On Stewarding Stolen Land As Displaced People

Rel in Fairview, North Carolina

<em>Rel (they/them) is a question-asker, mistake-maker, forager, and farmer in pursuit of an aligned life. Rel is currently exploring ancient hebraic timescapes, ritual candle making, and place-based community building as a praxis through which they can unravel whiteness, discover authentic ways of being, and practice right relation to humans and land in the pursuit of collective liberation. Rel can either be found dancing to Rihanna, taking casual conversations to a *deeply* personal place, or asking annoyingly unanswerable questions. Find Rel on Instagram at @relbrender.</em>

To start, I just want to know where you are right now. You can answer that as the physical place or the community that you're a part of. But broadly, where you are now and what brought you there?

I am living at a land-based project called Yesod Farm + Kitchen which is located on ancestral Cherokee and Catawba lands in what's now known to many as Fairview, North Carolina. Yesod Farm + Kitchen is a community space dedicated to regenerative agriculture, earth-based Jewish living, and growing relationships across difference. We’re living here on 16 acres of land that is marked by two beautiful creeks, and we’re growing food for ourselves and for some local communities. All the food that we don’t eat here is donated.

I love how you painted a visual of what the land is like with the creeks, in addition to describing the mission and intention behind your community. I'm curious about the spiritual roots of the community as well as your own. I get the sense that, for you, spirituality is very connected to the physical world. I'd love to hear a bit more about that.

My relationship with earth started in a Jewish context. It started when I was a teenager, and I had so much resistance and resentment towards and with my Jewish ancestry and upbringing. As time has moved on, I have learned that my Jewishness and my Jewish ancestry are such abundant, rich, juicy, yummy gifts. As I explore what it means to be manipulating land, through growing food in ways that white supremacy and capitalism have taught us to grow food, and as I strive to do that in a way that is in right relation with land and with all of the creatures we share the land and the waters with, I have realized that I am so lucky to come from a wisdom tradition that has so many written instructions on how to do that. This allows me to explore those practices without co-opting Indigenous practices of the folks whose land I’m currently living on. I think I really struggle with being rooted in this pursuit of rematriation, in this pursuit of collective liberation and return of this land to Indigenous peoples, while being a part of a displaced people. My family is only here on this continent because of persecution. Trying to learn to be in right relation with land while growing food, while not co-opting Indigenous practices, has forced me into acknowledging the wisdom tradition that I come from. I’m so grateful for that because there is so much wisdom there. I could keep talking forever [about this] but I’ll leave it at that.

I would love to hear more about what it’s been like to hold that tension of being on this land that your community and ancestors do not have claim to originally, while bringing your ancestral practices and techniques into this space. In terms of your Jewish ancestry and those traditions, is that something you’re exploring for the first time in this community and place, or is that something you had connected into before this and part of what brought you to this community?

Place/Love Project · Rel B

Anyone who participates in the most important holidays of Jewish time is accidentally participating in Jewish agricultural wisdom. All of our rituals are guided not only by major harvests and planting times, but by lunar time. Our months start with the new moon every month, and oftentimes our high festivals happen during the full moon in the middle of the month. So, I think I’ve been accidentally participating in this since I was born, I’ve been slowly making my way into deeper understanding. Thankfully, I was introduced to the Jewish Farmer Network within the past year. The Jewish Farmer Network is a young organization that has basically put out a call to say, “we think there are alot of Jewish farmers out there who are grappling with this question of farming as displaced peoples on stolen land” and “how do we do that?” Over a thousand people have come through being like, “hey, that’s me!” They hosted a conference in February, just before the pandemic hit, and I gathered with hundreds of other Jewish farmers and allies to hold space for these questions together. The spirituality was so seamlessly intertwined, with Indigenous and Black land sovereignty, with anti-Zionism, with actual farming practices or loan information. Everything was held with the same weight in a way that, for me, was in such stark contrast to the commercial farming I had been exposed to. It was really different. So after being introduced to that community I realized that this intersection is where my heart is and is where both the healing of myself and my lifetime, and also the healing of my ancestors, has to happen, in that zone of confluence.

And being here [on Yesod Farm] has been really exciting because it's a bit different from the Northeast where I’m from. I’ve been on Lenape land my whole life, but here in Appalachia our planting cycles are actually a lot closer to ancient Herbraic cycles. We’re able to sow grains in the month of Cheshvan, which is now [October], so that we can harvest those grains in advance of Passover and make our own matzo. We’re able to engage in the cycle in that way and I think for me, as someone who is an Israeli anti-Zionist, I am able to understand that being a part of a displaced people and living in diaspora is not something to avoid or something to flee from, but something to accept and to honor because it is the truth of my people. It has always been the truth of my people. And I recently learned from Hadar Cohen on the Jewish Ancestral Healing podcast that, in many ways, Zionism and the colonization of Palestine has been a way of spiritual bypassing the pain of being exiled. I think being here and being able to honor Jewish time -- which is so different than Gregorian time -- allows me to engage with the wisdom that I have been given and is in my bones in a way that doesn’t directly harm others.

I so appreciate you sharing so all of that -- from the personal to the bigger context. I’m struck by how much your understanding of your community as a displaced people seems to infuse the way you’re thinking about the new communities you’re a part of, the land you’re on, and probably also the larger communities you’re located within and more broadly still, our country. I’d just be curious to hear how that identity, understanding, and perspective has influenced the way that you interact in the different communities that you’ve been a part of.

