..here I resume my tale of planting a tree with four 4th-graders in the school-yard in sunny San Diego. Please feel free to read the previous installment here, or just jump in. We’ve just finished some introductions and we’re getting to work.
Dirt begins to fly. The mound of soil is torn apart with the eager hands of some students, gently pawed apart by others. I let the conversations meander, listening for the rich areas where I might ask more leading questions. Eventually one of the kiddos discovers the darker, richer soil that is mounded against the back of our dirt pile. “Whoa, this one’s so different!”
“Let me see! Oh my God, it’s warm!” Stephen says, taking it into his hands and holding up for us all to see.
“Yeah,” I affirm, “It sure is. What else is different about that soil?”
Sasha walks over, grabs two handfuls of the earth-stuff, and throws it high into the air above her– “It’s way lighter!” she screams, giggling as the brown confetti rains down on all of us. After a quick reminder to please not throw the soil, I engage.
“Okay okay, that lighter soil is something called ‘compost.’ Does anyone know what compost is made of?”
“Poop?!” Quick giggles and little kid teeth bared. “Ewwwww!”
“No, not this compost. Well what happens if you put a bunch of banana peels, apple cores, melon rinds, and a bunch of grass in a big bucket and leave it alone?”
“It’s gets rotten! It turns to compost!”
“Yeah, sort of, but instead of rotting we could just say that it ‘breaks down’ into this compost. But how does it break down? What breaks it down?”
“Like, worms and stuff?” offers Stephen.
“Yes! Exactly! Worms and stuff!” I grab a handful of compost– “so, can every one pick up a handful of this compost?” They all do. “I have a question for you: how many organisms are in this one handful of compost?”
“What’s an organanism?” the young boy Pablo in the blue shirt asks.
“Good question. An organism is anything that is alive. So, is the Whale an organism?”
“Yes!!!” they all laugh-affirm.
“Is the Eagle an organism?”
“Is the Ladybug an organism?”
“Is the truck an organism?”
“Are You an organism?”
“Okay, great, so how many organisms do you think are in your handful of compost?” I ask again.
“I don’t see any…” Sasha says, closely inspecting her hands.
“Well they’re all very, very small– so small they’re microscopic.”
“Um, like, a thousand?”
“Um, like, a million?”
“What?! A gajillion?!!!”
“Okay I’ll tell you– there are over SEVEN BILLION organisms living in that handful of soil.” Pause for absorption. See four pairs of eyes scanning the soil in their hands, about their feet, all around them. See their gaze dance from our pile, to their neighbors, to the length of this strip of land beside the parking lot. “Pretty incredible, huh?”
The two boys are holding the soil up an inch from their faces, while the two girls are beginning to move the soil into the hole with gentle strokes of their cupped hands. Just when I’m wondering toward what I’d like to transition next, I remember that we haven’t looked at our Tree in a while.
“Okay, look friends, our Tree!” I exclaim, taking into my hand and immediately passing the Tree around the circle again. Each student takes the Tree in hand and then passes the Tree on, some holding onto the Tree longer than others. The last girl, Tammy, takes hold of the trunk and thrusts the top-most branches into the sky, “It’s so little! How will it ever grow big and make apples?!”
“Well, for one thing this Tree a Peach Tree, so this Tree won’t produces apples, but you’re right, this Tree is really small right now. Does anyone know how this Tree is going to grow big? What does a fruit Tree need to survive?” I ask, leading back toward some of the established curriculum.
“And soil, and water!”
“Um, fresh air?!”
“Okay,” I say, holding the Tree in the middle of the hole, letting the Tree become our focal point. “You’re all right. First of all, let’s remember that this, this Tree, is alive, right? Like, alive right now. Do you call your friend an ‘it?’ Like, ‘it’s digging a hole?’”
“No, I say ‘she,’” Sasha says.
“Yeah, and we can do that for Tree, because our Tree is more than an ‘it.’ Let’s address the Tree with good manners…” and they’re looking at me quizzically at that one, so I move on. “Okay, anyway, once we put this Tree into the soil, the Tree is going to sort of wake up out of dormancy and begin to grow. And we know that the Tree will need good soil– which is why we’ve dug such a deep hole and have healthy compost for the Tree– and we know that Tree will need water– which is why we’ll be installing an irrigation system here– and we know the Tree will need a lot of sunlight for some super fascinating reasons that we’ll get to soon. So yes, our Tree needs soil, sunlight, water, air, and actually needs one more thing for our Tree to do really well… One more thing… Any one know what else it will need?”
