This past November, I was a visitor in a house with many presences: a mouse in the ceiling, ladybug colonies in the doorframe, accumulations and whispers in the hollow of the wall. The eastern white-washed wall of the house was completely pockmarked by holes and seeds. A family of acorn woodpeckers knocked at it from sunrise to sunset, carving little cavities, driving in acorn after acorn, taking stock, scaring off jays. This wall was a granary, with a studded skin and belly full of seeds, storage for a long winter. The clustered excess reminded me of the densely packed seed arrays in the grass flowers I grow in my own backyard an hour south, down the coast in San Francisco. With all of its communicating others, this house was part of an artist residency and I was there learning about native grassland ecologies and climate change.
During the first days of my visit, I work inside on a quilt, stitching, cutting, scraping together fragmented bits of fabric that have my photographic imagery of grass florets printed on them. As I sew, I am wrapped up in a colorful checkered quilt my great grandmother made while living near the tallgrass prairies of Kansas. Over the days, my learning about carbon sequestration merges with a personal mythology, one that considers grassland mimicry and relations alongside lineages of care and erasure that my own body and family line are bound up in.1 As I work, I suspect that this project of thinking about grasslands and climate change is also a project of thinking about family — past, present, future — a way of considering what family means to me now, and ultimately how I want to reproduce.
In those dark, enclosed days of winter, I do a lot of pretending about the solidity of a boundary — an edge, a wall, a space in-between — my body dispersed between time and place. I can’t take in the extra communications from the woodpeckers, with their knocking all day long. It feels like staving off the spirits of uncertainty if I ignore the calls from the hollows of the wall.
The land around the house is an oak woodland. The composition of neighbors here is coast live oak, bay laurel, California currant, Douglas iris, toyon, manzanita, brambles of blackberry, bishop pine along the back edge, and poison oak cascading down the hill. My native grass companions are here too, in supporting roles, stitching together the weave. As I get more familiar with this new place, I sense the woodpeckers becoming more and more active. I read that acorn woodpeckers stockpile more acorns in the days just before rain.2 It’s November in Northern California, near Point Reyes, and we’re deep in drought. The oaks are crispy, the grass kindling. Rain would be a relief.
I get more curious about the woodpeckers, and then to challenge my unrealistic desire for solidity, I try to fall trusting and full into the hollow. One day, I put my ear to the eastern wall and hear the acorns fall, tumbling down into the deep cavity. I hear their small birdly bodies shimmering with breath, and the fluttering of wings and their slight squeaky whispers to each other. The wall is a hollow belly with porous skin, full to its edges and depths with seeds. I imagine that there used to be a big old mother oak here where this house now stands. I imagine that this house and its visitors are being acknowledged and incorporated, embodied, physically connected into the oak woodland ecosystem that was. The knocking stops and I quietly step outside to see the birds. Three of them are there, frozen, perched to the siding for a second, before they cock their heads, spot me, and fly away.
I watch the last of the sunlight before it sinks behind the hill. To my right, a large tangerine sun sets. To my left, a silvery full moon rises, just beginning to glow, the sky lit up pink. I wait and my mind drifts. Three years ago I made a decision. I told my partner Craig, with real desire, and attempted certainty, “I really do want this. I’m ready now. I want to be a mom.” He was supportive and also cautious — I had decided this before.
There are things my parents gave to me that I long to recreate and share with someone else: intergenerational laughter, shared time in the forest, learning the names and habits of the neighborhood birds. Reading a book to a child, as it was read to me, a throughline, a commitment to a shared story, a commitment to one another. When I think of these things, I am all full of longing and energy.
Craig moved towards believing me again, and we started organizing our lives and feelings around this imaginary person. The possibility of them accompanied me on walks, at family celebrations, and in the details of the everyday. Sometimes, with certainty, I tracked my ovulation. We were casually uncareful or planned our sex like clockwork. But months went by, turned to years, no baby came, and in waves my resolve has ebbed and flowed, never remaining still or certain of the monopoly that biology has on this sort of relating.
The sun is almost down, just a little sliver of tangerine left now. My eyes blink, a wink, and then the sun is gone. The warmth leaves and with that the hillside darkens. My skin chills, clustered with goosebumps. Maybe it will rain tomorrow after all.
