Kindergarten students admire a sunflower held by an Oxbow Farmer Educator while snacking on carrots during their fall field trip. Photo credit: 2016 Jess Eskelsen
Science Through the Seasons
by Shea Scribner
Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center
igns of the shifting seasonal cycle are all around us. Children are especially keen to notice and appreciate the changing colors of leaves, frantic activities of squirrels, and blossoms slowly turning to fruits on apple trees, but how often do they really get to explore these wonders of nature at the place most specifically designed for learning—their school? With so many subjects to teach and standards to meet, how can teachers follow their students’ passions and incorporate environmental education into their curricula? With an entire class of kids but only one or two teachers to supervise, is venturing outside the classroom a safe and productive use of precious class time?
Beginning in 2016, with funding from an Environmental Protection Agency grant (EPA grant #01J26201), Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center’s team of Farmer Educators and Frank Wagner Elementary School’s Kindergarten teachers dug into these questions to co-develop and teach monthly environmental education lessons in the classroom, around the schoolyard, and on the farm. Through intentional relationship-building meetings and workshops with the teachers, we worked to better understand the specific needs and opportunities we could address through the new partnership between our nonprofit organization and their public school. We found that by following the natural curiosities kids have about the world outside their classroom window, we could address curricular and behavioral challenges and build programs that both captivated the student’s attention and nurtured their enthusiasm for learning. The early learner-focused lesson plans and activities, best practices, and key lessons learned from the project now populate an online compendium on the Oxbow website. We seek to share our story with other formal and informal educators who are working to address similar challenges, and spark ideas for how to incorporate seasonal, developmentally appropriate, place-based environmental education into their practice.
The “Earth Connections: Science Through the Seasons” compendium takes the form of a beautiful tree, a fitting metaphor for a natural system where all parts contribute to the tree’s wholeness and growth to reach its full potential. The roots and trunk serve as the main base of support for plants, representing the foundation and core of our growing partnership with the school—take a peek into the planning process involved in this project, other organizations we partnered with, academic literature which informed our lessons and methods, and best practices for working with students and fellow educators. The branches growing from the sturdy trunk are specific place-based and Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS)-supportive lesson plans, suggested activities, and short videos recorded by the Oxbow educators, linking learning themes throughout the three seasons of the public-school year: fall, winter, and spring. With the overall goals of connecting lessons to the students’ specific environment and building skills of science investigation and inquiry, each experience was additive and built upon to together tackle the NGSS of K-LS1-1: “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals need to survive.”
Much like our tree changed through the seasons, the students involved in the journey with us sprouted, grew, and transitioned throughout the school year. We invite you to channel the mind of a child as we guide you through the journey of a Frank Wagner Kindergartener experiencing outdoor EE with Oxbow and their teachers.
A volunteer farm naturalist asks kindergarten students about the crops they’re finding on the Kids Farm during a fall fieldtrip. Photo Credit: 2017 Jess Eskelsen
Throughout this season, the remaining produce is plucked from Oxbow’s farm fields and pumpkins begin to turn from shiny orange to fuzzy black goo. As vibrant native trees and shrubs drop their leaves, humans and critters alike stash away the remaining treats of the season and work to prepare their homes for the cold, dark winter ahead. So too, young people across the region pack their backpacks full of snacks and supplies, bundle up in rain gear, and transition from summer beaches and sunlit backyards into the warm halls of their school every fall.
For some kindergarteners at Frank Wagner—a Title 1 school where many did not have the opportunity to attend preschool—the first time they transition into the fall season in the classroom can be understandably scary. The students are navigating a whole new environment, different schedule, and unfamiliar social expectations, all without the support of the primary caregivers whom they’ve relied on for so many seasons prior. Teachers are faced with the exceptional task of setting routines, helping every student feel safe, and helping students understand their role in their new classroom community. We found that many of the challenges of the early school year can be addressed through activities and practices that focus on building trust, sharing personal stories, and setting expectations for the new relationships students will build with teachers and one another.
Two students sit together behind large rhubarb leaves, playing a game of hide-and-seek (and finding hidden frogs and insects living in the field) during their spring fieldtrip. Photo Credit: Jess Eskelsen
Oxbow Educators visited the classrooms in the fall and collaborated with the students to construct a “CommuniTree” contract. Together, we used the structures of an apple tree to guide discussion of what sweet “fruits” both students and teachers hope to reap from their experience at school and on the farm, which “beehaviors” will help those fruits mature, and what obstacles to learning might be acting as big “rocks” in the soil, keeping the class’ roots from growing strong. We then began exploring the concept that learning can happen both in the classroom and outdoors through the Inside-Outside sorting activity. Students were given opportunities to express their own understandings of food and nature through prompted drawings, which we used as a baseline for assessing student growth throughout the school year. The Kindergarteners also came out to Oxbow for a Fall Farm Adventure, an introduction to how food grows and the many plants and animals that call a farm home, stoking their curiosity and excitement about the ongoing Farmer visits throughout the year. The fall season also included an introduction to the concept of “habitat,” a recurring and kindergarten-friendly theme that connected student learning about plant and animal needs throughout the rest of the year.
For most of us on the west side of the Cascades, winter is cold, dark, and most of all, WET. Farm fields throughout the Snoqualmie River Valley rest quietly under risk of flood while puddles grow into lakes in school parking lots. Rain has shaped the landscape for thousands of years and water continues to connect rural farmland with urban neighborhoods. Dormant plants focus on underground root growth, and many animals must also conserve energy by hibernating or digging deep into warm piles of decomposing fall leaves to survive frosty temperatures.
An Oxbow Farmer Educator helps students find and sample tomatoes growing in a high tunnel during their fall fieldtrip, catching the tail end of the growing season on the Oxbow Kids’ Farm. Photo credit: 2016 Jess Eskelsen
Building on the relationships forged through the fall, winter was a time to begin channeling student’s excitement toward specific learning targets, helping them dig deeper into their wonderments and explore the systems connecting us to one another, and the greater planet we’re all a part of. With now-established routines and a classroom culture helping kids adhere to behavior expectations, students were ready to build on the basics and learn how to ask specific questions, make and share their observations, and consider new concepts. The weather during the winter months kept most of our lessons in the classroom, but certainly didn’t keep the kids from hands-on learning opportunities and ongoing nature connections!
Since things are a bit too muddy at Oxbow in the winter, we brought the farm into the classroom in the form of real live wiggling worms, giving students a chance to gently interact with the creatures as they sorted through the contents of their habitat during the Soil Sorting Activity. Students also identified what components serve as food and shelter for the decomposers to come up with a definition of what “soil is” and then used their observations to design and build a small composting chamber for the classroom. The teachers took this introductory lesson and built on it throughout the winter to address other parts of their curricula and learning targets: helping their students develop fine motor skills by cutting pictures out of seed catalogues and newspaper ads, then sorting the foods into those which worms can eat and those they cannot, and finally gluing their colorful collages onto posters and practicing writing the names of the foods in both English and Spanish. Further exploring habitats and plant and animal needs, we followed student curiosity into the schoolyard to investigate if the schoolyard is a healthy habitat for squirrels and learned how Squirrels and Trees help meet each other’s needs.
The Snoqualmie River flowing past Oxbow joins with the Skykomish River right near Frank Wagner to form the Snohomish River, a perfect natural connection to frame an investigation! As winter transitioned into (a still wet) spring, a Watersheds lesson helped to reinforce the link between farm and school, giving students a chance to work with maps of the actual landscape to trace the route of a raindrop as it would flow down from mountaintops and through interconnected rivers, and illustrate many human and natural features that use and depend on this water.
A kindergarten student carefully draws in her science notebook, documenting a specific apple tree she observed in the orchard. Photo credit: 2017 Jess Eskelsen
Early-season native pollinators like blue orchard mason bees are a Farmer Educator’s best friend. Not only do these cute little insects help flowers turn to fruits and seeds, but they do so in a kid-friendly manner, hatching from hardy cocoons into adults friendly enough to hold without fear of a sting! With the warmer weather, students were able to spend more time outdoors exploring nature around the schoolyard and came back out to Oxbow to see how the big pumpkins they harvested back in the fall get their start as tiny seeds in the cozy greenhouse. With spring’s official arrival, the time had come for all that fall fertilizing and deep-winter pondering to transition into a growing, independent entity—be it a seedling or an excited student!
Springtime is a season full of vigorous growth and the kindergarteners were practically bursting to share with us all they’d been learning about through the winter. The students were ready to dynamically explore and understand the many connections between their lives, the farmers, and the plants and animals they saw popping up from the warming soils. Lessons in the springtime harnessed this energy by playing active games during multiple field trips to the farm and further investigating the nature around the schoolyard, all with a focus on connecting students more intimately with their sense of place.
