on the hunt

By Ben Weide, AP’19

I love the outdoors, but there’s so much in it that I haven’t done. Alaska has been reminding me of that almost daily, thrusting me into novel experiences such as kayak fishing, identifying new plants (some poisonous), getting uncomfortably close to sea lions, and watching whales breach from a camp on the beach. But the most memorable first encounter I had over the course of this month occurred in the final days of our stay: we got a deer.

I have never been hunting, which for someone raised in Michigan sometimes feels heretical. But alas, I had not been in no way involved with the acquisition of venison when we got the call. For the last three days, members of the staff had been going out to hunt, trying to get a deer between the opening of deer season on August 1st and our departure just four days later. Around 9am, we got the call from Zach that he had gotten a deer over on Chichagof Island, just across South Inian Pass from us. Everything was dropped, and eight of us prepared the kayaks to paddle over and assist in bringing the deer back home.

As I had missed the briefing, I did not know that Zach was hunting on a mountain that we had hiked on the week before, and that he had gotten the deer just about at the summit. Once we had beached the kayaks on the shores on Chichagof, we followed a stream inland and began our ascent, first up a steep, wooded ridge, breaking out into the muskeg that covered much of the mountainside. This peat bog had little ground cover and was much easier walking. This would be good ground through which to bring the deer. However, the deer and Zach were in the alpine, up on the high ridge below the summit. This area was thickly covered with spruce, hemlock, alder, and berry bushes, and would by much tougher to drag a deer through. After two hours or so of climbing we finally reached Zach.

The deer was beautiful; he was a Stika black-tailed deer, one of the smallest varieties of the animal. Already field-dressed, his body only weighed about one hundred pounds. He was beautiful. I have seen deer beyond count in my lifetime, but up close, the majesty of their form was strikingly apparent. The soft hide, the gentle curve of the antlers, the lines of muscle carving its form, the warm and gentle eyes all attested to the nobility and dignity of this creature whose life we had ended. With a couple more hours of effort, we brought our catch down to sea level, and finally got him back home.

The next day, after we had butchered the deer and eaten some for dinner, Hank Lentfer, who was with us heading up our construction crew, shared with us a tradition that his family has for every deer they hunt. We took the deer’s skin out into the forest, setting it down in the middle of the woods. Then each of us grabbed from our surroundings plants on which the deer feed. In this deer circle, we all gave thanks for the deer and for the experiences we’d had over the last month, and gave to the deer a last bit of his food. The funeral service being concluded, we retuned to our quarters. In all this, I was struck with the incredible degree of respect with which everyone, including myself, approached the deer and the solemnity with which we regarded its sacrifice. I genuinely hope that most or all hunts are this in tune with the world from which they are taking, and am so glad to have participated in such an experience.

Ben Weide is a member of the 2019 Glacier Bay Session cohort. He studies economics and chemistry at Hillsdale College.

the fall

By Danae Sollie, AP’19

Yesterday we said a lot of goodbyes. Goodbye to the hobbit hole. Goodbye to each other. Goodbye to the deer.  The deer was in our lives for the shortest amount of time. We were introduced after Zach’s early morning hunt on Chicagof island and for the next day and a half spent many hours cleaning and processing the beautiful animal. We knew the deer intimately, had seen each individual muscle peel out elegantly from its fatty sheath, and that night slept satisfied with its meat in our bellies.

Hank led us through the forest, carrying the hide of the deer. We walked for about ten minutes through the skunk cabbage, devils club, and western Hemlocks until Hank laid the deer in the grass. Together we fed it its last meal and spoke individually; I thanked God for the gift of the deer and the gift of life, a concept that was all too fresh in my mind.

A little over a week earlier we left the hobbit hole for a four-day kayak trip around the island. The skies were clear, the water was calm, and Mone kept me laughing from the front seat of our kayak. We quickly made it to Earl Cove and set up camp, leaving us time to hike and explore the area. Seven of us set out up the creek, our XtraTuffs allowed us to wade through the middle of the creek when the overgrowth of its banks became too thick. As was Inian Island tradition, we filled our mouths with salmon berries along the way. After an hour and a half, we decided to climb to the ridgeline over the south side of the Creek. IT was a steep ascent, but the view was spectacular. Old Hemlocks stretched to the sky, their massive roots overgrown with soft moss. We made our way over the deer trail along the ridgeline until we could see the tents below us and the beach ahead. Zach led the way down, trying to pick out the best trail through the steep descent. With Ben ahead of me, and Kelsey Behind, I grabbed a hold of the Hemlock, my XtraTuff’s gripping its roots.

