Making “All the Difference”

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

An article Priscilla gave to me recently raised a lot of questions about how portrayals of nature in literature shape our views on our relationship with the earth and all of its non-human living things. In his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World,” Philip Loring discusses in detail the idea that throughout time, many different narratives, literary works, writers and leaders have all told us that we are at odds with nature; yes, we need it and all of its resources, but maybe it doesn’t need us. Maybe we cannot live without the natural world, but perhaps it can flourish in an even greater way without our interference.

“Climate change, overfishing and widespread environmental contamination from chemical toxicants are all creations of our own making,” states Loring. He asks, “But are we destined to create such problems? Many people believe so, and argue that our capacity for self-interest, avarice and ecological shortsightedness make us inherently unsustainable as a species.”

In other words, in our constant quest for human advancement, will we eventually just burn out? At some point, is there the possibility that we will deplete the earth, thus depleting our own successful and healthy existence? Loring’s article suggests that this way of thinking is common, but not productive. People aren’t “inherently at odds with nature.” Factors like poverty and overpopulation put us into survival mode; we have no choice but to take all we can from the earth at this point. Does this make us selfish? Not necessarily, but we need to learn how to adapt to create a more mutually beneficial relationship between ourselves and our surroundings.

This brings me to the first piece of literature that I want to relate this article to in the next few posts to come. Since it is a perennial favorite for yearbook quotes and valedictorian speeches and it is that season again, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost feels like a timely choice. The poem reads:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

I think the reason this poem is so popular is because it encourages us to be a real trailblazer, which some may take quite literally. It is often used as encouragement to become a better person, a person who is making better choices and changes for others in the future. I think it is interesting, though, to think about the differences we could make if we looked at this poem as inspiration for how we can change not just ourselves but the natural world during this walk through the woods. This piece may traditionally represent an individual’s personal struggle with decision making, but the little details can help to transport you into the woods, making it easy to envision having to choose between two paths.

In this poem, both roads appear relatively equal on the surface and the speaker wishes that traveling down both were an option. As the poem progresses, they will discover that they chose the less traveled one, so this was the better choice for personal discovery and development. We are all travelers in our own lives, wishing we could venture down all of the paths we can see, but maybe we need to accept that we cannot see and do it all. Furthermore, some things need to be left untouched by humans, and all of the untaken paths do not necessarily “want wear.” At the same time, should we choose to explore new paths, we don’t have to automatically assume that we and those who follow us will just wear these paths away to nothing. I think this is that pessimistic type of thinking Loring refers to; we do not necessarily have to destroy our environment in the pursuit of human progress as many of us may assume. This is counterproductive. We can coexist. We have the power to travel down these new paths and plant new seeds along the way. We can find ways to advance that do not cause so much destruction and be a real example to future humans. This is one way to go down the road not taken without causing harm.

Instead of making a new trail that shows other people “I was here,” we can work to replenish the old, worn down ones and that in itself is an important legacy that benefits not just the individual but also the natural world. The results of these actions would trickle down to humans too, so it would be a real win-win situation! These scenarios do not necessarily reflect the ideas the author had in mind when writing the poem, but they are new roads to consider traveling down to make “all the difference” in how we relate to the earth today.

You can read Loring’s full article at: http://ensia.com/voices/its-time-for-a-new-story-of-humanitys-place-in-the-world/ . Keep these ideas in mind for my next post!

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Dandelion as Rock Star–A Crusade

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I recently got to catch up with my friend Pam Lewis, who mentioned that she was trying to convince her 80+ year old, “green grass crazy” landlord that the dandelions in the backyard of the apartment shouldn’t be removed.

“They are rock stars of the plant world,” Pam told me, “not weeds.”

A dandelion-laced lawn in Pam's neighborhood
A dandelion-laced lawn in Pam’s neighborhood

Of course, like many of our weeds, dandelions were introduced by Puritan, Dutch and German settlers, who saw them as a source of both medicine and food—including dandelion wine.

So if dandelions are non-native, doesn’t that automatically make them unwelcome?

Pam’s research led her to the following website, http://www.georgiawildlife.com/node/3007, from which she learned the following about dandelions:

93 species of insects collect nectar from dandelion flowers, including bees, and butterflies such as sulphers, cabbage whites and admirals.  Ruby throated hummingbirds weave dandelion seeds into their nests.

Seeds and foliage are eaten by at least 33 species of wildlife including 4 different kinds of sparrows: chipping, field, house and song, American Goldfinch, indigo bunting, quail, turkeys, chipmunks, rabbits and white tail deer.

Leaves are eaten by caterpillar larvae of 13 species of butterflies and moths including the Frilliary butterfly, one of the 1st butterflies of spring.

Wine and beer can be created with the flowers.  Leaves are delicious and highly nutritious as they supply Vitamins A, D, and C, potassium, and magnesium.  Dandelion has been found to be helpful for arthritis, has been utilized as a laxative and as a treatment for liver disease.  The milky sap is excellent at removing warts, which Pam thought was especially great to know.

