'Nature is our best teacher'
Virginia Tech's Indigenous Friendship Garden harvests an education in Native foodways and respect for the land.
Hours before the meal was set to begin, the picnic tables at Virginia Tech’s Turfgrass Research Facility were already brimming with food.
Golden piles of shredded squash. Mounds of minced garlic. Mason jars of pickled veggies. Bowls of cranberry beans. A blender full of spring-green cilantro.
With this bright, beautiful mise en place ready, guest chefs Krysia Villón, a Peruvian chef from Boston, and Dave Smoke-McCluskey, a Mohawk chef from Georgia, began heating up pots and pans for this month’s free, public cooking demonstration at Virginia Tech's Indigenous Friendship Garden.
The next free public cooking demonstration at the Indigenous Friendship Garden will be a harvest celebration for American Indian Heritage month from 2-5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4. All are invited. Please register to attend.
To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, Friendship Garden coordinator Mae Hey, an assistant professor of history and American Indian studies, had invited El Centro, Virginia Tech’s Hispanic and Latinx community center, to come eat. But on a blustery Friday afternoon, would anyone show up?
Under the picnic shelter, Hey pulled out jars of finely chopped fruits and vegetables she’d pickled the day before. “I made them yesterday, not knowing who would come today,” she said. “But even though I didn’t know them [the visitors] yet, I was thinking about them and I knew I would love them."
Since 2017, Hey (pronounced “Hi”) has stewarded the Indigenous Friendship Garden, a plot of land at the Turfgrass Research Facility where she, her students, and community members cultivate potatoes, tomatoes, squash, sunchokes, amaranth, pumpkins, beans, corn, and other Native foodstuff. Coordinating free monthly cooking events came next.
“We are learning to provide the infrastructure Indigenous plants need to thrive as they reclaim their place on this land,” said Hey. “However, we also need to teach people how to enjoy these foods. It is a process of nurturing our Native plant relatives from seed to food — love, connection, and memories.”
Hey earned her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from Virginia Tech by researching the confluence of Indigenous worldviews/knowledge and science education. Yet, it was her postdoctoral fellowship visiting tribal communities around Virginia that sent her down the road of exploring Native foods.
Tribal leaders and community members, she found, worried about food security for Virginia’s Native populations. “Maybe it was because I worked at an ag school, but somebody said, ‘Can you find some people and resources to help with this challenge we have?’" Hey said. "So I started applying for scholarships to go to intertribal food summits.”
Attendees at the summits cooked together, exchanged seeds, foraged, made cooking tools, and learned to set up outdoor kitchens. There, Hey, who grew up in Canada, began studying how to grow and prepare the food that the original Monacan/Tutelo people might have eaten here before Blacksburg became Blacksburg. She brought what she’d learned back to Virginia Tech, growing both the garden and the monthly cooking demonstrations.
For this Friday evening’s feast, students helped set out five flavors of tea Hey had brewed from locally foraged plants: anise mint, sassafras ginger, sumac ginger, pine needle, and autumn olive, the last an invasive, non-native berry that nevertheless happens to taste a bit like Sour Patch Kids in the wild.
Then Hey turned her attention to crafting the world’s most beautiful salad, drizzling it with roasted walnut oil and topping it with pickled veg, squash blossoms, and other edible flowers. Even the strawberries had been carefully cut into heart shapes.
As a faculty fellow for InclusiveVT and the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation, Hey loves the way food connects people to each other and to their “relatives” — a term she uses often to describe not just blood ancestors but all of creation: animals, plants, water, soil, strangers.
They’re all relatives, all with something to teach. “Nature is our most patient and persistent teacher,” Hey said. “If we spend time with land, we learn to speak her language and see her lessons. We learn to see, ‘How does this lesson help me be a better being?’”
On a recent foraging walk for edible plants in downtown Blacksburg, Hey pointed out to the students one of her favorite white oaks, a tree dating back to Jamestown days. Its roots, she said, spread far beyond its canopy, providing a lesson for humans: We must carefully buttress ourselves to stay stable over time.
With her mind inclined to metaphoric thinking, Hey sees these kinds of lessons everywhere, and she urges care for the earth lest we inadvertently wipe out a bit of nature and its attendant teaching. “Sometimes, we aren’t careful enough and things get destroyed,” Hey said as the group walked through the stand of woods near Lane Stadium. “But oftentimes, that lesson will be put by nature somewhere else too. Which reminds me how much we're loved, how patient nature is to teach us.”
The monthly feasts are the culmination of Hey’s land-centered learning model, which incorporates the ways of ancestors and other relatives to create positive transformation, unity, and healing. “Learning with land helps us feel at home with her,” said Hey. “That helps us be less exploitative of her and be better relatives to her, to be better relatives all around.”
At the cooking demonstration, a fire roared in the open shed that housed an outdoor kitchen. Smoke-McCluskey and Villón had soups simmering on a gas camping stove. When the pepper shaker went missing, Smoke-McCluskey pulled out shiny red spicebush berries he’d foraged with Hey to add piquancy to a ground meat soup. Pitmaster Nino Ripepi, an associate professor of mining and minerals engineering, grilled elk meat his son had hunted.
A friend brought a jar of jewel-red crabapple jelly for attendees to spread on a homemade bread called bannock, made of self-rising flour, pink Himalayan salt, masa, and a dose of walnut oil. Bryce Burrell, a graduate student in creative technologies, contributed a corn husk–wrapped Choctaw bean bread. Sophomore AJ Berz shared jars of home-brewed kombucha, some with the warning label “almost vinegar.”
For Berz, taking Hey’s American Indian Studies course last year encouraged a shift of schedule. On Tuesdays and Thursday mornings, Berz forages for mushrooms and berries at Pandapas Pond rather than mindlessly scrolling on their phone for hours. “After coming to this class once a week, I realize how much better I feel if I take time to be outside,” Berz said.
It’s evidence of the efficacy of Hey’s land-centered learning model. “Learning is a change of behavior,” said Hey. “So what changes? People start to walk more gently on the earth.”
Hey hopes to share those lessons more broadly. In the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), she has helped Native groups in Richmond and elsewhere build their own Indigenous friendship gardens on reclaimed spaces, often old tennis courts or vacant lots covered in kudzu: gradual encroachment in reverse. Hey also regularly mentors Native students for organizations such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and recruits Native talent to enroll at Virginia Tech.
Despite a steady rain, waves of students from the Latin American Student Association began crowding the picnic shelter at the Turfgrass Research Facility at about 4 p.m. Villón and Smoke-McCluskey ladled out steaming bowls of soup. Latinx music played. The picnic tables filled with relatives happily eating.
One day soon, Hey hopes to host a regional intertribal food summit at Virginia Tech. Each of these feasts prepares her for that — and furthers the university’s mission as a place of gathering and engagement.
The rain pelted down, the temperature dropped, and yet the music kept playing and people kept coming. Hey tended the electric griddle in her festive, ribbon-striped dress, serving up a continuous stream of bannock and three sisters fritters.
She looked content, glad to be with friends new and old. They were building community around the wonders and lessons of the land.