#vted Reads with Aimee Arandia Østensen

This show is a little different. Listeners, I want you to think of this show… as a pre-show.

Let me explain.

Today I’m joined on the podcast by Aimee Arandia Østensen and we start discussing the book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I say ‘we start’ because once we were underway it quickly became clear that everything Aimee and I wanted to say and feel and share about this amazing book could never fit in one single episode. So I’m going to say this is a beginning of a conversation about outdoor and place-based education, the concept of becoming indigenous to a place, the magic of Superfund sites, and how we are going to encourage ourselves to hold each other *capable*, rather than accountable.

And that means you, listener. I am holding you capable.

I’m Jeanie Phillips, this is Vermont Reads: books for, with and by Vermont educators.

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me, Aimee, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Aimee:  Hello, I’m so glad to be here with you, Jeanie. Thanks for inviting me. So I am a first generation Filipina-American educator. I grew up in upstate New York, taught for about 20 years in New York City, as well as in the Catskill regions of New York State. And now I work for Shelburne Farms as a facilitator in professional learning and education for sustainability.

Jeanie: Oh, that’s a great introduction. You are so much more than that! To me, you are like one of those wise humans that I look to as a beacon. Thank you so much Aimee, for joining me.

And I have to admit, I’m really nervous about this episode.

Because Braiding Sweetgrass is one of my very favorite books ever, says the person who really loves books. So I’m worried that I won’t be able to do it justice. And the only thing that is setting my mind at ease is that I’m having this conversation with one of my favorite educators ever: you. And so I feel like, since you’re here, we can do this justice.

Aimee: I feel the same way, Jeanie. And the only way that I can approach this work and honoring Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work is to, as a learner to sit in the seat of a learner, but know that I’m always eternally in the process, and digging more into what it means to be in this world.

Jeanie: Yes. For our listeners who may not have encountered the wonder that is Robin Wall Kimmerer and Braiding Sweetgrass, let’s give a little summary or a snapshot of this book. The tagline is: “Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teaching of plants.”  How would you describe this book for folks who are new to it?

Aimee:  I love how Robin Wall Kimmerer does those three things that she put out there and she gives voice to simply being? As well as the value of Indigenous knowledge. And weaving a contemporary perspective into all of that. So that it has meaning for everyone.

The thing that I love about this book is so much of what she writes in this book is simply about how to be human. And how to learn from the world about what it means to be human in its most exemplary form. And so, it’s relevant to everyone, despite your background and your perspective.

Jeanie: You said that beautifully. I think what I would add is that Robin Wall Kimmerer grew up in New York State.  She is an Indigenous person herself. So, she grows up with this wealth of tradition and knowledge from her family. From her tribe, from her people. And she always knew she wanted to be a botanist.

And so she goes to college, and she has to really fight to get the degree that she wants. She’s not immediately like, welcomed into the scientific community, but she becomes a botanist and a lecturer. And so she has these two really deep fonts of wisdom: this scientific knowledge that she gets as a college student, and this embodied wisdom and knowledge that comes from her people. And the way she weaves them together is so beautiful. And so “both and“. She walks the “both and” way of being in the world.

Aimee: I also feel that in her walking the “both and,” it’s a model for all of us who are not self-described as people who are native to this country, or Indigenous here, to see the past, the present and the future of Indigenous peoples in this country. As well as weaving our own stories into the stories that she tells and shares.

Jeanie: That’s delicious. So, I guess approaching this episode has been really challenging for me, because there’s so much in this book. How do we use it as a tool to inform teaching and learning? Specifically: place-based teaching and learning?

I guess I have this overarching question that I don’t think we’re going to be able to answer in a few minutes but maybe can be the frame for our whole discussion. And that is: How might a teacher use this book to understand the world differently, or to expand their understanding of the world? Very specifically going outside the door to the world in order to inform your teaching practice?

Aimee: I think what Robin Wall Kimmerer does throughout her entire book is speak to this relationship between self and land. Really there’s this underlying sentiment that: what is the quality of that relationship we have with the land? And how does that inform our actions, our decisions for the present and for the future, and the world that we want to create?

And so for educators — especially folks that are embracing, perhaps a place-based education approach — the beginning of exploring how place can be the context for our academic content and the action of learning and teaching? That is the seed of how we design for curriculum. I want to pause there because I’m not sure what I said actually made sense. *laughs*

Jeanie:  So Aimee, I have two questions. And the one I want to start with is: how do we define “land”?