That was the moment everything changed. The footing that I thought had been secure proved otherwise and my boots slipped off the root. The ground below me, an incline, descended at an angle that initially caught my boots, but then sent them tumbling down, head over heels.

There were three moments that stick out distinctly from this experience. The first: thinking I had regained my footing. As I tumbled, I wondered why I wasn’t stopping, shocked that I continued to somersault over the moss. But there was a moment I thought it was going to stop, a quick moment of relief. And then there was nothing. Nothing below me, nothing to grab on to: this was the second moment. My body was ejected over the ledge. For one second of clarity I recognized the Devil’s club well below me.  There wasn’t time to feel the shock of the situation. All I knew was this was not good, and I instantaneously faced the possibility of death.  My body continued to turn through the air, followed  quickly by my scream. I don’t remember the impact, but the third moment came seconds later as I faced the reality that I was still alive. The intensity of the experience and reality of what had just happened hit me full force. Dear God Please help me. Dear God please help me. Dear God please help me I spoke the prayer out loud over and over. I wasn’t sure if I was paralyzed. I wasn’t sure if I was dying. But I was sure of where my help comes from and I was crying out to him.

Zach reached me first, with Laura close behind. Everything was so bright as I laid stomach down amongst the devil’s club. I held my head in my hands, recognizing it as the first place of pain. When I pulled my hands away from my pounding head, they were streaked red with my blood. How bad of shape was I in?

Over the next ten minutes Laura did a quick full body exam, I apologized to her and Zach multiple times, and we slowly came to the conclusion that none of my lower limbs were broken meaning I could get up and make my way to the beach to be picked up. My arms slung over Zach and Laura, we made our way slowly to the beach, a few of the other students pushed down the devil’s club blocking the path in front of me.

While I waited on the beach, I remember a comforting amount of laughter and the most beautiful rendition of the song Stayin Alive I have ever heard. A friend of mine held my hand, another my head, I could hear the tears falling down her face. Through it all I felt no fear. I remember squeezing my friends’ hand and saying “its ok, God’s got me.” I knew that I was not the only one looking out for me. I had Laura, who held my head as I bled. Colter who helped me into the boat and cared for me during recovery in Juneau. Michelle who allowed me, a total stranger, into her home and went beyond to feeding and caring for me. But above all that I knew I had Jesus, who already had my life secure, and who I knew was with me on that beach.

I was transferred from the beach to the boat, from the boat to the seaplane, from the seaplane to the taxi, and from the taxi to the emergency room. Seven hours after the fall I had the all clear from the doctors. No broken bones, no brain damage, no internal bleeding. Just fourteen stitches on my nose and forehead, two staples in the back of my head, a concussion, and quite a few incredulous looks from the nurses and doctors who checked me over. I shouldn’t have been alive. I shouldn’t have even be walking. That day I had fallen off a thirty to forty-foot cliff and lived to talk about it.

As I write this all down, tell my story, it seems like someone else’s. As if I’m writing in the third person, telling of another girl whose world crumbled from beneath her. Someone else whose body turned over in the air. Someone else who, upon hitting the ground, seemed surprised to have lived and not died. But as I lay awake at night, and as I hike the trails of Juneau, it is apparent that someone was me. We ride up the tram up to mount Roberts: I can’t look over the edge. We hike along the ridges of the mountain: and I hug the side of the trail farthest from the edge. My back aches. My head hurts. My lacerations sting. Of course it was me. Of course its my story. I wear Alaska on my face.

It was in leaving the hobbit hole that I realized how much I had gained there. After forty-eight hours of observation in Juneau I got the all-clear to head back to the island. Only in my return did I recognized the hobbit hole as home. As the sea plane landed in Elfin Cove and I saw Laura, Morgan, Abe and Uni, a smile overtook the far corners of my face. The same thing happened as our boat pulled into the cove and I was blessed to be able to hug the eleven students that had been strangers two weeks ago, and were now dear friends. I had left and come back, and in that process realized my love for this place and for its people.

