When I was nineteen years old, I dropped out of college, took the subway to the airport, hopped on the first flight to Spain, took a train out to the country and started walking, carrying only a change of clothes and some books I’d been meaning to read.

Two days into my adventure, I found myself at the crest of a hill overlooking a field of olive trees. The earth was a patchwork of red soil and bleached stones. The green olive branches rustled in the wind, and their silver underbellies shone like natures’ tinsel in the white sun. The sky was brilliant blue. The whole, saturated scene took my breath away. There were no people, no cars, no houses, no marks of human civilization for miles, save the olive trees, planted with care in neat, unending, rows. I spent a day walking through that valley. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life.

Everyone asks about the hows and whys of that trip. But I didn’t care then and I can’t drum up much caring now. What I remember is the wind tugging at my heels, the feeling that I could reach up and touch the sun as I walked the plateaus of the Sierra Nevadas, the fields of insistent wildflowers, the buzzing of their besotted companions. In those few months, nature lit a spark in me that had been dead a long time. Everywhere I looked, I saw life. I talked to the trees, to the birds, to the breeze. Every step became a prayer. I was by myself, but I wasn’t alone.

There is a sudden joy that seizes a person in the moment of discovery. This joy is the essence of learning, and it is intimately bound up with love. Where our heart goes, our interest follows close behind. A child might say he has no interest in geometry, but he can draw a perfect five-pointed star around the name of his secret crush. Teachers spend all day fighting the natural instincts of children in order to keep them in the classroom. But, I bet, if you bring them outside, and give them space to breath and move and play, they will fall in love with nature, and then that little spark will blaze up again, and they will give you their attention because they trust you to do something worthwhile with it. And maybe you can show them how to use geometry to plan a garden. Or how apples have perfect five pointed stars inside them.

This has been, as usual, a round about way of getting to the point: school gardens are a brilliant idea, and every school should have one. I was lucky enough to spend three days this month at a conference of local educators who are working in different capacities to integrate gardening and sustainability education into their curriculum. Over sixty teachers, farmers and community organizers from around the state, along with representatives from the Center for Ecoliteracy in California, gathered at Waimea Middle School garden to swap stories, strategies and lesson plans. Some have long established gardens, others are still in the planning stages, but all of them see the need to connect children with the natural world, both for the sake of their mental health, physical health, and the health of our planet. 

Hawaiian cultural studies kumu at Waimea Middle School, Pua Case, reminded us that some day we will be old and gray, and these children will be making decisions for us. Each teacher, each parent, each mentor should ask him or herself, “Have I taught this child well enough? Have I shown them what is special about this place, have I told them the stories of these islands? Do they know enough to make the right decision about which land can be built on, which land can be farmed, and which land must be protected?”

Hawaiian culture revolves around the value of “aloha ‘aina” or love of the land. This love is not a passing sentiment, a summer fling, or a fair weather affair. It’s a deep-seated commitment to the wellbeing of the earth, which sustains us like a parent. Love and interest go hand in hand. The more a child is brought outside to learn, the more opportunity is there for the child to fall in love with the beauty of nature, and to take interest in it, and by exploring more deeply, to fall more deeply in love with the special arc of the hills, the sway of the valleys and gulches, the sound of a timid stream building to a river and the rush of that river towards the ocean. We need this knowledge of the earth, this sense of place, to guide us in our decisions. We need to teach children that the earth is living, and is teeming with and supporting millions of other forms of life, of which we are only one. So we should step carefully, and choose wisely, and be generous with the time and attention we give to Mother Earth and all our siblings.