Because there is this idealist inside of me that when you say that? Sees some rolling meadow but maybe not my own backyard, or the space between the sidewalk and the street, out front of my school. Will you just give us a definition of what you mean when you say a relationship with land?

Aimee:  Yes. As an educator who worked in urban settings for a really, really long time, I think of one end of the continuum of what I mean by “land” at this point, could be the neighborhood. Could be stepping outside the door of the school to explore the sidewalk. And what we can discover there on the block that the school is on, looking at the buildings across the street, looking at the buildings we inhabit, from the outside of the school building view.

It can start with just stepping outside and exploring our neighborhood. Maybe walking around the block seeing:

  • what business is there
  • who’s living there
  • who’s walking by

Getting to know the people in the neighborhood and in the area, not just as figures whom we pass by but individuals with stories to tell, and gifts to share.

A relationship with the land starts with opening the door and stepping outside.

I’ve entered into numerous discussions with a shared friend of ours, Judy Dow, who’s an Indigenous educator and scientist — and for me, mentor. And she’s also been a guest on #vted Reads.

We’ve had many conversations, she and I, around the use of the term, “land” or “landscape.” And often in our shared teaching, I would encourage people to get outside and look at the landscape and do a survey of what’s available to you in the landscape that you see. What questions are there? What are the things that we could find out more about?

Jeanie:  I could ask you about the rooster in your landscape whose making a little bit of a racket. He wants his voice heard on the podcast.

Aimee: Yes! *laughs* He is part of my landscape and part of my relationship with this plot of land right here. And he is persistent in his intention to be known, and part of my daily rhythm. I’m welcoming my friend —  I think his name is Fuzzball — to this podcast as well as to this conversation.

So, Judy and I had entered in these conversations about “landscape” as a term versus “land.”

And the difference that I’ve come to understand is: “landscape” is the environment and the way that we experience a natural or built place that has been intentionally shaped by humans.

At Shelburne Farms, where I work, their landscape architect was brought in to create an experience that we have with that specific place. The natural geographic forms and the topography still exist, but they have been intentionally altered so that our experience is with a built landscape that appears natural.

The term “land” as Robin Wall Kimmerer and Judy Dow refer to it, is more all-encompassing. And goes beyond the human formation of our environment to include all of what has been given to us by the natural world. And… all of the relationships that are possible within that site.

I’m hesitating here because I think that there’s a bigger definition that I’m not quite grasping. So Jeanie, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we might be determining what we’re talking about with land in this discussion.

Jeanie: What I love about this book is that Robin brings us essays from all different sorts of land sites and learnings and teachings. She talks about her relationships with all sorts of land features, right? Or specific places on the land.

For example, a pecan grove becomes a place of story, for learning. The field where she grew up, where wild strawberries grow, becomes this really significant place for learning. The maple trees around her house in upstate New York, and the sugaring that happens there, which we can very much see as a place that many Vermont educators think about when they think about land, right?  And a garden.

But there are also these sorts of unconventional places, I guess I would say. And one of them that really struck me — and I was trying to find which chapter it’s in. But she visits a place where the land is reclaiming what was that like a Superfund site alongside a lake. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Aimee:  I absolutely know what you’re talking about. And that chapter, “The Sacred and the Superfund,” describes the site of my childhood.

I grew up alongside Onondaga Lake and experienced it as a Superfund site. And did not understand that it’s also a sacred site until I had left the area and came into the moment where I needed to start teaching about the native people of New York State, and started learning about the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and that that sacred lake was the site in which the Confederacy was formed, and indeed the seed of democracy in this country.

So it’s particularly interesting to me to explore this concept of relationship to land and place-based education through that lens of *my* relationship to that particular site, and how it is, in some ways, quite symbolic of all of our relationships to specific sites and to land in this contemporary era.

Jeanie: It just makes me think that there’s this part of me that sort of interprets, if we’re going to do place-based learning, the place has to be perfect, or the place has to be beautiful. Right? But recently, there was a story about a landfill on Staten Island that they just let go for 20 years. And the Earth has taken it back.  Right? And so, that’s a place we can learn a lot from. Landfills are a place we can investigate, right? And so just because they’re not pretty, or we’re not proud of those places, doesn’t mean they’re not places that help us learn about our relationship to the Earth and to each other. And that we can’t learn from the Earth and its place and what’s happening there.

