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Pinyon Inspiration

By Donda Hartsfield

There is nothing quite like the robust-earthy scent of Pinyon pines in the desert mountains of the southwest. The site of Pinyons to the fellow hiker along the desert trail is surely welcomed with a smile of relief and reverence. Providing shade and often substance they are a reliable refuge to desert dwellers bearing two legs, four legs and more! Pinyon pines are native to Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah with even a few populations in Texas and California, as well as Mexico. They are sturdy evergreen trees that prove their resilience over and over again in the dry high deserts between elevations of about 4,500 - 7,500 feet. Pinyons can live to be hundreds of years old and are relied upon for food as well as shade and shelter by many forms of wildlife such as bear, deer, bighorn sheep, rodents, blue jays, and many other birds, reptiles, and insects.

Pinyon Montessori has adopted its name from this significant species of pine so as to imbue the qualities of the organism into the purpose, vision, policies and practices of the school.  Through careful and dependable growth, Pinyon Montessori projects a steady cultivation of community and learning, much as Pinyon pines reliably grow and provide nourishment in the desert.  Pinyon Montessori nurtures children and strengthens communities through its efficacy in Montessori education.  The essence of Pinyon pine inspires the founders of the school to use energy wisely while trusting in being grounded deeply in their vision of a world where respect, equity, and diversity thrive.  This creates a safe space where children’s unique potential can grow naturally.  

Tribes such as Shoshone, Ute, Goshute, Hopi, Navajo, Tewa, and many others have included Pinyon pine as a valuable food source, medicine, ceremonial purposes and construction material over the years and still consider it significant to their cultural identity, as do Mexican cultures. The resin has been used for skin ailments, while the pine nuts can be stored for later, roasted, ground into flour, butter, or added to corn1. Additionally, the roots of Pinyons have a symbiotic relationship with fungi (mycorrhizae) supporting the efficient transportation of essential nutrients and water from the soils to the roots. Thus, Pinyon pine trees are in deep relationship with a wide array of ecological members of the environment while contributing many ecosystem services.

Pinyon Montessori’s resilience and strength is similarly built upon vibrant relationships with families, students, community members, allied organizations, stakeholders, board members, as well as the immensely experienced guides (teachers) that navigate the learning environment with students daily. The guides of Pinyon Montessori ensure that students have such enriching experiences as planting peas, beets, mustard greens, and radishes at their Salt Lake Public Library garden plot. Recently, they arranged to have a botanist visit the classroom to talk to the students about flowers and pollination. Inspired by this, the children have been gathering flowers and seeds on their walks to and from the park each day to count the multiples of sepals and petals.

When studying plants, animals, and cultures of different countries, the guides at Pinyon are astute in following students’ natural tendencies to explore, create, and celebrate such as making masks to represent the animals of Africa! The guides at Pinyon are constantly delighting in seeing how the students are connecting to the natural world around them while learning about the many facets of our world. These relationships are integral to Pinyon’s dynamic learning environment.

As the desert breeze whistles through the many pairs of pinyon needles, the jay looks out and “caws” confidently from the secure perch of the pinyon branch. Many species of Jay such as Pinyon, Stellars and Western scrub jays have a mutualistic relationship with the tree in which they eagerly eat the pine nuts whilst dispersing the seeds far and wide. The true strength of any individual lies in the quality of their relationships with others. This is certainly true for blue jays, Pinyon pines, and the entire desert ecosystem. And, it is also true for Pinyon Montessori where vibrant communities beget thriving learning environments and smiling, thriving children. Pinyon pine is a sacred plant in the desert and inspires trustworthiness and dependability within ourselves, others, and our path. May we continue to evolve our relationships as we look to nature and resilient communities for inspiration in abundance, strength, and beauty.

1. Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany, Timber Press, 1998, P. 406

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