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When I applied for Allegheny Mountain School, I knew I would be navigating uncharted waters. I had never lived in an intentional community before, and the school was only in its second year, but the thought of engaging with the same 8 people for half a year in an evolving program seemed like an attractive challenge. What I discovered was far more than I’d hoped for. Based around the backbone of eating meals together, the Fellows have developed close personal and community bonds with each other and within the group as a whole. This has made integrating the entire experience, from work to education to daily life, much smoother. The organization of these aspects of our lives was bumpy and moved in fits and starts when people were first acclimating, but things reached a good balance as the Fellows settled into rhythms and made their needs clear.
One thing I’ve especially enjoyed has been the opportunity to interact with the local environment on a daily basis, really getting to know the weather and the way that life here changes throughout the growing season. As an offshoot of that this summer I spent a large portion of my time studying and foraging for mushrooms. This has prompted me to focus my research project on mycorrhizal symbioses with plants, something I was always interested in but never felt like I had the time to pursue. I feel like my takeaway experience from this program will be that leading a fulfilling life through connecting with people and my environment is not only possible, but totally worth the effort. As a group on the mountain this summer, we grew vegetables, people, and community, and I look forward to seeing AMS thrive in the years to come.
Phase II placement: Valley Conservation Council
I came to Allegheny Mountain School with a desire to figure out what it means to live a healthy, meaningful life. Six months later, I will leave this mountain carrying another piece of that puzzle, plus beautiful experiences and friendships that I could never have hoped for or imagined in my wildest dreams.
I have learned that a garden expects and demands much of us: we must observe her rhythms and acquiesce to her needs immediately if we hope to keep her happy and productive and in turn to nourish ourselves. I have learned that living in community requires compassion, understanding and patience, but that it can lead to incredible friendships, connections and new ideas. I have learned that developing a sustainable, local food system is a challenge facing communities across the United States, but a challenge that I am proud to tackle in Virginia along with my fellows and the countless individuals we have met during our time here who are equally dedicated to creating a healthy food system.
I have fallen in love with this mountain, with growing food and with the community we have created at AMS and the community we have become a part of in Highland County. I am so grateful for my time here and excited for a future that was once just a distant dream.
Phase II placement: Assistant Coordinator of Marketing and Outreach at Project Grows
I came to Allegheny Mountain School wanting to learn how far apart to plant spinach, when to harvest a melon and how to put up tomatoes. While I learned all these things, I’m coming away from AMS with something more- an appreciation for what it takes to live off the land and the realization that sustainable food systems start with community. Along the way, I’ve discovered the pleasure of pulling a perfect sourdough loaf from the oven, the joyous ping of goat milk hitting the bottom of the milk pail, and the satisfaction of putting a garden to bed after a long, productive season. From a group of people that I didn’t even know existed only 6 months ago, I’ve realized that there’s a reason that we aren’t learning to be homesteaders- sharpening tools, baking bread, and putting up food in isolation. With a group like this, insurmountable tasks become suddenly manageable. Fiddle breaks and Irish step dancing in the garden, rogue rooster chasing with swimming pool nets or quick dips in the pond, break up any chance for monotony. Around good food, shared passions and hard work, we’ve grown into a capable, creative community that is ready to share our care for cultivating the earth and enjoying wholesome, nourishing food.
Phase II placement: Local Foods Coordinator at The Highland Center
One of the great privileges of being a fellow with AMS is being able to witness and participate in an entire growing season, from seed to harvest, and using that food to create incredible meals to be shared among other fresh food lovers. It is common to remember, for example, when you first planted that kale seed and to remember all that it has provided to you, spring, summer, and fall.
One thing I have realized being here is that gardening really comes down to choosing whether or not you want to be keenly aware and observant of the changes occurring in the garden. The health and livelihood of the plants depend largely on what they receive from the environment but also from your input and attention. For me gardening at AMS has been a real wake up call to stepping outside of my own needs and attending to the needs of others, plants and humans. At the beginning of the season, it was hard for me to grapple with the extent of attention all these tender, sensitive transplants needed. I didn’t feel like “babysitting” and wanted to be able to trust that the plants could take care of themselves. I wondered if the amount of effort going into prepping beds, transplanting, staking, and setting up trellis supports was all really worth it. I don’t think I realized how much the plants really give back until July rolled around and we were carrying in 50- 60 lb crates of tomatoes every day. It feels good to have “put up” so much food for the winter and to realize that it is one less thing that the school and fellows will need to buy next year.
Living here on the mountain at AMS has certainly brought up a lot of questions about right livelihood and how to create and maintain balance in one’s life, amidst an intermingling of one’s social and work lives. Clear communication and never making assumptions about individuals have been crucial aspects to living here. Living in community, one often has to let go of their desire to control a situation and be willing to sit back and listen to all the needs and concerns of the individuals of the community. The fear of things going wrong has to be surrendered because one realizes that they will be cared for to such a greater extent than living alone. People begin to look out for one another, provide meals for one another, listening support, and favors are done knowing that the good will return to them in some form.