After a brief pause, the Sasha pounces– “It needs LOVE!” We all giggle, but not because it’s wrong or silly, but I suppose because it challenges the more scientifically-inclined mind we’ve been using thus far.
“You’re right dear, the Tree does need our love. Especially if we want this Tree to live a long life and give us years and years of delicious peaches, well then we need to be able care for the Tree, so that it can care for us. We can take care of each other, right? So, in order for us to care for the Tree, what should we do?” I ask.
“We can give it food,” Pablo says with the solemn look of a Father promising to care for a found kitten.
“Good, but we’ll call the food ‘fertilizer.’ And you’re right, every year or two we’ll come back and help you feed your tree the right mix of vitamins and minerals. What else?”
“Oh, I know!” Mary blurts out, “we can protect the Tree from people who might, like, break it or kill it?”
“Yes, great, please do that. And you know some people might not think much of it, breaking branches or climbing the Tree when the Tree is still too small for climbing, but that’s where all of you can come in. Can you promise, right this very moment, that you’ll help keep an eye out for this Tree? Promise to care for the Tree as a the living being?” I get nods and smiles from every one. Suddenly the air feels perfectly still, the whole morning perfectly still– a brief moment of serious yet joyous ceremony has just occurred, one that seems larger than I can appreciate right now. I smile the smile of a man who feels like his ideals and his practice are working in tandem– so see me too, if you will, smiling amongst these kids and trees.
FORM AND FUNCTION:
“Okay,” I continue, “well here’s another way we can care for this Tree– we can better get to know our Tree. The same way we might care for our bodies or the bodies of our pets, we need to know a little about how the Tree works and what the Tree’s body does. So,” I begin, changing my tone back to teacher-authority for a moment, as I see some eyes wandering to the group next me who has already started planting their Tree, “the way I want you to think of this is with two different words. Form, and function. Think about your body. Can everyone wiggle their toes?” They do. “Okay, so you have feet– that’s the form. What’s the function of your feet? What do they do?”
“They help us walk?” Sasha asks.
“Great. If you hands are the form, what’s the function?”
“They help us grab stuff.”
“Good– if ears are the form–“
“If eyes are the form?”
“They help us see stuff!”
“Okay, awesome, y’all are amazing. So, now, let’s try the same thing for our Peach Tree.” I take up the tree in my hand and hold it upright in the hole, with it the lateral roots protruding outward and the fibrous root-hairs hanging down toward the soil. “So, down here we have the roots– if roots are the form, what’s the function? Why does the tree have roots, and what do they do?”
Quiet for a moment. I lift the tree higher, so that now the roots are at eye-level– we look across at one another through the earthy tendrils. I make eye-contact with Pablo and ask him– “What do the roots do?”
“Aqua. They drink,” he says confidently.
“Yes, great Pablo, they drink water like a straw stuck in the soil, and then send the water up into the tree through the xylem layer. Do we drink water through our feet?”
“Right, pretty amazing the roots do, and can send the water up, huh? Okay, what else do the roots do for the tree?” I ask, running my fingers through the rootlets and splaying some out across my hand.
“They eat food out of the soil?” Sasha ventures.
“They do, that’s true, they get nutrients out of the soil and send those up the tree in the xylem layer as well. Okay, what about on a really windy day– what do the roots do?”
“Oh, they help hold it down so it doesn’t blow away.”
“Good, exactly. Because trees and plants stay in one spot, right? They can’t walk around to go get out of the wind or go walk to the store for food, so they have to stay firmly rooted in place, even when it’s windy. Okay, how about this?” I ask, pointing toward the soil-line where the roots taper into the main…
“Good, the tree-trunk, which makes a strong base for the tree. Now what about these crazy arm-thingies up here?” I inquire, holding one of the lower branches and waving it like a puppeteer makes his puppet dance and point.
“Those are the sticks? I mean, the branches,” Pablo says.
