A Quilt Is an Ecosystem

ecosystem: noun
– a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment
– a complex network or interconnected system

By Selena Loomis

Like many people prone to bouts of long, all-consuming sorrow, 2020 was a difficult year for me. After losing my day job, my studio, and a lot of sleep, I arrived midday on September 1st (a full moon), six months into a global pandemic, with a stack of the last year’s botanical dye experiments tucked under my arm. I hoped to create a quilt, some comfort object to yank both me and my practice back into a reality where doing something— anything—felt not only possible, but useful.

The first few days, it pours. After a dry, hot summer, the rain arrived impatiently, coming down sideways, seeping into each crevice of the forest, and drip drip dripping on the roof of the yurt. I wonder aloud to myself if this rain sounds different— rain falling on a forest where I’ve yet to see even one I’ve yet to see even one amur honeysuckle bush. It feels foreign in many ways, the rain on this abundant ecosystem full of native, but mostly new-to-me plants. The drops hitting their bodies sound softer, smoother somehow than my hometown rainstorms a few hours northwest. I wonder if this was how the rain sounded to my ancestors or to the more rightful ancestors of this land whose skin is not so milky white as mine.

Yellow buckeye medicine trail sign

I brought a large stack of books with me, assuming I would become someone else entirely while in residency—a better version of myself who wakes at dawn and reads for hours over steaming cups of tea, instead of rolling over at 10 and hazily checking my email, reading the newest bad news on a too bright screen. But I tuck my computer and phone under my pillow and dive headfirst into a book. I pursue becoming this better me throughout the days-long rainstorm, reading bits and pieces of all the books I unpacked, and diving into the well-stocked shelves of the sanctuary, too. I still have no plans for my fabric, now mocking me on the desk. I try painting—too slow, writing—too quick.

Rain still pouring, I find the sanctuary’s binders full of collaged memories of past interns. I know a few of them, try to find their faces in the pages, but these are older stories—from the late 90s and early 00s, when I was just a toddler. I hungrily flip through all four as though they are my own family’s heirloom albums. One group devoted a page and a half to a reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) mushroom encountered on a hike off site. There is a photo of the whole intern team squatting in the woods around the shelf mushroom, still attached to its home log, each of their hands outstretched towards it in delight, as though showing off a trophy they’ve just won or a friend they are proud to know. Above the shelf holding these huge, dusty binders is a framed ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) root, each of its dozens of wiry tendrils pinned down with t-pins. The ginseng lives on what used to be bright pink paper, now faded to a soft orange from life in a spot where the sun hits and bleaches it just a little each day. I slide the binders back in their place near the floor and climb on a chair to read the tiny, handwritten label, which says American Ginseng Root (Panax quinquefolius) found in a dumpster at Ohio University. I am instantly delighted by the whimsical mundanity of this framed plant and the care that a former inhabitant of this yurt took in finding, cleaning, mounting, labeling, and hanging it on the wall years ago.

Time passes differently when it rains hard in the morning—the cicadas get confused and sing gloriously all day through. A few days in, I begin to feel antsy and decide to walk outdoors despite the mushy mud and heavy drops still falling. I am starting to feel guilty for not “doing anything” while in residency. I am beginning to feel like I’ve fooled my way into this time and space, that my work doesn’t deserve it, and someone else should be here in my stead. Shame is a close, personal friend of mine, lurking at the edges of all my best (and worst) efforts. To keep her cruel cycles at bay, I slide on my thick work boots and head out onto the Medicine Trail. I am not a particularly adept hiker—I don’t even own hiking boots, but I soldier on, squishing and slipping my way along, reading every trail sign I come to. I love them, these signs with simple white paint on cool grey slate and many different handwritings. Some are illustrated with sweet, simplistic renderings of the plants they are marking, for ease of telling them apart on the ground, I assume. So many plants I have never met live on this short loop, and many people before me have likely met them for the first time right here, too. I don’t hike far, but over the next few days I follow the trails deeper into the woods, up on the ridges, and into spaces I’m not sure I’m supposed to wander through, until I find one of my beloved trail signs, reassuring me it’s okay to go on. I’ve been thinking about becoming trustworthy and what that means in a relationship with the land and the overwhelming, amorphous grief of this pandemic year. Poetics and poetry in the body; how to make experiencing one’s own body safer, more meaningful, a site of tender curiosity.