Phase II placement: New Community Project
“How did we end up here?” This is a question that I often hear the fellows ask as we drive through the rolling hills of Highland County, making our way back to Bear Mountain, making our way back home. In April, we came together as complete strangers, to this foreign place whose rich landscape was completely unknown. Now, half a year later, it is October – the leaves have begun to change, and so have we. Who we were when we first arrived is left blowing in the wind, like the fallen fire of a soon-barren Maple tree standing as our protector in the forest. We have brought fertility to this land, and the mountain air has breathed new life in us all. We moved to the Allegheny Mountains as movers and shakers, with high hopes to be catalysts for social change. Perhaps what we did not realize, however, were the personal transformations that would happen within our own selves. We were brought together as fellows and, through time, have become a family. And while we are all certainly different, with thoughts, values, and interests we take ownership of and call our own, this mountain is a common thread woven throughout us; we hear its whispers and its wisdom – feel its gusts of empowerment, security, and strength. Bear Mountain is undeniably a part of us – our voices songs from the mountain air, our bodies a part of its abundance and diversity of life. So, to me, here at AMS, it is not a question of, “How did we end up here?” Because I know Bear Mountain is where I am supposed to be.
Phase II placement: AMS Village Manager
It is no small thing to say that relationships mean work. Ideally, relationships need conscientious, thoughtful, loving work. My time at AMS has solidified the thought that our lives are relational to everything we come in contact with from a blade of grass to that new close friendship with another fellow. So why then should we not be conscientious, thoughtful, and loving in all that we do? After all, it is what the great teachers preached.
At AMS, we as fellows are given responsibility to care for gardens, animals, dwellings, and because of the remoteness of the place, the livelihood of each other. So up on the mountain, and in the grand scheme of things, the ego naturally is dwarfed by things of greater importance. The idea becomes that when we all are conscientiously caring for our shared places and each others’ livelihoods, our days should hum in harmony with all the fellows working toward one common goal: the AMS goal of working/living sustainably in order to gain knowledge and understand about food and our food system so that we can pass it on!
Here is the rub: as fellows, and as people, we all come from different backgrounds, have different priorities, work ethics, and world views. So, how do we come to that place of working toward a common goal? How do we truly solidify ourselves as “community”? It takes work, but you can make it that conscientious, thoughtful, loving work if you set your mind to it. In this mind set, it can be quite simple to find enjoyment and satisfaction in almost anything from cleaning the chicken coop to sitting down for Tuesday meeting. And I am not saying that this is easy; of course some days you may not be 100% or do not feel that you have the time to properly commit to a task. Or, you may be working alongside another fellow who may not give the same level of TLC to a certain project as you or come across a fellow doing personal project during the work day and that disappoints you. In these times, how then do you remain a present member of your community? A mentor shared these words, “You may find it helpful to remember that you are all working toward the same goal.”
Phase II placement: Assistant Coordinator of Education and Program Development at Project Grows
What has the AMS experience meant to me? I could go on and on about the skills and knowledge that I have gained, or the amazing friendships I have made, or the deeply rewarding experiences I have had in nature. But these are things I was expecting to happen from the first day I set foot on this beautiful mountain. What I did not foresee were the incredible opportunities that would open up to me here for professional and career development. For one, the accomplishments we have achieved as a cohort through our work on the farm and through community outreach have bolstered my professional confidence and inspired me to continue to follow my passion for sustainable agriculture. Secondly, I have had the opportunity to meet an array of mentors, community leaders, and sustainable agriculture pioneers who continue to provide me with support and guidance as I build my career. These opportunities for personal and professional growth have been some of the most valuable experiences I have had at AMS so far.
Phase II placement: AMS Village Manager
As a passionate cook and eater looking for experience growing and preserving food, I found a home here on this lovely mountain. Not only a home, but a family too – comprised of seven other like-minded individuals with a diverse mixture of passions and knowledge. For me, the most memorable moments on this mountain have taken place in either the forest, in the garden or around the dinner table. Sharing good food is certainly a valued component in our AMS culture and each meal is prepared with love and ingredients we grew ourselves – homemade cheese from Tess and Val’s (our goats) milk, garden fresh vegetables that are picked before being served, spices and herbs, fresh eggs from our hens and meat from our roosters. No meal shared here on this mountain has been forgettable. Not only will I leave Phase I of this fellowship with seven new dear friends and many special memories, I am also now equipped with the knowledge and skills to share my passion for sustainably grown and prepared food.
Phase II placement: Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind