It began with a phone call from my friend Udgar, on holiday in New Zealand, asking if I would like to supervise a team of Navajo youth in the building of a Growing Dome for their community. “Of course, you know I would, what is your timeline?”, I asked, assuming he was looking ahead to spring since it was mid-December. “Monday,” he responded and since it was already Friday evening my adventure began abruptly. Sunday afternoon I began the journey to Growing Spaces in Pagosa Springs, Colorado where I would pick up the geodesic dome greenhouse kit, and then travel to Navajo Nation in Arizona.
I arrived late and spent a sleepless night as I anticipated the challenges awaiting. Way before dawn I traveled to the site of the planned growing dome where I was surprised to see a camp fire blazing. A scruffy guy said, “Hey mate, would you like something to eat?” Just as I was politely declining the offer, I realized the scruffy guy was Jamie Oliver, world renowned iconic English chef. I quickly changed my response and was dazzled by his remarkably vibrant and fresh campfire creation. I should point out that, as the longtime owner of a natural foods restaurant, I am not easily impressed by creative food but this spontaneously crafted meal honestly blew me away.
When I returned to the site later Monday morning, TV filming was already taking place around an outdoor grill. The focus was to be the ceremonial slaughter and traditional preparation of a traditional Churro sheep along with the creative additions added through Jamie’s flair. After the extensive and impressive preparation was complete, the film crew shifted to capture Jamie serving the feast to a distinguished delegation of tribal women elders gathered around the campfire. It was an emotional experience for me as I observed this once powerful tribe appearing so fragile and vulnerable.
My thoughts soon returned to the challenge at hand. I was concerned that the site had not yet been leveled as Jamie explained that they intended to film the beginning of dome construction and then travel for a three days of filming in other locations in Navajo Nation before returning to film a community celebration in the new dome on Friday morning. Easy for him to say but I had to build the dome, with the help of I didn’t know who and remember the site had not yet been prepared.
When filming for the day was complete, Jamie and Navajo Sheep rancher and Dine weaver, Roy Kady, and I took a walk in the field where the growing dome was to be constructed over the next three days. Roy shared his dream which had inspired Jamie to reach out to Growing Spaces to set this project in motion. As a wise elder in the community, Roy was deeply concerned about the twin plagues of obesity and diabetes that were destroying the health of his people. His dream was for a greenhouse that could produce fresh vegetables year round and help link the youth to their ancestral diet and move them away from a fast food/junk food diet. Jamie, Roy and I had a spirited conversation around this lofty and realizable goal and the potential for hope represented by the Growing Dome.
The following morning my spirits were further lifted as a steady stream of young Navajo men gathered around the camp fire to enjoy the meal Jamie had prepared. I assumed they were there to help in the construction of the new dome greenhouse. True, they had been invited to breakfast by Roy in the hopes that they could be enticed into volunteering for the day but that had not been communicated. It was left to me to encourage each young man to join the project. The reality of life on the reservation quickly hit home as story after story conveyed the fact that survival day to day is a continual struggle and a day volunteering is not an option. Most of these men needed to spend that day collecting enough firewood to warm their family through one more night. After the mass exodus, I was left with two old men and one 14 year old boy for my construction team.
As we began leveling the site I was encouraged that the two men were not actually as old as they appeared but just looked aged because of the extremes of their lifestyle. The truth was that they were each at least 10 years younger than I am and were eager to have a project for as long as it lasted. The project evolved in the magical way that all growing dome builds I have been involved in do, as a team of people come together in the spirit of creating something of lasting value and immediate relevance and beauty for the community. A dome build is akin to a traditional barn raising in that way and it is an awesome experience in the original sense of that word.
I cannot say that I was optimistic that we would complete the dome in time for the filming of the celebration but we were moving in the right direction one step at a time. The ingenious dome kit comes pre cut, pre drilled and color coded so that it goes together amazingly swiftly but it was almost the winter solstice now so day light was frustratingly limited. My scraggly crew stayed together for all three days even when the winds turned brutally cold and we did successfully erect the Growing Dome in advance of the Friday morning community celebration.
On Friday morning the December winds continued to howl as Jamie and his entourage, (film crew) and Navajo guests and their esteemed medicine man arrived. Inside the dome it was peaceful, warm, comfortable and for me exhilarating. As the chanting and singing began, my body was visibly vibrating with a sense of hopeful optimism for this proud community as the powerful potential created by the Growing Dome was conspicuously evident. Jamie mentioned it also in his heart felt comments, that to him, “the Growing Dome represents hope”.
I returned to Navajo Nation the following May with a group of Colorado middle school students on a cultural exchange trip that involved building raised beds in the greenhouse out of indigenous stones we collected around the site. It was an insightful experience for me as I saw so clearly that the kids are so similar in terms of their dreams and aspirations but their opportunities are so disparate. I so hope that the future is kind and nurturing to all of these young people and that the Growing Dome does indeed help connect them to the wisdom of their ancestors and their traditional diet and lead them on a path of health and wholeness.