Spring has taken its opening shots across our bow — ice is out, the crocuses are clustered around houses, and gardeners are shaking off the winter woolies to get seeds planted on windowsills and start turning over the soil in south-facing beds.

At Chebeague Island School, the students love tucking lettuce and marigold seeds under just the right amount of soil. My first spring on the island is full of joy and surprises.

In the last couple of months I have really begun to feel like an integrated part of the school and the island. As we melt into the beginning of another growing cycle I am brought back to last fall, when I moved to Chebeague.

I came knowing that the core of my sustainable agriculture placement was to do work that reinforces the “sense of place” on Chebeague (which is to say, a deep sense of connection between the land, sea and community). Yet here I was, brand new to the island, completely uprooted (though with roots in Bath nearby), not sure how to break through the niceties of introductions and get to know the island well enough that I could claim any “sense of place” of my own.

I jumped right into work at the school, integrating the garden into the curriculum. I slowly began building friendships and exploring the island, but my opportunity to know the island more deeply came through spending time in residents’ gardens.

Organizing a network of garden gleaning (harvesting the end-of-season produce from community member’s gardens to contribute to the school lunch program) is one of the activities that fall under my interests as sustainable agriculture fellowship. Gleaning reduces food-waste, raises awareness of the wonderful gardening already happening on the island and raises community awareness of the wonderful programs at Chebeague Island School.

It’s a very small aspect of my work time-wise, in comparison to the integrated school garden curriculum or the organization of a summer farm education program. But it has been the most important aspect of helping me form my own sense of place on Chebeague Island.

One crisp October day I met Kitty Freeman in her garden. She brought a beautiful old basket and I brought some scissors. While harvesting beets and chard to donate to the school lunch program, I had one of my first truly engaged conversations about the island, its history and the wonderful personal stories that accumulate over a lifetime.

I had talked to Kitty briefly at Ladies Aid meetings and community events, but in the garden, with our hands busy and our conversation flowing I got to hear stories that wouldn’t come up in a crowd at the Island Hall.

I feel so lucky that my placement as a fellow is based on bringing people together around delicious, local food and the process of working the land to grow it. The garden has been the space where I have felt most intimately welcomed to the island community, and I hope that my work can promote growing food as a joyous hub of community.

In this slow, gentle spring I can appreciate the slow, gentle way I have been creating my own sense of place and I look forward to the endless well of stories I have yet to hear while digging in the soil. 

Celia Whitehead is an Island Fellow on Chebeague Island through AmeriCorps and the Island Institute.