Saturday, June 2, 2012

Castles of Earth and Sky: A Narrative of The Homestead's 35th Anniversary Reunion


There is something magical about a reunion with old friends. The years or decades spent apart fade into the distance. We pick up right where we left off, albeit with a few scars and reminders from interim events. The phenomenon is stronger when the reunion takes place in the setting we shared; better yet when that setting is a beloved one. And so it was on my Memorial Day weekend, wherein I partook in the 35th anniversary reunion of The Homestead!

The Homestead at Denison University is a student-run intentional community with a focus on ecological sustainability, and an ever-evolving experiment in learning through living. For my latter three years at Denison, I was one of 12 students who comprised its membership. I have shared this distinction with over 300 others over the span of 35 years.



















To make it feel yet more like old times, I departed for The Homestead from my other old home, my parents' house in Morgantown, West Virginia. From my suburban neighborhood; to become part of the rush of vehicles on I-70; to Granville, Ohio (a small New England town oddly placed in the midwest); past the main campus of Denison University, and finally to the parking lot of The Homestead—where I follow tradition and leave the vehicle behind, and walk the remaining half mile to my Walden. I encountered Christine, a former classmate, in the parking lot, whom I was glad to see (and hug.) I was also glad to have help in shouldering my many bulging bags of stuff on the walk back (I've never been good at traveling light). On the way, I learned of Christine's geologic research in National Parks. Not long thereafter I met up with Matty, who had returned from Kenya, where he did logistics for Doctors Without Borders. Matty gave me a hand in setup of my tent, in the tent city which had formed beside the entrance. After a walk back to the parking lot to retrieve my flashlight (wherein my former classmate Cassi met me half way and accompanied me for the rest), a car pulled in from Michigan. Out burst Ana, and her husband Joel followed. Ana is now a elementary school teacher, and co-manager with Joel of an urban homestead in Detroit. I had not seen her since the 2007 reunion, and was relieved to see that she had lost none of her trademark ebullience. And she carried an album of photographs from our Homie days in one hand, and a bag of electic clothing items in the other—to complement the Homie costume closet. Suddenly, we had an incomplete reunion of the class of 2004, there in the parking lot, not far from the red recycling barn (DURP).

We made the walk back, through the forest, through the field where fireflies flashed like Christmas lights, past the towering 'mama tree' sycamore. Once back, I entered Cabin Bob, the strawbale building which contains our kitchen and community center—a place to meet, socialize, play music, or read (the upper floor is a library.) Cabin Bob has a way of staying cool on a hot summer day, and comparatively warm in the depth of winter. We can attribute some of this to the power of strawbale insulation, some to the wood stove, and some to the hospitable spirit that permeates The Homestead. On this night, Terry, one of the founding Homesteaders in 1977, shared stories from the genesis of this marvelous experiment. Multiple generations of Homies listened with rapt attention. She told of her work alongside Robert Alrutz, the biology professor who was the original visionary behind The Homestead (Cabin Bob is named in his honor.) She carried a copy of their formal proposal which had won the hearts and minds of the university's board of directors. I never met Dr. Alrutz; he passed away in 1997, before I attended Denison. But he has done immeasurable good in my life, and the lives of my friends.

At The Homestead in May, the demands of schedule and academic calendar loosen their grip. One lives by the rhythms of nature and community, going to sleep and rising when it feels right, resting or socializing when such seems like the thing to do, cooking and eating as needed; and working to improve the grounds and buildings and gardens, following where one's muse directs. Even in the heat and humidity of this past weekend, work beckons at The Homestead. It's a natural part of country life.


















I tend to awaken early, with the warmth of the sun and the chorus of songbirds. Roosters crow at all times of day (and sometimes at night); they act more as part of the background music than they do as an alarm clock. On the first morning of the reunion, I found myself in the garden, alongside a small crew of past and present Homesteaders. We planted a plenitude of tomato plants, which had been donated by Jameson, an alum. And we cleared and tilled garden beds for forthcoming plantings. I welcomed the bit of shade which the forest surrounding the garden provided while we worked.



On the way back from the garden, I saw Matty in a tree, while present-day Homesteader Juan Pablo stood on the ground, rope in hand. They discussed their new mission: to clear offending branches from the tree, so that the solar panel below could receive proper sunlight to feed The Homestead's off-the-grid electrical system. (Workers from the university physical plant are to be credited for putting a solar panel right under a tree in the first place.) These homies knew that the stakes were high. They must not only trim the heavy branches, but direct their fall. As Matty put it, “If the branches smash the solar panel, people will be making fun of us for the next 35 years.” Various homies chimed in with their own visions for what will happen, where to cut, and the direction to pull. They settled upon a plan. The roar of a chainsaw echoed across the Homestead. Juan Pablo and his crew pulled tight on the rope, as the chainsaw's rumble combined with the crack of a tottering limb. And then CRASH! The limb was on the ground. The solar panel stood intact; the limb had cleared it by less than a foot. A shout went up, a round of applause, and exclamations of “that was close.” The Homies removed more of the tree, piece by piece. The solar panel stayed intact.



















The clanging of the cow bell is always a joyous sound. It invites all to gather for a mealtime, and homies appear from nearby and from far corners. We join hands in a circle and the cooks of the day proclaim their creations, we make announcements about upcoming events, or share literary quotations. Eighty persons attended the circle on the Saturday of this reunion.


















