Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Growing food and harvesting values

The students of Lakewood Elementary School are learning more than just the ABC's of modern childhood. They are also learning the ABC's of survival--how to grow their own food, that is. 

The St. Petersburg, Florida school is a test plot for the Values Project Roundtable's budding philosophy. Kip Curtis, a Roundtable member and professor of environmental studies at Eckerd College, started an organic garden there in 2009 as an opportunity to educate youth about the long lost skill of growing food, as well as to experiment with the Roundtable's ideas.

Lakewood is somewhat of an unlikely place for a project like this sprout from. It is one the most at-risk schools in St. Petersburg, populated by many of the city's poorest kids. Relatively recently, the school got an entire new batch of teachers after failing the state's standardized exams. And prior to the garden, the PTA was quite lackluster, according to Curtis.

The project, called the Edible Peace Patch, is a cooperative learning endeavor between Lakewood and Eckerd that began as a response to Curtis' students curiosity about organic farming. “Most of them have a romanticized idea about agriculture, but have never done it, which is why they have a romanticized idea about it," he said.

Eckerd students ready the garden

Curtis would know. He grew up on a sustainable farm in Massachusetts, daily performing the rituals of farm chores. While he loathed the agrarian life as a child, he realized in adulthood that it had planted the seeds for his environmental ethic. His hope is that Peace Patch will grow not just vegetables, but also a set of environmental ethics that the students will carry throughout their lives.

The garden provides experiential education for both college and elementary students. Under Curtis' leadership, Eckerd college students manage the garden and mentor the Lakewood students, teaching them about organic gardening and related science concepts. The project also recently gained a wellness kitchen, started by a graduate student intern, where the Lakewood kids get to learn how to cook the food they've grown.

Learning to cook

Through the Peace Patch, these students get to encounter the hard work required to feed oneself, as well as learn that working with the land requires cooperation--not just between people, but also between people and the landscape. Herein lies the Roundtable's underlying principle of confronting the limitations of our own existence. We can't live without hard work, each other, and the land.


With enthusiasm, Curtis explained that the project has generated an unlikely community. Upper class, white college students and poor, minority elementary kids are forming meaningful relationships with one another, when they probably would have never otherwise interacted.

Community-making is further enhanced with a harvest festival, which the students organize to celebrate the end of the long growing season (long, thanks to Florida's climate). While the PTA used to have difficulty pulling parents to their events, the festival drew more than 200 people in its first year, according to Curtis, whose own kids attend Lakewood.

For Curtis, the Peace Patch exemplifies how interwoven people and the environment are--the health of one is dependent on the health of the other.

The Peace Patch offers a promising glimpse into what the Roundtable's philosophy could look like on the ground. I also find it hopeful that such a project seems easily replicable and maintainable. If you want to learn more about the Peace Patch and follow its progress, check out their blog.

Curtis leads another project with which he is testing out the Roundtable's philosophy: the restoration of a natural area on Eckerd's campus. Since I talk more about this project in a longer article I am working on (and hoping to get published), I won't delve into that one here.

And so ends my series about the Values Project Roundtable, but they are certainly a group to keep an eye out for.

*All photos courtesy of Edible Peace Patch.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A ritual renaissance

Have you ever tried to hunt, gather, and grow all the food you'd need to prepare just one meal? Well, if you've kept up with your environmental bestsellers, you'll recall Michael Pollan's attempt at this feat in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma. Hunting, gathering and growing are all encounters with nature that require you to face the difficult side of your relationship with it in some fashion (refer to my previous post for what I mean by this "difficult" side).

To illustrate the next piece of the Values Project Roundtable's philosophical hypothesis, let's pretend you're inspired to follow Pollan's suit (or perhaps you actually did? In which case, please share your story!)...

Despite your giddiness over bagging a prize-winning (well, in your mind at least) wild turkey, you also realize that you've killed a fellow earthling. You ended this creature's life at the expense of your own need to eat.

