A core part of my vision for the school is that it grows out of the place where it's located, that the work we do and the learning we engage in is rooted in our relationship with the place: the shape of the land, the flow of the water, the plants and animals that live here, right here, all around us. In order to understand what we do at school, you’ll need to know something about where we do it.
Last session, the school was based in the shed that I built when covid hit and I suddenly had time on my hands, intending it to be a workshop for woodworking and homestead projects. When the school moved in, it took over the space pretty good, and had a big impact on our homesite scene. After six months, it was pretty clear that it was time for the school to find a new home. At first, I couldn’t imagine where that home would be, until one day I found myself on a walk here in the Forest Garden. As I reflected on the history of this place, the grand and beautiful visions of a permaculture learning center, a food forest, a secluded secret garden, the crazy scrap metal pirate ship that used to be a kid hot spot until it was finally deemed too dangerous and taken down, I had the inspiration that this place needed care and love and attention, and that perhaps we could be the ones to tend it. I brought a proposal to Earthdelver Orbo, the group responsible for land management at Earthaven, and received permission to locate the school here for our summer session, in exchange for our stewardship and tending of the land. After many hours of cleanup and improvements and tarp finagling and carpentry over our two week spring break, here we are, on our fourth day, blessed with abundantly sunny weather and a fresh start.
The Forest Garden sits in a tightly boundaried valley, with Taylor Creek running roughly West to East at its bottom, and the two low ridges that define the valley rising up only a hundred yards or so to either side of the creek. Round Mountain sits to the west, while to the East the valley opens out into Earthaven proper, and the gap in the mountains that looks out into the Piedmont frames the sunrise in the mornings. Only a short distance from the main road into Earthaven, the Forest Garden still manages to feel like a well-kept secret, tucked away and mostly accessible by foot, with only a dirt road running through for agricultural access. When you cross the creek just past the bamboo that borders the road, the view opens up into the main growing area, which looks quite tidy right now in the eternal hopefulness of springtime, but is often filled with brambles and poplar saplings in the summer. Recently however, animals and annual crops have brought a little more human order to this fairly wild place, and the orchard/pasture area looks ready to be tended and planted, to bring forth food in exchange for loving attention.
At the bottom of the gentle North facing slope of the main growing area sits a great-grandmother hemlock, one of the few old ones that has survived the hemlock woolly adelgid. She holds court over the whole area, casting a protective circle of shade and radiant green. Between her massive trunk and the creek, a large canvas tarp is pitched with bamboo poles at the corners, low to the ground to create a shady, dry refuge. This is the Saplings Camp, home to the new program for 6-8 year olds that will start in a couple of weeks.
If you look up the road to the west of the growing area, you can just see buildings through the trees, built many years ago now out of old pallets, as construction experiments; more art than utility perhaps, but now given a purpose for the first time in long while. This is the main Schoolyard, where the Fledglings program for 8-12 year olds takes place. I get a shiver imagining the Saplings looking up the road, hearing the laughter and spirited discussion of the older kids, not quite able to see them over the rise, longing deep in their bones to walk up that way and be with the olders, and then someday taking that walk for the first time.
When you walk up that road, the first thing you see is our Hearth, a fire circle ringed with trees and covered with sand dug from the creek. In the center is a massive iron fire bowl, and around the outside are wooden benches. This is where we have circle time each morning, sitting on meditation cushions and falsa blankets, bright colors and quiet children sitting with their eyes closed in the sun for a precious minute and a half, while the birds sing and the sun shines down through the trees. Absolutely heartbreaking!
Just past the fire circle is the small cluster of strange buildings, repurposed now as a small office, firewood storage, and our outdoor classroom, a small open sided metal roof extended with a couple of tarps, all covering a big purple table, built in a circle so we could all sit together on the same level, like king Arthur’s knights. The chalkboard sits at kid level, encouraging them to take ownership, to think visually and in big, bold strokes, for each other and themselves rather than for me.
To the South of the schoolyard is a steep, forested slope, largely rhododendron on the Western end, with a more open canopy of poplars, maples, sourwoods, and oaks to the East. Clearly boundaried by paths and by the ridge line at the top of the slope, this area is our wilderness, providing abundant space for retreat, exploration, and adventure.
This place, this intimate sanctuary tucked into the middle of Earthaven, is our home for the next six months. And, it’s also, largely, our curriculum. The needs of the land and our relationships with it are going to determine our work projects, and be our primary subject for journaling, writing, and creative endeavors. The place is the school, and the school is the place. How can we be here in a good way, give more than we take, do more good than harm with our presence here? What does it mean, what does it feel like and look like, to fall in love with a place, and to take care of it?