Summer Internship Reflections


Good Earth Farm intern applications now available!

Every year the farm takes on two interns from mid-May to mid-August. The internship program is a major part of our mission. We focus on spiritual growth, vocational discernment, and basic homesteading skills. Interns learn about gardening, carpentry, livestock, dairy processing, bee keeping, cooking, community organizing, and more. Email goodearhtfarm@commonfriars.org for an application. All are welcome to apply regardless of faith background or farm experience.

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It’s well into December now, nearly a  month after my internship at Good Earth ended. There’s been a whirlwind of traveling and touring and visiting. In one week, I traveled well over 2,500 miles. Needless to say Beulah, my trusty red cargo van, got quite a workout.

I’d like to conclude this internship blog the way it started—with photographs. These are images from the journey west in June—unknown roads, heavy summer vegetation, and hot blue skies—in contrast with the road home this November—familiar routes, bare trees, cold gray skies.

This summer I wrote about how, cliche as it may sound, this was the best internship ever. It was. What’s next in my life is still in the works, but I’m sure I’ll travel these roads west again to spend some quality time at Good Earth Farm.

[Stay tuned to the website and farm Facebook page for an informational video that Laura and I made for prospective interns.]

A Lutheran monastery in Michigan, a construction workshop led by Buddhist nuns, a produce auction in the heart of Amish country, and a network of urban community gardens in Columbus: these are a few of the places I’ve been these last few months. This internship provides great opportunities to travel, connect with people, and learn new things.

Here are some highlights from a few of these trips.

St. Augustine’s House—Oxford, Michigan

Saint Augustine’s is the only Lutheran monastery in the United States. The monks who live at the monastery host guests and long-term residents in their guest house situated in a secluded stretch of Michigan woods. There are spacious common rooms, quiet hiking trails, an expansive library, delicious meals, great conversations, and a breathtaking chapel.

The monks at Saint Augustine’s follow the Benedictine tradition. They have seven daily offices of prayer and the Holy Eucharist, observe periods of silence throughout the day, and study the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict to guide their spiritual lives.

When I arrived at St. Augustine’s for a week’s retreat, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. As a Baptist-born boy from southern Virginia, I’d never visited a monastery.

The monks did, in fact, wear brown robes and observe periods of silence, but they also wore jeans and sweatshirts and chatted during other parts of the  day. They were very friendly, told great jokes, and had amazing life stories. (One of the monks has degrees in Russian and Industrial/Organization Psychology, and worked in the culinary world all over the United States before joining Saint Augustine’s. All of the monks are wise, witty, and welcoming.)

And the chapel—the chapel is breathtaking. Guests aren’t required to attend the seven daily prayers and the Eucharist, but they are welcome to attend any or all of them.

Unlike many monasteries, Saint Augustine’s welcomes guests to sit with the monks rather than in a separate section of the chapel. Father Richard guided me through their prayer book, which chronicles the daily order of service for Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Holy Eucharist, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. After listening to the monks chant their prayers for a while—it’s a stirring, haunting, gorgeous sound—I joined in as best I could. By the end of the week, I looked forward to rising for nearly silent candlelit Vigils at 5:10 a.m. and chanting, singing, and reflecting throughout the day surrounded by music, incense, stillness, and the quiet rainy Michigan woods.

In my free time, I hiked, read three books, perused the library, swam in a nearby lake with other guests, and took quite a few naps. If you’re interested in visiting Saint Augustine’s House, check out their website and Facebook page. It’s a great place to rest, relax, and dip your toes into life at a monastery.

Earthbag Building Workshop—Chesterhill, Ohio

One of my latest internship projects is part of a larger effort by the farm to build an interfaith chapel for the Athens community. Apart from small construction projects with my dad and my Eagle Scout project, I haven’t had much building experience. This project is changing that.

In short, the farm chapel will have a secluded rear courtyard, small timber-frame chapel, and open front courtyard. Building the rear courtyard is my project. And we’re not building the courtyards out of just any old thing: we’re using earthbags.

I’d never heard of earthbags before either, so don’t worry if you’re a little lost. Earthbag construction is a relatively new sustainable construction technique that utilizes soil tamped into durable feed sacks to make sturdy earthen walls. The technique was first pioneered by Iranian architect Nadir Khalili, took off in the dry American west, and is slowly expanding.

