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“A Small Space: Campus Gardens as Sites for Social Change” *

I’d like to begin with a quote from a new “sacred text” I’ve been

reading: Trees of Power, by self-described arboreal ally

Akiva Silver: 


“The problems of the Earth are overwhelming. Looking around I can see my government engaged in a never ending war, tar sands stretching across western Canada, deforestation of the tropics, and demise of polar bears, climate change, nuclear proliferation, drones killing families, child soldiers, dolphins caught in nets, hydraulic fracking, the poisoning of the Niger River, the melting of the Artic, hemlock wooly adelgids, mountain top removal, and a wasteful culture accepting all of this irrelevant destruction. It can get a person down.” 


BUT: “It is overwhelming unless we work within our personal spheres of influence and trust others to do the same.”


This is what I want to talk about today in this presentation titled “A Small Space: Campus Gardens as Sites for Social Change”. That sphere of influence. That realistic assessment of what we can do, as one small person, in collaboration with other small persons (human and non), in one small space, to make small good change. 


Akiva Silver again: “My sphere of influence is determined by my inspiration and my reach. . . . We can create real change if we are not overwhelmed. I can work efficiently and productively within my sphere. The ripple effects of my work may carry much farther than I imagined, but I cannot get caught up in trying to save the whole world.” 

I turn to a favorite writing prompt of mine here; the one inch window, from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. I ask students to make a one inch square hole in the middle of a piece of paper. We hold it up and look through it. What do we see through this parametered lens? Not a vast field of vision, but only a small part of the whole. It’s a tool for writing and for life. You are not responsible for the whole story, Lamott says, only the part of the story you can see through a one inch window. Start with that. Start small. 


In 2017 I took a three year leave from my job at the University of Maine Farmington, a rural, 2000 student public liberal arts university within the University of Maine system to go to Divinity school.  There were two things happening in my world then that I felt an urgent desire to somehow address: One, Trump had just been elected president, and two increasingly, as a professor, I was witnessing a change in my students—they seemed overwhelmed. Confused. Paralyzed. Anesthetized. Apathetic. Anxious. Depressed. 


I mean, who wouldn’t be, in a world that we have recently learned has been so unbalanced by human water extraction that the planet is, literally, off-kilter. 


I thought perhaps I could learn something by studying the worlds wisdom traditions that might help them and help me understand better how to not only survive this feeling of being crushed by the immensity of the problems we face, but to discover how I might, how they might, be of use in creating a livable future, for themselves and the planet. 


The way I articulated my reason for going to Divinity School was that I wanted to learn more about compassion—how we could live differently and more harmoniously with each other and the rest of the earth’s creatures. 


We were encouraged as MDiv candidates to think of our work out in the world as “ministry,” very broadly speaking. I liked the word a lot. And we had fun with it. One of my peers said she was going to start a pizza ministry after she graduated. The meaning of the word is so fraught with religious and bureaucratic overtones—but it is worth reclaiming, I think. A ministry is action coupled with sacred vision. A minister a servant, an agent of change.  I wasn’t sure what my “ministry” was or was going to be, but it gradually revealed itself through the classes I was drawn to like ”Apocalyptic Grief and Radical Joy”, “The Tree At the Center of the World: Sacred Trees in World Religious Traditions,” “The Politics of Storytelling,” “Knowing Animals: Toward a New Buddhist Interspecies Ethics,” and “Earth-Based Religions.” My course papers and projects included a syllabus for a class in my campus’s arboretum: “The Wisdom of Trees: Sylvan Writing,” a course paper titled “Jesus and the Compost Pile,” and “Imagine That” a paper about using our imaginations to bridge the gap between ourselves and non-human others. 


I defined my ministry in the end as to encourage love for the natural world in this and future generations. I could do this through my role as a teacher—it was within my sphere of influence. I could also do it by helping to finally launch a long-wished for campus garden, something faculty and students on my campus had been noodling around for a decade.  I wrote a grant application to the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust in Boston and got $6,000 and when I returned to teaching in Summer of 2020 in the midst of Covid another faculty member and I began developing curriculum around the garden and along with our students, started building it. 


We now occupy a 60 x 50 space that was once the site of the Creative Writing House on campus, with 12 raised beds, a pollinator bed, and a greenhouse. It is 100% student designed and built, and has employed more than a dozen students. It has provided opportunities for authentic interdisciplinary experiential education and connection with the larger community. We harvest approximately 100 pounds of produce a year that is donated to local foods banks and the on campus Thrifty Beaver Co-op, or given away to students and faculty. We hold an annual fundraising seedling sale where we sell seedlings for $1. We are an official Maine Harvest for Hunger and Maine Master Gardener Volunteer site. All of the compost we use comes from our Sustainable Campus Coalition community compost initiative and is created from UMF dining hall food waste. It’s the only place on campus that has blooming flowers. The garden has become, in the words of faculty colleagues and community members, the best thing to happen at UMF in a long time. 


Money is not the biggest challenge for the garden. What has been the biggest challenge is the process of “transformation of consciousness” --getting other people—colleagues and administrators and students—interested in and excited about the garden as a resource, and getting connected to the community web of farmers, gardeners and food justice workers. It’s taken three years, but this is all happening. 


Let me end with the good news: The administration of my institution has partnered me with the universities grants consultant and we are in the process now of working with them to get foundation support for the garden and its mission. In the current financial climate that my university is in, this, I realize, is huge. They are paying the grants consultant to work with me. And even more recently, I had a conversation with an uncharacteristically cheerful Provost who told me that the President’s Council is “surprisingly positive” about the possibility of expanding the present garden to other sites on campus. 


Yesterday at this conference I was on a panel reflecting on the work of David James Duncan, who gave the opening plenary on Sunday. I focused on David’s nonfiction from the collections God Laughs and Plays and My Story As Told by Water. In these essays about many things including the beauty and imperiledness of rivers, of salmon, of our planet, David weaves together insight from the world’s wisdom traditions with his own environmental and writerly passions: One thing he keeps returning to, because it is one thing the world’s wisdom literature keeps returning to is the power of the small. 


In the essay “No Great Things,” he quotes Mother Teresa.  “We can do no great things, only small things with great love. Great things lead to undoable things, whereas small things lovingly done, are always within our reach.” Ask yourself, he writes, what small thing can I do today with full attentiveness and love? This is such a fundamental spiritual fact.  


As I continue to make a case for the garden in working with the grants coordinator, I’m being asked about quantifiable aspects of what we do in order to justify and legitimize the garden and convince granting agencies to support our efforts: how much food does the garden produce, what is the rate of food insecurity among our students and in Franklin County, how many community partners do we work with, how many students have been to events in the garden, etc. Those are all important facts and numbers, but to me it’s the unmeasurable things that speak most profoundly to the importance of this small space. These are the unquantifiable transformations that might begin with putting a seed in the soil.


And, as Akiva Silver said, we don’t know what impact our small actions will have. We do know, however, that it’s a natural law that actions create consequences. A stone dropped in a puddle will create a ripple of water that will circle outward until it touches the shore, and then it will rustle a blade of pond grass and the dragonfly resting there will rise up, and then what? A pea seed poked into the soil on a chilly late April day in Maine will swell and burst and shoot greenly upward, flower, develop pods, feed marauding deer, and perhaps a student, strolling through will pick a pod and eat it and realize its sweetness. Who knows? 


*A presentation delivered at the July 2023 Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) Conference in Portland, OR

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