As the bobcat rumbled away last week, I admired the transformed hillside next to our school. It had been cleared of the lumpy hillocks and spotted spurge and other pricklier species. We had created a smooth blank canvas, a sandy slope now carved to accommodate the construction of eight cedar beds with wide and mulchy pathways between them. I could envision students on these structures, outside reading novels between the pumpkin leaves, then setting down the books to stroll among medicinal herbs as the scent of lavender drifted up from each collected handful. I was eager to talk over our plans and progress with our consultant from the Wampanoag community, ready to see her vision for the space we had created.

I shared with her our reconfigured space, displaying photos through the zoom. Originally, we had designated the top section of our garden area as dedicated to Native American growing methods. We had spoken about the three sisters and how this area would need to be clearly designated for one type of agriculture. Mixing methods would lead to confusion for the students, and if we wanted to share the knowledge and experience of traditional ways of growing squash, corn, and beans, we needed to be sure that students understood how the land was being used and honored in this area. I understood this. I still do. But as we reconfigured the space on the hill, I lost sight of this important aspect of our work together as we got further into the details and the weeds.

When I asked the owner of the building next door about the chain link fence pictured above, he offered to replace it with cedar. Perfect, I thought. A natural material, a noise barrier, and certainly more attractive than the swayback chain links. Wouldn’t the corn look wonderful abutting cedar rather than chains? But, when I was informed that the new fence would wipe out six feet of garden space at the top of the hill, in my mind I just moved the Wampanoag area into a couple of beds down the slope a bit. There are a lot of uncomfortable analogies I could make right now about my thinking, about how quickly I traded one space for another, but let’s just say I’ve had some time to reflect on this and I should have known better.

Welcomed by the Māori community in New Zealand, where the exchange of breath begins a relationship of reciprocity.

Fast forward to our consultation time. I described the area that would now accommodate the three sisters. I was asked why a machine had erased the hill, why the natural materials growing there had been scraped away, and why I wanted to build this garden. All good questions. Why do I want this garden? So often in my studies I have seen the wariness in communities that share stories of opening their doors to outsiders, to researchers, to those who want to come in and study under the pretense of honor and memory, only to come out the other side with a dissertation and nothing of lasting value for the communities with which they have interacted. This conversation pushed me to question my desire to create this space, and the thinking was necessary but uncomfortable. If I remove myself from the work, I still truly believe that the motivations to build are respectful and genuine, especially when we consider the healing qualities of a garden.

The end result of our consultation time was new plan. Two beds on the end will be removed to create an open slope with space for eight mounds for the three sisters. I know this is not the perfect solution, but I do believe that I am working hard to create a garden than brings understandings together. I want students to experience true reciprocity, to be responsible as caretakers of the earth and each other in a visceral way. Don’t care for the garden? The garden won’t produce for you. I also want my school to understand that a space such as this can help us break from the cycle of consumerism that affects how we live and learn. Most importantly, when I dreamed about this garden, I wanted the Wampanoag community to feel how we are trying to honor their traditions, history, and how by sharing indigenous ways of being with the land our students might some day save us all. And I definitely don’t ever want to give the impression that we are appropriating indigenous perspectives and applying them lightly to eight mathematically arranged beds full of string beans. The work is so important, but the thinking that happens before and during the work is equally invaluable. And challenging. I question myself constantly, then head back out to the earth, to dig again.

The newly configured hillside

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