Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
Teaching the Human Habitat: Environmental Education Down on the Farm
by David Moon
Which would you pick--teaching about the resplendent quetzal in the Costa Rican cloudforest, or helping children milk a Holstein cow? Going with the bird would have seemed ridiculously obvious to me ten years ago, and certainly would be the choice of most of my colleagues in environmental education. Now that I've done both, my answer would depend on who the students were and why they were there. In most cases I would probably choose the cow.
When I bring a group of school children into the barn where our herd is fed and milked, they are immediately awed by the sheer biomass of 44 cows. There is not a lot of room in our old barn, and many of the cows look up when, say, ten second graders tramp in. The cows are usually in a line of 15 or so, and we approach them from the rear to milk them. That 15 tails might go up at any moment to signal the ejection of a stream of feces or urine quite amazes most first-time visitors.
The cow's teat is warm, and she moves around some as the children take their turns. I place my hand over the smaller hands to make sure the top of the teat is pinched properly and to provide a sense of safety next to 1,100 pounds of unfamiliar animal. The result of this bit of technique is one of oldest foods known to civilization. There it is, everyday white milk, in the middle of a storm of mammalian activity. It is a wonderful juxtaposition, creating the kind of cognitive dissonance that makes students go "Wow!" In many cases, they are more vividly aware of the wonder of life in that moment than most of the people whom I have brought to see the quetzal.
Our farm provides many such opportunities for deep contact with life. Situated on a small finger of a large ancient lakebed in southern New Hampshire, Stonewall Farm is a nonprofit working farm and education center promoting awareness and appreciation of local agriculture and stewardship of natural resources. The pastures and cultivated areas of the farm's 120 acres are interlaced with waterways and wetlands and surrounded by low hills. Each year, over 5,000 children come to the farm, some on a quick field trip to visit with the "Great Pumpkin" or learn about maple sugaring, others for an entire week filled with the many vivid experiences our barns, gardens, swamps, and forests offer. During six weeks of the summer, we run a day camp for 288 children who quickly claim the farm as home ground. While most of our visitors are early elementary students, we also have a prevention program for at-risk youth and a wide variety of public programs and special events that draw individuals and families to learn about the agriculture typical of New England small farms.
Until relatively recently, a large segment of North American society received understandings about the land and our place in it from daily experience living on farms. Environmentalists, however, in looking at the results of the increasing industrialization and specialization of farming, are often skeptical or dismissive of insights people practicing agriculture have to share. I carried a typical load of bias before I worked closely with the people who run the operations at Stonewall Farm.
When my wife, Lisa, and I joined a staff of three native New England farmers five years ago, we saw more potential in the area of butterfly gardens and wetlands than in soil and cows. Students of environmental education who had visited the site had already made the farm staff wary by ignorantly criticizing the farm's operations and looking at the livestock with vegan-inspired distaste. Only after some very difficult conversations, hesitant actions, and plenty of time, have we reached a positive symbiosis in which our work is interwoven with the everyday workings of the farm. The farm manager has found that he is a fine presenter. And I have learned to drive our teams of draft horses. Along the way I have discovered that people who work with the land see it from a vantage point all of us need to consider. Farms are, after all, the place where humans have their most essential interface with nature.
Our farm community now comprises three full-time farmers, two gardeners, additional summer helpers, and a staff of ten teachers and administrators. As education director, I help develop, teach, and administer programs on both agricultural and natural history topics. What began as a well-timed and exciting opportunity for employment in my field has grown into a personal and professional mission to help bring farm-based programming into the mainstream of environmental education.
While we teach songs like "Habitat, habitat, ya hafta hava habitat...", environmental educators have not often dealt with the basic question of what constitutes the human habitat. Yet our role in nature is defined not only by where we live but by how we derive our sustenance. Stewardship stems from a sense of connection to the land that sustains us. The problem is that our modern food system is so far flung and fragmented that it is hard to make the connection real. Most of us are completely removed from the processes that result in food on our tables.
One of the issues we have wrestled with in developing programs at Stonewall Farm has been just what to say about the way food is produced. Do we present organic or conventional gardening? Do we explain larger-scale industrial methods, while demonstrating ones that are appropriate for small farms? I have consistently pushed to ignore those dichotomies. The fact is that most people are wholly ignorant of how food comes from the earth, or what it is like to be near and work with large animals. It is these essential and mostly experiential understandings that I feel our farm can offer most effectively. In fact, our CSA vegetable garden is grown organically, and our dairy is operated conventionally, while we graze our cows on intensively rotated pasture paddocks. But I believe that the practices an educational farm employs are much less important than the raw contact with soil, plants, and animals it can provide.