I traveled to Sunshine Hill Farm in Chesterhill in early September for an earthbag workshop. The workshop was led by K.C. and Cleo, two Buddhist nuns who built Great Determination Buddhist Hermitage using earthbag construction techniques. With their energetic and insightful guidance, workshop attendants and volunteers built a small “hobbit house” for Sunshine Hill’s owner, Kathy Layman. People came from all over the state, from Rural Action and AmeriCorps groups, and as far away as Detroit, Michigan to learn and lend a hand.

In short: labor intensive. In short: rewarding, cost-effective, and challenging. In short: fun.

Coming together with such diverse groups of people to build Kathy’s house with earthbags was exhilarating. We traveled to several other earthen houses in the area to learn more about sustainable living.

I went back to Kathy’s farm a few weeks ago to learn how to plaster the earthbag walls with papercrete, an adobe-like wall covering. Laura, my fellow intern, and I spent a sunny morning mixing papercrete, plastering the walls, and taking photos. Laura even brought out her juggling gear and juggled for Kathy, the Buddhist nuns, and other volunteers. We finished off the day with lunch and great conversations: Laura about juggling and her video projects; the nuns about Buddhism and their adorable dog, Hiro; and all of us about how much we loved eating candy bars for dessert.

For more information about Kathy’s farm (she hosts small groups for workshops and retreats), visit: http://www.sunshinehillfarm.com

For more information about K.C. and Cleo at Great Determination Buddhist Hermitage, go to: http://www.greatdetermination.com/

Franklinton Gardens—Columbus, Ohio

Part of me is still very much a city boy, so I was more than a little excited when we traveled to Columbus last week. The trip was part recreation and part education: we visited the North Market and its eclectic delis, bakeries, and international vendors for lunch; galleries and shops in the Short North Art District for window shopping; and Franklinton Gardens to meet the intentional religious community there.

The gardens, like Good Earth Farm, are the work of an intentional religious community. Unlike Good Earth, the gardens are small urban plots spread among several intentional-living houses around the Franklinton area. We met with members of the Franklinton community and visited their garden plots, community market, and community bike shop. Learning about their work in the city was inspiring. Franklinton is a very poor neighborhood and Franklinton Gardens works to build healthy relationships, share food, and strengthen the community.

For more information, check out: http://www.franklintongardens.org/

After visiting Franklinton Gardens, we stopped by The German Village. I fell in love with The Book Loft, a 32-room bookstore with over 800,000 books on the shelves.

800,000 books. I bought four of them.

Katsinger’s Deli just up the road was a delicious end to the day—latkes, knish, and key lime pie.

Food

Rural, urban, or in-between: the world over, there are people in need, there is food to grow, and there are meals to share. Every trip I’ve made this summer involved sharing meals. It’s brought all sorts of people to the table together. Sometimes the conversation flows, sometimes there’s silence, and sometimes there isn’t enough applesauce for the latkes. Always, though, there’s the centrality of food and community.

 

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____________________

Robert Meissner

2012 Summer/Autumn Intern

First Day of School

For the first time in known memory I’m not getting ready to go back to school. At twenty-two I have my requisite Bachelor’s degree and, for now, I’m done with classes and research and late-nights in the lab.

It’s mildly terrifying.

I’m not cramming in last-minute summer reading assignments, carefully buying up notebooks and pens,  or double-checking my stockpiles of paper clips. (Yes, I was one of those students who carried an entire school supply store in their backpack. Maybe I loved school. A lot.) Friends talk about how odd it all feels, even friends  who’re heading right back to school for graduate degrees.

Until now, life’s rhythms have largely been marked by school calendars: teacher workdays, early morning study groups and after-class meetings, and those lovely lazy holidays.

Mama always got photos of us kids on our first day of school ever year. She wrote in a letter last week that this is the first year without new school pictures for my twin brother and me.

The very first first-day-of-school. (L-R: twin, Mama, and me).

To find myself living outside of academia is unnerving, and sometimes I have to pinch myself and wonder, “I have a college degree? I have a degree?”

I have a degree.

And here I am on a farm. Two whole months have passed and it has been marvelous. There really are no other words for it.

Field Work

Good Earth Farm is the perfect place to ponder life after graduation (and, admittedly, freak out about it every now and then).

A large part of the internship program involves discernment. You hear this word frequently at the farm, as it’s central to the life of the Common Friars. Discernment has roots in “separating” or “cutting out”—to discern, then, is a lot like pruning tomatoes or raspberry vines.

As you might guess, I’ve done quite a bit of pruning.

When morning chores and garden work are over, we have lunch and a siesta to read, relax, or nap. (More often than not, I set out to read and wind up passed out in my cabin still wearing my work clothes and boots). Afternoons are largely devoted to individual projects. From the beginning I’ve worked closely with Paul and Brad, who oversee the internship program, to set goals and develop projects for these afternoon work periods.