I can feel some dull emptiness in my stomach when I sit still long enough out here. I wonder if that is it—The Grieving that Joanna Macy told me lives here. Can I locate it well enough to articulate something beautiful or worthwhile from it? No. Not yet. Resmaa Menakem and Bessel Van der Kolk speak often of the trauma stored in all our bodies from our own traumatic experiences, but also from childbirth, our parents’ traumas, theirs, and so on clear back to the start of human civilizations. If left untended, this trauma swells into more harm, causes the cycles of pain, toxic masculinities, and other violences we are finally becoming comfortable with naming as a society. It seems clear to me that it is not only the harm my ancestors did unto one another (and had done unto them) that is stored in my bones, but the eco-psychological trauma that they enacted against their home ecosystems, and that we continue to practice today, is also stored there. The forest can sense this better than me; it knows to be wary of me. It is a lifelong practice to hear some message(s) from the plants, the land, to become trustworthy enough to be humbled by them. I am not there yet, as I am only just beginning this voyage of caring, of “honoring my grief for the world.” I choose not to sit in the loneliness of this, but to practice silence as an offering to this sanctuary community. Maybe soon I will be trustworthy enough.

Stiff goldenrod medicine trail sign

I loop back from a droplet covered Heart Pond through the wildflower field, visiting old friends I have met many times in other places. The ironweed (Vernonia gigantea), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), big swaths of blooming jewelweed/touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis), and their closest friend poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). I remember when I was first introduced to these plants, the gratitude I felt to know their names when I saw them—a gift of relationship handed down to me from so many different teachers. The years spent (and ongoing) learning the many gifts they offer to us—the birds, insects, soil, and one another. The humbling reminder that no matter how many plants I meet, there are still so, so many more. Knowing the names of beings is not the only way to know them, of course, but so many ecologists/naturalists have made it seem otherwise. Steeped it in ego, in pride, in being DIFFERENT/BETTER. In a world we (I should say I) want, everyone knows these things and the virtues to care, tend, reciprocate, and practice gratitude more actively are simply THERE, brought up within us all.

The sun is setting by the time I reach the yurt’s doors. It is time to get to work. Stepping back from screens, books, and big ideas that need to prove something to someone, I push myself to think about what it is I am really doing here: seeking connection—to others, plants, my own body. It has been both incredibly easy and extremely challenging to disassociate from my embodiment during the past six months of pandemic times. Vulnerability and fallibility—ephemerality even—are close at hand with and against this virus.

Without much thought, I begin to cut up one of the brown paper bags I lugged my 2 weeks of groceries in. I find my bright white paint and get to work making trail signs of my own. I write-paint whatever comes to mind, quotes I can’t stop thinking of (INHABIT THE PORTAL—FALL IN LOVE WITH BEING A PART OF IT; CO-CREATE A WHITENESS WITHOUT SUPREMACY), things I want to cultivate in my own life, and the world (SILENCE AS AN OFFERING, SILENCE AS A PRAYER), and firm reminders to my most-eager, capitalistic, imposter-syndrome-addled self about how art is actually made (SLOWER; ALCHEMY; COURAGE + HANDS; BREATHE; THERE IS TIME). I go to sleep certain this is nothing, but also buzzing that it is the very tiny start of something.

Over the next days, I hike more, if only to fall deeper in love with the resident trail signs. I find the place in the barn where Kelsey, a current Americorps VISTA, handpaints the ones that need replacing. I well up a bit at the paintbrushes, the cracked old signs that have been carefully removed from the woods. Offering a chuckle at my wistful love for them, Kelsey does not seem as poetically enthralled with the trail signs as I am. They are just to-do’s on her list. This reaction throws me deeper into loving them and the everydayness of this artmaking, this mark-making, this earnest, three-fold gift of education, acknowledgement, and relationship with this specific land. I think of Martin Buber’s I, Thou about honoring the “being-ness” of all beings, with care not to anthropomorphize or heave human moralities, judgements, and motives unto them. These signs feel like this practice in action. I photograph a few favorites with my phone, blurry from the fog the rain has left in its wake. The photos do feel slightly magical but don’t do much justice to the heart quickening I feel for the hunks of slate. I head deep into the woods again.

