Pulling garlic mustard today, I realized that if there are garlic mustard historians or novelists or prophets, they’d describe me as a mass murderer or an angry god. I’m sure I thought of this because I’m reading Paulette Jiles’s The Color of Lightning . The opening chapters describe a violent attack in 1864 by Comanche and Kiowa warriors on the women and children in a small mixed-race settlement in Texas. The events are told from the point of view of the White and Black women who are repeatedly beaten, raped and then enslaved by the tribes. The tale is not one-sided. Other scenes in the book have people talking about violent attacks and treaty-breaking by the White settlers, providing the context for the raids, and as the story unfolds, there are positive images of the family lives of the native people. But because the violence against native people happens off camera, as it were, while the violence by the native people is vividly described from the point of view of the victims, there is an asymmetry in the descriptions in the book, at least so far.* The Black and White women are individual people who suffer, while the Comanches and Kiowas are unknown enemies, or abstractions.
From the book summary and the review I read, it sounds like more conflict and violence is to come, as the Black husband will try to rescue his wife and a pacifist Quaker reformer is coming out to try to make peace with the tribes. The book is well grounded in the reality of the history, so a happy ending all around seems unlikely. This conflict is like so many. There are the depersonalized political historical forces, in this case European invaders attacking and displacing native people and native people fighting back. And there is violence and pain at a personal level on all sides. The reality of the personal suffering, or the reality of the joy of overcoming adversity and establishing a new settlement, are etched into consciousness and passed down to generations, creating fundamentally antagonistic ways of understanding the past.
So, having read the flyers from the Department of Natural Resources, I view the garlic mustard as the invader, as a powerful invasive species that must be beaten back or it will take over and destroy all the other “good” plants. I’m playing God, deciding which plants will live and which plants will die in my yard, just as humans for millennia have decided which plants to nurture and which to weed out. From the point of view of the garlic mustard, this is just a massacre. The innocent plants were not doing anything to hurt me. I seek out and destroy all the plants I can find, even the little baby ones, and from the point of view of the garlic mustard, this is as bad as the White settlers in the Americas and Australia and South Africa killing the native people for sport. I think about this. All living organisms affect the lives of other organisms, helping some to live and damaging others. As animals, we must eat other living organisms to survive. As humans, we know that what is good for some of us may hurt others. As a White American, I know that the United States was founded on the destruction and enslavement of other people, and that I would not be here or have this house and this yard without the destruction of someone else’s way of life. But even members of groups who have been oppressed have to face the same reality: the things that benefit them often hurt other people. Some people react to this reality with a fearful or hostile “kill or be killed” mentality. I don’t. I still seek to live in peace and justice with all of life and all of humanity. But I know it is complicated. I live with those contradictions as I seek to eradicate the garlic mustard.
* The review suggests that there will be other points of view to come.