By Trevien Stanger
I write to you this evening from the breezy confines of the Common Vision tour bus. Dusk is falling here at our camp-ground on the outskirts of San Diego, with the high crags of the Laguna mountains to the east turning a desert crimson in the sunset. Below the window, just outside, I hear the chattering din of my fellow Tour crew members– they sit beside a forking campfire, headlamps trained upon small white boards in their dirt-caked hands as they sand down the edges, readying them for an orchard-sign painting workshop tomorrow morning. Beyond them, working beneath some towering eucalyptus trees, are two other crew members watering over thirty citrus trees and a half-dozen bags of bare-root fruit trees– peaches, persimmons, figs, apples, plums, and nectarines. Just another evening of Fruit Tree Tour, and as I bite into a piece of citrus as the orange sun finally sets, I begin to set down some recollections for you of my first week on Tour.
But before I go much further, perhaps I ought to catch you up some on what this whole “Fruit Tree Tour” thing is in the first place. The Tour is one of the primary activities of an educational non-profit organization called Common Vision. Operating in California, CV is built upon a desire to address a suite of multi-pronged and interconnected problems– poor nutrition in inner-city schools; urban food-deserts (places where community members do not have access to food beyond that which is available in gas stations and convenience stores); and the lack of quality environmental programming in these underserved areas. Common Vision believes that one way we might to address these issues is to both simple and profound: plant fruit tree orchards at public schools the length of California, and in the process, to use the opportunity to provide students with unique, immersive, environmentally-educational experiences in the process.
Ten years later now, and they’ve done just that– they have planted and now help maintain over 200 orchards from San Diego to Chico, and we’re slated to install another 15 on this tour alone. And that’s where I, the fourteen other volunteer crew members, our two co-directors, and the thousands of school children come in to my tale for you this evening.
The “Fruit Tree Tour” tour is hard to pin down into one sentence or articulate as one sound bite. But earlier today, I found myself trying to do just that. I was digging a large hole at Burbank elementary school, huffing and puffing, knee-deep in the cavity, dirt-flying. Two other volunteers were doing the same in holes to my right and left, with our three holes all being excavated right next to the chain link fence that separates the school-yard from the street. The soil was a hard-packed clay, so our shoveling was slow and arduous– but with a little work song and a cool, Pacific breeze riffling through the single palm tree overhead, we were enjoying the process. We knew that within the hour we’d be planting apple and plum trees in these holes with a couple dozen fourth graders, and knowing that our shoveling was readying that experience seemed to make the dirt lighter and the shovel sharper.
Just then a local teenager swaggered up to us from the street, laced his fingers through the chain-link fence, and asked through the metal diamonds– “What are you guys doing in there? Digging holes or something?”
And there’s the question. And here’s an answer: “We’re planting fruit trees at schools all over California! We’re about to plant a bunch of fig, apple, and citrus trees here with the fourth-graders, as well as paint orchard signs for each tree, teach them about local food, and encourage them to create positive change in their community.” As I say this, I see his expression go from curiosity, to confusion, to intrigue, and finally to a smile.
“Wow, really? I went to this school, and we never did anything like that. Can I come help sometime?” And just then the school-garden coordinator, a sweet woman with the gentle demeanor of a life-long gardener, suddenly chimes in from behind a green-wall of tomatoes in the corner. “Sure! Come on over and I’ll get your information!” and she walked to a door in the fence, unlocked it, and the two began to chat. What was a previously life-less fence, a prohibitive boundary between the street and the school-yard, between the community and the school-kids, had been temporarily dismantled by our presence– and we hadn’t even planted a tree yet.
My explanation of Fruit Tour must continue as the kids arrive. Right at ten am sharp, out they come– sixty fourth-graders, with their frolicking gaits and their lively energies. We hear them coming, as the gregarious din that emerges from them grows and amplifies across the sea of pavement like a rising tide. Their teachers steer the flow the best they can, but the kids present a broad swell of excitement that bears down upon the fourteen other volunteers and I. We are standing in front of our massive, colorfully-painted, 1979 MCI MC-8 tour bus, and they seem drawn to us and the bus as irresistibly as waves seek the shore. And just as it seems the wave of little humans will break upon our heads, our co-executive-director/co-hero of Common Vision intercepts them. With quick wit and some lithe linguistic jujitsu, he has them forming a long line along the pavement, facing off from us like two opposing teams– kids versus the volunteer tree-planters.
“Good morning everybody!”
“Good morning!” sheepish at first, all of them eyeing us and the bus, their little eyes dilating in the bright light of their home terrain– a home terrain suddenly populated by these strange new outsiders and the promise of time outside.
“I said good morning everybody!”
