Environmental Sustainability Student Blogger Study USA

Making New (Socially-Distanced) Connections

Elle and Sara standing in a pen with goats

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Sara de Sobrino (she/her) is HECUA’s student blogger for Environmental Sustainability fall 2020. She is student at University of Minnesota- Twin Cities, majoring in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, minoring in Sustainability Studies. Read on for her first post!

As someone keenly interested in environmental justice, the HECUA Environmental Sustainability program has been on my radar for a while. But circumstances were never quite right for me to commit—I had lots of course requirements to complete for my major. I was happy and busy with current jobs. I didn’t think I was interested in agriculture. Then, suddenly I was registering for my final fall semester of undergraduate education and it was my last chance to do the program. But this fall 2020 was poised to be a semester unlike any other. Was the midst of a global pandemic and the start of a global recession really a good time to commit to an off-campus study program?

I think the answer is yes. As COVID case counts increased across the Midwest and large universities like the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities moved instruction online; as the country faced a long-overdue reckoning about systemic racism and white supremacy; as tech company profits rose while ordinary people faced furloughs and evictions; being a part of a small cohort of students able to safely meet in person to learn while grounded in the realities that our communities are facing seemed a lot more appealing than Zooming into a Genetics 101 lecture as though everything was okay, when clearly it wasn’t.

On my first day of the Environmental Sustainability program, I biked alongside the Mississippi River to meet my classmates at Minnehaha Falls for a chilly morning class. It was the most enjoyable syllabus read-through I’ve ever experienced, and we haven’t stopped moving since. Although we frequently in the mornings online for a discussion of our assigned readings to inoculate ourselves in theory, environmental justice is a discipline grounded in a deep sense of place. It just wouldn’t be right to study it only from a laptop screen if we have the ability to safely do otherwise. Armed with our face masks and plenty of hand sanitizer, we’ve made many socially-distanced field visits to learn about environmental justice and sustainability in practice.

I’ve called Minnesota home for almost my entire life, and I’ve lived in Minneapolis for these past few years since I’ve started college. But this HECUA program has allowed me to see my environment in new ways. 

We attended a foraging workshop at Lake Nokomis Community Center led by Ironwood Foraging Co where we learned how to identify and gather all sorts of foods and medicines, like hackberries, plantain leaves, and wild grapes. I realized on a later walk to the park in my neighborhood that a tree I’ve passed countless times is a hackberry tree, and the purple fruits that it drops onto the sidewalk in fall are sweet, fig-like hackberries. I stuffed my pockets full. 

On a later day, we met with Reverend Jim Bear Jacobs to visit sacred sites at Bdote, the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers that is a site of both genesis and attempted genocide for native Dakota people. Listening to Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs’ stories, my understanding of my home yet again shifted when I realized that the stretch of the Mississippi River that I often cross multiple times a week is the site of a creation story thousands of years old. Within an Indigenous worldview, time is neither linear nor separate from space, and so to stand within Bdote is to stand within the story itself.

Sacred Burr Oak Trees at Bdote
Sacred Burr Oak Trees at Bdote. Photo credit, Sara de Sobrino.

I’m three weeks into the Environmental Sustainability program so far, and already I have been immersed within so much. I write this having just returned from a three-day camping trip at Lily Springs Farm, a regenerative farm in Osceola, Wisconsin. I began mornings at Lily Springs reading on the dock (and one day taking an icy morning swim!), and I ended evenings eating s’mores around the campfire with classmates before tucking into my sleeping bag. It’s hard to imagine a better learning environment than that.

I’ve been studying ecology for three years at my university, and so I know the history of glaciers in Minnesota, the importance of fungi in soil health, and how to identify forest plants. But listening to our guides at Lily Springs Farm, I came to the same realization that Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts in her book Braiding Sweetgrass– I’d been learning the names of the organisms that I encountered, but not their songs. At Lily Springs Farm I learned to identify jewelweed as a plant ally whose mucilaginous stem could be crushed to soothe the rash of the poison ivy it grows alongside, and that goats are the best coworkers for helping to clear out invasive buckthorn and the fast-growing raspberry brambles that can easily overwhelm a disturbed forest understory.

I’m excited to learn even more (and spend even more time with the goats) when I begin my internship at Lily Springs Farm next week. This will be my first time working on a farm, and the only food systems class that I’ve ever taken was on a whim and happened to fulfill a requirement for my sustainability minor. Despite my love of food, I didn’t see the connections between ecology—which studies the intricacies of wild systems—and agriculture, which is responsible for plowing over so many of those systems to make room for identical acres of corn and soy. We’re taught that we as humans are apart from, and even antagonistic to the environment.

But there are other ways of looking at things. For over 10,000 years Indigenous people have lived in this area as careful stewards, shaping the land through controlled fires, hunting, and harvesting of plant foods and medicines. The prairies, forests, and savannas around us are healthiest when they are interacted with in these ways. Regenerative agriculture, like that practiced at Lily Springs Farm, can provide for humans while also filtering water, sequestering organic matter in soil, and creating habitat for pollinators and birds. Caring for people and caring for the planet don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and that care is labor that I am happy to perform.

Students gathered at Minnehaha Falls for first day of class, standing six feet apart wearing masks.
First day of class at Minnehaha Falls. Photo credit, Michelle Garvey.

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