Appalachia Seminar - Bethlehem Farm

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When I think back on my time at Bethlehem Farm last fall, the first words that come to my mind are peace, serenity, and beauty. All too often in our fast-paced world today, it is easy to get swept up by technology, by the screens that constantly surround us and consume us and the constant pressure for the newest and best, the bigger and better. It’s never difficult to spot a two-year-old captivated by her iPad, eyes fixed into a glassy stare, mesmerized by the flickering colors. With all of the artificial noise going on in our society today, it becomes much too easy to forget the beauty of the natural world around us—this appreciation is what Bethlehem Farm re-rooted in me. In pulling up to the Farm, I turned off my phone when I entered the gates, and I didn’t turn it back on until we left one week later. It may have been just a week, but the people that I met, the stories that were shared, and the serenity in the natural beauty of the region was enough to stay with me long beyond that time.

In reflecting on my time at Bethlehem Farm, distinct memories jump to the front of my mind. Digging sweet potatoes in the mornings, hair pulled back and arms and legs spattered with mud, straining to pull a root out of the ground. Feeling the grumble of my stomach in response to the clanging of the breakfast bell and anticipating the shared meal to come. Friends and family gathered around the table every morning and evening, opening up to one another and sharing stories. Inviting community members to break bread together, the smell of homemade food lacing the air. Laughing at the skits each work crew put on every evening as we reflected back on the day. Sitting on a hammock on the balcony with a cup of hot chocolate and a warm jacket, a journal in my lap and morning fog dancing across my skin. Swaying on top of a ladder, stretching to reach the top corner of Frances’ window to apply a coat of eggshell-white paint. Drilling a nail into the final board of the ramp we constructed for a woman who had suffered a stroke. Hearing the stories of the people whose homes we repaired and whose lives we entered. Learning about the beauty of the region and experiencing it firsthand as we listened to the narratives of struggle and triumph of those who call Appalachia home. Spending free time gathered in community, laughing and playing games rather than hiding behind a screen. Gazing out over the West Virginia landscape while perched on the wooden ledge of the hermitage, a cool breeze scattering the windchimes as the fall leaves whispered their response.

All of these images highlight to me the importance of appreciating the natural beauty of a place like Appalachia, of hearing people’s stories firsthand, of visiting somewhere like Bethlehem Farm. Even though it may have been only a week, my experience permanently shaped my outlook on family, sustainability, community, and relationships. The people I met and the stories that I heard will stay with me forever. We did not come to the region to fix any systemic “problems” but rather to simply learn from its beauty and from its inhabitants and to make whatever small difference we could. Coupled with each of our new understandings gained from spending a week on the Farm, I know that as I reflect back on my time there, the memories will stay with me for years to come. Furthermore, more than just the memories, I will take what I learned from my time at the Farm and use it to motivate me to go out into the world and be a force for good, effecting concrete change while appreciating the narratives of those around me, steeped in serenity and beauty.

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