North Leupp Family Farm
Sometimes I tell my camera the story. I tell it what to look at, point it at what I want it to see. And sometimes, my camera does the story telling. It grabs and captures and hold and remembers all of the rhyming patterns and dewey webs of a weekend. I press it’s thumb-sized memory card into the bottom of my computer, and with the whirr of a motor, summon forth the story already waiting. The story I didn’t know I’d seen.
It was the sort of weekend where my camera told the story. It sat on my shoulder, hung at my hip, every now and then I’d whip it in front of a squinty eye, snapping at something I wanted to hold forever. Something already over, slipping second by second into the past. A moment. A single click of the shutter. Already gone.
There was too much happening this weekend to make much sense of it. So, I surprised tonight to see the pictures taking form. Lessons and tasks woven together with the wrinkle of a wise smile.
Last year, I got on an obsessive kick. It was time for my children to learn to work hard. They were complaining when Netflix was loading too slow. They got fidgety when I asked them to unload the top rack of the dishwasher. Not even the bottom rack. Just the top rack. And they’d toss their heads back and squinch their noses like they’d been asked to heave a three-thousand pound car over their head one-handed. You’re not being asked to best a Norwegian strong man, I’d say. I’m just asking you to help with the dishwasher unloading. Sheesh.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to all of a mother’s greatest woes is “hard work.” What do you do when you’re kids are fighting? Hard work. What is the best way to create family togetherness? Hard work. How to you solve a problem like Maria? Hard work. It’s universal.
So, I spent the better half of a moonlit weeknight combing through service opportunities that we could do as a family. I had three stipulations going into the research. The ultimate family volunteer experience needed1) to include actual physical labor, 2) to introduce my children to an unfamiliar culture, and 3) it had to be dirt cheap.
Service opportunities for families about outside of the United States. If you’re willing to toss down a mere 3-7 thousand bucks per person, you can jet your kids to all sorts of worthwhile “family mission” experiences. But, we didn’t have that sort of money for even one of us, let alone the entire bunch of us hooligans. As I researched I became more and more certain that I’d created the impossible task. There was no such thing as a hard-working, inexpensive cultural experience for families. I was sure of it.
Somewhere in the middle of my third night of searching, I came across the Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit organization which brings together volunteers dedicated to preserving the landscapes and ecosystems of the Colorado Plateau. The GCT organizes and covers the cost of several volunteer trips every year. Yep, you read that right, all you have to do is get yourself to Flagstaff, Arizona, and GCT takes care of everything else.
Most of the GCT trips offer volunteers a chance to work with maintenance of habitat and vegetation. Their trips range from 2-7 days, and are rated in difficulty from moderate to strenuous. When I found their list of trips, I was immediately drawn to one that seemed unique from all the others–the North Leupp Family Farm Harvest. A quick phone call and twenty-minute chat with one of the trip leaders at GCT and it was all set. This once-a-year opportunity to work alongside families of the Navajo nation, improving their community farm and taking part in their traditional harvest celebrations was exactly the sort of experience I’d been hoping for.
We were on the list to volunteer last year, but had to cancel. Which meant we had to make the trip top priority this year, lest it be tossed into the “stuff we should have done” filing box. Despite a ’bout with the 24-hour flu, and a braced-up ankle (complete with hobbly sprain), John and I gathered the kids, loaded the car, and drove 10-hours to Flagstaff, Arizona last Friday. Hello, backstory.
And that is where the real adventure, captured by camera, begins.
We arrived at the Grand Canyon Trust early Saturday morning. Any renovated house-turned-office-building has my immediate loyalty. Particularly when ivy grows wildly from it’s rooftop. Amen.
After loading up the gear and meeting our the other volunteers, we drove a dusty 45 miles into Navajo land.
“We are a very welcoming people,” promised our GCT guide, Deon Ben. He was spot on. Within five minute of seeing the handpainted sign for North Leupp, we were greeted by a group of farmers, motioning us over a pile of Steamed Corn.
This traditional delicacy is cooked, husk and all, in a deep pit for hours before being pulled into sunlight, torn fresh open, and eaten like corn on the cob.
The texture is thicker, with a subtle smoked flavor. It was such a delightsome way to being the morning, all of us standing in a circle around a clay-lined pit, humming and nodding over a treat so rare, it is often made only once a year.
Everything at Leupp Family Farm runs on Navajo time. Which means, it runs according to whatever time the farming families and Elders desire it to be. No one was in any hurry to do anything. As we settled in the leisurely, friendly pace of the community, I marvelled at the food preparations already underway for our festival luncheon.
A sheep had been slaughtered early that morning. Some of the women and youth were preparing it for being cooked over the fire.