I am thinking in particular of the group of sixth graders from a local school who spend a week with us each year. We always devote one afternoon to harvesting. Ears of corn that were put up in shocks emerge plumply from their shelters and come free with a yank. Armfuls accumulate fast, and we feed them to the chickens, sheep, goats, and pigs. In the part of our garden reserved for children, we dig up potatoes. What started as a chore becomes a source of delight and enthusiasm as the golden tubers pop from the earth. Some of these children were here during the summer and picked potato beetles and their larvae from these same plants. They remember fondly the little horror shows created when they fed the wriggling pests to the chickens. Along with the potatoes we bring in carrots, tomatoes, onions, and beans.
Finally, we invite anyone who wishes to join us in slaughtering and butchering one of the older hens. We acknowledge that everyone is nervous, and that one way we handle that is to make jokes or dramatize our feelings. But we ask anyone who watches to save those reactions for later, explaining that the exercise is one of respect. Without any tone of drama we express our gratitude for the lives of all of the animals we eat, and for this one in particular. We share that it is hard to kill another living animal, but explain that because we choose to eat them, we want to be mindful of what that means. Then we do it. Never have more than a few students chosen to sit out, and always we have felt the group rise to the occasion.
When the vegetables we harvested have been chopped up, students choose what they would like for their personal versions of garden goulash, which is then wrapped in foil and baked in the coals of the campfire. At dinner we also offer a piece of meat from the chicken to anyone who wants some. Most of the students do, and act as if it were the best chicken they have eaten, even if, as often happens, it needed to cook a little longer to get tender. These students have fed and cared for the birds and witnessed the death of one. They have helped keep our plants healthy and eaten the harvest. They are the ecosystem.
All children who spend a day or more on the farm get a chance to care for the animals, weed a bit, pick potato beetles. They explore dark green places in the forest and build "gnome homes" there. They pay attention to the bird chorus that greets them in the morning, the volumes of insects that bound through our meadows, and the lush order of the garden. They witness the strength of our draft horses going about their earthy work. They compost their food waste and see how it is reused. They discover the creatures living underneath the cow pies, turning them back into soil. Without our saying so, they learn that the farm is a community of life. They see that the people who care for it do so deeply.
My favorite role to play in our programming is one that the reader is asked to keep secret. Every summer during our day camp, children are invited to visit our resident troll, Stoney. He sends them rhyming messages on birch bark, asking them to bring a list of objects they identify by deciphering his riddles. The teachers explain that these tokens will tell the troll about the health of the land. Gathering the items--chicken feathers, compost, silage, ferns, an aquatic insect--takes the group to all of the most vital spots on the farm.
Stoney's home is in the big stone culvert that carries our brook through an abandoned railroad bed. It is easy to see through the beautifully arched tunnel to the watery light at the other end, but Stoney stays in the middle, silhouetted by the light and chanting his troll song. When the children arrive, they are full of questions: "What do you eat?"
"What is your favorite television show?"
"I don't know what that is."
Stoney tells the children that he is the offspring of the fire of the earth and the fire of the human imagination, and that he wants to know how the farm and the forest are doing. They reply "fine" because they know that the farm and the forest are healthy here. They arrange the requested items beautifully on a tray, and float the offerings down into the dark tunnel. Before they leave, the children agree to take care of the land, and marvel at Stoney's long nose, which is the only feature they can make out in the shadows of the culvert.
Our programs interweave magic and imagination with the gritty realism of contact with cows, worms, and stream insects, and Stoney is an emblem of that process. He allows me to embody stewardship. Since I don't always do such a great job managing my bees or weeding my garden, it's nice to be able to play the role for a little while. The thrill for me, though, comes when children respond in a way that makes it all real. Once a boy who was always running ahead of the group got to the tunnel before the others. He was shocked to see me chanting in the darkness, slowly passing my hands over the surface of the water. He stood there open-mouthed, with his arms widely mimicking my movements. All of a sudden we both felt the presence of something old and important. I don't know if he felt it was the way humans are woven together with the earth, but I did.
In the five years I have been at Stonewall Farm, I have found to my surprise and satisfaction that programs like ours are appearing in many places. Every few months our farm is visited by staff from a start-up education center. We welcome them and let them know that the public is hungry for the experiences and understandings they will be providing.
Still, for all my involvement with farm-based education, I do love the quetzals. The forests, and the wild things that live in them, are vivid to those of us who love to feel the quick of life there, and it is imperative that we bring that awareness to people. But perhaps we might begin by attending to the habitat our civilization has created for its own survival. The feeling of communionwith wild things we seek can be found on the farm, and finding it there we can grow our sense of nature, ourselves, and our place in the land.
David Moon shares the position of education director at Stonewall Farm in Keene, New Hampshire, with his wife, Lisa. They live on Partridge Brook in nearby Westmoreland with their two children, Rory and Lindsay.
This essay was published in the Summer 1998 issue of Orion Afield. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.