I've been home for less than 24 hours, and I'm already reflecting on this summer on the Reservation. (Shocking.) I've done this extended trip twice now, and while I'm somewhat seasoned to the routine, no stay is the same nor should it be expected to remain the same.
From a growing perspective, the garden produced beautifully and continues to do so under the watchful and attentive eyes of six individuals in town. Perhaps my proudest moment was the kids' first pay-what-you-can farm stand. They wanted to sell vegetables to raise money for a new piece of playground equipment, which they would like to vote on collectively. How cool is that?! My heart swelled as I watched adults in town, some whom I have not seen all summer, pull in with their cars, look around, support the kids' efforts, and ask when we were going to do this again. What really sunk in: People crave vegetables and good food. Now, it's accessible in La Plant.
And, the kids really did help. I had a steady stream of them take informal shifts, ask to hold up road signs to drum up more business (some even made kites with the word "farm stand" on them), keep me company at the stand, and ask questions about vegetables, how I learned to grow food, school, and if I miss La Plant and them when I'm not there. (The answer to the last question, while largely choking back tears: "Of course I do, goofball!)
I think this event really solidified that food is a magnificent, wonderful, unifying force. And, it's changing things, albeit slowly, on the Reservation.
This was not an easy summer. I dealt with many issues well beyond my scope of training and ones that I could not have anticipated, particularly youth suicide and navigating the mental health resources available to people in the area. Life on the Reservation can be unpredictable, tragic, heart-breaking, incredibly frustrating, nonsensical, and indescribable to family and friends who haven't been there. But, I truly take the ambassador aspect of my job to heart, and every trip to La Plant underscores the ongoing need to tell the stories of the people there, namely the children whom I have grown to love. I'm grateful for the challenges, new allies and support systems forged, the amazing successes (including the farm stand and the kids' participation in the Unity Concert in the Black Hills!), and the enormous learning curve of this summer.
Now, here are some sights of late summer in South Dakota (including a trip to the Badlands!).
Working for Simply Smiles is definitely weird...and wonderful. Weird? I've done lots of things for my job that I didn't quite anticipate. The most recent example: Getting my CDL license so that I could drive a red school bus across country with my brother to get to the Cheyenne River Reservation. And, of course, wonderful. I'm fortunate that I can implement what I've learned in graduate school and in my past farming career in practical, meaningful ways. I also get to meet incredible people and have many unique experiences along the way. Not a bad job.
And, the La Plant Grows Its Own Food! project has been transformative for both me and, I hope, for residents of La Plant. It makes my heart swell when a child willingly goes into the garden space and wants to help, asks questions, or runs to me as soon as they arrive at camp and are excited about what we're planting that day. Or, when I have a group of adults who offer to take care of the garden, actively participate in its growth, or ask how they can grow things at their houses. Pretty wonderful, right?
In the span of one year, the garden has done just that - grow. Volunteer groups have helped to build new raised beds - 21, to be exact! - and these beds have greatly increased our growing space. Our compost system is thriving (fellow compost nerds, rejoice!), our native species project has physically taken root, and we're getting ready to enclose the high tunnel within the coming month to extend the growing season. There's buzz about the project among more residents in town and even throughout the entire Reservation. It has rumblings and makings of a food movement.
All this change, growth, and planning...and I won't physically be implementing much during the month of June.
Because Simply Smiles is becoming more ambitious in its programming and our holistic approach is attracting a wider audience of potential supporters and ambassadors of our mission, things - and people - need to shift. Rather than staying on the Rez for five straight months, the staff is taking office rotations, and mine starts this month. As a naturally anxious person/a (slight) control freak, not being present is a problem for me. But, the job requirements aside, my gut tells me this is a healthy break. I hope it is one that reveals and recognizes the roles and interdependence of communication, learning to cede control, trust, and, of course, the truly magical nature of growing, living things and beings.
I'm trying a new mantra: Things will be ok. Things will grow.
Just when it set in this past Saturday morning that this - being in La Plant - was over, albeit for a little over a month, our friend and La Plant resident Ford Hill shook my hand.
"Goodbye, Ford," I said. "See you in July."
"You know, in Lakota, there's no word for 'goodbye'," he said. "We say, 'see you soon.' Saying 'goodbye' is too lonesome and final."
So, with that, see you soon, La Plant. For now, I'll enjoy these recent memories and look forward to lots of delicious food and blooming flowers in the near future.
(All photos taken by A.Gross, April-May 2015, Cheyenne River Reservation/La Plant, S.D.)
As of late, there seem to be a number of issues that cripple us from moving forward. But, food can be the gateway to taking back our lives and helping people realize their full potential. Food is also a vehicle to recognize our place in nature. This isn't a hippy dippy realization, but, rather, in the case of food and water, we cannot have one without the other or neglect the connection.
As daunting as the task is to, oh, you know, reshape our food system, I'm so inspired to watch all these amazing individuals participate in and lead a fair food revolution. This series is hopeful and enlightening - two elements very much needed for change to occur.
You can watch season one of Food Forward here.