by Jeff Lindstrom
Two years ago, I had just finished my undergraduate degree in Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I found myself packing my parents’ minivan to relocate to Lincoln, Nebraska for a job with Nature Explore. I wasn’t quite sure what was in store for me, but I did know that the thought of moving to Nebraska alone was terrifying. My only previous experiences with the entire state were driving through on I-80 en route to Colorado, and a very vague family reunion during my childhood that included catching piglets on a scavenger hunt of a farm. I couldn’t help but think that I was making a huge mistake, especially considering I was leaving behind one of my favorite cities, an amazing group of friends, and proximity to my family.
The transition was not an easy one at first. All of the sudden, I was in a new city, with no friends, and no sense of place. It was definitely culture shock coming from a city that I knew so well and felt like I knew everyone. Luckily, some co-workers pitied me enough to invite me to a few social events and, in time, I began to establish a close group of friends. Finally, after a few months of sulking and pouting, I decided that I needed to give this a real shot.
After getting some experience traveling and working on a variety of different projects, I began to develop more of an awareness that this was my opportunity to recreate myself – to explore interests that I never had a chance to before, and to take some chances and try new things. I began attending more community events and reaching out to new people. It wasn’t long before I realized that Lincoln has a uniquely strong sense of community that is hard to find in other places.
Through various connections and existing friendships, I met Amy Rose Brt, the Program Director for Community CROPS. After a few conversations and meetings, we knew that we could combine forces… somehow. Personally, I wanted to work with Community CROPS to figure out how we could make community gardens more active public spaces. Amy liked this idea, but her heart was set on building a “food forest.” My reaction: “That sounds amazing… but what is a food forest?” After a quick explanation and a few more conversations, we started drawing and the rest is history.
What started as a lofty idea developed into a full-blown, community-powered project. Before we knew it, we had established a steering committee, a concept plan, and had begun spreading the word. But as the project began to develop, Amy’s health continued to decline. When we first met, I knew she was battling cancer, but she never talked about it and didn’t want anyone to treat her any differently. Most of the time people never knew she was sick – her energy, enthusiasm and dedication to the changing the world was what shined through in all of our interactions.
As her battle grew and the disease progressed, it became harder to ignore. Our conversations began to happen more by email and telephone. Our meetings began to take place in her living room. It became difficult for her to leave the house at all.
On May 26, 2013 I received a message that Amy had passed away. As commonly felt with death, my mind raced through wide range of emotion. Sadness for everyone’s loss and especially for her beautiful seven-year old daughter, Anya. Happiness, because she was no longer in physical pain and confined to the walls of her house when we all knew she yearned to be outdoors. Anger that I didn’t get more time with her here in this life. And then there was a strange feeling of joy, because I realized how fortunate I was to have a chance, even if it was brief, to be impacted by Amy.
There was a magic to Amy that radiated throughout every room she entered. Her love for life was contagious. She found a way to find beauty in every situation, no matter how messy it was. She embraced her imperfections and celebrated her uniqueness. She was authentic and was not afraid to tell you what she thought. She was an activist who was committed to changing the world and who didn’t take no for an answer. She was real.
This project means so much more to me than I can put into words. The Southern Heights Food Forest has made me feel part of this community. It has given me the opportunity to really explore my passion, not only as a professional, but as a community member and human being. It’s given me the opportunity to meet some of the most sincere and genuine people I have ever met – people who have encouraged me, embraced me, and empowered me. But more than anything, it has connected me to something much bigger than I could have ever imagined.
To me, the Food Forest is a representation of life. Each year it will become more beautiful, passing through seasons, upturns and setbacks, all the while becoming stronger and more resilient. It will teach us something new every day. It will bring us together and celebrate our diversity. It will be a living, breathing catalyst that brings people together, to better understand each other and our relationship with the earth.
Like any collaborative project, the Southern Heights Food Forest has many stories behind it. Through time I wanted to make sure that we celebrate everyone’s – how we got here, what it means to us, and what we hope to see. Because of her instrumental role in the creation of this project, I felt that it was most appropriate to begin by sharing the story of how this project began with Amy.
Sometimes I have trouble telling this story, because I don’t want to ever give the impression that I am trying to tug on people’s emotional heartstrings. There are people involved in this project that knew Amy much better than I. But I want to make sure people have a chance to appreciate how influential and inspiring she was to everyone, and I know we all want her legacy to be remembered.
This project is only a small portion of the good that she shared with the world.