I returned from living and working on the Reservation at the end of September, and I found myself incredibly anxious. I usually have no trouble readjusting to the East Coast routine and dealing with transition, but this fall felt different. In a very short period of time, I went from the safety and positivity of the garden to an environment where people behaved with an incredible lack of civility toward one another. I was well aware of the vitriol of the current political climate (yes, I do have a connection to and with the outside world, even in the vastness of South Dakota, folks). But to fully feel the tension of the political climate and social circus that seems to be all-consuming was an uncomfortable sensation.
I was and remain unwilling to let the chaos impede on my desire to settle back in the places I call home and my personal happiness. My sense is that most people are getting to or at this point. My solution/therapy? I go to the woods. Not on some lengthy expedition but just quick jaunts into local land trusts or forests. Even a quick look up into the sky or down at your feet, accompanied by a few deep breaths will suffice.
I have been making a concerted effort to admire, embrace, and show gratitude for the beings that do the unrecognized important work. To the mushrooms and fungi that break down the dead and create nutrients for new life. To the leaves and trees that charm us with their color…and, oh, yeah, allow us to breathe clean air. To the pollinators that fly millions of flights and allow us to enjoy the sweetness of honey and the pleasure and luxury of the food we eat.
At first blush, this reflection and realization can be read as a self-important, perspective-of-privilege post. I think about this stuff all the time (perhaps more than I should and, perhaps, one of the reasons that I tend to be anxious), especially in light of my work and events in recent history. But, in a social climate that celebrates maniacal levels of ego, avoids the real issues by magnifying the absurd, and seems to defy logic and basic decency, we need more voices that challenge us to feel more grounded and more connected with the present. Mother Nature tends to be that one entity that reinforces humility and our smallness in this thing called life. Maybe we should be listening to Her more.
Here’s some of what I noticed on a few treks into the woods:
Locations: Lilly Preserve, Roxbury, CT; Lake Mohegan, Fairfield, CT - October 2016
I'm currently reading Kimmerer's work, "Braiding Sweetgrass," and I'm finding that her words are so timely and so needed. The upswing in chaos, violence, and hate that we've seen in recent weeks will not disappear because of one small garden on a remote part of an isolated reservation. But, I'm not willing to accept that hatred and violence should be the basis of the headlines or that small acts of peace should go unnoticed.
Fortunately, the La Plant garden allows me to embrace the place and space and adds a richness to my life, as I hope it does for the kids of La Plant. Sorry if this sounds too white person-myopic - it's not meant to at all. As I've written about in the past, I cannot even begin to know what it is to be Native, or African American, Muslim or any other ethnicity, religious sect, or population who must exist and endure with the ever-present threat or possibility of violence to their physical person or their children.
One garden does not erase the enormous injustices and brutalities in this world. But, we can use the concept of a garden as a way to treat one another as, well, equals and return to civility and humility. Through the garden, we learn to respect the interactions between the things we can't control - namely, Mother Nature - and the fruits of our nurturing to enjoy the food that we grow and eat. We can listen to the sounds of buzzing bees, children laughing, and the rush of water hitting the soil and seeds. By observing, listening, and absorbing, we have the capacity to become more centered, more focused on obstacles and on differences of opinions, more open to speaking to one another, and try to deeply understand our purpose to live as better people.
This time, I'll let a few photos speak for the past month and a half on the Reservation, filled with blooming potatoes, kid-run garden tours, turnip foraging, the beginning of sweet carrots and sugar snap peas, and, yeah, I'll go there: hope.
Captions: (1) the first flush of arugula (2) a cucumber seedling emerges (3) the greenhouse, June 12, 2016 (4) early morning light in mid-summer greenhouse, July 9, 2016 (5) the first tomato flowers, June 16, 2016 (6) radishes! (7) young garlic check (8) first big greens harvest, June 19, 2016 (9) added art to the greenhouse (10) Winter’s first harvest, June 21, 2016 (11) finally found: a prairie turnip (12+13) foraging with Lakota elder, Ford Hill (14+15) potatoes, pre- and post-bloom (16) the open Plains (17) my garden assistant, sowing climbing bean seeds in our newly opened field! (18) the jalapeños make an appearance, July 1, 2016 (19) the first summer squash emerges, July 4, 2016 (20) carrot check, July 4, 2016 (21) the green garden, July 5, 2016 (22) prickly pear cactus, hiding among the prairie grasses (23) climbing sugar snap pea tendrils, climbing (24) wildflowers at the Missouri River (25) a welcoming squash blossom, July 8, 2016 (26) Sergio, my kid garden assistant and resident tour guide, doing his thing with confidence…and an iron fist!
Living and working on the Reservation is filled with amazingly high highs and devastatingly low lows. Sometimes, these moments can happen in the same week, same day, or same hour. Trauma is everywhere and, if given enough time to reflect, wallow, or just process the colossally complex nature of it all, I might have quit my job by now.
Yet, the garden, or the La Plant Grows Its Own Food! Project, is my place, my refuge. It keeps me sane. It reminds me that I am doing something meaningful, even though, at times, it stills feels like I'm not doing enough. As hokey as that sounds, the garden is incredibly therapeutic. Endless research backs up the theory on the healing powers of growing food and being around living, green things. (Non-scientific study: I dare you to go to your local nursery and farm stand and not feel a little happier!)
This is my third season on the Reservation, and I see and feel the garden having an impact. Practically speaking, I'm thrilled that we now finally have electricity and heat in the greenhouse, and I'll be preparing for winter production in the late summer. The beets, arugula, radishes, potatoes, and snap peas were all germinating as of this week.
