This fall I became a foster parent. It was striking how alienated our children were from nature. They would stomp through woods, break limbs off trees, smash through everything with sticks. They were scared of bees, scared of insects, scared of the natural world. Then, one day, when our foster son was exploring the garden, he asked about one of the medicinal plants. I said it could help with feeling worried. He asked if he could put them all over his head so it could just sink into all his (very well founded) fears. When our neighbors looked over the fence the kid had tiny elastics across his head with flowers stuck through all of them. “It helps me not to worry!” he shouted. The moment was definitely humorous, but after a genuine interest in plants grew. Together we talked about how the earth is loving and cares for us, how it gives us what we need. He is eating it up. I see him outside now, talking to the plants and asking their permission to pick them and thanking them.
Our other child is in a social/emotional focused program at her school. I have never seen a child’s body so full of trauma. She explodes with anger often. She didn’t have an outlet for this. To her the earth was just the site of more frightening history, more places she’d been abandoned and harmed. One day we were doing family yoga and practiced taking deep breaths and sending our worries down into the earth. I said, “Some people like to think of the earth as a powerful mama who has always got our backs.” She exclaimed, “like you!” And, while it may be the most flattering comparison of my life to date, it was also a turning point for her self concept as a person in the world and with the world. She has started to visit the garden to watch the creatures, to care about whether or not things hurt the earth. She can see the earth not as a threat but as a site of mutual nurturing.
Today I met with Laura Plaut, the director of Common Threads Farm, a wonderful organization that brings gardening programs to every school in Bellingham (on Lummi Nation’s land). We met to talk about possible collaboration between the school garden sites and the Birchwood Food Desert Fighters project to increase fruit tree planting throughout the neighborhood. In the conversation we spoke of the garden programs now running throughout the Bellingham School District. They had recently surveyed teachers to see if the children’s relationship to food had changed as a result of the program. It had. But more than that, it had changed their relationships in general– how they understood themselves connected to the plants, to each other, to nature.
We need this cultural shift. All children need to be able to have their hands in the dirt, to be changed by the soil. All children need to experience the ground beneath their feet as a mutual relationship of love and care. Are you able to teach children to listen to permission from plants? To see if a plant is ready to be harvested? That the earth is not a thing to be used or conquered, but a living relationship. Let’s plant these seeds together, literal and metaphorical.