While I am a visitor here in this house, I dream a lot. That night, after the sunset moonrise portal, I dream that I was half-asleep, fading in and out of liminal worlds. As I slept, I cried — not like tears associated with sadness, but more like water was flowing from my eyes — as a sort of weather, a cycling of water, a settling.
In my dream, someone that I was in love with, but whom I do not know in real life, was lying with me in a big, watery, blue-colored bed. They kept taking my face in their hands and licking the water from under my eyes, drinking the little rivulets flowing down my cheeks. Sometimes they wandered until they met my mouth. It felt like sex, the comforting kind that happens in and out of sleep, but mostly our exchange had the tone of caretaking, or like where those two things can intersect.
They slid their tongue along my face again, after which they pulled up their sleeve and showed me an array of seeds embedded in enlarged pores on their forearm. Their arm, a speckled granary of seeds. It was as though that means of reproduction, storage, and accumulation demonstrated their resilience and a conveyance of trust in a hopeful future — a seeding body as a futurity body. A transmutation of tears into acorn hull and pores, all a sort of social reproduction. In the after effect of this dream, my body floats, suspended in gentle waves.
The next night, I dream again of the lover with the acorn arm. This time we were standing in front of the eastern white-washed wall. As we paid more attention we could see a little opening in the middle of it. We slowly peeled back a layer of wood paneling. A chunk of the wall fissured, yielded, and then a cascade of acorns poured out, seemingly without end. Like the water coming from my eyes, it was all excess and flood states, holes and seeds and water falling everywhere, filling all the empty spaces.
In the morning, I hike through the oak woodlands, watching the acorn woodpeckers skip overhead from bay laurel to oak, from laurel to oak. Flicker of wings on, off, on, off, on, off, black, white, black, white, black, white. My mind is a cloudy loop of ambivalence on the question of whether I should reproduce with seeds or reproduce with rhizomes. Seeds or rhizomes, seeds or rhizomes.
By rhizomatic reproduction, I mean how to “make a baby” non-sexually, how to be in commitment to social reproduction, how to fall trustingly into a non-reproductive futurity. By seeds, I mean a baby, literally. This question is getting so old I can’t trust its lifeforce anymore. So old that when I finally do decide, the seeds may have gone dormant, the rhizomes succumbed to rot.
The acorn woodpeckers dart overhead. The flicker of their wings goes on and off, black and white, but the flight line of uncertainty is not a linear one. The little wings are influenced, swayed, and shifted by multiplicitous and strange weather patterns: a weirdening climate; ongoing messaging that this place is still not a very welcoming or supportive one for mothers, caretakers, parents, children; and also my own bisexually oriented ambivalence about pregnancy itself and the further layers of invisibility motherhood might bring.
Up ahead, a billowing gray cloud rolls over the hill and diffuses into a mist once it hits warmer ground. The mist is so thick it's almost rain, but not quite. The birds go quietly into hiding. As I walk, plump drops slide off leaves, dropping to the soil, the root, to the sugar cells of mycelium. I watch as the drops pool, eddy, and swirl, finally folding and dissolving into a skin of loamy soil.
My rain jacket doesn't work well anymore. The rain drips through my clothes, onto and through my skin. The water in its coldness does not feel sharp, but soft and like a dissolution instead. My skin becomes watery. My insides are like the outsides. I dissolve and blur. My skin absorbs water like the soil, seeping in and sliding away in turns.
There is a lot of noisy turbulence in this old question of mine. The perpetual question is: how would I reproduce rhizomatically? And can I shift the conditions just enough to see if seed breeding actually feels just fine to me in the body and the context that I occupy?
I can’t be certain of the root cause for this ambivalence. When I try to identify how bisexuality brings some of this ambivalence into my body, I know it relates to a form of belonging that is split between worlds. I fear that motherhood, in my relationship, would feel like a full commitment to only one of these worlds. The challenge would lie, as it often does in motherhood, in not disintegrating, but also, in not only belonging halfway. Is that the origin of my uncertainty or a symptom of something more?
The water is still falling quiet on the hush of leaves. The woods are seeping and overflowing with watery excess. Water from the sky merges with water from my eyes, in rivulets seeking common channels.
