Visitors to Bernheim get to experience many wonders, from trails through its vast forest to the Edible Garden and of course the Forest Giants. But not many visitors get to have personal encounters with our staff to learn their stories, so that’s why we’ve created Pathways to Purpose, a series of interviews with Bernheim staff by Director of Education Kristin Faurest. This week’s conversation is with Edible Garden Steward, Cole Alexander.
What’s your background and how did you arrive at this job?
I grew up on an organic garlic farm in Bloomfield, KY. I loved it and when I got into high school, I was in my angsty teenage years and wanted to live in the city where there were things to do. In my early 20s, I did a lot of soul searching. Everything I got interested in it always came back to the land and the natural cycles. Gardening was more of a hobby at first and then evolved to where I started to seriously consider it as a potential career path. When I was about 24 or 25, my mom saw a job opening at Bernheim and encouraged me to check it out. The Edible Garden at Bernheim has been my greatest education because I have freedom and encouragement to experiment instead of only being taught by somebody else.
How’d you learn to do what you do?
When we moved to the farm when I was 7 or 8 and my parents instilled a sense of respect for nature. One of the first times we went hiking in the woods, my dad said we never hurt or kill an animal except to survive. Life is precious. Mom had an acre and a half of row crops for the family. They did a small CSA for a bit and then grew a couple of acres of garlic, which evolved into value-added products. When I was trying to learn about gardening, my mother would have me touch and smell the plants and look at the stalks to determine whether they were woody or green. After letting me explore these sensory elements, she would tell me what it was. I loved learning that way. I went on to get a permaculture certificate online from OSU Corvallis and got my Master Gardener Certificate in Kentucky.
If you weren’t at Bernheim, where might you be?
When I’m not in the Arboretum or working, I’m usually still in Bernheim — I spend a lot of time on the deep roads and the trails, trying to map the whole south block, the highest peaks of the knobs and some of the lowest areas of the creeks, the rock features and how the land just rolls in this region. I spend a lot of time playing music — I always try to bring an instrument to experience sounds in different ways.
What’s an amazing day for you look like — what at Bernheim most elevates you?
I used to only like the spring and the fall. But even in the summer when it’s 100 degrees outside, I can find beauty and happiness in the oppressive heat. I love listening to the birdsongs to try to see how many different ones I can identify. I love hearing the falling water while walking in an area after it’s rained. I have learned that in winter, you can see so far – the knobs are so clear, allowing you to get a perspective for where you are in the land. I enjoy experiencing the four seasons with Bernheim visitors and finding what they’re most excited about. I like exploring some hidden spaces in Bernheim and discovering their connections to the land I am connected to each day. Like the birds in summer, I try to make my own songs when I’m planting in the garden because the rhythm keeps me in that creative space. When I’m struggling with personally, I find that I can go into the garden and focus on a difficult project to help untangle my own thoughts.
What do you hope visitors take away from their time at the Edible Garden?
Many visitors tell me, “I don’t have a green thumb, I have a black thumb.” I enjoy hearing their curiosities and trying to encourage and inspire them to start gardens at home — even if it’s just a single potted plant. Bringing nature into their lives will help them discover that they’re not genetically bad at growing plants — nobody is! It’s all science. It’s all learning what elements have to be in a space in any given time for seeds to sprout or for plants to grow. It’s a dance. There’s structure but it’s also fluid It’s just like an instrument or meditation. It takes time and energy and learning from successes and failures – just like life in general. I hope people come away knowing that they have more ability to sustain themselves and grow plants than they think.
What’s a steward?
Though my focus is the Edible Garden at Bernheim, I believe we’re all stewards of all land together. Each year, I create a vision for the Edible Garden outlining how I hope things will play out but knowing that nature is really in control – a deer or chipmunk can easily decimate my best laid plans. As a steward I feel like I simultaneously pay attention to and try to influence the land in a way that’s similar to the natural world – a balance of give and take. Properly stewarding the land means sharing the space with nature and being comfortable with things not going as planned and being in awe of things I don’t expect.