranth is something of perpetual value. Roundup was born in the era after DDT; glyphosate, its chemical component, originally developed as an anti-biotic. Now, it’s everywhere – on the lawns of schools and synagogues and homes where children play but used with uniquely committed zealousness in the massive monocrop fields, full of plants that have been genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicides – termed “Roundup ready.”  Glyphosate, as a result, does not discriminate – the massive corn and soy fields of the American Midwest are devoid of any biodiversity. And it doesn’t go away, either. Glyphosate is in the soil, for a length of time unknown and with consequences that are even less understood. Pesticides don’t care about the borders of fields or countries; they flow with water; they ride the wind. Glyphosate, as a result, is in our food; in each and every meal we eat. The World Health Organization views it as a carcinogen. It sits in our stomachs. It stays. It stays.  
Genetically modified corn, then, is the opposite of a weed – sterile in the most literal sense of the word, so much so that this corn, if we can even call it corn, is incapable of reproducing on its own. Year after year, Roundup ready corn must be purchased and seeded, then purchased and seeded again, from the corporation that has designed the crop to be what it is – the same corporation that owns and produces Roundup. This, more than anything, is abuse of power.
Over the last decade, only one plant has developed glyphosate resistance. Palmer amaranth. Green and red dotting the cornfields for neither the first time nor the last time, killing King Corn’s productivity. This led Amaranth to become one of the most hated weeds in the world.
Speaking with Dr. David Brenner, chief of a massive, government-run seed bank in Iowa, is remarkably tedious.
“The superweed talk is over,” Dr. Brenner writes to me in our early correspondence. He later tells me over the phone that “amaranth isn’t considered a superweed these days because they developed something that could kill it. Dicamba. Farmer friends say it’s nasty stuff – it stays in the soil; it ends up in other fields.”
Dr. Brenner also speaks quickly; he and Ania both are intensely committed to amaranth, telling me the plant’s story with the muted love that only people so involved in the life of something have –  they can’t not talk about it. They, inside of the agricultural industry, provide the story of Amaranth with one key characterization: how it dies easiest. Dicamba was specifically developed to address amaranth, becoming the only entity that could stop the plant from spreading. Today, it is used in conjunction with glyphosate. Death upon money upon death.
American agriculture, let alone the United States’ ability to hold power in the global sphere,  fundamentally relies upon its historical use of enslavement. The history of the food system is forever intertwined with oppression. Pain doesn’t leave the soil, which makes the proliferation of pesticides, the militarization of the cornfield, and the vilification of a culturally necessary plant inseparable from all past violence. Violence finds new forms, and anger sometimes takes quieter, broad-leafed, red and green shapes. The industrial agriculture system, the Bayer, the Monsanto, the genetically modified: soy, corn, love, the way we eat, the way we eat, the way we live, the way we live, were all built on pain. Nothing escapes this.
Amaranth was able to beat the industry built on destruction of life and love, however – if even just for a second. This is resistance. This is resilience.
“Well, amaranth is not a true grain either,” Blanche says, “it’s really a grass.” In conversation with Ania, she pushed me hard to consider the differences between amaranth as a grain and amaranth as an edible. When I ask Blanche about this, she asks me to touch the small black seeds of amaranth that she collected. Amaranth was born years ago – carefully bred and selected by the Aztec civilization, staple to both the diet and to spiritual ritual. One of the most resoundingly true things about the plant is its seemingly omnipresence – amaranth, ever so incredibly, is everywhere.
We can’t escape the impacts of imperialism.
 “It was their staple food and also crucial to religion,” Blanche reiterates. “Amaranth was destroyed by Cortes during Spanish colonization – he knew what do to.”
Amaranth’s stature—six feet of imperious grass— was a source of sovereignty, and the primary source of protein for one of the most massive human civilizations ever to exist. Eaten or interbred with corn, amaranth forms a complete protein. There are vivid accounts of the Spanish burning amaranth storehouses – livelihood, lifeforce, spiritual force set to flame. This violence has been felt in perpetuity in amaranth’s homeland and across the Americas – amaranth’s power has been largely forgotten, violently purged from the practices of historical memory of a people and a place.
 “AMARANTH MUST BE ERADICATED,” states a recent bulletin from the USDA. Amaranth, then, is the enemy of industrialized agriculture. Industrialized agriculture, a distant echo of the violence that Cortes committed against Indigenous peoples, has become a new form of imperialism, imposing a particular way of consuming, a particular way of growing, a human engineered destruction of variance.  Amaranth can grow up to three inches in a day, its ability to thrive directly interfering with the productive growing capacity of genetically modified corn or soy, plant species that need very particular growing conditions.
“No wonder they’re so mad,” Blanche laughs. What does it mean to cultivate if we’re all doomed?