Life and death, I experienced some of both and it ended with the deer. The deer that had once been full of life and was now dead. I had heard the other students speak their thoughts on the taking and the processing of the deer. I was reminded of the deer hunts I had been on growing up. Reminded of the thankfulness I always had for God’s provision. The thankfulness I now had for his provision that day throughout a freefall. For the first time sine the fall, tears filled my eyes.

So what did I learn from the Arete Project? So so much. I could fill pages and pages with small moments, deep conversations, and intense thought that have no doubt shaped me. But what I really leave this place with is gratitude. I am grateful for the welcoming staff of the Inian Islands Institute showing me their home and their way of life. I am grateful for the experiences of climbing the mountain, kayaking next to sea lions and whales, of pulling the halibut onto the boat. I am grateful for the friendships, from jumping in the ocean every night, to vigilant conversation about our homes, struggles and joys. I am grateful for Laura, who led discussion and showed compassion and honesty each day to each of her students. I am grateful for Colter, who taught me how to tan a fish, and pulled staples out of my head. I am grateful for Michelle who took me in as a complete stranger and two days later we said goodbye as friends. But Above all I am grateful to my Jesus, who has given me this wild and beautiful gift of life, and allowed me to stay here, stay safe, and stay grateful. After all, in the words of the BeeGees, I got high and I got low but its alright its ok, I lived to see another day, just stayin’ alive.

Danae is a member of the 2019 Glacier Bay Session cohort. She studies biology at Hillsdale College. 

brief notes on nature and democracy

By Lee Myers, AP’19

Nature is often conceptualized as something distinct from the human inhabitants of the planets; it is “the other” and falls into a constituted realm of the human imagination where brushes are overgrown, non-human animals live their lives uninhibited from the encroachment of civilization, and represents an “authentic” element of the Earth. During Arete, 12 students (of widely diverse backgrounds) are brought onto an island in south-east Alaska and are asked to examine the relationship between humans and the natural world. This blog entry is, more or less, my individual thoughts on the work we’ve done throughout the course so far.

My thoughts on the issue start at a locale of social-consciousness. Without espousing an entire philosophical thesis on what exactly is “social-consciousness”, I will leave my definition and usage here: our perceptions of the world and how we reason are influenced by a plethora of social, historical, and political factors that carve up our ideas of the world. Each student in Arete has a social-consciousness attached to them that is wholly unique given that their experiences rests heavily on their own identity, environment, and life experience. Recognizing this, students must also navigate how to relate to each other as well as figure out what the natural world looks like because, as you might imagine, each student has a different idea of what exactly constitutes “Nature.”

Given each students’ individual consciousness, our coursework has us sharing perspectives over a given piece of reading or lecture that gives us an individual perspective of Nature or a brief overview over the ecological and cultural history of Southeast Alaska. For example, we discussed problematic ideological conceptions of wilderness through the writings of William Cronon, briefly explored the Tlingit indigenous history and culture, and are currently examining ecological and socio-economic dynamics with the reintroduction of Sea-Otter populations in the region. Our class discussions have been rich with discussion as we learn about the area surrounding Glacier Bay as well as we try to develop a comprehensive understanding of the natural world.

For me personally, I have found the very concept of Nature to be one that is imaginative and rooted heavily in historic circumstances. Cronon, for example, traces the ideas of wilderness throughout history as something to be initially feared to something to be conserved and protected. He identifies change through ideological forces primarily Romanticism and American Pioneerism. This interpretive and subjective aspect of nature and wilderness suggests to me that there is no metaphysical substance that we can successfully identify as “Nature” or “Wilderness.” The natural world, as a conceptual being, becomes a product of a particular social consciousness and that shapes the attitudes thereof. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to recognize that these concepts are not isolated from us at all and while we can change how we perceive Nature, we cannot fundamentally disconnect ourselves from it. First, by virtue of being an imaginative concept of human ideology. Second, by our very clear impact on wilderness as a finite conceptual being and through our attempts at ecological maintenance. This, for me, establishes the framework in which we ought to conceptualize our relationship with the natural world. There exists a fundamental interconnectedness between humans and the land in which they live and the monumental task set forth from such an interconnectedness deals with how to preserve a world that nurtures ecological diversity whilst simultaneously being conducive to human flourishing.

