If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.
– Wendell Berry
Listen to Allyson’s Interview with Aislinn Devlin:
As physical distancing changes the shape of our days, we see more and more people turning attention to their forgotten window boxes or an overgrown corner of the yard. Putting their hands in the soil with the hope of creating homegrown food or a joyful flower garden. Having space to garden is quickly being understood as a privilege of resources. The ability to access safe outdoor space has gained a new definition in the wake of COVID-19 and the current calls for racial justice.
Gardening and agriculture build our sense of place and increase our social-emotional learning. In the recorded interview that is parred with this article, Aislinn Devlin, a recent graduate from Narraguagus High School in Maine, reflects on the skills and relationships that are built through gardening and how they are intertwined with the place we live. These interconnections are also explored in the following paragraphs. During COVID, the shape of our relationships are shifting – both relationships that we hold with each other and the spaces that we inhabit.
The resurgence of gardening and home agriculture is creating a renewed connection between the people and the land they live on. This new awareness of the cold nights and rainstorms—that were once part of the background noise—helps to slow down the days and give breath to our otherwise crowded thoughts. Awareness of the place supports and bolsters our connection to self. Gardening creates something hopeful to bring people out of their houses and into the weather each day to see what has happened around them. Is the soil rising up with the pressure of sprouting seeds? Are there new leaves on the smallest of plants? Has that bud finally unfurled to display its color? Did last night’s rain create a new river through a carefully planted row? Each unexpected event builds resiliency and strength in the gardener that translates to other aspects of their lives.
For Aislinn Devlin, working in and helping to create Mary’s Garden at Narraguagus High was an avenue for her to mentor and share skills with students in younger grade levels. Skills that those students were then able to bring home and share with their families. This garden also offers students a place for autonomy and choice as they decide which methods or techniques they would use while gardening. The leeway that gardens have for trial and error creates an environment of low-risk experimenting, unbound by rules, that builds self-confidence and decision making skills.
While the goal of creating food, flowers, or that prefect lawn will reach varying levels of success this summer—a greater and longer lasting knowledge is being absorbed. The quiet knowledge of place.
image credit: Markus Spiske
The power of place-based knowledge and connection is a tool that has been utilized by school gardens across the country. Schools with gardens have seen a positive correlation between students’ connection to and care for their schools with time spent in their classroom gardens 2, 4, 5. A space where students can find connection to the physical space of their school environments and to the adults who lead them in outside of academics. This connection builds a resiliency—an elasticity—into a student’s opinion of school³, strengthening their connections and the overall determinant of their success. This shift to supporting the whole child’s development in order to increase their academic success is the basis of social emotional learning (SEL)¹. The goal of school gardens is not necessarily the cultivation of plants, but of the young person’s relationships to the adults and place. This relationship – be it school and teacher or parents and backyard- serves to build foundational skills that will serve that young person in a myriad of settings.
As gardeners, both in school settings and at home, we learn resilience and persistent through the trial and error process of failed seedings, wilted plants, and occasional tomatoes stolen in the night by hungry raccoons. We recover from each of these frustrations and losses to try again, not because we know the results will be different, but this time we know the land better. We know when the frost comes that we can survive it because we’re rooted in our place. Rooted through experience. By leaning into these skills and experiences, young people and adults find space to practice that art of not being masters of the talent and the freedom to experiment in a low risk setting³. All these skills can come from spending time in a patch of soil.
In a time when we can all use a little more resiliency and connection, give up a corner of your window box or yard to a young person in your life. Passing this knowledge on is something to be experienced and absorbed, rather than taught. Much like the skills that come from social emotional learning, the resiliency that comes from place-based and agricultural knowledge is caught, not only taught.
During this time of physical distance, one thing we can hope to come away with is a deeper place-based knowledge. Knowledge that can hold us up in hard moments and give us an awareness of where the sunny spots are for those times when we need to simply stand and breathe for a moment.
1 Edutopia (2011). Social and Emotional Learning: A Short History. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/social-emotional-learning-history
2 Markham-Petro, K. (2019). Growing Citizens: Students Social Emotional Learning via School Gardens. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from: https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=8197&context=etd
3 Reis, K., & Ferreira, J. (2013). Food for thought: The governance of garden networks for building local food security and community-based disaster resilience. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://research-hub.griffith.edu.au/display/n2c9e7057b149f20de74d0bf5c84e0aad
4 Reis, K. & Ferreira, J. (2015). Community and School Gardens as Spaces for Learning Social Resilience. The Canadian Journal of Environmental Education. Retrieved from: https://research-repository.griffith.edu.au/handle/10072/354166
5 Skelly, S., & Bradley, J. (2007). The growing phenomenon of school gardens: Measuring their variation and their affect on students’ sense of responsibility and attitudes toward science and the environment. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 6(1), 97-104.