1 large handful of amaranth leaves / in our Ohio, Amaranth sat in the soy field
1 quart boiling water / The weed wizard was not kind
3 tbsp corn oil / he stood in power over my sister and I, August sun hot and
1 tbsp lemon juice / the memory comes as yellow, dandelion covered skin
1 tbsp herb vinegar / power is money, acidic,
½ tsp salt / and money is loud and unkind
3 eggs, hard boiled / and he never ever came back to the farm between the corn and the soy
“People involved with plants are usually decent folks,” Blanche smiles, face lit with the particular light of an early winter afternoon. I look out of her kitchen window and into her garden. I don’t think that Blanche would eat anything from the soil of the cornfield, where there is no love – there is barely any life, mostly just antibiotics.
Peter Gail was banned from Lucky Penny Farm in Garrettsville, Ohio after he led a series of “edible weed walks” one August. He was a friend, and suddenly not. Men should never raise their voices at the mother of two young girls. I wonder what Blanche would think about her deceased friend if she knew.
The first amaranth I encountered,  distinct from the first amaranth I met, was one of the brightest colors I’ve seen in the world – love lies bleeding doesn’t even begin to cut it, because here, embodied in the amaranth leaf, love stands in hallucinogenic pink surrealness. The brightest being in the marginal spaces of cultivation, my initial conception of amaranth was simple: beautiful. The plant’s spiritual life was immediately tangible to me. “The Native Americans in the southwest use it for dye,” I heard when I asked what the plant was. Other stories started to pop up as soon as I began to pay attention. What does it mean to forget something that was once at the heart of a collective soul?
The magic amidst the violence, however, comes in the form of amaranth as well. Though Cortes and imperial power attempted to destroy the plant so as to destroy a people, amaranth survived. Then it spread; in the present moment, amaranth roots hold the soil as far away as India and China.  Even though Amaranth is being stomped out and vilified in order to protect crop yield under an exploitative system, it’s still spreading. People are listening to what the plant has to say. Amaranth is frequently talked about as the plant of the future – as I look to an uncertain future, I look to feelings of home for comfort. Amaranth can flourish under pressure, and it can move. Due to its nutritional density, it is being talked about as a superfood of the future. The word amaranth means “purple in color” but also “the thing that never fades or dies.”
Even at the lowest point of the valley in Xochimilco, soil, the vehicle for ecosystem functioning, cannot escape the impacts of climate change. As industrialization spread and Amaranth seeds were carried by the wind, trade, and animals, the earth warmed and so did the atmosphere; as the rainfall patterns change, according to Ania, the lasting homes of amaranth cultivation are in danger, even if the plant itself is resilient enough to find new places to grow. The irony, then, is that amaranth, though a victim of violence, has the potential to move into other areas as the climate warms, potentially choking out native plant populations. We call this movement invasion, even though we are the ones that made it necessary. There is tension in the stalk of a plant. It bounces back when knocked. If global imperialism killed the plant, and then industrialization killed it again, then there are people globally committed to loving it.
“Amaranth is a component of the farming system in so many places, though not always the most productive,” Ania tells me. Amaranth isn’t as economically valuable throughout the world as a high-value horticultural crop would be, she tells me. This is likely because amaranth is everywhere; no one can profit off of something that everyone has access to. The glaring absence of Amaranth in the U.S. is indicative of a problem in our food system – we value productive capacity over nutritional value, as opposed to Bolivia, for example, where school lunch and breakfast programs are mandated to incorporate a certain percentage of amaranth into the meals. This feels worlds away from weed-killers and concerns about the production capacity of monocrops; in this example, steps are being taken to cultivate what sustaining and meaningful to a group of people rather than to suppress what threatens the productivity of nutrient-weak corn and soy.
 “When producers think about amaranth in central Mexico,” says Ania, “they know it’s stable. Depending on the history and function of a farming system, amaranth is eaten by the producers themselves, in other places grown to sell.”
Ania’s answer to the differing perceptions of amaranth? “We must promote consumption in the United States. It’s a potential forage here, and there is talk of it being put into crop rotation.” 

“But what does that look like?” I push back.
“Amaranth can grow marginally and rustically –  but it flourishes in nutrient dense soil and flourishes in managed spaces. A good fertility regime is necessary.” What Ania is suggesting by this is reconceiving amaranth not as a forage but as a staple that thrives when cared for. “A good fertility regime is necessary,” she says. “When farmers adopt non-stress conditions,” or conditions of care, “they get better results.” As long as amaranth is seen as an inhibitor to an industry’s ability to profit, or otherwise imagined as a superweed, it won’t be cultivated or valued as a green, grain, or as a component of culture.
