Rosebud Continuum blends ancestral knowledge, experimental science for sustainable future

Lakota Sioux Elder and former NFL offensive lineman Sonny Bishop isn't the easiest fellow to keep up with as we tour the 14-acre Rosebud Continuum, where he lives with his wife, Maryann, in Pasco County. 

Together, and with the help of USF students and community volunteers, the Bishops steward the land they've made into a nonprofit, Rosebud Continuum Sustainability Education Center, named after the Rosebud Indian Reservation where Mr. Bishop grew up in South Dakota. Rosebud Continuum operates in partnership with the USF Patel College of Global Sustainability.

The Bishops reside in a two-story brick home near the entrance of their property. On another portion of the Bishops' land, Dr. T.H. Culhane, Director of the Climate Change concentration at USF Patel College of Global Sustainability, lives in an off-the-grid, ecologically sustainable RV with his wife, Enas, and their infant son. 

Everywhere else at the Rosebud Continuum is dedicated to permaculture, renewable energy, experiments in zero-waste living, rewilding, and education. As I walk the property with the Bishops and Dr. Culhane, I have more questions than I can count -- and that's the point, Mrs. Bishop tells me.

"You've got to remember that the majority of people who come out here are going to start out down here in their knowledge," Mrs. Bishop gestures toward her knees.

"The idea is for people to keep walking around and going 'I didn't know that,' and learn as they go. I want people to be able to come out, who have virtually zero idea what we mean when we say 'sustainability' and leave with knowledge."

From food forests to fab labs: exploring the Rosebud Continuum

One might think it shouldn't be difficult to keep an eye on an 81-year-old man who towers over six feet tall -- that is, until he ducks out of view to pluck an invasive plant from the soil … and then another, and another, and before we know it: We've lost Mr. Bishop's attention to the weeds.

Mrs. Bishop assures me her husband will catch up, so we leave him somewhere near the food forest and beehives, and make our way toward Rosebud's on-site fab lab, a makerspace where USF students shred and melt plastic bottle caps to create durable, augmented reality-enabled educational signage using 3D printers and robotic CNC carving machines.

On the way from the food forest to the fab lab, we pass by a solar-powered greenhouse where edible plants thrive in aqua and hydroponics systems fine-tuned by Global Sustainability M.A. students. And a bicycle-powered generator powers the lights, waterless toilet facilities recycle waste into nutrient-rich soil, a biodigester "dragon" gobbles food scraps to produce methane biofuel for cooking and organic liquid fertilizer, and anaerobic digestion takes place in a "stomach" made from a queen-size air mattress.

Friends of the Rosebud Continuum -- including Dr. Joseph Dorsey, Patel College Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of the Food Sustainability and Security concentration -- visit regularly to drop off food scraps for the dragon, Culhane says. While the biodigester manages food waste, another section of the property serves to organize used plastics that will be run through a plastic-to-oil machine or melted down to become signage.

"A powerful message is that there is no such thing as waste. There's a use for it. We find the use," says Culhane. 

A National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Culhane has built a career -- and a lifestyle -- defined by zero waste innovation spanning nearly every continent. He's lived and worked off the grid in L.A and Guatemala, worked in Egypt to create alternative energy systems in impoverished areas, and has implemented biodigester systems in locations across the globe including but not limited to Palestine, Brazil, Nigeria, Germany, Alaska, and Standing Rock, South Dakota.

"If you look at it in a tiered sort of way, you start with food waste because it's something we all have in common. It doesn't matter if you're in a tiny urban apartment or on land like this: 100% of food waste can be turned into value. It leads inexorably, then, to: If you're cleaning everything because you're not going to allow food residuals, now you've got clean so-called 'garbage.' So, why would you throw away what can be recycled? It's this idea that everything is precious. We say 'pollution is the right thing at the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong concentration and nothing more.' I think this property shows that," Culhane says.

Rosebud Continuum gives land back to nature

While we could have toured the property on solar-powered, student-built golf carts, it feels right to connect with the Bishops' land on foot. At the outer edge of Rosebud Continuum, several acres have undergone a labor-intensive "rewilding" to restore the natural wetland environment with native Florida flora. The wildflowers are returning, and with them, species of wildlife that inhabited the land before us -- as it should be, the Bishops say. 

