far from home

by Maria León, AP'19

I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly urban creature. I grew up in Mexico City – one of the most densely populated regions in the continent -which meant that the nearest patch of forest was at least an hour’s drive from my house. My comfort zone has long been limited to the concrete streets, the smog, the artificial landscape, and the few parks of my native city. I’ve also grown used to the issues that come with urban sprawl: spending hours in crowded public transportation services and wading through streams of people to cross the street. I thought Mexico City was where I felt most comfortable, because it was the place I knew best.

Spending the summer in the mountains of North Carolina felt scary and important for that reason. I wondered what it would feel like to sleep in the Appalachian shelters, vulnerable to rain and bugs, or to walk down a trail all by myself without really knowing where it would take me. I thought I would feel afraid most of the time. I’ve been surprised to find that the opposite has been true. In the woods, I feel free and safe.

This week, a few of us went on a hike up to a meadow near Celo Community. We wandered up the complicated trails that branched off every few kilometers and I didn’t even think about it. I enjoyed the surrounding beauty of the forest, the view from the summit, and the cheerful descent back to eat brunch. I didn’t have to watch my back as I walked home with my pepper spray in my pocket and my GPS location activated as I do at home. It is very much a privilege to be able to wander around without fear of what might happen to you, and something that I don’t regularly experience. I didn’t have to think about the systemic violence that seems to be present everywhere back home. After all, it turns out that rain and bugs don’t feel like such a threat to me.

I’ve also really enjoyed proximity to the process of producing my own food. I’d never even seen how tomatoes grew, and now I’ve learned to prune and trellis them (this is one of my favorite garden activities). We will eventually eat a few of them, and I’ve heard that they are sweeter and juicier than any store-bought variety can ever be. This area and this land allows for something beautiful to happen: being at least partly responsible for the food you consume and the process that precedes it. I want to try to replicate that on my roof in Mexico City, but the conditions are certainly not the same.

The experiences I’ve had so far at Arete feel like a direct challenge to what I know about the world. Isolation, and the chance to be close to nature feels like a gift. This also makes me even more aware of how problematic cities are. It is a privilege to be able to retreat away from huge monsters such as the threat of violence and industrially produced food. I’m trying to come to terms with all that I’m learning and experiencing, while recognizing that access to these sorts of spaces where you can be safe and more self-sufficient does not feel possible for me and for many folks in the near future.

Maria León is a member of the 2019 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She grew up in Mexico City and studies political science at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

a week of unsettling

by Natalie Wilkinson, AP'19

Week two was a week of unsettling. After a first week of getting oriented in our tasks and surroundings, the second week was marked by the mishaps and miracles that happen when you do something independently for the first time after being taught once (or not at all). Some of us milked Clover the dairy cow for the first time without Kavita’s guidance, some went on a hike in the pouring rain as our first foray into the mountains of the area, some of us cooked for twenty people for the first time, and all of us had to begin adapting to the dampness and insects in our shelters. After the honeymoon period of the first days it became increasingly felt and troubling that there was a power dynamic present in our self-governance meetings, classroom discussions, and in the little interactions during labor.

In the second week here, it became clear that the “community” we aimed to build was not existing, even –or especially– when we were all together in the same space. Several students of color/non-white students organized crucial conversations and shifts in how our “community” regards itself, including an in-class activity that gave visibility to how identity and trauma shape our engagement with one another. The activity itself revealed the necessity for a complete reconfiguration of the classroom space, entailing a split into two classes that allow students of color/non-white students to do learning without having to bear the burden of teaching their fellow students about race, power and privilege.

For me, week two helped prompt some crucial questions to consider as I think about being responsible for where I am (the land, the people, the resources, the impact of my presence):

What is meaningful about prioritizing “community” when the very terms of our engagement here are highly exclusive? Some students voiced their discomfort with the split, concerned that it would hurt the wholeness of the community. And yet, even when the eighteen of us are all together in a room, there are ways we are already fractured. “Inclusivity” is a shifting and contested thing. A community is not made merely by having everyone literally in the room. It is, in my opinion, always being made. And often, when power dynamics go unchecked, everyone gets harmed.

E.g. In self-gov, white students and upper-class students were doing a lot of the talking during the first week, including discounting the comments of students of color/non-white students. This was exacerbated because the default norms of the space prioritized vocal and assertive participation, which centered those who had been raised in spaces that trained them in assertiveness. Meanwhile, our decision-making process did not always give space for students to safely express how they really felt about the dynamic or particular decisions.

How can we de-prioritize the learning of white folks and folks of privileged backgrounds?

Having separate groups for conversation has proved enormously generative and crucial.

E.g. “Labor” has different resonances for people of different racial, class, ability, and gender backgrounds. Labor is not necessarily a novel and exciting learning experience for those whose families and communities have done physically demanding work in order to make a living. We all come to Arete with bodies and minds that are capable of different things, not all of which are captured in the definition of labor as something visibly productive or physically challenging. Further, the labor required to make the community function takes place often in ways that go unacknowledged by our current definition. It includes supporting people through feeling isolated, guilty, and hurt, or doing the work of planning or logistics for group activities.

