“The Urban Land Scouts are a group dedicated to promoting and teaching good stewardship of our immediate land. Everyone is welcome to join the Urban Land Scouts. If you would like to get started Land Scouting, raise a hand and read the pledge below out loud. Then prepare to earn your first badge. All Scouts begin with the value of OBSERVATION. After earning this badge you may earn the rest in whatever order you choose.
The Urban Land Scout Pledge
I will to the best of my ability
be a good steward of the land where I live
by cultivating native and edible plants,
promoting species diversity,
sharing the fruits of my labor and knowledge,
and propagating Urban Land Scouting in barren lands.”
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Interview with Katie by Willi
You readily acknowledge the connection to the Boy Scouts. How does ULS compare to permaculture and the Transition Movement?
The connection to the Boy (and Girl) Scouts is that the Urban Land Scouts (ULS) use the structure of scouting, specifically earning badges, to encourage and reward certain behaviors. We differ in that our sole focus is land stewardship (primarily through plant culture) and that we are open to everyone of any age. The practice of starting small in your own backyard and working outward into subsequent zones is one idea that the Land Scouts share with permaculture– begin small and close to home and grow from there. I think gaining experience before working at a larger scale is critical. I’ve seen some large community gardens installed only to fail later from lack of interest or needing something basic like access to water. My understanding of the Transition Movement is that it’s about working regionally or locally to find place-specific solutions. That move to work with the resources at hand, both community and material resources, is something we value as Urban Land Scouts.
I don’t see a “pre-apocalypse” or climate change badge in the mix. How do you deal with the real fears of young people?
You could consider this whole project is a response to my own fears about environmental change and trying to answer the question of, “How then shall we live [when we are told we must change our ways or die]?” In response to the overwhelmingness that can come from considering that question, the core values of the Land Scouts are designed to introduce very manageable and specific actions. In that context, I think climate change is too large and complex an issue to address in only one badge or value.
I understand and am in tune with the popular interest in post-apocalyptic thinking and stories, but I think it can sometimes take us too quickly into a radicalized or moralized mindset that’s not always helpful in terms of changing behavior. Or we consider these stories dystopian fantasy and not something to treat seriously. Especially in populations of people who might not have given serious thought to the issues.
When you ask about the “real fears of young people” I think you’re talking about a specific (but large) subset of the population who has the educational framework to know and worry about climate change. In my limited experience working with young people, there are sometimes more immediate concerns (for example domestic safety issues) that take precedence over the abstract thinking required to address climate change or imagined post-carbon scenarios. My goal with the Urban Land Scouts is to introduce these very basic activities such as observation or knowing about plant life cycles in a positive context so that they might gain a foundation of eco-literacy, a positive experience in the outdoors or “natural” world, and a practice of reasonable habits towards stewardship and environmental sustainability. In terms of addressing the fears of those people who already know about climate change and are wondering what to do, I think the Land Scouts can only offer an introduction. It’s a gateway practice to more significant actions.
ULS may not have access to land for gardens. What then?
In my experience it’s a lot harder to create meaningful and positive associations with land that is not biodiverse, for example, if there are few plants besides the landscape staples of Bermuda grass, nandina, and monkey grass, but I assume UL scouts do not have access to much more than that (if that). Hopefully scouts will have access to public spaces like parks, school yards, or community gardens. In cases where accessing and tending those public spaces is not possible, we can still focus on and learn to observe what’s growing and happening around us. For instance, varieties of moss growing in sidewalk cracks or how rainwater flows through a parking lot. The city has its own language and systems and we can study those in the same way we might examine an old growth forest. Depending on the access, resources, and ability of a scout group, they might work to create more biodiversity and beauty in their space. Or to acknowledge the limits of their land and to seek out other more fertile or interesting places to earn some of their badges.
Is the ULS protesting against Monsanto’s and other corporation’s ownership of seeds and plant DNA?
The promotion of biodiversity is a part of the Urban Land Scout pledge. Monsanto’s aggressive behavior, especially towards farmers wanting to save their own seed, is maddening and deadly. I sign petitions and email my elected representatives, but I think the more radical and patient gesture is to teach as many people as possible about seed saving. I had the privilege of meeting John Coykenall, a farmer and renowned seed saver in the Southern Appalachian region when he came to address a group of land scouts and told us, “This is the future of seed saving– it’s going to be you and people with such interests.” John’s spent decades collecting bean varieties from all over the southeast and the Appalachians specifically and he carries with him the rich stories associated with their names and origins. These beans have names like Milk and Cider or Snow on the Mountain and their existence is a testament to stewardship, self sufficiency, and poetry. As Land Scouts, we might not necessarily practice seed saving on such a significant level, but we can start small with things like hearing these stories, collecting seeds of annual wildflowers, buying open pollinated varieties from companies committed to sustainable agriculture, or by learning and teaching about the practice of seed saving. These gestures can seem insignificant in the face of a global corporation like Monsanto, but we need to have faith that our aggregate actions matter and that they will build and grow. Further I think we need to tell the stories, you might say myths, of these heirloom varieties and the people who stewarded and saved them for generations.
