By Emily Stehr, Farm Fellow
Content warning: the following contains references to disordered eating.
I have a confession to make. I have traded chores with my fellow cohort members on two separate occasions to put off writing this blog post.
It wasn’t at all that I resented the concept of having to reflect on and record an aspect of my time at AMI. In fact, it was the opposite–I care so deeply about the crazy, beautiful, heart-wrenching experience I am having here, and I wanted to make sure I could do it justice. Many weeks ago, I set the intention to sit myself down in the woods for a few hours so that I could begin to synthesize and integrate the countless things I am learning about who I am and what it means to be a person in the world at this time and in this place–at AMI, in Highland County, and in the United States. I sought to do this mostly for myself, as a means of slowing down, grounding, and honoring just how much growth and introspection has transpired since arriving here fourteen weeks ago. But I also wanted to use this reflection as fodder for my eventual blog assignment.
Inspired by the thoughtful offerings of my fellow cohort members on conflict, collectives, capitalism, and the cognitive dissonance of living in the woods during the collapse of Roe v. Wade, I too wanted to document some of the broader principles and ideas that have been central to my engagement with this program. However, in fourteen weeks, I have seldom felt that such extended time for solo reflection was within my grasp. There was always something else that felt more urgent to attend to–either something fun or meaningful that I got swept up in or that I made the choice to prioritize, or something difficult that came up that I had no choice but to deal with. Moreover, our day-to-day lives here on the mountain are far more demanding than any of us could have anticipated looking at the example schedule on the website. The eight-to-five work day does not account for the unquantifiable social and emotional labor intrinsic to building community in a space as intentional and intense as AMI. Such labor involves the work of forging bonds of trust and friendship, as well as navigating stressors such as being so darn isolated from everyone you know and love–and being unable to find a single truly private wifi-enabled location in which to contact them.
All of this is to say that I still feel today how I felt when I asked Brennan and then Donovan if they would be willing to switch blog shifts with me: I don’t have time to write a blog post. So, I have decided to write my blog about why I don’t have time to write a blog post–an enumeration of some of the many things with which my mind, heart, and body have been otherwise occupied. Many are a reflection of the richness of this place and the community that surround us, and others make visible the fact that the “real world” does not disappear when you move to what feels like the most remote corner of the country to work on a farm for 6 months–in many ways, actually, it intensifies.
This weekend, I certainly didn’t have time to write a blog post. On Sunday, I decided to venture out with Alex to help one of AMI’s beekeeping mentors, Nicole Majer, with a honey harvest, an experience that deepened my appreciation for the care and patience involved in such a time-consuming and potentially dangerous task. Nicole warned us of bad-tempered bees, as the chilly weather was, in her words, “discouraging them from going outside to work.” But we charged on anyway, extremely humbled by our many pauses to shoo bees out of the honey house window or wrest them away from burrowing into my hair (I remain forever indebted to Alex for her decisive action in the face of my sheer terror). We spent the morning cautiously lifting hive boxes full of honey frames into Nicole’s pickup truck, and the afternoon carefully scraping the wax caps off the honey and spinning them in a centrifuge, listening with rapt attention to Nicole’s ceaseless offerings of bee-related wisdom and cracking silly bee-related jokes throughout.
By the time we got home, the sun had already fallen low in the sky, and I remembered I had agreed to help out with the evening’s farm chores. Lex and I climbed into the mule (our four-wheeler) and made our way down to the farm as the forest darkened and the clouds in the sky turned a purplish-pink. My first responsibility was to close up the duck coop. When I approached their yard, they were all still congregating under their favorite autumn olive and erupted in a chorus of quacks as they noticed my presence. I opened the door, angled myself in a way to encourage their movement, and watched as the most magnificent sight I have ever laid eyes on began to unfold. In a single-file line, with wings slightly outstretched, their quacking symphony crescendoed as they waddle-ran through the tiny door into their indoor space, one after another. It was so unfathomably adorable, I literally did a dance of joy because I could not physically contain my excitement. Positively elated, I walked to meet Lex at the chickens.