“We’re so glad you’re here today,” Leo begins, and then proceeds to give a brief explanation of who we are– “We’re from a group called Common Vision, and we drive around Califronia in this sweet, veggie-oil and solar powered tour bus you see behind me, and we plant fruit trees with kids just like you!” And then what work we’ll be doing today– “Some of you are going to be planting fruit trees right here in your school-yard this morning, and then some of you are going to be painting signs to go with those fruit trees. We’ll be planting apples, persimmons, figs, plums, and one of my personal favorites–dragon fruits.” There are some excited gasps and confused “huh?”s at that one. “So here we go, when I give you a number one you’ll be going with my best friend Diana-“ and Diana raises her hand, “If I give you a number three you’ll be going with the great TreeJay,” and TreeJay raises his hand, “If I give you a number two you’ll go with the ‘Bearded Wonder’ Travis–” and Travis raises his hand, and on it goes until six groups are made for tree-planting, and then six more are made for sign-painting. I’m on tree-planting– come on over kids, let’s head to our hole.
As mentioned, the hole is pre-dug. The five fourth-graders and I arrive at it to find one large pile of the soil that was excavated in the digging process, and next to that a smaller mound of rich, fragrant, dark-hued compost. The hole is surrounded by what was previously impenetrable shrubbery– an aromatic rosemary and something else I don’t recognize– and our work helps more land become available, providing some more earth acreage upon which the children can tread and play. With the inert sea of pavement that surrounds most urban schools, there are rarely open-patches of land for kids to interact with the dirt, plants, flowers and trees of their home. By digging up under-utilized slices of school-grounds like this one, and inserting into them these wild-leaning fruit-trees, we are inviting non-paved Nature back into areas that have traditionally had no use for it/Her. But unlike a mere “greening” of the campus, wherein some landscapers come in to pepper the grounds with a few more flower features, we are here to help the kids themselves beautify their place. And to do so, and to guide them into the experience, I present them this– a three-foot tall, gaunt, bare-root peach tree. Teehee.
I hold the tree up, say it’s name, pass it once around. The five kids take it in their hands one by one, some inspecting it closely, some running their hands through the roots like fingers through hair, and one boy holds it daintily with just two fingers, concerned that it’s getting his hand dirty. It returns to me and I place it down on the earth beside me and lower myself into a crouch, facing this little circle of little people. Next I ask us all to introduce ourselves by saying our name and our favorite fruit. I also have them draw their first initial in the soft dirt in front of them, both to help me recall their names and so that they may begin to bring their sensing bodies into the experience. Introductions completed (amidst the sounds of similar scenes going on within the five other tree-groups to my right and left), I start guiding us in.
“Okay my friends,” I begin, “my name is Trevien, and I’m here with Common Vision today to help you plant your peach tree. But I have one important question I want to ask of you before we begin.” They stare at me, eyes wide, likely still trying to figure me out– this bearded, youthful adult in a canvas vest smiling at them from the other side of a hole in the ground. “I want to know– why do you think we’re doing this today?”
“Doing what?” one girl asks.
“Well, this. Why do you think we’re all here to help you plant fruit trees today?”
“Because trees are good.”
“Because trees are good for the earth? Like good for the air?”
“Because fruit is, like, good for you?”
And we’re off! Slowly and at the pace the kids provoke with their questions, I lead them to consider four primary ideas that speak to why we’re there planting fruit trees. Depending upon the students age, interest level, and apparent knowledge on the subjects, I proceed to cover the following major points*
(note: these descriptions closely follow the curriculum framework that Common Vision trains us to use with the students, and I am greatly indebted to their years of hard work refining this simple but expansive set of topics to cover when working with kids and fruit-trees)
“Okay, I heard someone mention FOOD. As you all can guess, you’ll eventually be able to eat peaches from this tree. Where do you all usually get your food?”
“From the my house.”
“From the store–“
“–yeah from Walmart!”
“Okay,” I inject, “good. But how does it get to the store?”
I proceed to ask them to consider that most food comes from farms that are quite far away, and during every step of the way, fuel is burned and carbon is added to the atmosphere. This sets up ideas around the importance of local food (and you can’t get more local than growing it at home or at school), the issue of green-houses gases and climate change (burning fossil-fuels in increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which is in turning trapping more heat on earth and changing our climate) and then also nutritional values of fresh fruit. I don’t go too deep on climate change, mostly because I’m not sure they are ready to start confronting the emotional weight of the problem– namely, that the world around them, run by the adults they rely upon to keep them fed and safe, is also a world of deeply complex, daunting problems. Problems that will, inevitably, come down on them.
“Okay, and what’s one more good reason to plant fruit for food?”
“Because fruit is, like, delicious!”
“Now, I heard someone else mention that trees are good for the Earth and good for the AIR. What did you mean by that?” As they answer, I try to suss out their level of understanding around our respiration and the respiration of plants. “Okay, how about this–” and I grab the tree and hold it in center of our circle, “on the count of three, on the three, let’s all take a big, deep breath in together…1, 2,3–” and we all do, our chests all filling and swelling upward– “and exhale–” whooooooshh. “Okay, what gas did we just breathe into our bodies there?”
