FairPicture courtesy Kat Rutt

Local Fare?

A week or so ago I and the other AMS fellows had the pleasure of attending the 63rd Annual Highland County Fair. Several of us were involved in set-up activities like helping to process entries for the vegetable, baked goods and canned goods competitions. Some of us helped on the parking crew during the fair. Fellows also had entries in the art, baked goods and vegetable competitions, and several of us took home ribbons. Emily Sullivan won a blue ribbon and best-in-show for her delicious espresso brownies, and Kelly Lecko also got first place and best-in-show runner up for her blue ink on a styrofoam plate illustration of a cornstalk and a few vegetables. In addition, several fellows took home first and second place ribbons for vegetables grown here on the farm, including zucchini, crook-neck yellow squash, rattlesnake beans, red onions, garlic, and hops.

We also had a heaping helping of what people might see as more standard fair activities. Some of us played a little bingo at 25 cents per game. Some of us played a lot of bingo. And some folks actually won a game or two. There was the Ferris wheel, the carousel, the Scrambler, the livestock barns, and the exhibits of vegetables, canned and baked goods, art, and flower arrangements. And you couldn’t miss the demolition derby or the truck and tractor pulls, with their loud noises and smoke and smells of overworked engines. The fair was great.

Then there was the food. Don’t get me wrong, I love funnel cake, and fried Oreos, and onion rings, and ice cream, and milkshakes. I really just love food in general, especially when it’s fried, and I probably had more than my fair share of fair fare. But there’s something a little strange about maple-flavored syrup on the funnel cakes and in the milkshakes when some of the best maple syrup on the east coast, at least, is produced right here in Highland County. Long-time Highland County Fair attendee and more recently established Monterey resident Kat Rutt puts it this way:

“It’s such a shame that we aren’t showcasing some of the things we should be most proud of and are known for, like maple syrup and local meat. I think people would really love the idea of chowing down on a cheeseburger with meat from a cow who spent it’s life on an open pasture down the road, and washing it down with a Highland maple-syrup-drenched funnel cake – I know I would!”

I know local organizations like the Lions Club and the Ruritans operate the food stands at the fair in order to raise money that goes back to groups in the Highland County community, and thus try to keep their costs low so they can make their contributions to the community as large as possible, but wouldn’t it be great if they could do that while also using local products? At some of the first fairs in Highland County in the 1950s, community members donated produce, baked and canned goods, crafts, and other items to be sold in order to raise funds for community projects. If local farmers and syrup makers could do something similar, maybe with the assistance of donors who’d contribute to a ‘Local Fare at the Fair’ fund, isn’t it possible that the Lions and Ruritans could sell a higher quality, more local product and still be able to give back to the community? And wouldn’t it be great if at the hamburger stand there was a sign saying, “This beef comes from Farmer Jane in Blue Grass,” or “We’re using syrup from Bob & Martha in McDowell” at the milkshake stand?

The AMS motto is “Growing food, building community,” and the program’s vision involves building food systems that are sustainable and capable of providing fresh, nutritious food. To put that another way, “AMS believes in the importance of a strong local economy and a thriving environmental ecosystem; and that by conserving natural resources and supporting access to local, whole, healthy food, we will accomplish that goal.” That statement is a large part of why I’m here. I spent four months last year across the mountain in Bartow, West Virginia, and while I had been interested in the local food movement before then, driving an hour or longer for groceries that still weren’t terribly fresh or local really drove home the importance of having access for all people to good quality, locally produced food. Things are improving here in Highland County – there’s a great farmer’s market in Monterey, Alleghany Meats is a small, locally owned, humane processing facility, Taste of Highland is an annual event that showcases Highland County’s farms and farmers, Faces of Farmers is an organization that works to connect people with the region’s farmers, and of course there’s the Maple Festival, which will celebrate its 57th year this coming spring. Still, more could be done. By celebrating Highland County farms and farmers at the Fair, the Fiddler’s Convention, and other events, and by continuing to improve access to fresh, locally produced food, we can only serve to boost the region’s economy, health, and happiness.


Spending time in gardens, growing and learning about plants is such an amazing world. Seemingly all of life’s deepest questions can be answered by associating certain characteristics and relationships of plants and animals. Beginning with a spark of life to sub-atomic particles, spinning electrons, protons and neutrons, atoms, molecules, DNA, RNA, mitochondria, living cells, sugars, proteins and lipids, fungal hyphae, microsomal networks, bacteria’s, insects, all the way the two and four legged creatures all form an intricate and inter-connected dance which we call life.

In the garden we spent time with Kayla to learn about pollination. In gereneral reproduction is so fascinating and mysterious. Plants are so amazing in the way they can grow and reproduce. They absorb the energy of the earth and the cosmos and can reproduce all by themselves or with the help of pollinators such as the honey bee or another insect foraging in the flowers .