The lineages of queer futurity, grounded rhizomatic (read: non-biological) kinship models, and feminist climate-aware make-kin-not-babies parenting tickles my mind, and floods my dreams when I imagine what family is and could be.3 I also cling to the rare little scraps of representation and visibility of bisexual mothers who go through with having actual biological babies like proof of the possible.4 I am simultaneously curious about what can happen with the gleeful tossing-aside of biological reproduction.
Can't I have it both ways?
As with most other choices, the binaristic toggle of to have a child or to not have a child feels too finite, limited, and permanent for me. I cancel myself out entirely when the physical impossibility of that thought spiral starts spinning into view.
Maybe if I can get pregnancy to feel just a little more like adaptive futurism and a little bit less pre-determined, I could buy into it? I appreciate Timothy Morton in Humankind and his saying: "... there is utterly no reason for sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction is absurdly expensive from DNA's point of view, and sexual selection is done fundamentally for no reason. There are much more efficient ways of displaying power than having beautiful wing cases."5
In other words, if I look and see the biological making of children as a uniquely sentient thing to do — a gorgeous, decadent, messy entanglement with visible and invisible biological others; if I see it as the powerful outcome of endless water streaming from my eyes, boundaries dissolved, love flooding over; and if I see it in the realm of co-creating a beautiful iridescent winged being, then I can almost reclaim pregnancy enough to buy in. Almost.
When I return back to the house, I feel like I am asleep, in a content fog of tired body, nerves slacked, and skin as waterlogged as the soil. The rain has stopped and the neighbors are active in their greeting: the warm mineral wet smell of earth, the nervine cleanse of bay leaf's menthol, salt from the Pacific Ocean. The gregarious woods become busy again with a vigilant quail family shuttling between hiding spots and the woodpeckers flickering, swirling, chatting, congregating, dispersing, back and forth, in and out of their big tree cavity beside the house.
What are they up to over there? I need to pay more attention to them. I have felt slightly maddened by the woodpeckers’ knocking on the wall all day with updates, ideas, and teachings, but OK. I pay attention. Sometimes someone is just trying to offer me useful information. An acorn woodpecker research wormhole ensues.6
I learn that acorn woodpeckers live communally, sleeping in big piles of about twelve colony members. They breed and housekeep collaboratively, carving out a colony nest in the hollow cavity of a dead tree or snag. Many birds display fairly bisexual tendencies, and their social group is at once committed, loyal, and non-monogamous. There are usually several breeding females, a handful of breeding males and about ten other nonbreeding helper birds that support the family through caring for nestlings and finding food. When the young hatch, it is initially both biological parents who rotate feeding and warming the nestlings, and then soon after, the other ten helper birds join in. The whole colony rotates these responsibilities. The family dynamics, in other words, are: twelve or more adults per household, twelve adults to manage the everyday logistics of living life, caring for the young, and finding enough food for survival through all seasons. That ratio seems so honest, so energetically sustainable to me.
The birds collect acorns, especially for the winter, when insects and other food sources are scarce. Throughout the year, they manage a grove of oaks and their colony's shared granary tree — collecting and storing thousands and thousands of acorns each year. Each seed is wedged into a perfectly sized hole, created just for that seed. Sometimes one familial granary tree can have upwards of 50,000 seed-studded holes, although this takes many generations to accomplish.
In all their accumulation and hoarding of seeds, the woodpeckers also incidentally distribute and plant acorns that could grow into new oak trees, and their vast stores feed others who pilfer their seeds. In that way, their harvest is needed and in symbiotic service to the oaks. This labor of gathering, sorting, managing, protecting, and tending to the stash is divvied up. Each day, some go out to collect acorns, some act as guards fending off hungry visitors, while others stay by the granary and act as managers ensuring a tight fit for each acorn. As the newly picked acorns lose moisture, they shrink and settle in size and then must be moved carefully to a new hole that matches their changed shape. This careful management attempts to prevent loss from other birds, squirrels, or gravity. Constant small checkups and micro-maintenances exemplify a mundane and methodical preservation practice that benefits the whole colony.
