By Janna Childers
There’s a metal arch flanked by a vast blur of green. It reads “Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute.” As soon as I crossed that threshold, the atmosphere shifted. The grumble of gravel beneath my tires softened as my red Hyundai Elantra slowed and a sweet wind brushed its way through the leaves and into my small car.
I could no longer hear the distant hum of cars speeding down Jo Mac Road, but the stillness here was not silent. There’s a quiet roar to the invisible activities of the creatures, hidden underneath tall grass or nestled high in the branches of trees. The frogs bellowed as the sun began to drop through the sky. Birds released bursts of sounds that were carried through the expanse of open sky. And the constant underscore of cicadas and crickets could not be ignored. I don’t know whether it was the pungent smell of nurtured earth or the crisp taste of clean air, or maybe something more intangible, but something struck me as different about this place. I exhaled deeply.
Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute is a place of hope. The educational farm offers many different programs, including summer camps for children, workshops in organic farming techniques and a ten-week immersive educational experience for young adults, all of which center around the work of restoring a broken relationship between the earth and humanity.
The 38 acres of land, owned by Megan and Tim Toben, offers a place for a community to gather, to learn, to build and to recharge. It attracts wanderers who sense something wrong with the traditional trajectory of education and career, burnt out environmental activists who want to be reminded of their motivation to do their work and people who are looking for a place to connect with others who share similar concerns about the state of the earth.
At Pickards Mountain, real work is done not only to teach people about the plight of the earth and crises that humanity is facing, but also about how to build a new way of doing things. Somehow, despite all of the negative things this place was built in response to, hope has seeped in to this place and refuses to leave.
A quick 15-minute drive west will take you from the paved and manicured world of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus to an unkempt land of oaks, separated by tracts of land for small houses and big fields. It’s here that you will find the Eco-Institute, tucked away behind Honeysuckle Tea House, an open-air tea house and herb farm owned by the Tobens.
While I was making this drive, I rolled the windows down to let the warm evening air blow through my hair and drown out the sound of the radio. I was rehearsing the questions I wanted to ask and the appropriate way to greet Megan Toben, the founder of the Institute, who had agreed to meet with me that evening. The repetition of “Hi, thanks so much for meeting with me,” and “Can you tell me more about…” was underscored by a flood of memories that I kept trying to ignore.
See, the majority of the first two years of my college education were spent sitting in white-walled classrooms being bombarded by devastating information. I heard stories of these structures of injustice that we, as a society have trapped ourselves in, and facts about the tipping point of parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere and how humans have passed that point. I saw examples of disparities between the rich and the poor and the way that greed and power seduce even the wisest of people to keep widening the gap– stories of a failing government, a failing economy, a failing society.
It was hard to find hope. And that same lost feeling started bubbling up again as I drove through the woods to this place I knew was full of people who had devoted their lives building a better future. I just couldn’t imagine how they could do that.
A conversation by the pond
Megan Toben greeted me with a hug, welcoming me to the farm like I was family, like I belonged there. We walked through the gardens of neatly planted vegetables, like spinach and potatoes, asparagus and mint. We passed farmer Dave, the bare-foot garden manager at the Eco-Institute whose shoulder-length blonde curls almost touched the ground as he bent over the rows of plants, pulling out weeds. We stopped by the pond, which takes up about four acres of the land, and sat down in a large red gazebo, with flags of faded primary colors rocking with the wind.
Toben took me back to her days as an undergraduate at Elon Univeristy, where she graduated in 2002. Toben studied biology, but was not able to detach herself from the phenomena she was studying the way her classmates could.
“How is it that things like deforestation and species extinction and water pollution rates and climate disruption are just continuing,” she said. “I mean, it’s still worsening every day. I got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t sit in a classroom and hear the data any longer without doing something. My intellect was being engaged with this desperate information. But there was no engagement for my hands, or my heart, or my voice.”
That’s where the story of the Eco-Institute began. Toben longed for a more holistic education experience, and searched for a way to provide one for herself and to work with others who wanted the same thing. She fell in love with the bodies of work of two environmental activists, Thomas Berry and Joanna Macy, who later would become the philosophical pillars for the work of the Eco-Institute. Then she met Tim Toben.
“When my husband, Tim, and I fell in love, he owned this land,” Toben said. “Part of what drew us to one another was our common love for earth. A big question for us in the beginning was, how can we offer this place to bring people together to support the movement?”
Together, they began to open up their land to the community, hosting potluck dinners and summer camps for children, and teaching people about a new way of living and being in the world — a notion supported by a global ecological and social movement that writer Joanna Macy has deemed “The Great Turning.” Macy wrote that The Great Turning “is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”
This global movement encompasses more than just a need to reduce carbon emissions. It is broad and diverse, but essentially is working toward a new way of doing things. It is built on the basis that our current societal and economic systems are disruptive to the balance of the earth, the balance of society and the balance of humanity itself.