One of my undergraduate majors was in creative writing, but as my second major it often took a back burner to the research, presentations, and reports I did for my primary psychology major. A major goal during this internship period at Good Earth Farm is to explore and expand my knowledge of writing theory and practice, work on my portfolio (or lack thereof), and to read and write. A lot.

This summer, I’ve read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a smattering of Modern poets, some chapters on poetic form, and a few memoirs and non-fiction essays. Some afternoons I’ve met with other people on the farm to share our creative work aloud. I journal almost every day and spend a lot of time writing about the future, the past, and what’s on my mind.

I’ve also developed this intern blog on the Common Friar’s website. Though quite a few of my undergraduate classes involved mandatory blogging, I’ve never set up a WordPress page and have only dabbled in the shallow-end of HTML formatting. This internship, then, provided an opportunity to try blogging and to dabble in very basic WordPress design.

Work, Study, and Prayer

You hear these words a lot at the farm, too. Work, study, and prayer are central to the Common Friars’ daily life.

Study, though, is anything but boring.

The farm hosts weekly discussion groups where anyone can gather to read and discuss essays, poems, and more.  (Come out on Wednesday’s at 5:00 p.m. to join us! Stick around afterward and we’ll even have supper.)

We’ve listened to radio essays about theology and mental health communities, read Mary Oliver’s poetry, discussed essays about monastic living, and even watched a new documentary about transgender people of faith.

But our learning doesn’t stop after afternoon work periods or Wednesday study groups. At any given moment you might hear people on the farm critiquing films, talking about sustainability, sharing theological ideologies, diagnosing tomato problems, swapping stories about sheep shearing techniques, composing music, or writing poems.

Trial and Error

Trial and error is a large part of work here. Aside from reading and writing, I’ve also worked on a few applied projects, such as installing new temporary fencing for a chicken yard, and designing and building a new garden gate (or trying to at least—it’s a bit on the narrow side). What I love about projects like these is that they involve on-the-job learning, a degree of imperfection, and a lot of ingenuity.

That, and quite a bit of sweat.

In the upcoming months Laura and I are going to collaborate on more video projects and I might investigate an opportunity to use my psychology degree via volunteering.

Even while the calendar ticks ever closer to the start of a school year I won’t share in and even while my younger siblings get their new photos on the first day of school without me, I haven’t really quit learning. There might not be a classroom on the farm, but the lessons here are phenomenal.

I may have traded in school supplies for work jeans and muddy boots, but it’s a decision I don’t regret.

____________________

Robert Meissner

2012 Summer Intern

Another  part of my internship at Good Earth Farm consists of weekly readings and creative writing workshops. We recently read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet and discussed its relevance to our writing process and our understanding of writing communities.

And I thought a lot about how the letters are valuable for everyone: they’re much more than just creative advice from poet to poet.

While I canned carrots and cut lumber for a new garden gate this week,  passages from Rilke’s letters stuck in my mind. For the sake of simplicity—rambling is a constant threat when I’m at the helm of a notebook or keyboard—we’ll only focus on one quote and one memory today.

A Memory

When I entered the 2nd grade my family started attending a church next to our old brick elementary school. On sunnier Sundays or weekday afternoons us kids would walk to services or choir practices or vacation Bible school.

I remember things like soprano duets with my twin brother, covered dish dinners (almost always with green beans and green Jell-O molds and powdered sweet tea), helping Mama in the nursery during church, the time my twin brother got stung by a bee right after he was baptized, and how I always loved when my aunt came down from the choir loft to sing beside me in our pew. I still love it when my aunt sings, though she’s at another church now on the other side of the river and I’m states away, no longer singing soprano or much of anything.

I also remember things like the time I wanted to storm out of the sanctuary.

One Sunday I walked into church and immediately caught my breath; a very strong and very human stench mingled with the floor polish and wood wax.

I remember sitting down on a blood-red pew cushion and wrinkling my nose.

A few pews ahead of me sat a woman who pushed carts loaded with bags and boxes around Main Street and who asked for money for “medicines” outside of Food Lion or the park or anywhere people didn’t ask her to leave.

This Sunday, she was there humming to herself and combing her tangled gray hair with her very dirty hands. She sat alone in the pew. She looked around from time to time and shuffled over to families and couples when they arrived at their pews. She bowed and asked for “a little bit of money to help get me my medicines” and said thank-you for every polite refusal that came her way.