Through an early spring field trip focused on Animals in the Water, students participated in a macroinvertebrate study, closely examining the “little bugs” that rely on cool, toxin-free water in the oxbow lake, and played games embodying the flow of nutrients through the freshwater food web these bugs are an integral part of. Their Spring Farm Adventure field trip and Orchard Stations had a focus on lifecycles and natural processes they could observe firsthand: how the buds on the orchard trees would soon (with a little help from the farmers, sunny and wet weather, and pollinators) become summer’s sweet fruits, and how the growing season for most food crops in this region is really just beginning as their school year comes to an end. As an end-line assessment of the student’s change in environmental understanding, we asked the students to again “draw a picture of nature” and were impressed to see the concepts of life cycles, interdependence of organisms, habitat needs, and where food comes from recalled and illustrated so eagerly by the students.
Behind every future environmental steward there is a spark of wonder which must be fanned to a flame, often with the support of dedicated educators and an array of tried and tested strategies. The Foundation of the tree includes a selection of Best Practices, which are continually growing. These ideas and strategies are intended to prepare students for outdoor science learning and provide teachers with the tools and skills to feel confident teaching in the outdoors.
Of course, none of the curricular branches would be strong without the solid structure of the trunk and roots. Building strong relationships with the teachers, school district, and other nonprofit partners throughout the project was integral to understanding the specific needs of the kindergarten classes and how informal educators can best support their in-class learning. We look forward to continuing to work with the students through this spring and beyond as we help build a school garden on their campus, giving students of every grade more opportunities to discover the magic of growing plants, harvesting food, and caring for worms and native wildlife. Our Earth Connections compendium will continue to be populated with additional resources and we hope to hear from educators like you about how you’ve used the materials, your recommendations for improvement, or ideas for expansion!
We are thrilled to share the fruits of this partnership with fellow educators and hope you find inspiration to continue exploring and learning from nature, both inside the classroom and around the schoolyard, maybe even taking a field trip to a local farm or community garden! You can learn more about Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center at www.oxbow.org.
About the author:
Shea Scribner is an Environmental Education Specialist and Summer Camp Director at Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center in Carnation, WA.
Care for Self, Care for Others, Care for the Land:
How Springwater Environmental Sciences School Uses Their Permaculture Garden as a Microcosm for the Environment.
Kaci Rae Christopher
t first, starting a school garden that combined permaculture and science seemed like a puzzle. How could I teach garden science classes while simultaneously producing large amounts of food and building a permaculture model for the garden? How could I produce the short-term yields the school craved (food) and the long-term yields (permaculture)? Furthermore, the science that I grew up learning did not fit in to my idea of permaculture practices. They seemed inherently different. How could a process which looks to dissect and separate each small particle support a process which looks at the holistic and interconnected aspects of life?
In August of 2012, I was placed as the School Garden Coordinator and AmeriCorps volunteer at Springwater Environmental Sciences School, through Confluence Environmental Center in Portland. The school garden was a large, grant-built space left fallow without a community leader to organize the tangle of weeds and ideas. But step by step, the garden has been slowly growing and building momentum ever since. And through an aggressive fundraising process, the school has been able to support the School Garden Coordinator (SGC) position with full-time employment.
Springwater Environmental Sciences School is a public charter school for grades K-8th, within the Oregon City School District. Approximately 200 students have the opportunity to learn stewardship, positive land ethic, community involvement, and all their studies through the lens of science.
As the Garden Coordinator, I was tasked with establishing a permaculture garden on the schoolyard that would enhance student scientific learning. It was to be both a laboratory space for the students and produce food for the school. Additionally, I would be teaching garden classes and developing an integrated garden curriculum that would support and supplement student scientific learning.
It took me a while to connect the dots, but eventually I was led to a simple conclusion. There is a seamless connection with science and permaculture. And school gardens are the best to develop it. If we view the garden as an ecosystem and teach the students about it through sciences, they will begin to view the garden through a permaculture perspective. Food, nutrition, and gardening skills extend naturally, without the need for stressing about production.
Working with Nature
Upon arriving at Springwater, I had no established garden, but needed to teach garden classes. The first thing I did, which made my life easier, was work with what was already there—a technique that is essential to the tenets of permaculture. I went to each teacher and asked them to give me their unit themes for the next two years. Because many of the grades are mixed, most staff teach in a two-year rotation of classes in order to provide a holistic and engaging education for the students. I took these themes and the overarching science standards and began to build a small amount of activities that related to each theme. Over the years, I have been able to grow off of this small beginning and find larger connections between student studies and gardening activities.
Now, when the 5th-6th graders study the climatology unit, they simultaneously explore how we capture water in the garden, how permaculture mulching practices conserve water, and how rain gardens can solve so many local water issues. Additionally, they also learn practical garden skills by researching and planting water or drought resistant plants and making changes to the garden space with water in mind, such as designing or altering the water catchment systems.
I started with a small amount of classes and a couple of activities for each trimester. This has grown to 30 garden classes for each grade every year. But we started small, but dreamt big!
The Permaculture Perspective
The second thing I did was take a step back and look at the long-term goals of the school garden program. I had to keep in mind how to establish the sustainability of the garden, as well as the sustainability of the integrated garden activities in the classes. The activities could be relevant to student studies, but could they teach the students how to grow food or about permaculture and science in a holistic way from Kindergarten to 8th grade?
Fortunately, there had already been work done there too. The staff had come together the year before I arrived and laid out a set of goals and commitments for each class. Every grade was committed to a set of yields that would contribute to the sustainability of the school garden (planting a certain number of seeds, mulching, caring for worm bins, composting). Additionally, each class adopted a theme for the year that would focus their studies, so that as the students moved up in the grades they would get closer to becoming mini “Master Gardeners.”
As the coordinator, these commitments were foundational pieces that helped me focus my work. It also allowed me to feel supported by the school community and not have to work from scratch. I knew going into the year that K-1st wanted to learn about seeds and pollinators and were committed to planting 20 seeds per child. Additionally, they would be studying the senses in the fall, phenology in the winter, and insects in the spring. With this information, all I had to do was connect the dots and get creative with my activities.
In garden class, as a supplement to these science units, all students would use their senses to explore the garden and identify plants, dissect and plant seeds in the winter, and study pollinating insects in the spring. I did this matching and reflecting practice with all the classes, starting small with class projects and working towards bigger projects every year.
The Garden Ecosystem
The last thing I practiced was letting go of any notion of what a garden should look like and evaluating the intentions of garden spaces. Did all the plants have to be perfectly spaced out? Why did we need to pick all the weeds in a garden bed? What would happen if we planted certain plants next to each other? Instead, we focused on the garden as an ecosystem. Whether filled with native or non-native species, humans play a role in them and interact with a whole system of insects, plants, and microbes. A garden is the perfect ecosystem model for place-based learning.
But it requires practice in letting go. If you have a bed of carrots in your school garden, harvest them! Enjoy and celebrate. But leave a few carrots in the ground. Watch how the plants produce seeds. What insects flock to the flowers? What feeds on those insects? What does the carrot lifecycle look like? Reevaluate your intentions, let go of your expectations, and nature will show you the garden ecosystem. When we let the weeds go one winter, we discovered that sheep’s sorrel grows abundantly in the garden, and that the students love it! If we are going to have weeds anyway, why not have tasty ones?
Or just look at the slugs. All insects are protected in the Springwater Garden and slugs are a respected part of our garden ecosystem. They allow the students to wrestle with preconceived notions of “good” and “bad” in the environment. When a student expresses disgust or stress that a slug is eating their lettuce, we have a conversation about the role of slugs in the garden, rather than remove it right away from the leaf. We watch the way the slug eats and how it needs moisture to move. We brainstorm what types of predators would eat a slug and how we could build a habitat for such a creature. We watch the slugs a little more and then leave it to its snack.
Through their garden science classes, the students were able to come to similar conclusions. They would look at all the details in the garden and piece together the ecosystem themselves, coming to care about it as a whole. For example, the 2nd/3rd graders learn about the living and non-living elements of soil through intensive scientific exploration for two trimesters. They perform insect surveys, keep track of the bug life stages they encounter, and brainstorm ways to increase habitat for different species. Through hands-on scientific exploration, the students discover that all the parts of the soil ecosystem are valuable to its stability and they learn stewardship skills and practices that can promote healthier ecosystems.
By the end of the school year, their knowledge and interaction with these important elements and living things brings about a level of stewardship and care that they wouldn’t have known otherwise. Through science and active exploration, the students come to their own permaculture conclusions without my direct instruction. The students value the garden ecosystem and become environmentalists in their own way.
With guidance from all of these lessons, our Garden Program has found a balance in maintaining all the goals we had with the space. The students learn about the garden and permaculture practices through a scientific lens. Their learning, creative problem solving, and discovery brings out the inner environmentalist. All I do is facilitate the opportunity to learn these traits in the garden. Food is grown and produced by the students as an extension of their studies. We don’t stress how many pounds of kale we’re producing or if they’re properly spaced apart, but we still manage to feed the students organic food all year long.