With the acorn woodpeckers, the work of the everyday is ongoing and continual. Survival depends on good cooperation with each other and their home ecosystem, devotion to the mundane, and having enough helpers around to do the work that actually needs doing. They work together to make sure there are enough acorns for food and enough companions for warmth, security, shelter-making, and the gathering of food. There are so many links between species survival and social cooperation.
Beyond metaphor, the woodpeckers are my neighbors in this house and I am curious about the social norms of their forest. To their all-day rhythm, I work too, stitching together the last of my quilt while ruminating on what the woodpeckers communicated to me. They model a whole other social paradigm and invite me in close to witness. What I see varies so greatly from the precarious paradigm I live in.
I do not want to mimic the communal social dynamics of acorn woodpeckers exactly. Twelve co-parents would likely be too many for me, but it gets intriguing to imagine a vision of parenthood and family structure — one that radiates outward beyond the privacy of a singular pair, one that doesn't rely solely on the limits of time, money, biology, or the narrowness of feeling that comes with heteronormative reproduction. I like how the woodpeckers model a kinship where everyone helps with the project of survival, intergenerational caretaking, and of moving into the future in direct collaboration with their home ecosystem. Even if not socially formalized that way, I probably have been one of the ten non-parent helper birds more times than I have noticed. I likely just did not name, track, or claim this from out of the depths of the individualistic culture I find myself living in.
When I return home to San Francisco from the woodpecker house and my residency, my partner Craig has COVID for the first time. I sleep in the living room and we can't greet each other after weeks apart. We pretend the other is not home. I hear his sounds from the other side of the house — his coughs, sniffles, the rustle of bedsheets. I am restless about missing him now even while in the same house. I remember back to the mouse in the ceiling or the birds sighing in the wall. We pretend that a closed door, separating our living room from our bedroom, will work to stop the travel of a small microorganism in the shared airspace of our home. Our cats keep tuning to a corner of the kitchen, signaling yet another mouse presence. I hear the little scuffles through the floorboards. The presences of others from the hollows of the wall are loud this season.
That first night home, I try to fall asleep on the couch. After witnessing the happy collectivism of the woodpecker colony, the continued isolation of the pandemic and COVID in our house shocks the nerves, despite its relative normalcy by now. I am once again enveloped by my Kansas great grandmother’s quilt. The top and bottom layers of the quilt are hand-stitched together with intricate swirling patterns, white thread on white fabric, a barely-there detail that must have taken days. Squares of colorful fabric assemble into a patchwork. I never met this great grandmother, but I can sense her through hours and hours of labor and creation in the spirit of keeping loved ones warm. I wonder if she imagined that one hundred years later she would be keeping me warm? One hundred years from now, who will be warmed by some trace of mine — a story, a garden, a quilt? Who will inherit these things?
I start to drift off. Under the quilt, a fast montage of images is transmuted, like a habitat in fragments: my apartment — small, linear, compartmentalized; the quilt — bright checkered squares, equal size, weight, and shape; the tallgrass prairies of Kansas — flattened, in part by my ancestors, by agricultural insistence; her grandfather's parceled farmland — a waving monoculture of wheat atop where the grassland used to be; the egg that became my grandmother — present in my great grandmother's body on the day that she was born; her hands — the same age that mine are now, sewing and stitching the quilt.
Over the years one of the games that Craig and I have played is: "Would that animal have invented agriculture?" We often think of ants, the way they farm and tend to their flocks of aphids, managing their movements and protecting them from predators, so that they can have a steady supply of sweet and protein-rich aphid-produced honeydew. The woodpeckers, yes, they too would have invented agriculture, or I suppose they already have with their grain silos, managed oak groves, farming, and accumulating practices for the long winter. But somehow the hoarding perpetuated by the acorn woodpeckers feels so different. Their hoarding is about collaborative sustenance, and it is in alignment with the actual ecological capacity of the forest that is their home. Their accumulation leads incidentally to the planting of more oaks, to the perpetuation of the ecosystem where they live. Their gathering doesn't lead to extinction, the forced displacement of others, the abstraction of everything into a commodity, or the normalized extraction that comes from an everyday life lived beyond capacity. This is a very different model from my own self-sufficient and private family structures, both now, growing up, and arching back ancestrally.
