Inian welcomes guest writer Peter Forbes, co-founder of the Center for Whole Communities in Vermont and Vice President of Inian Islands Institute’s Board of Directors. This post chronicles Inian’s Work Party, 2016.
3 people on their bellies hauling rock and sediment, 4 people replacing a rotten beam under a hundred-year-old shop, 6 people building a round deck in the pouring rain, 2 people struggling material up from shore, 3 people weeding an overgrown garden, 3 people cooking gorgeous food: work. We can’t underestimate the power of this work.
Work work. That week in May was meant to be a work party, but we came to know better. It was a work work. And a work work is exactly what it takes to create a lasting organization that might humbly but decidedly change the world for the better. As a hill farmer from Vermont who has created another place-based organization devoted to change-making, I have some perspective and questions for my new friends who have gathered at the Hobbit Hole.
First, what the hell am I doing here? It’s May, the start of our growing season, so why am I 2,781 miles away from our farm on this wet, salty atoll near Glacier Bay with a hammer in my hand and a wool hat on my head? And, second, if our board meets only once per year face-to-face why are we meeting in these situations where we can’t talk, with power saws in our hands, wet to the core with dirt in every orifice? And, lastly, just for the record, getting us out here 25 miles across Glacier Bay in the spring almost didn’t happen – remember? – so exactly why are we building a learning center here? Oh, and lest I forget, we don’t yet own this place on which we are banging nails, hauling rock, replacing beams and weeding gardens.
I am drawn to work and to people who do the work of life: getting in hay or a catch, splitting and stacking wood, repairing foundations, putting up and taking down buildings. In a world of swirling ideas and theories, this kind of work feels real. It is the kind of work – manual labor – that a good deal of our American culture thinks that they are better than and wants to leave behind. My new friends here at Hobbit Hole and the Inian Islands Institute seem to disagree. On this island of manual work, it’s hard to know the difference between a volunteer and a board member; those sort of divisions, which might be noticeable back in the city, are meaningless here because the woman who knows how to make a round platform for a yurt is as valuable to our future as a man who knows how to raise money from a foundation.
An environmentalist in their brand new, bought-for-this-trip Patagonia rain jacket will have articulate and compelling theories of sustainability, but what about the carpenter who knows how to replace a beam that will last 100 years or longer? And what’s the value of the Stanford Ph.D. student with her spreadsheets on carrying capacity and resilience working alongside a 70-year-old man who’s made more than 1,000 trips to sea in his troller? I am drawn to the opportunity to bring different worlds together at the Inian Islands Institute: the worlds of head, and heart and back. I want to be part of an organization that honors the labors of life – a life spent banging nails, hauling in catch, and studying the ramifications of ocean acidification. Our world needs all of it. And if we are to make places that might hold the hope of fostering change, they must first honor all forms of work.
The work of creating an organization of people dedicated to a specific place in the sea involves equal amounts of head, heart, and strong back. We need buildings that will last, people who can be relied upon, wood that will heat students in the early spring, and we need “theories of change” and “strategic plans.” We need a generation of young people – either to lead their familiars or to lead their nations – who respect manual work – hard work – and have the skills to plumb a floor, mop a kitchen, lay out a micro-hydro system, and debate a theory of change. What they know in their heads is only as valuable as their ability to understand the person sitting across from them. Today, to understand may be more important than to be understood. They need skills to meet other people where they are. They need enough curiosity to leave what’s comfortable to seek out someone who’s a little bit different – even someone even scares them a little bit – and have a cup of coffee. Our experience with manual labor encourages that to happen. In this way, our love of place can nurture a respect for each other.
In the vast part of America that lies between our farm in Vermont and the tide rip at Hobbit Hole, there are many people who are homesick even when they are home; I think they are hungry to stretch their hearts and backs and for relationships with responsibilities not just rights. In this moment of talk of walls and divisions, we are all connected by work and by our desire to make a better place for our children. And, slowly, in the cold rain last May it dawned on me how valuable and appropriate it was that we had come together for this Work Work, not just a board meeting.
It was the only real place where we could start to make the Inian Islands Institute.
I guess that’s also why the difficult, unpredictable 25-mile journey out to sea and into the safe harbor that is Hobbit Hole – and will become Inian Islands Institute – is not a practical place at all for a learning center, but it is valuable. Perhaps it is the lengths to which we must go. There at the edge of Alaska, it models the edge that each of us must travel to do work that meets others and transforms relationships.