What is “immediate land?” Is this related to localization?
Immediate land refers to the place where you are. Wherever you are, this is “your land” and you must be a steward of that land. This is in contrast to the idea that idea that you would only be a steward of the land who’s healthy and productivity will benefit you directly. Immediate land also refers to the specific ground on which you’re standing, whether it’s an urban sidewalk or permeable earth, not just the picturesque areas we might imagine when we think of “land.” If we’re talking about localization in the sense of place-based solutions and systems, then absolutely, a sense of one’s immediate land is related to that. I’d be curious to hear your take on this. What do you think is the first step (or steps) to being able to think in terms of localization? If someone’s never encountered that idea, how would you introduce it?
Have you received negative feedback on ULS? How can you improve the member experience?
I’ve not received much negative feedback, but I recognize some areas where the project needs work. The main issue I want to address is the lack of good means by which I can easily share the project like a workbook or PDF to be downloaded from the website. Currently the user experience is tied to my presence and charisma in that I’m the only one giving workshops or hosting groups. That’s natural in terms of the project growing out of my art practice, but it limits the reach of or access to the Urban Land Scouts. I’d like to grow the project and is explanatory media to the point that any interested potential leader could email or send a letter and receive a zip file with PDFs or a stack of workbooks and get started hosting their own troop. Further I’d like the project to be financially sustainable and still accessible to anyone who wants to host it.
The second issue I hope to address is one of better tuning the project towards young middle-school age people. I designed the Land Scouts as a project to be pursued independently by autonomous adults, but I think it would be stronger and more efficient practice in groups (like the traditional scouts) and if it could be easily integrated into existing curricula. If the goal is to integrate habits of stewardship to our everyday lives, that is to create a culture of urban stewardship, we need to be practicing in a community. I once heard a talk on permaculture in which the speaker said, “The strength of a system is not determined by the number of nodes in that system, but by the number of connections between them.” What a great metaphor for so many areas of our lives! I’m working on developing an Urban Land Scouts curriculum and Leader’s Guide to help build those connections and hope publishing this future media will help the project grow and attract collaborators.
What is the purpose of a “gleaning tour?” Do you know of similar activities?
The Gleaning Tour was an urban walking tour in which we looked at what food was available in the commons (like sidewalks and road margins). The idea was both to increase awareness of the relative abundance we ignore (in fall in East Tennessee that meant things like apples, pears, chicory, and walnuts) and to examine the specific limits of a hyper-local (and gleaned) diet. We complimented our tour with a collaborative Google map on which we noted the edible perennials we found. You can see it here. It was interesting in that the people on the tour were mostly white and well-educated, not the “poor and alien among us” specified by the Old Testament as those who would receive the gleanings of the fields. I started thinking about what else we might do, as people of privilege, and came up with the Tour de Plants, an urban bike ride in which we planted edible perennials in public areas around town like city parks, on school and university property, and so on. I don’t think our plantings changed the reality of food security or scarcity in our area. Rather the tour served to couch those issues in an unlikely and somewhat playful context.
As to other similar activities, Fallen Fruit, an LA-based art group based, is doing great work leading similar foraging tours and making neighborhood fruit maps, among other things. You can see their work here: fallenfruit.org. I especially love some of the related objects they’ve made that incorporate the internet feedback they received on their work. It’s a great example of the power of using humor and art to speak to difficult issues and to sincerely address conflict.
How can people get involved in the Urban Land Scouts?
For those not in my geographic area interested in starting a group, please email me: email@example.com. I’m specifically interested in collaborating with people to get feedback on the aforementioned media: Is it clear? Is it reasonable? Does it work well in your region?
Long term, I hope for regionally specific scout troops designing their own badges and for the project at large to expand beyond flora-based work. For example, perhaps we could approach stewardship through the lens of water and create a series of values and badges for that. Or the stewardship of social groups and bioregional communities! It’s exciting to think about the possibilities of the project and what others might bring to it.
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Katie Ries Bio –
Katie is a multidisciplinary artist whose work is rooted in drawing, social engagement, and plant culture. Her project the Urban Land Scouts introduces the basics of ecoliteracy and land stewardship using the structure and ephemera of traditional scouting. Ries earned a BA from Colorado College and her MFA with a concentration in Printmaking from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She has studied printmaking as a Resident Artist at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań, Poland and book arts with Ediciones Vigía in Matanzas, Cuba. She exhibits her work nationally and internationally. You can see her work at her website: whoshareswins.com
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