It reminds me of a sentiment from Timothy Morton's Dark Ecology about not being ashamed and guilt-frozen over the human invention of agriculture and the accompanying death spiral of agrilogistics. As a term, agrilogistics, encapsulates the dispossessive intertwining of agricultural and capitalist logics — from the first Mesopotamian villages with grain silos on to today’s industrial farms. It’s a global survival algorithm that repeats itself the whole world over without regard for individual agency or ecological and cultural specificity.7 This programmatic survival drive brings with it an alluring promise of security and stability for human life, but the tense and divided world I inhabit reflects that these patterns have long reproduced and depended upon racism, settled ownership, erasures of difference, patriarchy, and huge class divides to function.
He suggests that, if found in our positions and circumstances, other animals would likely have invented agriculture and followed it to its likely end, much as we humans have. I think of the acorn woodpeckers again. They too have grain silos, and yet simultaneously, they also have reciprocity with the greater system they live in. I think his thesis is not about blaming other animals for a hypothetical greed, but more so that the most privileged animals — humans — can simply release ourselves from guilty frozenness, on the way towards new configurations.
Craig still has COVID. It’s day five and I make some soup and bring a bowl of it to him, still stuck patiently in our bedroom after too many days of quarantine. We wear masks and talk for a moment. I linger in the doorway, not fully committing to the airspace, but in need of companionship. Afterwards, I walk the straight line of our apartment towards the backyard, gathering up the newly finished grass floret quilt I made at the residency. In the garden, I sit down amongst a patch of tufted hairgrass plants I started from seed last summer. I wonder with them, in what small, humble ways can my own familial reproduction align with survival drives that support the current ecological, economic, and emotional needs of my home place, my desires, and my people. The individualism and privacy are so familiar, comfortable even, but at times they feel like a haunted house.
I wrap myself up in the quilt and run my fingers over the smooth fabric, catching gently on the seams, tracing a patchwork of florets representing this same native tufted hairgrass — a habitat re-assembled piecemeal. As a species, these grasses have lived in western coastal prairies for tens of thousands of years and each two millimeter long grass seed that I germinate will go on to live for hundreds of years more — generations and generations beyond my own quick life.8 I begin to feel all the past, present, and future lineages, stories, ecosystem companions, and human friends that are connected to me, as if through a web of mycelium.
The next day, I start reading the Witch and the Caliban, which reminds me again of the tie-in between distrust, land dispossession, agriculture, and the making of babies, as it narrativizes the long road to simultaneously privatizing land, food access, and women's bodies in Europe as far back at the 13th century. This was a primary moment of dispossession for white European-originated people. Female agency, women as equal partners, and any sort of self-determination or variance around gender expression and sexuality completely disintegrated. With the cultural transition to privatized property and land ownership — non-male-born bodies became attached to assumed heterosexuality and marriage acted as a form of ownership too.9
I see lessons in my own familial lineages and sometimes I think that they are urging me towards creative adaptation. If ever there was a time to get creative with what lineage-making looked like, a time of ongoing and stacked crisis could surely be one of them.
I do a thought play where I imagine taking relationship advice from the ways of acorn woodpeckers. If we aimed for acorn woodpecker mimicry, would the collective energy comfort me enough? Or would this futuring experiment become a lived example of how humans, as creatures at the top of the trophic cascade, are more practiced in living singularly and stressed alongside their other alpha predator peers?
The fatalism of that idea is so limited and tense though. For me, there is power in imagining sexuality and family structure as a portal to playful agency and futurity. It’s all just a question of my own commitment and belief in the structures that attract me most. It will take practice and imagination to believe what I feel: that there is no algorithm for how motherhood should manifest. What constitutes family-making will be different for us all.
One night, Craig and I are eating dinner outside. He’s still testing positive, but is slowly getting better. The virus has somehow skipped over me. I tell him the story of how one afternoon when I was still at the woodpecker house, I heard the birds outside screaming their jarring alarm. It went on for about three minutes before I realized I should go to see who they were talking about. It could be a mountain lion, a bear, or some other creature I might like to be aware of. I went outside to check. I looked and I looked, and finally I saw them. Perched in the big old bay laurel snag, there was a soggy, rain-drenched great horned owl surrounded by a swarming defense line of acorn woodpeckers.
