Thought for the Week – The Three Sisters

This weeks’ Thought for the Week is brought to you by the Three Sisters – corn (or maize), beans and squash – in dialogue with their human partners. These plants, tended by First Nations Americans, have flourished together for millennia, providing food for both human and more-than-human creatures. As southern Europe bakes under extreme temperatures and monocrops wither in parched fields, what stories of survival and abundance do they have to tell?

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Stories make worlds. A story of earth as resource, and ‘stewardship’ of this resource for immediate human benefit has underpinned the climate and ecological cataclysm now impacting all life. Alongside this colonising narrative, the Three Sisters’ story has also quietly and abundantly been told and heard for millennia, enacted by plants and people with the land. The answers have never gone away.

The Three Sisters’ story is one of knitting together and building up, each plant playing its part in making something new. Corn provides structure, beans (in collaboration with microbes) can make nitrogen fertiliser and therefore protein out of thin air, and squash binds together this mini-ecosystem that is capable of including other life forms, building soil and (incredibly!) altering micro-climate. It really is cool and shady under those big squash leaves, water is conserved here. This is polyculture. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. And also, as human ecological philosopher Tim Morton somewhat mind-bendingly has it, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Wholes are fragile and changeable, it’s this vulnerability that bears the seeds of resilience. Stories are not linear, monocropping is not resilient in the face of change.

It matters who tells the stories. In Three Sisters land, outputs come through individuals who are communal, intersectional, and radically dependent. As 21st century humans we have much to learn about welcoming multiple perspectives, collaboration, and challenging our hierarchies. Ecosystem-thinking invites us to test our narratives and where they are found wanting or finished, make new ones. This applies as much to the how and who of the narratives as it does to the content.

One good test of a narrative is the quality of food it provides! Is it abundant and nutritious? Is it regenerative across the whole system? This coming Sunday is an opportunity for you to assess this personally, otherwise known as our St James’s Day lunch! This is served in the courtyard, with deep appreciation for the bodies of the Three Sisters, freely offered, and the work of human hands. Please do come and eat.


The Three Sisters

They show us how to live.


The straight corn-shoot

anchors those twining tendrils of the bean,

the second sister, who works underground

to fertilise the soil.


The squash, third to emerge,

spreads bristly leaves

which shelter and protect.


This is a trinity of gifts

offered by First Peoples:


a diet

of starch, protein, vitamins; of tastes

which enhance each other.


a composition

of living colours, shifting textures, shapes;

of sky-seeking verticals whose line

is softened by spirals;


while green, the host colour,

plays and shifts

ripens to yellow, swells into bold shapes

of saturated orange:


a way of living

surprising those who join its generous flow:

by growing together each becomes

more fully themself.


The Puritan invaders did not see.

Their eyes, which looked for rows of monocrops,

saw only a muddle.

But we must see, and fast.

The three sisters

show us how to free our colonised earth;


how to grow our selves

in a diversity

that is creative one-ing.


By Sara Mark, Diane Pacitti, Deborah Colvin