In the Garden: Seeking and Finding Connections to Land, Air and Water

I spent some time yesterday reflecting upon a Connected Educators Month EdTechtalk: Teachers Teaching Teachers in which I participated last week with a diverse group of educational thinkers. Our conversation centered for me upon the critical importance of the interconnecting edu-ecosystems that we are building, one educator at a time. However, beyond the virtual connectivity that’s so essential to increasing the learning power of today’s youth, there’s another area of their connectivity I believe we’re neglecting.

a brown speckled buckeye butterfly on a pink coneflower

Fritillary butterfly on coneflower

Young people will face complex challenges in their adult futures- economically, politically, environmentally, and socially. Those challenges increasingly relate to the earth beneath our feet, the winds that blow across our continents and oceans, the temperatures that drive climate changes, and waters that sustain life. The Butterfly Effect governs the interactivity of seemingly chaotic systems across our world, far more than we ever thought when we first learned of Conrad Lorenz’s concept.

Connectivity is a given in the lives of our young people; allowing them to search, connect, communicate and create with others beyond the boundaries of physical communities, states – and nations. However, as we build virtual connectivity into learning spaces for all the right reasons,  in my opinion we must also reestablish a deep connectivity between children and the natural world so they can understand and process the deep environmental challenges of the coming decades. Indeed, their future may depend upon connectivity with each other and connectivity with the natural world- not either/or, but both.

The Earth’s natural spaces were the first learning spaces of humans, but our children are increasingly disconnected to those spaces. I first wrote the post below a couple of years ago while reflecting upon the importance of the natural world to learning. It feels even more relevant today. After a bit of editing, I decided to finally post it here.

Learning from the Garden

a rake lies in on the red clay in front of the tomato plant

The early morning work I do in the garden reminded me on this morning what challenge really means when your survival depends upon providing your own food. Each season on earth marks time in months, years, and centuries of peoples’ intensity of effort to simply eat. We middle-class Americans who can so easily pop down to a grocery or convenience store to pick up the most basic items of sustenance – milk, bread, meat, potatoes- or to a farmers’ market to select heirloom tomatoes grown locally, are mostly out of touch with the struggle of humankind to simply eat.  This morning I confronted the loss of summer food supply; damage from deer gone wild because of one forgotten disconnect of the electric fence – peppers and cucumbers eaten down to the stems; tomatoes showing the first sign of blossom rot; and squash bug eggs on the underside of my crookneck leaves. Kneeling in red clay, simmering in summer humidity, I reconnected with my grandfather- me as learner, him as teacher- and the important lessons to be taken from the land.

a white sand road leading to a white frame farmhouse

the road to home

I grew up on a farm and understand the agrarian calendar well. My suburban-raised son does not. I have continued, throughout the ever-increasing number of seasons of my life, the habit of planting each year what has become a smaller and less tidy garden space than those of my childhood.

My family farm became a learning tool as I traced my grandfather’s steps across sugar-sand fields in the low country, not too far inland from Charleston, along the slash of a river named the Edisto.

the Edisto river is a black water river with cypress trees on its banks

The Edisto

Those fields held lost riches of natives from the Woodland Culture and we often would pause, eyes caught by birdpoint, scribed pottery shard, or flint chip, slipping such treasure into a pocket to keep it safe. Near our river and fields, live oaks stood, relics of centuries past, their limbs spread to ground; drips of Spanish moss sheltering acid-rain etched marble, chiseled with names of those who followed the natives onto this land. Through his stories and observations, my grandfather taught me to appreciate the role of the water, the land, and the air in supporting the lives of people who had lived and continued to live on and off of that land.

All of these generations past depended upon the skills of those who understood the give and take of living off of the land. Each successive wave who inherited the soil, the water, and forests discovered how tenuous survival can be. I learned that from my grandfather. The seasons of my own gardens have been, I hope, a learning gift passed from my grandfather to me to my own son.

