Sunday, September 19, 2010

Seventh Generation Gardening

Jim Nollman, in "Why We Garden"  tells a unique story in the chapter on his Sequoia tree garden.  He relates that whenever the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy held a council meeting, the  Haudenosaunee (Iroquois tribal government) took a moment to invoke the presence of the seventh future generation.  According to Nollman, under the Great Law of Peace, any vote among the living council members also included an equal vote for the needs and dignity of those who would live in the seventh generation to come. 

Isn't that just a great concept?  If in everything we did, in everything done by our system of government, there was a voice or a vote by a representative for the Seventh Generation, how would that change the debates?  What would it mean for US environmental policies?  For drilling in the Arctic tundra?  For saving the Spotted Owl?   At the turn of the 20th Century, would it have saved the Ivory-billed Woodpecker?  Or the Carolina Parakeet?  If the Executive Board of British Petroleum had a member whose sole duty was to represent the Seventh Generation, would the Gulf Spill have happened?  Unfortunately, the modern expression  of the "Seventh Generation" idea seems to have only spawned hype for any number of modern products and outcomes, from the green cleaners and laundry detergents made by Seventh Generation Inc., to the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, to the proposed Seventh Generation Amendment (Common Property Amendment) for the US Constitution.

 Unfortunately, it also all seems to be based on a myth.  I'll admit that I'm cheating on the research effort, since I've only searched the Internet, but in two different translations of Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois available to me, the word "seven" is mentioned only twice, both times in relation to how thick a skin a council member should have, and the future generations are only invoked in a vague sense, as in Article 56 "They therefore shall labor, legislate, and council together for the interest of future generations,"  or in another passage that states, "Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground."  And in practice, I suppose the idea of a representative for the Seventh Generation wouldn't work in our government.  Who would speak for the Seventh Generation?  Al Gore?  George Soros?  Rush Limbaugh?
Luckily for gardeners, the Seventh Generation concept does work well in our own gardens.  When I planted a slow-growing Scarlet Oak at the back of my garden, who did I think would benefit from its shade?  Not me, surely, for 8 years later it still barely lifts its branches four foot above the ground.  When I plant a pecan tree, what generation am I expecting will finally be the beneficiary of the nuts that will rain down sometime in the distant future?  Do I maintain my Purple Martin houses and Bluebird trail for my enjoyment, or so that there will be a chance that Eastern Bluebirds and Purple Martins will always return to this bit of Flint Hills prairie with each Spring? How long will vanity let me leave the volunteer milkweeds alone, creating a shamble of my garden design, but providing food for the dwindling Monarch butterflies?  
Whether or not the story told by Nollman is true, please plant something today, make a new garden bed, or put up a new birdhouse, I urge you, for the Seventh Generation. 


  1. Beautiful post. And I don't care if it is a myth, I love that legend.

  2. You raise a good point with the question "Who do I do it for?", because we who garden are all doing it for future folks whether we stop and think about it or not. I think it's built into human beings to be future-oriented, to do things with the thought in mind of the ones that will follow. You also made me think of the ultimate "seventh generation thinkers", our founding fathers. They struggled to form a country and a government that would best meet the needs and dignity of those who would come after them as if they were just as important as themselves and their own needs. They decided that freedom would be their Great Law of Peace, freedom to be you and me as the frog said. I really think human freedom is more crucial that a particular critter down through the ages, because I don't believe tyranny cares a wit about such endangered critters whereas by and large free people do. Free people want to pass on everything they have now to their children and children's children and even make it a better place for them. I believe generally speaking that is true, so protecting every single freedom given to us nine generations or so back is crucial for the seven generations to come. Thanks, Professor, for giving me something to think about.


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