As you can see, Pam’s research seems to suggest that this non-native plant is extremely beneficial, so how should we respond to dandelions?  Should we continue on with knee-jerk removal, or should we learn to understand them as something useful to both humans and other species?

As it turns out, there is a project devoted to just such questions based at Columbia University.  Called the Introduced Species Summary Project, its goal is “to provide information that would help a natural resources manager or concerned citizen to understand the basic biology of a non-native species and whether and how to respond to its arrival.”  (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/invbio_plan_report_home.html) The project grew out of a graduate level Invasion Biology course and a Certificate in Conservation ecology course.  I just love discovering things like this and the Lost Ladybug Project.

There are 95 species included in the Project so far, most of which are not actually just arriving, but have already “become common in at least some areas of the Eastern United States.”  I have noted that there is an entry on both the domestic cat and on humans, both of which I will probably report on in this blog at some future date.

A little "urban" dandelion near the sidewalk in Philadelphia
A little “urban” dandelion near the sidewalk in Philadelphia

But for dandelions, the site confirms what Pam learned—the plant has many benefits, and unlike many introduced species, actually hosts or feeds much beneficial wildlife.  The Introduced Species Summary Project found no ecological threats posed by dandelions unless you just insisted on thinking of them as weeds, like Pam’s “green grass crazy” landlord, who she hopes to convince otherwise with her new findings!

Ravishing Radishes

By:  Priscilla Hayes

During May, 2015, the Garden State on Your Plate program of the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative hosted radish tastings on Wednesdays in the four Princeton K-5 schools.  As the school garden educator for two of those schools, I had the chance for some garden serendipity, connecting our school garden radishes to the radishes being experienced in the cafeteria.

It began with an email from Fran McManus with an idea for planting radish seeds in transparent containers, which would allow students to observe the development of both the root—the radish—and the leaves.  My sister had donated a bunch of transparent plastic gelato containers, which I had Community Park School third graders fill with potting mix.  Then, they carefully planted radish seeds adjacent to the outer walls so we could watch them grow.  As an added bonus, only half the seeds planted were purchased.  The other half were seeds saved by Kindergartners from the Community Park garden itself, and our goal was to see which would grow better.

By the time we planted the radishes in the jars, there were already Kindergarten radishes coming along nicely in one of the Community Park beds.

I checked both the jarred radishes and the garden bed radishes a couple days before the tasting.  The jarred radishes showed nary a sign of any radish root development, just some disappointing white roots.  The gardened radishes were reaching the point of woodiness, but they were lovely on the outside.  Some were developing flowers, which, as I learned from talking with the wonderful Trent House gardener Charlie Thomforde, would soon turn into sweet little radish pods—tasty if we got to them before they fully went to seed.

So, on radish tasting day, all the Kindergartners met out in the garden to pick three radishes—one for each class—to present to Joel Rosa, the Food Service Director of Nutri-Serve Food Management, the company that brings cafeteria lunches to Princeton students.  Why only three?  I explained to the kids that I wanted the rest to go to pods, which we could pick.

Forage Radish Pods
Forage Radish Pods

Joel Rosa was wonderful with the kids, and duly impressed when he learned that we were planning to eat radish pods soon.

A week or so later, radish tasting came to Littlebrook School, my other K-5 school.  I was so excited on that day to discover that our forage radishes, which fourth graders had planted as part of a cover crop mix (more on that another time), were going to lovely, delicate pods.

All three fourth grade teachers responded enthusiastically to my request to bring their classes out for a brief picking and tasting of pods.

I asked the students to answer three questions:

  • Did the pods taste like the radishes they had tasted earlier that day in the cafeteria?
  • If so (or even if not), were the pods milder or spicier than the radishes they had already tasted?
  • If not like radishes, what did the pods taste like?

Very few students—or I, for that matter—actually thought the pods tasted like radishes.  Everyone thought they were milder.  Many students thought the pod tasted like a mini green bean or a pea pod.  I can’t remember all the other answers.

The garden is nothing if not a place for serendipity!  The programs mentioned in this post provide great ways for students and their families to discover this for themselves.

The Garden State on Your Plate Program seeks to not only serve fresh, local foods to students but also to educate them about their sources and growing processes.  The program teaches students about the links between their food, their local environment and the larger world through creating new bonds between students, local farms/farmers and local chefs who prepare food for school tastings.  Learn more at http://www.psgcoop.org/garden-state-on-your-plate/.

Princeton School Gardens Cooperative focuses on hands-on methods of food and garden based education, not just in the classroom, but in the community.  Their goal is to teach every student to be an active participant and take responsibility to understand the impact of their eating habits and food choices on their surroundings.  For great links, articles and resources, visit http://www.psgcoop.org/.