Story by Margaux Crider
If we seek to truly regenerate the land, we must do the same in our own communities. This connection between the health of the land and the health of our communities is abundantly clear at the Sinsinawa Mound located just east of Dubuque. The Catholic sisters at Sinsinawa Mound live and work in this parallel, recognizing these processes as equally ecological, social, and spiritual transformations.
Sinsinawa Mound is centered in 450 acres of land and is home to a community of Catholic nuns. Located in the unglaciated “driftless” region of southwest Wisconsin, “the Mound” visibly protrudes from the flat expanse of farmland surrounding it. Since their establishment in 1847, the Sinsinawa community has fostered a long agricultural tradition. Today, they manage 200 acres of organic farmland, additional acreage dedicated to the Mound Gardens and a Collaborative Farm, several native oak savanna restoration sites, and a rotational grazing program.
The situation at Sinsinawa Mound is a bittersweet one. That is, these agroecological efforts hold particular weight, and urgency, because the sisters’ population is shrinking.
This decline is consistent with national trends, as nuns’ numbers in the United States have diminished significantly since the 1960s. At Sinsinawa, the average age is increasing, and fewer young sisters are joining the community. Thus, they predict a substantial overall decline in total population by 2030.
The sisters have therefore begun to decide the legacy they wish to leave on the land. In collaboration with the Mississippi Land Conservancy, the sisters are working to put their land in a trust, and their agroecological initiatives follow an extensive Land Stewardship Plan, which they started developing in 2014.
One day in early September 2020, the Land Stewardship Director at the time at Sinsinawa Mound, Ronald Lindblom, showed me the progress his team had made on their native prairie restoration project. I had come just in time to see the oak savanna’s remaining yellow and purple flowers before they faded into the cold months ahead.
Ronald, a slender, silver-haired man with a worn bandanna tied around his neck, motioned toward the swath of prairie to the right of us. As an ecologist, he told me that he first explained the process of prairie restoration to the sisters using an analogy, “I use the analogy of a sick person, and I use the analogy of an older generation, which [the sisters], unfortunately, can relate to. So, if you look out here, we’ve got incredible remnants of oak savanna, which are the big oak trees all through the forest. There are no oak trees under 100 years old, so there’s no next generation coming.”
Ronald knows that this analogy resonates deeply in the Sinsinawa community. That is, as the sisters have witnessed their own decline in numbers, they have observed the diminishing oak savanna in parallel. “We have remnant oak savanna now, but in 50 years, we wouldn’t. Those old trees are dying, just dying of old age.” Ronald sighed, “Well [the sisters] can relate to that, right? With how hard we’re trying to get young sisters here.”
One of those young sisters, Christin, shared the same metaphor with me, acknowledging the increased frequency of funerals happening at the Mound. She also explained that many of the non-native trees cut down during the restoration process had held sentimental value for the sisters which only magnified the sense of grief in the community.
“Depending on who you talk to, it’s really well-timed or really ill-timed. We’re either paving the way for hope and new life, or we’re just compounding the graves. Maybe both,” noted Christin. From her perspective, “as a newer, younger sister, it’s incredibly significant. My personal grief and loss are profound. It’s connected to these women whom I love, many of whom will no longer be alive in 10-15 years.”
These metaphors, mirrored images of sisters and trees, therefore, became means of processing immense grief and anxiety. And in this way, the sisters’ identity has become deeply relational, not only to each other as a congregation, but also to the land as an ecology they have worked to restore. In other words, the sisters, and Ronald, looked out at the land and saw a reflection of themselves.
We reflect our ecologies—not only symbolically, but physically through the nutrients we consume, energy exchanged, and shared processes of growth and healing. And in that reflexivity, we find solidarity. But what do we do when we live in an era seemingly defined by decline? Farmers know this reality too, as fewer young people are farming and the number of farmers overall has frighteningly declined in the past century. It requires a certain creativity to do more with less, and in doing so, rebuild what has been nearly lost.
As we emerge from this pandemic, our minds turn to reconstruction, regeneration, and reminders of what is good, and healthy, and just. To achieve a regenerative ecology, we must also foster a regenerative culture. And whether or not that regeneration is rooted in religion, as it is for the sisters at Sinsinawa, it grows from a deep love for the land and for each other. This work is beautiful and bittersweet, for it requires us to first embrace destruction and decline. Then, we may come to understand what it takes to achieve restoration and regeneration.
Margaux Crider has just received her M.S. in Agroecology from UW-Madison. Her ethnographic work at Sinsinawa Mound culminated in her master’s thesis, which examined dimensions of gender and agroecology within the sociology of religion. Before coming to Madison, Margaux served in AmeriCorps VISTA and worked for a food justice nonprofit in central Kentucky. In 2018, she graduated from Centre College of Kentucky with a B.A. in Environmental Studies and French. She will soon return to her home state of Kentucky to begin her PhD in Sociology at the University of Kentucky. There, she will continue exploring the intersections of agroecology, gender, and religion.