What does participation and rigor mean?

There are ways we are already participating in spaces together merely by being there. We have the unique experience of having very few places to truly be alone, so our presence and movements create little micro-shifts in the movements of everyone else. One thing I find refreshing about Arete is the spontaneity of connection with other people, but on the other hand, it means people can get caught off guard. Our expressions and words have an impact that we are responsible for (whether we take that responsibility or not.)

(I challenge us white people to think of rigor not in terms of how much our analytic minds are challenged, but rather in how much our comfort/expectations are challenged.) I hope we can have some rigorous weeks ahead.

Looking over past blog posts, and hearing from alumnx, it sounds like these conversations surrounding privilege at Arete have come up before and are major considerations of many alumnx who are still involved in Arete. In the coming weeks I hope to be thinking about how Arete could be reshaped to make it feel invigorating and less bad for people.

I will end with a list of some of the plants and animals that fed us throughout: fresh blueberries, picked from a large bowl by hand, eaten sometimes messily in handfuls, sometimes in slow one-by-one bites; Clover, who has been patient with our grasping clumsy milking style as we get better (every week) at pulling milk from her body, and who has seemed reluctant to leave the milking area –out of loneliness, willfulness, to spite us?– who has still not kicked over the milking bucket although she surely could; kale, which was harvested en masse by many hands, more kale than I knew could come from the little patch of ground it grows from, something like 1,300 kale leaves, which we ate in every meal, sometimes hidden in sweet breads and sometimes just unabashedly plain and un-massaged in salad; the hens, who have been laying blue-ish and brownish eggs, and who have been predictably pissed when we try to take their precious things from right beneath them; one time, needles from a pine tree when we paid to have an edible plant teacher visit but they only told us things (for a large fee) that Kavita had mostly already told us (for free) in addition to some things that I would have paid them not to say; and some vegetable broth made from leftover onion and garlic skins.

Natalie Wilkinson is a member of the 2019 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She grew up in Bozeman, MT and studies comparative literature at Williams College.

millennial processes of homemaking and of changing the world

by Brenda Gutierrez, AP'19

We made it! All of the 2019 Arete Project Blue Ridge Session Cohort is here and ready to build. This first week was filled with getting to know each other and the Arthur Morgan School campus, settling into our Appalachian style shelter and our daily routine, and full of building community. We’ve been making space for conversations around expectations, community guidelines, and institutionalizing sustainable community practices.

We had some birthdays in the cohort, which we celebrated in theme with rustic living, decorating homemade cakes with Daylilies and other edible flowers. For another birthday, we decided it would be appropriate to all take one sip from one cup of fire cider (a special detoxifying brew made by Kavita.) Although it burned going down, at least we all did it together. To be surrounded with like minded individuals committed to leadership, service, and learning feels like coming home — an important foundation when away from home for eight weeks.

Creating an intentional community takes time, trust, and patience. To get our foot in the door we decided to incorporate icebreakers into our self-governance meetings. Polly and I led a “Human Knot” activity; our only tool timer set to ten minutes. Everyone partook giving directions and receiving directions and were a few moves from completely undoing the knot until stopped by the timer. It was the most cited comment during the reflection part of our activity.

In terms of the classroom, our syllabus looks promising. We are lucky to be in the classroom with Abbey Otis Chung. Abbey was raised in the North Carolina woods and is currently a creative writing professor from Oberlin College; the perfect person to guide us through the region and its rich social and historical landscape. Our theme is “A Refuge of Renegades” and it couldn’t fit us better.

All in all, I am grateful to be in community with these honest, hilarious, and unbelievably kind powerhouses. We know no one achieves anything alone, and we know we can change the world if we work together. Supporting, holding, growing, building. Community is built in the fragments of care in between and during cooking, labor, class, chores, and self-governance meetings. We have the rest of the summer to connect with this beautiful region and we can’t wait to get started.

Brenda Gutierrez is a member of the 2019 Blue Ridge Session cohort. They study anthropology at U.C. Merced.

Escaping the Garrison: A North Carolinian Summer

by Rose Ghaedi, AP'18

The part that people remember most vividly when I tell them about my Arete experience is the fact that we slept in three-walled shelters completely open to the elements and nature. For the most part, I shrugged off people’s concerns about wandering animals or flooding rain, thinking that the summer would be survivable, if not comfortable.  But the truth was that I just couldn’t imagine myself living entirely outdoors for two months: I’d never even gone camping before. 

From my first moments in North Carolina, I began to realize the extent of the engagement with nature that was expected of me. As the bus struggled to make its way up the Blue Ridge mountain trails, it began to rain so heavily that I could no longer distinguish any of the scenery outside the window; but, the moment we reached the Arete homesite, which would comprise my entire world for the next eight weeks, the rain stopped. This was my first interaction with what would become one of the most important characters from my summer experience: the torrential afternoon rains that would seemingly drown the world for a few hours each day before receding behind the mountain peak as if they’d never existed. 

