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Notes on Stages and Soil

By Grant Higginbotham, Community Fellow

As a reformed theater kid, I find the golden rules of improv and scripted acting showing up in my life, again and again, no matter the circumstances. The first rule is that of “yes, and!” meaning to never shoot down another’s idea in favor of your own, but to uplift and expand on previous ideas together in an organic way. The second is the rule that it's always better to give “too much” so that the director can ask you to pull back, rather than giving too little so that the director has to coax a bigger performance out of you.

Good community building and best growing practices at AMI are no different. There is a deep culture of compassionate consensus within AMI, both on an organizational level and within the Fellowship community guidelines that evolve and adapt with each new cohort. “Yes, and” is a powerful tool for harmonic growth between different parties. Just like an improv scene falls apart if I say, “Let’s whip up something for dinner!” and my scene partner responds with a resolute “no,” a community needs assessment and action plan can tank if folks simply put roadblocks up in front of each other. The needs and desires of every person are critical to the success of a community and should be treated as such. There’s no room for an “everyone for themselves” mentality. I’ve known many an improv actor who thinks they can steal a momentary spotlight or score a few laughs by unnecessarily derailing a scene for selfish reasons to the detriment of their scene partners. If you’ve ever been an audience member in such a situation, you might know how uncomfortable and cringey this can be to witness. We grew close in our cohort and were able to support each other by not shooting each other down, making room for everyone to be heard and to be seen, and it’s a living experience I’ll always treasure.

On to the next improv idea - better to go big and be told to pull back than to be told you’re not giving enough. Better to be overprepared or to have too many ideas than to be underprepared or have little to nothing to contribute. I believe a good teacher should instill this lesson well in their students. I know my directors certainly did, and it made my life a lot easier both on stage and behind the scenes. Again, nobody wants to sit around and watch as an actor is painfully coaxed into just delivering their line with a little more “oomph” or hitting their mark on stage. I am grateful, and perhaps lucky, to find that my farming education has taken a similar suit.

Teddy Pitsiokos, the resident farm manager up on the Allegheny Farm, is a man of order when it comes to his growing practices. He runs a tight ship and I have come to find that learning under him prepared me very well for experiences on other farms. You don’t realize how different growing practices can be from farm to farm and while all styles and methodologies are tremendously valuable in their own rights, there is something to be said for learning order and discipline on your first go-'round. One might get a little intimidated at the idea of bringing a measuring tape out into the field, lining up your rows perfectly, establishing precise spacing between plants, and placing tight plum lines over your soil so that you can plant stick-straight lines. However, from my experience, you’ll feel very satisfied when your plants reach maturity and visitors praise your beautiful beds, and you’ll be grateful when the symmetry makes harvesting a breeze. Maybe my time in culinary school made me especially comfortable on a tight ship, but other members of my cohort have shared just how much they value the lessons instilled by Teddy when it comes to organization as well.

You may be wondering, what in the world does this have to do with the rules of theater? Well, in my break between the first phase (Farm and Food Study) and the second (Community Action Year) of the Fellowship, I was fortunate enough to land a part-time job at a hybrid permaculture-market farm as well as a former petting zoo in New Orleans. In my role, I helped to maintain a few different styles of planted beds, and fed and cleaned the pens of over a dozen goats, sheep, chickens, ponies, a resident guard llama, the most beautiful cow I’ve ever seen, and the largest pig I’ve ever seen. I instantly felt comfortable seeding into and cultivating well-organized raised beds of market vegetables - and the practices there weren’t half as involved as up at the Allegheny Farm. It was easier for me to come in overprepared and manage beds to the satisfaction of my directors than it would’ve been if I came in never having measured out transplant spacing in my life.

On the farthest end of that spectrum were the permaculture-inspired spiralized herb beds that grew freely in the ground between all the different animal pens. The first time I was told to go direct seed some tulsi, yarrow, and mugwort in the gardens, I awaited more specific instructions about row lengths and spacing - the instructions never came. I was almost uncomfortable with the free range of these plants and the free range I had been given to help steward them - but isn’t that exactly the beauty of wild plants and of nature itself that I’ve so come to revere? These herbs grew around one another, sharing spaces, twisting between each other, and encroaching on one another at all times, but they still grew beautifully. So, I told myself to relax and to just connect with the soil and “plant with my heart,” as they say. Another lesson learned and more perspective gained.

Now I find myself at Augusta Health for the Community Action Year and I await the coming of more lessons, more perspectives that will come with the melting of the snow, and the revealing of the beds. No matter what challenges or directives lie ahead, I feel ready to give my all and - perhaps - too much thought at times. I welcome the secret that stewarding land and nature teaches us - that things have always grown and will always continue to grow, with or without us. The best I can do here and now is to make my life, my team’s life, and the lives of the people we teach and feed easier, utilizing the best growing practices I continue to learn and drawing on the spirit of collaboration.

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