When Mr. Bishop finally returns with a fistful of unwelcome weeds to feed the biodigesting dragon, Mrs. Bishop is explaining the importance of planting Florida-native milkweed for Monarch butterflies instead of the Mexican variety typically found in chain-operated garden centers. 

"You might think you're helping but you're hurting, because that's not what nature intended. There are a lot of people who care, and who think they're doing the very best thing they can, but it's the wrong thing. But how would they know? How do they find out how to do better? As I'm talking about people not knowing but caring --  that was me. I had virtually no idea what was what," Mrs. Bishop says.

A Florida ecology expert with the Southwest Florida Water Management District alerted the Bishops to invasive plants growing on their property several years ago, which became a catalyst for them to explore ways to promote eco-sustainability, experimentation, and education on their property.

"We're called Rosebud because of where Sonny was born, on the Rosebud reservation. A lot of these reservations don't have good drinking water. And here -- when I'm seeing how every day you go down the road and someone is sprinkling their grass because of the colonial idea that the lawn is pretty, now I kind of want to say, 'no, nature is pretty.' We don't define nature. We need to learn to appreciate nature as it's intended to be and find the beauty in that instead of trying to create our own idea of what it should be," Mrs. Bishop says.

Rewilding was where it all began, but a partnership with Patel College provided a broader opportunity for Dr. Culhane and students seeking their Masters Degrees in Global Sustainability to make Rosebud Continuum a hub for experimentation and learning -- and the Bishops are eager to learn with them.

"The idea was to try new things out, to ask other people to share their information; to share what we learn. Have an idea? Come out here and piddle around with it. You can teach us," Mrs. Bishop says.

Intergenerational knowledge sharing has an impact at home and beyond

Fresh from his afternoon nap, Dr. Culhane's 11-month-old toddles at a breakneck beeline across the Rosebud Continuum grounds toward Sonny Bishop, who scoops the toddler up in a warm hug. 

"He never crawled -- he went straight to walking," Culhane says.
 
"What he loves most is the tall grass -- and I think that shows you what humanity's natural disposition is, because he'll walk up to that tall grass and he'll grab the rachis [stem] and those tiny seeds and put them right in his mouth. That's where grain agriculture began: somebody walked through a field and picked up some grass, and thought, 'hmm...' Seeing that delight in my son reminds me there's something animistic in all of us -- and if you can create the right 'field of dreams'… build it and they will come, right?" he muses.

"Whether you're a passionate conservationist looking for wildlife, whether you are botanist or gardener, whether you're a high-tech person in a makerspace who wants to do 3D printing and VR, whether you want to work on game creation -- there's enough of us here with enough ideas that we have something for everybody -- and each new member, every new person who comes here brings something new to the mix," Culhane adds.

Patel College students say the Bishops' openness to tinkering allows them to innovate, make mistakes, and learn skills they hope to apply in their own lives, their communities, and around the world. 

"What brought me to apply [to Patel College] was how at the beginning of the pandemic, the whole world shut down -- but it was inspiring because it was a moment in time when the whole world came together and was able to pivot to something completely different. It gave me hope. We know we're facing climate change. Now, how do we avoid a climate disaster?" says Sheila Sullivan, a Global Sustainability Masters student.

"Instead of being a think tank -- their whole philosophy is to be a 'do tank.' What's great about Rosebud is that it's experimental learning. Mrs. Bishop is really supportive of letting students pitch their ideas, and as long as we can come up with a demonstration, she allows the opportunity to do a proof of concept. It makes for a really immersive learning environment. And then kids visit, some of us do tours with them -- so we're passing these ethos down to the next generation," Sullivan says.

Linda Webber, a former chemist who transitioned into environmental health and worker safety in the manufacturing industry, says she returned to school at USF to strengthen her knowledge of climate change and sustainability in her professional role. She says the course has impacted her family's behaviors at home surrounding energy, water, and food waste. 

Webber recently brought her middle school-age son to visit the site, and says he's eager to return to volunteer and get hands-on experience with Dr. Culhane building a solar structure. 