Settling into my shelter and looking around surreptitiously at the four other girls with whom I’d be sharing the space for the entire summer, I wondered if I was the only one for whom such a complete immersion in the outdoors bordered on surreal. Against my own expectations, I fell asleep easily that first night, listening to the sound of a stream running not five feet away from my bunk. Halfway through the night, I woke to the sound of shrill screams: a large spider had crawled onto one of my bunkmate’s face as she slept. I realized that I was not the only cohort member new to this style of living.

On our first day of labour, as we carved rain gutters into the side of a hill, a girl I’d yet to interact with admitted to me that she’d always felt intimidated by the “richness and whiteness of outdoorsiness” and that she’d never been surrounded by so much green before. She said it with a look of deep shame and a side-long glance at two other cohort members (an ex-sailor and a geological engineer). I wondered for a moment why she’d chosen me of all people to be the recipient of her confession, before I realized that the two of us were the only brown women in the cohort and that, to her, my skin tone must have signified a discomfort with nature. What frustrated me was that she was right.

The very next day in class we read through Wendell Berry’s essay “A Native Hill.” Speaking about his family history in Kentucky, Berry writes, “And so such history as my family has is the history if its life here. All that any of us may know of ourselves is to be known in relation to this place. And since I did most of my growing up here, and have had most of my meaningful experiences here, the place and the history, for me, have been inseparable, and there is a sense in which my own life is inseparable from the history and the place” (601-602). It was a beautiful piece, but it also left me feeling deeply uneasy. Reading Berry’s argument that settlers, due to their lack of respect and understanding of the natural landscape, “still have not, in any meaningful way, arrived in America” (611), I was uncomfortably reminded of my own relationship (or lack thereof) with nature. What did it mean to be so disconnected from my immediate environment, especially when the Canadian consciousness is so full of that vast and unknowable wilderness? Where was my native hill? I realized that neither the landscape I was born in (the Maranjab desert, halfway across the world and filled with a history and culture I know nothing about) nor the landscape I’d grown up imagining (the Laurentian shield, which filled me with both pride and terror) were any more familiar to me than the surface of the moon.

Every Wednesday, we’d stop class early and go on a two-hour nature walk with a local naturalist. The first concept we learned about on our walks was the idea of plant blindness, an inability (coming from inexperience or a lack of focus) to distinguish individual plants and species from amongst the great mass of greenness. It was immediately apparent that I suffered from a near-terminal case of plant blindness; by the end of the summer I could identify only two plants: the rhododendron shrub (the most common plant in the area) and poison ivy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the nature walks and was always deeply moved by them.

For our second-last nature walk, the naturalist took us to a local field to look at some rare orchids. The field had been recently cut, the grass shorn close to the ground, but the orchids were tall and visible, like skyscrapers in the middle of a low-rise neighbourhood. The owner of the field, who grazed his cows on that land, had noticed the rare orchids growing and found them so delightful that he had painstakingly re-located his cows and cut the grass around the orchids to protect them. This attention to and respect for nature is characteristic of the Celo community, where every resident is focused on living together with the local landscape.

Although I was touched by the culture of respect and attention cultivated in the Celo community (a communal settlement in the Blue Ridge mountains, populated mainly by retired artists and academics), I also saw some of the hidden issues with this seemingly-idyllic society. The sublime beauty of the mountains, the kind that I imagined would inspire great painters and poets, was not a universal experience. Looking out across flat, ugly fields of dead grass and hillsides scarred by coal-mining operations, I began to understand that you had to pay for the beauty in Yancey County. The almost pristine landscape, the ability to withdraw from the world and live with nature, was bounded by lines of class and education.

The realization made me reconsider my own identity and relationship to Canada’s landscapes; what had once seemed like a grounding attachment to the city now seemed hopelessly restrictive. I remembered reading about theories of the settler garrison mentality, the idea of an ingrained (and, to my mind, unproductive) fear of nature that kept settlers within their garrisons. I wondered if Toronto had become my own garrison, if the comfort of living in a safe space like Toronto, where I was surrounded by other middle-class people of colour, had kept me from fully engaging with the entirety of Canada. Perhaps my narrow-minded focus on the Toronto cityscape had actually been an expression of anxiety about my place in Canada.

I resolved to take full advantage of this unique opportunity to be, in every sense of the word, immersed in nature. Two decisions I made early on were to spend as much time as possible barefoot (inspired by the many locals who felt little to no need to wear shoes while traversing the forest trails) and to go on as many solo nighttime hikes as I could. Those walks quickly became more than just a habit: they felt like true journeys, the kind where I came back stranger than I was when I left.  The mountainside at night had a terrible kind of beauty: intimidating and surreal, the aged trees and ancient streams were illuminated by bioluminescent fungi. I would often scrape my feet on sharp rocks or accidentally stumble into a stream, but these were small inconveniences when compared against the liberating feeling of wandering the forest alone at night. 

