Local schools work with Nolumbeka Project to nurture pollinators

  • Tom Sullivan of Pollinators Welcome shares information with students in an Erving Elementary School classroom during a 2018 program. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Reading buddies from Erving Elementary School’s first and fourth grades peruse materials about native bees. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Students at Erving Elementary School planted a wild mini-meadow on their school grounds, sponsored by the Erving Conservation Commission, in partnership with the Nolumbeka Pollinator Protection Project. Their work included raking in compost. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Students at Erving Elementary School created seed balls by embedding seeds in balls of mud, to be thrown into their school’s wild mini-meadow at a later date. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Each Erving Elementary School student took home a bag with seeds, potting supplies, and a booklet about attracting and supporting pollinators and native plants. Kits were provided by the Nolumbeka Project with a grant from the Erving Conservation Commission. COURTESY/ERVING ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

  • Tom Sullivan, of Pollinators Welcome, demonstrating to Erving Elementary School students how to scatter seeds in their wild mini-meadow designed to attract beneficial wildlife. COURTESY/ERVING ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

For the Recorder
Published: 10/25/2021 4:55:42 PM

“Our grandchildren will inherit this mess,” a common refrain in response to contemporary ecological crises, can evoke a mix of dread and gratitude. Dread, because planetary crises are indeed dire, and gratitude, because it seems that humans are finally waking up to the heavy consequences of overconsumption and ignorance.

If the antidote to despair is positive action, students at five local schools are helping to heal our planet with guidance from members of the Nolumbeka Project, whose mission includes valuing cooperation with the natural world.

Young people at Four Rivers Charter Public School, Colrain Central, Hawlemont Regional, Erving Elementary and Hatfield Elementary schools have participated in Nolumbeka-sponsored programs over the past two years, focusing on improving the plight of pollinators.

“We focus on concern for pollinators as an example of the reciprocity inherent in the mutually beneficial relationship between plants and their animal pollinators,” said Dorothea Sotiros, a Nolumbeka Project board member and the group’s treasurer.

School presentations include a video introducing pollinator science, as well as the dissemination of a booklet, “Plants and Pollinators of the Northeast,” which offers students images of and information about various plant and pollinator species. Sotiros was instrumental in producing the booklet, and said students are also given a take-home packet of pollinator forage plant seeds.

The project’s importance is highlighted for students and their teachers by storyteller Jesse Bruchac, a Nulhegan Abenaki citizen from eastern New York state who shares lessons for living in harmony with the natural world.

The Nolumbeka Project aims to amplify Native voices and to offer insights into an Indigenous view of the world, one “recognizing the personhood of all beings,” according to the group’s mission statement.

Of Nolumbeka’s collaboration with Bruchac, Sotiros said, “Jesse is a compelling storyteller, as well as a musician and Abenaki language instructor. He shared resources that enabled us to include Abenaki names for plants and insects — in addition to native ways of using plants — in the booklet we produced for young learners.”

As participants in the project, students at both Erving Elementary and Colrain Central schools planted gardens of pollinator forage plants.

Talia Miller, Colrain Central’s service learning coordinator, spoke of her school’s work with the Nolumbeka Project: “The first in-person presentation was scheduled to happen in the spring of 2020, but we weren’t able to go forward due to the pandemic. Fortunately, we had a virtual presentation last winter.”

Nolumbeka members helped Colrain students and teachers plan their pollinator garden.

“The partnership gave us a broader understanding of the cultural significance of pollinators and native plants, as well as scientific information that helped us create a thriving garden,” Miller said. “It’s so helpful to have a community partner like the Nolumbeka Project presenting a genuine issue for students to address.”

It was Colrain Central’s first service-learning project involving every student, Miller said. “Pre-kindergarten through sixth grade … they all helped create the garden and, as a result, they all feel ownership and pride. We worked hard over the course of a few weeks to plan and create the garden. During one week, we kept at it through both chilly days and sweltering days, transforming a neglected patch of grass into a thriving habitat for pollinators.”

Miller noted that students now “frequently visit the site during recess to see what’s happening.” Additional projects connected to the garden are planned for this year. Students and families surveyed to determine which service-learning projects were most memorable cited the pollinator garden as a favorite project.

A first-grader named Willow said, “The Pollinator Garden was my favorite, because I got to plant my plant.” Another first-grader, Violette, said the project felt important, and Violette’s mom shared that she was glad to see her kids learning about environmental issues while young, noting that “they get to be a part of a solution, which makes them feel good.”

Maureen “Rinky” Black, who works as a paraeducator at Erving Elementary, shared recollections of a project at her school in the fall of 2018. “The Erving Conservation Commission sponsored the installation of a wild mini-meadow on our school grounds in partnership with the Nolumbeka Pollinator Protection Project.”

Black recalled when Tom Sullivan, of Pollinators Welcome, “visited reading buddies in our first and fourth grades to do some pollinator education, which was followed by the muddy installation of our mini-meadow. Other students were involved in site preparation and seed ball making, constructing bee nest boxes and cutting pithy stems for egg laying.”

Students read about native bees, raked in compost, scattered seeds and thoroughly enjoyed mixing seeds in with mud to form the balls to be scattered at a later time. After the pandemic shut down in-person visits, they benefited from online programming.