Aimee: I think you’re absolutely right, Jeanie, and that with anything that we endeavor to be in relationship with, we can only begin when the conditions are perfect.

We just have to begin now, in whatever situation we’re in, in whatever conditions around us because that’s the only way that we can begin creating a future that’s more sustainable and more equitable and creates thriving conditions for all. And that brings me full circle back to why place-based education is so important.

If we begin to build relationship with the places that we inhabit, from the earliest ages, and as a kind of centering action and education, and that’s how we can start developing the future that we need as a global community and in our local communities, because without being in relationship to the places we inhabit, then we’re creating a parallel, uprooted, disconnected future and pathway for ourselves, which is not a pathway that will be successful in the long-term for all of us.

Jeanie: I think what I’m hearing you say, Aimee, and correct me if I’m not hearing you accurately is that just like, in schools, we work with kids to build community and relationship with each other, and with us as educators because that’s a life skill they’re going to need. That, building a relationship with place is something that’s transferable no matter where they go.

But learning those skills of how you develop a relationship with place is an essential skill for good living.

Aimee:  Yes, absolutely. And I think that is one of the outcomes of place-based education. That the ways that we build relationship and the places that we’re in and with the people whom we share spaces with? And our understandings of the systems that play within that smaller scope? Should be and can be transferable, wherever we find ourselves in the world, as we move through our lives.

Jeanie: I think what really relates to the first essay in this collection. This is a collection of essays and I suspect that you and I can spend days talking about each one. But I want us to highlight a few of those essays. And the first essay in the book right after the introduction is called, “Skywoman Falling” and it’s an origin story from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s people. She’s Potawatomi, is that right?

Aimee:  Yes, I believe that’s correct.

Jeanie: And so in this story, Skywoman falls. And all of the animals are sort of helping create a place for her because she needs the land. It’s really how the land is formed itself, speaking of land, which we were just talking about.

I’m not going to tell the whole story, but when Kimmerer shares it, she says, “Children hearing the Skywoman story from birth know in their bones the responsibility that flows between humans and the Earth.”

And she continues by saying that the story provides a compass. And that the work of living is creating a map for yourself. This seems to me like the rationale we were just discussing about why place-based learning.  And I’m wondering what you think about that Skywoman story and about this idea that we need, stories about place and relationships with Earth in order to create a map of living for ourselves.

Aimee:  I find the tool of map-making and map-reading to be so essential in bridging the gap between self and place.

*Fuzzball crows in the background*

Aimee: I believe my rooster agrees with me.

It’s a tool that can be used from the earliest ages in school all the way through post-graduate level. With the youngest students that I’ve worked with, we often use map-making as a way of just exploring our immediate space. It might be 3D map-building with blocks and different items and arranging them and understanding that we, as individuals move through a space and are in relationship to other things. It’s not just me in this world.

Then as students get older, they start to see the relationships between things that are beyond themselves, and how they’re interconnected.

And then older students begin looking at the multiple layers of systems that are happening within a certain place and understanding how those systems operate independently, but also in connection with one another. With other systems.

If we can orient ourselves and who we are and how we are within all of those systems and the relationships that exist? Then I think that would be an amazing outcome of our education system. Because that would then give us a compass for decision-making in the future, in thinking about what the vision is a collective vision of the places that we want to create.

Jeanie:  That was really beautiful.  And it makes me think that in this case, she’s talking about a story from her people? But that there are all kinds of stories we can tell about place, right?

I’m thinking of our mutual friend, Walter Poleman, and the story he tells about the geology of Burlington, or the thrust fault on Lake Champlain. Right? And that helps us better understand the relationships between — in that case I’m thinking about the rock, the soil and the cedar trees, that grow there along Rock Point in Burlington.

Similarly, we have all these stories, the stories of the people in the place, the story of the animals in the place, all these origin stories that come from different cultures, geological sources. There’s like, so many layers of story that can help us find this compass for how to live in a place.

Aimee:  There are! And I think one of the things that Robin Wall Kimmerer keeps coming back to is the multiple roles that land takes on.

She’s talking about land as teacher.