We partook in the vegetarian repast, and told stories—many stories, spanning 35 years of Homestead history. Stories that make you laugh, stories that can make you cry, stories that make you shiver with fear, stories that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Stories about the cast of characters, human and animal, who has left their mark on this land; stories about the evolution of the landscape, and the about the fun we had along the way.

Quite luckily, Homestead alum Chris Jacob (know to us as Chris J) has taken it upon himself to record some of these 35 years of verbal traditions. He is at work on a documentary film about The Homestead. At the reunion, he made sure to interview many Homies, including yours truly, and solicit their stories. I eagerly await the release of this film.



















The stories continued around the campfire at night, until they were replaced by the beating of bongo and Djembe drums. On a hot summer night, the campfire felt like a sweat lodge, but that didn't stop the eager band of Homies in reunion. We even donned costumes, from the costume closet and from Ana's wares. We drummed and danced long into the night. I played my standard spoon-on-mug.



















The next morning began slow. Homies lounged in the flesh-cooking sun, or chilled in Cabin Bob, and drank coffee. After a while, Cassi accurately deduced that the sluggishness was related to empty bellies. She recruited me for a mission: to make breakfast. And she showed me the grand stock of vegetables, which was hidden in the corner. I recognized the wisdom of her plan, and took command of the kitchen. I knew that the large number of persons present required great volumes of food. Rapidly, I recruited multiple volunteers to chop vegetables and gather herbs. Mushrooms, onions, garlic, carrots, tomatoes, and especially—potatoes. We filled bowls with potatoes and their complements. We soon had potato dishes a-sizzle in olive oil all over the stovetop, and more inside the oven. We scrambled some home-grown eggs as well. For this breakfast, I deliberately tried to make way-over-the-top too much food, and then make more. But after we rang the bell, circled, and unleashed the Homies upon the meal like a band of hungry bears, I discovered—that portions would be small. Cooking for twelve is a challenge, while cooking for over fifty is a stunt from a higher plane. Nonetheless, our potato smorgasbord fueled some impressive labor in the sun.


After breakfast, present-day Homie Kyle led an effort to apply stucco to Cabin Phoenix. I was present (as an alum) when the construction of Phoenix began, wherein a backhoe dug the foundation, and Homies with sledgehammers pounded earth into tires to create blocks. And so I am honored to have partaken in this final stage of the Phoenix project as well, applying the last water-resistant coat to the walls. We mixed cement and sand and color. We worked the paste (stucco), which behaved much like cookie-dough, onto the walls. Afterwards, Christine, Cassi, and Juan Pablo gave Phoenix a window-washing.





















Later on, I did a bit more gardening alongside Ana, Joel, Chris J, and others. We exchanged stories about beekeeping while we weeded and tilled the new beds. Then a comrade summoned me to assist in re-raising the windmill. My height was advantageous for this task. With the combination of ropes, ladders, and human muscle, we raised the propeller-tower almost as skillfully as the old inhabitants of Easter Island raised their statues. And we returned a longtime Homestead icon to its rightful place of standing. The windmill's background story is for another day.


No Homestead reunion is complete without a talent show. Ours featured stories of The Homestead, real and fantastical; martial arts movie parodies; juggling; disc golf feats; an inimitable display of rapid bread-eating by Juan Pablo; and a reading an excerpt from The Raven and the Crayfish by yours truly—with an accompanying improvised interpretive dance by Matty and Chris J!


 Eventually, I had to see Matty, Christine, Cassi, Ana, Joel, Chris J, and all my other friends off to their respective homes. And I too had to go back. Arrivals and departures of various friends happened at all times throughout the reunion. The joy of seeing old friends combined with the pleasure of meeting new ones, who have borne or will bear the Homestead torch. In the span of four days, I gave and received so many hugs; I completely lost count. Several of my classmates brought young children to the reunion—their children, conceived sometime in the years since we graduated. I am happy to see a new generation emerging, who I hope will live in the spirit of The Homestead, and exceed even their remarkable parents.

A bond exists among all Homesteaders, even those who did not share the space concurrently. We all shared in the good life—meaningful work, meaningful play, a sense of purpose, and an eye towards the future. At our last circle, before most of us prepared to depart back to our various other lives and livelihoods, I read a passage from the last chapter of Walden. The part where Thoreau shares that he left the woods, but took its lessons with him. From this passage, I recall the line “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Homestead alumni carry a 'castle in the air'—the vision for a better world, a world more like The Homestead. Now our mission is to take steps (however small) to bring that vision to life. With a little faith and a lot of sweat, we can work wonders. Vegetables, beans, and the bonds of friendship provide essential fuel for the quest.



A heartfelt thank you to my fellow Homesteaders to shot the photos with me in them!  
"Stove top" pic by Cassi Leneski; "Stucco" pic by Mike Becher, and I don't remember who shot 
the Cabin Bob kitchen overview.  © to respective photographers.

3 comments:

  1. Ross:

    It was wonderful to read your stirring and heartfelt account of the 35th reunion. I was planning to be at the 'stead archiving all summer, and was especially looking forward to the reunion. Life takes unexpected turns, however, and I am working on a farm in Fairbanks, AK for the season, so was unable to attend. I was moved to grins and nostalgia by your retelling, and wish you and the rest of the Homies new and old all the best.

    Homie Love,
    Nicco Pandolfi

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Nicco! Great to hear that I could nudge some hearts with my story.

    ReplyDelete
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