Reflections from a Hurricane Irene volunteer

Small Step Farm is our neighbor just across the street and was entirely submerged under 8 feet! of the overflowing Mad River. On October 5th we had a wonderful team of 6 volunteers who spent the day digging debris out of a drainage swale and uprooting knotweed which threatened to make the fields unplantable.

I invite you to read an article written by one of our volunteers, Jonathan Perlow who, when not generously sharing his time, is a freelance writer.

It's a kind article that speaks to his experience as a volunteer at the school and as a visitor to our beautiful state.
-Monica DiGiovanni, Student Services Manager

Giving Back and Paying Homage to Yesterday and Tomorrow

The Yestermorrow Design/Build School has some special things going for it. At the school they do things by hand and by time honored traditions. There is no machining to make things and when they say master craftsmen it has little to do with Sears. You have a group of what appear to be fiercely independent artists and thinkers who come to this place to improve their craft, express themselves and dive into the kind of self discovery that a barren countryside is happy to help with. Yet they have a community that requires them all to communicate and work as a team in order to keep the place clean and to run the facility. Every aspect of maintaining the property calls on all these independent spirits to also be highly communal. There is no outside help. The place requires the kind of closeness normally reserved for family. These are seemingly two divergent objectives coexisting. The first being the highly personal, individualized search for self, and the second being the finding and defining of self through communal participation and activity.

My brother asked me to accompany him, and as it turned out a coworker, on a trip to Vermont from Boston. He needed a copilot for this two day work trip and volunteer day. I agreed because sometimes I'm a good brother and also happen to be a writer who thinks the fall season is beautiful as well as inspiring. Plus I hadn't been in the deep country for a good while or seen peak Autumn season for a few years.

The drive up was spectacular. The only thing driving harder than us was the rain on collision course with the earth and really wasn't that apropos for a trip that was largely about throwing a helping hand to flood victims. The rain did little to dampen the fall colors that intensified as we made our way ever further north but did provide a reasonable distraction from an interminably long car ride. Our first destination was just short of the Canadian border, in Orleans, VT, followed by a loop back down to Waitsfield, VT to stay for the evening and prepare for volunteer work the next day. What was waiting for us was indeed a field but we didn't know that yet...

Our destination in Waitsfield was to be the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, which was sponsoring the volunteer day. My brother, an architect, knew of this place from traveling with them to Costa Rica some years back for a project that was based around building sustainable structures. I learned about the place through a blog post, which I acquired from my brother in a mild panic, after realizing I had committed a full day and overnight to them and their cause without having any idea who they were or what their cause was.

The Yestermorrow Design/Build School is an unassuming structure sitting on one of an infinite number of picturesque Vermont hills. Solar panels along the roadside precede the sign for the school itself. The sign delineating the school property lacks the flash, glitz and grandiose presence that most of our modern institutions of higher education thrust upon us. The sign introducing this school is simple yet effective and I would soon discover that those two descriptors couldn’t be more accurate for this place.

We walked into the school and were greeted by a set of small offices, the aroma of fresh cut wood and the sound of silence. My brother had been corresponding with Monica, the main organizer behind the volunteer effort, who works at the school. She came out from one of the offices, introduced herself, and then burst into a quick tour of the facility. Through the first door into a foyer overlooking a wood shop we went. Down below the foyer we saw a few focused students who were happily hand carving chairs as part of a class. The aroma of fresh cut wood was so powerful as we stood in the foyer that the smell swept into my nose treating it as though it was the dustpan used to gather the wood shavings left in piles on the floor by the students. Through the next door into a large open room that appeared to be a meeting space we went. There we met Justin, an intern at the school, who was doing some construction work. The library was off to our left and then we passed through into the next room which was the kitchen. There we were greeted by the aromas of fresh picked rosemary and field greens, thick baking bread, stewing tomato sauce and a hint of Parmesan cheese. We were introduced to Heidi, the main cook, who was cooking along with another intern, Ilona. Monica said we were welcome to dine with them that evening for a reasonable price but that she needed to know so they could prepare accordingly. We signed up immediately. The smells coming out of that kitchen had the three of us bought in before the offer was ever made.

At the far end of the kitchen were the stairs leading down into the dorm area and we were given keys to our room for the night. Fresh linens, towels, two sets of bunk beds, presumably made on premise, and a few other furnishing completed the room. The accommodations were complimentary as a return gesture for us donating our time the next day. Our tour wrapped up with a stroll across the bottom floor of the building into the chair making class. Following some brief introductions to the students, who were busy carving away, we walked back up the stairs to where we started.

The grounds surrounding the school were amazing. The place was populated with examples of sustainable structures of all kinds, such as a mud hut and a straw wall, and then further filled out by glorious gardens and colorful landscaping touches. They even have the tree house every child dreams about tucked in on the back edge of the the property, where the forest line starts. Something about this tree house’s design conjured images of Robin Crusoe in this writer’s mind and also brought me back to the, in this case inferior tree house, we had when I was a young boy.

