Written by Kim Patten
September 15th, 2020
“In the end we will conserve only what we love.
We love only what we understand.
We will understand only what we are taught.” – Baba Dioum
Back to school
And just like that we are back to school. My two girls have just started online school, and many of their friends are back to school in person this week, too. My students on the mountain began face to face instruction last week. It’s been a slow slide into a new normal for all of us.
As a parent and a teacher, this school year is unfamiliar territory. It feels strange and, if I’m being honest, daunting. At our school, our staff have spent months preparing and training and adjusting to make this ‘new’ style of education safe and workable for our community, and full of opportunity for our kids.
There will be uncertainty, yes. But as an educator, I also know that in the midst of adversity there is always opportunity, and sometimes if we are lucky, a modicum of grace.
On the Mountain
I work at the Diakon Wilderness Center, a small, Lutheran-affiliated wilderness-based alternative school tucked onto 170 acres of hardwood forest just outside of Boiling Springs, PA, on the northernmost tip of the Blue Ridge. I run a small native plant nursery there called The Wilderness Greenhouse. Our campus is a spectacular little slice of wild space set above a largely agricultural valley. Our small mountain stream feeds one of Pennsylvania’s most well-known heritage trout streams.
The kids we serve are diverse, in all of the ways: racially, culturally, academically, socio-economically. Some have found their way to us through the juvenile justice system, some through other circumstances. They each have a unique story. They are by far some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met. They cope. They survive. They all struggle to heal; navigating their way back into safety and stability through some of the most significant barriers life can present; death, addiction, dysfunction, abuse, illness, loss.
I teach out of a fifteen thousand square foot greenhouse and nursery, with a small vegetable garden and a vernal pond. Our greenhouse was originally designed to receive our campus wastewater. Our greenhouse is a living machine, cleaning our water with plants. Today, it still continues to protect our mountain stream and all it flows toward. In addition to providing pollution control, our greenhouse helps us grow and raise over 200 species of native perennials, which we sell to the public; homeowners looking to improve the wildlife value of their properties, non-profits working on restoration projects, municipalities investing in green infrastructure.
Our students are involved in all aspects of nursery operation. Our work is hands on, varied and seasonal, an inroad to personal development and discovery. Our kids practice and hone skills and nurture qualities that will be important to them in the workplace someday: good communication, consistency, reliability, initiative, grit.
Making the connection
I love teaching outside. It is one of my great joys. For the kids that I teach, learning outside can be particularly powerful, exposing them to learning styles not typically catered to in the classroom and to experiences they might not otherwise encounter.
Sometimes these encounters can be firsts for my students: the first time holding an insect; the first time eating a strawberry; the first time touching a snake. My students will often call to me from across the nursery to come and look at something they’ve found while working, or they’ll bring me presents in cupped hands.. . . usually something alive. . .a wolf spider, a metallic green bee, a blue-tailed skink. . . I am often amazed by this seemingly universal and innate curiosity and sense of wonder. For me, this part is not about science standards or workplace development. . .this part is about being human and reconnecting with the richness of the world around us, about rediscovering our belonging, our kinship with a place.
I love our campus and our nursery for being able to reliably serve up extraordinary moments, to show children who can be sullen or jaded or disengaged that there exist entire worlds they may not have yet considered. This is the foothold of hope.
Mother Theresa is often quoted as saying that the problem with the world is ‘that we have forgotten we belong to each other.” There is evidence of this all around us, in the news and in the garden.
While growing native plants with kids is not an antidote to the current news cycle, it does offer us an antidote to something, a way into a landscape that many of us have forgotten we belong to, of planting seeds for the next generation.
Lessons in the Garden
Of all the topics I teach, I find teaching about the intersections between pollinators and plants is particularly rich territory, and using our native plant nursery as an exploratorium anchors this understanding for the kids. These relationships give us an opportunity to not only investigate the world around us, but also to exercise our understanding of our own interdependence as well.
Even small gardens can provide big learning opportunities. My horticulture cohort this year will be using this nexus as the focus for a year long project. Our juniors and seniors will embark on what we are calling the ‘Big Little Garden Challenge’, as each student vies to grow the ‘best’ pollinator garden of the year; each will be given a ‘land grant’ in the greenhouse, and each will compete to design, budget, build and install a pollinator garden of their own. All that we learn together this year will be applied through the challenge; establishing irrigation, testing soils, budgeting and designing, identifying and choosing plants, installing their gardens and ultimately submitting their designs for one of several national pollinator garden certifications that exist.
I am excited for my students and their epic journey into gardening for wildlife. I am excited to see what the year holds. The garden will be a gateway for discovery, about their interests and capabilities, about the rhythms of the world and the potential of seeds.
“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
Henry David Thoreau
Interested in planting a pollinator garden? Planning and planting a garden can not only be a rewarding activity, but can make a big difference in the biodiversity of your own backyard. Here are some of the best resources I’ve found.
Kim Patten runs The Wilderness Greenhouse & Native Plant Nursery and serves an educator at the Diakon Wilderness Center in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. The Diakon Wilderness Center is an alternative school, and resource for kids and families dealing with trauma, addiction and abuse. Kim has spent over 20 years as an educator, naturalist and advocate for clean water. She has served on the board of CCLC since 2018.