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What We Learned in the Gardens

Nathalie Miraval Reflects on Programming for Second-Graders and Cultivating a Sense of Wonder

“You know, they aren’t that bad when you look at them up close.”

“They look like gummy worms!”

“I want to take them home, and take care of them as pets.”

To the parents and guardians of second-graders at Hyde-Addison Elementary School: My apologies if maggots crept their way into your living room.

First, a little background: In October 2016, Dumbarton Oaks launched a pilot garden program for Hyde-Addison’s two second-grade classes as part of a growing long-term partnership with the local school. The visits to the gardens were designed to supplement students’ science education with hands-on activities related to concepts they’d engaged with in the classroom.

I had the privilege of designing the programming, with the help of a number of other Dumbarton Oaks staff and fellows, and when it came time to implement the lesson plans, I personally led the sessions, creating a mobile classroom in the gardens. Over the course of six sessions, I watched as students observed, touched, smelled, picked, planted, dug, and drew their way through the gardens’ numerous rooms. Ever curious, the students inquired about Japanese maples (does Dumbarton Oaks have them?), hawks (where do they sleep?), leaf miners (do they only live in boxwood leaves?), rabies (how and why?), and the gift shop (can we visit?). At the same time, their perpetual questioning started to rub off on me; I began to reflect on nature and my relationship to it. I began to wonder when it became a relationship at all—when nature became something, a substance separate from myself.

Our programming was designed with this sense of separation in mind. We wanted students to interact closely and physically with dirt and pollen, leaves and flowers, insects and fungi. During their first visit, students got to uproot whole zinnias and touch their roots, stems, leaves, and flowers. Then, as an experiment in observation, the students drew their own sketches. To learn about pollination in our second session, they watched as bees and butterflies transferred pollen among the asters and dahlias in the Herbaceous Borders. Our final fall visit focused on photosynthesis; with the help of greenhouse specialist Melissa Brizer, students planted zinnia seeds in Dixie cups and took them back to their science classroom to observe as they grew.

Like the bulbs resting beneath the garden, our programming lay dormant during the winter months. Once the gelid air gave way to the warmer breezes of March, however, the students resumed their visits. They sat under the garden’s cherry blossom trees as Tyler Fellow Deirdre Moore and I taught them about producers, consumers, and decomposers. Strangely, I noticed that the students were less excited by the bursts of pink and white petals above them than they were by the more banal producer that surrounded them where they sat—the grass. I was baffled. Over one million visitors descend on the nation’s capital every year to see the blossoms at peak bloom, and these students had some of the best seats in the house. But, I realized, you can’t roll around in a cherry tree, and as their science teacher Adam Severs reminded me, lawns aren’t a given in the District. 

I think it was this moment that led me to reflect on my own childhood, and, by extension, the nature of our mission at Dumbarton Oaks, and the ways in which we’re able to serve our community. I grew up in Colorado, where purple mountain majesties mark the West, and cornfields and cornfields and cornfields stretch away to the East. As humans are wont to do with what they don’t yet recognize as beautiful, I took my exposure to nature—to rivers and reservoirs, to arid summers and their ochre plains filled with coteries of prairie dogs—for granted. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined a home without grass, drives without the front range, summers without fishing or foraging, capturing and climbing.

Moving to the East Coast for college undid my indifference to the mundane beauty that had surrounded me. As I arrived in Cambridge, the thrill of the new consumed me. I ogled the neo-Georgian architecture in awe, and found the green baths of elms, birches, oaks, and maples invigorating. Part of me even thought this new space was better, that between the crenellated red-brick sidewalks and the rich façades of old apartment buildings opportunity happened, developed, thrived. Cambridge had history, intellectualism, character. Colorado had suburban sameness. But, as I came to realize with time, sameness made me different. I began to appreciate the comfort and safety that come with repetition—with the continuous existence of mountains, and the reliable, unending change of plants. 

These were the changes I wanted the children to see. Over the course of their visits, as the gardens underwent alterations both subtle and sweeping, I tried to draw their eyes to the Forsythia Dell, for instance, as it leapt from static brown into vibrant yellow and then calm green; to the tulips rising like wands where zinnias had once been in the Herbaceous Borders; to the wave of blossoming that overtook Crabapple Hill.

