Notes from the Field: New friends, new home gardens, and “natural” disasters

by Jordan Engel, Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center Intern

The past two weeks have been a dramatic up and down ride at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. We were so lucky to spend a week with a church group from Colorado as they learned about Lakota culture and volunteered their time on the reservation.  The group was on a youth mission trip from the Heart of the Rockies Church in Fort Collins, and we haven’t seen a group of better learners or harder workers. They helped us pull weeds and harvest on the Solar Warrior Farm, clean up the grounds around the workshop, rebuild two solar air heaters, and plant a vegetable and herb garden for one lucky Pine Ridge family.

Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center
Re-caulking solar panels to withstand the heat of the Ute’s tribal lands

The already constructed solar heaters, which were destined for the Ute reservations of Southwestern Colorado, needed to be taken apart and re-caulked. They had originally been sealed with a low-temp caulk, that while reliable for South Dakota weather, would not stand the test of high heat. We recently discovered that the caulk was melting in a unit we just installed on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and it couldn’t handle the stronger Southwestern sun. Since the Ute reservations are in that same part of the country, we upgraded to a high-temp caulk to prevent future melting.

food security program_family gardenHeart of the Rockies was generous enough to bring plants and seeds with them to start a garden at the home of our goods friends, the Black Feathers. Headed by Shirley Black Feather, the family has dreamed about having a productive garden for a long time now. Shirley is a diabetic who needs to go in for regular dialysis twice a week. The procedure is costly and difficult on the family, especially when the Black Feathers have no transportation to drive Shirley 10 miles to Pine Ridge. Access to fresh, healthy produce that is grown right at their home is the best pejuta – medicine – they can get. Together with Shirley’s son, Virgil, the Heart of the Rockies crew planted a small diabetic-friendly garden. Drawing inspiration from our own Solar Warrior Farm, the Black Feather’s garden had a mix of the three sisters, tomatoes, peppers, greens, and herbs, made use of milk jug irrigation, and was planted in the symbolic shape of a Lakota medicine wheel. Once everything was in the ground, the space was blessed with both a Lakota prayer by Virgil and a blessing by the church pastor, Scott Hardin-Nieri. Before the group left, Virgil gifted them two of his original paintings and the group reciprocated by giving him a set of oil pastels. Tears were shed, new friendships were formed, and lives were changed. It was a beautiful moment.

As those new friends were leaving, another new face came into our lives last week, as we played host for a week to Sarah Alderman, a journalist who is working with Aaron Huey to collect stories and portraits of Lakota life for National Geographic’s Cowbird storytelling project. Among the many folks Sarah recorded, Virgil Black Feather’s (http://natgeo.cowbird.com/story/33912/), and our own Solar Warriors Henry (http://natgeo.cowbird.com/story/33432/) and Darrell Red Cloud’s (http://natgeo.cowbird.com/story/34044/) stories are now online (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/pine-ridge/community-project).

Sarah published this before we could, but one of the stories you’ll hear Henry tell is of the disastrous prairie storm (http://natgeo.cowbird.com/story/33862/) that rolled through the Pine Ridge Reservation on July 21 and devastated our buildings, trees, and farm. Just as the sun was sinking below the horizon that night, dark clouds rolled over the Western hills and into our valley.

Anyone on the Great Plains knows that when you see storm clouds, you only have a matter of minutes to prepare. But this was no average storm – it was a highly localized and powerful wind shear. Imagine a tornado without the funnel and winds so fast that our wind turbine shut itself off. Pine Ridge Reservation wind shear damageOther effects included: an old trailer (whose frame was set to be reused as a new straw-bale home at the RCREC) blown apart, the garage door on the new Annex folded in on itself, decades old trees laying on the ground, and the Solar Warrior Farm nearly ruined…or so we thought. In the week that followed the storm, our Solar Warriors were busy in the garden standing up felled corn stalks and nurturing the plants back to health. With roots still firmly in the rich buffalo-fertilized earth, the farm is looking as good as ever. Harvest time is still here, and just today the bees arrived en masse to pollinate the corn. Now we’re looking forward to giving away more farm-fresh food this week at the big Oglala Lakota Nation Pow Wow in Pine Ridge.

In the week that followed the storm, our Solar Warriors were busy in the garden standing up felled corn stalks and nurturing the plants back to health. With roots still firmly in the rich buffalo-fertilized earth, the farm is looking as good as ever. Harvest time is still here, and just today the bees arrived en masse to pollinate the corn. Now we’re looking forward to giving away more farm-fresh food this week at the big Oglala Lakota Nation Pow Wow in Pine Ridge.

A battered Solar Warrior Farm after a massive wind shear pounded Pine Ridge.

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Trees, Water & People is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to developing sustainable community-based conservation solutions.

3 thoughts on “Notes from the Field: New friends, new home gardens, and “natural” disasters”

  1. Please grow deep cottonwood and pine (mingled wind-breaks, this will also help retain water by way of shade. The roots will not suck up all the water–Rather they will travel deep and WICK water up from the table, drawing moisture as far and beyond the shade area where. The shade, and parial of the trees, shrubs, (and even (* Bamboo)) will be good for certain crops like squash, cucumbers, lettuce, eggplant, I know it is not indigenous, but a cheap way to support tomatoes, corn stalks, and other plants that may suffer from wind, is cut Bamboo which can be firmly positioned into the ground with a quick drill hole… Bamboo splints and even support cages are easily made; support verticles hold up one two or three levels of horizontals where plants and descending strings can be tied. Overhead racks strewn with the brush or conntonwood branches can also help difuse heat damage when there is too much sun and not enough water… . and bamboo if rapid growth and renewable. Can be made into many useful household items limited only by the imagination.

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