As you forage for the mushrooms for your grandma's infamous gravy recipe, you may enjoy your time in the woods for a while, until your back starts to hurt from bending over, or the bugs surpass your tolerance threshold, or nature has hidden the mushrooms from you and you frustratingly have to spend another day on the hunt for mushroom jackpot. Not to mention you suffer from a nagging paranoia that you'll misidentify a mushroom and meet an early death, or at least spend the night in the ER, because of your mistake. Nature can be fickle like that sometimes.

Photo: EuroKulture

And then, to make your grand vision for veggies a reality, you've started a garden. While you enjoy spending your weekends digging in the dirt, after a while you realize there are some not-so-romantic notions that come with gardening. A strange fungus infects your tomatoes and thus kills your dreams of canning them for a winter's supply of pasta sauce. Or a gopher discovers your garden. To his delight and your dismay, he eats your carrots and peppers.

Yet, through it all, you've found yourself on the other end. After a long day of cooking, you're sitting at the dinner table with your nearest and dearest, regaling your adventures and follies in creating the meal, laughing with your best friend over her recent dating fail, and feeling the warmth of community wash over the room and your spirit.

Despite the road bumps in negotiating a meal out of nature, you were able to build or strengthen a few values along the way. Perhaps on both your turkey and mushroom hunts, your appreciation for the forest's beauty deepened, as you realized you're a part of its food web. Or, despite your squabbles with fungus and the gopher, your gardening experiment made you more aware of the ecological community in your own backyard. And, even after a long day in the kitchen, the meal you shared with your loved ones nurtured your sense of human community.

In a sense--and I hope I myself am interpreting this correctly--the meal with which you culminated your adventure can be seen as a ritual that mediated your encounters with the negative side of nature and with your own limits as a human. As a result, you were able to strengthen your sense of community--with both people and the land--as well as uncover a deeper layer of an ecosystem's beauty.

And so, the Roundtable argues that, in order to cope with the difficulties in our relationship with nature, we need to infuse our lives with more nature-focused rituals and other "technologies of the mind" (as they like to call them), such as art, performance and festival. In turn, these rituals transmute the troubling aspects of nature and of our own limitations into opportunities to create values, such as community and beauty. In other words, rituals could be the cultural tools to help us cultivate environmental values on a very deep level.

Burning Man is one extreme example of modern day ritual and art that builds community. Photo: (c) Pmatt Freedman.

To throw a blanket statement out there, probably every culture and definitely every religion uses ritual to create meaning within human life, often as mediators in relationships—whether between humans and humans, humans and animals, or humans and the divine.

Take, for example, the Communion ritual in Christianity. While it symbolizes the crucifixion of Jesus, it also signifies the close relationship between Christians and God, and Christians and other Christians--i.e. community.

Or, many cultures have (or had) ceremonies that initiate adolescents into adulthood. In exchange for childhood innocence, the adolescent gains acceptance into the adult community via the ceremony.

Unfortunately, American culture has become relatively impoverished in terms of ritualized encounters with nature...and rituals in general. We've become divorced from many of the duties of survival, such as growing or hunting our own food. Meals are often eaten on the run and by ourselves, and the plants and animals that we eat have been rendered merely "commodities."

And perhaps the closest thing we have to an initiation ceremony is fraternity hazing.

And so, the Roundtable is calling for a renaissance of ritual, art, performance and celebration in our relationship with nature. While scientists and engineers are working hard in the lab to come up with scientific solutions to our environmental problems, they are proposing this renaissance as one possible solution on the humanistic front.

Photo: Wildlands Restoration Volunteers
The renaissance would not entail more of just any kind of experience with nature, from what I understand. While research has shown that spending time with nature can contribute to one's proclivity toward environmentalism, several of the Roundtable members think that merely a walk in the woods, for example, is not enough. Value creation requires getting our hands dirty in what it means to be in this complex relationship.