“Good, yes, the branches. What do the branches do for the Tree? What’s their function?”
“They make the leaves and fruits and stuff,” Stephen replies.
“Yeah they’ll hold all of that, especially a lot of leaves. What do the leaves do for the tree? I mean, look around,” I say, gesturing outward across the parking lot and out toward the larger view-shed, “look at all of these trees around us, and they all have leaves. But what do the leaves do? What are they doing right now for all of those trees, and for us?”
“They’re making the food?” someone asks.
“Yes, nice, they are. So right now, this very moment, the leaves on the trees around us are taking in sunlight and converting it into energy, into sugar. Does anyone know the name of process where leaves are taking in sunlight and turning it into energy?”
“Um, chlorophyl?” Sasha asks.
“Close, that’s the stuff in the leaf that makes the energy. Anyone else? Anyone here heard of ‘photosynthesis?’” Some nods. “Yeah, so the leaves can take in sunlight, and when they mix it in their chlorophyll, along with the carbon-dioxide that we breathe out and the water the plant drinks, they make a type of sugar called glucose. Then they send those sugars down the phloem and then use that sugar to make roots, shoots, and fruits. Can anyone name anything else that can turn sunlight into energy, or electricity?”
“Oh,” Sasha begins, “yeah, those things on your bus. Solar somethings.”
“Oh, so close! Solar panels! Yeah, plants know how to make energy from the sun just like people have figured out how to make electricity from the sun. In fact, almost the food you’ve ever eaten comes from plants’ ability to turn sunlight into sugar. Can anyone name the one thing people eat every day that does’t come from plants?” I ask. “Again, what’s the one thing we eat that doesn’t come from plants?”
At this point in the lessons, if I even get to this question, I’m ready to field a variety of guesses and thoughts for a few minutes. Mostly these revolve around me showing them that that meat does in fact come from plants (grass), cheerios come from plants (wheat), fish come from plants (phyto-plankton), and candy comes from plants (sugar cane and corn). While they work on this question, I have these kiddos start to back-fill the hole, to ready the tree for planting.
“Salt and pepper?” Sasha finally guesses.
“Close! Pepper comes from peppers, which are a plant, but salt is the correct answer! People all over the world have always sought out salt in their diet, and it’s the only thing that doesn’t come from plants, because it’s a mineral present in our geology of the planet, which is super cool.” The hole is filling up slowly now, which is fine, because I still want to hit on the last part of the tree we’ve yet to discuss. “Now, as this hole keeps filling, I wonder if anyone can answer me this: where will the peaches come from on this tree?”
No answers come immediately, so I start showing them different areas on the branches, guiding them to look upon the nodes and buds and bumps in the branches. Pablo eventually shouts “I know! They come from the flowers!” Smart kid.
“Okay, you’re right Pablo, awesome. The peaches are going to come out of the flowers, which will come out of many of these buds. But how does a flower turn into a fruit? Does anyone know?” Invariably I get some statement along the lines of “it just happens,” and I use this to opportunity to play a quick little imagination game. Wanna play with us?
Okay, let’s pretend we’re all honey-bees, okay? Check out our yellow bodies and our wings and our crazy bee eyes. And we’re thirsty for that super sugary beverage we love that lives in the back of flowers, called Nectar. So let’s fly over to this flower over here (I sketch out a huge shape, the height of the chain link fence and wide as a bus) and let’s fly deep into the back of that flower. On our way in, we bump into a bunch of crazy, noodley shapes that grow in the flower called Stamens, and when we bump into their Anther tops all of this yellow dust explodes out and lands on our bodies and gets stuck to our feet. What’s this stuff called?! “Pollen!” Yup, so now we have this pollen all over us, and we go to the bottom of the flower to get our drink, drink all of that sweetness, and then quick! Let’s fly over to another flower on a different tree– and remember we have all of this pollen on us right? So now while we’re in this new flower, some of that pollen comes off of us and lands in this one specific, super sticky spot on the flower called the Stigma, and from there the pollen we brought might travel deep into the flower and fertilize the flower’s Ovaries– and only then, only when this happens because of creatures like us bees, only then will this flower be able to turn into a fruit. Anyone know what it’s called when a flower gets the pollen that will turn it into a fruit? “Pollination!” Yes! What else helps to pollinate flowers? “Humming birds!” “Butterflies!” Woohoo!