We see examples of the web of life daily in our work in the gardens and are given the task to find ways to promote harmony between all these living creatures and our selves.

It is difficult as a gardener to uncover your newly planted radishes and see almost no trace of a leaf left because of a hungry little bug, and sometimes this frustration can turn into contempt for these little creatures. To think though at the level of that little bug and the fierce competition and short life it has to endure does arouse some empathy as well as sympathy in my heart.

Being a human being is special, and having the opportunity to take part in being a steward of the land is even more so. You have the opportunity to expand your field of vision, and to see all things as connected and interdependent. I know it isn’t always easy to look at things this way, but when you ask some of the important questions in life such as “How did I get here?” and “Why am I human?” than it is possible to see that that bug could easily have been me, if certain conditions persist than of course it could be any of us. So in this case life as a human being is very precious and ultimately a gift.
What are the causes and conditions, which gave rise to me being a human and not a flea beetle? Some might argue evolution and natural selection, to an extent I understand this, but from a person who sees life as circular and not linear this does not explain enough. There is something in the past I must not be able to recall which led me here today.
Back to the garden…

It gives us as fellows and anyone for that matter, who cares to observe, the opportunity to learn from the biological landscape, compare and associate life at a variety of levels performing many functions in countless relationships giving the gift of perspective. In our herbalism workshop some months ago, we were taught to see things in “wide vision” where we learn to relax and take in all that is there in that moment. From this perspective one can begin to comprehend how light, gases and plants and all the organisms in the environment and how energy flows with specific niches absorb water. Finally being able to see that you yourself are participating in this whirlwind, all the while though, you can see that you are aware. You are aware of your participation and interaction in life, it is possible to see that you are experiencing all of this from a unique perspective, which has incredible capabilities to create, destroy and also to find a balance between the two to move with as little resistance while teaching others to do the same along the way.
As a human being, a society, and a species we have some work to do to live without destroying that, which gives us breath and the spark of life. By observing all the life, and learning to see through their eyes, or even if the don’t have eyes, simply empathizing with their energy fields who we share our experience with, we will find we then will have the ability to live in harmony together.





I’m a farmer.

Five years ago, farming would not have made the bottom of my bucket list. My youthful ambitions sallied into teaching, engineering, and computer science. But if I look closely at the scattered memories of my childhood, there were seeds strewn all about, just waiting for the perfect deluge. As Susanna reminds me: it is as children that we often find the purest expression of our souls.

I grew up in the suburbs, far from the untamed mountains and fields that I love. Behind my house was a small wooded glade where every autumn, my sister and I would gather by the living room window to witness a colourful parade of dappled leaves. I wondered time and again, what fun it must be to jump into the biggest pile of crisp maple leaves, blushing gold from the cold, wild wind. One day, I resolved to find out. Stepping up to the edge of the glade, I took a deep breath, and mustered the biggest jump I could.

I hit the ground with a hard and painful thud. Of course, there was no satisfying crunch, no enveloping puff of colour, nor swirling confetti about me. As I parted the two-inch carpet beneath me, I experienced my earliest memory of a “Well, duh!” moment. In that almost forgotten memory, rescued from the cracks of time by Susanna’s reminder, I felt the surging tide of years. It all rushed together; every autumn, the trees shed their covers for the warmth of the Earth, and compost forms unseen to the sounds of children running through an otherwise unremarkable wood.


Almost a decade later, I had completely forgotten that moment. Lost in the wilds of fantastical books, I quested deep within the bowels of my local library, devouring authors, shelves, then entire genres. One particular book caught my mind… something about the pioneers who homesteaded southern Ontario, and the soil-building skills they needed to tame the wild wood. I know now the limitations of that narrative, and the glaring omission of First Nations who have walked this land for millennia. But there in my youth, a cobwebbed door creaked, and tipped open once more.

I lived in an apartment then, and the old glade was but a hazy shade. I dreamt of wild things and sun-kissed pleasures. Years later, I would develop a habit of napping on warm, sunny sidewalks. Inspired by the pioneers, my mind meandered to the rich, black soil that nourished our bodies. With my understanding of tenth-grade science, I figured that all organic matter should decompose. And somewhat speedily too, in the presence of water and microbes. Mindful of distasteful odours, I diligently consumed a full tin of cookies, so that I could reserve the container for my compost experiment. (I was very careful not to let my curiosity get in the way of eating.) I placed within my cookie tin a small handful of pistachio shells, lightly watered, sealed tight (to prevent odours), and hid it away in a forgotten corner of the porch.

I checked it almost daily for a month, before I concluded the experiment a bust. I poured it all out in the trash, for it clearly deigned not to be composted. I shifted gears into computer science and a door clicked shut once more.