Land as mother.

Land as healer, land as gift-giver — there’s so many different ways in which the land behaves in relationship to us.

She also talks about this reciprocity piece in that relationship. I would extend the understanding of land in this context, to go beyond what we’re typically used to talking about as land as an it? But welcome the thinking to expand to land being a she; what if land was a family member? I think that’s something that Robin Wall Kimmerer has put out to us to consider.  If we think of being in relationship to the land as if it were a family member, how would that change how we behave in that relationship?

Jeanie:  That takes me right to another essay, which is “The Gift of Strawberries.” Because of your reference to reciprocity and gifts and that deeper change that happens.

Robin Wall Kimmerer grew up near wild strawberries and harvested wild strawberries every year for her father’s birthday to make strawberry shortcake. This essay is one of my very favorites.

She talks about how a gift economy is different than our traditional economy, than a money economy. Than a capitalist economy. I love this from page 25:

“Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. The field gave to us, we gave to my dad, and we tried to get back to the strawberries. When the berry season was done, the plants would send out slender red runners to make new plants. Because I was fascinated by the way they would travel over the ground looking for good places to take root, I would weed out little patches of bare ground where the runners touched down. Sure enough, tiny little roots would emerge from the runner and by the end of the season, there were even more plants, ready to bloom under the next Strawberry Moon.”

She talks to you about how much more we value something that is a gift than if we just purchased it.

Aimee:  Absolutely.  And this notion of the land as a gift, or the gifts of the land, as opposed to… “ecosystem services,” I think is the term? It shifts the way in which we receive.

So, strawberries being the example. If we receive strawberries as a gift, we value it in a certain way. We consume it with a certain reverence.

If we think of it as something that we buy in the store — and she goes into this in her essay — then it’s an exchange of goods. It’s an economic exchange, where we assume that the relationship is concluded. Once we’ve exchanged strawberries for cash. And that is an incredibly narrow understanding of the reciprocity that is potentially there if we bring this sense of gratitude and gift-giving to what the world has to offer.

Jeanie:  It’s so important right now when we’re thinking a lot about sustainability and the sustainability of the planet. I think one of the things she says is that if it’s strawberries I’m purchasing, I want more for my dollar. Right? Like, I want as much as I can get.  But if something is a gift, I might be able to say, “Oh, this is just enough.”  Right? “Look, I don’t want to be greedy. I don’t want to take it all.” You know? “I want to be able to share.”

As opposed to that exchange economy that she’s talking about. Like, I want as much as I can get for my, you know, my money.

I think that this idea of reciprocity and enough? Are important lessons from this book.

Aimee: They are absolutely important lessons and also have applications to all of us in this extremely capitalist culture that we live in. That is centered on consumerism. “The more you have the better!” Which is extremely problematic.

The fact is that the nation that we live in, the United States, has an abundance. And it’s incredibly upsetting that there are so many that live within this country that don’t have enough when we’re living in a time of such great abundance.

It really puts into question the value system that needs to be paired with our capitalist system in order to recalibrate and rebalance how we live in terms of our economy so that more people can thrive and not just people, but also our more-than-human community members.

Jeanie:  That brings to me this other quote again from the Sky Woman story:

“Our relationship with land cannot heal until we hear it’s stories.”

And it makes me think our relationship with each other and with the more than human can’t heal until we know each other’s story.

Aimee:  This notion of storytelling is so engaging in that it’s a gift. That we each bring to each relationship that we enter into. We may come empty-handed, depending on the privileges that we enjoy, or do not enjoy.  But we all come with a body full of stories that we’ve gathered from our own experience as we walk through life? But also through our ancestor’s stories and the people that came before us whether they’re in direct lineage in our family or from the places that we have lived and the people we’ve met along the way.

Jeanie:  That feels like to me – and Kimmerer’s book really sings to me in this way of, what would it be like for us to ask students and students families about their stories on their lands, in this place. And thinking about rural Vermont, but also Winooski, and Burlington, right? Bennington. What is it for those families who sugar each year? Or what is it for families who hunt, or fish, or forage? What is it for families who have a little plot in the community garden because they live in urban places? What are their stories of places? Even concrete spaces, which are places?  And what would it be like to center those in our curriculum?