A Thriving Garden
The first year ended with half of the garden planted with edibles. The students had been able to eat an early harvest of lettuce, radishes, beets, and berries, but the rest of the plants were still too small. Half of the school had been involved in the garden development so far and my co-teacher and I had a year’s supply of garden activities for K-4th grade students. Half of our goals were accomplished, but I was pleased with every inch that we had achieved.
That second school year, I began teaching an extra gardening class for those students who considered themselves enthusiasts and who wanted to become “Garden Leaders.” They were able to save-seeds, plant winter foods, and begin developing the last stage of the garden. Additionally, I began teaching gardening class from K-8th grade students, inspiring me to energetic and sometimes frenetic curriculum development and research in order to teach these new classes.
In that second year, we finished laying down the foundational garden space, developed more garden beds, and put in an orchard area. In the third year, the garden classes matured into what they are now: weekly focused garden science and exploration for each class, as well as taste-testing and nutrition education throughout the week.
Classes use the garden in their weekly homeroom field exploration to study genetics, plant biology, water movement and cycles, mammals, and phenology. The garden has truly become a living classroom and special retreat at Springwater. The students discover a new land ethic in their garden classes and practice creative problem-solving and responsibility for their actions.
Care for Self, Care for Others, Care for The Land
The tenets of permaculture as established by David Holgrem and Toby Hemenway fit well into the three character traits encouraged at Springwater: care for self, care for others, care for community and land.
These three phrases are now the inspiration and motto for the unique culture at Springwater. Permaculture tenets provide a great framework for building scientific learning in the garden program. For example, the tenets “Diversity is Stability,” the “Edge Effect,” and “Working with Nature,” focus the students on ways to treat the garden, its living inhabitants, and plants themselves.
When the 2nd-3rd graders study soil ecosystems, they learn that soil and garden health and stability is directly impacted by the diversity of creatures living there. When 4th-6th graders explore the complexities of composting systems, they know that “Energy Cycling” can solve problems at school and in the larger community. By using permaculture as the lens to explore scientific lessons in the garden, Springwater students are encouraged to be innovative social and environmental minded citizens.
These three tenets help students, and staff, focus on how students treat each other, how they make good choices during the day, and how they play and study on the school grounds. The expectations are flexible to the children’s development and change meaning throughout their studies in the year. They are also helpful tools to focus the students and give further empathetic meaning to the day’s lessons.
The Springwater Garden has flourished with the guidance and gaze of environmental education practices. The space has known no other gardening plan. It was always a dream of the school to have a garden on campus as the heart of the school community and an extension of the school’s place-based initiative.
At Springwater, we have been able to intentionally focus the garden education program from the perspective of environmental education, because of the simple fact that permaculture and science goes hand-in-hand. They are inseparable to the educational experience of our students. Here, nutrition, taste-testing, and practical garden knowledge are included in scientific exploration and study. Here, the garden is a special, wild, place on campus that supports a culture of thoughtful, self-aware, and concerned young citizens.
Can School Gardening Help Save Civilization?
(An Essay in Four Parts)
by Carter D. Latendresse
The Catlin Gabel School
This paper is an argument for gardening in schools, focusing on two months of integrated English-history sixth grade curriculum that explores the relationships between a number of current environmental problems—notably hunger, water scarcity, topsoil loss, and global warming—and the land-use practices that led to the downfall of ancient Mesopotamia. This paper suggests that world leaders today are repeating some of the same mistakes that caused desertification to topple the Sumerian empire. It then explains how our sixth grade class explores solutions to the existing emergencies by studying Mesopotamia, ancient myth, gardening, and contemporary dystopian fiction. Finally, this paper posits a new cosmology that might help to remake western civilization, saving it from the threat of present-day ecological crises.
See previous posts:
Part I: Four Enduring Understandings
Part II: Nine Reasons for a Garden
Part III: Mesopotamia and the Garden
Part IV: The Future in the Garden
This last essay section, focusing on cosmology, or how we view ourselves in the cosmos, is necessarily more speculative than the preceding three sections, which focused on science and history. I am leaning here now toward pedagogy, poetry, art, gardening, and religion, as this time in history, with its interwoven issues of hunger, global warming, desertification, and biodiversity loss, all cry out for new, less destructive operating instructions for our time on planet Earth. In order to save our species on this planet this century, our cosmology needs to shift in four crucial ways.
The first paradigm shift has to do with how we view human history. We need to begin to view human history as a history of land and water use. The story of any empire and civilization is the story of how it treats its dirt, water, and air. When empires collapse, as Jared Diamond shows in his book by the same name, and as Ponting illustrates in Green History of the World, it is because the people cut down their trees, overgraze their livestock, overplant monocrops, intensify irrigation, overfish their waters, allow erosion to strip the topsoil, and invite salinization. “There have been from ten to thirty civilizations,” E.F. Schumacher (1973) writes, “that have followed this road to ruin” (p. 109). Diamond might put this number higher, but the fact remains that modern environmental historians—historians that read history as the story of human interaction with the land, water, and air—all find that Mesopotamia is the first and most obvious case study for road to ruin, which is another reason why we teach it. Switching our study of history to a greener lens will foreground the environment that supports or slays us.
The second cosmological shift that needs to occur is to move from a human vs. nature cosmology to human as nature cosmology. The way we explain it to our students is that we need to move from the ancient mythologies of Mesopotamia to something akin to the futuristic story of the blue people presented in James Cameron’s movie Avatar (2009). The stories we tell our young are the lenses with which they see, which therefore determine their focus and what they can see. Think of Finding Nemo (2003), Happy Feet (2006), Wall-E (2008), Ferngully (1992), Free Willy (1993), Princess Mononoke (1997), and The Lorax (2012). These movies and more like them are attempting to reset for children the notion that we are not just in nature, but that without nature we will perish, since nature is in us.
On the other hand, J. Donald Hughes and others have commented that the Old Babylonian epic of creation, Enuma Elish (Dalley, 1998), the oral creation story told contemporaneously with Gilgamesh, provides backstory for Gilgamesh and the later narratives of Genesis and Deucalion. These early Mesopotamian tales establish the people vs. nature conflict. J. Donald Hughes writes that “the motif of human struggle against hostile nature is prominent in the mythologies of Mesopotamia, where the first cities arose. . . . In Enuma Elish the world is shown to be the result of a battle between Tiamat, the female monster of chaotic nature, and Marduk, the male champion of the new order of the gods” (2001, p. 34). Marduk slays Tiamat, and, with violent imagery, is said to split her body in two, to create the sky above and the sea on earth below. He then banishes the wild creatures, identifying them as food and enemies of humans. Next he builds Esharra, a city of straight roads and glittering palaces, in the sky, home of the gods. The stories that the Mesopotamians told themselves are instructive for us today, as we have inherited the narrative legacy, perhaps most notably from Genesis and the later Greek myths, all of which borrowed from the earlier stories of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish; more importantly, however, we have inherited a false and harmful cosmology that boasts of one patriarchal male hero after another triumphing over nature, which is an enemy, and, not coincidentally, symbolically figured as female.
We need to move away from a relationship with Earth that advocates patriarchal control of nature—which is seen, dichotomously, on the one hand, as either chaotic and savage, or, on the other, as mechanistic and impersonal—for extraction of resources benefitting humans alone. Regardless of emphasis, both present a false human vs. nature model.
The false paradigm of savage nature to be dominated, Elaine Pagels argues in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988), is enshrined for many by the millennia of aforementioned stories in the Middle East, culminating, perhaps, with Genesis 1: 28-29, where God tells Adam: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. . . . I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth; and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (Holy Bible, p. 1). This hierarchical paradigm of humans reigning over and above mysterious, tumultuous nature held sway until the Copernican revolution dislodged it in the 1500s and early 1600s, when Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo proved that the earth moved around the sun and not vice versa. The heliocentric solar system decentered earth from primacy in the cosmos and therefore also called into question the notion from Genesis that humanity was ever given this planet by a god 3000 years earlier, when Genesis was written. If the earth wasn’t fixed in the center of the cosmos and the heavens set for eternity, as centuries of priests and other teachers had taught, then a new narrative was needed, which modern science provided.