As long as Blanche continues to find it on the side of the path, however, or for as long as a farm allows it to stay in the edges of the fields where soil is fertile instead of spraying or weeding it out, amaranth will continue to grow. All things that grow need care to flourish.
From talking to people who eat amaranth, I know that is more than just a potential forage or edible weed. Even in its persecuted and marginal life in the United States, amaranth is a quieter kind of life force. In the event of any disaster or change in climate, amaranth would likely still be there – in the periphery, dense with nutrients.
“Callaloo!” a child exclaims at the edges of my vision.  On Abundance Farm in Northampton, MA, a joint project between a synagogue and the town food pantry, people of all income-levels can engage with plants that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to find at the supermarket. Callaloo is a colloquial name for amaranth stemming from the Caribbean but also prevalent in many diasporic communities in the United States. To those who come here, eating wild edibles – and amaranth in particular – means finding parts of home in the places that they’ve moved to, integrating those parts into the current whole and carrying culture and tradition onwards and onwards. This, more than anything else, is amaranth.
“This makes me so happy,” the child’s father tells me, nearly in tears. “I haven’t seen this since I was home in Jamaica.”
The marginally cultivated amaranth patch at the back of a community garden becomes infinitely more exciting than the rows of tomatoes or arugula. Amaranth is different – and to so much of the world, it is a symbol of home, a symbol of ties to a place and time that are distant but forever present in the ways that they inhabit the world.
“Plants are connection to people,” Blanche reminds me. “When I’m at that farm, I know that people are getting something that they need.”
“What makes that the case?” I ask.
“Weeds in America are unique,” she responds. “You have to think about the relationship between foraging and accessibility. In America, weeds are for the poor – even if they have the most nutritional value. Everywhere else in the world, weeds are important to menus in fancy restaurants. But here, they are everywhere – so no one can make a profit off of them. So rather than using them to feed people, we exterminate them.”
“They’re invisible and everywhere, and ignored,”  Blanche reminds me.
In a world where this plant has been sacred, where callaloo is an exciting green to share with one’s children, where pigweed is part of the pesto Blanche makes during the summer, it’s hard to conceive that agricultural giants are vilifying Amaranth as an invader or the death of agriculture. But perhaps we are the invaders, and perhaps we are the perpetrators of death through the destruction of nutrients – the landscape of the American Midwest is an ecologically dead zone, soil incapable of producing anything other than monocrops.
Back at home, we ate pigweed from where it seeded in the compost piles at the edges of our garden and by the side of the road. My sister and I, curious in the way that one can only be after they have felt the contours of a world,  found the wild spaces of our lives to be the places of our greatest discovery.
Amaranth reminds us that the act of engaging with the things that feed us ought to be an act of love – an act of care, an act of resistance. “The dense seed clusters begin to ripen in September. To release them, press each seed head as if shaking hands,” writes Blanche in her plant diary.
Imperialism has transformed this world but there is resilience in the things we ignore. There is resilience in the ways that people are saying again and again; look at the ground, walk slowly.  We have transformed plants and they, in turn, have transformed us; their forms have become inseparable from ours.
We can always find ourselves by touching the ground, by looking carefully. At this moment, the very way we engage with the natural world is being transformed – there is an extent to which we can no longer consider what was once natural as natural, what was once agriculture as agriculture, what was once weed as spirit and what was once spirit as weed. Amaranth tells us: you have to see me; you can’t not see me. You have to taste me.
I am eight years old again, finding freedom in the cornfield.
The game is simple: find a place to build a home amongst the stalks. In the country, there are infinite opportunities for my sister and I to craft adventures. On this day, we are looking for something, anything to hold on to in the fields that flocked home.
“Run faster!” she shouts to me – we are no more than four feet tall, and at this point in the game we have been moving for what feels like hours. To us, the corn stalks might as well be trees. Their dry bodies rustle as we move through them, telling us where to move next. Then, the field splits – a place to sit for a while. A place to rest. This is the foundation of our kingdom, our mythical dream world inspired by the children who we read about. We constructed empire here in an afternoon. We knew we were safe because nothing could counter the power of our childish imagination.
Part of the adventure was that we had to figure out how to survive. It was the summer that the weed wizard came to the farm – we learned what we could eat from the cornfield. And we did. 

Two small bodies sitting cross-legged at the base of the cornstalks pulled pigweed from the mud. We ate it because we knew we could.
“Aren’t we so lucky?”
In a single dream, the sun hits my back. I reach out, and my palms are not gullies but valleys –everything is sacred because the plants, too, can touch me.  Home is here, forever among the plants that hold all possible futures, all possible pasts. Perhaps in one of them, I am able to forage at the edges of the cornfields that raised me with Blanche, Peter, and my sister together – amaranth red in the late afternoon sun.
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