One of many sojourns this summer took us to visit our daughter Emma in the countryside just outside Asheville, NC. Emma and her partner Zanny are building a house, made mostly from recycled materials. What does that mean? Picture this, Francis and me hovering over old oak siding from a barn, planning it board by board to make a floor in one hundred degree heat. But we had fun didn’t we? Emma and some of her friends have bought adjoining properties at the end of a Blue Ridge Hollar, or Hollow, a road that branches off the main road and winds its way into a small valley or cove that dead ends where the hills are the steepest. In the midst of that paradise lies a very large house, an old mansion actually, that she and others are turning into an alternative school for change agents. It’s called the Cabbage School, named after that plain and lowly vegetable that has such nutritional utility. The school now in its third year is loosely patterned after the craft schools of Appalachia, schools where adults can go to learn the basic skills of small sustainable agriculture, small building skills and such esoteric skills as wooden bucket making. In the midst of this curriculum is a commitment to advance the causes of locally based social justice. So while I was there there was a course on persevering fruit with daily meetings on how to affect sustainable agriculture in your home communities, conflict management, and the principles of anarchy. To name a few. The school has a small but loyal following, progressive millennials from Asheville to as far away as New York. So successful is this endeavor that every Sunday they hold a community potluck at the school and dozens of people show up, some of whom live on the road and many who consider this their vocational and spiritual home.
After the first year they were operating, my daughter in law Zanny who works in Asheville as a social worker for the county and encounters real poverty every day, asked why aren’t they reaching out to their North Carolina neighbors, people, who have lived on this land for generations, many of whom are dirt poor. So they did, and several of their most immediate neighbors including two brothers who live directly across from the school started to come to the potlucks. Reluctantly at first, these brave folks entered into the hub bub of scores of millennials, few of whom are from NC who spoke of such things as “disruption” and “gender politics”. You can imagine how foreign these two worlds seemed to each other. But then something remarkable started to happen, the young people asked their neighbors to help them build a sauna. Jeff and Roger two brothers who lived right across from the school in a trailer were more than willing even if that weren’t sure what a sauna actually is.
And so one summer day, Jeff and Roger, two North Carolinians and six 30 something folks from the school went about building the wood fired sauna. Turns out the brothers knew a thing or two about building with recycled material and after several days they produced a marvelous little sauna house. When I sat down next to Jeff at the potluck, now two years later, I asked him what he thought of all these kids. He smiled his toothless grin and said “We wasn’t so sure about these kids, seemed like hippies to us. But they are real neighbors, they have been there for us more than a few times.”
As I drove back home through the blue ridge to the East Coast, I thought long about this remarkable community these most unlikely neighbors have made for one another. In an age, where my daughter and her friends voted for Bernie, if they voted at all, and Jeff and Roger voted for Trump, here was an example of the best of what we could be as Americans. A vast gulf between generations, political identities, gender politics and wealth had been bridged. And I thought, why can’t we do that everywhere?
With Grace and Grit, John