This isn’t to say that I became some sort of wild, roaming mountain woman. On the last day of our four-day trip, we decided to visit Asheville (the largest city in the area), and I noticed that, as we approached the bustling city, I began to “settle into” myself, as if the entire summer so far had been a fanciful dream and I was now waking up. All my time in the wilderness, the two months I’d spent outdoors every moment of the day, where there’d been no escape from the sound of cicadas at night or the rain pounding against the ground, where I’d made a habit of skinny dipping in the pond at night and splashing around in the local river during the day, immediately faded to a nostalgic, almost sepia-toned memory. I was painfully aware of the ways in which elements of the cityscape—the sharp angles, the delightful griminess, the sense of constant hurry and urgency, the thousands of seen and unseen incentives to consume—made me feel at home, in my element.

I worried that returning to my “real life”—a space where learning was motivated by historical and economic factors as much as interest, where access to natural spaces was not guaranteed, where I was not isolated alongside fifteen of the most brilliant and caring people I’d ever met but was instead vulnerable to the thousands of disappointments and compromises of daily life—would mean a loss of everything I had gained at Arete. I was lucky enough to spend a summer in such a space, but I knew realistically that I had to go home, to my own life and my own landscapes.

Today, I’ve gone back to a life of cement roads and indoor sleeping, a far cry from my nights in the open-air shelters. I’ve populated my apartment with potted plants of all shapes and sizes, but in many ways, it seems like an incomplete and insincere gesture. Much of what I found at Arete has been lost to me; the idea that I ever had access to it feels like a miracle. The idea that I may never again wander through a magical forest glowing at night or dive into a flowing river in between classes haunts me.

But now, when I look at outcroppings of nature at home in Canada, I can see the gradation between plants: their secret lives, the existence of an inaccessible other, the history of the place I call home. I have much left to do before I truly understand the landscapes around me, before I “arrive” in Canada—but last week, waiting for the bus to save me from the grey slush of the streets, I noticed a tiny purslane stem peeking out from between the sidewalk cracks. It felt like seeing an old friend.

Rose Ghaedi is a member of the 2018 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She grew up in Toronto and currently studies English Language and Literature at Western University.

building self-confidence

by Julia Palmigiano, AP'18

They say that if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere. However, after participating in the Glacier Bay Summer 2018 program, I don’t think this statement holds much ground anymore. The stark transition from living in a big city to a secluded island in Southeast Alaska was one I was excited about, but could not fully prepare for. I wanted a change in pace, and challenging myself to participate in the program seemed the best way to get that. Though I welcomed the challenge, the idea of putting my mind and body to the test still made me nervous. I had never done anything like this before.

Upon arriving to Inian Islands Institute, my nerves seemed to settle. I began meeting not only other students from where I am from, New York, but students who expressed the same internal struggles that I was facing as well. I was immediately comforted. The warm welcome I received from the staff also helped in soothing the little voice in my head that was giving me every single reason to turn around and go home. One way or another, I would get through the next four weeks, and I was positive that the people around me would help to make that happen.

The program quickly started, and before I knew it, I was down in the dirt, my hands tightly gripping the handle of a metal shovel with the new work gloves I had bought only a week before. The first week of labor was the most intense, but the most satisfying as well. Seeing all the people around me committed to a common goal was extremely motivating. They pushed me to do my best, but also assured me that my best would not be the same as that of others. And that was ok. For our labor project, we are building a wood shed that will allow for the family to cure and store wood during the harsh winter. The foundation of the wood shed, like anything in life, was the hardest part to get started. Digging three-foot holes for hours was not exactly what comes to mind when I think of confidence building. But I have been pleasantly surprised more than once on this island. I felt an overwhelmingly strong sense of community all around me, and was encouraged to power through our labor project. After a days work, and a two foot hole, I saw my insecurities fade away into the pile of dirt that had been accumulating just to the right of the shed site.

“Great work you guys, lets go grab some lunch.”

Sighs of relief filled the air, and we gave each other high fives of accomplishment as we walked back to the main cabin in search of our lunches. I sat on a lawn chair outside to soak up what little South East Alaskan sun we had left for the day, and thought about how physically tired I was. But the strange thing was that I couldn’t complain. Satisfaction and pride had pushed out all the other emotions I had expected to feel. I had just spent a good portion of the day doing hard physical labor. This was nothing like running for the train in a New York City subway station, or lugging around a heavy backpack for school. This was physically straining, but yet so fulfilling. Who would have guessed that the young New York City girl who was hailing cabs just a week ago would have dirt underneath her nails and mud all over her pants. But this is Southeast Alaska. And I am convinced that if you can make it in the Inian Islands, you can make it anywhere.

