Ruby Olisemeka: Repairing the instinct to connect with nature
Ruby Olisemeka was nearly ready to give up farming when a 19th-century philosopher showed her a path forward. In the middle of a farming apprenticeship at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Olisemeka came across a book by Rudolf Steiner in their library; his biodynamic approach to agriculture was a revelation at a time when she had grown discontented with other farming methods. “I was floored because in this text he married agriculture, spirituality and science,” she said. “I was like, this is it. This is it. This is what I’ve been looking for.”
Since then, Olisemeka’s work as an educator—at New Rochelle’s Lincoln Park Community Garden, Edible Schoolyard NYC, Harlem Grown, with Slow Food Metro North, and elsewhere—has guided children and adults to their own understanding of soil, landscape, and the history of a land first inhabited by indigenous people. She shared (Slow Food Metro North) how her lessons are grounded in human instinct, balance the measurable with the unseen, and aim to awaken a sense of justice.
How did you become involved with farming and food work in Westchester?
I was contracted by this organization called [Communities for All Actions] and the folks who are running that organization—they connect with different facilities and they offer, ’Would you like a garden space next to facilities?’ ‘Yeah, we’d love it.’ I come in and help start something and teach a couple of classes. I'm not really doing community building in this space, I'm really just providing a service in these spaces.
There’s one garden I was part of beginning and still go back to teach, It’s Lincoln Park Community Garden in New Rochelle right by the Boys and Girls Club, and that’s run by Linda Tarrant-Reid. She created a community garden that really reflects the international community in New Rochelle. ... It’s a great project to have these community gardens, but then it doesn’t address the root causes of things. I still participate, I go and teach from time to time, because I'm a teacher. But I'm pulled back from being 100 percent involved in projects like this because I'm trying to think of, how can we dismantle systems? There’s work for everyone to do, and everyone does the work that they can do. I'm trying to figure out what I can do.
How would you describe your relationship to farming now?
Before I went to California [recently], I couldn’t tell you why it brought me joy to be out there, it just did. I had a natural intuition about it. The farm manager at Stone Barns was like, you’re really intuitive, when you’re working with plants, you know without knowing. So I couldn’t tell you why, it was just something I liked to do, be outside. I wasn’t cooped up. I enjoyed being outside, I liked putting my hands in the soil, it was just fun for me, I liked that. And then I go to California, to go teach in what I call a nature school, it’s an outdoor program, and then I learn this term called “nature connection.”
We evolved to be in nature. It regulates our nervous system. There’s something about being outside in nature, with natural beings, that calms the mind. We get into a rhythm. Now I know why it is that I love the work, being outside, working with the land. It’s that you’re supposed to love it. The problem is that humans, many humans, have become disconnected from nature and that disconnection leads to many health issues, according to the research, and many mental health issues … There’s something about being connected, not just seeing or walking in it, but an actual connection to nature, that affects how you think, affects you physiologically and mentally.
How can individuals begin to rebuild their own relationship to land?
I’ve just been thinking about what you just asked. Starting in the spring, I'm going to work with a school in New Rochelle, Ward Acres. It's 62 acres of woodlands, right smack next to [William B. Ward School] in the middle of New Rochelle.
We begin by going outside. You’ve got to go outside. Humans have a fear of the outdoors now, and so we’ve now got to begin to dismantle the fear. The first thing I was taught was, you should know hazards. If you know what the hazards are, you release fear. So [if] folks are scared of every single insect, I need to be like, these are actually the insects you need to be scared of and this is what they look like. You begin with knowledge.
And then you just gotta go. And go again and again and again. There’s gonna be a point when you do it enough times that something changes in you. I cannot explain how it happens. A lot of books have been written about this—Jon Young is one author, also Tom Brown Jr.— and they talk about this, and talk about indigenous peoples and their deep nature connection. They talk about the San people in Africa and their deep nature connection. There are people around the world that have this ability to communicate with the land and it’s not something you teach someone because it’s something every human has, it just has to be unveiled. There’s no way to teach anyone this. What I do as a teacher is, I set you up so you can have success in the environment, you can immerse yourself.
So what does that look like? It looks like me designing lessons over the winter for children to have fun outside, and building time within a structured lesson for unstructured play time. And not every child will get connected, but many do upon repeated exposure to nature. But you really need a guide. In indigenous cultures these are the shamans, these are the elders, they guide you into this. So that’s my work, knowing this—I'm a guide.
I like to tell children stories of the past and one of the stories I tell is the story of the Apaches. To me, this is part of justice work. There’s folks that don’t know history and don’t understand the dynamics that they see here. But if you tell true stories about how things are the way they are, you awaken a sense of justice in your student. … Indigenous people are still here and they’re still fighting. When you tell a child this story, I don’t tell them how to think about it. You give them the story and you determine how to move forward with this information. But you should have this information. It should not be suppressed.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.