Soundscape

In early March of 2016 a number of tubers belonging to the aforementioned species (Helianthus tuberosus) were planted in the back courtyard of a 2-story urban apartment complex. The common name for this plant, 'Jerusalem Artichoke,' is an entirely misleading designation. It has no relationship to Jerusalem, and it is not a type of artichoke. Historically, the species was domesticated and cultivated by the First Peoples of North America and is the direct progeny of their advanced agroecological sciences. The plant was appropriated by white colonists and taken across the world, re-named and re-marketed; its previous stories and even its original names almost entirely erased or forgotten. Hours of research uncovered just one of its original names, buried deep in the archives of an obscure list-serv for professional linguists. Here, Brent Galloway (noted for his work with endangered Amerindian languages) wrote:
 

The Upriver Halkomelem word for it [the Jerusalem Artichoke] is xa'xakw' (where both x's should be underlined in the Sto':lo writing system used in the Fraser Valley, showing that they are uvular, the first a should have an acute accent showing it has high tone and is equivalent to digraph/ash, and the last kw' is for a glottalized labialized velar stop. The literal meaning is probably 'wedged in'. It is one of several kinds of "Indian potato" according to the elders. It has an edible root or bulb. Could be eaten raw, cooked or dried. Grew on Seabird Island and by Chehalis, within their (Sto':lo) territory.¹
 

Once these xa'xakw’ tubers were planted, it did not take long for them to send up a cluster of vigorous stems. Unfortunately, these individuals were entering a precarious and thoroughly damaged ecology, where years of haphazard chemical spraying by past resident caretakers had wiped out almost all insect life except for a single and persistent species of whitefly, Trialeurodes vaporariorum. It lingered everywhere throughout the courtyard and had already begun feasting on some recently-planted mint and tomato plants. As the xa'xakw’ plants sprouted into existence, they were also quickly colonised.

Trialeurodes feeds by inserting its stylets into the phloem of a plant and drawing sap up into its body in order to fuel its progress through multiple larval stages or instars. Any excess sugars and liquids are secreted as a sticky honeydew which often encourages black sooty mould infestations, choking leaf pores and inhibiting respiration and water absorption. In short, the whitefly is the ideal necro-extractionist – depleting the life of its host and burying it beneath the ancillary waste of its own growth. Not only this, the whitefly is a vector of disease, transmitting viruses from plant to plant with a hyper-efficiency facilitated by larger forces of industrialisation and globalisation. Traveling via trucks carrying green waste across the urban landscape, the whitefly and its viral passengers circumvent organic spatial-temporal boundaries, quickly devastating plant immunity with the shock of never-before-encountered strands of viral DNA. Similarly, European colonists in North America knowingly exploited this mechanism, 'gifting' smallpox-infested blankets to First Nations tribes, a form of early biological warfare facilitated by burgeoning globalisation and the circumvention of immuno-borders². Human depravity aside, to what extent is the whitefly aware of the damage it is doing? At the sensory level of this near-microscopic insect, the verdant terrain of the xa'xakw’ would appear planetary in scope, possessing endless reserves of nutrition and an impregnable, mountainous strength.

Within a month, the xa'xakw’ crop had withered significantly. Although senescence was fast approaching,  pestilence had catalysed additional cell breakdown. No flowers had yet emerged and all upward growth, despite plentiful water and light, drew to a complete halt. Leaves were yellowing while their undersides revealed a fibrous strata of corpses, discarded exoskeletons, hatched eggs and multiple instars, all belonging to Trialeurodes vaporariorum and spread in a layer so thick that it formed an impenetrable bonewhite mosaic of decay across almost every leaf. The whitefly had developed from colony to stately empire, a blooming population nourished on the very lifeblood of its unwilling host. Now, in the twilight of this dynasty, the structural viability of the xa’xakw’ was rapidly faltering. Faced with the depletion and imminent collapse of its vegetal energy source, poised between extinction or exodus, Trialeurodes did not merely imagine its impending apocalyptic revelation, transformation and release from parasitism. The eschatology of the whitefly is an eschatopraxis, a material metamorphosis in which the body builds wings and escapes the ruins of the world it has colonised and destroyed; an interplanetary exodus which would ignite the jealously of the techno-utopic imaginary.

Sooty mold was also beginning to take hold, fungal threads blocking sunlight and feeding on whitefly exudate. Fortunately, there were steps available for limiting the scope of this multi-species pestilence. An agroecological principle for sustainable pest control involves diversifying plant species in order to encourage the natural predators of local pests³. Research into natural predators of the whitefly revealed several options, including ladybeetles (Coccinellidae), lacewings and certain parasitic wasps. In order to seduce these insects into the garden, seeds were procured belonging to certain plants known for attracting them – namely calendula, fennel and coriander – a holy trinity which, through the chemosensory allure of their flowers, would entice a new order of earthy insect emissaries into this destitute courtyard and relieve the xa’xakw’ of the whitefly and its escalating necrotic empire.