In her marvelous, astoundingly gorgeous book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” native writer and botanist Robin Kimmerer asks us to think upon just how wired our bodies are to this Earth. Describing her work with her college Botany students, she writes about a weekend teaching her students to go “shopping” for all of their needs in the local marsh. As these college kids go about digging spruce roots in the humus of marsh’s forested edge, she watches a great calmness come upon each student. As a woman with a rich spiritual background in her Potawatomi tradition, she credits the land for creating an emotional resonance with the students that is real and durable– but she doesn’t stop there. As a scientist, she can also allow object facts to inform the deepening relationship she witness when her students engage with the Earth in this way:
“Recent research has shown that the smell of humus exerts a physiological effect on humans. Breathing in the scent of Mother Earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, the same chemical that promotes bonds between mother and child, between lovers.”
I sit down now beside our hole, ready to close the heady flight of fancy I just took us on to instead get our hands and hearts back into the soil.
Just then we get another delivery, this time from crew-member and irrigation-extraordinaire Evan. With pale blue eyes, blonde hair pulled back in a man-bun, and the facial features of a mythic Nordic prince, his presence suddenly in the group has the children gazing up at him in awe or fear or both. With slow, deliberate movements of a wizard, he reaches into a large black satchel that he carries on his hip like a huge holster. After digging into the bag for a moment, his clutched hand emerges, covered in a slate-grey powder. He reaches towards us, and with the gentle gestures of a baker, sprinkles the flour-like substance all over our Tree’s bare roots.
“Thank you Evan,” I say, “you’re a gentlemen and a scholar– there’s only a few of us left!” He moves on to the next group to deliver more from his gift bag. “Does anyone know what this stuff is?” I ask the students.
“Is it food? Like fish food? It looks like fish food,” Stephen says with serious concentration.
“Is fertilizer?” asks Sasha.
“Okay, close. This is something called ‘Mycorrhizal.’ Remember earlier when we talked about an organism– something that’s alive? Well, this powder is a living organism that’s going to help our Tree grow extra strong. But Mycorrhizal is an interesting organism, because it’s neither a plant, nor is it an animal. Does anyone know what other type of organism it might be?” No response. “Okay, it’s a type of mushroom, a Fungi. This Mycorrhizal powder is going to come alive in the soil and splice itself, insert itself, into the roots of our Tree. Then the Mycorrhizal is going to spread out and meet up with the Mycorrhizal we put on that Tree’s roots,” I say, pointing toward the apple tree going in next to us, “and over to all of those Trees down there,” I say, motioning toward the other fruit trees going down the line, “until eventually all of these trees will be interconnected, like in a big web. And then, together, all of these Trees are going to use the Mycorrhizal Fungi to share nutrients with each other.”
“Yup, and here’s the cool part– the Mycorrhizal can’t make its own food from the sun like the plant can– and the plant can’t access as many nutrients and transport them the way the Mycorrhizal can. But together, they both help the other one out. The Tree will provide the Mycorrhizal with sugars, and the Mycorrhizal will provide the Tree with nutrients. Does anyone know what that’s called? When two species are engaged in a relationship where they both benefit?”
After a bit of errant guessing, I let them know. “It’s called Symbiosis. Can everyone say that word with me? Symbiosis?”
“Symbiosis!” they say in unison (which makes my heart sing.)
“Awesome. So, if two organisms have a relationship in which they both benefit, like the Mycorrhizal and the Tree, or the Bees and the Trees, do you think we can have a symbiotic relationship with this Tree?” I ask.
“Yeah I guess so,” ventures Pablo, “unless we have to kill the tree to eat the fruit, but we don’t right?”
“No, we don’t. So you’re right Pablo– because like we already said, you all are going to take good care of this Tree, and in turn the Tree will help take good care of you. That sure sounds like we’re all benefitting. So here’s another question you all can think about today, and for the next few decades of your life.”
“What?” Sasha asks, curious.
“How many relationships can Humans have with Nature where we all benefit? Can Humans have a more symbiotic relationship with the Earth? And with each other? What might that look like?”