Lastly, Arete has students participating in a face-to-face democratic experiment wherein the students govern themselves. This runs as a countertrend to institutionalized procedures of current academia where governance of student participants is either partially shared, extremely limited, or non-existent. This cohort has established an organic procedure where each meeting has a nominated facilitator who compiles an agenda of priorities. It functions as an organic needs-based system of community management and prioritizes open communication and transparency in concerns and interests within the student community. Self-governance of a student community not only empowers students to participate in democratic processes, but is, itself, a reorientation of governance priorities that puts the needs of its participants first; this exists as a much needed alternative to existing governing bodies.

In short, the Arete Project develops a series of priorities that existing institutions lack; it helps participants situate themselves firmly in the natural world as well as build the type of space needed to sustain social reform. One can only hope that Arete helps spur other projects geared towards a sustainable and just human presence on this world. It is certainly an experience I found rewarding and one that further solidifies my commitment to seeing equitable justice a reality on this world.

Lee Myers is a member of the 2019 Glacier Bay Session cohort. He studies philosophy at Berea College. 

the step crew

By Pema l’Anson, AP’19

I’ll be honest – during the whole application process, planning my trip, and even after getting here, labour hasn’t been the part of Arete that most excited me. Our labour sessions are divided into maintenance, garden, and kitchen work, and I’ve had my fair share of each. After breakfast, we divide ourselves into work crews according to different projects, needs, and interests. I enjoy the cooperation, the learning of new skills, the variety, but at eight a.m. every morning I wake up and think that if we didn’t have labour, I might feel a bit more rested.

All this changed when one day, I was assigned to the step work crew.

I’d seen other people engaging with the step. The back steps, not much used, going from the deck of Elizabeth towards the outdoor freezer, had an awkward jump to and from the last one, not wooden like the others but concrete. Previous maintenance work crews had been adjusting this step, pushing it into the others to reduce the jump, raising it with stones and gravel. When I joined, I didn’t much fancy my chances of enjoying this project. It was only two of us – Jenny and I – and I’d seen other crews with three, four people working on the step together. I’m not particularly strong, and it didn’t seem like an exciting project, not like going to the dump with the recycling or building the new chicken coop.

However: it turned out the big old concrete step had been satisfactorily moved, and a wooden frame for a new step below it had been built. Jenny and I spent the first morning adjusting the wooden frame, first digging it out of the gravel that had been put around and inside it (the problem with none of us being skilled labourers is that we often spend hours undoing mistakes!) and then removing some of the larger stones; we took parts off the frame and put them back on; we dug under the frame and created space around it so we could drill. All of this was to adjust it so the step we would make within the frame was perfectly to the measurements of the steps above. We wanted to make climbing this staircase an enjoyable experience, and the best way to do that is by evening out the distances between steps, standardising step widths and heights, and solidifying the foundations. At the end of that first morning of labour, we had wrangled the frame to the exact place we wanted it, and the satisfaction that came with that moment was enormous. Looking at the level we placed on top, the bubble perfectly balanced in its glorious middle (signifying the step being flat), the tape measure reporting the exact measurements we wanted every single time we checked – I can’t explain how good that felt.

The next day, Jenny and I, invigorated with power, returned to our project, this time voluntarily signing ourselves up for the step crew. That morning, we solidified the position of the frame, making sure it wouldn’t wobble, added a few extra pieces so the concrete wouldn’t bulge when we put it in, and secured the rebar (those thin metal sticks that go inside concrete to make it strong). Returning to a project, being able to continue work I’d begun, something I was finding satisfying and educational, was amazing.