I here point out to my students that although the European conception of nature may have shifted historically after the Copernican revolution from nature-as-enigmatic-beast-that-needs-shepherding-by-humans to nature-as-clock, the conception of humans as standing apart from and above nature persisted across that divide nonetheless. Still, it is also important to note, I also tell my students, that the Copernican revolution by in large ushered out the kinship that humans had also experienced for centuries between themselves and the rest of creation. Whereas prior to the 1600s people could align themselves imaginatively with other flora and fauna under the banner of creatures created by a divine Creator, after the 1600s, that trope was seriously called into question by irrefutable scientific discoveries such as the heliocentric heavens that flatly contradicted over a thousand years of inherited cosmology. The church’s authority as intellectually authoritative was challenged, especially after Pope Paul V ordered Galileo in 1616 not to support the most compelling scientific discovery of his day, the heliocentric truth. If the pope as leader of the church could not accept math and science, many felt for the first time, then perhaps it was best to leave his teachings behind.
The truth won out, of course, despite the papal muzzle. That victory was also seen by many as Pyrrhic, though, for the cosmos became, in effect, desecrated, mathematical, and mechanistic, held together mysteriously by forces such as Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Newton’s laws of motion, none of which were mentioned in scripture. The common cosmology, Merchant (1989) notes, “thus reordered the world in terms of a new metaphor, the machine. The cosmos was operated from the outside by God” (209). Science and industry joined ranks during the 1700s in an effort to not only understand the predictable regularity of this earthly machine but to create its own machines to mine from the earth the metals, minerals, textiles, timber, and food that humans needed. The divine receded back behind the clouds, and the scientists, merchants, and inventors became the new interpreters of material reality.
Still, it wasn’t as though science had all the answers, either. Poverty and disease predominated during the build up to the Renaissance. People couldn’t eat mathematical theorems or astronomical theories, and they labored through their relatively short lives with their families, finding, as people do, what happiness, hope, and sense of belonging they could. A vacuum, in any case, had been created during the critical centuries of the 1500s and 1600s, and into it rushed our modern worldview, which unfortunately perpetuated the human vs. nature false contrast.
Theodore Roszak (1969, p. 205-238), Richard Tarnas (1991, p. 395-310; 2006, p. 26-36), and Morris Berman (1984, p. 13-35) all chronicle the development of the second false human vs. nature narrative provided by science—viewing nature and the cosmos as mechanistic and impersonal—by tracing what Roszak calls the myth of objective consciousness, what Tarnas names the modern mind, and what Berman terms modern scientific consciousness. All three are writing about our current cosmology, which has been empirical and scientific for four hundred years, since Bacon and Descartes wrote in the 1600s.
Tarnas borrows Max Weber’s phrase to say that the modern mind sees the cosmos as “disenchanted” (2006, p. 20), or empty of cosmic meaning, because humans assume that there exists a foundational divide between an internal subjective self and an external objective world. Nature, whether one conceives of it as threatening or mechanical, is simply “out there,” the place we go camping, and it is propelled by either chance or savage necessity. Things happen in nature for outrageous reasons, for no reasons at all, or because they had to happen that way. Nature lacks intelligence and interiority in this paradigm; it is also blind and deaf to human perception, desire, and hope because it is unfeeling, unresponsive. It cannot be said to harbor meaning at all, actually; meaning is something human beings attach to nature—indeed, to all of life. This disenchantment leads to an inevitable conclusion for humans that we are alone in an impersonal, purposeless cosmos scrubbed free of the sacred. “The soul of the world has been extinguished,” Tarnas writes. “Ancient trees and forests can then be seen as nothing but potential lumber; mountains nothing but mineral deposits; seashores and deserts are oil reserves; lakes and rivers, engineering tools. Animals are perceived as harvestable commodities, indigenous tribes as obstructing relics” (2006, p. 32).
Roszak (1969) contends that even though we should, “we don’t trust to the way of the world. We have learned. . . from the objective mode of consciousness . . . to think of the earth as a pit of snares and sorrows. Nature is that which must be taken unsentimentally in hand and made livable by feverish effort, ideally by replacing more and more of it with man-made substitutes” (249-250). People in modern times have become progressively more detached from the sources of their food, clothes, water, and shelter. We have also, as a byproduct of urban modernity and settling in cities, lost the sense of magic and wonder that came effortlessly to indigenous peoples living in close proximity to the land. Modern urbanites no longer bless the source of our survival; we teach our children, in fact, to avoid pastures, rivers, and forests and to think of them as dirty and uncultured, and, in an odd sort of illogic, as both unsafe and boring.
Berman also argues that the ecological problems that human have induced in the last 400 years have their roots in the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the view of nature that had been commonplace for 99% of human history slowly shifted, over the course of one hundred years, to one that removed humans from nature and turned nature, conceptually, into either a wrist watch or a set of resources to extract. “The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging.” The story of modern humanity for the last several hundred years is “one of progressive disenchantment. From the sixteenth century on, mind has been progressively expunged from the phenomenal world. . . . That mode can best be described as disenchanted, nonparticipation, for it insists on a rigid distinction between observer and observed. Scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness: there is no ecstatic merger with nature, but rather total separation from it” (1984, p. 2-3). Once people were removed from their ancestral homes, they felt no compunction to protect those homes, and the drilling, mining, and deforestation began on an industrial, international scale.
Writing not about philosophers or scientists, but about children today, Richard Louv (2008) likewise argues that children are alienated from the centers of their own being, in a syndrome he names “nature deficit disorder” (p. 10). Children fifty years ago used to spend much more time outside playing, hiking, riding bikes, climbing tress, playing ball games, skating, swimming, chasing each other. They felt more at home in nature—not as comfortable as children prior to the Scientific Revolution, perhaps, but more comfortable than children today. Because children spend more of their time today sedentary, inside, staring at electronically humming screens, Louv shows that attention disorders, anxiety, obesity, and depression have all risen to all-time highs.
The way out of this soulless, deadened boredom is to not only go outside into nature but to realize that we are nature, inextricably entwined with the whole. Roszak points out that “scientific consciousness depreciates our capacity for wonder by progressively estranging us from the magic of the environment” (1969, p. 252). To take back our inborn wonder, he suggests looking to poets and other visionaries such as Blake, Tolstoy, or Dante (p. 237) who utilize what he calls “magical vision” to see “the beauty of the deeply sensed, sacramental presence” in nature (252-253). The presence that is seen by the adoring eyes of the visionary awes the visionary, as she sees power and grace not only above, below, and around humanity, but permeating the insides of people as well.
This cosmological shift allows one to see that we are manifestations of the natural through which nature expresses itself. We are embodied creatures with the capacities to taste and delight in plucking the summer’s first ripe raspberries, listen in wonder to Bach’s Mass in B Minor (1985), or witness with growing anticipation and then awed gratitude the birth of a child. Nature has given us the senses to invite and embrace the sensual world. There can be no shame in being animal or embodied in this new worldview. Vandana Shiva (2008), in her inimitable way, reminds us that, in any case, there is no post-food society (p. 38); in other words, we cannot, nor can any other animal, transcend our animal-body’s requirements for food, water, and breath, much as we might want to do so. When we look at what we must have in order to survive, we realize we are nature. That we have taught children otherwise since Shakespeare’s time is a great injustice.
I present this new world view, of humans as nature, to my students in many texts, including the poetry of Mary Oliver (2004; 2005), Walt Whitman (2011), and William Wordsworth (1982), who, in his “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” presented a vision of this re-enchanted world:
“. . . For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity
. . . And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man” (p. 92).
Humans are nature and nature is human for Wordsworth, and we too need to accept this second cosmological shift in order to cease the plundering of the planet.
This human-as-nature pronouncement is not some naïve noble savage daydream, but science, actually. Our sixth graders study for a time the eukaryotes, or cells with nuclei, and their myriad organelles—mitochondria, Golgi apparatus, and the like. They note that these eukaryotes have assembled themselves over billions of years into an unfathomable array of life expressions on this planet—foxglove, foxes, pollywogs, and humans—all seemingly distinct, yet all, science shows us, incredibly similar at a cellular level. We’ve heard Jane Goodall (2010 a; 2010 b) telling us about the similarity between primates and humans for decades, but most of us simply enjoy the new Disney movie Chimpanzee (Fothergill, 2012) without cosmological shift. Until we recognize the other flora and fauna of the world as siblings, the possibility of planetary ransacking will continue. The science of the 21st century will help us, though, for “to distinguish between human cells and those of newts, seals, or coyotes, one has to descend to the molecular level of the cell to find the odd dissimilarity” (Hawken, 2007, p. 171). This essential, foundational fact alters the hierarchical relationship established by the Enuma Elish and Genesis (exemplars of humans vs. nature paradigm #1), or by Francis Bacon’s Essays (1986) and William Harvey’s On Motion and Blood in Animals (1993) (exemplars of humans vs. nature paradigm #2). Humans are not separate from some external nature out there; rather, “we are nature, a realization that stopped Emerson dead in his tracks in Paris, and may it stop us in ours. We live in community, not alone, and any sense of separateness that we harbor is illusion. Humans are animals, albeit extraordinary ones, and have not special immunity conferred upon them” (Hawken, 2007, p. 171), ancient religious narratives notwithstanding.