Julia Palmigiano is from Queens, NY. She studies at City College of New York, where she majors in English Literature.

getting out of the muck

by Margaret Heflter, AP'18

Though our expedition to Taylor Bay was a deeply meaningful experience – defined by illuminating exposure to the scientific process and awe-inspiring encounters with the natural world – as a group, several unanticipated curveballs knocked us off our feetLuckily, I think we were able to meet these challenges with ingenuity and grace, teaching us new forms of problem-solving that wouldn’t be possible in the typical college classroom. For me in particular, the ‘quick mud’, which forms as ocean tides flow in and out of the mud flats where brown bears and moose roam, became a particular source of consternation. The first day, as I ventured out in my quick-dry pants and rubber ‘Xtra-Tuf’ boots, I figured I’d be adequately prepared for whatever the landscape might throw at me. Of course, ten minutes later, I found myself stuck in mud up to my knees, unable to get my boots out from the sticky, sinking mud. Eventually, I had to ditch the boots and run across the muddy patch in my wool socks to avoid sinking further. Luckily, Tania Lewis, the Wildlife Biologist for Glacier Bay National Park, had an extra pair of socks to lend me, and Laura helped unwedge the boots from where they were stuck. Still, I was pretty grumpy about the fact that one of my two pairs of pants were now totally soiled. The next day, decked out in my fresh pants, I figured getting stuck would be a one-time thing, but of course, on our way back from the old growth forest, it happened again: I was shin-deep in the mud. So, both of my pants were now wet and muddy, as were my socks. I figured I could either sulk about the situation, or try to laugh off my new-found filthiness. Laughing it off proved to be the much more productive attitude to take, and, learning my lesson, the next day I brought along an extra pair of socks for our 10-mile trek to Brady Glacier, as well as the flexible attitude I was determined to cultivate. 

Our group met several, more serious, challenges as well: when we arrived at the campsite, we had no idea where fresh water was located. This was our most pressing issue, as we had roughly 11 gallons of water and sixteen thirsty people. Camp crew set out to search for water, and eventually discovered water fresh enough to drink. Still, how best to haul the water containers through the mud and back to the campsite? The group eventually discovered that sliding a thick piece of driftwood through the handle of the water containers made it so the weight of the gallons could be easily distributed over the shoulders of two different people, making the haul far less painful. The question still remained of cleaning the water to make it drinkable. We discovered that a bandana works splendidly for removing an enormous amount of dirt and sediment from the water, and, after allowing the water to reach a boil on the propane stove, the fresh water was ready to drink. On the fourth day, however, a new issue arose: we were out of propane, and still had several meals left to cook. Dimitri proposed using an aluminum can to prop up the pot we used to cook in the campfire. This improvisation meant that the smoked salmon pasta packed for dinner could still be eaten. Other clever improvisations abounded amongst the cohort: sand works well to clean pots and silverware in lieu of sponges or steel wool, a piece of drift wood works nicely as a cutting board, and a puffy jacket makes a perfect pillow.

Though facing these challenges could be both anxiety-provoking and frustrating, in learning to cope with them, the cohort flexed mental muscles of improvisation and flexibility in new and exciting ways. Obviously, it would’ve been fantastic to have fresh water immediately accessible, endless propane, and a mud-free environment, but by pulling ourselves out of the proverbial and literal muck, I think we all grew stronger, both as a community and as individuals striving to embody the ideal of Arete

Margaret Heftler is a member of the 2018 Glacier Bay Session cohort. She studies English Literature at Georgetown University.

on finding mold

by Tara Sharma, AP'18

Lately the self-governance room has felt like a pool of mannerisms. Each of us brings twenty-ish years of learned inflections and gestures.

Sometimes, you will not realize a habit until someone or something points it out to you. Looking up when you are thinking, or resting a finger or two on your lips in the moments before you are about to speak. Seven and a half weeks in, some words and phrases have moved easily through most of us: ‘generative’, ‘messy,’ ‘this isn’t a fully formed thought, but…’

The space between the words habit and instinct is filled with many other words: pattern, practice, routine. This in-between space begins in the world and extends to the body. Occasionally, I find myself jokingly referencing my ‘real life,’ a space that encircles this one but ideally lives outside of it for the timespan of this summer. But here I am steeping in other people’s mannerisms. I wonder which of them live in me and with me.

The mold has been growing on everything since the very first day. There were some items that, upon arriving, I quickly realized I would not need: a wool hat, a cloth bag, a few unfinished books I brought with the naïve expectation of free time. In the beginning I tried folding the things up and securing them deep inside of a backpack, hoping that the interior space would keep them dry. But the mold reaches the insides, too. Here I have found myself reaching, again and again, for the spaces that seem like they are most deeply inside, only to see those insular spaces collapsing.

Week by week, these evasive interior spaces have looked different. The three-sided shelters we sleep in at night make up another kind of in-between space, not fully inside and not fully out. At night, when the darkness mimics a wall, it’s almost as though the space is sealed—but when we wake in half-dream state to a thunderstorm pressed against the tin roof, it’s not a choice to keep out the deafening white noise.

Many of us have wondered what this summer would feel like if we shared bedrooms with roommates, rather than open-faced shelters that sleep five or six. If we could go inside between moments of being outside–if we had time both onstage and off—what versions of ourselves would we be able to bring to class, labor, self-governance? In recent weeks in class, we have struggled to name the question that is at the core of the academic pillar and our educations more broadly. Within each question is another; we have spent two months watching them fold in on themselves. We have searched and searched for the singular thread of thought that stitches this cohort together, that holds us in space, only to find that the strings easily unravel when pulled.