I spend a lot of time in residence this way, walking the sanctuary in what Mary Oliver tells me might be prayer. Not religious praying to a specific god for specific changes, but using “prayer” as another word for inviting messages—prayer as another word for listening with my whole body. I walk deep into the woods in utter silence. It becomes familiar, a close friend, after a long year spent in much the same way at home.

Pausing to listen offers many gifts, both auditory and not, including bird calls and insects buzzing, wind rustling leaves, and my own heart pounding in my chest as I climb the unfamiliar hills of the sanctuary. In the yurt, in an Annie Dillard book, she tells me that silence is the voice of the natural world. She seems like a person who has spent a lifetime trying to listen and communicate about what she hears, and still, it is silence she feels most deftly explains the experience. Standing deep in these carefully tended woods, surrounded by trees whose names I don’t yet know, I can feel that for me, the voice of the world isn’t silence. It is a loud, alive, bubbling, giggling community. The trees, mycelium, understory plants, creatures, and soil are all working on their personal ecological responsibilities. I have spent years trying to better understand my own offering in this community. Being a good human is more about remembering you are an animal than anything else, it seems.

I climb out of the valley back into the yurt into more silence. At night, for the next few nights, I paint more trail signs for myself as an owl calls right outside the window— until I run out of brown paper bags.

Soon, the fabric calls to me to make a quilt to live here, with the framed dumpster ginseng, binders of reishi-worship, and creaky futon frame that’s made a terrible crick in my neck over the last week. I love the ecosystem of small treasures others have left behind, and I want to say thank you to them with a soft comfort offering to grow old, fade, and disintegrate here with them. I want to take a stab at an invitation to this world of “Deep Ecology” and specifically, of where the BODY lives in it all.

Trail signs for the next world
Trail signs for the next world

I run out into the fields to draw quick line-sketches of my “spark plants,” those first few I met that helped me recognize my plant blindness and dive into caring about the earth as a dear friend and colleague. I carve these lines into the bubblegum pink linoleum blocks I brought with me, thinking all the while of the teachers who first introduced me to these plant friends— teachers, overwhelmingly white, who came from middle class, liberal backgrounds much like my own. I consider the privilege that encased my ecological education. It was hidden away so easily because often, the rooms and forests where I learned the names of plant friends were filled with only white faces like my own. As I’ve grown up, I’ve had the gift of being led to teachers and writers beyond the overwhelmingly white environmentalist canon. I have learned that many ecologists in my own cultural tradition write about HUMAN this, HUMAN that when they are actually referring to specific systems— capitalism, imperialism, productivity addiction, extractive cultures. It is a fragile choice to pass blame unto species as a whole rather than cultural systems. Claiming the harm is HUMAN and not systemic, bypassing responsibility and making ecological violence easier to turn away from, a simple byproduct of the relationship humans must have with the earth. But cultures beyond my own know better ways and practice them all the time.

I carve some of the smaller/bigger questions from my personal trail signs, too. These include Invitations to feel into our bodies, to notice their subtleties and deepen the relationship with the natural world, the nature body all around in hopes that, perhaps under the comfort of a quilt, these vulnerable, taboo, sometimes embarrassing places will be easier to breathe into.

Finally, I begin to sew the quilt squares together. I purposefully didn’t bring my sewing machine, so endless hours of hand-stitching fill the final week of my residency. I choose to “single-task” the work, focused, in silence, undertaking it as exercise in truly feeling what my body is doing in this labor of blanket-making.