Yesterday was the penultimate day of the step project. Tal (the labour coordinator) brought in a concrete mixing tray, and we spent the morning mixing gravel, sand, concrete mix, and water to make concrete. We used a lot of baking comparisons that day; the bright orange sand as turmeric, etc. It felt weird, but to actually begin making the step we’d been preparing for all this time was great – the baking tin of the wooden frame was being filled in. Thankfully we had extra help on concrete day, because though Jenny and I are pretty capable, concrete is really heavy and rough, and this meant we could alternate jobs with Ele and Tal. By lunchtime, we all felt so invested in this step, all the hours of sweat and laughter and work, that we continued past 12 so we could finish. Levelling off the final layer, making it as smooth as possible and carving our initials in, I finally understood why people willingly do labour. At home, my parents have a smallholding (a few fields, some chickens and sheep) and there have always been opportunities for me to pitch in with the garden and maintenance work there. But I’ve avoided it, partly because I know my dad is capable on his own, and partly because I don’t feel the attraction or enjoyment. Building this step opened my eyes to what it means to undertake work, push yourself, learn new skills, and come out with a final result that you’re really happy with. The smoothness of that step is testament to the work we put in. No longer will people trip on their way to the freezer, no longer will those with limited leg mobility have to walk further, no longer will those steps be avoided. We’ve done something, contributed to the AMS campus and left a permanent mark on this place. A proof that we were here. A proof that we worked, and we did it well. A proof that we learned something. A proof that labour is, after all, valuable.

Tomorrow, we’re going to take the wooden frame off, and the step will (hopefully) be dry and functional. I can’t wait for that first moment, where I put my weight on it, and know that I made this. I worked, with my friends and teachers, to create something useful, something longer-lasting than the kale we picked for lunch.

In the future: please call Jenny and I for all your step-building needs.

On Freeing Clover

By Simone Liu, AP’19

I started week four hunched over in a three-walled shelter, trying to dress myself as quietly as possible before meeting up with two other students to milk the cow, Clover. We filled a metal pail with warm water and walked to her summer field. I shocked myself a little on the electric fence as I reached to fill her trough, and then we welcomed her into the run-in and tied her to the stanchion, which looks, to me, like a bladeless guillotine. Two of us tugged at Clovers body at a time, while the other pet her slowly and whispered to her (a task which we call “modeling serenity”). Clover was remarkably still, somewhere between calm and resigned. After we “stripped her dry,” we filtered and stored the milk, then used the two hours before brunch to nap and read and do yoga.

This week, the slogan “Free Clover” has become something of a rallying cry among our cohort, or at least it has begun to pick up steam. We scrawl it on the tupperwares where we deposit her milk twice a day, laugh in a game of superlatives about who would be most likely to actually let her loose.

Many of us were drawn to Arete in part by an interest in feeling connected to the labor and growth that fuels our lives; many of us have felt excited to harvest blueberries before baking them into muffins, to watch squash swell to massive sizes over the course of a few days, to repair our own roofs and flooring. Because of Arete’s small scale, we can trace the effects of our daily labor and identify how it supports the community by feeding us and keeping us dry. I, at least, hoped that Arete might be a space where I could feel like my contributions were meaningful, and it has been so far.

Still, proximity to the production that sustains me hasn’t been so simple as a feeling of connection to myself, my work, or the land. In class on Monday, our instructor asked us to go out into the land around campus and write about what we saw. I waded through a stream to a rocky place to sit and stared out at a landscape that looks almost impossibly picturesque, except for an unruly branch of rhododendron jutting out across the water and hanging, limply. I looked at that branch and remembered being taught how to lop it, how to sever its limbs from its trunk. For me, a close-up view of how people interact with land that isn’t paved over has exposed how violent humans are to everything around them, and that those who choose to live close to nature must also confront and perform that violence in carving out rustic home space.

