Two decades back, I was digging up potatoes, feeding hens and taking high school classes on an organic farm in Vershire, Vermont. With just forty-odd kids all in 11th grade and 8-9 faculty and staff, The Milton Mountain School was off-the-beaten-path, and a much treasured experience.
From feeding farm hens to being Kitchen Hand
Every two weeks, our chores rotate. Jack Kruse assigns us to our chores. I must have been his favorite – the only time we had a three-week rotation, he assigned me to the best-est chore of: Composting.
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner for 55 people sums to three or sometimes six slop buckets of compost a day. Slop is all kitchen scraps from cooking and after meals. The white buckets are arm’s-length deep. Just around sunrise, I’d load the buckets onto a wheelbarrow and push it up a small hill to the compost.
Hoisting the buckets high enough over the wooden fence, I’d empty the sloppy-slop into the compost, then cover it with dry hay. Luckily, I didn’t know what the squirmy worms were in the mix until later – maggots – I was told.
Downhill back to the station, I clean out the buckets with the spray tap and scrub, readying them for the next servings. Perhaps like attracts like, one evening a skunk visited the slop pile just outside the work station and gave us all ‘taste’ of its unforgettable smell. Once is enough!
Another time, I was assigned to feed hens. Twice daily – before sunrise and at the end of day, I’d go in, slip into the boots (coz it’s chicken shit galore), and refill the chickens’ feed and their water tanks.
The free-range hens were fed organic. They slept indoors and lay their eggs, and when the sun was out chased each other around in their outdoor play area. Some hens got singled out by other hens and they got pecked and their skin was patches of red, feather-less splotches.
Food or Feed?
Our meals were beautiful. Chef Marilyn and her sister cooked hearty meals using fresh produce from the farm that the school is on. We were so blessed. The weeks I was feeding the hens however, I couldn’t bring myself to eat eggs in the morning. Not because of some PC thing, but because I smell the chicken feed in the eggs!! The association in smell was so strong that until my two weeks of feeding chickens was over, I couldn’t bring myself to eat eggs. That goes to show – what we feed our food source, we ourselves eat. Have you heard of the quest to finding the best foie gras in the world? Check out the story on Ted talk if you haven’t already.
Some chores like composting and feeding hens are individual work, but others are teamwork like being kitchen hand or washing bathrooms.
It takes group effort to keep the school and farm running. Plus, the chores and the teamwork is great schooling. I still remember one time being Kitchen Hand, a classmate gave me well-deserved flack. After dinner, I cleaned out an industrial kitchen size mixing bowl used to whip fresh cream. (Probably to top pecan pie). My classmate said I should probably save the cream. I thought, looking inside the mixing bowl, “There isn’t much left anyways.” So I start scraping out the mixing bowl into the bin. The more I scraped, the more cream came out. I obviously knew little about baking and the power of scraping. And obviously, the classmate right. He was miffed I wasted cream enough for another evening’s server of dessert. Lesson learnt.
Classroom on a farm
We had regular classes like english and some type of critical thinking. Making great use of the natural landscape around our school, we had science class where we learned to “Read the Landscape.” Step by step we learnt about different trees, the land’s history and how to discern what might have happened from the types and age of vegetation. Was this area previously logged, or was there a fire? We each learnt to get an age reading of a tree by counting the rings of a core sample we took. I enjoyed learning outdoors, learning on-site.
Some things stuck. In Jack Kruse’s class. (He happened to be my dorm master as well.) We had a quiz every class. He set a rule to the answers though – our answers could not be more than half a line long. I tried squeezing three lines of text into that space of one line writing miniscule text. I’m sure my classmates often did too. Jack’s idea perhaps was to get us to be concise.
In another class, the teacher asked, “Who’d like to do X?” and some raised our hands. The teacher picked those who didn’t raise their hands and says, “Sometimes we don’t get what we want.” Right. Point taken.
Three-day solo – a rite of passage
A rite of passage at the Mountain School was the three-day solo. Equipped with all the bare necessities of food including 12 bagels and sufficient peanut butter, trail mix, apples, no tent but a tarp (plastic sheet), some rope, a mat and sleeping bag, we were dropped off at different parts of the woods. During the three days, we’re “solo-ing” with ourselves, with nature.
It was my first time, and perhaps for all of us, to be without any human contact for three days straight. I wasn’t scared, but I just didn’t know what to do with myself. Back then, I didn’t contemplate as much, nor did I know the exercises and meditations I could do to make the best use of my time. So I read an unmemorable novel, journaled some, and spent my day filling the gaps eating.
The most trying night of the solo was a pro-longed fight with a bee. Slotted into my sleeping bag, ready to turn off the lights and sleep, since there wasn’t much to do anyways, I heard a buzz. Oh shit. I can’t see it. But I hear a loud and constant buzz. I DO NOT NEED TO GET STUNG out in the boonies. My mind warns me instantly of all the horrible potential consequences if this bee is not dealt with ASAP.
The buzzing finally identified: underneath the mat – beneath my sleeping bag. So in the pitch darkness, I bash, punch, bash-and-punch at the thing making the buzzing noise underneath my mat. A bit futile really because the buzzing didn’t stop. I couldn’t sleep without knowing damn sure I wasn’t going to get stung in the night. The buzzing did eventually subside. The weird thing was, when I woke up and peeled the mat the next morning, there was nothing but soil on the ground. So where was that bee?
The school warned us of potential moose visits. And some claim there were bears too in the woods. Luckily all I saw was some animal poop during the daylight and from afar, one of my classmates across the river once on another hill during the whole solo trip.
Obvious need for mindful eating
When we reconvened at the end of the three days, everyone was a little bit dishevelled, but obviously thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I couldn’t help but notice when we were returning the left-over food that I was probably the only one who ate almost all my bagels – like 12 of them when everyone probably ate just a couple. My ‘appetite’ apparent.
The TMS experience was probably one of the most rich experiences I’ve had during my years in school. From there I continue my interest in food, produce, nature, earth. And since graduation, I follow the development of alternative schools as well as farming. Not your usual news-source, but this piece from Vanity Fair first shed light for me the state of industrial farming and food production.
Food for thought
What experiences in your formative years has made a deep impact on the person you are today?
Picture credit: Milton Mountain School website