The third cosmological shift is a move to rescue from the past our rootedness to Earth, the health of our own bodies, and our interconnection to one another. Berman says, in a memorable turn of phrase, that we have to “go backward in order to go forward . . . to recover our future” (p. 282). The shift, Tarnas says, is through an embrace of what he calls the “primal world view” (2006, p. 16-17), which has survived from Gobekli Tepe to present day in indigenous cultures, intelligent biodiverse farming communities, animism, paganism, art, pantheism, poetry, and mystical branches of the major faith traditions. The primal mind sees nature as being infused with the divine, as the sacred immanent in this creation rather than distantly hovering above it. The words of poets, saints, and visionaries are presented frequently toward the end of this unit in order to orient the students to this third cosmological shift; the work of the Romantic poets, the Transcendentalists, Rumi (Barks, 1997), and, perhaps the paradigmatic primal poet, Mary Oliver, all are featured. We focus, in particular, on three of Oliver’s poems, giving them all close readings: “Peonies” (2004, p. 21-22), “Mindful” (2005, p. 90-91), and “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” (2005, p. 104-105). All three poems urge the readers to search for eternity in this hour right now and to look for the infinite in the grains of sand before us.
In this way, we try to rediscover that spirits and messages are seen all throughout creation, in the flow of the holy Ganges river, to the sacred Mt. Saint Helens’ volcanic eruption, in the epic travels of humpback whales and great soaring speeds of the peregrine falcon, to the desperate attacks of polar bears whose homes and food are being lost to polar ice cap melt. “The primal world is ensouled,” Tarnas explains (2006, p. 16). Not only does the world, as viewed with the primal mindset, send us messages (think New Orleans flooding), it also permeates our unconscious world as expressed in our dreams, poetry, painting, music, and prayers.
We experience this Great Spirit flowing through all things on a daily basis, I tell my students; we just have to be quiet and listen to the whisper within. There is a river of words, I tell them as we sit down to write poetry, flowing always through our minds, originating at the start of the creation of the universe, fed by tributaries of ancestral memories from cultures around the world. I share with my students the William Carlos Williams (1963) lines from Paterson:
“The past above, the future below
and the present pouring down: the roar,
the roar of the present, a speech—
is, of necessity, my sole concern.
. . . I cannot stay here
to spend my life looking into the past:
the future’s no answer. I must
find my meaning and lay it, white,
beside the sliding water: myself
comb out the language—or succumb” (p. 144-145).
Our job as poets and unique expressions of the cosmos, as Williams says, is to decipher and articulate how the universe wants to express Itself through us. This is obviously tricky terrain to navigate with eleven and twelve year-olds, as it plunges pretty quickly into the tangled thickets of mystical religious concepts, Jungian depth psychology, neo-Kantian philosophy, Romantic poetry, guided visualization exercises, and meditation activities—not your easily articulated average daily sixth grade curriculum. It simply feels a little too groovy for about half of them. We therefore try to ground the concepts of interconnection and primal mind in the garden and in images of nature.
To warm them up, my history teacher partner shows them the stunningly beautiful online TED talk on Gratitude by time-lapse photographer Louis Schwartzberg (2011). His beautiful images of flowers, butterflies, old growth forests and the rest are accompanied by voice-over sage insights that illuminate our connection to the world and to each other. It is clear to Schwarzberg that we all—young and old humans, butterflies, sunsets, flowers—live, move, and have our being in the same anima mundi. The soul of the world, he shows, is in us, around us, and binding us together.
One of my jobs as a teacher is to enliven that connection with nature within and without the child so that we ache to preserve it and therefore our chance at survival. I try to show that balanced relationships pervade, indeed define, naturally occurring ecosystems and gardens that are intelligently designed with permaculture principles. We try to dispel centuries of fear of dirt and insect. No topsoil, no life, we tell students, and No honeybees, very boring food. We teach that “not only are bugs, birds, mammals, and microbes essential partners in every kind of garden, but with clever design, they can work with us to minimize our labor and maximize the beauty, health, and productivity of our landscapes” (Hemenway, 2009, p. 9). We teach them about life cycles, collecting seeds, planting and transplanting from the greenhouse, companion planting, pollination, mulching, rain gardens, bioswales, native plant diversity, harvesting, cooking, eating, flower bouquet arrangement, good table manners, composting back into the garden, and the symbiotic relationships that pervade the cosmos. I am trying to reveal that “primal experience takes place, as it were, within a world soul, an anima mundi, a living matrix of embodied meaning” (Tarnas, 2006, p. 17). Reconnecting to the first civilization in ancient Iraq, with their reading, writing, gardening, food preparation, and eating, our students embody the oldest desires of civilized humans striving for community. The world soul speaks to us out of the past, from the primal, as we harvest, thresh, winnow, and grind wheat in our garden, then enjoy the baked pita from our cob oven during our Mesopotamian Feast Day. On days like this outside, “human beings perceive themselves as directly—emotionally, mystically, consequentially—participating in and communicating with the life of the natural world and cosmos” (Tarnas, 2006, p. 17).
Roszak, Tarnas, and Berman are all careful, though, to point out that we cannot, given our postmodern urbanity and the advanced ecological destruction of our planet, totally embrace the primal of the distant past. It is too late for that. “Here, then, is the crux of the modern dilemma,” Berman writes. “We cannot go back to alchemy or animism. . . ; but the alternative is the grim, scientistic (sic), totally controlled world of nuclear reactors, microprocessors, and genetic engineering. . . . Some type of holistic, or participating, consciousness and a corresponding sociopolitical formation have to emerge if we are to survive as a species” (p. 10). Roszak agrees that native, indigenous cultures may serve as models for us moderns, but we cannot copy them and hope to arrive at functional, sustainable worldviews dredged from museums or holy books. Instead, we need to cultivate—with one eye on social justice and one eye on environmental conservation—a new capacity to communion with the sacramental presence of the cosmos, which is just as present today as It was on any day of existence (264-268).
As a sixth grade teacher, I believe that the way forward that allows space for participating consciousness to co-evolve with new sociopolitical formations is already occurring, as Hawken points out in Blessed Unrest—and indeed, this dynamism has been a subtext to humanity’s evolution all along; we have never been without it, actually. Still, to expand that dynamism to a worldwide stage requires the fourth and final cosmological shift.
The last cosmological shift is a move to embrace all peoples, the world over, as part of the same human family in what Jeremy Rifkin calls a global “empathic civilization” or what Berman calls a “planetary culture” (p. 277). At first blush, after accepting our kinship with whales and fungi in the second and third cosmological shifts, this would seem an easier row to hoe. Still, I ask my students, do we really have that much in common with Neolithic people or people on the other side of the planet today?
Answering this question in the affirmative, I first show my students that our brains are connected to the brains of every other person on the planet. We are softwired for empathy, to feel instinctually what others feel. I show my students a NOVA (2005) video on mirror neurons, extrapolating that our inbred ability to involuntarily, unconsciously know and respond to the feelings of others is nature connecting to Itself through us. When I see joy or misery on the face of another, I instinctually feel the same way myself. Nature has programmed us this way so that our species might survive communally. Testing this notion, I then ask my students, Isn’t evolution about competition rather than cooperation?
I then share some of Martin Nowak’s (2012) research, which shows that “cooperation has been a driving force in the evolution of life on earth from the beginning” (p. 38). Nowak, as director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard, utilizes mathematics and game theory to better understand the unconscious driving forces of evolutionary biology. He has found that the traditional pseudo-Darwinian understanding of human evolution—that nature is in constant bloody struggle with only the strongest surviving and propagating—is simply incorrect. Instead, he identifies and details five mechanisms that allow cooperative communities to flourish and survive over time. Perhaps the most surprising of his discoveries is that humans decide to help strangers based upon that stranger’s reputation as someone who has helped another person. We scratch the backs of those who have scratched those of others. Driving this unconscious human impulse, Nowak speculates, is the feeling that if we help a stranger in a time of need, others will see and will help us when we fall into need ourselves. Certainly we see this type of group bonding in other groups of mammals, but what makes humans the most helpful species to each other is our language, which allows us to extend our stories of empathy and compassion and thus our social networks around the world. We do, in fact, relate to Neolithic people and to our contemporaries in Bhutan, for example. This ability to see ourselves in others and reach out to help them is not only vital to the survival of individual cultures, civilizations, and empires; our storytelling and providing goodwill to strangers is also “central to our adaptability as a species. As the human population and the climate changes, we will need to harness that adaptability and figure out ways to work together to save the planet and its inhabitants” (38-39).
