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Photo credit: National Education Association


I have a complicated relationship with weeding. I do it all the time. In my yard, I’m constantly yanking morning glory down from the apple-less apple tree, off the throat of the echinacea, away from the tiny stems of lemon thyme. At the Chicago River restoration project where I volunteer, I’ve pulled out enough jewelweed to make tangerine bouquets for a hundred weddings, the petals floating on the fecal river I love like lipstick stains.  


In the pain of the past few years, this confused and turned around river is often the place I go first to process. When my reproductive rights are taken, I get in a kayak. When a pipeline expansion is approved, I come to tell jokes to the grasshoppers. When I argue with a loved one about vaccines, I watch the bumblebees wiggle their butts in the blossoms and when there is another death, the cabbage moths flash their wings like strobe lights and I yank root after root and snip stem after stem.


The irony isn’t lost on me. Here I am, on Potawatomi waters, in my own invasive body, pulling out bodies deemed invasive. Sometimes, I talk to the jewelweed. I say I see her. I appreciate her. Sometimes, I say, I understand, she is a good plant in a ravaged ecosystem. That she belongs, but we need to share some room with the milkweed and monarch, the rose mallow and rose mallow bee. Then I yank out the roots. Sometimes, though, I skip the talking, the singing. Sometimes, I like it. My muscles tugging against something alive. The release as she rips from the soil.  


What I often don’t say, when I say, when I say the river is still pumped with waste, is that the waste is mine too. I too pump the river with waste. The river was turned to protect the water I drink. I’m vined in the systems I fight. 


During mating season, common carp splash around me, restless and hormonal, like my kayak is the chaperone at a high school dance. Although they are not their more hated cousins, the bighead and silver carp (who are still held back at the gate of the Chicago Sanitary Canal, delicate link between rivers not meant to be linked), they too don’t belong here. They lay their ample eggs in the roots of the jewelweed. And so here we are together, all trying to grow. We are harmful and harmed. We are trying to survive in our bodies. I thought I came to clear my mind, but maybe I come to commiserate. I feel the weight of the shears in my hands. Maybe I come for control. A biologist told me once that the carp are now naturalized, more specifically that they’ve “done all the harm they will do.” I envy this certainty. 


It’s funny to use the word restore, when the river could never go back to being the river she was. From what’s old, something new must be imagined. I keep writing, “what can we grow here?” and wondering who is we. The stems float around me, like belly-up fish, like green and shimmering constellations.