During the winter-long nights of February, my children and I live in dream worlds of bountiful gardens overflowing with luscious vegetables and luxurious flowers. Garden writer Jennifer Atkinson compares garden catalogues to fantasy literature. In her book, Gardenland, she writes that growing gardens in our minds may be just as rewarding as planting gardens in dirt. Garden planning is a fantasy world even the most practical of adults can enter. It is an elvish place, where we can all become sub-creators along with Mythopoeic masters like Tolkien without ever having read the history of the Norse gods or knowing how to conjugate an Old English verb. Making gardens is a part of our human right because as Philomythus wrote, “we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” And the first thing the Maker made was a garden.
Imagine a garden of fruiting orchard trees watered by a flowing river. This is the Maker’s garden, Eden. Created as a garden where people could eat, work and play, Eden was not an annual vegetable garden with rows of tomatoes, carrots and beans. Nor was Eden an agricultural farm with fields of corn, alfalfa and soybeans. Eden was a food forest. We are told that one day the Maker will create another garden. Like Eden, this garden will also be watered by a flowing river. On each side trees will be growing with fruit for eating and leaves for healing. This Eden is also a food forest of perennial bearing trees and herbs. God’s gardens are sustainable systems.
One winter, while I escaped my overwhelming responsibilities through immersing myself in that genre of fantasy literature called garden writing, an idea began to germinate in my mind. While contemplating sustainable garden systems I realized the everyday world I had built as a mother of a large homeschool family was not sustainable. After ten years and seven children, my homeschool resembled a Midwest farm during the Dust Bowl. I began to read garden books within the context of my homeschool life considering how I could design my homeschool using sustainable gardening principles.
One of the first steps towards creating a sustainable garden is to observe nature. While all of creation is fallen, as evidenced by the overabundance of thistles in my garden, native habitats bear a natural resemblance to God’s design. As I observed the nature surrounding my Pennsylvania home – the woods, meadows and creeks – the sustainability of God’s design was impressed upon me. Each year the forest leaves fall to the ground creating a rich compost of mulch that holds water and feeds the plants and trees for the next year. Sustainability, I realized, was an essential element in God’s design that was missing in my homeschool.
Perhaps if a mother has one or two children, she can homeschool happily for a decade or so; and if not happily, at least by hanging in there for a few years. But a mother of a large family may be homeschooling for two decades, or three. She needs a sustainable system. Yet, the homeschool culture I observe, not just in my home but also generally, is not sustainable. Is your homeschool sustainable? Could you continue what you are doing on a day to day basis indefinitely like a tree in a forest? Observe the forest and ask yourself: how did God design forests to be sustainable?
One key aspect of a forest’s sustainability is found in how the forest functions as an ecosystem. Recently, while reading The Hidden Life of Trees with my children I learned about the interdependence of trees upon each other. Beech trees specifically support each other in order to create an ecosystem that benefits all the trees. A tree without a forest is prone to disease, drought and insect infestation. A tree within a forest is protected through the climate created by the forest itself. In a forest the thinner, weaker trees are just as important as the big, strong trees because if the weak trees die, a gap is left in the forest which affects the overall climate of the ecosystem leaving all the trees prone to weather, disease and insects. The beech trees, therefore, share their resources. This is not an example of the survival of the fittest. This is a group of individuals working together to create a habitable ecosystem, with each member working to sustain the health of the whole. Is this also a description of your homeschool?
Can you imagine a homeschool that functions as an ecosystem the way beech trees do in a healthy forest? If it is your job to do the teaching, then the children can support you by doing the jobs they are able to do. Rather than have a child-centered homeschool, where the parents spend all their time serving the children, ask your children what chores they enjoy doing and divide the workload. On reflection, I realized currently I do not do any house cleaning in my home, other than my own bedroom! I rarely wash laundry and do not fold laundry. I do not wash dishes. I do not clean litter boxes or take care of the chickens. I do not even do the grocery shopping now that I have teens who drive. When the workload is divided, you will be free to set aside time each day to do the things that you enjoy. If your children are young, they can join you. Take a walk in the woods and bring your children along. Sit down in front of the fire with a Jane Austen novel and have the children bring their books and sit quietly with you.