This fourth shift is not simply mental, therefore, but one enacted with a change in daily material living conditions. We speculate with our students that in order to survive the interwoven ecological challenges of this century, human beings may have to create a matrix of semi-autonomous nearly self-sufficient communities of around 500 people each that are socially, economically, and environmentally just—that, indeed, as Hawken reminds us, these three nodes of justice all fail if one fails. What will these communities look like?
Berman’s future “planetary culture” would have extended family living together, the young, middle aged, and elderly in the same houses, on the same land, emphasizing community rather than individuality and competition (p. 277). An irony here, of course, is that, recognizing the empty promises of globalization to achieve global justice, Berman advocates the local and autonomous as a global solution, echoing the bumper sticker Live Simply So That Other May Simply Live. Jan Martin Bang (2005) has written and taken photographs of twenty such “ecovillages” in his book by the same title. Such deliberately small-scale living arrangements, Bang reveals, have always existed, since Mesopotamia, and they are making a comeback, given how fossil fuel dependent globalization has imperiled life on Earth. A growing number of people are hungry to live self-sufficient lives in groups on organically farmed land, where the community shares chores, property, birth, death, childcare, birthdays, and bounty.
Thom Hartmann (2004) calls these communities “intentional communities,” and he argues that the most successful communities are the ones “with a shared vision that is put into action” (p. 316). He is not talking about the failed religious experiments of millennialism, the back-to-the-land communes of most people in the 1960s, or the armed, politically extreme militias movements. Hartmann clarifies that the “primary key to successful, long-term community is that the group of people are interdependent for their survival or livelihood” (319). The communities with the most successfully employed fourth cosmological shift are the ones that meet “vital social and spiritual needs as well as providing for the life-support needs (food, shelter, and sometimes employment) of their members” (320). Sometimes the community works together, sometimes lives together, and sometimes lives and works apart; however, in all cases, the community works to provide goods, services, emotional support, and friendship to each other.
On a larger, societal level, Berman would have an embrace of diversity, whether this applies to biodiversity and protection of endangered species, or to marginalized cultures and dying human languages. The larger societal cosmology would “be preoccupied with fitting into nature rather than attempting to master it” (Berman, 1984, p. 278). The goals would include clean air, water, and soil. Politically, we would decentralize and move to smaller institutions of regional, autonomous, and local control. Community hospitals, food cooperatives, neighborhood associations, community centers, strong neighborhood schools, and community gardens and farms would proliferate. The paradigm shift in cosmology would be marked by intense study of and adherence to the manifold principles advocated by feminism, ecology, cultural diversity, and spiritual renewal.
Rifkin’s model for a future global civilization starts somewhere in Berman’s neighborhood, then quickly expands to promote the adoption of what he calls “biosphere consciousness” (p. 475) via Internet connections. People used to empathize with their family members and nomadic tribes before the founding of Mesopotamia. With the founding of cities, however, in Sumeria, and the specialization of labor, followed by the influx of new ideas brought in by trade, people’s empathy expanded to include others in their own cities, as they began to think of themselves of citizens of Uruk, for example. The pains and pleasures of their fellow citizens became the province of each individual in the first cities, as she could easily imagine herself in the place of another in like social caste. Later, after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440, which catapulted European literacy and allowed people to take in the news from other worlds that started being spread by the great seafaring colonizing countries of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and England, people’s empathy were enlarged once again to include the stories of peoples in foreign lands. Later, during the Industrial Revolution and the advent of nation-states following the convulsions of revolutions against monarchies, Europeans began thinking of themselves as Spaniards, Poles, and the like.
Today, Rifkin says, we stand at the gate of global consciousness, made possible by social networking technologies such as Twitter, You Tube, Facebook, and Wikipedia. Videos such as Kony 2012 (Vandivort, 2012), for example, can go viral, and, as in the case of that particular film made in March of 2012, over 100 million people can be drawn to a social justice cause in less than a month. Rifkin embraces the promise of these electronic technologies as a means to help us learn about our fellow humans on earth and thereby deepen our empathy and connection to people whom at first glance might appear unlike ourselves. Nowak’s research, remember, supports Rifkin’s contentions, as human communities evolve biologically most successfully when they have information about other communities, their group’s reputation is shared in a social network, and they are able to assist other communities in need in a public, open forum with other communities observing (38-39).
We are coming full circle here, back to our first enduring understanding which stated that people at bottom have always had, in all times and places, similar desires: the desire for food, water, and safe lodging for their children. Rifkin adds to this the fact that our technological connectivity today enables a new, global ecological conviction, biosphere consciousness. This new cosmological paradigm, which is “the only context encompassing enough to unite the human race” (p. 593) gathers together people of all nations, ironically, under the banner of fighting for survival due to the complex threats posed by global warming, hunger, water scarcity, and the other predicaments detailed in sections one and two of this essay.
Rifkin wonders, though, along with the sixth grade teachers at Catlin Gabel—given the fact that climate change seems to be progressing just as quickly as technological innovations that allow the worldwide spread of this biosphere consciousness—if the technology will raise consciousness quickly enough to avoid the most heinous of global warming’s possible impacts.
Initial returns bring Rifkin qualified hope. He traces the explosion of biosphere consciousness to 1979, the year James Lovelock’s book Gaia was published. Earth, Lovelock proposed, was a self-regulating, evolving living organism that enables countless symbiotic relationships between species and geochemical processes to proceed within networks of interconnected ecosystems. When the organism’s biochemical balance and ecosystem stability is threatened by an activity, such as uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels by humans, the very lives of the species within the interconnected ecosystems within the larger organism are threatened. This new view of our planet provided one of the most significant cosmological shifts since the Scientific Revolution. Readers were brought to understand that nature did not reside in objects, but in relationships, that concerned scientists should not remain distantly objective, but should involve themselves to participate within nature toward its conservation. Lovelock’s vision of science, says Rifkin, “takes us from a colonial vision of nature as an enemy to pillage and enslave, to a new vision of nature as a community to nurture” (p. 600).
Rifkin identifies not only the Internet as an agent of positive change to spread the word about the community of nature; he also points to the American classroom as a place where the most synergistic alliances are being forged between biosphere awareness and empathic development. “Children are becoming aware that everything they do—the very way they live—affects the lives of every other human being, our fellow creatures, and the biosphere we cohabit” (Rifkin, 2009, p. 601). In the 6th grade, to this end, we ask the students to do energy, food, and water audits of their lives for one week, then we discuss solutions for not only reducing waste and carbon footprints, but we also explore solutions, as a group, for making sure other people on the planet and our fellow creatures get the food and water and habitat security that they need as well. We also take weeks reading nonfiction excerpts related to gardening and walking through the nine reasons why we garden using the problem-solution pattern explained in section two of this essay. Students finish the unit feeling that their daily choices, especially around food and water, really do change the world, both within their own bodies and in their communities.
The final cosmological shift wends its way here, then, to this final convergence: my sixth grade colleagues and I teach garden in school so that our students can create a new narrative to pass along to their great grandchildren about a day long in the past when school became a place for the following: to identify empathically with all living people, in order to ensure that the basic needs of all, regardless of age, sex, ethnic background, or geographical location, are being met; to affirm the deep interdependence between the land, water, climate, and living creatures of this world in order to halt further ecological devastation; to create carbon-neutral communities that are environmentally, socially, and economically just around the world; and, finally, to work collaboratively in a biodynamic, organic, zero-waste garden without topsoil or water loss to produce healthy, abundant food so that we might save ourselves and this world that we so love.
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Figure 3: Students and teachers search for critters (aka, decomposers) in the raised garden beds at their school. Photo courtesy of Sybil Kelley.
Can School Gardening Help Save Civilization?
(An Essay in Four Parts)
by Carter D. Latendresse
The Catlin Gabel School
This paper is an argument for gardening in schools, focusing on two months of integrated English-history sixth grade curriculum that explores the relationships between a number of current environmental problems—notably hunger, water scarcity, topsoil loss, and global warming—and the land-use practices that led to the downfall of ancient Mesopotamia. This paper suggests that world leaders today are repeating some of the same mistakes that caused desertification to topple the Sumerian empire. It then explains how our sixth grade class explores solutions to the existing emergencies by studying Mesopotamia, ancient myth, gardening, and contemporary dystopian fiction. Finally, this paper posits a new cosmology that might help to remake western civilization, saving it from the threat of present-day ecological crises.
