Teaching the PICA Seminar

I came to Santa Cruz in April, after over a decade in New York City, where I’ve been writing a dissertation in English literature. My training, and my teaching, have for the most part taken place in a very formal setting on a very formal campus – Columbia University. But there’s another part of me, older than dirt, that’s always been drawn to growing food. I spent a glorious, swampy, black-fly-ridden summer apprenticing on an organic farm in Maine in 1996, and have been working on farms on and off ever since.

The bulk of my adult life has run on parallel tracks, farming and academic work, and until recently, intersections between these two aspects of my life were both rare and somewhat uncomfortable. In the past I’ve felt awkward, as a PhD student, showing up to teach class with dirt under my fingernails or, as a farm hand, trying to explain that I needed a Friday off to present a conference paper on Shakespeare.

I came to UCSC hoping to bring these spheres closer together, initially through the apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture at the UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, and now through teaching the PICA Seminar. Working at PICA has been a very different kind of teaching experience for me, and one that I’m savoring on many levels. As an instructor, it feels amazing to be able to teach in muddy boots instead of high-heeled ones, and for the first time, I feel like I’m able to bring my full self into the classroom.

I believe that the slow emergencies of environmental crisis ultimately stem from our values, beliefs, and ideas about the relationship between humans and the natural world. Increasingly, it’s clear to me that we can’t solve these problems without understanding and critiquing them, or without the capacity to imagine or perceive the real joys of an alternate way of doing things. The PICA seminar allows me to welcome these joys, the pleasures and perils of working with the land, into the classroom community. Sifting compost in the rain, mulching berries on a clear day with a view out over the bay, digging, weeding, pruning, saving seed: work in class can help us see the why of sustainable food production, but through work in the Foundational Roots Garden, and the 25-acre UCSC Farm & Garden, we start making our way to the how.

Many farm advocates have talked about the necessity of restoring a sense of dignity to the profession of farming. One important way of shifting the place of farmers in the public imagination is by continuing to put farms and gardens on college campuses, to highlight the intellectual agility and constant problem solving that sustainable agriculture demands.

I thank my students and the staff at PICA for showing me what’s possible when we work collaboratively with one another, and with the different capacities and aptitudes we all hold within ourselves.

Saskia Cornes helps to run a two-acre, hand-scale, organic market garden at the Center for Agrocecolgy and Sustainable Food Systems. She is also a PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where she writes about changes in agricultural practice and land stewardship as reflected in the literature of the age of enclosure.

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