The calendula was the first plant to sprout; it flowered in brilliant orange hues and made good on its promise of deliverance. Within a few weeks the first Coccinellidae appeared and the miracle of their entry evoked a pastoral epiphany. Indeed, for the religiously-inclined peasantry of the Middle Ages, the Coccinellidae were called Our Lady's beetle, with reference to the Christian Mary (Our Lady) who was often depicted wearing a red cloak in early paintings, with the seven spots of Coccinella septempunctata (the most common species in Europe) being said to symbolise Mary's seven joys and seven sorrows. In regions of Italy and Sweden, Coccinellidae are called boarina del Signor, the shepherdess’ of Christ. The import of these titles and associations are clear; for medieval peasants, this red shepherdess was not just a symbol of protection but actively and pragmatically defended peasant farms by devouring those insects which preyed on important subsistence crops. An adult ladybeetle can eat 50 aphids a day, and over the course of its lifetime can consume up to 5,000 aphids. Its appearance was a sacred blessing.

In truth, it is not known what really called the Coccinellidae to the garden: was it the calendula, or the xa’xakw’ itself? It has been widely observed that plants emit a range of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) for communication across multiple taxonomic boundaries, and for a variety of functions⁴. Besides simply attracting pollinators, plants are capable of altering their volatile profile when under attack from herbivorous insects (such as the whitefly or the aphid) in order to attract organisms that will feed on the aggressor. Relevant here is a very recent study⁵ which demonstrated that volatiles from aphid-infested plants can attract adults of the multicolored Asian ladybeetle Harmonia axyridis. 

However it happened, a ladybeetle had arrived, specifically Harmonia conformis, a variety endemic to the region. Once it arrived, it began devouring the whitefly immediately. It also likely recognised that the chalk-white pastures of whitefly larvae would prove nutriment for its own young, carefully placing clusters of pod-like eggs in strategic nooks and areas of infestation. As the eggs hatched, a number of quasi-saurian larvae emerged, revealing the chthonic origins of Coccinellidae. The seven swords of sorrow which puncture Mary in classic depictions are, in the body of these larvae, turned outward in grim exoskeletal defense. At twenty-times the size of their prey, they scoured the colony and consumed eggs and instars in great numbers. 

Despite the appearance of Harmonia conformis, the whitefly had already caused profound ontologic damage to the xa’xakw’, and this particular crop seemed irrevocably bound to wither and perish. By this point, the ladybeetle larvae ceased their scavenging and withdrew into the pupation stage of their complex lifecycle. The xa'xakw’, an insect hatchery for the second time in its life, continued to wilt and decay until it resembled a ruinous gothic cathedral, encrusted in weeping obsidian leaves and craggy, broken arches. Dotted across this landscape were the otherwordly Harmonia larvae and their pupating kin, now serving a similar function to the gargoyles and other grotesquerie of gothic architecture, a kind of apotropaic shield and symbolic ward built to repel further harm and evil influences. 

After a few days, the pupa hatched and a small group of resplendent ruby-black ladybeetles emerged. They spent a few days feeding amidst the murky ruins and drinking from globules of morning dew. It was midsummer; life-cycles were reaching their zenith and, in the gnarled wreckage of Helianthus tuberosus, two insect species had both perished and propsered, traces of their presence woven into the epidermic folds of the xa’xakw’s broken leaves, an archaeology of excrement, hatched eggs, crushed larvae and discarded skin. Future generations of whitefly might somehow mythologise these events, detailing narratives of paradise, ravenous deities, collapsing worlds and final exodus. Next season, this gruesome and intractable trinity would likely re-ignite, perhaps even luring future species into its embrace.

After the hatching event, the dead xa'xakw’ plants were gently removed from the ground in order to verify whether they had produced edible tubers. Somehow, despite near-constant distress and assault, and despite never flowering or reaching a typical height, the xa'xakw’ had reproduced. After separation, some of the tubers were re-planted for future growth, while the others were harvested. Having never tasted the plant before, it is unknown whether these tubers would be deemed good quality by a more well-versed farmer. Undoubtedly, a total inexperience with this plant meant that its potential was not likely to be unlocked straight away. Had the stress of the whitefly parasitism improved or detracted from its flavour? In the end, the tubers were roasted in an oven with olive oil at 200 celsius for one hour and then eaten with salt and pepper. They tasted like earth.

Backyard Trinity, by Alex Last (2020)
for Assemble! Next Wave

References
[1] Brent Galloway, “Sunroot use among First Nations” retrieved from: 
http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/siouan/2000-February/000450.html

[2] “In 1924 the Mississippi Valley Historical Review published a journal written by William Trent, an Indian trader at Fort Pitt, which included a damning entry. For June 24, 1763, Trent wrote about a meeting with two Delaware Indians at the fort. "Out of our regard to them," a pleased Trent penned, "we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect." 

- Ranlet, Philip (2000) The British, the Indians, and Smallpox: What Actually Happened at Fort Pitt in 1763? Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. Vol. 67, No. 3


[3] Altieri, Miguel A. Ecologically based pest management: a key pathway to achieving agroecosystem health. Accessible at this URL.

[4] Maffei, Massimo (2010) Sites of synthesis, biochemistry and functional role of plant volatiles. South African Journal of Botany. Accessible at this URL.

[5] Chunli Xiu, Wei Zhang, Bin Xu, Kris A.G. Wyckhuys, Xiaoming Cai, Honghua Su, Yanhui Lu (2019) Volatiles from aphid-infested plants attract adults of the multicolored Asian lady beetle Harmonia axyridis. Biological Control.