Aimee: I think that’s a lovely way of inviting in that element of youth voice into what we do in the classroom.  Because even if a child is five years old, they have their own stories and their own ways of seeing a place.

And let’s say that that’s the same place that I as the teacher experience? That child’s view, and their whole collection of stories are going to be entirely different than my collection of stories. And I think that’s endlessly fascinating, to make that personal connection to what we’re learning and sharing in the classroom.

Jeanie:  So I wonder if, given all of that, if you might define for us, for the listeners, what education for sustainability is? And specifically, if you might — I don’t know, I’m going to ask a lot of you, Aimee, but — I wonder if you might imagine out loud for us. An EFS unit, an Education for Sustainability, lesson or period of time in the classroom, that centers students’ stories.

Aimee:  So, Education for Sustainability is an approach to teaching and learning, which holds the improvement of our community and our relationships central, right?  The goal of education for sustainability is creating a more just and sustainable future for all.

*Fuzzball crows loudly in the background*

Aimee: *laughs* If we think of sustainability as being a goal that we’re continually moving towards, that we’re never fully sustainable, but we’re moving towards this idea of being in balance, such that the way that we live today enables many generations into the future to have a sustainable lifestyle as well. To live in a way that’s just. And allows people to continue their cultures in the future so that all beings human and more-than-human can thrive? Then education for sustainability is teaching in such a way that enables kids to have the knowledge and the skills to understand the multiple systems that they live in to make decisions so that we can have that just and sustainable future as well as a more just and sustainable now.

So, your second question!

Thinking about a time that centered student stories in my teaching.

As a second grade teacher, we conducted a family study every year. And there are many elements of that.  But one of my favorite things, was asking students to bring in an artifact from their family, and then share the story of that artifact.

Often the artifact would be something from a person’s father or mother.  Or maybe it would be a kind of an object that the family used in ritual, or in their weekly or monthly or annual celebrations.

One of my favorite artifacts that a student brought in was a wooden spoon. And he shared the story that cooking is a very important tradition in their family, and that cooking certain foods was a passed down tradition.

This wooden spoon was passed down from his grandmother to his mother and now down to him.

And with the use of this wooden spoon, they would cook traditional foods together and share them. And so, this child brought this specific artifact to the class, told the stories that he had learned from his mother and grandmother as a way of weaving the past into the future, but also amplifying his own voice at the same time.

In reciprocity, the other students would then share back, after hearing his story. They’d talk about the connections that their family and they experience in relationship to his story and his sharing of this artifact.

Other stories and artifacts that children shared might have been a story in which a father battled a snake and was threatened, but then managed to overcome that situation. Then the artifact that the child shared was a snakeskin.

Another were letters from people that were important to his grandmother. And then he had the time to sit and read the letters with us and talk about his relationship with his grandmother.

This is a way that was intentionally designed to bring those stories in from individual students about their families so that we could collectively build a broader, deeper understanding of what family meant. What we then could do to encourage others other ways within our small class community that people experience their life.

This is absolutely something that I could not design on my own. I could not create a collection of stories to share with students that I would presume would reflect their experience of what it’s like to be in family.

And in addition to building our understanding of concept of family, we’re also building on literacy skills.  They’re engaging with their family and other relatives in interesting conversations that go well beyond the classroom and indeed take them to places well beyond the address of the school.

Jeanie: That leads me to that chapter on, “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho.” Seems like you know that well, it’s the story of plantain, a plant we could find just about anywhere in Vermont. Any grassy space in Vermont.  And the reason I’ve been thinking about this story is because I just bought a house in Burlington on Abenaki land.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about colonization and grappling with my own identity as a settler colonist, right, in this land. So buying this home was fraught for me, right? And so, this chapter, I think, “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place,” I think offers some gentle advice for me and I wondered if you would talk a little bit about that.

Aimee:  I also love this chapter and the title of “Becoming Indigenous to Place.”

As a person that is a first-generation American, I am someone who feels uprooted from her place and throughout my childhood did not feel as though I belonged in the places that I was living. I’ve now come to understand that: we are all indigenous to someplace. It may just not be the place that we’re living in currently. And that this idea of indigeneity is not just an idea for brown-skinned people. It’s for everyone.

And I love that Robin Wall Kimmerer offers up this model of the plantain and a story of how we can each become indigenous to the places in which we live or the places that we choose. I think that limitation on our understanding of becoming indigenous is often a reflection of our limitation on time, and how we can see the time.

