One of my readers asked what my students and I did for Earth Day this year. I am glad for the reminder to write about it.
We met early on a Saturday morning, on a day that promised to be sunny. About twenty-five students stumbled onto the bus, most of them looking as if they had gotten out of bed just minutes before. The bus ride wasn't long, and I could see students looking out the window with interest as we left the city and wound our way though hills. Yellow spring flowers – coltsfoot – bloomed along the roadside as we drove onto sovereign territory, land governed by the People of the Longhouse.
We gathered first at the cookhouse. Plantswoman greeted me with a hug, and Friendly Eyes, a dark-haired man with a big laugh, welcomed the sleepy students, teasing them and saying that they had better come in for some coffee. A couple of women we'd never met before greeted us warmly, putting fruit out on the counter and juice. "Come have something to eat and drink," Friendly Eyes kept saying. Three little kids, with dark hair and lively eyes, joined us, weaving their way in and out amongst the college students.
Originally, we were supposed to help plant some trees, but the snowstorm earlier that week had suggested that it was too early. Instead, we were going to the big vegetable gardens behind the homes of the elders. Some of the gardens were to be expanded this year, and we were assigned the task of clearing brush. Friendly Eyes handed out pruning shears, saws, and gloves. We split into four work-groups and went off in four directions, clutching the maps Friendly Eyes had drawn for us.
We talked lazily as we worked, everyone savoring the sunshine. "It feels so good to be out of the city," students kept saying. Many of my students come from rural areas and small towns, and living in Snowstorm City all winter seems confining to them. Clearing brush is such a satisfying task: we clipped and chopped, we raked and gathered, we piled sticks and stalks into tall piles to be burned. I overheard Enthusiastic Student talking to a young girl, asking her to teach him the phrase "Thank you" so that he could use it at the end of the day.
Even though snow was still piled in the corners of yards, the sun grew stronger as the day went on, and before long, we'd all stripped down to t-shirts. Bare arms are not ideal for clearing brush, but the feel of sun on winter-pale skin is well worth a few scratches. No one had thought to go out during the snowstorm earlier that week to buy sunscreen, but a few of us had bottles of water, which we shared. Enthusiastic Student told us that ElderWoman had told him that they would feed us lunch: "Reciprocity, she said. She insisted."
The little boy I was working with kept showing me cool things like the galls on last year's goldenrod. We cut one gall open to see the insect still inside of it. Plantswoman was distracted by the reddish brown branches of dogbane in one field. She broke one branch apart to show us how strong the plant fibers were; they can be used for all kinds of things. She gathered some and piled it into the back of her van. As we drove from one site to the next, the dried pods opened and the wispy white wishniks danced in the air all around us.
As the day went on, we all grew hungry and then hungrier. None of the students had eaten much breakfast. By the time we'd cleared several large areas, we were sweaty and pleasantly tired. We returned to the cookhouse, which was filled the delicious smell of simmering stew. The women had prepared a feast for us: platters of sandwiches, big bowls of salad, fresh rolls and juice, and hot stew made with potatoes, carrots, onions, and chunks of buffalo meat. PlantShaman explained to us that they keep a small herd of buffalo, sometimes as many as forty, and a buffalo is sometimes slaughtered for meat.
The students at my table ate an alarming amount of food. "It's so good," Baseball Cap kept saying. "It's so nice to eat real food and not dining hall stuff." Since we'd been working in three separate areas, we all traded stories about the morning, and compared scratched arms and sunburns. The little kids who had joined us were no longer shy, but happily sitting amongst the college students with their own plates of food. PlantShaman, hearing all kinds of questions, took some time to talk to us about her culture. "There is a tradition of friendship between us and white people," she said.
No one wanted to leave. Friendly Eyes went out to talk to the bus driver and urge him to come in for a plate of food. Dark Blue Shirt kept saying that we were fun to work with. PlantShaman patiently answered questions. We talked about dance and government and lacrosse. Eventually, we did climb onto the bus, several hours later than scheduled. The students, with sunburned faces and bits of brambles clinging to their clothes, their bellies filled with food, settled into the seats with contented sighs.