“I think that it helps to remember that there was a time when humanity saw itself as a member of the earth community,” Toben said. “At some point, humanity began to see itself as sort of lord and master, and everything else then became, what we call, resource.”
The movement itself can be characterized by many different social movements, like the indigenous movements of Latin America, the Occupy Wallstreet movement in the United States and many other small movements happening in communities around the world. The Eco-Institute sees itself as a gathering place for this movement, a place where people can come to rest and to learn and be a part of the greater community.
“I think there have to people who go out there and picket,” Toben said. “There have to be people who petition for change. There have to be people who use their bodies to stop the bulldozers from taking down the old growth forests. There also has to be midwifing of a new way of doing things. So, there has to be both at the same time. And we’re more in the midwifing of the new way of doing things, like organic agriculture and renewable energy, social justice and cooperation, collaboration, creativity.”
The Eco-Institute offers a variety of programs, including permaculture classes, mushroom growing lessons and outdoor yoga sessions. But, the most important program they offer is a 10-week immersive educational experience called the Odyssey Fellowship. The fellowship was developed after years of hosting young adults who wanted to be a part of the work the institute was doing. Many of them found the farm through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a network of organizations that connect volunteers with organic farms. The program was named after a period of development between adolescence and adulthood called odyssey and marked by wandering.
“When I read that description, I immediately thought of the hundreds of young adults that have come wandering through here in the ten years that the eco-institute has been here, wanting to work on the farm, wanting to spend time here, wanting to engage, wanting to build community, wanting to talk about the issues that are challenging,” Toben said. “We realized that what young adults were really wanting was an opportunity to come and engage on all levels in a truly holistic educational experience.”
The Gathering Place
Apollo, a golden retriever, was lounging in the grass behind the barn and next to a gathering of a few of the current fellows. They had finished cooking and eating dinner together and were gathered around a picnic table with a large sheet of brown paper before them, thinking through plans to publish a zine. Even though they were all outdoors in this common space, they sat around in comfortable clothes with their shoes kicked off. It was like stepping into an outdoor living room. I could tell that this was home for them.
These fellows had gone through the first 10-week Odyssey Fellowship, and were here for another 10-week program, the Odyssey Leadership Program. Jimi Eisenstein, one of the fellows, called it the “graduate program” for the fellowship.
“We graduated from it and wanted more,” he said, his black poufy hair highlighting the swirls of colors on his tie-dye shirt.
Eisenstein was born in Tai Pei, Taiwan, grew up in Pennsylvania, but calls North Carolina his home. Growing up in multiple places was a common theme among the fellows. Anna Feldman is from New York, but lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Hayley May, another of the fellows couldn’t even name a place that she was from. “That’s a hard question to answer,” she said. “I’m from all over.” It made me wonder if part of the attraction to the Eco-Institute was its roots.
Jessica Cudney sat at the picnic table, leaning against Michelle Rozek. The two sat facing the gardens, both dressed in black sweatpants and sweatshirts, with long brown pulled behind their shoulders. For Cudney, the Eco-Institute was a place to learn how to actually live an alternative life.
“A lot of young people are curious about what other options are out there for them, and through social media, a lot of young people are discovering that there are other options available and that people are living alternative lives,” Cudney said. “It’s just difficult to figure out how to start on that journey.”
For Eisenstein, the Eco-Institute was a place where the dread of a meaningless life could be replaced by something more beautiful.
“I guess like a lot of people who grow up in just this culture, the dominant culture, they kind of go through the motions, but there’s also a part of them that feels like there’s something wrong with what they’re doing,” Eisenstein said. “Like, should I really be in school seven hours a day on a beautiful day? There’s this sort of innate rejection of the system that gets kind of quieted down as someone grows up. But here, that voice is nurtured, listened to and so, it kind of comes from the understanding that there is a more beautiful way to live.”
For Christine LeRoy, who graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, coming to the Eco-Institute was a supplement to formal education.
“I went to university and I double majored and I really excelled in that environment, and then I graduated and I realized, I don’t really have very many practical life skills and that’s really a large part of what that is, learning how to live in community, learning how to milk a goat, plant a garden, and like care for yourself and other people and the environment,” she said.
Wendell Berry is a farmer in Kentucky, an environmental activist and a prolific writer. In an interview with filmmaker Laura Dunn, he said: “This is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you can do, is the only thing that you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them together. Two things! Not all things.”
Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute is a place that is putting two things together. It is a place of community, of care, of hard-work on all levels. It is a place of hope. And those pit of your stomach, desperate feelings that accompanied me to the farm dissipated at the threshold. I couldn’t be in such an abundant place and feel empty. I may not yet know what my two things will be, but I’m hopeful that I, too, can find two things to put back together.
Edited by Luke Bollinger