Since then, my curiosity has taken me across the globe. Sometimes farming, sometimes cooking, but definitely lots of good eating. It’s been really difficult to live a place, gather friends, and bid them all adieu. A dozen lifetimes come and go, with distant friends I know I can’t afford to see again. One day, I’d love to have a beautiful, sprawling farm, with fruits on every bough, and fragrant herbs rising at the swirl of a ball gown. Every autumn, I’d invite all my distant friends to celebrate the bounty of seasons. Huge platters of humble vegetables: The finest filet beans, salt roasted Jerusalem artichokes, whole caramelized onions, and tender fall carrots. And a giant, obligatory, roast pig.

In a way, AMS is not so different from the dozens of stops along my food journey. I farmed, I cooked, I ate. But sixteen months ago, the Rubicon parted before me. Atop a mountain in Highland County, old dreams without substance took form and flew. Slowly, the faintest hints of possibility coalesced. I’ve been so privileged to watch as Ian and Mandy orchestrate their own small business visions, to journey alongside Ben and Emily as they wrest a farm from bare earth, and to have Whitney remind me of the importance of a sense of place. To draw inspiration from the wisdom that Paul and Kate are sharing through their senior fellowship, and to watch the genteel Earth yield its bounty alongside Susanna, I know I could not have asked for better company.

I’m really not an idealist as much as I am a pragmatist. I believe in the mortality of wisdom, and the extinction of knowledge. I find value in re-remembering stories and old things: the flavour of a french bean, the ephemeral passing of spring peas, and the silky fragrance of stone-ground soy milk. I delight in the alchemy of light and clay, and consider it my privilege to renew the ancient vows that bind the Earth to the Sun. All this, AMS has re-awakened within me.

I believe in my vision of a living heritage farm, and the beauty of eating seasonally. I believe in big farm feasts, and home-made wines and oils. The stakes are too high to not try, and dreams are too big to fail. I know the work is long, hard, and Sisyphean at times. But I also know that I am in the best of company, singing the melody of seasons.

   Dear closet farmer, cook, and wind whisperer,
     Conductor of flavours, weaver of dreams, and custodian of seasons
     Cherisher of bounty,
     Lover of wonder,

Here’s looking at you, kid.



Uncertainty. It’s something everyone has to deal with at one time or another, and many of us experience feelings of doubt frequently. Here on the mountain, it’s no different.

Was coming to AMS the right thing for me? Am I cut out to be a farmer? Can I cook for ten people? How about twenty? Will we ever have carrots? Is that blight on the potatoes? Can I be my peers’ village manager with a partner for a week? What about by myself? What will my Phase II assignment be? Will I like it? Will I do well? Am I going to make a difference in Highland County while I’m here? What about the wider world? What happens after Phase II?

 These are all questions I’ve struggled with since moving to the mountain. I’m certain other folks in my cohort have struggled with many of the same questions. Clearly some of these questions are deeper and more existential in nature while others are pretty easy to answer. Indeed, I’ve already got the answers to some. I may not know the answers to the rest for quite some time, if ever. I feel that if I am confident, present, patient, and attentive to the needs of my peers, the gardens, AMS, and myself, things will be okay. Ultimately though, dealing with uncertainty takes flexibility and willingness to accept that you may not get the answers you want or expect, and that those answers may not come when you want them or expect them.

 Recently, my cohort and I found out about our Phase II placements. I think I can say that we’re all relieved to know what we’ll be doing, extremely pleased with our jobs, and looking forward to really diving into our work in the coming year. That said, the period leading up to the announcement was a difficult, somewhat anxious time for some of us, and I’d like to offer some advice to next year’s fellows.

 When things get tough next year, remember how you felt when you first got here. Remember how you were struck by the beauty of this place, and how much fun those first few weeks were. Remember to appreciate the other fellows for themselves rather than just the things you see in them that reflect yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask the Phase II fellows on the farm and elsewhere for advice they’ve probably been through something pretty similar to what’s troubling you. Above all, remember how lucky you are to be on the mountain. Be grateful, be present, and be happy. You live in an amazing, beautiful place with wonderful, talented, and multi-faceted people, and you have a great opportunity to learn and grow and make a real difference in the world.




My sixth gardening principle is to slow down and invite the unknown, the unwelcome, and the failed into the life of the garden. When you garden at the dragon’s gate you have no other choice but to do this, so you might as well be gracious and willing to be undone… I have learned to trust and to garden with whoever shows up. We are never in control of the garden, anyway, so why not yield to the mystery of transformation? I have seen a sixty-three-year-old woman with pneumonia come back to health dead-heading white cosmos hour after hour to provide fresh flowers for the zendo altar. And I’ve witnessed an unhappy six-year-old hellion become a gallant angel by rescuing and caring for a newt about to be mangled by the garden lawn mower.