I have no doubt that the conditions of the AMS garden and barns are more ethical and sustainable than those of commercial farms, but it still feels twisted to learn that the baby turkeys which arrived so charmingly in the mail will never be able to mate, their bodies warped by generations of breeding for oversized breasts and thighs, and that not killing them isn’t a particularly humane option because their bones won’t be able to support their weight when fully grown. Many of us feel unsettled by our participation in taking milk from Clover’s body, but we also know that if we let her out of her field, she might not fare well in these woods. Domestication means a certain lack of self-sufficiency, and rewilding isn’t something we can do by unlatching a gate. More than anything, I’ve been feeling pessimistic; human violence and self-centeredness is everywhere, and divestment from exploitative structures is a difficult task. Our cohort has been engaging in a lot of conversation about why we’re here and whether or not our presence feels selfish or self-cultivating—in establishing the limited boundaries of our isolation policy, some members voiced that they felt as though checking out of outside communities was largely not an option, and that doing so would feel irresponsible. What kind of privilege does it take to choose not to engage with a wider world for two months, and what kind of security does one need for that to feel like a reasonable choice? Isolation, to me, feels like an impossibility: it is presented to us in Nunnian communities as a flexible yet necessary thing even though participants enter such spaces already tethered to people and communities and structures that inform how they live, think, and interact with others. We bring our histories with us wherever we go, and that has communal implications—from a need to make space for people to deal with trauma to often-harmful impulses to replicate norms that make us feel comfortable without considering how they might impact those around us. The call for isolation allegedly furthers a focus on in-person community, but functionally can erase the backgrounds and connections of the people who make up that very community. Self-governance and a lack of structure doesn’t mean we’re building a community free from larger or outside influences, although it sometimes means that those influences aren’t adequately resisted because their presence is denied. Denial of harm allows oppressive systems to self-replicate without disruption. In witnessing human interaction with animals and the land, we also witness the pervasiveness of violence and self-prioritization, as well as the inescapability of those things in allegedly idyllic spaces. There is no way to be clean in a complicated world, and that’s something we’re going to continue to wrestle with for the next four weeks. How can we each work to mitigate harm without denying that it’s happening or expecting congratulations?

the deep dive

By Mandy Nguyen, AP’19

I don’t come from a life where I can pluck salmon berries from their bushes—bursting red, orange, pink—and pop them into my mouth. The abundant natural life and resources here are overwhelming. I feel rich here, in a way I feel I have no right to be.

The first day we went fishing in our kayaks, we headed towards The Laundry, a stretch of water named for it’s crisscrossing currents that Tlingit people have historically fished in. As we paddled, the giant snowy foothills of the fair-weather mountains at Glacier Bay emerged and greeted us with a whip of cold air. I gaped at the view as my kayak partner cast her line into the turquoise waters. A fish snagged onto it in less than a minute, and she pulled up a rock fish. Then another. Then another. All around us, the other kayaks were pulling up fish, whooping and cheering at the shared bounty which we were to fillet and eat that same day. In an hour, we had caught enough to feed the homestead when two pillars of water shot into the air and the slow arc of a tail sliced through water not far from where we were.

I don’t know how to describe the instantaneous switch of the mind when you realize two humpback whale are heading towards you. Time slowed down to match each stroke of the whales’ tails, and their slow, laborious curve out of the waters and back, as they swam past us, hardly fifty feet away. Our kayaks gently bobbed as they passed, and in my stupor, I felt that I wouldn’t mind being capsized by something as beautiful as them. They spouted a few more times after passing us, and we sat there silently, looking out at the whales as they swam away, their backs gleaming in the tinny light of the southeast Alaskan sky.

Gaping at whales, learning to fillet fish, weeding the garden, following deer trails in the old-growth forests, exploring the history of the native Tlingit people, whose historical land I stand on, and the implications of being here—this is my education now. I came to the Glacier Bay Session because I wanted to explore what my relationship to the natural world could be, but I didn’t expect to feel as decentered, destabilized, and as joyful I as I have. I’m content to spend hours hunched in the damp earth, transplanting little lettuce sprouts to proper garden beds. I’m often stunned by the beauty of the fog curling over the mountains which surround us, the gentle rumble of the creek, and the crisp air of the old growth forest. I’m learning what stewardship and respect for life other than your own might mean when you consider yourself as part of the natural world rather than something apart from it.

I also think that maybe you can’t learn some things until you feel them. Can’t answer some questions until you live them. What does it mean to respect life different than your own? What about non-human life? What does the blueberry bush or the sea lion mean, especially when you’re this close? I’ve never experienced nature like this, and my mind is having a difficult time catching up with my heart. But I don’t mind. This is the education I prefer.

Mandy Nguyen is a member of the 2019 Glacier Bay Session cohort. She grew up in San Jose, CA, and recently graduated from Minerva Schools at KGI.

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.