My children and I just stood there and watched, mouths agape. It was, I can honestly say, the first time I’ve seen meat. Hanging by a string. Over a dirt floor. Under a tent.
Beat that, Bear Grylls. Man versus wild, my knuckle. You should see Woman versus Raw Sheep Ribs.
A ramada, or stick-and-log shelter, had been erected at the front of the farm. We gathered under its welcome shade, and bowed our heads for an invocation, spoken half in English, half in the native tongue of the Elder. “If you listen carefully, you’ll be able to feel what is being said,” said Deon. I listened. The prayer offered by the Elder was full of gratitude and yearning. Thanks for the bounty of this year, a begging for the tradition and culture of their people to be preserved in each kernel of corn, the round of each melon.
Deon offered a prayer which called for his feet to be grounded into the sacred earth, corn pollen dotted his shoulder, tongue, top of head, a blessing of the abundant harvest. An opportunity to invite and commune with the spirit of the morning.
More prayers were offered. Speaker after speaker introduces. Deon explained that the harvest festival used to be games. But now, the Elders worry about their diminishing culture and use the time to talk and teach, hoping their words will instill and remind the newer generations of the importance of the Navajo ways.
Everyone under the ramada listened respectfully.
Even my cute husband and son.
Even the delicious, diaper-clad baby Reuben.
Even the boys from an Arizona adventure camp, run by Charlie Onehorse Hill. These boys, each of them a recovering drug addict, were remarkable. We worked alongside them throughout the weekend and learned many of their stories. They are overcoming steep odds through hard work and the guiding hand of leaders who care. I just heart these boys like the dickens.
Like I said, everyone was listening respectfully. Except, of course, a handful of my children, who decided to play with the dirt floor instead of focusing on the unfamiliar language of the speakers. We saw a LOT of this dirt throughout the weekend. On hands, in the tent, on our faces. A tangible reminder of the land on which we were about to work. The land which served as a distracting play toy for the kids while the grown-ups indulged in a couple of lengthy lectures. Dirt, it’s there for you when you need it.
One of my favorite presentations came from this farmer. How instantly do you adore him? Yeah, me too. He walked all smiling and shy to the front of the room, picked up a purple cob of corn, and said, “the corn we buy in the store. We don’t know where it comes from. We don’t know where it’s been. We don’t know what seeds created it. But our corn. It comes from the seeds of our ancestors. It is sung over, prayed over. We love it like we love our children. When you eat our corn, you recieve all of those prayers and songs into your soul. You can feel it inside you, making you happy.”
I gotta tell you. That’s a pretty remarkable pitch for corn. I pictured myself sneaking out to our deck early in the morning, crooning over our Sweet Basil. It could happen. Sitting there, listening to the passion and pure-hearted belief these farmers have in the ways of their people made me believe. Surely, a white girl could make her basil happy by taking the tradition of these beautiful people. I promise to try it and let you know how it goes.
What did not go: the twins for very long in the lectures. Here we sit, surrounded by the beloved Elders, the hard-working farmers, a ramada full of devoted volunteers, and my babies sneak their way outside, find a crickety plastic jeep, and push each other on the yellow dirt under the heat of the Arizona sun. (Admission: I loved that they did it. The Elders didn’t seem to mind, either. Phew.)
Once all the talking was finished, we were invited to join together for stretching and a one-mile walk around the farm space. One of the primary goals of North Leupp Family Farm is to encourage better health among a people terribly stricken with diabetes due to unhealthy eating and exercise habits. The farm leaders are trying to assimilate new understandings of health and wellness with their cultural diet and traditions. Thus, the stretching. We started with arm circles. Then lunges. Jumping jacks. Then, the group leader ran out of stretches.
So this guy suggested back bends. His favorite exercise, he said. You should have seen some of the Elders attempting this move. Hilar! But, with such a smile of the face of the salesman, one is willing to attempt even a random backbend. This is what happy corn does to the soul.
We walked. It was a slow, meandering walk with a delightfully eclectic group. The farm is beautiful. It’s been revived over years and years of changes. Looking at the dry land, one wonders how any plant will sprout from such arid desert. Corn pollen and prayers, of course, explained one farmer. Corn pollen and prayers.
Which must be happening at my house somehow, because every now and then, I see how quickly my children are growing, and feel grateful for those moments when we get to hold onto them for a moment longer.
Back at the tent, everyone was busy preparing the festival foods. There was a Blue Corn Mush, created by drying blue corn, grinding the kernels into powder, the reconstituting them with hot water. I never knew how many foods one could make with corn. It’s truly amazing to see how many traditional Navajo meals make different uses from this one, single crop.