Admittedly, she smelled very bad. Unwashed and sweaty and old-alcohol-and-cigarettes bad.

And, admittedly, I was very uncomfortable in my youth and introversion and high-strung personality and loathing of any and all things awkward.

And this situation was very awkward.

The organ roared forth the prelude and people wandered into the sanctuary from Sunday School. The humming woman had a wide berth around her until a family came in late and had nowhere to sit but beside her. The family’s father looked at the congregation behind him and made faces behind the humming woman’s back, waving his hand in front of his face and making people laugh and shrug their shoulders.

Noses wrinkled and eyes rolled. I sunk into my pew hoping church went quickly and I could leave quickly and get fresh air quickly.

I sunk deeper. I wished I wasn’t so angry with everyone gathered around me. I wished I wasn’t so appalled by the unwashed humming woman myself.

I wished I wasn’t wrinkling my own nose.

A Quote

To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

Letter VII

Ruminating over this quote this week, I did livestock chores, worked with others to blanch an avalanche of new summer tomatoes to make quarts of fresh pasta sauce, and rested on the porch of my tiny cabin. The childhood memory came to me and troubled me and made me feel very small again.

And I thought about the reality at most workday lunches here on the farm: I smell.

By lunchtime, I’m usually soaked in sweat and crusted with dirt or tomato juice or hay and manure. A lot of us on the farm are. Admittedly, I’ve always been a self-conscious person, so sitting down to eat knowing that I, myself, smell pretty bad is a humbling thing. A late life lesson. (Shallow and embarrassing, I know.)

But beyond my shallow and self-absorbed preoccupations is a deeper thing: the work of love: the work of the Common Friars.

In my month working at Good Earth Farm, I’ve noticed an amazing and radical (and I do not say this with negative connotations) love of people. Strangers on the nearby bike path jogging past or walking by  looking for work sometimes stop and ask for water. The farm welcomes them. People from all walks of life come to volunteer on Saturdays—jugglers and college students and former interns and friends-of-friends.

And the farm even welcomes my shallow, sweaty, smelly self to lunch on hot summer work days.

The larger lesson here, I think, comes from the mission of the farm. Welcoming people to share food, to share work, to share life is at once joyful and draining. There are moments of exhaustion and moments of glee. There are times when I want nothing more than a cold shower and time to myself. There are times when I question why I’m here or how the friars keep going or why I’ve never thought of things like this before.

There are times when I remember not loving the humming smelly woman back at church—of not loving the congregation or myself enough to forgive them. To forgive myself.

My point is not that the congregation was completely wrong and the homeless woman was a lesson in piety and hospitality and love. That’s too black-and-white. That’s too easy. The congregation and I were human. The humming woman was human, too.

My point is that Rilke’s words provide an important lesson. The work of love—which, for the Common Friars comes from the Gospel commandments of loving their neighbors as themselves and being patient and being kind—is a constant and a test.

A Thought

Large scale, I see this work and this tough challenge to love and serve and welcome “all who hunger” as the work of the Common Friars at Good Earth Farm and the larger Episcopal Church. That is not to say that my views reflect the views of those living at the farm or those in the parish, the diocese, or the national church body.

Rather, this is meant to share what I’m observing while I work beside the Common Friars to do farm work, prepare free meals, and welcome everyone—smelly or not—to the table.

The work of love, in this sense, seems to be the work of community.

We all smell from time to time. We all grapple with love. And we all need to know others will sit with us through the smells, the love, the hard work.

____________________

Robert Meissner

2012 Summer Intern

I’ve never had much experience with livestock. My uncle had a 40-acre cattle farm when I was a kid, but the extent of my skills were calling in the cows each morning and scooping oats into their feed trough.

One morning a few weeks ago, Paul said that one of our work projects was shearing the fleece herd. As you can imagine, the idea of wrangling sheep was a bit intimidating.

OK—it was more than just a bit intimidating, but it was also exciting and new and something I couldn’t wait to try. They were sheep. How hard would it be?

Shearing Sheep

Kelly caught Lucy, the farm’s bottle-raised ewe, and wrestled her onto her hindquarters. Watching her kick and fight was impressive. Her hooves were suddenly very present and very intimidating. After learning how to hold Lucy still, I swapped places to hold her for shearing. Kelly snipped as best he could, cutting clumps of mud and manure away from Lucy’s wool.

I propped up Lucy’s back with my legs and held her front legs still as best I could.

