“Sustainability is an act of love.”
These words projected on the screen behind Melody Walker Brook as she spoke of seeds, ceremony, relationship, and reciprocity.
I’d gone to the NOFA-VT Winter Conference to speak in three different sessions, but I was most excited to listen. Melody, an Abenaki artist, educator, and activist, was giving the Sunday Keynote address titled, Eight Sisters: Connection to Place Through an Abenaki Lense, and I stood in the back of the packed conference hall, taking notes.
“Becoming indigenous to a place means treating it like family,” Melody said.
“[The land isn’t broken.] The only broken parts are the people who mistreat the land.”
I simultaneously wanted to write everything down and just stand still and listen.
Growing up in Vermont, all the history I learned was of white settlers. From Samuel de
Aside from my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Gilmore, who invited an Abenaki man to present to our class, no one mentioned the Native people who’d been here long before Europeans. And no one mentioned the Abenaki who still live here today.
In 2015, my husband Edge and I received a loan from the Farm Service Agency to level a terrace for a greenhouse, drill a well, and dig long trenches to connect the water, greenhouse, and farmhouse.
Before any excavation could happen, though, the FSA required an archeologist come inspect our land for Native American Burial sites. If any were found, we’d have to amend our plan.
At the time I thought, of course there are no Native American Burial sites here. I’d been told the history of this land—the entire hillside had once been owned by the Ladd family.
Originally a sheep farm, the hundreds of acres of forest had once been nearly all pasture. Eventually, cows took the place of sheep, trees were allowed to fill in around fields, and the parcel we now own became pasture for cows. As one neighbor told us, the high water table on this field kept the grass sweet in the dry months of late summer.
Though no burial sites were found, I realized that the history I knew only stretched back 150 years.
I realized my shortsightedness and impatience in the face of an archeological inspection was a result of being born white and middle class, and growing up with society reinforcing the message that what I wanted was right and that I deserved what I wanted at any turn.
At a certain point, it doesn’t matter anymore what we were or were not taught in school.
Just as it’s my responsibility to continually learn how to be a better farmer, how to tend to the land and grow the soil, it’s also my responsibility to learn and grow my own understanding of history, and how that history informs my relations to people, land, and community today.
It’s my responsibility to learn the full history and the full present. To turn over my assumptions like compost and make way for the richness that comes with tossing out the old so that it may break down and transform into something full of life.
Land as Commodity vs. Land as Relation
Melody projected two circles onto the screen behind her. One showed a person in the center, with animals and plants around it. The other showed the person as part of the circle.
The dominant culture today puts people in the center, she explained, seeing the land as a commodity to be used. The Abenaki culture sees the land as mother, teacher, inspiration, pharmacy, food, and ceremony. This way of relating to the land is based on reciprocity, and asks the question:
What is my responsibility to my community and non-human relations?
As organic farmers, this question is at the core of what we do.
The answer to it guides our actions as we choose to invite beneficial insects to eat up aphids rather than spraying plants with insecticides. It guides us as we build the soil with compost and cover crops rather than adding synthetic fertilizer. It guides us as we move from the center of the circle to our place among the plants, insects, and animals that we share this land with.
Where I might have felt ashamed at my shortsightedness, this question—what is my responsibility—pulls me forward, too strong and too important to ignore.
Becoming indigenous to a place means treating it like family, and sometimes family is uncomfortable.
It’s a relationship filled with love, but also, often, with hurt. A relationship that requires listening and forgiveness and the ability to keep growing after a bruised ego or hurt feelings. One that requires each individual to dig deep, open up, and learn how to balance the needs of oneself and ones’ kin.
In her keynote, Melody spoke of ceremony, saying, “Ceremony is a reaffirmation of what’s important.”
When I was growing up, we sang a forgiveness song after any fight. My parents would sit with my brother and me in a circle, and after tears, frustration, and apologies, we’d sing the song together. I didn’t call it this as a child, but looking back I see this song as part of a ceremony, reaffirming that our family was important and that we could sing ourselves back into balance.
Listening to Melody speak about ceremony reminded me that it can be formal and informal.
Ceremony can be a large gathering to honor a turn of seasons, and it can be the individual ritual of sowing seeds as snows melt. Ceremony reminds us to reciprocate what was given and to, as Melody said, “leave ego at the door and see all our other relations.”
As we begin another season of sowing seeds, cultivating crops, and harvesting, we have a responsibility as organic farmers to reciprocate what the land gives. For me, part of this reciprocation is learning the full history of the land I call home. It’s asking the questions that Melody put forth to us in her keynote:
Who are you?
What do you want?
Who do you serve?
It’s understanding and accepting my responsibility in the larger story of land use, of what was taken and what still needs to be repaired.
Along the way, it’s also celebrating the beauty of the world.
What struck me most of all in Melody’s keynote was her joy and love, and her invitation to us to find the same. “I know creation loves me because it talks to me every day. And that fills me up,” she said.
We can give so much more when we’re filled.
This is the root of reciprocity: a cycle of giving and receiving and giving. A continuous conversation of respect, gratitude, and joy. And when we’ve caused harm, a willingness to listen, repair, and find a way to restore balance and reaffirm what’s important.
So much of the reason I became a farmer was to fill a yearning for connection that only the land offered.
Working with the natural elements is a daily reminder that I’m part of the circle, not the center of it, and also that there’s always more to learn.
It’s my responsibility now to learn what I wasn’t taught in school, and Melody’s keynote was like water on a seed that’s been wanting to grow, leading me to people and places to dig in and learn more.
The Vermont Abenaki Artists Association is a beautiful place to start and offers a study guide for students from kindergarten to high school and beyond.
For a history of Abenaki seeds and food, read Seven Sisters: Ancient Seeds and Food Systems of the Wabanaki People and the Chesapeake Bay Region, by Frederick Wiseman.
Listen to Melody’s TEDx talk: Weaving a thread through the 7 generations
And now I have two questions for you:
What fills you up — What beauty do you find in the world that makes you want to keep going and create more?
What step can you take next to learn more and become part of the cycle of reciprocity?
Let me know in the comments below. Thank you so much for being here, for connecting, and for asking these questions with me.