We sat in the shade with half a dozen bright eyed Kindergarteners, just three women and six children that day. The October afternoon was warm and breezy, still more summer than fall, and I found myself wishing I had brought cold drinks for everyone.
The day’s lesson was about seeds and how they relate to flowers and, ultimately, the foods they become. I passed around a huge, heavy, bright orange pumpkin and several pumpkin blossoms, deep yellow and frilly, impossibly related to that massive fruit. The kids touched and sniffed and made sweet, cooing, observant sounds, their immense brown eyes fixed alternately on everything they held and then on me. I passed around stems of tomato plants, each loaded with tiny, yellow, star shaped flowers. I sliced open a few juicy tomatoes and showed them the almost imperceptible white seeds inside. We examined purple, leathery hyacinth bean pods, which they needed some encouragement to tear. The beans inside were reliably glossy black with perfect white spines. Gorgeous tuxedo gifts. I watched to make sure no one ate one, ha! But they only rolled the treasures around in their curious hands.
We scrunched the papery crumples of zinnia seed heads and shared a bouquet of those Technicolor flowers then moved on to tomatillos, which are so fun to de-husk. Tiny fingers are adept at peeling quietly, and they had fun doing it. One brave little boy volunteered to manage the Tithonia seed heads, which our fair reader may already know are famously stout and prickly when dried.
As the kids explored and absorbed the many details of seeing, touching, smelling, and weighing the various seeds and flowers and their final growing products, their teacher encouraged them to more fully describe everything. She asked them beautifully precise but open ended questions that produced long, effusive answers in broken, cheerful English. I almost cried a few times, and I am not sure why. Maybe it was just the pure joy of seeing such young, innocent children enjoying nature. Maybe it was the simple intimacy of so few people sitting quietly in the shade. Maybe it was the memory of being in the garden with my own girls, now twenty years past, or the possible future thrill of sitting with bilingual grandchildren, in the garden, talking about food and flowers and watching them learn everything about this immense, gorgeous world.
After a little while in the shade, we wandered over to a collection of raised beds to plant new seeds. The students used wooden Popsicle sticks to carve little furrows in the soil. They scattered the miniscule seeds, sometimes with impressive focus and sometimes with understandable abandon. Then they watered. Oh my heart. If we thought that trading roly-polies and earthworms was their favorite garden activity last week, it is only because last week we didn’t have time to do the watering. The plastic watering cans are almost half as big as many of their five year old selves. And filled with water, those had to be some of the heaviest burdens these cuties had ever carried. But not one of the kids shrank from the task. They heaved and tottered and limped from hose to bed, sploshing and sprinkling as they went. A few exclaimed and squealed about their wet school uniforms, but overall the soundtrack was giggling. Soft laughter backed by sunshine and new experiences.
We made our way through the tasks at hand and talked about how important water is for the plants and seeds to grow and be happy. The kids connected easily with the idea of being thirsty then feeling refreshed by a glass of water. One little girl named Stephanie promptly refilled her plastic can and struggled over to a kale leftover from last season. She said affectionately, almost in a whisper, “There now she’s having a drink.” The kale was taller than her, yet she insisted on watering it from as high up the green, ruffled tower as she could manage, not at ground level. She walked away soaking wet and smiling ear to ear.
We had time to marvel at some expired sunflowers, towering toward the clouds and nodding like they were asleep, dried stalks as thick as my wrist. I had the kids hold their hands out like bowls and scraped my thumbnails against the sunflowers’ sky bound faces. Dusty seeds poured out like a spell into their waiting hands, and because the lesson was all about seeds and seed planting, they knew exactly what to do. “I need my little stick!” Amy said with some urgency, her long black braids flying as she looked left and right, and when she found her tool she got right to work carving a place for those seeds. Then Stephanie watered them.
How beautiful it all is. The huge squash blossoms that become massive, flavorful, vitamin rich pumpkins. The clusters of tiny yellow flowers that, with some water and sunshine and time, become a string of versatile, delicious tomatoes. Beans! All that protein and beauty wrapped in such dense, hard little packages. Flowers for beautifying and feeding. Children for teaching and nurturing and loving.
I have been thinking more and more about the world of flowers and vegetables, all the same, fascinating photosynthesis and so much beauty and purpose. Food for the birds and pollinators, definitely, but also, beauty as a purpose in and of itself.
All kinds of flowers use their multi-faceted beauty to draw in their needed audiences. We know about the birds and the bees and how they are attracted to colors and flavors that suit them so they can get on with the business of pollination and propagation, etcetera. But this lovely afternoon with the Kindergarteners reminded me that people are included in this symbiosis, too. Plants draw us in with their beauty, whether we are conscious of it or not. Their colors and fragrances, the never ending variety of shapes and patterns and textures, all of it woos us and bring us close enough to see them face to face. Close enough to understand them better and tend to their needs so they can tend ours. What a miraculous relationship.
I believe that every time a young child experiences nature up close like that, the world is made better, safer, more aligned with its original design. Life for that boy or girl instantly gains potential for greater enjoyment, better mental and physical health, and deeper artistic experiences. And life for their entire future purview might now hold more balance, more attention, and saner systematic choices. They could grow into better stewards than we will ever be.
We take care of what we love, after all, and it is so easy to fall in love with Nature. She sees to that.