I think I’ve never really felt like an “American.” Being American has never really been a part of my identity. Knowing that on my father's side I’m first-generation American and on my mother’s side I’m third, I’ve always been so acutely aware of the fact that there are people that are so deeply “American” in ways that I could never be. . I feel like I’ve always been subconsciously aware that because I am here, I am indebted to the people who've been here the longest -- Indigenous folks and Black folks. I’m a visitor here. I think, also, there's something that has been buried inside of me that has been brought out as I’ve been deeper in Jewish community, which is that many Jews all over the diaspora have this message passed down to them that you have to be prepared to flee the shtetl, that you have to be prepared to leave at any moment. And to know that my people have never been in one place too long, because they have not been allowed to be, has helped me to understand that if I am here, I am to be of service to the people who are the true stewards of this place.

Part of the way we’re doing that here at Yesod -- and Yesod means foundation in Hebrew, and it’s part of Kabbalah’s sfirot -- is one: being in deep regenerative relationship with land and waters that we have access to protect and access to regenerate, and two: feeding our community. So we grow, I don't exactly know, maybe like 100,000 square feet -- or something like that, not a huge amount of land -- of annuals that we bring over to a local organization called Root Cause. Folks from Beloved Asheville then pick up the food to distribute it throughout the Asheville community. I believe the largest population they serve is the Latine community in and around Asheville, so we try to produce culturally-significant crops for those we’re serving. We’re growing a lot of sweet and hot peppers, okra, collards, sweet potatoes, and also just things that are fun and yummy and bring us deep joy. We’re also trying to integrate the foods that were cultivated in these Indigenous foodways that we can protect and also repopulate -- things like permissions, pawpaws, and elderberries, as well as things we can use to feed the community. And then the third piece is [the foods that] feel culturally significant for us and brings us beauty and joy, such as ancient grains, garlic, and, eventually, figs.

I love that you brought up joy! I actually wanted to ask you what is bringing you joy in the place and community you’re in right now. So, perfect segue!

Perfect segue! I actually just had a conversation about joy with my therapist last week. She reminded me that joy can be present in any mood, or that it can be created or called in in any mood. I often think about my ancestors when I think about joy, like what they have been able to withstand and how joy is baked into our sense of time. Joy and celebration. Honoring Shabbat has been really, really powerful for me when it comes to joy, silliness, giddiness, sexiness, and beauty. I think that's been a really huge element in my experience of joy here. The deep honoring of rest, not as an afterthought, but, in the same world as work is rest. I think also what's been bringing me joy is that I’ve been called to live in the mountains for my entire young adult life and now here I am! So that feels really really joyful for me. And I think the last thing I’ll say is that producing food under capitalism -- look, laboring under capitalism sucks, full stop. Being able to grow food, and community, and skills outside of the paradigm of capitalism is such joy and is so healing for every part of me. And I am spending a lot of time visioning how we can get more people doing holy work and not laboring under capitalism, like how we can make that a reality.

That feels like one of the really big questions worth focusing on right now. Wow, so inspiring and really moving, Rel! I have one more question for you -- well, it's actually a trio of questions that I read in the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimerer. So many parts of that book remind me of what you’ve been talking about. But this trio of questions in particular have stuck with me since reading the book last summer. They’re part of a conversation the author has with a friend who’s lived in many places throughout his life. She asks him where he finds his greatest sense of place out of all of those he’s lived and then asks what's the place that he’s felt most nourished and supported by. So those are the first two questions. And then this third one really gets me -- she says, where is the place that you understand best, that you know best, and that knows you in return? So I wonder what comes to mind for you when I ask you those questions one at a time...

Where do you find your greatest sense of place?

In my body.

Mm, perfect, okay. Where do you feel most nourished and supported?

In the space of my sisters.

I love that. And lastly, what is the place that you know best, and that knows you in return?

Can I answer with a nonanswer?

You can answer however you want!

Okay. I really struggle with this idea of knowing. I think that there are places that I could say I know best. But then in thinking about whether they know me best, I question that and I realize that those relationships aren't as mutualistic as I want them to be. I think about the woods near my parents house on Lenape land. I could say that I know the names of a lot of plants there, and I know where to find the kind of fungi I like, and I know where to go swimming, and the critters that I’ll find along the way. But it feels so introductory, like when you’ve only gone on a few dates with someone, it doesn’t feel deep yet. I think the rest of my life will be a process of building a relationship to place to the extent that that feels mutualistic and I haven't quite figured out how to do that yet.

Mmm I hear you and I feel that, too.

As an addendum, I meet now every Monday with a group of folks to discuss ideas around land sovereignty. One of the questions that was brought up by my dear friend last night was that she really struggles with this idea of hearing the earth or listening to the earth. And she feels like she's in a place where if she's alone in the woods and has the intention of listening, she doesn't know how to listen to the earth, she doesn't know what to look out for, she doesn't know how to hear it.

Like, what language it's speaking and how to interpret that language?

Yes exactly. Especially because we as English speakers have a very noun-based language and so we are constantly trying to identify things and call things some kind of name. I've heard Robin Wall Kimerer talk about how, when you know the name of a thing, you think you know it. But that doesn't mean you know it at all. It just means that you can recognize it. So I think this question of ‘how do we deeply know a place and all of its many relations’, I think that takes an incredible amount of time. I think it takes wisdom passed down through generations and I think that that wisdom was severed in my lineage. I don't have any of that from my ancestors. It feels as though I’m starting a relationship that my great-great-great grandchildren will be able to know.

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