Beside these changes, I wanted them to notice small, particular things. When we learned about pests and decomposers and their role in the food chain, Marc Vedder, a pest-control manager at Dumbarton Oaks, helped the children to tear open boxwood leaves, revealing the glowing orange maggots that lived inside. Leaf miner larvae are shut-ins; they feed on the upper and lower surfaces of leaves before pupating and transforming into flies. (I should also point out, for the sake of any concerned parents, that without its snug leafy home the maggot dies.) Enthralled, the students suddenly transformed into proprietors and staked their claims to these pests: “Mine is wiggly!”—“Mine is sleeping!”

Microscope

The more closely you look at things, the more familiar they become. Yet every now and then, you’ll find a secret strangeness in a thing’s details. Inside the Gardeners’ Lodge, the second-graders examined their new orange friends under a microscope. One student exclaimed that the magnified pests didn’t look so much like nauseating vermin anymore—instead they resembled confectionery treats, bright and bulbous. The students also confronted one of their greatest fears: the bumblebee. Beneath the enlarging gaze of the microscope, the pollen hidden in a bumblebee’s fur suddenly becomes visible—when you look at them up close, they really aren’t that bad.

Being close to nature should involve learning how to care for it, and also recognizing our own impact, known or not, on the world around us. Our last session focused on composting, learning how good soil takes care of plants, their insect helpers, and gardens in general. Students learned what can and cannot go into a compost pile. Cardboard, yes; pizza, no—because, as one astute student observed, “pizza is junk food, and we want to give our plants healthy food, just like we need.”

Using compost from our Kitchen Gardens, the students planted their own sunflowers. Horticulturalist Luis Marmol and I showed the students a print by Basilius Besler and asked them to look closer and closer at the helianthus (that is, the sunflower) until they noticed that the center, surrounded by bright yellow petals, consisted of hundreds of florets. Sunflowers, we explained to little sounds of wonder, are actually clusters of flowers.

Luis Marmol teaching with sunflower

All gardens take work to maintain, but Dumbarton Oaks’ gardeners work harder than most to protect the historical fabric of the landscape, while also adapting to climatic and technological changes. I wanted the students to see how much care the gardeners put into making the garden beautiful, and how beautiful it is to take care of a garden, of a sunflower. It’s valuable for the students to understand how photosynthesis and good soil help a sunflower grow. But I secretly hope that having one of their own might help them understand the values of responsibility that underlie our interactions with the natural world.

Environmental issues can sometimes be tricky to grasp, because they’re so large, because they’re everywhere, because they always appear to be happening elsewhere. I want to believe that the earth isn’t meant to die, ever. But I recently visited Colorado and saw, with quivering concern, that the reservoirs were smaller, the rivers thinner, the prairie dogs fewer. When you’re literally grounded in the study of gardens, and the earth, and the actual soil, I like to think that these issues become a little more real and maybe a little more personal.

I know these are issues that are important to me. As someone absorbed in the humanities, I think a lot about big concepts like Truth and Reality and Meaning. For instance: I cannot say if the world is for us. I have trouble seeing it as an object of consumption, even though I engage in, and benefit from, its objectification and consumption. At the same time, I believe in our responsibility to care for our surroundings, if only because our survival is deeply connected to the space in which we live. We are not apart from the world, but a part of it. We depend on pollination, decomposition, and photosynthesis for the food we eat and the air we breathe. But beyond this, beyond the tangible things that insects and plants do for us, I believe we should respect all the members of our lived community, no matter how small or different, invisible or inane their presence. Maybe that’s an obvious truth, but that just means it’s more easily forgotten.

What will these eight-year olds remember of the gardens when they are twenty-five?  I hope that fond memories—or even just their remnants—of learning among the chrysanthemums and wisteria, alongside worms and not-so-scary-after-all bees, linger throughout their lives. Above all, I hope they retain their sense of wonder. Because, in my mind, wonder, knowledge, and action are inextricably linked, and though it’s true that wonder can come from the grand, sweeping beauty of a lovely view, I know that often the sharpest sense of awe, the memory that sticks with us, comes from discovering the particular—touching the worm, seeing the roots, planting the flower.

I find myself wondering about my wonder: When did worms stop being interesting? When did insects become scary? When did I forget that I was made of the sun?

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