The sheep ribs were tossed over an orange-hot fire. Simple rounds of bread were being tossed on the grill. Everyone was moving, working, gathering together to help prepare a multitude of different foods.
On our walk, Deon invited us to gather just-ripened corn, which we carried into the cooking tents. This corn is considered a special treat because it’s used to create Kneel-Down Bread, a sweet, cornbread-like tamale, which can only be made once a year because it requires fresh corn, picked at the peak of the season.
Everyone stopped what they were doing and gathered together to watch Grandma, their highly respected medicine woman, spiritual guide, and teacher & keeper of ancient traditions, prepare the Kneel Down Bread. She stood at the edge of the table, children and adults gathered in every space around her, as she took the ground mush prepared by some of the youth and spread it with practiced precision into fat, green husks.
Isn’t she beautiful? Her hands. I just love her hands.
Grandma invited me to learn how to make kneel-down bread. She pressed my hands into the right formation, tapped my palm to show a better way to twist the husk, nodded when I placed my folded serving alongside the others. I wondered if it would be irreverent to squeeze her around the shoulder and smooch the crevices of her wise, weathered cheeks. I guessed it would be. And, anyway, she made me feel reverent, and grateful, like a child who yearned to know all she knew, all the secrets carved into her age-freckled face.
Navajo culture is matrilineal. Children take the mother’s name. Women own the children, the teepee, the food. They are strong. They are loved and respected. They are cared for and admired. They are connected with everyone and everything. I watched teenagers drop their tasks to be at her side. One farmer watched her emerge from a walk through the corn field and pulled his camera from a dusty pocket, “please! take my picture with Grandma.” I wondered who’s Grandmother she really was, inquired it of one of the women. “She is all of ours! She is everyone’s!”
It made me think of my own Grandmother, tucked into her own private room of a nursing home. She goes to the beauty shop once a week. She watches T.V. and takes a few visitors from time to time. I haven’t seen her in eight years. Such a pity. All that knowledge and wisdom I could be gleaning from my own grandmother. All that respect I could be giving as I learn her secrets. Understand my own traditions. Why would we ever settle for anything less than absolute awe for those who have come before us. I want to be better about this.
Grandmother placed the kneel-down bread into a heated, shallow pit in the ground. Her weathered hands smoothed coals into their perfect positions while all the men stood ready to help.
All of the food from the Harvest Festival came together beautifully. We ate crispy sheep ribs, blue corn mush, kneel-down bread, steamed corn, cooked peaches. There was enough food to feed us all three times. And, to offer a few scraps to Katie, the mangy stray farm dog, for whom my children fell head over heels in love.
Katie really was a darling. I’d have taken her home if my husband wasn’t so hypersensitive about tossing filthy dogs in the back of our leather-clad Acura. Pish, I say. Dirt and doggie disease can be easily forgotten with one as sweet as this pup.
There were several times during the day when I just sat back and marveled at the cultural experience we were actually getting to…er…experience.
In the photo above, everyone had gathered around the table to enjoy the smoked sheeps head. The boys–and yes! even MY boys–were tasting the tongue, eyes, brain, all traditionally eaten the Navajo way, with respect to the whole being, never wasting any useful part.
I would have thrown the sheep head out. But, then we would have missed out on all the squeamish fun.
After a full day of eating and learning and walking and stretching and prayer, the Harvest Festival came to a close and we pitched tents under the shimmering Arizona sky. Settling in around the campfire, we found quick friendship and delicious conversation with Brandi, a feisty Rhode-Island-to-Denver transplant who’d brought along her long-time pal Rob, a gentle but witty taxidermist from Nebraska. And, there was Deon, and fellow GCT leader Natasha, who looked like a raven-haired supermodel, but drove a kicky little GMC with worn-in cowboy boots. And Bryan, who is just splendid city, with his thick beard and bright eyes and ever-seeking-truth kind of soul.
Morning came all too quickly. You know how it is, when you’re lying on the ground, covered by a slippery sleeping bag, rising to the reliable light of the morning sun. Breakfast was made. Breakfast was eaten. The lovely botanist-illustrator Joyce got Jacob busy with cleaning the campsite. I love when people give my children work to do. It’s so much easier than me giving them work to do.
Day two of the trip was devoted to helping around the farm. The twins landed the coveted job of stirring clay for a new bread oven with their feet. With their FEET! This is ten times better than emptying the dishwasher back at home.
The rest of us went wherever Deon directed. We pitchforked. We sweated. We worked alongside new friends. It was truly a memorable family service experience. One we hope to do again next year.
Are you interested in getting involved with next years trip to the North Leupp Family Farm? It’s not too early to put it on your calendar and get your name on the list! For more information, please contact the Grand Canyon Trust by filling out this form.