Learning Cultivation and Cultivating Learning
Creighton University’s Greenhouse
By Matt Low | Photography by Laura Low
Mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.”
Knowing French or not, these words will be familiar to most who have taken a high school or college course in world literature, as they bring Voltaire’s satirical Enlightenment novel Candide to a close. Spoken by the novel’s eponymous hero, and typically rendered in English as something akin to “but we must cultivate our garden,” these ambiguous words have been troubling students and scholars alike for going on two-and-a-half centuries now. The phrase is undoubtedly an imperative, but what exactly is Voltaire imploring us to do? On the one hand, since the words are spoken directly to Pangloss, the novel’s resident philosopher and target of Voltaire’s most scathing satire, there’s a clear sentiment of “let’s stop talking for a minute and do some actual work.” On the other hand, modern-day readers might be more inclined to take this imperative at face value, and see Voltaire giving some very practical advice about the good that can come from growing our own food as a source of both sustenance and knowledge.
It is very much in this spirit that a new endeavor is being undertaken on the campus of Creighton University.
Situated behind some of Creighton’s better-known landmarks, like St. John’s Cathedral and Reinert-Alumni Memorial Library, Andy Waltke, a member of Creighton’s biology department, is growing an innovative new project that utilizes vastly different materials and resources—sun, soil, and seeds, primarily—than those more traditional icons of the Jesuit university, while still advancing the school’s mission of educating thoughtful, well-rounded students.
The physical structure of the greenhouse has been a presence on the campus for nearly two decades, but it is only in the last couple of years that its true potential for the role it might play on campus, and in the larger Omaha community, has started taking shape. Over the years the small space in which the greenhouse is located has undergone a number of physical transformations, and too frequently was left to gather weeds, but under Waltke’s direction the area has gained some stability and in fact has become one of the more attractive features of the campus. Along with the greenhouse itself—which has been fashioned to be self-sustaining in terms of water usage—there are a number of outdoor plantings, a small water feature and newly renovated walking areas. But transforming an eyesore into an emblem of sustainable design is only one part of Waltke’s reconceptualization of what the greenhouse can provide to the campus and community.
Speaking with Waltke, an Omaha native who studied biology and environmental sciences in Texas and Peru before returning to the Midwest, one is quickly engrossed with his vision of the greenhouse as a place for students from across campus (not limited to those in the sciences) to come and gain firsthand experience with a wide range of agricultural and horticultural undertakings. Among the “green skills” and knowledge that Waltke envisions students cultivating during their visits to the greenhouse are lessons in sustainable agriculture—no chemicals or fertilizers used here, for starters, but also the values of composting, the importance of species diversity and the resourcefulness of Nebraska’s native ecosystem, the mixed-grass prairie.
In addition to more conventional greenhouse plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and various herbs, students will also be introduced to less common, and even some exotic, plant species like tobacco, indigo, avocado and huacatay (Peruvian black mint). Each individual plant grown inside and outside of the greenhouse serves at least two purposes: first, to provide the opportunity to study its unique biological properties, some of which are completely unexpected, like the beautiful, fragrant flowers that grow from tobacco plants; and second, to introduce the practical, often multiple, applications enabled by each plant, such as making clothing dyes out of the indigo or a delicious sauce from the huacatay.
In the spring, visitors to the two main greenhouse buildings will encounter a large number of plants that serve an additional purpose, also in keeping with Creighton’s mission. For the last couple of years the greenhouse has functioned as the starting point for a large number of vegetables that were eventually planted in community gardens throughout Omaha. Most of those community gardens, like those maintained by City Sprouts and Lutheran Family Services, offer fresh produce to those in the community who often might not have access to healthier food options.
Providing seed starts to the local community is a natural extension of the greenhouse’s mission; it also fits with Waltke’s desire to enhance Creighton’s status as—in what he terms “gardening as a vehicle for change”—not just a participant in citywide efforts to make sustainably grown fruits and vegetables available to a larger number of people but also a leader in changing the way we think, talk and act in regard to our food choices. It is for this reason that Waltke and other Creighton faculty members have proposed an ambitious project in connection with the greenhouse, an on-campus institute known as the Center for Urban Renewal and Agriculture, which would centralize many of the university’s sustainable endeavors and even provide classes on food systems and similar topics. Combined with a burgeoning lecture series—The Land Institute’s Wes Jackson was a recent visitor to campus—Creighton students have never had more opportunities to deepen their educational experiences by exploring an aspect of daily life that too many have come to take for granted.
One of the foundational values upon which Jesuit education is built is the notion of cura personalis, or care for the whole person. With a plenitude of academic and religious resources, there is no doubt that Creighton and similar institutions have acquired some mastery of caring for the mental and spiritual personhoods of those directly influenced by the Jesuit mission. Perhaps what is most exciting about the emergence of Creighton’s greenhouse as a more prominent component of the campus and local communities—and why it is deserving of further attention by students, faculty, administrators, community partners and donors alike—is the potential it holds for an undervalued aspect of cura personalis: namely, care for the bodily well-being of the person as well. Making better choices about what we eat and how our food is grown is a powerful lesson to be learned, and it is a lesson that the Creighton greenhouse is uniquely positioned to deliver.
Though the Jesuits don’t make out well in the pages of Candide, there’s no doubt that Voltaire would approve of the work being done at the Creighton greenhouse. Skeptical of those whose worldviews are limited to what can be learned behind closed doors, Voltaire’s hero learns his most important lessons out in the world, most of all the need to cultivate our garden, a collaborative effort in the nourishment of body, mind and soul together, cura personalis via caring for the earth.
Matt Low is a graduate of Creighton University, where he now teaches. He lives in Omaha and enjoys exploring the many area farmers markets, community gardens, orchards, vineyards and other outdoor activities with his wife, Laura, and their twin daughters.