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.