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Building relationships in the time of Covid

Dear Readers,

Greetings from Big Bend! As the course comes to a close, I wanted to get my voice up here on the Yak board and share a bit from my experience of this program to the readers frequenting this space. Yak boards are meant for reflection, communication, and photo sharing, and often take on the personality of the groups posting on the board. I think that the playfulness and lighthearted nature of our group has shined brightly here.

One thing that I want to bring to this space is an acknowledgement of the many powerful voices that we’ve heard from throughout the course of our program. We’ve struggled, as many know, to figure out how to engage directly with communities, and humans more generally for that matter, in the time of a pandemic. It has been a challenge, as we here at Dragons are deeply community focused, and believe that to engage with a place necessitates engaging with the peoples who have stewarded the land and built the social spaces that we move through and experience in our travels. With the necessities of social distancing and being Covid-safe, we have had to swallow difficult truths: that normal community engagement is impossible, largely speaking, and the safety of our students and the communities we move through must be our highest priority. Because of this, we have needed to find alternative ways of working with people and learning about the places that we’re spending time.

We have been able to do this, at various points of the program, largely by visiting remote spaces and by finding ways to work with individuals on a personal (and socially distanced) level. What follows are brief reflections on the powerful humans we’ve met and learned from over the past months. Writing this with little internet connectivity, power, and time, requires some brevity and speed – so apologies if this is somewhat disjointed. Hopefully it does some justice to the powerful folks we’ve met along the way.

At Mission Wolf, we worked mainly with Kacey and Camille, two early-20s Texans who entered Mission Wolf as short-term volunteers, and after becoming taken with the lifestyle, the wolves, and the community, became long-term staff. The presence of both Camille and Kacey grounded our group. They supervised our work and volunteer projects, educated us on wolves and their importance for ecosystems and environment, and worked with us as we navigated building group bonds and establishing group working and living relationships. As our time went on, we learned from them how to remain light and positive in the face of grim and monotonous work, as well as how to ‘think like wolves’, as Kent, one of the founders of Mission Wolf, would say. This involves being in tune with our emotions and the energy that our group gives off, consciously or not, as the result of interpersonal conflict and group dynamics. If Kent was our shepherd, Kacey and Camille were the sheep dogs herding us along and guiding us in our experience of Mission Wolf in the height of our process of group formation.

Like our Mission Wolf facilitators, Joni, the founder of Earth Mountain Permaculture Education Farm, provided another example of alternative life paths that encompass both great challenge and great payoff. Joni is an incredibly strong human, and after traveling the country in a camper van, providing for herself through her skills as a musician and clothing-maker, decided to settle down and build something centered around local, regeneratively produced food. But for Joni, this project isn’t just about food and farming – its about community. Joni is committed to bringing locally sourced food to her community, and from her perspective, this requires almost as much education work as it does farm work. For Joni, food is about people and community, and so is her project. At Earth Mountain we learned about permaculture, community based food activism, and farming more generally speaking. But that is largely just the surface of what Joni taught us. She showed us that you can raise a family off the grid, with very minimal dependence on commercialized food production, and that this opens up possibilities for community and skill building that don’t exist otherwise. With her partner Willow, her son Orion, and the many animals like Greta, Whiskey, Raa, and Lulu, we were welcomed into a world that follows the contours of the seasons and the movements of the sun and stars, and that is founded upon generosity and exchange, without expectations of direct compensation and financial profit. Joni and her family stand upon principles that can be envied by all, and they showed us the power of hard work and commitment, the likes of which many of us had never encountered before.