“Last spring, we went back to school in person, but still weren’t able to welcome outside visitors. So Tom Sullivan consulted with (Nolumbeka Project board members) Dorothea Sotiros and David Brule to offer a wonderful virtual session of pollinator education to all of our classes,” Black said.

She added, “We were fortunate to have Jesse Bruchac for online stories, too, which was great, because we were disappointed when Bruchac’s in-person visit was postponed by the shutdown.”

Black said that Erving students and teachers “loved the wonderful take-home bags assembled by Dorothea and friends, and the extraordinary booklet Dorothea published on native plants and pollinators. We even got seeds and potting supplies for every student in the school!”

Black expressed deep gratitude to the Nolumbeka Pollinator Protection Project, the Erving Conservation Commission and Tom Sullivan “for all they’ve provided to Erving Elementary School. We look forward to continuing our partnership with them to promote conservation of native bees and plants.”

No stranger to issues related to the environment, Black has worked at Erving Elementary School for nearly 40 years. “I consider myself an amateur naturalist,” she said. “I’m always learning.”

She’s been involved in several citizen science volunteer opportunities, including “monitoring bluebird boxes at Northfield Mountain and taking stream temperatures for the Millers River Watershed Council.” She’s also learned a lot through her membership in the Athol Bird and Nature Club, which she describes as “a most generous group offering field trips and monthly presentations about a variety of topics.”

Black has gardened at home for years “with mixed success,” but credits both Tom Sullivan and her retired colleague Pam Ososky for teaching her about gardening with a focus on native flowers and plants.

“In consultation with Tom, Pam and I installed a beautiful pollinator garden in front of our school in 2015. It was meant to be — and is registered as — a Monarch Waystation, but the garden also hosts many native insects throughout the season.” Black said she and Ososky continue to maintain and upgrade the school’s garden.

Black also credits her colleague Becky Allen, who’s done “a lot of the technical legwork in order to host the virtual presentations. Becky was also instrumental in working with older students to prepare the mini-meadow site for the younger workers, and constructing the bee nest boxes with students. She also continues to support vegetable gardening at school.”

Retired and current Erving Elementary librarians Jane Urban and Pam Burke also deserve credit, said Black, for providing many books to support the programs on pollinators.

Black grew up in Greenfield and has lived in Erving since the early 1970s.

“My maternal grandmother helped instill my love for nature,” she said. “I spent many school vacations on her farm, hoeing potatoes, chasing butterflies, exploring streams and gathering mushrooms. Now I work to instill that love in my two young grandsons. One is hooked, but the other is resisting.”

Black plans to keep trying, both with her relatives and her students.

Sotiros is pleased with results of the school collaborations, and looks to the future with plans to continue and to expand.

“We want to broaden our approach to include multiple aspects of Indigenous knowledge that mesh with school and camp curricula, like Native uses of plants for food, medicine and fiber,” she said, adding that the Nolumbeka Project is “planning an event with Farm and Garden Camp in Amherst for next April.”

She noted that the seeds of many native plants ripen in the fall and need exposure to our cold, snowy winters if they’re to germinate in the spring. “This fall, campers will practice sowing seeds of pollinator forage and other useful plants in pots in preparation for spring planting in the camp’s garden.”

Jesse Bruchac will return to the area in April, said Sotiros, to “share stories of the arrival of spring, the practice of giving thanks, and some of the ways plants can be used for food and fiber — all coordinated with camp curricula. We want to bring this program to more schools and camps in the coming months.”

Sotiros expressed gratitude to the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund and the Susan A. and Donald P. Babson Foundation for grants supporting the Nolumbeka Project’s programs for young people.

She grew up in San Diego amongst a family and community of Greek immigrants.

“All of my relatives had gardens or orchards,” she said.

Sotiros also recalls how deeply her grandmother missed her family and home village in Greece.

“Maybe that helps explain why I’m so interested in respecting Indigenous practices and philosophies,” she added.

When asked to share perspectives she has gained from studying Indigenous worldviews, Sotiros said, “Mainstream modern cultures tend to view the Earth and her resources as commodities. The exploitation of these resources — devoid of guidance provided by an Indigenous view of the world — has led to our current catastrophic crises of species loss, pollution, climate change, famine, conflict.”

Sotiros and her colleagues subscribe to teachings as expressed by the author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose best-selling 2013 book “Braiding Sweetgrass” became the focus of many a book group around the world: “An Indigenous way of looking at the world may be invoked by choosing to see the Earth’s resources as gifts that deserve care and inspire gratitude, and by practicing keen observation of living beings. Close, mindful observation of nature supports understanding of the ‘different than human’ forms of intelligence found in the natural world and of the symbiotic relationships many beings share with each other. It cultivates a different relationship in which people and land are good medicine for each other.”

Sotiros said she loves sharing these perspectives with children and teens. “An Indigenous world view nurtures understanding and appreciation of our indebtedness for gifts received from nature and for the importance of reciprocity. It fosters celebrating the Earth’s gifts with gratitude and humility and a vision for future generations.”

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and an avid gardener, artist and mom. Readers may contact her at eveline@amandlachorus.org.

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