The value of an isolation policy grows hazy when it becomes apparent that each point of insularity only opens up more open space. The outside is always permeating the insides; critical reflection pokes holes in the moments I have here of feeling fully immersed in this landscape and this group of people. At a group check-in halfway through the summer, one cohort member commented on the ways in which being an individual in a group setting can feel like an act of regression—a bouncing back, briefly, to an old self you thought you left behind in some other space. She commented on the way you can look unfamiliar to yourself when surrounded by a group of new people, when you realize the people who know well are somewhere outside of this place. Sometimes, especially during self-governance, it feels as though we are playing caricatures of ourselves.

During the first week of self-governance, our conversations about our ideals for the summer alluded to a deep value of ‘intentionality’ as a guiding force for the decisions we make here. Halfway through the summer, I found myself coming up against all that ‘intentionality’ might exclude, and the illusion that decisions here are made with an acute self-awareness and deliberateness. During one meeting that fourth week, we played with the possibility that Arete might be built on more than three pillars—that what exists as central to Nunnian education might fail to acknowledge unformed thought, unplanned moments, a vague, collective ‘vulnerability’ that we often lose the words to neatly articulate but find ourselves desiring nonetheless. What might it mean for a possible fourth pillar to account for un-intentionality, for indecisiveness and ambivalence? Would, then, this fourth pillar act as the connective tissue between the other three, a bringing to light that which has been obscured and perhaps devalued?

And if this fourth pillar pulls tight the space between the other three, then might it reveal the messiness that is inherent in our self-governance? Even the possibility that the messiness of ‘self’ in self-governance is central to this project? In the self-governance room, we sit in a circle. During week six, we met nine times in seven days. Sometimes we are compelled to pull the couches closer, to make the circle just a bit smaller. Once or twice, we’ve sat on the floor, our knees inches apart. Maybe part of what it means to have the an isolation policy that collapses in on itself, to have no distinction between shared and personal space, exterior and interior world, is to imagine a perception of the ‘self’ that can be both rooted in the body and in community, and everything in between.

In class, we find the insides and outsides colliding head-on, usually blending. We stumble through texts that grapple with power and identity and wonder about the distinction between personal and intellectual registers of reading. We continually return to the question of when it is even possible to separate the personal from the theoretical: what systems of power in the world ‘outside’ of this space inevitably bleed in and replicate themselves within the cohort, who is able to keep the ‘outside’ truly outside, and for whom the blending of the text and lived experience is not an option.

Recently, I brought the hat and the books and the cloth bag into the sun and saw that they were speckled green. I saw a slow spotting where my backpack’s underside rested upon the shelter’s dark wooden floor. I thought these spots couldn’t be reached, but the rain seems to find homes in the center of everything: the potholes in the road, the humid mornings, the mountains, the perpetually damp clothing on the line. After especially long self-governance meetings, I want more than anything to see something real and whole outside of ourselves: to have internal work externally manifest, to be able to look back on the summer, once we leave this place, and see a scaffold of a ‘project’ we’ve been attempting to build. I want to trust in the quiet that is webbing us when we’re at a loss of words, to find in it something whole, not just gaps. Something must be growing between the days, maybe even emerging from them. The possibility is both hopeful and hard to trust.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been struck by the disorienting and slightly comforting feeling that this place is my entire world. The feeling usually just lasts for a few hours before I am reminded again that I am living in a space that is nested within many others: first a cohort, then Arthur Morgan School, then Celo, then the Southern Appalachian Forest. Beyond that, our homes, our schools, the people and places we are responsible for. All of it is sinking inwards, reaching us here: sixteen students sitting in a circle, pooling in the center the questions that have moved through us—and that we have brought with us, consciously or not.

Tara Sharma is a member of the 2018 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She studies Ecopoetics at Brown University.

2 days left

by R. Menard, AP'18

The questions that have knotted us up over the summer (“burnt out” “exhausted” “I have reached my limit” “can we cap this meeting?”) are present, but bittersweet, carrying into the next weeks via committee work, but too soon closed, the summer, an end. Open end. Some sort of hazy film, a pride and proximity and tenderness coupled with the need to move, do something different, the mountains dramatic and dark, a thick patch of sun on the garden. It feels important to gesture at how difficult certain conversations have been, or the kinds of extra work that we took on — centrally around course curriculum — as these are things that have not yet been communicated as part of the fabric of this summer except through a small word of mouth.

Around week 4, amidst frustration and lethargy (a word that’s stuck with me from a Glacier Bay blog post, which in its way is very disconcerting) there was a strong push to overhaul our curriculum and co-create the classroom space. Consistent-persistent efforts to deconstruct the Western canonical texts presented to us—deciding to scrap the syllabus, not exactly a ‘coup’ because relatively encouraged— there was an emptying out, and rushing in, of what some and not all thought worthwhile and urgent to study. The negotiation of power within our social dynamic — a slow-building, now-pressing conversation about the various factors that make that dynamic so — pretty much stitched itself into all discussions of how the course should move forward.

