Seeing the Forest
By Stephen Rodriguez, Phase I Fellow
Patches of yellow, red and orange have started to appear on the mountainside on what was before a seemingly endless green canopy; it is as if the trees have finally internalized the setting sun’s warnings of colder, shorter days. The trees that have meant the most to me in my life are a maple in the front yard of my childhood home, a sprawling oak near the pool where I had swim practice, and a sapling sycamore beside the Huron River, to name a few. They are like good friends in my memory--full of character and vitality.
When I think about forests in comparison to these trees, I have to wonder why I don’t feel that same sense of connection with every tree I encounter. What is it about a single tree in an open pasture that
makes it seem so much more beautiful and important than any given tree in the middle of the forest? Is it possible to have a real sense of connection with every tree in a forest? Is it possible to connect with
every member of a large community? These are the questions that have been on my mind this week, perhaps sparked by new experiences with community that we've had recently.
An opportunity to learn more about community came when we hosted a class of Montessori middle school students, and their teacher, former AMI Fellow, Kayla MacLachlan. Montessori classes are grouped together in age ranges, so there was a bit of age diversity in this group of 6th-8th graders --just as there is in our Fellowship cohort. It was exciting to see how the group of students, some of whom had only known each other for a little over a week, worked together on farm and kitchen tasks and relied on each other for advice and encouragement to keep things moving. I think tasks that involve navigating uncharted waters are really effective for building community, whether that means preparing a bed of pea plants for the winter, or camping out on a chilly starlit mountain, or spending two hours straight making fruit tarts by hand. The experience of hosting Kayla’s class was valuable for us Fellows as well, as we learned how to keep group activities coordinated and led the group as garden educators.
A second community experience came when a few Fellows had the opportunity to spend a night at Acorn Community as guests of seed saving legend, Ira Wallace. Our stay at Acorn brought back many fond memories of living in Sojourner Truth Co-op House in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One of my favorite things about living with 50 other people in Truth House was the diversity of backgrounds and interests, which made for plenty of unforgettable and irreplicable conversations. The members of Acorn also had diverse personalities, which helped create an even greater depth of friendship. I dream of someday living long-term in a farming community like Acorn, and setting down the kinds of deep roots that I sensed from a community member named Irena; she described all the buildings and structures, and garden and orchard spaces that didn’t exist on the property when she arrived eight years ago. I feel inspired by the beauty of Acorn’s gardens, and the far-reaching influence that Acorn’s business, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, has had on the preservation and distribution of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds.
The other day I completed a cooking shift with Mary-Ellen, also an AMI Fellow, who ambitiously proposed that we cook vegan burdock pancakes. Burdock is mostly just good at being a garden weed, but its long taproot also makes for a tasty (but hard to dig) wild edible. At first I thought of cooking with burdock as a novel way of killing two birds with one stone – or as I like to say, freeing two birds with one key. But when I saw the looks of surprise and enjoyment on the faces of our friends as they tried our curious cuisine, I realized how living in a community with strangers can challenge every convention, whether that’s through dietary restrictions or culinary inspirations.
Although I see the tree tops changing color at their own pace, I don’t know if I can say for sure where one tree ends and the forest begins. The leaves of any one tree may blow all across the forest floor, decompose, and feed the other trees. In some ways, human communities participate in a similar sharing of ideas, customs, and values, but one thing that makes our community networks special--and more fragile and beautiful--is that, unlike trees, we always have the choice to stay or leave.