“Oh, umm, oxygen!”
“Yes!” I affirm, “oxygen! We’re breathing it in constantly, all day every day, even we’re not thinking about it right? Every moment since you were born you’ve been breathing oxygen into your lungs, and every person you ever see, now matter how old they are or what they look like, they’re all breathing in oxygen from the air. But also, I wonder– what do you we breathe out when we exhale?”
“More oxygen? Gas?”
“Oh I know! Carbon!”
“Okay, close,” I say. “We breathe out another gas called carbon dioxide. So every day, every night, we’re breathing in what?”
“Right! And we’re breathing out carbon-dioxide. Now, what do you think a tree does when it breathes?” and I proceed to teach/remind them that trees and plants are constantly doing the opposite, breathing in our carbon-dioxide and breathing out the oxygen we need. I ask them to imagine these fluid, bright blue arrows streaming into their lungs as they inhale, and woody-brown arrows wafting out of their mouths as they exhale. And then we watch the tree as it inhales those exhalations, pushes them through its bark-clad body, and then exhales those pulsing, shimmering blue gases of oxygen back our way. With our arms, we push out breaths and and pull in the next, acting this out. Five fourth-graders and a thirty-two year old man, on a sunny morning, performing some sort of silly thai chi– a practice that is helping us recall our constant participation with the breathing plant beings of the world.
A quickie but an easy get. “Why else are we planting fruit trees?” I ask again.
“Um, because it gives us food.”
“Good, yes, but what else? Like, it’s a hot, sunny day, and you’re running around on blacktop and you start getting really hot. Where might you run to for some relief?”
“To the drinking fountain!”
“Yes, nice, you’re right water is amazing when we’re hot– trees love water too– but what else, if we wanted to get out of the sun?”
“Oh!” one of the quieter girls is suddenly raising her hand frantically, “I know where I like to go!”
“Where is that?”
“Under a big tree!”
“Yeah, you’re right– trees make shade for us! But do you think new trees make shade?” I inquire, pivoting slightly toward another dimension of our work here today– “will this tree we’re about to plant make shade for us later today?”
“Okay, but what about that tree over there?” I ask, gesturing toward the broad-crowned eucalyptus tree that rains shadows over the parking lot like so many cool spears of dark and light. “Was that tree ever really small?”
“Si! It was a baby once!” one boy manages through some giggles.
“Just like us!” says another girl, adding her own giggles to the growing gaggle of them.
“Exactly!” I affirm, chuckling now too, “we all were babies once, trees and people! … So do you think our tree will make shade for people some day?”
“Yes! Like when we’re really old.”
“And will future humans get sit under the shade of this tree we plant?” I inquire.
“Yeah, they will. I don’t know about you all, but I think that’s just amazing, and I’m really glad you’re all doing this today– making better air, fruit, and shade for other people in your community.
“Okay, I think we should get started planting this tree, but before we do, what’s one more reason to plant fruit trees here at your school? I’ll give you a hint– it has to do with Art and Beauty.”
Fast-forward twenty years. Spring-time in California, 2035. Over two-hundred school orchards that were planted between 2006 and 2015 are in full bloom– seen from above, the black-top pavements of the school-yards all pocked with the micro-bursts of colorful flowers abuzz with bees, careening through wavering rich greens of the thousands leaves, forming mini-forest canopies.
Seen from within, the trees’ well-pruned and cared-for branches all sturdy and strong, laden with early fleshy fruit and home to myriad birds and bees.
Seen from below, the once-thin trunks and graft-unions now robust and muscular, the ground that was once compacted dirt and grass now rich in humus and mulch.
Seen from within the soil, the once meager roots now thick and well-established– well-interlocked with mycorrhizal and fully-supported by the micro-biology that booms in the billions.
And seen from the play-ground, kids that were born in 2028 come careening out of class like bees from the hive. They run to swing-sets, to ball-fields, maybe to hover boards, and maybe into these orchards. Like the honey bees noisily at work in the flowers above them, crawling deep into the floral structures and drinking deeply of the nectar, the kids climb around and through the trees, playing games and reading the fruit-varietal names of their trees. They recall the fruit they ate from them last fall, the sugary-contentment they felt as they ate the food they helped grow. They recall the workshops that Common Vision, or some program like it, did with them earlier in the spring to care for the trees, fertilizing and weeding and pruning and making new signs, affirming their role and their relationship to these living, food-providing, shade-creating, oxygen-generating and carbon-sequestering organisms.
And still here in 2015, this group and I still just warming up, just simply thinking about how beautiful these trees will be in an hour, and by next year, when they’ll still be here.
So we begin pawing into the soil with our ten hands, back-filling the hole to ready it to receive the tree– letting our hands get dirty, our heads to become engaged, and our hearts to perhaps become a little more rooted into the toil and soil of this warming and whirling world.
“Okay boys and girls, whaddya think, should we plant this tree?”
…to be continued