PLANTING THE TREE:
You never get to know just how much the students are retaining the information that you’re actively giving them in the moment, with your voice growing hoarse and your body alert and awake from the exertion of speaking your small mouth noises– speaking your small pollen. In these schoolyards we don’t test the kids after we plant a tree, and I doubt their teachers do either. Instead, I like to think that this model of experiential, service-based learning is activating something within them that that goes beyond mere memorization of facts. It is my hope that somehow, when work like this engages the head, the hands, and the heart, students will grow a unique and authentic understanding about themselves and their world, and perhaps that understanding might become folded it into the very heartwood of their being. It is my hope, and the hope that many educators hang their work upon, that if we can provide a certain set of experiences for young folks now, then perhaps it will urge them to be good people today and tomorrow– helping them to become more conscious, empathetic, honorable, and loving members of our increasingly global village.
When we talk about what these orchards will look like in twenty years, which means these kids will be in their twenties and thirties with kids of their own, I think we’re all hoping that our global village will be in in a much healthier state than the wobbling one we witness today. But how to move from hope to reality? I for one grow rusty if I keep that hope silent and unarticulated, and I’m weary of letting that hope languish in unspoken idealism instead of flourishing in practice. Instead, I and ten of thousands of others are trying to figure out the right practices to work on now, and the right way to articulate it now, so that we might realize that better world then. But to speak that vision is a task that proves tricky– one’s wild ideas always need pruning.
But nevertheless, here’s how I think of it at this point in my life– here’s my articulation:
All people working for justice– be it environmental, social, nutritional, spiritual– we all work toward a world that will some day be united by a sense of shared destiny; one where all members of the Earth community are treated with dignity and respect– one where all people in all places have made peace with Nature and are welcoming Her back into our cities and homes– one where our modern lifestyles no longer run at a deficit, constantly over-borrowing from Earth’s generous but limited coffers– one where individuals feel interconnected and interwoven with one another and the Earth, and base their decisions upon the good of the whole– one where we share a common vision but we cultivate our own unique way to see it– and one where healthy bodies, healthy food, and healthy land emerge out of the same ethos of symbiosis. This Earth we work toward imagining, manifesting, and practicing is to be realized as just part of this ongoing Creation– a Creation that is always being generated and supported in ways that are disciplined, diverse, virtuous, artistic, and wildly, delightfully playful.
E.M. Forester had a take on the importance of speech to edify ideas. He wondered “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
What do you think we should do? And how do you help bring it into being? How do you say it?
“Okay, we’re getting close, anyone want to name the Tree?” I ask. The kids have been working together mostly in silence for the last few minutes, figuring out how to move the dirt the few feet needed while also packing the soil in along the roots. I’ve been holding the Tree at the right height, so that the soil will come up to the Tree’s previous soil-line (when the Tree was growing in a nursery field before harvest,) and now I take the Tree and shake a little, nudging the branches to dance. “Should we name it?”
Still no one answers. I’m not sure about the naming thing myself, but I like to give them the option. “Well then, we’re almost there. Stephen, can you hold the Tree while I help get this last part in?” He does, and I crouch down to use my fingers to quickly pack in the soil around the roots like a potter pinching her clay into a mold. “Okay, now let’s get the compost on here too,” and we all do. Right on time comes Leo, acting now as foreman with his metal clip-board and mirrored sun-glasses, and he gives me the finger-twirling gesture of “wrap it up.” Forty-five minutes already?
I invite all the kids down to ground-level now to help me with the final dirt-tamping. We spread the compost around, the texture soft and warm to our touch. I show them how to sculpt a small, crescent-shaped berm on the down-hill side of the tree to help retain more irrigation and rain water. When that looks good, we stand up.
See our Tree again: it is five feet tall, has five or six branches growing off a central leader, its buds look swollen on the smooth-skinned bark, and it is surrounded by five humans. Through the knowledge, practice, and patience of hundreds of generations of orchardists, we have before us a tree that has been genetically bred for this specific soil type and climate, and most importantly, for the delicious peaches it will produce. And through the knowledge, practice, and patience of the folks who run this non-profit Common Vision, we have this Tree in this school-yard on this exact day in this exact, school-sanctioned way.
