By: Priscilla Hayes
I have the great privilege of being a part-time garden educator for two K-5 schools in Princeton, New Jersey, a town that has had a commitment to garden education for over a decade. Generally, I am rushing around one of our school gardens either prepping a garden bed for a class that is coming out in 15 minutes or using a few spare minutes to weed and mulch. But, I had a few minutes to just sit in the Community Park School “Edible Garden” one beautiful day this fall. I had set up for a weekend garden event and was just waiting for people to arrive. On a bench in our classroom/seating area, I enjoyed the rare opportunity to slow myself down.
For all my protestations about people just needing to get outside and observe more, and my tossing about of the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” I was rather shocked to find the garden full of critters—birds, bees, butterflies and more, all acting as though I weren’t there.
Only a few feet away from me, a quite bold squirrel flung him or herself off a tree branch onto one of our tall and lovely corn stalks, grabbed tight, and waited as his/her weight bent the stalk down to the ground.
I’m pretty sure that’s when I called out, “hey you, squirrel!” It did occur to me, irrationally, that we needed a better name than just “squirrel” for our little friend, but in an instant, I had discovered who was stealing the corn from our corn patch. I wasn’t going to let our new friend steal another ear of corn, at least while I was sitting there!
True confessions: having saved an ear of corn, I somehow magically believed the squirrel (or squirrels) would never steal every one. But our squirrel did just that, scattering empty husks around the Edible Garden.
I had been planning to bring the fourth grade classes out to pick our lovely Indian corn, from seed donated by my friend Zane. But, having been reminded that a garden is not another human room, but a place where we are invited to share space with lovely living things, I created new lessons to let the kids experience the same reminder.
I asked each fourth grader to solve the mystery of the corn theft. Each student had to find clues to the thief’s identity, and use them to come up with a conclusion.
I also created a game of “critter bingo” to ask the kids to see who else besides our corn thief was sharing the garden with us. Students didn’t actually need to see a critter, but had to come up with clues that suggested that critter had been there. From the kids, I learned where every hole in our fence was, and the location of some probable rabbit or vole holes. We had a great discussion, considering seriously even the possibility that deer might have been here (in spite of our very tall deer fence). There are probably still some kids who believe the deer steal in by dark of night.
In spite of my many years of being a gardener, and in spite of my burning desire to get kids outside more to experience nature, it took observing the squirrel to remind me that the critters and the plants are much more full-time residents of the garden ecosystem than we humans are. We humans count mainly as visitors. The critters and plants freely invite us in to spend some time in a place that is shaped by humans, yes, but even more by non-humans—from the living soil, which contains more organisms per square inch than any other segment of earth—on up through the wonderful shading trees.
I am indoors as I write this, dreaming my way into the lovely private CP Edible Garden at a time when the ground is frozen. Me and the kids are really going to pay attention to the garden’s full-time residents this year, looking at the underside of leaves for insects, marveling at the small black voles that just love to hide under a flat of parsley plants and slowing down enough to see the birds. Of course, we also have to come up with our name for the squirrel, one that will describe what he/she teaches us.