What could have been a cursory check of their food and water turned into awestruck observation as we watched the last few chickens that remained outside the coop. We marveled at their ability to jump so high into their door without arms to gather momentum, giggled at the playful chasing that sometimes erupted between them, and were utterly floored by one chicken’s ability to fluff out each of her feathers at once into a fluffy golden halo. This phenomenon is by no means unfamiliar–every day, I set out to do a certain work task and instead find myself completely enraptured by variations in the colors of ripening blueberries, the simultaneous strength and fragility of bright pink beet transplant roots, the way the cows look tucked into the mist that rests in their pasture, or the shimmering golden dust that collects on tomato vines and fruit. So, I didn’t have time to write a blog post because the wonder, amazement, and laughter I am so lucky to experience in the presence of the creatures on our farm is incredibly, fabulously distracting.
I also didn’t have time to write a blog post this weekend because my mind and heart demanded that my attention be directed elsewhere. While we were down at the farm on Friday, a friend from college sent me a message regarding a traumatic event from my past that we have been discussing over the past couple of weeks. Instead of thinking about my blog as I had intended to, I spent that early evening struggling to craft a response, typing things out only to delete them more times than I could count. Finally, overwhelmed with emotion and needing to make myself some dinner, I made my way over to the Lodge.
The folks who were already in the kitchen could tell that I had been crying and, as is customary for me, when they asked if I was okay, the care in their voices made me completely break down all over again. I was immediately enveloped in hugs, surrounded by gentle, lighthearted joking, and I was even gifted a shiso tea cocktail lovingly prepared by our resident mixologist and shiso fanatic, John. Alex made us brown butter popcorn while John blasted Carly Rae Jepsen, and we somehow all began dancing in circles around the kitchen island. When it was time to head off to bed, Alex and Amanda invited me to have a “slumber party” in their cabin because my roommate had gone on a trip and I didn’t want to be alone. We talked and laughed until lights out, my shaky heart held together by their care.
For most of the next day, during which I had planned to do some thinking in the forest for my blog post, I tried again to write a letter in response to my friend, painstakingly poring over every word to express my thoughts and feelings as accurately and self-compassionately as I could. That night, while I could have stayed home to work on my blog, I got to experience the most curative remedy of all: a square dance in town to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Highland Center.
As I locked arms to swing around, “dive for the oyster,” and “dig for the clam” with friends from the farm and complete strangers alike, I was reminded of my love for the wildly strange yet beautiful experience of having to be so vulnerable with and physically close to other people that is intrinsic to rituals like square dancing and the contra dancing I had experienced in college. Being able to be fully in my body in this way, surrounded by new friends that are starting to feel not-so-new anymore, was medicine–much-needed after feeling so lost and lonely in my head.
I also haven’t had time to write my blog post because I spend so much of my non-farm time thinking about what I will cook when my weekly turn comes up. Ever since I began teaching myself how to cook just over two years ago, I have always been searching for new recipes that pique my curiosity with an unknown ingredient or excite my passion for umami-packed favorites like miso, anchovies, fish sauce, brown butter, or very slow-roasted meat (the latter being a rare occurrence in our mostly bean-based diet here). Upon arriving at AMI, I struggled to engage with my usual culinary research in a way that felt healthy for me emotionally. At home, I loved to cook because I loved sharing complex, invigorating flavors and sensory experiences with the people I loved most. When I got here, I didn’t know a soul, and I was instead hyper-fixated on using cooking as a way to impress people and stake a claim to my belonging in this space. I knew my social anxiety was compelling me to operate outside of my values around relationships, community, and cooking, but I couldn’t figure out how to shake them.
Slowly but surely, I have worked to hold compassion for my anxious brain and how my past experiences have informed my interaction with this space. I have begun to let the vegetables from the farm guide my cooking, supported but not dictated by what I find on the internet, a move that has helped nurture my creativity and my humility in equal measure. And as I have come to know and love the people I share my food with over time, cooking for them has become more full of ease and meaning.
Recently, during a particularly challenging week for the group as a whole, I dedicated some of my cooking time to preparing a peach and berry cobbler with a brown butter and tahini crumble topping–one of my favorite things that I had made the summer prior that I thought could lighten the heaviness we were all feeling, if only for a moment. I found infinitely more joy and lightness in preparing something sweet and nutty for pals in need than I had felt from anything I had cooked at AMI before. Then, this past Monday, I prepared one of my partner Teddy’s most beloved dishes: coconut milk chicken adobo. The moment I tasted it, I was instantly swept up in pure love and nostalgia, and I couldn’t wait to share that love encoded in the intensely savory flavors of the long-simmered coconut milk, soy sauce, and vinegar with friends weary after a rainy day of work on the farm.