Weekend meetings, in which texts and pieces were arranged and re-arranged on a white board, things gaining momentum and then falling through or apart, in-class discussion and a divvying up of lesson-plan responsibility, only so many un-scheduled hours in the day “are you on dinner prep” “I’m milking” “I’ll meet with both of you separately and do the synthetic work after” — class conversations that stall or lose thread, long bathroom breaks, endless cups of tea, “so-and-so isn’t coming” — a mediated discussion (conflict resolution) and big sheets of questions taped onto the walls. Sensing that the change in the content of the syllabus has not necessarily changed the role that academics plays, but the process has generated a lot of questions and problems and theoretical discussions and pain that we have had to work through.

The difference internal to our cohort — and the difference that drew lines around who was or wasn’t present, the socio-historical relationship between these two — has been critical in and to the thought generated by class, and many tried (bravely and with a lot of stumbling, excavation, and sometimes, low violence and apology) to have discussions/study what that meant to or for us. Arete tends towards a whiter, wealthier, east-coast educated and able-bodied cohort; wondering what about the recruitment and acceptance process might make it so, but attending closely and carefully to the ways that the very tenants of the program are not accessible or sustainable for people who can’t afford to spend a summer not getting paid, are not able to afford tickets to this part of the country, don’t find a homogenous intentional community within rural North Carolina appealing or safe, have physical capacities that are not usually valued (wouldn’t find participation in the ‘labor’ program as it exists now challenging in a way that would create (feel like) growth), or don’t find the premise of a non-male space leaning heavily on the word ‘woman’ one in which they could receive support.

Thinking about some idea of ‘elite service’ — a possible facet of Nunnian education, taking the cream of the crop and giving them an experiential opportunity to explore the idea of service in the abstract — as opposed to something grounded in an existing community, that one is perhaps in, or that has tangible and necessary contribution feeding backwards to participants. We’ve had confused conversations about the role of labor, and whether-how it is linked to service, what ‘service’. The (negotiated) cost and benefit of this.

Wondering, too, whether or not Arete can achieve its goals given its circumstances — what a ‘guest’ status at the Arthur Morgan School might do to the cohort’s ability to successfully and with maturity/responsibility navigate when-where it is and isn’t appropriate to take authority/ownership, or defer to staff; whether 8 weeks is enough time to work out a dynamic, learn from past mistakes, streamline processes, have hard conversations and emotional intimacy; whether the intensity of certain structures/schedules makes academics-personal-wellbeing-cohesion very difficult. Feeling the strong effect of having no personal space, living on top of each other, in a beautiful and lush area, where many rules are just parameters tacked onto permission, but one is social for all but maybe an hour a day, and that wears.

Compressed time, no time, squeezed out and wrung dry, reaching rock bottom and still somehow drawing reserves and doing things that need to get done, not everything ever getting done, “things fall through the crack” “how can we make sure that each thing is attended to” “who is going to tell so-and-so?” “I need this far in advance”. Some combined conundrum: whether aligning the ‘circumstance’ of Arete with its ideals is important at all, or if the disjuncture is an opportunity to re-imagine or more accurately describe the kind of work that is happening here. Not tying up loose ends — or doing so partially, incomplete. A full, frayed circle, one that has been pretty tough, and cherished.

R. Menard is a member of the 2018 Blue Ridge Session cohort. They attend the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Studies with a concentration in "Political Bodies."

when my mind is free

by Kimberly Pikok, AP'18

What is my relationship with the natural world?

When I began the program, my relationship with the natural world and nature meant leadership, skill building, and a valuable resource for food, water, and fun, but as I sit on this large rock outside of the institute this morning, my relationship with nature felt much deeper. As I sat on this rock, I looked to the left of me, to the right of me, behind me, in front, and above. I hear birds singing, I see the tide coming in, tall grass blowing, seaweed drying in the sun, the sun on my back, the wind chilling my skin and to my bones, and my music playing quietly as I observe my surroundings. As I take in what’s around me, I closely pay attention to the song that’s playing. It’s one of my favorite songs, it’s Drift Away by Dobie Gray. The lyrics, even though the meaning to me at that moment isn’t the actual meaning of the song, thoughts rushed through my head as I assessed the lyrics.

“Day after day I’m more confused. Yet I look through the light in pouring rain. Know that it’s a game that I hate to lose and I’m feeling the strain, ain’t it a shame.” These lyrics first spoke out to me because I feel like I’ve had some of those moments here. I’ve been thinking about these past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about how helpless and sad I’ve been. Some moments I felt like I wasn’t capable of doing certain tasks like lifting things that is 10 times my size, kayaking, speaking my thoughts, and getting out of my comfort zone in activities, but on top of all of those horrendous thoughts, I sprained my ankle doing what I struggle with the most, walking. Looking back at those lyrics, there were times I felt like I wasn’t even trying to look for the light, because looking for light meant seeking hope, meant feeling confident in my abilities, it meant feeling like I belonged, and none of those feelings came to me, looking back at those lyrics, I never had a chance of winning because I was so far from a “finish line” or “winning.”