A flagship example for the Roundtable is ecological restoration. While the ultimate goal of restoration is to revive an ecosystem, it often entails "sacrificing" species, usually invasive ones. If we were to create more rituals or celebrations around restoration, however, the sacrifice would not be in vain. Instead, restoration would become an opportunity for building community, as well as a beautiful, healthy landscape.

In this vein, rituals could be the mechanism for creating Leopold's land community.

My next post will highlight one Roundtable member's real-life experimentation with their philosophical hypothesis. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

In sickness and in health

In any deep human relationship--from friendship to kinship to romantic partnership--you can't really claim richness unless you know both the goods and bads of the other person. According to the Values Project Roundtable, the group of scholars I introduced in my last post, the same can be said for our relationship with nature.

And yet, the Roundtable claims ours is a culture that continually denies or ignores the negatives of our relationship with nature. We've become too "sentimental" in the matrimony. In a sense, we are stuck in the honeymoon phase, and have not yet been ready to deal with the real dynamics of a deeper, more meaningful relationship.

But what is on the negative side of this relationship?

Well, for one, we need to eat to stay alive. But in order to eat, we have to kill other creatures, be they plant, animal or fungus.

Also, nature often eventually becomes our doom. We all die--a natural part of the life cycle. And many of us meet our ends because of "nature," from old age to disease to natural disaster.

And one more: survival is hard work. Well, it used to be, at least, before most of us became alienated from all the things we had do to survive, like grow, hunt and gather all our own food, chop wood for cooking and heating, build our own houses, etc.

Have I burst your bubble of bliss? I promise I'm not implying that we should all become 1970s back-to-the-landers.

A back-to-the-land wedding. Photo: State of West Virginia

As Juliet is to Romeo, humans cannot live without nature (though nature could probably live just fine without humans). And this dependency entails some things that are hard to love. But the Roundtable believes that accepting these more troubling parts of the relationship and finding ways to deal with them could turn an otherwise doomed relationship into something truly wonderful.

To briefly step away from the marriage metaphor, the success of which I am wary, I'll give you a couple more concrete examples to further illustrate the ambivalence of this relationship.

Take hunting and fishing. People in Western cultures hunt and fish for a variety of reasons, such as a chance to spend time in nature, the thrill of the catch, and (less commonly) for subsistence. While these positive aspects motivate people to hang out with nature, there lies a more difficult notion on the flip side--a successful hunting or fishing expedition results in the death of other creatures.

Or, take ecological restoration. A big focus these days is on getting rid of invasive species, because of the harm they cause to native ones--namely they bully the food and habitat away from native plants and critters and, thus, take over the joint. However, in order to restore a habitat so native species can move back in and thrive, we must kill the invasive species. Thus, in nurturing life for some species, we take away the lives of others.
And so, the first step in the Rountable's hypothesis is this need to embrace the whole of our relationship with sickness and in health, til death do us part (sorry, had to). Only then can we really begin the work of creating the values foundational to a long, happy and sustainable life together on Earth.

My next post will attempt to explain the next step of the Roundtable's hypothesis. Coincidentally, it has something to do with ceremonies...but I promise to save you from the marriage metaphor.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Land ethic, the next generation

As a Wisconsin resident and student of environmental studies, I can't really get away from Aldo Leopold (but not that one would want to). His legacy turns up everywhere.

Among the marks that Leopold, a Wisconsinite, has left on the world is the land ethic, a philosophy he defined in his seminal book A Sand County Almanac. The land ethic calls for the recognition that humans belong to a community that includes the land and all it entails: soil, water, animals, plants, and microorganisms.

In Leopold's words, "In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

Aldo Leopold. Photo: Aldo Leopold Foundation

Few people would dare to argue against the concept of community. In essence, it is a value, one that is coveted and upheld by many, including the environmental movement. Facets of the movement such as localism, Smart Growth, and community supported agriculture reflect the quest for community.

But, aside from constructing programs and policies that foster community, how do we actually create the value of community at a deeper level?