So she talks about the plantain as becoming indigenous over a 500-year timespan. And that’s just something that’s beyond our comprehension as people who might live 75 years. But that’s the timeline that we’re talking about in terms of “becoming indigenous”.

No, it does not mean that I won’t be able to become a Vermonter. It doesn’t mean that I have to wait the seven generations that I’ve been told that I need to wait.

I think the lesson of the plantain is that through conscientious awareness-building, I can learn how to become into meaningful relationship with the community in which I live, the natural and the human community. That there are ways of becoming indigenous within my lifetime. And it’s not an issue of nationality, or necessarily the culture that I embody. But it’s about how I’m being in relationship with the place and the people that I’m living with.

Jeanie: Oh, I love that. I hear so much of that and I’m reading about maintaining this idea of being of service. Plantain can be food, it can be medicine, it’s good for insect bites and cuts and burns.

And Robin Wall Kimmerer says, every part of the plant is useful even the seeds are good for digestion. And I’m just going to read a little bit. Because for me, this is really good advice. This is from page 214.

Writing about plaintain Robin Wall Kimmerer says,

“Our immigrant plant teachers offer a lot of different models for how not to make themselves welcome on a new continent. Garlic mustard poisons the soil so the native species will die. Tamarisk uses up all the water. Foreign invaders like loosestrife, kudzu, and cheat grass have the colonizing habit of taking over others’ homes and growing without regards to limits. But Plantain is not like that. Its strategy was to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds. Plantain is so prevalent, so well integrated, that we think of it as native. It has earned the name bestowed by botanists for plants that have become our own. Plantain is not indigenous but “naturalized.” This is the same term we use for the foreign-born when they become citizens in our country.”

Who knew that I was going to seek to be like a plant that I’ve known since my earliest memories like plantain, I grew up with plantain everywhere in Pennsylvania. It’s a plant I’ve known forever, and that it could be such a humble teacher.

Aimee:  I love that passage as well Jeanie, it’s one of the ones that I highlighted because I think it offers insight to all of us whether we are descendants of the European settlers, or we’re new to this country, or if we are Indigenous roots here in this country. There’s so much to be learned from this single plant.

Jeanie: It makes me think too in my conversation that you referenced earlier with Judy Dow.

I’ve been thinking a lot since I’ve become friends with Judy, about stories and place.

And thinking about, if we’re going to be educating students in Vermont’s Abenaki land.  How might we learn by centering their stories of this place? And I know Judy has a beautiful collection of stories that she has on CD.

I know she uses them in classrooms to tell the geologic story of place, right? They reference specific places in Vermont? But also how to be in relationship with this place.  Since we can learn a lot from the Abenaki, how to be in good, in right relationship with this Vermont place, these Vermont places. This land here.  And so, I’m curious about that and how that might play a role in place-based learning here. Do you have any models that you might share or how to do that one?

Aimee:  Well, I think the main lesson in all of that is to question:

  • What stories are we hearing?
  • Whose voices are they amplifying?
  • And whose voices are missing?

So much of my education as a child — and what I see still happening in many places in schools — is that the stories of the European settlers are the ones that were told and that are repeated. And that are passed down.

And that is a valid story. It is a valid perspective. And it’s important.

But it’s not the full story.

And it’s not inclusive enough to really build a deep understanding of our places.

There are so many voices that we’ve abandoned and dropped and extinguished and ignored for so long.  And it’s an incredible time right now that there’s so much interest and energy around amplifying other voices that we haven’t heard from in a long time, or perhaps not ever.

So I think the Abenaki voices in Vermont are something that should definitely be leaned on as we develop more of a place-based learning focus. As well as amplifying all the other voices in Vermont that we don’t always hear about.

Jeanie: Yes. Thank you for that.  It makes me think of a class I just took on other ways of knowing, where we looked at indigenous science.  And I’ll put a link, and I’m not even going to remember the name of the person who delivered this talk.

But this beautiful talk about the way in which science was conducted in Indigenous communities in this country and what is now the Americas, right? And the way their understanding of the world and around them showed up in architecture, and in story, and in tapestry …and in art.