We live in a non-repeating universe, a world where we learn as much from failure as from success. Corn-gobbling blue jays and other garden pests serve as fine teachers and so do failed ‘Easter Egg’ radishes, crimson, white, and dark purple, laid out in worm-eaten decrepitude on a chipped platter. “Life is one continuous mistake,” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, used to remind his students. When he shopped he sought out the rattiest vegetables at market, all the discarded and maimed culls, and his meditation grew strong, nourished by the continuous mistakes of human life.

Wendy Johnson, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate


Looking back at my year so far, sometimes it sure seems like one continuous mistake alright; as a response, I’ve been recently repeating the phrase “trust life and let go” to myself. I’m not sure where exactly it came from, but it’s been applicable to many situations.  Whether I want things a certain way or not, life will unfold as it will, the garden will grow as it will, people will come and go as they will, and my emotions will react accordingly.  So these days I’ve been trying to let go, allow things to develop organically, and just enjoy the ride for what it is, and what it isn’t.  


Since moving to Harrisonburg in January I’ve been challenged by difficult moments, and I confess that I often find myself eagerly anticipating getting a respite from the garden. I mean, this is the first time I am managing any garden, not to mention a whole bicycle-powered market garden that employs folks who have trouble getting employment elsewhere, and actively engaging with people in difficult circumstances. It still amazes me that only two years ago, I would have had absolutely no wherewithal to do what I am doing now. What cover crop should follow the bolting lettuce? Should I undersow my Asian greens with white Dutch clover? (Of course I should!) Nevertheless the learning curve of the garden and market garden has been steep, and the day-to-day life here in “Spring Village” (the final vision of our site is not just a house or a garden, but a way of living inspired by village life) is far from ordinary.


My Phase Two AMS placement, New Community Project (NCP), is a sustainable living center, as well as a hospitality home, as well as an experiment in simple living in an urban setting, and 20,000 other things as well, or at least it seems that way sometimes. Located just outside of downtown Harrisonburg, it consists of an urban garden and two houses, one a sustainable living center, and the other a house for refugee families (currently there is an Eritrean family of eleven!). Combining the two lots, we have almost 2 acres on which we are developing the homestead and market garden that comprise our permaculture site.  Additionally, we partner close together with a sky blue house across the road, called the “Down Stream Project”, as well as having close friendships with the “Sun house” and the “Coffee Bean house.” The houses NCP owns were previously so run down as to be uninhabitable, they were acquired through deep community involvement and negotiation with the housing authority, the work came to fruition less than 3 years ago with a lease-to-own agreement. Initially it was but a vision with nearly no money; only through the numerous and generous contributions of funds, hands, skills, time, and heart the vision came to be realized.


Ultimately, here at NCP we are trying to live a life based on non-violence by rooting ourselves in the ideas of Gandhi, Dr. King, and other great teachers of peace and compassion. Participating in NCP means homesteading in the city while growing enough food for ourselves and to pay our  bills, housing people in difficult circumstances, inviting in refugee families as a small step towards healing our broken relationship to those from across seas, employing folks who want to work but have no other employment opportunities. This in turns involves growing food forests, making hugelkultur beds, collecting compost from restaurants and food co-ops on bike trailers, dumpster diving for essentials, raising children, helping to build houses, milking cows, bicycling around for 2 weeks visiting farms and playing music, helping a Congolese refugee family set up a farm and a food truck, organizing learning tours to the Dominican Republic, helping in massive reforestation project, and conducting sweat lodges with an Aztec Sun-dancer. Welcome to Spring Village! It may make less sense to you than it has to me at times, but it’s beautiful and strange all together. Spring has that quality to it.


A little more than half way through my AMS Phase Two, this year has felt immensely long and eminently short at the same time. It’s been a headful. There have been many moments where I felt like my brain was housing an unhappy rooster run amok, but in terms of richness in experience and opportunity to grow, the one percent could never afford this.  Not even on credit.


So in that spirit, I’ve decided to trust life, trust the garden, trust the people that come to help make the garden grow, and untrust my will and desires. I’ve stressed out about many things because the haphazard nature of things here feels too chaotic for my exacting mind: the red Russian kale picked for the market were too big, the collards withered for not being kept in water after picking, flea beatles ate up all the Tokyo bekana and the Mexican bean beetles keep returning to feast on the beans despite spraying neem, the hoop house starts weren’t watered and have withered, Jacob wanted $20 advance pay for three weeks in a row, seekers of emergency housing just arrived and disappeared unexpectedly, and the responsibility of directing garden tasks at times appear overwhelming.  But ultimately, I’ve realized that what affects me is not the conditions but my fear of making mistakes, of being perceived as being incompetent or unreliable.  In reality, here at NCP mistakes are a given. Non-violence is built on compassion and forgiveness; they can exist only with mistakes to heal, and so both sides are required.  If mistakes are predestined, how we approach each one and respond to it is where the real work lies.  All the mistakes I have made have been my greatest teachers for gardening, interacting with people, and learning about myself.  So, in this place where the foul smells of random stuff left by past residents waft by the memorial garden graced with zinnias, cosmos, and celosia, beauty may seem fleeting but is an ever present guest.  I’ve slowly been realizing the capacity I have to let go and open my arms to all shortcomings and embrace them, just as bees still collect pollen from wilting flowers, and decaying plants return to and enrich the soil.  