See us now from above: the five of us around our Tree, and then the five other groups standing around their trees– all in a long line that runs along the parking lot and chain-link fence. See us from the street: half a block of concrete sidewalk, half a block of ten-foot tall fence, and half a dozen groups planting half a dozen trees.
See us from within this small group: here, put your hand on the tree. We’re going to have a ceremony, and I invite you in.
Again from Robin Kimmerer:
“Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable.
“Ceremonies transcend the boundaries of the individual and resonate beyond the human realm. These acts of reverence are powerfully pragmatic. These are ceremonies that magnify life.”
I invite us all in. “Okay, now, can we all do one more thing together? Can we all put our hand on the Tree for a planting ceremony?” They all oblige. All of our hands grasping the Tree, some on the branches, some on the stem. I tap into my experience holding space for poetry readings and speaking at weddings and running certain fire ceremonies– I tap into the vein of the Present like a Vermont-sugarer taps into the phloem of the Maple, and I let the sap run (in more ways than one).
“First of all, I’m really proud of you all for doing this work today. You’ve done something that won’t just benefit you– it’s also going to positively impact your whole community for many years to come. That’s really special.
“Second, I want acknowledge how great you all worked together, and I thank you for that.” I try to cast my eyes toward each child, making eye-contact, affirming them and witnessing them while still engaged in this powerful act. Hoping the piercing of gaze of an adult ally might affirm the essential goodness they may be feeling right about now. “This is an historic day for you and your school. In the future, you’ll be able to say that you were here when your fruit-tree orchard was planted, that you helped to plant these Trees, and that is truly deserving of this ceremony. Just like other important times in life when we have ceremonies, now is a good time to have one.
“So what I’d like you each to do is, on the count of three, let’s all take another deep breath in together. We’ll inhale together, and when we exhale, let’s send this Tree as much love and positive intention as we can toward our Tree– imagining this Tree with strong branches, deep roots, and big, delicious peaches…” I watch them look around at each other a little self-consciously at first, but they see that I’m taking it seriously, and it appears that feel safe enough to do so too. “Okay, ready? … One, two, three…” and we all audibly inhale, our bodies filling with oxygen– our bodies brining in this invisible oceanic medium of air like the rhythm of a tide– the beaches of our lungs receiving the air and transporting the oxygen through the terrain of our interiors– the billions of organisms that each of bodies house welcoming the air like a plant welcomes water.
In this space I also direct some positive thoughts toward each of these students as well, wishing them love and adventure and connection throughout their lives within this shared Earth, in whatever state this Earth will be in– and wishing them a feeling of grand possibility and excitement for this fruitful fact of existence– and also wishing them peaches: sweet, sweet peaches.
“And exhale…” and we all do, out bodies contracting, pushing out the chemically-altered air and releasing our unique CO2 back into the atmosphere, the mass withdrawing from one place and moving onto the next spin of the cycle– watch it float toward our Tree, and watch the Tree take a turn.
“Alright kiddos, that’s it. You did it. Our circle is closed, our Tree is planted, you may go in peace to serve your community or your dog or your teacher or your Mom. But seriously, it was great working with you, I’m proud of you and your school, and we can’t thank you enough for helping to make your school and this Earth a little better today…”
Stephen and Pablo both thank me and immediately chase each other away toward their teacher, who is already beginning to herd her flock. The two girls Sasha and Mary, however, are lingering, once again padding down the berm we built, their fingers in the humus. Two other students from another group come over, a boy and a girl, and drop to their knees to help.
“What kind of Tree did you plant?” the boy asks Sasha and Mary.
“A Peach Tree. Isn’t it pretty?” she replies prettily.
“Uh-huh. We planted a Plum Tree. Maybe some day we can have a fruit party together,” he says with light in his eyes.
“I sure hope so,” I say to them, picking up the shovel I had leaning on the fence. With a nod I take my leave, allowing them a few moments of free-verse time beside their new Trees.
“Hey Mister,” Sasha calls to me as I walk away.
“I promise you we’ll take care of the Tree,” she says with a look of serious joy in her leaf-green eyes. Eyes that see and reflect all of her world– the Trees, People, buildings and Skies…