It makes me think about, you’ve been using the R word of “reciprocity” and I know our friend Judy Dow uses the R’s in her article on the Narrows, right, she talks about responsibility and the relationship and reciprocity and a couple other R’s in there.

But the one that really emerged in this look at native science was resonance.

How does, what’s happening in place, in land resonate for us?

And so, we see that sometimes in the way, I think, in stories about Indigenous medicines, right? In the resonance. I think we see a lot about resonance in this book where Robin Wall Kimmerer is talking about how the land resonates for her and her family.

Aimee:  I love the R of resonance being brought up in this conversation because I think it really speaks to a sense of being present in the moment that is so often rushed away. Because we have these time pressures. If we have these 45-minute classes that we have to move through content. In that there’s just so much for us to do on our to do list and shopping and laundry and whatever it is that we have to do, that we don’t take the time? To tune in to the resonance that may exist for us in any given situation.

And the resonance I’m thinking of is in terms of our relationship to the natural spaces we’re in, but also in the social fields that we inhabit. The resonance that we feel between the people that we’re sharing spaces with. And if we just took that moment to take a deep breath, and notice and be present, it might help us to understand all those dynamics better?

But also to see the situation we’re in a little more clearly.

Jeanie:  The way my heart is hearing it is relationship takes time, relationships between people, but also between humans and more than humans in the land, right, if that takes time, too.  And we often don’t give it the time it takes.

Aimee:  Yes time, and time is such an interesting notion. That it can be just a moment; just a breath. Or it could be about the long-term view and going back and looking at how my relationship for example, in this place that I’m in right now has changed over the past seven years. How I’ve impacted the land and how the land has changed me, and how I perceive of myself, and how I experienced the world.

And then there’s this idea of time in relationships. Time in the development of a community, and the movement of a community, and the changing and understanding of a culture.

Jeanie:  I just said goodbye to a home of 20 years, and there was a lot of… I had to find ways to express gratitude to that place to specific places, especially that changed and shaped me. I was a new mom when I moved to there and raised my son, who’s now twenty. And the mountain that I lived sort of in the shadow of, this lake that I spent so much time running around it, swimming in it, boating on it.

And I had to take offerings to these places. Around the West River Trail that I spent so much time on. These places are still so significant to me even though it’s been several weeks since I’ve been in them.

And now forging new relationships, I can really feel that sense of changing character of how we are in relation with place. This book, really re-reading this book, in preparation for this conversation brought up a lot of those feelings I’ve been having as I let go of my habitual, my day to day these places that nurtured me so regularly.

The time piece also brings up for me my very favorite chapter, the chapter that when I listened to the audiobook I just sobbed through, and that reading now just still brings tears to my eyes. Not in the sob way but just like… It was like a complicated mix of joy and sorrow,  grief and joy and love and admiration. All of the things. And that’s “Allegiance to Gratitude.”

So this chapter is where Robin Wall Kimmerer shares the entire, I think the entire Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address, but she commentates on it as well.

She explains that she digs into what’s the meaning of this story that’s told through the Thanksgiving address. And the way that this timely — long, it takes time — address that they use in this community school, the way it helps to forge that deeper relationship with the land and all of the inhabitants of land. How does that chapter strike you in?

Aimee:  I also am incredibly moved by this chapter and the beautiful way in which she weaves the original text or the original address with this view of how kids today are experienced.

And it’s not all beautiful.

It’s kids fidgeting and kids being impatient, but at the same time, learning how to listen. And especially she says, in the time when we’re accustomed to sound bites and immediate gratification.

So there’s this relevance of the now, and the past, all sharing the same space.

And there’s also this other component of it, in which she compares it to the Pledge of Allegiance, which is what I grew up saying.  Which I could repeat right now, because I did it so many times, but is actually quite meaningless to me. Like that I never attributed any meaning to it. It was never a process for me and with me in terms of how it might relate to my daily existence.

So, I deeply appreciate this chapter as she goes through the Thanksgiving address.  And it describes how young people are creating meaning, through this process of experiencing the Thanksgiving address.

This is part of the relationship of myself to the world because Onondaga Lake was such a big piece of my childhood and my upbringing. And at the time, as a Superfund site, I was given the messaging about how the water from this lake could kill me.  It’s laden with mercury, don’t eat the fish.  Don’t swim in it, don’t go boating on it, you can collect stones and shells off the shore, but don’t touch the water.