See previous posts:
Part I: Four Enduring Understandings
Part II: Nine Reasons for a Garden
Part III: Mesopotamia and the Garden
Very early in our unit on ancient Mesopotamia, we show the students a twenty-minute video segment featuring writer and host Michael Wood (1991), who points out that the world’s first cities were developed in Iraq, in old Sumer, in the south of Mesopotamia, which means, in Greek, “the land between the two rivers,” the Tigris and Euphrates. The first law, science, astronomy, schools, literature, map of the world, writing, calendar, wheel, wheel-turned pottery, and war were in Iraq. “The history of Iraq,” Wood says, “is rich in splendors and sorrows, the most gifted of civilizations, and yet the most tragic, the first attempt by humankind to bring people together in organized societies with a measure of happiness.” We want to affirm our first enduring understanding—that people seek meaning in closeness, in relationship—before we turn to the catastrophes that we humans visit upon our planet and ourselves. We therefore point out that the Bible names Iraq as the cradle of the human race, containing the great cities of Ur, Nineveh, Babylon, and Uruk, which are some of the most famous in the history of the world, and source of some of the greatest stories in the world: the creation, the flood, the great ark, the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and the heroic quest for everlasting life. Gilgamesh was, in addition to being the first story ever written in 2500 BCE, also the king of the world’s first great city, Uruk, in southern Iraq.
We continue the celebration of the place so that the students can rise above the sterile, shallow, and sometimes racist TV news representations of Iraq. Today the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, we show them in another short video segment, are trying to take back their reed bed towns from the genocidal attempt by Sadam Hussein to wipe them out. In a 60 Minutes (Pelley, 2009) feature that re-aired this past year, Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American engineer, returns to the land of Mesopotamia and reminds us that the marsh people of southern Iraq are named by the books of Genesis and Gilgamesh as the first people created by God, and their land has been identified as Eden.
After hopefully giving some profound depth to the region in this way, we return to our second and third enduring understandings—that multilayered, sequential problems of the past are repeating themselves today, and that they insist upon broad-based, commitments across a number of issues. Before turning our attention back to the beginning, though, we point out that today all that remains of the world’s first cities are sand storms and barren dessert. Now Uruk is mounds of sand and bones, a crumbling wall just visible under sand drifts, and a temple mound ziggurat that once held a great statue of the goddess Inanna. Uruk’s population, as already alluded to, doubled within a few decades, and the population’s hunger destroyed the fertility of the earth and their capacity to feed themselves (Wood, 1991).
How did it all happen, and why is Mesopotamia so significant? we ask. It all started with good dirt, water, and wheat, we tell our students, as we stand in our school’s garden in early September next to a bed of ripened and harvest-ready red spring wheat. We then cut, thresh, winnow, and grind the wheat in a lesson my colleagues and I learned at the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California, a few summers ago. Our Director of our Food Services visits and does two lessons on cooking with local ingredients, and we being our study of chapters 3-6 of the textbook History Alive! Ancient World (Frey, 2004) that we use as a supplemental resource. The students see how adopting crop agriculture and domesticated animals in settled communities was the most fundamental shift in human history. Hunting and gathering in groups of 30 – 100 were egalitarian, but the settled agrarian communities of Mesopotamia saw the rise of specialization within society and “the emergence of religious, political and military elites and a state with the power to direct the rest of society. At the root of these social changes was a new attitude to the ownership of food” (Ponting, 1991, p. 53-54).
Soon after creating the flour, the students and I fire up the cob oven and use the flour to make a pita bread in a piece of technology very much like the ovens used in Mesopotamia five thousand years ago. Meanwhile, the students continue to distinguish between the hunting and gathering groups—who viewed food sources, whether plant or animal, as available to the entire group, owned by none—and the settled agrarian towns of Mesopotamia—who grew crops in fields and herded flocks, thereby coming to view these living beings as resources and property.
The main advantage of agriculture over hunting and gathering, the students learn, as they are chomping away on the tabouli and hummus and pita we make for our Mesopotamian feast, was that once the einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, or barley seed was saved and replanted, and once goats and sheep were domesticated for the milk and manure 10,000 years ago, the crops, grown year after year in wonderfully augmented soil, would produce surplus. The surplus wheat allowed the farmers to feed non-farming families that included craftsmen such as potters, weavers, masons, and toolmakers. One of the early tipping point moments, though, was when “ruling groups, probably religious at first and then political, rapidly took over the distributive functions. Societies emerged with large administrative, religious and military elites able to enforce the collection of food from peasant farmers and organize its distribution to other parts of society” (Ponting, 1991, p. 54).
Priests and warriors then emerged. What is interesting to us in the sixth grade is that the complex social arrangements and emerging hierarchies allow us to ask our students which jobs should be valued more than others, and in what ways do the jobs cooperate with one another to build a functioning society. Students are asked to research one of the city-states in Sumeria and create an artistic advertisement that entices others to move to their location. Each group, representing a different city-state, puts together a Visitor’s Center style presentation with at least two pieces of information, geographic and social, which are unique to their city-state.
More strands are woven in: we also teach that the great civilization of Mesopotamia was built on cereal, but the grandeur of the civilization was made possible by the intersections of water, draft animals, grain, and writing. The world’s first intensive agriculture system, J. Donald Hughes (2001) argues, was made possible by the ox-pulled plow and irrigation, which facilitated surplus yields and an expanded non-farming urban population (p. 36). Similarly, Jeremy Rifkin (2009) points out that the most successful large scale domestication of plants and animals, wherever it was in the ancient world—the Middle East, India, China, Mesoamerica—was made possible by “large engineering projects . . . including the establishment of elaborate hydraulic systems to irrigate fields” (p. 33). Digging canals and underground aqueducts to supply the fields with water were huge engineering projects. Ponting adds that the first farming was “dry farming,” precariously reliant on rainfall; however, in 5500 BCE, in the east of the Mesopotamian empire, irrigation was developed. The technology was mainstreamed and then thousands of irrigation workers had to be fed and housed, which required surplus food and buildings. Therefore the food production, food storage, home building, pottery, and irrigation industries developed apace in Mesopotamia in mutually supportive ways. To stretch this out to its end, one can also see that because the surplus was able to feed non-farmers, potters emerged that allowed farmers to store their seed for years, and the metallurgical arts developed gold, copper, silver, lead, tin, and, most important for empire expansion, as Jared Diamond (1999) shows in Guns, Germs, and Steel, iron.
To emphasize the hydraulic aspect of Mesopotamia, a feature most of us ignore when we think of the deserts of the Middle East, my teaching partner has her class create an Irrigation Treaty between the aforementioned city-state groups that answers the following questions: 1. Why must city-states cooperate to maintain the system? 2. What actions must each city-state take to maintain the system? 3. What consequences will happen for those city-states that do not follow the treaty?
After focusing for periods of time on food of the region, city-state uniqueness, and water, we present Rifkin’s notion that the writing of Mesopotamia, called cuneiform, was developed as a way to “oversee and supervise the vast complex operations required to maintain the whole hydraulic enterprise. Record keeping allowed Sumerians to track all of the operations, including monitoring the day-to-day storing and distribution of the grain” (p. 35). Ponting’s analysis goes further into the inequalities of power-relations when he suggests that once the seeds were collected and the irrigation system was established, writing was control for the religious and political elites, as they used writing to take over what he calls the “distribution functions” of the surplus food (p. 54).
Around 5000 BCE, Mesopotamia had a fairly uniform culture, with towns scattered along riverbanks between the Tigris and Euphrates, employing subsistence farming, hunting, and fishing to feed themselves. In southern Mesopotamia, however, beginning in around 4500 BCE, large temples began being built in eight large Sumerian cities, with populations of at least 10,000 people. This early urbanization with a central focus on massive, central temples, led to increased control over food production, storage, and distribution by the religious elite and specialized craftsmen, as the grain would be collected, stored, and distributed at or near the temple by the priests and their politicians. “Control of the surplus also involves determining who owns and works the land and who has rights to the food. From the start the temple played a key role in the organization” (Ponting, 1991, p. 57). Even in the first civilizations, we tell our students, the temple priests and administrators, in a move that prefigured the European feudal system by several millennia, came to own the land, collect the grain, mill it, and distribute it back, in rations, to the farmers who, ironically, had grown and harvested it. The power of the pen and the authority claimed from the gods invested the temple officials with their power to institute their own control and to visit targeted hunger upon those whom they chose.
By 3000 BCE, the city states were very stratified: slaves were on the bottom; most people were peasant farmers; craftsmen helped with irrigation, food collection, storage, transport, and distribution; administrators who could write tracked the food surplus; all the while, religious, military, and cultural elite secured their positions at the top (Ponting, 1991, p. 58).
Around this same time, beginning in 3000 BCE or so, private property was claimed by families, and by 2500 BCE the elite class of warriors, rulers, religious personnel and their administrators had risen to prominence by appropriating the agricultural surplus that they themselves could not produce. “Societies that were broadly egalitarian [hunter-gatherer] were replaced by ones with distinct classes and huge differences in wealth” (Ponting, 1991, p. 65).
At this point, we ask the student to do a compare and contrast activity between ancient Sumeria and modern America. How different is our society, with its top 1% and the other 99%, from ancient Mesopotamia? What would an Occupy Wall Street movement look like in Sumeria?