Unfortunately, droughts and hard rains come to the land these days in chaotic cycles that leave humans confounded by the patterns of nature. But, I know this. My tomato plants depend upon a steady state of water or they will develop blossom end-rot, falling from the vines slightly ripened, blackened, and unfit to eat. I learned from my grandfather how to avoid tomato rot– there are rules to follow if you know to do so. It’s such a simple thing in Virginia to increase water supply or add a bit of calcium to the diet of my tomatoes.

When I see the rot of tomatoes as I did this morning, I also think of my mother’s Irish Catholic ancestors who came to this country during the Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century. Today, we gardeners plant potatoes hybridized and resistant to the same killing blight that starved the Irish into an agonizing history of emigration and death. They had no such choice. When we pick up a bag of store-bought potatoes, we forget how close the relationship of land and people must be to those who depend upon it for survival. Today, we expect the potatoes to just be there.

abandoned stone hut in ireland in the mist

hut abandoned in Ireland mist

Although, like me, many Americans descend from ancestors who lived close to the land, and some who died because of the vagaries of nature and food supply, our industrial and technological relationship with food has removed us from understanding the role of the land in human ecology. Michael Pollan says that we don’t shop much around the edges of the supermarket- we shop on the inside lanes where the processed food is stacked. Whether it’s at home or school, our young people learn little about the connectivity of the natural environment to their lives. School lunches are an example of that.

4 red tomatoes on the vine

vine ripened

Today, these few rotten tomatoes, several pepper and cucumber plants damaged by the deer that plague my world, and droplets of golden eggs hidden under squash leaves led me to question what’s worthy to learn in a day and age of hyper-changing technologies in our world.How important is it for our young people to understand the relationships of land and food to their own survival; the patterns of weather, the food chains in which we figure, the shaping of cultures, politics and even religions, the ages through which civilizations pass, the migrations of peoples, and even the rise and fall of nations caused by our relationships with the natural world?

What do young people really need to know about stripped-down corn, packaged on Styrofoam and kept cool in the fresh vegetable bins? Or, the gulf shrimp on ice about which I overhead someone recently comment, “I’d rather not know where they came from”? What’s important to understand about the origins of sliced and diced tomatoes stacked neatly in cans on a grocery aisle? How do we communicate the value of good stewardship to relieve man-made stresses upon our environment? Why should we teach the connectedness and dependency of humanity upon the natural world for our very life’s breath and next meal? What’s worthy of learning when our children are often far removed from working the land? Why should we care about our children’s relationship to the land, air, and water around them?

High School Ecological studies of the pond

With global access we can find today’s media version of the Starving Times that decimated the 17th century Jamestown Settlement and 19th century Ireland. Far away from us, but perhaps closer than we think, humans live in starvation on the edge of death in the drought-weary world of West Africa. There, the peoples of Chad and Niger and six other countries eat leaves from trees and grain from ant hills to stave off death. Maybe as many as 15 million people face starvation in that region alone.The world’s population grows, the planet warms, and water shortages persist. And, our children take standardized tests that have little to do with learning how to find solutions to those critical problems.

We can write standards that cause us to learn the facts of the Potato Famine of the past and West Africa of today. We can measure that Virginia’s young people have learned what the Starving Times were in the first Anglo colony of America. That’s easy- 4 responses- choose one of the above.

However, this morning’s reflections cause me to ask if we want the kind of citizenry who can pose informed questions and craft informed perspectives about what went wrong in the recent mostly forgotten Gulf environmental disaster?* If so, what do we need to do to ensure we don’t create a future that looks like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?

Perhaps we simply begin, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, by connecting our children “back into the garden.” **

gardening with preschoolers

(*see @jasonflom on Edutopia for discussion group of educators on learning from Gulf Oil Spill)

(**see @paulallison for more about East-West School for International Studies Gardening Project in NYC)

(**see@timlauer for more about Lewis Elementary Gardening Project in Portland, Or)

(**see grow veggies for Quick Start– Albemarle school grow local projects)

(**see @traceysaxon for more about Sutherland Middle School’s garden to food to compost project)

(**see @cwd4H for more about Yancey Elementary School’s Veggie Village in Esmont, Va)