So it became this kind of antithesis to relationship, to environmental features to water, which can be so purifying.

And now that I have a more full understanding of the significance of that sacred lake, beyond it being a Superfund site, I am understanding that that is part of my story of who I am and how I’ve come to do what I do today.  But also about my relationship with that lake is not finished. And that I have a responsibility to engage with the healing of that lake and the restoration of it as a part of my pathway as well.

Because it is in me, it’s under my nails and it’s in my cells and I need to accept that and honor my relationship with that lake.

Jeanie:  That’s really beautiful.  I’ve been putting forth all my favorite essays, there are more that I adore. Is there one you want to pull forward?

Aimee:  I’ll give you my short list of the ones that I have been rereading.  So clearly, “The Sacred and the Superfund” is definitely one that I’ve been rereading. The idea of, “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place” has been important to me lately.  And also the idea of “Putting Down Roots,” which is another essay in that section.  And lastly, this section on a “Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide” has been kind of pulling at me, especially as we head into the November elections this fall.

Jeanie:  I need to reread that one. I did reread the maple moon one, “Maple Sugar Moon”, which really touched me deeply. This whole process of sap-making with her daughters, and their way of going about it in the wild.

And it’s one of the chapters like “The Three Sisters” chapter that I feel will have direct relevance already to what teachers are doing in the classroom and how they might approach it from a place-based lens.  Or an EFS standpoint.

This whole book is delicious.

Thank you for sharing your highlights because the ones I haven’t read recently, I’m going to go back and reread.

I’m going to go back to that first guiding question we had. That overarching question about how might a teacher-educator use this book to expand their understanding of place in order to inform their teaching practice or inform place-based learning with their students.

I think for me, one of the answers that has emerged from this conversation with you is about learning with, learning alongside. And that doing our own short of workaround place and how our relationship with place with students is really powerful instead of knowing the answer? About going out and exploring together.

Aimee: Yes, I do think that this book amplifies the idea that there’s so much to learn from and with outside the school walls. And that place, land, community: they are all teachers. We as teachers sometimes feel so isolated and feel like we have too much on our shoulders, too much to carry forward.

The times when I felt most supported as a teacher are the times when I thought, well, I’m not in this by myself, I don’t need to have all the answers. Robin Wall Kimmerer offers that this answer in terms of place-based learning that the answers are out there in the world, but we need to learn how to listen. And we need to learn how to see.

So, if those are the skills that we teach students through place-based learning, all we need to do is give them the opportunities to build that relationship.

Jeanie:  That was not your rooster, what was that?

Aimee: That was my hen! Her name is Brownie, she’s one of our third generations.  And she is announcing that she just laid an egg. She’s very happy about it.  And now, she’s trying to find where the rest of the flock is so she can reunite with them.

Jeanie:  Okay.  So, I think what you just said about, I was really inspired by what you said before Brownie led me astray, which is that the teachers are out there.

And I think for me right now, in this moment, the chapter that’s like, I feel the need — I’ve read a couple times — that feels really informative to me as an educator.  And what I do is “Asters and Goldenrod,” where Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about what she wants to do, how she has this really beautiful question.

That question is: why do asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together?

And she’s told that’s a question for artists and not for scientists.

And then she goes and becomes the botanist that she most wants to be.

This book really warns me about how do I keep my heart and my mind open to the potentials in our students, and the questions that give them life and that call them to be their true selves to their purpose in the world?

Aimee:  I think the answer to that beautiful question is partly gratitude, right?  Keeping our hearts and minds open to the gifts that are right in front of us, the gifts that we’ve already received and the gifts that those future students, or the students of today can offer us as learners and humans sharing this space. One of our friends from Hawaii Kamu, I recently had an opportunity to co-facilitate with him.  And he offered up this phrase from one of his teachers, which is: “to hold one another capable.”

And that has been sitting with me these past couple of weeks of thinking about when I engage with students or colleagues, how can I hold them capable?

Part of that is thinking about what the gifts that they bring.  And part of that is about, okay, what space am I creating so that they can develop their gifts and use them in ways that can generate positivity and growth and restoration and space for the emergent. The wonderful emergent that we don’t know can happen.

Jeanie:  That’s beautiful. To hold one another capable. I’m going to sit with that a long time.

 

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

What do you think?