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The Happy Gardener
“My English career led to an interest in ecological literacy and energy conservation, and that led me to consider where my food was coming from and where it was going,” says Shane Brill ’03 M’11, videographer for College Relations and Marketing. “So I started gardening, not really knowing what I was doing at first. The more I researched into how to garden, the more I found conflicting information.”
By reading more, he learned about the school of thought that states humans produce certain types of food for people and create a selective environment where it can thrive.
“At the same time, I was studying ecological principles and was coming to realize that every plant that appears is filling an important niche in our ecosystem,” he says. “Rather than struggling against weeds, I could try to understand what function they were having. As I started researching the functions, I started to realize a lot of these weeds are edible.”
On a walk down Chestertown’s High Street during the summer, Brill was able to point out a variety of different plants—dandelions, Echinacea, creeping juniper, purslane, wood sorrel — that are edible wilds.
“What foraging has really gotten me into is being aware of plants in their different stages and thinking of a plant like any food we would think of — a window in time when we can have a relationship with it. The most intimate relationship we can have with the natural world is our relationship with food. We literally internalize it and assimilate it.”
Brill is now a Master Gardener. He describes himself as a permaculturist, which he defines as someone “who studies ecological principles to design a world in which humans can benefit nature simply by living.”
At Washington College, he is also the advisor for the College’s campus garden. With his guidance, the garden was recently certified as a Bay-Wise Habitat, meaning it is a conservation landscape that positively impacts the Chesapeake Bay.
During the academic year, Brill says, the students who volunteer at the garden learn about wild edible plants weekly.
“We had some Master Gardeners come out to appraise the campus garden and they were impressed that we didn’t really have weeds because the things typically considered weeds, like violets or dandelions, we consider the cool edible foods,” says Brill. “Where humans have been, these plants have been. We take them with us and we’ve lost that understanding of our relationship with them. One of my goals is just to reclaim that knowledge and make it accessible to anyone who’s interested.”