By: Frances Du
Imagine: A stone walkway leading into a sunlit grassy area surrounded by a ring of carefully tended flowerbeds. An orchard rests in the distance. There are rose gardens, a pond, and a greenhouse reserved for botanical study. A performance stage is set up for live music and storytelling, a Balti tradition. And of course, there is the almost tangible sensation of things growing, sprouting, coming alive. These are some of the things Tahereh Sheerazie, an American-Pakistani garden designer, envisions for Abruzzi School, the first co-educational institution situated in the sleepy village of Siankhor in Pakistan’s Batistan’s Shigar Valley.
But for a project still in its infancy these are still only future plans. “So far only the very first small steps have been taken, like vegetable beds for each class,” explains Sheerazie as she walks me through the planning process. Sheerazie has been involved in this lengthy project since 2009 when she accepted a consultancy position offered by Agha Khan Cultural Services Pakistan (AKCSP) after hearing that a school was being built in Shigar, where vast mountaintops and pastures make it one of the most picturesque places in the world, but where the educational system has been less than subpar for many years.
Built by the AKCSP in collaboration with the Italian government, which funded the project as a gift to the Balti people on the 50th anniversary of the first climb of K2 by Italian climbers, the school will allow students in this rural area to have a formal education. However, Sheerazie is more interested in alternatives to standardized learning; she envisions an “outdoor classroom” that will not only inspire students to be active learners, but to use their voices and imaginations to thrive into life-long learners.
School gardens are nothing new. During the World Wars school gardens were used to combat food shortages and to feed the impoverished. They were used as a survival tactic. In recent years, they’ve been used as an educational tool to teach kids about science and nutrition, but while the term “teaching garden” is generally used to describe how kids learn about what they are putting into their bodies, Sheerazie, sees this botanical setting as a liberated space that can, in the future, act as the foundation and backbone to the conventional classroom and standardized ways of learning. Instead of relying on textbooks for information, students will learn from studying different aspects of Mother Nature.
Admittedly, Sheerazie knew little about the school garden movement in the beginning, maintaining that the project should be strongly reflective of Shigri aesthetic,– a love letter to the community — but over the past few years has researched the teaching garden movement more extensively and now cites the Grun Macht Schule in Germany and the Martin Luther King middle school’s Edible School Yard as sources of inspiration. As a Pasadena native, she has attended workshops, conferences and seminars to further educate herself on the teaching garden movement in the U.S.
As a child of an army officer, Sheerazie and her five other siblings led a nomadic lifestyle, constantly traveling, going from school to school, being uprooted time and time again only to be whisked away on another adventure, another city. And although there were no teaching gardens at the long list of schools she attended as a child, she maintains that she had her own teaching garden back home when she watched her father tend to the plants in their backyard.
“It’s from him that I learned to water, to plant, to prune, to weed, to propagate, to economize, to compost, to recycle, to use the space for its aesthetic value but also for business, to be working at it every day, to appreciate the value of planning and attention to every detail.”
After graduating from college she worked in the travel industry before getting married and making the move over to Los Angeles. She helped her husband run his business but after eighteen years, decided that she wanted something for herself and pursued her passion for horticulture full-time.
“One of the more defining courses I took was a Permaculture intensive at Occidental Arts and Ecology center in Sonoma in 2010. That became the foundation of my work, reaffirming much of the gardening methods I had grown up with and seen practiced first hand across Pakistan,” explains Sheerazie.
Her background in garden design has given her the ability to re-imagine spaces. Whether it is a vacant lot or a pre-existing garden, Sheerazie believes everything has the potential and the ability to be sustainable by using the practices of permaculture.
The first step of the planning process was to engage in “protracted thoughtful observation” so she could think about the needs of the people who will use this space and more importantly how they will take care of it so it can continue to exist for generations to come.
After recruiting five female interns to become crucial members of the planning process Sheerazie, armed with only a pad of paper and a pencil, and a robust imagination, began to sketch out feather-light ideas for a teaching garden, consulting these bright young women every step of the way.
This planning process was captured by Mahera Omar’s documentary, A Garden in Shigar (2010), which showed the garden site as being so full of rubble that it was hard to imagine anything would grow there, but as the girls began to envision what could possibly be incorporated in to this space they realized the possibilities were endless. A stone walkway. A grape arbor. A compost bin to make fertilizer for the garden. Fruit trees.
“I want this to be a teaching garden not a passive garden,” says Sheerazie who sees the pilot project as part of the experiential education movement that forces us to rethink how our children should be educated. A space is transformed by those who inhabit it, and this is precisely why Sheerazie urges everyone in the community — students, parents, and educators — to become involved in the planning process. The feedback she received was a mixture of vocal skepticism and excitement. And although the project is far from being completed, it has already caught the curiosity and attention of the Balities who are unaccustomed to radical change in their daily lives.
Never has Shigar been so altered by outside forces. Tourists rarely venture into its villages, frequenting only the ancient mosques and the Shigar Fort. The former Palace of the Raja of Shigar has been recently restored with modern amenities, making it the perfect resting spot for weary travelers, yet for many, Shigar is just another place to pass through while on a journey to a different destination. However, if this project is a success, the harvest produced by this community garden is bound to attract the attention of outside visitors.
It has also nabbed the attention of people all around the world. After Omar’s 20-minute documentary received accolades and an award at the “Women’s Voices Now Form the Muslim World” festival, a group of Montreal students from McGill University offered to create a website to promote and raise funds to construct the project. In addition, The Citizen’s Foundation (TCF USA) has also helped with their funding efforts along with passionate volunteers who “were not deterred from volunteering their time and creative energy even with all my disclaimers of [there] only [being] squatting bathrooms, plenty of bed bugs, no public transport and a long arduous road trip in and out of Skardu if flights didn’t operate due to [the] weather,” says Sheerazie.
But like a lot of other innovative ideas, the question still remains of whether or not a teaching garden in Pakistan can play a sustainable role in the school curriculum. Connecting this experiential education movement towards “better grades, college education, and becoming doctors and engineers is still a little baffling and fuzzy,” admits Sheerazie. “[While most are supportive], some are obviously impatient to see [the garden] blossom both literally and figuratively.”
But despite these initial struggles, Sheerazie is still a strong believer in what she likes to call edible education and wants to see a teaching garden in every school in Pakistan. Most importantly, she hopes the project will help students gain an understanding of themselves and the land. She wants the students to develop a sense of self and confidence that is not based on bravado but on being humble, gracious, and confident. “The rewards are for future generations of children to reap, based on how we understand and protect the environment today.”
If you would like to get involved, please visit http://www.abruzzischoolgarden.com
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About Frances Du
Frances Du is a freelance writer and blogger based in Toronto, Ontario. She’s an English teacher by day and a city explorer by night, but her goal is to travel all over the world before settling down in NYC. She blogs about twenty-something culture, ideas, and concerns at franny glass strikes back. You can follow her on Twitter @frannyglass22
Photos courtesy of Abruzzi Schools in Pakistan