“Everyone is in favor of community on the face of it. But what does it mean and how do you get to it?” asked Bill Jordan, author and co-director of Depaul University's Institute for Nature and Culture.

Jordan is the unofficial leader of an interdisciplinary batch of scholars that is trying to answer this question. As the cast of the environmental movement continues to grapple with how to rally the masses toward a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle, these scholars are setting out to provoke a new conversation in environmental thinking.

“We don’t have body of environmental thought yet that is commensurate with the size of the problems we face,” said Liam Heneghan, professor of environmental science at Chicago’s DePaul University and the other co-director of their Institute for Nature and Culture.

Informally calling themselves the Values Project Roundtable, the group runs the academic gamut, representing fields such as religious studies, history, philosophy, and ecology...and they are still trying to recruit more disciplines. I have been following them for the past year, as they endeavor to articulate their philosophy, test it out, and present it to the world.

What I find most interesting about their endeavor is their bravery to tackle the complexity of values and ethics--intellectual fodder that is relatively scarce in the mainstream. While most of the conversations within the environmental community these days seem to be wrapped up in politics and economics (well, that's my perception at least), the Roundtable is targeting the foundation of individual and collective behavior.

Taking Leopold's lead, they are essentially digging to the very roots to figure out how we actually create a land ethic and the values on which it is based.

The crux of their theory is that the path to these values may require the collective "we" to do two things. First, we must accept the negative realities of our relationship with nature. Second, in order to cope with these negative realities, we need to infuse our lives with more ritual.


Let me take the next few blog posts to explain. Stay tuned.

Friday, April 1, 2011

I heart dirt

Humans were originally made from dirt, according to the creation stories of many religions and cultures. These stories are not too far from the truth.

All life comes from dirt, literally. The establishment of dirt billions of years ago helped give birth to the microorganisms that kick started evolution. Dirt also contains the basic elements of life, such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, etc.

And, contrary to common belief, dirt is not dead. One handful of soil contains billions of living organisms!

My excitement about dirt was recently charged after watching the documentary film Dirt! The Movie. It tells an entertaining and moving story about dirt and the relationship we humans--and all life--have with it. It includes cameos and commentary from many of the environmental movement's heavyweights: David Orr, Janine Benyus, Wes Jackson, Wangari Maathai, and Majora Carter, to name a few. But my favorite characters were the playful animated soil microbes that intermittently commented on the narrative with expressive gestures and "meeps" (their language). They made me giggle every time.

Here is the movie trailer.

With somewhat broad brush strokes, the movie paints a compelling picture of the dire straights we have put our dirt in--predicaments with which our own dire straights are inextricably tied.

We've ravaged our soils with bad farming practices, such as monocropping and pesticide use, thus endangering our food security. Ecosystems are not able to hold water, because we've stolen the soil's vegetation or sealed it up with concrete and asphalt. The eroded soil then sends our fresh water into the oceans at a faster pace than can sustain life, in some places resulting in devastating droughts. Starvation and conflicts erupt due to food shortages caused by drought, as seen in Sudan.

While the movie successfully invokes a sense of urgency and worry about these troubling issues, it does not leave the viewer depressed. It also tells the inspiring stories of people who are leading the charge to remedy these predicaments.

Schools in California are returning asphalt schoolyards back to dirt and planting gardens, in which the children work and learn. A team of Harvard students and scientists are harnessing the energy from soil microbes to generate electricity. Majora Carter pioneered the movement to install green roofs on residential buildings across New York City. And so on.

But its overall message is that every individual plays an important part in this effort. 

Movies like Dirt!, I think, are excellent communication tools to educate and engage a broader audience in environmental issues. Dirt! did a great job of revealing the deep connection we all have with soil, why it is important to heal and protect it, and ideas for how we can change the course of the gloomy fate that both we and dirt are tumbling toward.

Dirt! serves as an excellent primer to pique people's attention about an important piece of our earth that most of us take for granted...and walk all over.

photo: Josh Larios