Life will unfold as it will, so why not just let go and trust it?  



I’m pretty sure everyone is a leader. Everyone everyday has a chance to show leadership, to inspire, to create a small piece of change and make the world just a bit better. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world…”

 I’m pretty sure she was right.


When I lived in Chicago, I was often inspired to do a good deed after seeing strangers return dropped belongings to other strangers, or after seeing a native Chicagoan direct a misdirected tourist. These small acts are inspiring. These small acts are leaders in action. The face of leadership is not necessarily a CEO giving orders, a supervisor delegating, or a teacher’s pet being bossy. The face of leadership is diverse, often unexpected, and often simple, yet powerful.

Those moments remind me of the story of the hummingbird that Wangari Mathaai tells in the documentary Dirt! The Movie. The story is about a forest burning down. All the animals in the forest run away and watch the destruction, but one animal, the hummingbird, does its best to bring water from a nearby pond to put out the fire. The hummingbird stood on it’s own to make a change. The hummingbird’s actions were simple, yet powerful.


Right now on the mountain, we are taking turns leading our own small group of nine. Each week, one of the fellows is in charge of managing the farm. Not a simple task since we’re now close friends, and it is difficult to watch someone go from peer to leader overnight. Especially in regards to our personalities we are a very diverse group and all of our leadership-faces are very different.

Despite the growing pains, we are leading each other. Our to-do lists are getting to-done, we are inspiring each other to grow into compassionate and strong leaders, and there haven’t even been any major injuries yet!

The idea of leadership can seem frightening, overwhelming, and simply inaccessible. But I’m pretty sure anyone can be a leader. Even the least expected of us.

It just starts with the smallest act of thoughtfulness to create change.



Three months ago I had no idea that Permaculture could be applied to all aspects of life. Three months ago I had never worn a bee suit. Three months ago, I was afraid of damaging little transplants as I prepared them for planting. Growth happens in people just as it happens in the garden- quickly and without notice until one day- BAM- there’s a ripe tomato! Ok, I don’t think I am a ripe tomato-not yet-phase one is only half over! But I have been seeing growth in myself, my plants, and my cohort.

Two months ago I planted sea kale. A perennial vegetable originating on the salty coastal borders across Europe, this plant has stolen my heart. I discovered one single plant of Crambe maritima down on the farm, tasted it, and loved it. Being perennial, sea kale will regrow for many years without needing humans to replant it, and its hardy characteristics make it a delicious green to look forward to in the spring before much else is growing. But we only had ONE plant! So I asked Kayla to order some seeds for me. When they came, I was very excited, yet nervous. I read and re-read the instructions on the back of the little brown packet dozens of times. 8 little seeds, freed of their cork-shell protection, fell into the dark earth I had prepared for them. The package said to plant them with a lot of grit; I once hear d a very motivational speech about inner grit and if these little seeds heard that speech, too, they would find enough grit in themselves to get past the fine garden dirt, soft compost, and sand I tucked them in with. It was nerve-wracking, like holding a baby. I even wrote a poem about it, which I will share it with you:

Thrilling and terrifying

the first time

Trust the process

the first time

I can’t keep the grin from my face

Yet no one else should know lest

I fail.

Failure is part of the risk we take

When striving to succeed

And this time all my faith’s invested

In a little row of seeds.

sea kale

I have been watering and watching my sea kale very carefully. I even built a cage around it so the mice wouldn’t nibble the little cotyledons. They are ready to transplant into the ground, now. And I am ready to plant them. As I watched them grow strong enough for this move, so have I felt myself grow stronger in my garden skills, my comfort within this community, my confidence in knowing how to balance the demands of mountain life.

I truly realized this growth two weeks ago when we had a summer Open House. My cohort and I got to show off our farm, our cooking skills, and our village to the public. It felt so good to be able to answer many questions but also wonderful to be able to say with a smile “I don’t know that yet, I ‘m still learning.” Like my little sea kales, I may be quickly growing stronger yet I have a long way to grow and the prospect of endless possibilities is so exciting! We were again reminded of our potential when the AMS family came together for a reunion the next weekend. Fellows from cohorts one through four danced, shared stories about their current adventures, and teased each other like long-lost cousins the weekend after the Open House (two weekends of guests in a row?! Yes, a little exhausting but exhilarating nonetheless). Just like the much-needed rain that week encouraged my sea kales to grow faster, the support and love shared through the reunion gave everyone a burst of enthusiasm and energy. We even got impromptu lessons on hand-pollinating squash flowers!

