I generally consider myself a nature enthusiast. This enthusiasm occasionally borders on obsession, as I am truly fascinated by the natural world and all its complexity. I tend to watch plants and insects the way people used to watch television. Sometimes I go outside just to see what’s “on”. I consider myself enthusiastic, that is, until I stand next to a certain fourth grade boy who has discovered that our garden is nearly overrun with millipedes. In that context I am nothing more than an indifferent casual observer. Millipedes tend to have a strong effect on most kids. Squeals of delight and disgust (they sound suspiciously similar) are often elicited by these lowly creatures. Occasionally however, you come across a kid who responds to finding a millipede under a piece of mulch the way that you or I would respond if we stumbled upon a unicorn in the middle of the Black Forest. Standing next to that kid I am a boring, jaded, old man who is bent on planting beets when clearly there are more interesting things going on out here. “BEETS?” This boy tries to express his complete exasperation but his eyes don’t roll that far. How can he be expected to fumble with beet transplants when there are dozens of millipedes right where he’s standing who obviously are without decent housing. “MILLIPEDES!” – as if they were rare and precious jewels scattered among the Kale. The intensity of this kind of passion is nearly palpable.
I know children have breaking points. Forcing this student to stay with the group and participate begins to look sketchy and honestly, a little heartless, so I bargain. “You plant one beet seedling and you get to build millipede houses for the rest of the time.” One seedling is recklessly thrown into a hole and the boy bolts to the millipede convention. I honestly don’t have much time to think about it. It’s only later when I check out the tiny homes that I’m happy I caved. At first they didn’t look like much, until I realized what they really meant. One boy, along with a couple of his buddies that he pulled along, spent quality time outside on a beautiful fall day, imagining a city out of a handful of little bugs. Crawling around in the mulch, these kids were able to enjoy nature the way that every kid should be encouraged to enjoy nature: eye to eye. Developing an understanding and appreciation for the natural world requires moments like this, preferably during childhood. I doubt this specific activity is required in the fourth grade curriculum standards. It certainly wasn’t on my agenda (maybe next time it will be). There are times, however, when it’s good to let go of a good plan when a better one comes along. Planting beets is a good idea. Falling in love with nature… that is THE idea.
Horizons are often difficult to judge. Sometimes things that seem far away turn out to be just over the next hill while other things that seem to be right at hand wind up being miles away. So it is with time. A deadline that seemed an eternity away is suddenly tomorrow and an idea that appeared so far away, surprisingly pops up into view. The Edible Schoolyard at OJA is experiencing just such: an exciting, long awaited, sudden development. Our team has long believed that our student’s cooking experience could be greatly improved by providing them with a true kitchen classroom. We have felt that the surrounding community might also enjoy this “seed to table” experience. We had faith that there were others who share our belief in edible education and would partner with us to create a vision of something new. This vision is quickly coming into focus in the form of a “kitchen house” and “give back garden”. An idea that once seemed “miles away” is suddenly on our doorstep. Through generous partnerships with Florida Hospital for Children and the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, we are creating an innovative space where students will be given the opportunity to learn about the source of their food. These students will also have a hand in growing and preparing that food, which we believe will inspire a healthier and more delicious lifestyle. Here are some architectural renderings provided by our design team partners, Midtown Architecture Studio and Hunton Brady Architects. Since this project lies on a plot of land across the street from the school our students will not be the only ones able to utilize this facility. Other schools will be invited to enjoy this space as a field trip destination without any compromise to our own campus routine.
This week some of our third graders were able to taste a garden fresh, Brandywine, heirloom tomato for the first time. This particular fruit was the first to ripen from their tomato patch. More are on the way. Brandywines have a long history of being known for their “true tomato” flavor, meaty flesh and unusual shape. This one lived up to that reputation. Whenever we enjoy something from the garden we try to link it to something in the classroom. Once you realize that everything is or can be connected, this isn’t really hard to do. It was decided that when we brought this tomato into the classroom we would also introduce the students to a metric scale. This particular model was a triple beam balance scale, so finding the weight of this trophy was fun and a bit challenging for them. We weighed a couple of other objects first (a big bottle of glue and an apple) and then tried to estimate the weight of the brandywine.
Of course a scale like this is interesting by itself, but when you put a big, red, juicy tomato on it; it is arguably more so. Not surprisingly, when you put a tomato on a novel piece of scientific equipment that tomato becomes more interesting as well. By the time we pulled out the knife and cut into it, kids were literally on the edge of their seats. There was enough for everyone to get a taste. Of course the first bite was free, but the second bite had to be earned by writing a couple of really good sentences in their garden journals. No problem.
Mrs. Webster’s Pre-K class recently enjoyed their day in the dirt. Tables were placed just outside the classroom with a wheelbarrow full of soil and some buckets of water standing by. One student, before the festivities, was overheard telling Mrs. Webster that he didn’t like getting dirty. Mrs. Webster just smiled. Behold the power of mud. It was no time before little hands and big imaginations dug in to create oatmeal and chocolate milk, cookie dough and pizza pies. Chocolate seemed to be a theme on the menu and it turns out everything tastes better with a garnish of grass clippings.