Dinner later in the evening was incredible. Words truly can do no justice. Made from almost all local products, either found on premise or sourced from down the street, to merely say this was a fresh cooked meal doesn’t capture its essence. Maybe the most important ingredient was the love put into the preparation. We got to meet the rest of the students and staff at dinner too, which was served family style. My travel partners and I were the outsiders at the dinner table but were welcomed with open arms.

I did very little talking while enjoying the food and company. Instead of being social with the group I used the circumstance of all of us being together to observe the finer workings of this community. Silence can sometimes afford us the chance to hear things that otherwise might be overlooked...

Utopia is often presented as some picture perfect image of reality where everyone gets along and all things are "ideal". To my knowledge no such mass reality has ever existed in the history of humanity. Yestermorrow has something I've been looking for and seeing in more places lately though. It's not that I would fit in here or that they cater to the art that I'm drawn to but what they do have is what one might liken to a modern utopia in spirit. People in deep phase of self discovery and self expression, who support each other and look out for each other, in the most basic worldly ways. The community level interactions here create a sense of love, belonging and goodwill among the participants. When care for shelter, food preparation, cleanliness and socializing become responsibilities shared by a community magical things can happen. The resolve of a community will almost always be stronger than that of an individual and a community running efficiently creates greater efficiency than a single person acting efficiently ever could.

As a result of the shared community activities the participants find themselves with more time to spend in self discovery and expression. In this basic interchange, flow of yin and yang, we can see the mechanics of something very much resembling an enlightened society at work. Maybe we make enlightenment to complicated sometimes? How can enlightenment ever grow into a mass if we don’t recognize the seeds? Heidi asked me "How is everything?" and I replied "Wonderful, I'm just marveling at this community you have here". She understood what I meant.

We woke up the next morning to a wonderful breakfast, this time prepared by Jess, and cups of fresh locally sourced coffee. We still didn't know what our volunteer work was going to consist of. Monica showed up about 830am and we learned that we would be going across the street to help out on a local farm. A field was indeed awaiting us in Waitsfield! The farm had been buried under 8ft of water. Lots of cleanup had already taken place but the silt left behind had riddled the planting field with an unruly weed that spreads faster than the plague, has to be dug down and pulled out by it's individual root, and then tilled till there is not a trace of it left, if there is any chance of it being eviscerated. Even a sliver of a stem laying on the ground will re root and grow as strong as the plant it was a part of to begin with.

On the far side of property was a creek, formed by runoff, that lead into a river behind the farmhouse. The creek was in need of a serious cleanup. It was littered with various debris including pieces of plastic, small trees and massive tree stumps that were heavy enough to give Hercules a hernia. The random garbage and unnatural silt deposits from the flood were constricting the flow of the creek. We were joined by three other women and Monica. All of us volunteers. The four women went to work on the weeds, while we spent the morning in the creek, us three men playing in the creek like school children digging through the mud and having fun. Joining us for a good portion of the morning was the farm dog Wilbur. He was a small dog but his spirit made up for whatever he lacked in stature. He was adventurous and was all too willing to get as dirty as the rest of us.

A striking thought hit me while we were dredging the creek by rake and shovel, after hours removing debris that morning. My brother's coworker and I spoke about it then. Nature had made this creek to run and then that same force of nature came back with a different disguise and ruined the creek but by working collectively we were able to put it back together or at least make it more operational again. It serves as a splendid reminder of how intrinsically tied to nature we are on multiple levels. There we were seven strangers on a farm, there because we cared enough to be, there giving up our "earnings" for the day and we were able to set that small piece of nature back to where she should be. Imagine if we all took a little time to do this? Imagine if we all MADE time to do this. We can't fix the world by ourselves but by pitching in and caring we can make a difference. Yes we are at the mercy of nature sometimes but sometimes we can show nature our mercy too. Imagine if we all went out with our six closest friends and did this once every two months all over the globe? A lot of healing could happen. It embodies something the Dalai Lama has said which is "We can solve many problems in an appropriate way, without any difficulty, if we cultivate harmony, friendship and respect for one another."

We had lunch and finished our work. The field now has a lot less weeds and a much better chance of successful planting thanks to the four women who spent all morning tending it and our efforts as a unit in the afternoon to clear the way. Lunch was like dinner. The soup was lovely. It was hearty and flavorful yet delicate and light. I didn't catch this cook's name but I did say thanks. We set out to give back a bit to a community that was hard hit and in return received more than I ever would have imagined. I didn't expect anything and I wasn't looking for anything in return but I got much more from this experience than I ever could have given. The sun was shining in the afternoon and reflected the colors of Autumn while clean crisp mountain air dispersed its invigorating freshness all throughout our beings. A fresh start for all parties.

--Jonathan Perlow