So now, with the enthusiasm to keep cultivating good food re-kindled, the next step in establishing my sea kale babies is to decide where to put them. In Permaculture, it is essential to think about how one piece of your garden can serve multiple functions: I want my sea kale to be accessible and educational to future Fellows; I want it to retain and build soil in the ground around it. “Stacking functions” is one of the principles of Permaculture that has been repeated many times throughout our time here. Thinking about where to place the sea kale makes me think: Where would Dave plant it? Where would Ian plant it? Dave and Ian are two men who recently gave my cohort tours of their gardens. Dave owns Radical Roots, a well-established functioning farm which illustrates the principles of Permaculture in a very beautifully organized way. We talked about how his garden is planted on contour to maximize water catchment; there are three water catchment and retaining systems to ensure redundancy in the happenstance that one system fails; Dave even told us how he and his wife simply observed the land for a year before planting anything! Ian, on the other hand, is a phase two Fellow who currently works with New Community Project (NCP) in Harrisonberg. NCP is literally a garden off the street with sunflower sentries posted at the sidewalk entrance. The gardens have grown in a somewhat piecemeal way yet the principles of Permaculture are just as apparent. The almost chaotic look of NCP invites curious city-dwellers into the space- one can get lost in the jungle and still feel at home. After visiting these two places, our cohort discussed the juxtaposition between the two farms and the Permaculture put into practice at each place. We realized later that our engagement with this conversation, and our interest in comparing the two farms, exemplified how much Permaculture philosophy we had absorbed. Proud of ourselves, we bravely marched into designing our own food forest through Permaculture design methods.

But our first steps into design is a story for another blog post by another Fellow. I’d like to get back to my sea kale. Personally, I am a very organized person and I like to plan things. That is probably why I loved seeing Radical Roots. But at the same time, my confidence grew when I realize that gardening does not have to be quite so much of a rigid science, as illustrated by NCP. It can be an art, and I happen to think I am an artist, too. So my sea kale will be incorporated into the Upper Garden with an artist’s eye, and the Permaculturist’s foresight. I look forward to putting my personal growth into practice with the transplanting of this sea kale. I anticipate the transplanting to be just as exhilarating as planting the seeds. In another three months from now I hope to look back on my sea kales as a symbol of my own growth up here on the mountain- as a farmer, competent and confident with a perennial desire and willingness to learn more.




We all have this running joke about never having enough time. We are pretty certain that our jolly Village Manager, Paul, stole all of our time. He may even have a second group of Phase I fellows hiding in the other fellowship that he gave all of our time to. But until we reclaim our stolen time from him, we must figure out a way to manage what little time we have. One might ask, “Who would need to manage their time when lounging at a mountain retreat?” We are living in a beautiful sanctuary but sometimes we forget because our days are filled with a million things that we all love to do!

Here is a list of things that might fill up our time on a given day at Allegheny Mountain School: wake up, put on our gloves, eat a delicious breakfast of yogurt with autumn olive syrup, freshly laid eggs, sauteed spinach and oatmeal honey toast, walk a half mile down the hill to the farm to meet, reseed two beds of carrots due to some unfortunate dud seed packets, water the new carrot seeds very well, cover with newspaper and water again, thin baby red and golden beets, sort seed packets into their appropriate plant families, sow a cover crop of rye and hairy vetch on a bed that up until two weeks ago had been full of overwintered garlic, forget to drink water and put on sunscreen, walk back up the hill to the lodge with a 10 pound bucket of produce harvested that morning and almost not make it due to extremely tired legs, eat a delicious lunch of sweet and savory crepes, salad, corn bread and green beans prepared by the one and only anonymous pair of Allegheny Mountain School Fellows that just so happen to be named Thea and Aaron, putter on the lovely lodge porch for a twenty minutes, walk back down to the farm to work with the honey bees knees, read the observations of a blind Swiss beekeeper, eat some fresh bee nectar straight from the hive, harvest some ripe, red, razzle-bedazzled raspberries, try not to forget to take a moment to breathe once or twice, squint to look up at the sky and take a look around at the trees and mountains, death march up the hill for the second time in a day while dreaming of building an escalator up the mountain, think about our slammin’ behinds from all that hill climbing, take a quick shower and read two pages with words on them, eat another of the most delicious of meals, help clean up the kitchen, pretend to do some work on the computer while actually just trying so hard to stay awake and then crash onto our pillows and dream of flying spider tick moths.