Also at this same time, I have started my contemporary dystopian novels literary circles unit that imagines ecological catastrophes of the 21st century. Simultaneously, too, students continue their reading of nonfiction and receiving mini-lectures on how Ponting goes on to detail, in ways that prefigure Jared Diamond’s argument in his book Collapse, exactly how the Sumerian empire falls. To recap: first, draft animals are used to plow fields, which are planted in flood plains of fresh water rivers, where massive hydraulic construction projects are undertaken to tame the seasonal floods and use a series of interconnected dikes, canals, and underground aqueducts to irrigate the fields. Nearby, settled communities develop with rising populations and surplus food that is used to feed non-farmers, including growing military, temple, and cultural elite, who claim ownership of the surplus food, using writing to track the food surplus. Then, these new elite classes employ military with metal to invade other lands for more surplus food to feed their swelling populations. However, an irreversible strain has been put upon the land because the empire has outgrown its capacity to feed itself.
In a sequence of events already covered in this essay, more land is cleared of native trees and natural ground cover, which exposes the land to wind and rain erosion. Greater manure from animals is needed to make up for the topsoil loss, and greater water is needed from canals to irrigate stripped soils, since the natural biodiversity of the humus has been removed by erosion and the monocropping of wheat or barley decade after decade. Eventually the extra water drains but stacks upon the water table, causing waterlogged clay soils, the rising of deep minerals brought up in suspension, and the salinization of the land. The irony that we want our students to see is that the very majesty and success that we celebrate—abundance, cultural diversity, job specialization, surplus food—led to the first civilization’s downfall. In order to support both the growing population of the Sumerian empire and the growing trade with other peoples, more and more land was pressed into service in shorter periods of time. “Farmers shortened the period of fallow, overplanted, plowed marginal lands, and intensified irrigation, practices which led to salinization” (Hughes, 2001, p. 27).
Not only do we explain this process of desertification as it happened in Mesopotamia, but we also teach that this dangerous process is today claiming 25 million acres of our world’s fields each year (Pearce, 2006, p. 25). For our purposes, then, as sixth grade teachers, as we look backward into the distant past of Mesopotamia, we are also looking at our expanding world of deserts today—just as Jared Diamond finds disquieting similarities between the current salinization of Montana state’s soils and the salt-caked fields of Mesopotamia (2005, p. 47-49). What’s more, we also have to admit to our students that in the near future, some reports suggest a worldwide population of 9.4 billion people in 2050, when my students are fifty years old (Suddath, 2011, para. 6). These swollen numbers will only ratchet up the need to convert more woodland to farm land and restart the process elucidated in this essay section—unless, of course, the students can think up another better way of feeding everyone.
We can follow the history of Mesopotamia as a kind of warning, then: in 3000 BCE Sumerian became the first literate society in the world, producing in 2500 BCE the first written story, Gilgamesh, which our sixth graders read. By 1700 BCE, due to high levels of salt in the soil of southern Mesopotamia, wheat production was gone. “Between 1300-900 BCE, there was an agricultural collapse in the central area [of Mesopotamia] following salinization as a result of too much irrigation” (Ponting, 1991, p. 72).
We remind our students of sequence of environmental missteps in Mesopotamia before sharing Vandana Shiva’s five-step process that she uses in her book Earth Democracy (2005) to explain how the food corporations gained control of the contemporary industrial food system. The parallels between 3,000 years ago and today are unnerving:
- The exclusion of people from access to resources that had been their common property or held in common.
- The creation of ‘surplus’ or ‘disposable’ people by denying rights of access to the commons that sustained them.
- The creation of private property by the enclosure of common property.
- The replacement of diversity that provides for multiple needs and performs multiple functions with monocultures that provide raw material and commodities for the market.
- The enclosure of minds and imagination, with the result that enclosures are defined and perceived as universal human progress, not as growth of privilege and exclusive right for a few and dispossession and impoverishment for the many. (p. 20)
Even though Shiva is critiquing the world of this decade and the seizure of family farms and waterways in India, Africa, and South America by giant agribusiness corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, Phillip Morris, Nestlé, Suez, Bechtel, and Vivendi (again, we leave out the names of these corporations, as our intention is not to guilt trip or demonize, but to think of solutions), it is startling just how precisely her analysis also applies to the fall of Mesopotamia and the Sumerian empire. One is reminded of George Santayana’s pithy line, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As a counterpoint to both current agribusiness and to the ancient seizure and commodification of the surplus Sumerian wheat and barley by the elite in that empire, we point our students to examples of what Vandana Shiva calls earth democracy, small farmers and local food communities who stand up to global food export corporations by insisting on healthy local economies while honoring indigenous knowledge and biodiverse food traditions. A local example includes Growing Gardens here in Portland, the organization that organizes “hundreds of volunteers to build organic, raised bed vegetable gardens in backyards, front yards, side yards and even on balconies. [They] support low income households for three years with seeds, plants, classes, mentors and more” (Growing Gardens, 2012). On a national level, the Slow Food USA movement joins an international group of over 225 chapters that “envisions a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the planet, and good for those who produce it” (Slow Food USA, 2012). An exemplary international movement embodying earth democracy is the bi-annual conference in Turin, Italy, called Terra Madre. The last Terra Madre conference, in 2010, was attended by over 5,000 delegates from over 100 countries, and it featured seminars on a variety of topics including GMO foods, water rights, organic food, and the threats that globalization poses for indigenous cultures (Terra Madre, 2010). These three movements implicitly overlap in their commitments to combatting poverty, food insecurity, topsoil and water scarcity, and empty calories.
These movements provide our children with avenues for healthy food choices in healthy communities; however, without a change of global consciousness, they may be fighting uphill battles their whole lives long. At this point in the unit, just after they have finished their dystopian novels, the students are asked in groups to create a civilization somewhere in the world right now that articulates policies for topsoil and water conservation, green energy sourcing, employment for the employable, economic justice, and quality education. They are told that if they choose the site of London, for example, they are to imagine that the place is empty; however, they have to explain why they selected that site. The last and perhaps trickiest civilization characteristic they have to provide is cosmology, or what the civilization tells itself about its relation to Earth’s beginning, its bioregions, and its other animals.
At this point, to provide the students with a little background, I look backward one more time, this time to southeastern Turkey. Before Mesopotamia was founded, another astonishing event took place in 9600 BCE. The Ice Age has just ended and Hunter-Gatherers were finding more abundant vegetation and wildlife. Their wonderment led, simultaneously, to the birth of religion and to farming in Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey, 500 miles northwest of Gilgamesh’s great city, Uruk. There, near the town formerly known as Urfa, hunter-gatherers build the world’s first temple, 11,000 years ago (Mann, 2011). Archaeologists had long assumed that agriculture had predated religion, as Ponting and Diamond assumed, but the discovery in Turkey in 1994 has changed the way historians view ancient life in the Middle East. The devotional space and figurines for worship suggest that religion, in fact, predates agriculture, or at least was contemporaneous with it rather than following it—which also suggests that the thirst for the divine, or instinctual awe of humans for the “mysterium tremendum,” as Rudolf Otto (1958, p. 12) calls it, is hardwired into homo sapiens as we gaze up into the night sky and contemplate our place in the seemingly infinite cosmos. In any case, the students are asked to account for their cosmologies after they tell us where they get their jobs, justice, dirt, water, food, and energy for their new civilization.
I want to return now to the original question, “What does the garden have to do with English or history class?” In his book, An Environmental History of the World, J. Donald Hughes (2001), answers the question succinctly: “In Mesopotamia, of all regions studied by ancient historians, there is the clearest relationship between environmental devastation caused by humans and the decline of cities and their civilizations” (p. 38). Simply put, we study Mesopotamia in our garden so that we can understand, with our minds, hands, and taste buds, what they did to both build up and then drive their empire to extinction. In doing so, we hope to analyze the entwined mistakes made several thousand years ago so that we can provide our students with mutually-supporting and variable alternatives to avoid such a miserable end in the coming century, as they face some of the same interlocking problems such as overpopulation, deforestation, desertification, water scarcity, and hunger.
We are intuiting here that new strategies and technologies aren’t enough. Without new paradigms, new cosmologies, we can only borrow faddishly temporary liberal or conservative practices, but we cannot adopt reliable and flexible orientations that will remain sturdy enough and economically and environmentally just for all when problems multiply, overlap, and worsen across the globe. In short, we need a new story for our species, one about a global, empathic civilization, which brings me to the last section of this essay.
 I also return to favorite resources throughout this unit when needing reminders about balanced relationships between humans and their complicated biomes, including the following: Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, by Wendy Johnson (2008); How to Grow More Vegetables, by John Jeavons (2006); Big Ideas, by the Center for Ecoliteracy (2008); The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka (2009); Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway (2009); Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, by Steve Solomon (2006); Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth (2002); and the books and pamphlets of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association.