However, the next lyrics in the song, “Give me the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away.” I applied those lyrics for my “thirst” for  nature and always wanting to be outside, or helping the crew with projects. Nature, the outdoors, and always giving people a helping hand always made me feel better, and during my time of boredness and aches, I craved those activities even more. But I realized that when you’re hurt, physically and emotionally, the craving of wanting to do something becomes burdensome because I knew I couldn’t participate or satisfy my need for nature and the outdoors.. Even though I was going through a mental breakdown because of my sprained ankle and feeling helpless; the people surrounding me, the environment everyone creates, the conversation we make, and the reassurance everyone provided lifted my spirits and made me think positively. If it was not for this magnificent group of people and their personalities and presence, who knows what would be running through my head now.

Somehow my brain then jumped to the question as to why I decided to sit on a rock for 45 minutes alone with my thoughts and nature. What brought me on this random journey today? Was it the weather? Was is the need to reflect?  Was it the built up urge I had to be outside? Was it because I finally felt like I could kind of walk? Was it because I had nothing better to do? Maybe it was because I was seeking something deeper with nature and the natural world, a relationship that needed strength and inspiration. I couldn’t tell you any answers because I do not know myself what exactly happened, but what I could tell you after this time of reflection is what this program has taught me thus far. Regardless of your academic background, where you live, and how much experience you have, you can have a relationship with the natural world. You don’t have to think scientifically or think about literature and art to have a relationship with what is around us now. To me, I think, that is not what it takes. Even though I do believe literature, art, and science is a tool, I believe you don’t need to have those backgrounds or interests to have a relationship with nature. Science, arts, and literature is another way to connect with nature, but to me, I think regardless of your way of thinking and seeing things, it is up to you to strive for that relationship in the natural world. The natural world and nature will accept you regardless of your academics and abilities. Show respect, be in awe, embrace your surroundings. As I sit here thinking about my relationship with the natural world, I believe your relationship begins with a good spot on the ground, on a rock, on the dock, or anywhere that it’s just you and nature. It begins with the idea of embracing what’s around you. It begins with thoughts, questions, and the need for adventure or peace. The relationship begins when you sit, look, listen, and reflect. So I guess my true relationship with nature has just begun.

Kimberly Pikok is from Barrow, Alaska and is a member of the 2018 Glacier Bay Session cohort. She is a student at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks where she majors in Wildlife Biology and Conservation.

making the unreal

by Dimitri Diagne, AP'18

This is the place to watch the tides. I’ve become compulsive about it. Sometimes I walk to “The Gut.” Other times I stare from the window of the Hobbit Hole’s main house as a trail of white foam and tiny whirlpools forces itself through this one narrow entrance to the harbor. Save for the ring of seaweed and barnacles around its rocky edge, the cove looks more like a mountain lake than an inlet of an inlet of the wild northern Pacific. In the evenings I stare down at enormous fronds of ribbon kelp pulled either to the left or right side of the dock, as I and a new friend look for a clear place to jump in. We’ve made a pact to enter the forty-something degree water every day we spend at the Hobbit Hole. This ordeal doesn’t get easier.

It’s astounding that the physical world can move so quickly. A rock I stepped on minutes ago is now covered. We dig postholes through marine sediment, deposited when this land lay underwater, still bowed below the phantom weight of glacial ice. The copious rainfall keeps a stream flowing down from the heights of the island. This stream provides us water and, as of yesterday’s refurbishment, a steady supply of hydroelectric power. Two fishing trips over the past two weeks have each yielded a halibut more than big enough to feed twenty (taking for granted the supply of grains, vegetables, tubers, fruits, and condiments we brought here from the mainland).

These features of satisfyingly off-the-grid life are only possible on this island paradise, a sheltered emerald rainforest in the rich marine passes of Southeast Alaska. So many things happen that are only possible right here, under these conditions. This is a certain kind of blessedness and magic for which we are thankful and overjoyed, but which the goals of the Arete Project suggest we must also scrutinize.

In “Of Beauty and Death,” which we read for class one day, W.E.B. DuBois describes the Grand Canyon as something not real. He stands before it, marveling at a terrifying greatness and eternality that seems not of the Earth. The Inian Islands Institute is unreal for the opposite reasons. It is temporally and physically specific. As a social project, it is distressingly bounded. Here is a place that seems to be heaving itself away from the exploitative, industrial, modern American mainstream. The tough part is that, like most places, it is still moored down to that world. The Inian Islands Institute and the Arete Project we imagine, or at least the ones I imagine – self-sustaining enclaves almost completely independent from that world – are unreal. Even what exists now is unreal. The magic of small-scale hydropower and long-lined halibut are only possible in this place – not in Dakar, not in Philadelphia.

But some of the communal, sustainable lifestyle practices we engage in here can be carried into the “real” world. DuBois casts stones into the canyon’s void, and hearing no sound, concludes that it is unreal. It is not like this here, for us. The stones we move from the garden and those we skip across the water make a noise. This place is as real as the Grand Canyon. Unlike the canyon, we can make it realer.

Dimitri Diagne is a member of the 2018 Glacier Bay Session cohort. He graduated from Yale in May 2018, where he majored in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.