Samantha Vorce, a Patel College student with a concentration in sustainable tourism, is also working toward a certificate in food security and sustainability. She helped implement the tower garden systems in the Rosebud Continuum greenhouse, and works with the Patel College Global Leaders Outreach for a Better Environment (GLOBE) group on precious plastics projects. It's a "180-degree pivot," Vorce says, from her previous USF bachelors degree in accounting.

"Alternative methods of farming is one of the major things I've opened my eyes to, here. Something as simple as a tower garden -- that is so obtainable by your average middle-class family, and, yet, not a lot of people take advantage of that. I'm looking forward to, once I own my own home, implementing a lot of the things that I've learned at Rosebud," Vorce says.

The projects and processes being fine-tuned at Rosebud Continuum around renewable energy, food systems, and precious plastics have an impact well beyond the Bishop family's 14 acres in Land O' Lakes, FL. 

During the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the Bishops sent Dr. Culhane to Standing Rock with biodigesters, composting toilets, and supplies to set up a solar-powered medical clinic. Culhane's team has also set up biodigesters and tower gardens at the Rosebud Indian Reservation where Mr. Bishop was raised. 

"This is a community hackerspace, really -- and what's nice is that it marries generations. You get from Sonny to his grandchildren, and everyone in between," Culhane says. 

"It's a labor of love. It's completely non-partisan; apolitical. … Here, people are what they are, and believe what they believe -- but they're working together to make it happen. When you think about it, it's what we all thought was the American Dream. You realize: Most Americans, when they get together as a community, the best of the American spirit comes out because that's who we are," he adds.

Rosebud Continuum looks ahead, connects past to future 

More prone to listening, Sonny Bishop busies himself with the work to be done at Rosebud Continuum -- during my visit, that includes pulling out the invasive plants despite a 90-degree Fahrenheit heat index and entertaining the baby -- while his wife does most of the talking. But when I query after the information I've been dreading, regarding encroaching development, he speaks up: a wry chuckle followed by one resolute sentence: 

"We're going to protect the little amount of land we have," Bishop tells me. 

The Bishops say they worry about the impact of overdevelopment in the surrounding region, but ultimately, they're confident that the cornerstone mission of Rosebud Continuum -- to innovate and educate on earth-friendly, sustainable practices in hopes the impact will ripple outward with future generations -- will remain.

As Rosebud Continuum moves beyond the pandemic, school field trips and group visits resume: bulking up the presence of augmented reality signage that visitors can interact with using their smartphones is a first step toward on-site information-sharing, Mrs. Bishop says. 

She also hopes to devote a section of the property to educate the public about the histories and diverse cultures of North America's Indigenous people. This includes land acknowledgment for the Tocobaga Indians of Tampa Bay who inhabited the land where the Rosebud Continuum currently resides. The tribe lived in small villages at the northern end of Tampa Bay from approximately 900 to the 1500s, when Spanish explorers arrived, bringing disease and violence. As a result, the Tocobaga Indians became extinct within the next 100 years.

"One of my goals is to teach people about the true history of what we did to the Native Americans. That includes modern-day history, like the boarding schools Sonny's mother and father survived, because most people have never even heard of it -- and these are things that happened in our lifetime," Mrs. Bishop says. 

Although future plans do not shy away from a painful past, the bottomline at Rosebud Continuum is hope: for a future that is informed by the past, but leans into a strong sense of wonder, innovation, and community in its continuity. 

"We don't expect people to come out and say 'I want to live off the grid," Mrs. Bishop says.

"Most people,  we just want to help them figure out what little changes can you make in your life? If everybody made little changes and opened their eyes to understanding how what they're doing affects nature, then I believe they can see in their hearts to make those changes."

Interested in learning more about Rosebud Continuum or paying a visit -- in person or virtual? Visit www.rosebudcontinuum.com to learn more about scheduling a tour or visit virtual Rosebud.

Also, this video was made by Patel College student, Melody Yin, in September, 2020: "A Day at Rosebud Continuum" PCGS student Melody Yin's 'A Day at Rosebud Continuum'.

The USF Innovative Education Team created this video, Living Off the Grid with the Culhanes, in 2018 for the "Waste Not Want Not" class at Patel College. It shows how T.H. Culhane and his wife, Enas, live off the grid in an R.V. at Rosebud Continuum.

 

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.
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