Roots

Roots are amazing.

It is said that the roots of a tree are as big or bigger than the part of the tree above the ground. Some trees send roots straight down and others spread out horizontally. Cut off a box elder or a cottonwood tree and the roots will send up dozens of suckers to replace the what you have removed.

The roots of Canada thistles can span a distance of 15 feet horizontally and sink 15 feet deep into the soil. A quarter inch piece of this tenacious plant’s root can sprout a new plant as long as 100 days after it is broken from the parent plant.

Grass roots are even more extensive than the vegetation above the ground. Two-thirds of prairie grasses’ biomass is below the ground. Some species have roots that extend as deep as 15 feet into the soil. The great fertility of the American breadbasket is the result of the soil building of the grasses (and their roots) which once covered the prairies and Great Plains. The roots of grasses plague my gardens no matter how carefully I remove them

from the soil. When my children were small, quack grass punched holes through the bottom of their inflatable pools. The rhizomes can find the smallest hole in lawn edging and sometimes even skewer root crops.

Leafy spurge is nearly uncontrollable, not because it has such a large and invasive leaf structure, but because the roots sneak along under the ground, storing up energy for growing new plants.

Roots are important.

I understand the importance of having roots. I have lived on the same place on the earth for most of my life. I have lived here longer than any other human being. My family has

lived here for more than a hundred years. My roots are deep, like the roots of the trees planted by my grandparents and my parents. Like the roots of the grasses along the field edges and in the pastures. Like the deep tubers of the prairie lilies, the golden rod, the yellow lady slippers and the wild roses. I am who I am because my roots are buried in the black dirt around me. My earliest memories recall the smell of the soil, the sound of rustling grasses and the wind in the trees.

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Roots are intertwined.

My roots also spread outward to include the community around me. Plants don’t exist separately. Their roots are intertwined and they support one another. Some plants fertilize their neighbors with the nitrogen they pull from the air and fix in the soil. Other plants inhibit the growth of their neighbors. Still others form symbiotic communities. We don’t grow alone either. Our roots are intertwined with the family and the neighbors with whom we were raised. We sometimes hold each other up. Sometimes we nurture each others’ growth. Sometimes we stifle others and try to crowd them out. In ways both good and bad, we are intertwined and affect each others’ lives.

Whether we live, as I have, in the same place all our lives or we move far away from where we came, our roots are important. People who are uprooted and do not allow themselves to be rerooted, often feel disconnected, alienated and alone. We all feel the need to belong somewhere. Often our first question for someone we have just met is “Where are you from?” Not just, “Where do you live?” but where are your origins? Many of us search for our genealogy, tracing our roots back centuries and to other countries. We treasure our family trees and our family histories. Cousins whom I have never met and who have never set a foot on the farm begun by our common grandparents feel a connection to this place where I live.

Large trees can be successfully transplanted. Given enough time and the right conditions, roots regrow and trees adapt to a new location. People can also be transplanted.

It seems, however, that often, we leave some of our roots behind.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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