More than anything, I love that the kids are also super into the whole thing. I often tell volunteers that the garden has a weird, magical forcefield around it. Somehow, once inside the garden fence, kids become calm. I can't exactly put my hands on this energy, but the garden gives off a nurturing vibe. It's a space that encourages children to be inquisitive and present. They ask amazing questions. They are curious as to what's growing. They begin to give their own mini tours of the space with a sense of confidence that makes my heart swell. They taste chives. They check on the garlic and ask when it's ready to harvest. They bring their own packets of flowers to Garden Class to start their own seedling trays. They respect the bumble bees buzzing and tell me, unprompted, that these bees are doing good work.
But, just as I praise these successes, I recognize that it's dangerous, self-aggrandizing and even a bit delusional if we - specifically, I - begin to equate a good lettuce harvest or one week of increased participation in a garden class with "saving" people. The statistics about what it means to be native youth are alarming and apparent everyday. Rates of youth suicide are still at crisis levels. Kids are hungry for physical nourishment of nutritious food, and they also crave the emotional support and positive attention and reinforcement of adults.
For the majority of people who will read this post, they'll never, ever know the realities of what it means to be or identify as an indigenous person. I'm included in this category, even as immersed as I am in the day-to-day for almost half a year on the Reservation. But, the first step is recognizing and delving into these complexities and finding solutions that occur at an appropriate pace to make life better, specifically for children.
I'm a fiercely and stubbornly realistic person. That's why I've connected with farming and gardening so well. You learn early on that the fruits of the profession are only a small product of your work. Mother Nature has the ultimate say on the success or failure of a harvest. She forces you to cede control, which is, at first, completely terrifying but, eventually, incredibly freeing. She also teaches you to play the long game if you seek change rooted in sustainability and resilience and, recognizing, too, that the long game may outlive you and me.
While a realist to my core, I'm also an optimist and the two can and should coexist. We do not have to accept the hand that we've been dealt and we can change our paths. I also acknowledge and accept that my perspective is from a place not granted to many individuals. The catalyst I've chosen to combat the injustices faced by native youth is through food because it is tangible. I'm not expecting to solve all of society's ills against native people, to save all of the children of La Plant or the Reservation, or even to be able to feed the entire town. But, I can write, with absolute confidence, that the garden is a place, albeit temporary, where children can feel safe, be curious, be silly, and, while they might not be able to articulate it yet, be optimistic about their lives and their futures.
I just returned from Oaxaca, Mexico, where I worked with volunteers on the new Simply Smiles children’s home, deepened our relationship with individuals who live and work at the Oaxaca City garbage dump, and spent time with the first two children who live at the children’s home to further their education in the city. I also got a chance to reconnect with one of my favorite humans (hey, Gaby!) after not seeing her since July 2015 and witness all the amazing work that she’s been able to implement as the program manager of Simply Smiles’ Mexican operations. There’s been a marked transformation in the facility from my last trip in March to now, which is really cool to see.
Because it was only my second trip to the region, I soaked it all in and had no problem playing tourist. I climbed some of the Zapotec ruins at Monte Albán. No big deal. It’s seriously an incredible place, with structures that force you to wonder how people were able to build such vast, massive structures. We also visited historic downtown Oaxaca, with its colorful buildings, striking cathedrals and museums, vibrant wares and culture. And, of course the food - the food! Lots of avocados, fresh mangos, pineapple, and other non-New England fruits and flavors, quesillo (think of slightly saltier mozzarella cheese, but better), tlayudas (Oaxacan street food - sorta like a quesadilla or a very, very thin crusted pizza, but like 10 times tastier), mole, drinking chocolate (cocoa, crushed almonds, cinnamon, other spices), chapulines (grasshoppers...chill out, they're surprising good and I only ate two with guacamole), and real tacos with pico de gallo and other incredible salsas. I could wax poetic about the food alone, but I’ll spare you. The warm temperatures weren’t bad either. Here’s a glimpse:
(1) (2) Doors of Coyotopec. (3) Life lesson/rules posted at a children’s home: no head stomping. (4) Phoebe the cat. (5) A view from the top of the trash mound. Now, another community has been formed on the other side of the trash mountain. (6) A literal mountain of trash, supported and secured by tire walls. (7) Mezcal, four ways. (8) A rather over the top nativity scene, in honor of Three Kings Day. (9) Chandelier at the Oaxaca Cathedral (the Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption in the Zócalo. (10) Many peppers and spices at the central market. (11) - (15) Zapotec structures, buildings, and temples at Monte Albán. (16) Up in the mountains at the ruins. (17) Close-up of the wall details at Monte Albán. (18) Agave, etched. (19) Borage. (20) Graffiti (21) loyal Señor Botas (I added the “señor”) (22) Advertisement for agricultural fertilizers (23) Teatro Macedonio de Alaca, an opera house/theater in downtown Oaxaca (24) (25) Displays that are part of the exhibit de la relación entre la tierra y los seres (of the relationship between the earth and the beings) - which, included, of course, a discussion of food and many green growing things - at the Centro Academic y Cultural San Pablo in downtown Oaxaca. (26) patchwork quilt (27) The gilded interior in downtown Oaxaca’s Iglesias de Santo Domingo, a Dominican church, built in 1575 (28) Art made out of different beans serves as the outside arch of a restaurant doorway in downtown Oaxaca.