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Invaders, Natives and Planted with Hope

Dispersals by Jessica J. Lee
Dispersals by Jessica J. Lee

This is Leslie VonHolten of Kansas with another Radio Readers Book Byte.

It’s summer on the High Plains, where the wind convects the heat and dust sloughs my face. In this idyllic prairie setting, you’ll find me lost in my garden, sweating, cursing, and hacking at the infernal bindweed, the persistent honeysuckle, and the other invasive plants that plot and work against me. In July and August, I don’t even remember the happy, promising days of April and May. I was a different person then. A woman who believed that this summer will be different. A woman who will stay on top of the garden tasks and enjoy it. A woman who envisioned her garden to be a lovely cottage respite, full of cheery blooms and grateful pollinators. As if I haven’t lived in Kansas most of my life.

Well, my spring garden is a liar. And I am a fool. This is Kansas. Here, we garden shaggy, or we don’t garden at all.

That is why reading Dispersals by Jessica J. Lee was a joy. She gives me a new way to look at these garden invaders. Subtitled “On plants, borders, and belonging,” Lee looks to plants not as interlopers meant to be contained, with some plants labeled good and others bad. Instead, she considers their history, their journey from one part of the world to the other, and the ways people who have also moved about the world can find kinship with them.

Dispersals is also a nice break from the bindweed and honeysuckle of my hot evenings because the author is a Taiwanese Canadian living in Germany, the daughter of a Taiwanese mother and Welsh father—identities she fully embraces through her curiosity and connection to plants. By exploring plants I am not connected with, I was able to put my emotions aside and learn.

For centuries, people have carried plants to new frontiers for sustenance, to bring scented memories of home, to beautify our small plots, or even for diplomatic expressions of cultural friendship. As someone who loves prairie spaces, I feel daunted by all the ways our grasslands will never again be pure. Lee diplomatically acknowledges that. New species are here; climate change ensures that some thrive where they did not originate. Land management will be a never-ending task.

But Lee’s book is not prescriptive—she does not tell us what we should do, or how we should feel. Of course, native species need protection; this is the throughline of most books like this. But Lee let’s us take a break from determining one plant is good, and another bad. Instead she provides the history, the deep cultural connections, and explains how plants have traveled over the centuries.

Through the author’s personal stories, Dispersals prompted me to reflect on my own stories of plants. Her connections are to soybeans through her Taiwanese heritage, mauve and purple flowers through afternoons with her Welsh grandmother, and mosses, sparked by her deep attention to plants during college. What plants are meaningful to you? For me, it’s the shirring sound of wheat in the dry summer air. The way big bluestem turns purple and pink in the fall. And considering how much time I spend marveling at its persistence, I may have to give bush honeysuckle its due.

If you want a good travel escape through plants, and a prompt to soften your look at them, Dispersals by Jessica J. Lee is a great summer read. You can find more summer reading recommendations at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.


Leslie VonHolten
Leslie VonHolten

Leslie VonHolten explores and writes about connections between land and culture and particularly on the prairie spaces she loves to walk. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in The New Territory, Literary Landscapes, About Place Journal, Dark Mountain Project, and Lawrence.com, among other sites. Leslie has served as a board member for the Garden of Eden art environment in Lucas, Kansas; was a founding member of the Percolator Artspace in Lawrence, Kansas; and has been a book commentator for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City, Kansas, since 2015. She was honored with a Tallgrass Artist Residency in 2022. (https://leslievonholten.com/ or https://tallgrassartistresidency.org/leslie-vonholten/ and Matfield Green Works https://matfieldgreen.org/ )

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Leslie VonHolten explores and writes about connections between land and culture and particularly on the prairie spaces she loves to walk. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in The New Territory, Literary Landscapes, About Place Journal, Dark Mountain Project, and Lawrence.com, among other sites. Leslie has served as a board member for the Garden of Eden art environment in Lucas, Kansas; was a founding member of the Percolator Artspace in Lawrence, Kansas; and has been a book commentator for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City, Kansas, since 2015. She was honored with a Tallgrass Artist Residency in 2022. (https://leslievonholten.com/ or https://tallgrassartistresidency.org/leslie-vonholten/ and Matfield Green Works https://matfieldgreen.org/ )