Hope for community

By Seth Wheeler

These cool fall mornings bring fond memories to mind; long mornings waiting for the school bus or woodland explorations, kicking leaves and building tree forts. Something about the dropping angle of the sun and the frenzied chirping of hungry birds seem to ease the worries from the heart. This is harvest time, ancient tradition teaches us to be grateful for what we’re able to reap and store, the fruit of our works.

These milder seasons around the equinoxes are also when farmers take up the most intense work of the season, discovering what went wrong and what went right with their crops. We all pray for abundance, but only the lean harvest offers insight on how to truly grow, how to better prepare for even more challenging seasons. When the coffers are overflowing, the motivation to increase production is drastically lower than that fiery and heroic adventure one must take when faced with natural disaster, job loss or any number of life shattering events. Sometimes the losses creep in slowly, like the shadow at dusk an infectious fungus can wipe out a crop before you ever see it.  Sometimes that shadow is no spore or pest but fear itself; fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of judgment, fear of loneliness or just plain fear in general. The effects can be catastrophic, explosively disastrous or incrementally implosive. If a business doesn’t meet it’s obligations, it’s production or sales goals, it goes bankrupt, unfortunately, we don’t have that same easy measuring stick in family or community, you can’t always quantify the catastrophe. 

When you can’t identify that destructive spore, how can you overcome it?

Hope, truth, light and hard work. Community can serve its members by helping to remind each other of these powers we all have, the love we all possess can only serve to overcome the lean times, the losses and the learning opportunities. It could be argued that without community, without family, it can be nearly impossible to overcome some challenges.

When I first visited Heathcote about 4 years ago, it reminded me of my grandparents property as they were aging and becoming unable to fully care for it. The visit actually gave me a sense of comfort in a way that nature is still powerful and will thrive in the absence of human intervention, but also a familiar sense of inspiring heritage, the hard work taken up by a generation or two, long gone now. Even then, some suggested they needed help and I should try, but it didn’t make sense, I had full time, well paid work building greenhouses and renewable energy systems. 

Times change however and fate brought me back to perform some repairs last fall. Touring the property reinforced my earlier thoughts of a long, daunting, ominous challenge, but early in the year, having a new baby boy, Logan in the heart of Baltimore, my partner Krysten and I decided we needed to move to a safer, cleaner space, even if it was going to be a challenge. After 6-7 meetings with the community, applications, extra references and more, we moved here in late March. Arriving in the moving truck was almost like a dream come true, stepping out of the truck, onto the land brought very real tears to my eyes. 

I’ve always dreamed of restoring or helping to build a truly practical, self-sufficient community of hard workers living with the land, teaching people how to farm, build harmonious buildings, produce your own energy, care for livestock, make bio-char, grow mushrooms in the woods and much, much more. I’ve come close a couple times, but I saw a spark here with Heathcote.

We were hopeful. We were grateful. And still are.

The crystal clear needs of the land didn’t take long to present themselves as a rainy night brought the stream waters up to the steps of the Mill our second night here. Apparently that happened several times last year and we started to feel the actual effects of the lean times Heathcote has faced. I tackled this flooding issue, looking at historic rainfalls, walking the property during downpours, measuring depths and eventually consulting our neighbor who is a stream restoration specialist. Pointing about 20 feet downstream, “Matt, if I move that stone, will that increase the culvert’s capacity?”, “That should solve your problem.” he replied. Swimming trunks, muck boots and digging bar in hand, I forded the cold March creek and moved the stones down the creek to drop the standing water depth in the culvert, slipping in the process several times, leaving some blood and skin on some of those stones. We haven’t flooded since and this work is still rewarding.

Discovering tons of mold in our new, but rustic apartment led to a much needed restoration that was probably 15-20 years overdue. Similar discoveries became priorities; trees growing into roofs and retaining walls, dead ones looming over buildings, inadequate accomodations for the prize ducks, holes in the Mill wall that my arm could disappear into and many more. As I have done some paid work, repairs mandated by the insurance company, I started chipping away at some of the most ominous and dangerous improvements. The rest of the community really desired a farming operation, so I took on the infrastructure repairs; pumps, irrigation, electric fence replacement, amendments and much more. Krysten has acted as farmhand and full time mom, becoming an expert duck handler and generally capable Mill-keeper. We’ve seen crop loss, weed growth, injuries, loss of a community member, conflicts within the community and with a neighbor and other difficult, challenging happenings. We’ve also experienced amazing new friendships,  partnerships in the surrounding community, lots of delicious produce and eggs, and just as important, we’ve experienced the reward offered by contributing to this land, this community, to the memories of those who passed on wanting to see Heathcote shine. 

I’ve encountered many shadows in our short time here, but the light and hope I’ve discovered just below the surface are what I hold onto while holding grace in my heart for the trials. The days working in the woods, black willow seeds floating through the air, ducks quacking for food, have been such a gift. Logan’s discovery of the texture of a leaf, how to pet a cat and his first dip in a stream are what we hold dear.

Every community, like every individual, every business….every journey will always face adversity, shadow, creeping fungus and unforeseen challenges….GOOD! These are the catalysts to inspire us, to give us motivation to be who we are, to rise to an occasion to be great. These are the opportunities for hope.

As a community of communities, we are in a much better position, we are not alone, we are not isolated and we are not helpless. We are on the journey of what community has been and what it can be and I’m grateful for the challenges and there is no doubt Heathcote and School of Living can come together to shine a little bit of that much needed light. We’re grateful to be able to contribute to this adventure with our new community; I have a couple tools, I have an amazing family, I have a little experience, but more importantly, I have hope. 

School of Living: A non-profit educational network