Sorry for the frantic tone, but most days it really does feel like that. We love the frantic feeling, or at least I do! It means that seeds are being planted, soil is being tilled, flowers are being pollinated, vegetables are being harvested, cucumbers are being trellised and berries are being eaten. The stress that comes from farming is like no other feeling and we all seem to thrive on it!

Even though there usually is no time, I would like to think that we are some of the happiest of clams in the big blue. In my humble opinion, you just can’t beat the feeling of dirt falling through your fingertips, picking the first ripe tomato of the season, biting into a crisp, crunchy cucumber, and walking through dew-covered grass at first light.

Thank you reader for the time that you took to read this blog. You are great! I wish you joy in doing all of the things that you wish you had more time for! I dedicate this silly number to my good friend Shannon Mathews for helping me come up with the idea for this blog. My scatter-brained, time-lacking self could never have thought of it on my own. Peace out!

A beautiful sunrise on the mountain.

A beautiful sunrise on the mountain.

Mountain Melodies

The birds sing, I am filled with their joy.
The river flows, I am filled with its energy.
The tree stands, I am filled with its strength.
The sun shines, I am filled with its hope.
The rain falls, and I am revived.
The insects buzz, I am filled with their curiosity.
The flower blooms to begin anew.
The winds blow to breath new life.

Never forget to sit quietly and listen.
To feel the sun on your skin and the wind across your face.
To listen to the birds up high and the river down below.
The Earth has much to teach and should you be savvy enough to listen,
your life will be full of wonder and peace.

– Samantha Taggart

I wrote this poem on my third day on Allegheny Mountain during a “wellness” class with Paul. He had instructed us to go out into the woods and find a “sit-spot,” or a spot where we felt inspired to stop and meditate, reflect, or simply sit and observe what was happening around us. I went out in search of such as spot, heading a few hundred feet down towards the valley on the Eastern slope of the mountain. I came to a tree stump situated on a rather steep drop where I was able to see down the mountain, across the valley, and gaze out at three or four more ridges off in the distance. Spring had not yet come to Allegheny Mountain so there were still no leaves on the trees to obstruct this awe-inspiring view. The old tree stump formed the perfect bench for me to perch on. And so I sat and I listened.

Before long, I found myself immersed in the sounds of the mountain – strong breezes passing across the tree canopy of the mountain, first faint and hushed and then intense and inundating like the sounds you hear when waves crash against a shoreline. I heard the chirping of songbirds and the buzzing of an enormous bumblebee. I heard the creaking of branches as the wind swept through the trees. I was so filled up by all that I was hearing. I felt inspired by the fullness and intricacy of nature’s chorus.

I have gone back to that same sit spot several times since that first day and each time I am reminded of how important it is to stop and listen – really listen – to all that is around me.

You see, I love to sing, and most days I have a constant stream of songs whirling through my head taking up mental space as I try to remember the lyrics and refrains to Joni Mitchell albums and Bob Dylan masterpieces. Sometimes I forget to still my mind and listen to the beautiful music that is all around me.

I imagine that we all have trouble listening sometimes though – am I right? Whether it’s lyrics to a song or a million restless thoughts reeling in and out of our minds, sometimes we just don’t pay attention to the life-giving musicians right in front of us.

Another thing – I have this bad habit of trying to finish other people’s sentences. Often times it’s almost subconscious on my part but, I have to say, I really tend to misjudge what words are about to come out of people’s mouths. I’m working on having the patience and self-control to hush up and just listen until someone is finished with a thought. I’m finding that if I listen and don’t try to fill the silence or pauses in someone’s train of thought with my own words, I have a much better chance of understanding what someone is trying to say and engaging in a meaningful conversation with them.

In the same vein, last week Jenna Clarke led us in a workshop on Leadership and Communication. Jenna is an AMS alumna and the Director of Operations at Project Grows in Verona, VA. Through the workshop, Jenna reminded us that one’s ability to listen to and respond to feedback is one of the most important skills that any good leader can possess. The capacity to listen to and really take in other people’s ideas, concerns, and constructive criticism is essential in any leadership role.

Listening to the needs and wishes of the organizations and communities that we find ourselves in during phase two will be fundamental to our AMS mission of building community. To achieve that, though, we will also have to foster an open and respectful environment in which community members are comfortable sharing their thoughts and know that they will indeed be heard.

“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.”
– Doug Larson

On another spectrum – farming requires a high degree of listening from us. Good farming requires us to be constantly listening and responding to signals from the soils that we tend to, the crops that we grow, and the animals that we raise. As Wendell Berry puts it, farming is a conversation with the land. He says that farming “in the manner of a conversationalist” does not “impose its vision and its demands upon a world that it conceives of as a stockpile of raw material, inert and indifferent to any use that may be made of it.” Rather, conversational farming constantly checks in with the land, recognizing and responding when crops are stressed or soils are diminishing in fertility. The conversational farmer listens to the land.

