Next month I will bid farewell to Red Lodge, Montana, where I have served as a FoodCorps member for the past two years. As I prepare to leave this community that I’ve come to call home, I’ve been thinking a lot about the significance of our connection to the land in creating a sense of place.

Red Lodge campers cool down while learning about
irrigation on the Espenscheid Farm.

I have worked to foster a strong sense of place for my students in Red Lodge by connecting them to the land, the environment, and good food. I hope that I have strengthened their rootedness.

Last month I had the opportunity to really observe how kids’ connections to the land can shift as they have more direct participation in growing their own food. The Red Lodge Area Food Partnership Council held its first ever Farm & Garden Camp, and seventeen Red Lodge kids joined us to garden, cook, and learn about local agriculture.

One afternoon, as farmer Dick Espenscheid told us how many tons of manure he needs to spread over his hundreds of acres, one of the campers turned to me and said, “We would need way less manure for our garden!” She didn’t say your garden. Or the school’s garden. Or the Red Lodge garden. Instead, she was ready to claim the garden as her own.

Kale smoothie time!

These shifts in attitude are as subtle as the garden’s growth from one day to the next, but it struck me how important it is to create a space where kids feel connected to the land.

And at the same time that I hear them change their pronouns about the land that sustains us from “yours” or ”theirs” to “ours,” I am trying to figure out how to transition from “we” to “you” when I speak about future plans and projects in Red Lodge. I am trying to figure out how to leave behind the place that has welcomed, supported, and rooted me so well.

In thinking about my rootedness in Red Lodge, I keep coming back to a favorite poem of mine by Patricia Midge Farmer:

Marguerite Jodry give campers the real dirt on farming

If I had not come to these high plains,
my heart would have missed
the beat of the love of place,
my guts would have yearned for some unknown fulfillment,
my mind would have shrunk to a small, civilized size,
and my soul would have tentacles,
searching, always reaching out
for what I have found here.
But I am now like the tenacious sage
wide roots forced into
this seldom yielding ground
to make a place for me
to hold on tight
to nurture and be nourished
and oh, this land does feed me.

I feel lucky to have been transplanted into the Red Lodge community for the past two years. My roots are held in place by the connections with curious students, open hearts, and healthy land. I know that this experience will continue to nourish and drive me forward as I embark on my next adventure.

Alyssa Charney is a Service Member in Red Lodge.