He’s amused by the story, and I am too, but this also summarizes something for me. When I think of having a family the biological seed-way, I sense ghost owls like these doing fly-bys and the acorns keep evaporating into thin air. The alarms are loud and persistent. I am realizing that I can't unhear them, that I don’t need to unhear them. Despite there being so much love and belonging between Craig and me, I worry that we are hoarding acorns all by ourselves. Something is haunted about this plan.
Finally, after a week and a half, Craig’s COVID lifts. Our physical selves can be in the same room. We can touch and we can talk to each other. Sleeping next to him feels like being home again. I have dinner together with friends and the spirits in the walls get quieter. As the days wear on, the sensation of isolation becomes less acute. I come back down to earth.
I still don’t have an answer to reproduction with seeds or with rhizomes. Nonetheless, I sense that a subtle and significant shift has occurred. Maybe that question is too limited. I am beginning to see my inability to decide about motherhood not as a personal failing, but as my body's purposeful resistance to an untrustworthy context and to choosing within a binary that doesn’t feel relatable to me. This resistance has the possibility to transform into a joyful answer that integrates with this time and place, and in ways that align with my own personal desire.
Like my body integrating with cycles of rain and tears, I feel myself loosening up the boundaries and settling into a familial imagination that can still pass along the biologically familiar things I long for. Like the acorn arm lover in the dream, a seeding body is a futurity body, and a seeding, a reproduction, can happen in a multiplicity of ways when I open my imagination beyond the algorithm of motherhood that I’ve inherited. And I remember in the dream how boundaries blurred beyond gender, beyond species, beyond the logic of actual human reproductive biology, and into integration with water cycles, full ecosystems, and acorn stores hoarded in the body that signaled pleasure and delight. I remember how this felt comfortable, like comfort, like home.
In listening through the walls, in blurring the boundaries, I heard the little warbles and sighs and muted chirps of the woodpecker people, communicating the beautiful mundanity of a life lived together, the sounds of sharing food, familiarisms, labor, and love. From beyond the hollow of the wall, I am beginning to trust in the movement of wings, toggling black and white, on and off, not as flickering indecision but as the lift and loft of air that moves bodies into patterns of flight towards a lineage-making of their own creation.
1 Erasure here as a dual reference to my own experiences with bi-erasure and invisibility, and my great, great, great grandparents who settled and farmed in the tallgrass prairies of Kansas —undoubtedly perpetuating colonial processes of erasure themselves.
2 Kate Marianchild, Secrets of the Oak Woodlands: Plants and Animals Among California’s Oaks, (Heyday, 2014), 4.
3 Queer futurity, Indigenous kinship models, and feminist climate-aware make-kin-not babies reproduction as shared in: Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity by José Esteban Muñoz; As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson; Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble; Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology by Angela Willey; Humus by Catrionia Sandilands; and Making Kin Not Population, edited by Adele C. Clarke and Donna Haraway.
4 Contemporary bisexual perspectives on the institution and experience of motherhood, as shared by Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts and Miranda July in The First Bad Man.
5 Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, (Verso, 2019), 47–48.
6 Kate Marianchild, Secrets of the Oak Woodlands: Plants and Animals Among California’s Oaks, (Heyday, 2014), 1–12; Matt Dolkas, The Secret Life of Acorn Woodpeckers, Peninsula Open Space Trust, September 12, 2019. openspacetrust.org/blog/acorn-woodpeckers; Audubon Guide to North American Birds: Acorn Woodpecker, Audubon Society. audubon.org/field-guide/bird/acorn-woodpecker
7 Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, (Columbia University Press, 2016), 46. Morton defines this global algorithm as one that works to “eliminate contradiction and anomaly, establish boundaries between the human and the nonhuman, maximise existence over and above any quality of existing.”
8 Michael Ellis, How Our Hills Got Golden, KQED, July 9, 2010. kqed.org/perspectives/201007090735/how-our-hills-got-golden
9 Silvia Federici, The Witch and the Caliban: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, (Autonomedia, 2004).
Edited by Joyce Chen and Sarah Neilson.
The featured image was created for this piece by our Art Director, Meg Sykes. Photo of the author by Sina Dehghani, courtesy of the Lucid Art Foundation.