Jennifer Chen (‘19)
What are your opinions on gardening and its potential effect on the world?
When I grew up, it was a period after wars and people who used to garden stopped gardening because canned food and frozen food was more efficient and inexpensive and for people, it was a much faster way to do it. They didn’t have to grow their own food. I grew up, and that was the food I ate. I had plenty of fresh stuff that my parents bought at the store, but I just remembered one point in high school, I went to someone’s house that had a really incredible garden (it was an old farm). I was like, “wait a moment,” because they had stopped teaching gardening at all in those years in the 60s and 70s. You could actually do all this here? In Massachusetts? You could grow all this stuff? They had everything. And I was like, “I want to do this.” It was so interesting. I had always been interesting in flowers. I don’t know why I never put the two together because you never saw the seeds in stores. It (gardening) sort of went away, and farmers did it. So when I realized you could actually do it, I was like, “This appeals to me on some level.” So I was doing it right away and I haven’t stopped. I also think children, if they have experience with it really young, that they’ll have an understanding of how to do it. And you can always learn more, I’m always learning more about it. But I think for kids, they know that it’s a part of what they can do. That’s my mission, to make sure kids know that it’s possible, that if you eat an apple, you can take the seed out in a cup and some soil and you might get a sprout.
What have you seen that gardening can do in a broader sense?
I’m a part of an educator’s for sustainability leadership program, a year long program, and a lot of people from Vermont, New York City, and Chicago who are working with more economically disadvantaged populations come. They are also in an urban setting, so they’re doing more creative things. Hydroponics, aquaponics right within their schools. Chickens in the city. I’m learning a lot from them, what they can do. I’m just really inspired by that. There’s also a lot about how we can move forward to teach kids to make the right choices where the health of the planet is concerned, certainly gardening with healthy practices (pesticides, chemical fertilizers, weed reduction through chemicals—none of that). I want them to know that there’s other methods to do it. It might take a bit longer, but it’s worth it in the end because the food you’re eating is has not been compromised by those things. I think there’s a lot of knowledge out there from generations way back. When you read China or Italy or Turkey, wherever you’re reading about, it’s fascinating to learn about. That really inspires me, to learn those practices.
You mentioned that you started your passion for gardening early in your life. How about your passion for sustainability?
One of the things about being my age, is that I actually have evidence about human effects on the earth, especially locally. Over everything. A lot of this is overconsumption. I moved to a town that is as urban as around here (Milton), and it’s being built up, built up, built up because of housing costs. I think that one of the things when you’re learning about this is how connected all the natural systems are. One of the things I’m working on is teaching more of that. I think in high school, you learn a lot more of that, but in fact we should be teaching this to much younger kids so they can understand the cause and effect of choices and decisions made right in their own homes whether they’re buying cases of bottled water or whether or not they’re composting or whether or not you’re deciding to cut down trees for whatever reason. You’re at least saying: before we do this, let’s weigh a couple more options. I want the students to say to parents: wait a minute, we talked about this in school and there’s another way to do this that’s not harmful.
Right now there’s a big push to ban plastic straws, plastic trash bags at the store. Dunkin Donuts said they’re getting rid of their styrofoam by 2020 or whatever it is. I’m like, “No, no, no. Get rid of tomorrow. Stop it now. Retrain yourself.” Its urgent, and I feel like that if we don’t push now with some of this...They keep talking about the tipping point, and I’m just really concerned about that, the tipping point. That we’ve reached it. And if that’s the case, where do we go from there?
How do you think that both with gardening and agriculture practices we can mitigate the effects of climate change?
I think it’s possible, I really do. I think that we’ve seen effects of a lack of attention around this, and so I’m really hoping as more people pay attention. And people are. I heard this morning, when I was coming in to work, that sustainability is going to be as big as the industrial revolution. That we’re entering a period of sustainability. That is so cool to hear that on my way to work. And I believe that. I believe other people are going: wait a minute. I think technology has a lot to do with this. I think we’re living in a time where, technologically speaking, we have now the choices to make whether its solar power to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. And the greenhouse effect, as we know, has to be dealt with immediately. Not tomorrow. Immediately. Getting that much information is important, especially under the current administration that is much more concerned with the sustainability of fossil fuel energy. Fossil fuels have nothing to do with the health of the planet in my book. There are other ways to be doing this work that keeps us in a healthier place. I never get it. I have grandkids, and I’m really wanting to do this for them, and then I think those people have grandkids too. Why aren’t they concerned about this for them? I can’t fathom that they aren’t seeing that. They deny a lot. And that’s to me a shame.
Could you elaborate more on the idea of natural systems?
I’ve been doing a lot of work with a couple of colleagues around students understanding where fossil fuels came from originally, millions and millions of years of dead plants and animals. It millions of years to have these reserves deep in the earth. It’s taken us about a little under 100 years to pretty much pull them out and along the way we’ve added carbon, creating the greenhouse effect. So I found some really good writers, authors, kids books that explain that whole natural system. When you do something to one, how it affects everything else. If you cut down a whole lot of trees, what it does to that ecosystem in that area. So really having kids understand what that means, ecosystem and also that it comes down to choices. So when you have the information, who do we then use that information that directly affect our surroundings to support keeping a lot of these systems. A lot of things we‘re doing, they feel like nothing to us. They’re huge when everyone’s doing it, when it’s cumulative. Its huge. So everyday saying, you have the power to make a change, while you may not recognize it at first it’s there. So making them understand the water system, the sun is driving everything. These days, kids are so worried about having sunscreen on instead of how we’re here because of the sun. Just really focusing on those things opposed to other things that take up our air space and our attention. I think it’s incredibly sad and dangerous. I do believe it’s dangerous.
Jane McGuinness has been an elementary teacher for 33 years, 29 of which have been at Milton Academy. She has been an avid gardener and a keen observer of nature her whole life. Combining educating children with these interests has brought her great joy and an appreciation of kids’ innate understanding of the natural world. Jane’s idea of a perfect day is composting, digging in the dirt, planting seeds, swimming with her dog, Gracie, and cooking dinner for her family from the veggies she grew. In the future Jane would like to reach beyond Milton to bring eco-literacy to kids and teachers in schools across Massachusetts. She lives with her husband Mark in Scituate and is the mother of Ben and Molly and the grandma of Jack and Colin.