As I sew, I think of the seams of a quilt as the understory brush leading to prairie clearings, marking the liminal space between the two—a quilt as an ecosystem, and an ecosystem is a living archive, an active, breathing memory library holding histories of all that has taken place there. Like my own body, the nature body’s ecosystem holds colonization, harm, exploitation, care, soil swollen with last week’s heavy rains. In the quilt’s case—labored hands stitching, stitching, stitching. I think of power and presence and how spaces become charged and have wounds, pressure points, joys, heartbreaks, and harm. These points can be traced, sometimes through science, yes, but they must sometimes (in tandem) be traced through story, ritual, lineage, and magic. I think this might be the two-fold work undertaken by the people committed to this place.

I think of the long lives of the fabrics—as seed, stalk, retted fiber, spun, woven, dyed, dyed again, cut and sewn back together—passing through so many hands and soils from start to finish before even beginning their job as this comfort object.

Prints before quilt assembly
Prints before quilt assembly

This quilt is an offering to engage our embodied despair and, too, our delight. To question and connect in comfort and warmth. To approach the human body and the larger, interconnected nature body with tender curiosity instead of contempt, exasperation, and greed. To soften into those uncomfortable places and spend time in the grieving, painful spots. Joanna Macy said “When we examine and embrace that pain, grief, despair—it doesn’t stay. It turns. It turns into our absolute connectedness with all life.” I hope this quilt, a tiny ecosystem unto itself, becomes a living member of the powerful, hopeful ecosystem of the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary, inviting future visitors to reach into that absolute connectedness and consider the casual, far-reaching, historic, healing relationships between ourselves and the plants and one another, how deeply beautiful and livegiving they are—the everyday mundanity of climate crisis and our own ability to turn away from it, but the power and community held in turning towards our shared, terrifying, uncertain future-present instead.

There is time quilt
There is time quilt

There is time quilt : 35 by 55” – completely hand-stitched from reclaimed cotton and linen, hand-dyed with botanicals including goldenrod, marigold, indigo, avocado, hibiscus, dyer’s coreopsis, Japanese knotweed, and calendula. The backing/binding is a repurposed bedsheet. Prints are original linoleum blocks of my “spark plants,” the abundant native ones that pushed me to acknowledge and begin unlearning my own plant blindness (jewelweed, ironweed, goldenrod, poison ivy). It also features questions/messages meant to invite grounding embodiment into the work that is done at UpS, the work of tending to and learning from native medicinal plants. Exploring the grief, joy, and specific pace of time that being in close relationship with a thriving ecosystem/sanctuary creates. The walking trail map of the sanctuary is quilted into the fabrics in honor of the many hours spent walking these woods in gentle reverence, both during my residency and as the true labor of the organization. The ephemeral nature of natural dye means the colors of the quilt will shift, fade, and change with use and washing. Eventually most will disappear altogether, as a joyful reminder of the fleeting nature of everything, including abundance, grief, delight, and loneliness. The quilt now lives at United Plant Savers to comfort future visitors.

Thank you to Katey, Kelsey, and Susan for their warmth and generosity throughout my stay at UpS.

GIVING THANKS TO THE ELDERS – a reading/listening list from my residency

– Robin Wall Kimmerer – Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

– Annie Dillard – Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

– Arundahti Roy – The Pandemic is a Portal

– Martin Buber – I, Thou

– Mary Oliver – “Listening to the World” interview with Krista Tippett/ On Being

– Joanna Macy – “A Wild Love for the World” interview with Krista Tippett / On Being –

Pauline Boss – “Navigating Loss Without Closure” interview with Krista Tippett / On Being

– Mary Siisip Genuisz – Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask: Anishinaabe Botanical Teachings

– Lama Rod Owens – “The Unseen World is Trying to Liberate Us” interview with Asher Pandjiris / Living in this Queer Body podcast

– Tao Orion – Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration

– Timothy Lee Scott – Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives

– Resmaa Menakem – My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies

Selena Loomis (they/them) is an interdisciplinary artist, quilter, and land-tender living and working in Yellow Springs, Ohio on traditional Shawnee, Ottawa, and Miami land. Their work is concerned with domestic ecologies, cycles, meeting-making, and the time the body keeps. They have a BA in Performance Art from Antioch College. You can find their work at selenaloomis.space and get in touch at selenaloomis@gmail.com.