I felt powerless. She was heavy, she was hot, and I was a mix of anxiety and adrenaline. Life was suddenly very real, very tangible, and very on-edge.

All this from one sheep.

Lucy looked rather pitiful propped up on her hindquarters, her hind legs no longer feebly kicking out for the traction of escape. Several other farmers and I took turns holding Lucy and catching her when she wriggled free.

Physiology Lesson

Later, completely out of the blue, Lucy started gurgling. I wasn’t sure at first whether it was her or me or some unseen machinery somewhere in the barn.

Lucy gurgled. She wriggled and kicked her hooves. I panicked. I held on.

And then she burped.

I was floored. It is the foulest thing I’ve smelled to date.

Lucy burped again. I couldn’t let go, so I fumed and huffed and tried to turn my face away from the smell. No such luck. We all laughed.

Except, maybe, Lucy.

Slow and Subtle Ways

“Spooning” may best describe how we held Lucy that afternoon.

No part of my college education prepared me for those moments I spent intimately acquainted with Lucy’s every nervous belch and frantic twitch.

The shearing was a trial run, the farm’s first attempt without outside help or electric shears. All things considered—the heat, the burps, the awkward manual shears—things went well for all of us. Lucy left at least half-way sheared. The rest of us left without major injury, the scent of lanolin soaked into our hands, and only the occasional haunting whiff of Lucy’s breath.

The more important lesson from this moment—even more important than the gastric physiology of ewes under duress—was that of control, or the lack thereof. In my weeks at the farm, I’ve quickly had to face the startling beauty of this truth: that we, with all our modern theories and technology, are ever at the mercy of our earth.

Whether I’m learning how to weed and harvest carrots by hand in summer heat, standing by to help wrangle a sheep, or shadowing the daily cycle of the friar’s prayer and work and study, I find myself continually reawakened to the physicality of the land and the frailty of our lives.

Even Lucy seemed to have shared in this lesson. For all her struggling and fuss and belching, she seemed to give in to our shearing and our wrangling—to know when things were beyond her control. Holding her living, dynamic, burping body against my own was a humbling, extremely odorous, lesson.

I’m learning with the Common Friars to do my best with what I’m given and respect those things beyond the scope of my power. Things like furious wind storms, power outages, and belching sheep. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s working now in slow and subtle ways.

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____________________

Robert Meissner

2012 Summer Intern

The second week on the farm had important lessons about control. The first came when the derecho storm system wrecked havoc throughout the state and took away power from the farm for a day and from parts of town for an entire week.

During this time, I wondered about things like drinking water and flushing toilets and staying cool in heat waves. We were blessed, in a way, having power restored so quickly. The storm also brought rain, for which the friars had prayed for quite some time. Though the days without power were certainly not a welcome side-effect, the rain ended weeks of drought and brought about a resurgence of growth in the garden.

Especially the weeds.

After we regained power on the farm, I biked into town and stopped to clear limbs from the bike path. Several trees were still down in town, though people were going about their lives calmly. In fact, Athens’ local Brew Week was still in high spirits uptown. As bars and restaurants lost stock in the outage and slowly regained power, they offered things like $2.00 beers! Discount chips and salsa! and the ever-heavenly Air-conditioning!

A city boy, I loved that last bit.

It was in these moments that I first started thinking about control: the efforts we make to ensure comfort (television, central AC) and survival (clean water, relief in heat waves). And maybe I’ve been a bit of a control freak for most of my life. The message sent by much of Athens was simple: keep going.

No power? Drink up! Eat up! Keep calm and carry on!

At the farm, this lesson became clearer. Organic sustainable farming—in my current three weeks of experience—involves hours of sweat and dirt and work. The larger part? Trust. Waiting. Not being in control.

Though I have no comparison to mainstream production farming, these methods seem to be ideal. Pesticides and herbicides would no doubt make farming easier—it might be easier to control weeds with chemicals targeted to kill them than with hours and pulling and hoeing by hand—but their effects on the surrounding land and water may not be best for future generations of crops, wildlife, and human communities.

Further, living at the mercy of nature with only natural irrigation and well water to abate droughts means living without a degree of control—and with a degree of faith—that is astounding. The Common Friars’ work is ever more impressive when you consider the commitment they have to simple living and simple healthy farming, even if that means comparatively lower yields. But that’s precisely the point: good food, honest food, honest living.

It isn’t so much about controlling the land as it is about working with the land in this intricate, exhausting, and inspiring dance of growth and death and starting over.

City boy. There’s still so much to learn.

____________________

Robert Meissner

2012 Summer Intern

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