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Photograph by Jim Coleman

Kitchen Stories: Budding mycologist Jacob Kowalick-Allen gets help with mushroom identification from Brock Dolman.

Overwhelmed with Beauty

At the OAEC, good works and good life go together

By M. V. Wood

The first time I heard about the Garden of Eden, I tried to draw a picture of it. I used every single color in my big box of Crayolas to depict the flowers and foods that would be growing there. I drew birds and imagined their song. I drew the sun and could feel its warmth. I carried that picture back and forth, to and from school, for many days. Eventually, I gave it to a friend who had tripped while jumping rope, fallen down and cried. I figured it would cheer her up. It did.

As I stand at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, listening to the birds, staring at the vibrant spring blossoms and enjoying their fragrance, I feel I've stepped into the picture I created so long ago. I'm in this garden with a man named Adam. Years ago, he and a group of friends created their own picture of where and how they wanted to live. This summer, they will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of that image, the formation of the OAEC.

"It's amazing how close this comes to what we envisioned," says Adam Wolpert, his eyes shaded by a large straw hat. "We wanted a place where we could form a relationship with the land, and we wanted to do meaningful work. And that's all come about."

The 80-acre parcel off Coleman Valley Road is home to 15 adults and four children. But the group's collective vision wasn't only about having a beautiful place to live for themselves. It included strong social and environmental components. And from that commitment, the OAEC was born, a nonprofit corporation created to develop horticultural, educational and activist programs.

Most recently, the OAEC began serving as the headquarters for the Californians for GE-Free Agriculture Coalition, a campaign uniting farmer-based organizations with consumer and environmental groups aimed at preventing genetically engineered agriculture in California, the country's leading producer and exporter of food. (Currently, only GE cotton is commercially grown in California, but hundreds of GE field tries are already underway.)

The OAEC also runs a number of programs such as the WATER Institute (Watershed Advocacy, Trading, Education and Research); two biodiversity programs; a permaculture program and an arts program. There's also a popular school gardens program in which teams of teachers and parents learn how to establish school gardens and integrate gardening with curriculum.

In addition to its programs, the OAEC runs a number of events and classes--woodshop for women, landscape painting, children's theater day camp and bird watching, to name a few. Some classes are held just for a day, but others run for several days, with participants sleeping in two large hilltop yurts set up as dormitories. Meals are included, and visitors eat dinner with the residents.

"It's actually a lot of fun having the class participants dining with us," Wolpert says while walking through the dining area. A small wood-burning stove is located to the side of the room, and a couple of guitars, some drums and a few other instruments lie close by. "We enjoy having new people in here to talk with and hear fresh viewpoints. And I think they like seeing how we live; everyone's always curious about it." Many become so curious that they want to learn how to start their own intentional community. The OAEC now runs a program on that topic too.

Although the residents own small, private homes on the property, they share communal spaces, such as the dining area and kitchen, sauna, hot tub and amphitheater. Everyone eats dinner together, and they take turns cooking, much of the food coming from their organic gardens.

"We're very transparent about our mistakes as well as our successes, and we want to share our experiences with hope that others can learn from them," says Wolpert, who heads the Intentional Communities Program. "There's learning and growth that goes into being a member of a community such as this. It's not simple, but, you know, it's not difficult, either. It's just different from what most of us have learned.

"Usually, in our culture, we look out for our personal best interest, not the good of the whole. That's not because we're mean people. It's just that we don't have many viable options, so we do what's best in our circumstances. And if the circumstances are such that if you don't look out for No. 1 you get screwed, then it's sensible to look out just for yourself and your family.

"But after you become a part of something like this, the circumstances change and, after a while, a shift takes place within you and the way you think. In this setting, it's smart to think of the group as a whole, and that's what you end up doing."

Indeed, much of the grief in the world today comes from people looking out for No. 1 at the expense of the whole. But maybe if a paradigm shift could take place within more people, perhaps we could make the world a better place.

"This place, this land, gives me hope," Wolpert says. "Nature is so optimistic. You put a seed in the dirt and give it a just a little bit of care, and suddenly the entire power of the universe is on your side. You don't have to do it all yourself. You just need to step forward with faith and hope and the best you have. And suddenly all of life grows."

When he's not busy with his staff duties at the OAEC, Wolpert works as a painter. "Being an artist is my mainstream job," he says. "I tend to be very visual. And when I get overwhelmed by all the problems in the world, I just look around me at this land and I become overwhelmed with beauty. So I guess maybe they cancel each other out in a way."

Wolpert's paintings are used extensively in the OAEC's full-color, yearly catalogs. The images of vibrant flowers, of sunlight dancing on the leaves of trees, of fog blanketing a valley, bring to mind the possibilities of the garden. In a world filled with obstacles that can trip up your soul, it helps to have images around that can cheer us up.

"I'm optimistic," Wolpert says with a smile. "I don't know about saving the world--whatever that means. But I do have a lot of hope that we can live wonderful lives and do good things."


Upcoming events at the OAEC include 'Starting and Sustaining Intentional Communities' (June 11-13), a medicinal plant walk (July 10), a traditional Chatauqua meeting (Aug. 13-14) and permaculture design workshops (Sept. 25-Oct. 8 and Nov. 12-14). The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, 15290 Coleman Valley Road, Occidental. 707.874.1557.

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From the June 9-15, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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