Earth Activist Training, Part 1 : Earth

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It’s been about a week since I’ve returned from Earth Activist Training, and I’ve been finding it very difficult. Coming back to normal life after being away for two weeks, and a life-changing two weeks at that, is proving to be challenging and it’s hard to name exactly why. I find myself wanting to sleep or hide away from people, but being unable to do that because of life’s many demands.

People ask me, excited, “How was Earth Activist Training?”, their expressions expectant. “I’m still processing that right now,” is the best I have been able to do. They worry it wasn’t a good experience if I don’t say anything, so I say, “The short version is: Massachusetts is beautiful, Starhawk is amazing, Permaculture just might save the world, living in community with strangers for two weeks was interesting, and beyond that I need more time to process.” It’s not that I don’t want to share the experience, it’s that I don’t know how.

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The training divided up the teaching schedule according to the elements – Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Spirit – and so I’ve decided to do that with my attempts at recounting my experience. I’ll start with Earth – the element that represents physical manifestation – and work my way through.

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It took some work to get to Earth Activist Training. When I saw the announcement back in April, I knew I had to go, but without enough money to pay for the tuition and without a car to carry me to Massachusetts, it seemed impossible. Thanks to friends and family members who organized and contributed to a fundraiser, and to Starhawk and Rowe Center for granting a scholarship and work exchange program, I was able to afford the tuition. Part of the funds raised went to pay for Amtrak tickets to and from the general area, and coordination with other people traveling through the area got me to the Rowe Center, where the training was being held. Getting me there was truly a group effort, and I’m deeply grateful to all the helpers who made it possible for me.

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Being at Earth Activist Training was work. Beyond the hours spent digging swales, planting seeds, making cob benches, and working the land, there were hours spent cleaning bathrooms and dishes. Each day was scheduled from 9am to 10pm, with very little down time. The Rowe Center is beautifully situated in the Berkshires, and going anywhere invariably meant trudging up and down mountains. My cabin was set at the top of a mountain; the path full of rocks and pine tree roots, and covered in a thick layer of brown pine needles, was slippery with rain and intensely dark at night. I thought I would get used to the physical exertion after a few days, but I never did.

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Did I mention the rain? It rained for the first three days, and then off and on over the two weeks. The first half of the first week was winter-cold at night, despite the calendar date being June. Even though I’d packed for it, and had prepared layer upon layer of warm gear, nothing prepares you for that first night in an unheated, windowless cabin, the feeling of waking up with a full bladder at 2am to the sound of driving rain beating the roof above.

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But the beauty – oh, the breathtaking beauty of the land. What is there to say? Forest paths lined with centuries-old stone walls, under the canopy of dozens of different types of tree, the adorable chipmunks, the red salamanders, the vast patches of lupine, the rolling green hills… roads bordered with streams and boulders surrounded by woods… driving nearly an hour to reach the nearest town… the view of mountain range after mountain range. Does all Massachusetts look like this?

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The food. While it wasn’t all organic, or even mostly organic, it was delicious and usually fresh. The practice of having dessert and fresh-baked bread at nearly every meal had me wondering if Starhawk wasn’t actually Baba Yaga, fattening us up to eat us at the end of the 14 days. While people with strict diet requirements had a few struggles, those who are able to eat without worrying about that kind of thing would probably be happy with the food at Rowe… as long as they like tuna fish for lunch. It became somewhat of a joke among the group, the constant presence of the tuna fish and quinoa salad at lunchtime. But truly, it was a beautiful thing to not have to wake up and make breakfast and coffee for two weeks, to have someone else worrying about what to make for each meal, and to only have to clean up after a meal every other day or so. Before eating, we were asked to stand in a circle, hold hands, and sing a song. Before dinner on Fridays we sang, Simple Gifts. Sometimes we did not sing at all, and sometimes the song rang through the rafters in the dining hall.

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I returned home to Baltimore with some new “pets”: compost-eating worms, who now live in my kitchen in a rubbermaid bin, and are hopefully multiplying. Also, a bag of oyster mushroom spores in coffee grounds, who now live in my bedroom on my new altar space, dedicated to the work ahead of me… figuring out how permaculture belongs in my life, or how my life belongs in permaculture.

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Next I think I’ll talk about Water – the relationships, community, social situations, and emotions that flowed through the Earth Activist Training experience.

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