Finally breaking into New Mexico and out of the snow-laden roads of southern Colorado’s Sangre De Cristo mountains, we met a number of inspiring folks that kept the train rolling for us. Chris Bassett, our host a Freshies Farm, taught us the intricacies of running a fruit farm while raising a family. He showed us how you can work commercially while integrating sustainable farm practices, and further how you can cultivate meaningful community at the margins of urban life. Chris introduced us to his friend Paul, an older ‘hobby’ farmer famous for his berries at the Taos farmers market, and also an incredibly accomplished builder and architect. Exploring his farm, his hand-built hermitage, sauna, and houses, was an inspiration to us all – Paul has little formal training in any of this, and came to the land decades ago through a conversation with a stranger in a nearby coffee shop. His life clearly was a series of serendipitous events no one, including him, had expected. Joe, another friend, lived in one of Paul’s houses for many years, while pursuing a PhD in hydrogeology, and also doing farm work, eventually leading to his and his partner’s building of a successful hot sauce company. Taos Hum lit all of our mouthes on fire (we recommend everyone go online and order some to try for yourselves!), but so did the chimichurri he made to go with the full lamb that we roasted on an open fire. From Joe, we learned the subtle power of humility and soft-spokenness – touring his chili farm, the depth of Joe’s knowledge was clear. But talking with him about life, pursuing passions and happiness, and the importance of community, all while he mentored us in the butchering and roasting of the lamb, was a true master class. This New Mexico moment all orbited around the charisma and passion of our host, Chris, who I don’t want to get lost in the attention given to these others.

As a post-farm recuperation experience, we were lucky enough to spend a few nights at Los Poblanos hosted by the Rembes. At LP, the generosity of our hosts only began with our accommodations – we were able to learn about the business of building a farm-centric restaurant and hotel that integrates the ethics of sustainability and local sourcing directly into its entire experience. We worked with Jonathan, the head chef, in cooking a pit-oven meal inspired by Oaxacan mezcal production techniques. If that isn’t clear, we used a huge pit built by Jonathan and the LP team using adobe principles, fire, and lava rocks, to roast chicken and vegetables, leading to an incredibly delicious dinner. More importantly, though, through the experience Jonathan dropped wisdoms about how to build a meaningful life that centers investment in people, generosity and kindness, and the pursuit of meaning in the everyday. He spoke of his journey learning how to cook because of the necessity to feed himself, something many of us will never experience, to eventually becoming the head chef at the LP operation, commanding a team of local talent that allows him to experiment and truly be himself inside and outside of the kitchen. At LP we also met Kim, a local biologist and bird-focused researcher who spent nine years living in a yurt, and has since worked to integrate the philosophies of Aldo Leopold into her life as a scientist and educator. We met Wes and Max, two farmers who cultivate lavender, indigenous varieties of corn, and vegetables, among other things, on the farm at LP in ways that foreground permaculture concepts like regenerative practices, bringing us full circle back to our time with Joni.

If this reads as repetitive, it’s not because the folks we’ve spent time with and learned from are all the same. In fact, many of them couldn’t be much more different than each other. And yet, the lessons that we learned from them continued to echo as time went on, layering upon themselves to add depth and complexity to our experiences. We learned to center community in our lives, to build generosity and kindness into our relationships with others, and to not be afraid to seek out alternative pathways if, indeed, we are searching for happiness and fulfillment. These people are all deeply in touch with themselves as well as with the land and that which keeps them alive and safe in the world – their food, shelter, and community. If nothing else, I think that is the most important thing that we’ve been taught in these past months. Without community, and without knowledge of where and how our food and shelters come to be, we resign ourselves to being leaves floating in a stream (or the Rio, for that matter), wherever it may take us. Learning to be in touch with these necessities of life can provide an anchor for us, allowing us to be where we are, to go where we believe necessary, and to do so with the support structures that deeply increase the likelihood of success. We’re all striving to live like Joni, in our own ways, and learning from people like those we’ve met will guide us in our journeys moving forward. I know I’ll continue thinking about and cultivating these relationships as I move on after this program, and I’m sure others will do the same.

Excitedly looking forward to the culmination of this experience, and our integration of these lessons into our lives. Pictures follow, in an attempt to give faces to these names, although sadly some faces are missing.

Thanks for reading,