Simply Smiles

Scratching the surface: the harvest so far in La Plant

Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.
— Robin Wall Kimmerer, from "Braiding Sweetgrass"

Now that the major infrastructure projects are complete, this growing season in the garden (as part of the La Plant Grows Its Own Food! healthy living initiative of Simply Smiles) is all about production. We've already held two farmstands out of the nine slated for this 2016 season! It's also the first time where I've felt most confident on this whole growing thing out here because, well, things are actually growing and growing really well! And, it's not just the day-to-day responsibilities and routine required, but, rather, a deeper understanding the rhythm of the seasons, really feeling the soil, and getting a solid sense of this place.

This is, of course, just scratching the surface (pun intended). But, for now, here are a few snapshots of the harvest so far, which is proving to be the most productive we've had in three years!

Snapshots from Oaxaca

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.

Sights of South Dakota: late August-early September 2015

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!).

Sights from South Dakota: Growing a garden, learning to say "see you soon"

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.)