Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Rachel de Sobrino (she/her/hers) is HECUA’s student blogger for Environmental Sustainability Spring 2021. She is student at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, majoring in geography. Read on for her next post!
I will sing the praises of HECUA, Environmental Justice, and our program director Dr. Michelle Garvey all day, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t need and appreciate our spring break. I had to dust off my desk before class this week and make room for my laptop — a good sign of a restorative break. I feel guilty when my friends at the University of Minnesota ask about homework or midterms and I admit that I’m actually spending the next day paddling down the Mississippi River or learning about food justice on a farm. Amidst a year that continues to provide hurdles and tragedies, having the space for rest and transformative learning has been important.
With the warming weather, I’ve been excited that class has taken us outside more frequently, and introduced me to new parts of the city. In the last two weeks, we’ve had two incredible class guests who taught us all about foraging: Maria Wesserle of Four Seasons Foraging and Hope Flanagan of Dream of Wild Health. While I’d been to the Minneapolis Greenway before, I never thought to eat anything I found along the trail. Within two hours, we managed to cover just a quarter mile, stopping to learn about and taste the native plants growing along the sidewalk. When Maria asked what we wanted to get out of the afternoon, I responded “trail snacks” and was not at all disappointed. We smelled cedar and learned of its use in teas, pet the fuzzy leaves of mullen, compared hackberries to the taste of figs, felt for the square stems of catnip, and (some of us) spat out juniper berries which did not live up to expectations. Nature is everywhere — even though the Greenway is an intentional outdoor recreation space, it still bisects residential and commercial areas — not where you’d expect to find native edible plants. The week before, we met Hope at Crosby Farm Park and passed around the leaves and roots of native plants while she told us stories of their histories and uses. We learned how certain plants can be used for fiber, food, and medicine. There is such a depth of knowledge about our landscape, and I left feeling committed to learn the names and stories of the plants underfoot.
While I personally refuse to dress responsibly for the weather, I loved seeing all the small children in snowsuits at the UMN Lab School with Dr. Sheila Williams-Ridge. Under her supervision, the preschool has always had a commitment to spending time in nature, but with the arrival of COVID, this became a much more important goal. Instead of only visiting the playground during recess, children have spent nearly all of their time outdoors, year-round. Kids and staff are well-equipped with winter and rain gear, and become better acquainted with their own bodies while learning more about the weather and landscape. We read an excerpt from Sheila and Julie Powers’ book Nature-Based Learning for Every Preschool Setting. I’ve since read the entire book, and have decided to transition my career plan from Undecided to Farm Preschool Teacher. One of the most surprising things Sheila mentioned on our visit was how they actually had to introduce opportunities for healthy conflict, because there was surprisingly little of it outdoors. Having more space, fewer transitions, and a calming and fun environment not only leads to happier kids, but cultivates curiosity and love for the environment. Sheila doesn’t want them all to grow up to be environmentalists, instead she wants children to bring that love for the planet to whatever fields they choose for themselves.
Another lesson I learned from her book was how creating opportunities to learn about the natural world can help children and parents feel safer creating these experiences on their own. I had a first-hand experience of this phenomenon when my internship supervisor, Kayla, and I found a giant bull snake curled up in the greenhouse at the Amador Hill Farm. I spent the afternoon looking under tables to make sure our slithery friend hadn’t left his warm hideout, but even just being able to identify the snake from my time working at the Bell Museum made me feel much calmer.
We spent our Friday paddling down the Mississippi River, and as I floated along the calm waters, I couldn’t help thinking “this is exactly what I needed”. I had been prepared for a chilly and tiring 12 miles, but instead felt the sun on my face and lamented that we were leaving the water too soon. I returned home with a sunburnt nose but gratitude for the river and respect for the deep history that we paddled through.