It may seem that these children are only having fun, but there is an underlying lesson. It’s a subtle message but one that is fundamental. Soil is the source of all that we eat. The sooner we can introduce this to children (even through play) the more likely they will value healthy real food and respect the process that brings it from that source to their table. In the mean time, bon appetit!
The teachings of Jesus are full of references to the natural world. Much of the spiritual and abstract truths he shared were explained by comparing them to simple, physical experiences that were part of daily life. One example of this kind of teaching is found in the Gospel of John. Jesus points to a vine. Jesus was trying to give his disciples an understanding of their relationship to him and his heavenly father. No doubt, the disciples were confounded by much of what Jesus had to say about this relationship, but surely this illustration gave them comfort. Through this metaphor they could see that they were part of something greater than themselves and that there was one who cared for them, one who challenged and disciplined them for their own fruitful benefit. Pointing to a vine doesn’t answer all the questions. It doesn’t fill in all the blanks, but it does give an understanding. It opens a window. It encourages discovery. Thousands (maybe millions) of sermons have been inspired by this text, not because it is definitive or conclusive but because it allows the inconceivable to be recognizable and even a little familiar. Jesus is a vine. How unsacred. We are its branches. How comforting.
This week, our eighth grade students learned how and why our grape vines are pruned. They also learned about a divine relationship. After scripture was read to the sound of clippers, the conversation alternated between botanical and spiritual. It wasn’t definitive about either. We have a lot to learn about grapes and even more to learn about our relationship to God, but by comparing them we got to know each of them a little better.
Sometimes it happens, not as often as we would like, but sometimes it does happen. The thing that we imagined actually becomes a reality. The words come out right. The puzzle piece fits. The ball goes through the hoop and there’s nothing but net. It’s odd, but in big ways and in small ways we are often surprised when something actually works. We are surprised because we live in a world where expectations are raised to the point of fantasy and disappointment with reality is a daily experience. It’s easy to become so jaded when the product rarely lives up to the commercial. Nowhere is commercial hyperbole more rampant than in seed catalogs. Just open their pages and you will be convinced that the garden of Eden will pale in comparison to your own plot once you purchase a few packets of seeds. The bounty that is promised is staggering. Seed catalogs must be approached with a hefty shovel-full of skepticism. But every now and then, it happens. The pathetic little seed you receive in the mail, once planted, grows into the beautiful thing that you imagined. Fortunately, the longer you garden and the more you learn, the more this occurs. Such is the case with the beet pictured above. We’ve grown many scrawny, piddly little beets that were hardly worth eating much less photographing, but this year I think we’ve got it. For many, this may not seem like a big deal. (Maybe you don’t even like beets) Thousands of people grow bushels of beets every year and think nothing of it. Maybe that will be us one day, but honestly, I hope it’s not. I hope we continue to be stunned when we pull something like this out of the ground. Today, something will turn out as well as you imagined. Don’t let it slip by unnoticed. Celebrate it. Eat it up.
OK, so its not the Great Pumpkin. It’s not huge. It’s not bright orange, and I’m a little skeptical about its flavor. There’s no mythology surrounding the Mediocre Pumpkin, but still, it’s a pumpkin. We’ll take it. On this Thanksgiving Day it’s especially important to look for blessings. Though the kindergarten class that planted seeds when school started had dreams of dozens of fat pumpkins the size of small cars, they still can enjoy at least one small pumpkin pie. The best thing about this pumpkin though is what is most valuable for every gardener: hope for next year. Inside this pumpkin will be seeds, little promises that remind us that this game isn’t over. There’s always next year when the soil might be more fertile, the weather might be better, and there might be fewer caterpillars… and for that, we are thankful.
Since this is the first blossom on our Musque de Provence pumpkin vine, it doesn’t look like we will have any pumpkins for Halloween. We’re still hoping, however, for Thanksgiving.
Surely you were wondering. While reading about watermelons in the classroom you must have been pondering the more traditional use of watermelons…. as food. Sure, they are interesting objects to be studied, measured and understood, but how did they taste? Let’s face it, no one would bother to grow watermelons if it weren’t for the crush of sweet pleasure inside that rind. Let it be known, the watermelons at OJA did not disappoint. You can’t help but smile when, as soon as knife pierces the outer skin, the “POP” happens. This spontaneous split is really something between a thud, a crack and a splash. These melons were too impatient to be sliced open smoothly. Juicy and sweet. The last taste of summer.
Before melon season is let go for fall, please consider one more academic application for the watermelon. Literature. When life turns the exceptional into the mundane, when the beautiful becomes bland from over-consumption and “WOW” becomes “meh” we can trust writers to remind us of greatness. Through the twist and roll of a poetic phrase a writer can return us to the realization that life is a delicious gift. Watermelons? Consider the words of Pudd’nhead Wilson, one of Mark Twain’s unforgettable characters:
“The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took: we know it because she repented.”