Most importantly in homeschools with both parents, set aside time regularly for husband and wife to spend time together. Pack a picnic and take it to a park on Friday evenings while your children have a game night at home. If your children are young, have a picnic in your yard while your children are inside. When our children were too young to stay at home alone on Friday nights, my husband and I would go swimming in our pool. The children would longingly look out the windows at us, but they were not allowed to join! One evening, as we stood dripping wet on our back porch in the dark we realized our children had locked the doors and gone to bed! A forest with a flush of strong, healthy saplings and weak, decaying mature trees will not remain a forest for long. The saplings need the canopy of the mature trees for protection, for water, for food, for climate stabilization. The saplings cannot be leeching all the resources from Mom and Dad. In a healthy forest, every tree works to support the forest as a whole. Consider the trees of the forest and imagine every member of your family as a tree. Follow this design in your homeschool.
A second aspect of a forest’s sustainability which I’ve alluded to previously is the perennial feeding of all the members of the forest. This also relates to the aspect of a forest functioning as an ecosystem, but it is critical to a healthy sustainable homeschool and so often lacking that it is necessary to consider this second aspect specifically. If a forest is to be sustainable then every tree needs to be sustained. Every tree is fed, not just the saplings. Are you being fed? One day while enjoying the weekly walk with my husband I told him that after fifteen years I could not endure one more conversation about diapers or homeschool curriculum. He said something shocking. “Why don’t you go back to school?” I have now for the past four years spent my mornings in school with the children, and my afternoons in school for myself. What are you learning? You may be learning with the children while you read them their books and that is wonderful, but that is not the food an adult’s mind needs. Your body needs food for an adult’s body, not baby food, and your mind needs ideas for adult thoughts. When your homeschool functions as a healthy ecosystem, you will have time to sit down and read a book about something you are interested in learning, because your oldest daughter is making dinner. Go to the art museum on a Saturday morning while your children stay at home and do the house cleaning. Do not feel any more guilty for this than you would feel for eating dinner. Every tree in the forest is growing. You must grow too!
A third aspect, but hardly the last, of a forest’s sustainability is the importance of the edge. The edge is the place on the margin of the forest and the meadow that is not quite forest and yet, not quite meadow. The edge is a rich place that is necessary for the health of both habitats. The edge in your homeschool is the times that are not quite school and yet, not quite play. Take full advantage of the edge, for it is a rich place! When you are laying out your garden, teach the children the formula for the area of a square or a rectangle. Make a pizza for dinner, measure the diameter, and then teach them about mathematical pi. Never finding the time to squeeze current events into our school day, when we are eating dinner, I initiate conversations about current events. In a large family, this is especially rich as so many individuals in different age groups with various perspectives create a lively conversation albeit sometimes too lively if you have a household of passionate, opinionated people as I do. You will have created the opportunity to learn, not just about current events, but also about how to have a dialogue and not an argument. When you go for a walk, take a field guide with you and learn about the birds and plants you see along the way. Take a moment when you get home from late night sports to stargaze in the driveway. Can you find a constellation? Can you tell the myth behind its name? The lessons learned during those times outside of school time will add to the sustainability of your homeschool because education will become the atmosphere of your home. Your children will start finding opportunities to learn on their own, in their own time, because you will have connected their education to their everyday life. You will have cultivated the edge.
Cultivated is not a word typically used to describe natural places, like forests. But in Eden, God asked humanity to cultivate His garden. By observing God’s design of healthy ecosystems you can design a healthy, sustainable homeschool. I hesitate to include personal anecdotes because I would not want anyone to design their homeschool system after my own. Every forest has its own microclimate and its own unique design. You can cultivate sustainability. It may seem fantastical, but God made us in His image. We are sub-creators. God gave us the ability to imagine new worlds. Imagine a new homeschool culture: a homeschool where every member supports the whole, a homeschool where the teacher is learning and growing, a homeschool where education is an atmosphere of everyday life. Observe, imagine, design. Then live a luscious, lavish life in your bountiful dream world.