Another force that has been drawing my attention away from my blog post is something that has, unfortunately, been drawing my attention away from more beautiful and more important things for a number of years now. Recently, a cohort member’s parents came up to the mountain for a visit, and one of them very sweetly and enthusiastically demanded that each of us have a personal photo shoot at the top of our hike to nearby Elleber’s Knob. The picture-taking was full of awkward and actual laughter as we hyped each other up in front of the camera and once again attempted the elusive group jumping picture. But once I saw my photos, my mind was thrust into an absolutely debilitating state of panicked self-scrutiny that I had not yet experienced at AMI.
I have been in recovery from disordered eating for a number of years. After feeling pretty secure in myself for some time now–largely due to my exposure to many scholars and activists whose work deals with anti-fatness and diet culture, as well as my passion for food and cooking–my comfort in my own skin was rocked to the core when I saw a body that didn’t look how I thought it did when I arrived to the program in May. Since watching my body undergo many changes since the height of my disordered eating, I thought I had accepted it all. But I am ashamed to say that these photos sent me down a spiral of incredibly loud, incredibly intense anguish over having a bigger body now than I did before. It astounds me that I can spend entire farm days listening to podcasts critiquing weight loss strategies and fatphobia in medicine and culture, then descend completely into this misery when a trigger strikes.
The reality is, I have been living the most liberated life with regard to food here at AMI than I have since the beginning of my eating disorder. Working on the farm (and walking up the hill at the end of the day) has compelled me to feed my body with whatever it wants, prompting me to listen to it in a way that is more attentive and accepting than it ever has been before. I find myself craving both beet salads and milkshakes, sungold tomatoes and buttery grilled cheese, and I have been able to provide these things for my body (and my heart!) without reservation. Supported especially by my partner from home, I am beginning to accept that this is the way my body needs to be if I am caring for it in the way it needs to be cared for as it does the work of farming and living at AMI.
Yet, I still find myself stopping to analyze the curve of my hips during breaks on farm workdays, the width of my legs in the Lodge mirror during cooking shifts. There is so much more to think about, both as a person in this place and in the world in general, than how my body may or may not fit within the standard of acceptability under white heteropatriarchal capitalism. Ultimately, I am moving toward gratitude for this reminder that I still have a lot more healing work to do. I hope that I can continue to gently and compassionately talk myself out of these moments, bringing myself back to my core values and the many beautiful things that surround me when toxic cultural pressures lead me astray.
Finally, I haven’t had time to write a blog post because we as a cohort have been processing the sudden departure of two beloved members of our group. Since they decided to leave the program, we have spent a significant amount of our free time discussing how the AMI community might better support all who comprise it–staff and fellows alike–so that we may all be better equipped to actualize the ideals of care, compassion, and mutuality that we all came here to practice. I deeply regret that these conversations did not happen sooner, and that I did not do more to advocate for them during such a profoundly difficult time. As we move forward, I remain so humbled by what both of them taught me about listening to and trusting myself, standing up for what I need, and realizing a more responsive, honest, and accountable way of being in this program and in the world.
I could go on and on, but I’ve already rambled for far too long! Clearly, I and my fellow Fellows have a lot to hold–certainly a lot more than is immediately obvious with a schedule that most days reads “Farm/Lunch/Farm.” The isolation of this place and the wholesome, restorative nature of this work and this community doesn’t make all of the heartache and worry that existed before we got here go away, it just creates different ways of experiencing and processing these difficult thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, it provides you with more time to confront, reflect on, and integrate them. Other times, it gives you some ducks, some bees, or some square dancing to remind you of the beauty of being alive in addition to the pain–a contrast that produces a richness and sweetness all its own.
Though some the things I have described here are far more challenging than others, both the joys and the adversities that have captivated my attention have been equally critical to fostering my sense of self and my sense of purpose in this world, whether it be as a part of the food system, as a community member, or as a human being. I am so grateful for this extraordinary place (in both the very-out-of-the-ordinary and very-special senses of the word) for sparking these and so many other avenues of growth–even if doing so has made me a pretty flaky blog writer.