A Symbiotic Adventure into Agriculture and Conservation
The week we had been waiting for for over a year had finally arrived: the first day of our Eco Art & Science Camp. This idea for an art and science camp on a farm came to the attention of the Education Director at Robin Hills Farm, Ben Wielechowski, in a very “organic” way during the early spring of 2016 when local resident and teacher, Jen Koppin, stopped by to pitch her “summer camp”- a summer camp catering to middle and high-school students, and one that focused on art, science, and conservation. Jen, who had led numerous summer camps through The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) in the Louisiana salt marshes, wanted to promote conservation of her native state, Michigan, and the wonderful landscapes and natural communities present here. Well this was precisely in line with the educational programming Robin Hills Farm was developing, and a deal was struck to put a summer camp together by Summer 2016. As fate would see fit, this plan was foiled by an assortment of development “hang-ups” on the part of Robin Hills Farm, and so Ben and Jen decided to postpone another year.
This “gap” year provided the perfect amount of time for the Education Department at Robin Hills, in concert with Jen Koppin, to put together a program that would truly wow the campers (or so they hoped!). Materials were sourced, curricula were exchanged, licenses were applied for and granted, and camp applications began to trickle in. By the end of June, we had a roster filled with six incredible people from all over the United States, from Louisiana to New York to San Francisco to right here in Chelsea and Ann Arbor. Potential campers expressed interest in stepping outside of their urban environments and getting to the outdoors, exploring conservation ethics, and getting more familiar with artistic expression inspired by nature.
The date was set for the second week of July (our high school summer camp!), and Ben and Jen were waiting in the Pasture Barn at 8 am when the first campers began to arrive. Introductions were made between camp staff and the campers and their families, and soon after the Day 1 was in session!
Each day of camp focused on a science/agriculture concept and an art concept, often building off one another. The first day was all about “Foundations,” namely because the first day of any new experience requires a period of orientation and establishing foundations for the week, including a day of ice-breakers for everyone to get to know one another. Jen’s conduit for this sort of thing was the game, “Exquisite Corpse”! Though this game has many interpretations, Jen’s version encourages art and silliness as campers sketched one third of a “monster” (head, torso, or abdomen) before passing it along to the next camper. What resulted were pure works of genius (and exquisite “corpses” indeed)! Wonderful composite monsters that could not be created by a single mind! And that was the beauty of the entire exercise.
When the campers were feeling a bit more awake and comfortable, we had planned for a full farm tour, but the weather had other plans for us. A steady drizzle and intermittent lightning kept us inside, and we sat down to the film, “Rivers & Tides,” a documentary about artist Andy Goldsworthy and his “earthworks,” art made from natural materials degrade and disappear with the seasons. This served as inspiration and as a framework for the entire week, as the final project would be a “Goldsworthy-esque” earthworks sculpture.
The film was fascinating, but sitting for a good 45 minutes makes the best of us antsy, so we quickly moved on to the science version of the concept “Foundations”: Soil!! We began with a soil testing using our soil test kits that test for pH and nutrient levels. We collected several “specimens” from around the farm, and the campers went to work testing for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Discover they did! We determined that there were some nutrient deficiencies in some of our agricultural spaces and that the pH was bordering on too alkaline! Science is best appreciated when it is relevant, and these findings helped us at Robin Hills Farm better manage some of our soils.
Building foundations for creating art followed on from lunch, and Jen led the campers through a variety of drawing exercises that would help each person explore composition, perspective, depth of field, etc. The activities involved blind drawing, breathing exercises, and contour drawing, all techniques that would get the brain working different ways.
The art portion was followed up by more science, this time focusing on the process of making organic matter—compost! We decided to make a vermicompost bin, a simple design, but one that held the campers rapt with attention (even those disgusted by any sort of “bug”!). We created the bin from a Rubbermaid tote, PVC piping, and some screen and adhesive. Then we added the “wigglers,” green matter (fruit and veggie scraps) for the “wigglers” to eat, and brown matter (shredded newspaper and coconut shavings) to keep the moisture in check. This would become our compost receptacle for the food scraps generated for the entire week.
The final activity of the day was what we had hoped to begin with: a farm tour. The rain has ceased and the clouds had somewhat parted giving us just enough time to tour the farm. We started with the Livestock Ranch and used this space to talk about conservation as it pertains to agriculture, and how art can be used to make statements about things you believe in. Permaculture design was the framework for how sustainable agriculturists make their artistic (and functional) statement about environmental conservation. We then moved on to the Greenhouse and aquaponics system, then to the Ponds, and finally to the Organic Garden where campers indulged in harvesting some veggies, one bed, of which, presented an excellent learning experience when two campers touched stinging nettles which harvesting carrots. Ben rushed out to retrieve a trusty old weed, dockleaf or Rumex obtusifolius, and created a poultice to be administered topically. Both campers found relief from the poultice, and the entire group grew fascinated by the amazing hidden qualities of things growing just beneath our feet. It was a nice moment to end the day on, and the campers went home excited yet tired from the day’s events.