And so, my friends, I advise you – never forget to slow down and listen. Whether you’re listening to a mountain, a friend, or a patch of garden soil, you’ll no doubt be inspired by what you hear.

Sometimes you just gotta wear your garlic!

Sometimes you just gotta wear your garlic!



“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” -Thomas Merton  

For the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to pinpoint factors that make up a real supportive, sustainable, and resilient community. Here up on the mountain, we strive to cultivate community to not only to have an environment where individuals thrive, but in preparation to reenergize the world that is lacking in true community structures, sustainable lifestyles, and unjust social and economic systems. However, let’s refocus. Let’s talk community.

Almost three months ago, the 2014 fellows stepped onto this mountain. As with any normal person stepping into an unfamiliar and unpredictable situation, formalities and a state of seriousness were constructed. Not to say these things are bad, but it’s just what happens. My cohort went through the same thing. Every new community I have stepped into, I have done the same. Tip toeing around humor, expectations, and possible hurt feelings becomes the norm if the pattern isn’t broken early. If it’s not broken, we set into realities that many of us face in our work, families, and social circles. We never really settle back into ourselves. We feel awkward, strained, and anxious to go back home. Fortunately, I saw these patterns begin to crumble since day one with my fellows.

I just read a great book that was loaned to me. The Art of Possibility has many great reflections moments and gems that help a person stop going down the spiral of helplessness and detachment by realizing they are the architect of the possibilities around them. The whole book is filled with gems and thoughtful moments. I recommend it. Anyways, there is a chapter about Rule #6.

What is Rule #6?

Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.

What are the first five rules?

There are none.

Amen. Simply brilliant. Kudos to Rosamund Stone Zander & Benjamin Zander.

I saw Rule #6 take form since the first meal together on that beautiful evening of April 27th. The laughter in the room was intoxicating. Things were said that made me take a step back in my head and say “I would never say that to a new group of people. They might judge me.” I looked up to their confidence. I was inspired. I saw the first glint of real community.

The first fellow cooked meal.

Now, I’m not saying everything was peachy since day 1, and that everyone was completely comfortable and true community was achieved. Community takes time. A long time. However, not as long on this magical mountain of ours. Here at AMS I see things almost accelerated, and again I question “why?” I have my theories by comparing AMS to other communities I felt proud and fulfilled in and other “communities” where something was definitely missing. I read an article lately from the Art of Manliness titled “Community vs. Networks: To Which Do You Belong?” (I’ve copied the link at the end of this post.) The article hit the nail on the head by basically saying that the missing element in a lot of communities is the human factor. Well at least that was my interpretation of it. Here at AMS, the human factor rules.

I can’t fully define what I think the human factor is in this blog, and maybe it can never be defined in words… But for you my dear reader, I’ll take a crack at it.

Everyone is different. Personalities, humor, reactions, dreams, fears, expectations, to physical needs all vary from person to person. Many organizations, communities, groups, networks, and/or other collectives of people focus heavily on similarities between people.

“Oh you like to work out. Well join this gym!”

“Feel passionate about the environment? Be part of our activist group!”

“You design websites. Work at this web design company.”

“You love the color blue too!? Let’s be friends.”

This is how many communities start, which I do believe is a great organic way for things to begin. However, we get so caught up on the similarities that we forget to value the difference in people.

Groups reward individuals who fit the group.

Individuals focus their lives on how they fit into a group.

People are compartmentalized in many molds, tasks, and roles.

People are not just gym members, activists, professional web designers, or blue loving friends. We are all of them at once. We are human; multifaceted, multi-passionate, ever curious beings. A true community cultivates that. A true community does not see its members as just a worker or just an upbeat jokester or just a radical environmentalist. True communities are made up of people, and the community as a whole celebrates the fact that each member is a unique human by making them feel welcomed and at home. I see communities as places and groups that give off that feeling of “Take of your jacket and shoes, and stay a while.”

Rule #6

Here on the mountain, we find out quickly that each one of us is a “young person passionate about food and change”. That is our common bond, and we definitely have others as well. However, we also find out the quirks, opinions, expectations, strengths, and differences. We each are human; multifaceted, multi-passionate, ever curious beings, and more than just young people who like food. When you live, eat, work, play, and relax together, you can’t help but find that out. That is one key factor. The main key factor is that we strive to embrace the whole person and welcome everything about them. That is our culture, and we are proud of it. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and this helps welcome others to be themselves. True community blooms.

I can always come back to the mountain, kick off my shoes, laugh, and be myself.

Cheers to Thomas Merton and Rule #6.


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