Last week we joined a vibrant group of local seniors for a luncheon organized by the lovely folks from Valley Program for Aging Services and hosted by the Highland Center. Following the meal, each of us nine fellows stood to introduce ourselves and share our favorite things about life here.

My brain was a flurry for a moment—many things came to mind. But then there was obvious pause on something that I’ve been so pleased to partake in—keeping honeybees. For me, little beats the thrill of suiting up, peeking into a colony and observing the thousands of tiny creatures move about the hive. Before I came to AMS, I’d been fascinated by keeping honeybees but never had the opportunity to do so. In the past 4 months, I’ve developed a reputation for my infatuation with our (now seven colonies of) bees and it all started in a workshop led here on the mountain by Local Bee Expert, Nicole Balenger.

Workshops are a mainstay in our education here. This year we’ve been graced by seasoned star-gazers, communication sages, herbal heralds, canning connoisseurs, fermentation fiends, stone-stacking savants, mushrooming champions (or champignons), and one aforementioned-badass-dirt-bike-riding beekeeper, to name a few. They’ve joined us for as little as three hours to as long as three days and guided us in the practice of their craft.

What I love about this set-up is we are continuously learning, and learning through practice. None of the workshop leaders have forgone walks for talks. They have all given us chances to actively participate in building our understandings and personally connect with the topics.

A great example of this is our most recent workshop with Zach Foster, who has led all four AMS cohorts in stone building workshops over the years. It was an overcast Monday morning when Zach met us to start the workshop. He jumped right in to his plan for the two-days and it became evident that despite the rain we would not be sitting inside, struggling through any post-meal lecturing, or blankly watching 2 hour power-points. Instead we talked about the uses for stone constructions and then toured the farm stopping at various rock constructions to discuss their strengths and faults, as well as their overall “classiness”. By the time we’d surveyed the existing work on the property and convened to assess where we’d be focusing, lunch was served and the rain had cleared. We spent the afternoon practicing various forms of stone construction like paving, pitching, and wall-building.

In the entrance to our staple crop area we "pitched" stones such that their long axis was oriented vertically adding to the strength and ability to bare heavy loads.

In the entrance to our staple crop area we “pitched” stones such that their long axis was oriented vertically adding to the strength and ability to bare heavy loads.

Emily and Shannon backfilling a terrace wall we built during the workshop.

Emily and Shannon backfilling a terrace wall we built during the workshop.

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The group gathering to review each site including this “paving” project outside of our upper garden.

At the end of our second day we looked over all of the work we’d completed.  Two days of moving big rocks, and I was left with a new appreciation of stone, and my body’s ability too move it, and the strength of my eight lovely peers. Zach closed out the workshop with a reflection on how we might apply the techniques we learned in our roles off the mountain and manage or teach similar workshops, inviting us to look at ourselves as leaders instead of participants.

This workshop embodies the benefits of our learning by doing lifestyle—challenging us mentally and physically, exercising cooperation, valuing nature and natural materials, and pausing for reflection on how we can pass on the understanding we’ve gained.

In addition, I cannot appreciate enough how deeply empathetic so many of the leaders of our workshops are to our needs (often having ones that align), and therefore able to connect with us quickly and build trust. A number of our workshops are lead by former AMS fellows, who have gone on to professionally pursue the topics they’ve come back to teach, or instructors who’ve returned year after year, which aids in the effortlessness with which their leaders assimilate and relevancy of their lessons.

And that’s just workshops. Every day that we’re in the garden, our hands in soil. We are learning to farm by doing it. I hope to create learning opportunities like this as I work, in the coming year and beyond, as a champion of healthy food, resilient communities, and environmental stewardship. As I do so, I’m positive that I will model some of the wonderful leaders I’ve met here. Thank you all for sharing your passions with us!

Read more about some of our workshop leaders featured here.


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