A Remembrance: Donella Meadows’ Work and Ideas Live On

For the Valley News
Monday, March 14, 2016
D onella H. “Dana” Meadows (March 13, 1941 – Feb. 20, 2001) was a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher, and writer. She is best known as lead author of the influential book The Limits to Growth and Thinking in Systems: a Primer . She founded the Sustainability Institute, which combined research in global systems with practical demonstrations of sustainable living, including the development of a co-housing project and organic farm at Cobb Hill in Hartland. In 2011, the Sustainability Institute was renamed the Donella Meadows Institute and moved its offices to Norwich.

My wife Kerry and I joined forces with Dana Meadows in the fall of 1996, after we’d spent several years farming in New York state, Montana and Idaho. Through a network of friends, we had heard about this famed environmental writer, teacher and activist who was forming a co-housing community in Vermont that would showcase “green” architectural design, sustainable living and organic farming as a centerpiece of community life. I was immediately struck by Dana’s vibrant, youthful voice as she described her vision of a farm-centered community.

Dana had generously offered us a place in her home, use of her tractor and access to barns, pasture, garden and hay fields. Even so, my doubts were strong enough that I telephoned her in early September to tell her that we had decided not to come. After the previous, lean winter in Northern Idaho, we were looking for salaried positions, and as much as I was attracted to Dana’s vision of a farm working in tandem with a community and an institute, there were no paid positions waiting for us — we would have to build from scratch. But for every point of doubt I raised, Dana countered with a point of hope and opportunity. She cajoled and persuaded and at the first pause in our conversation she said: “Come, just come.” From across that distance I felt a clear calling, an invitation that was part plea, part summons and I said, laughingly, “All right, we’ll come.”

So we loaded our two horses, two dogs, two cats, and a couple of tons of vintage farm equipment into a rented truck and trailer and made the trek to New Hampshire. Dana welcomed us into her Foundation Farm household near Plainfield Village. We hadn’t been there more than a few days when she drove us over the Cornish-Windsor covered bridge into Vermont to show us the land where she envisioned building a new community.

While driving, Dana related the story of how she and two friends had gone on a first exploratory journey the previous summer to locate suitable land. Driving back from looking at sites out past Woodstock, they saw a sign that read “Farm for Sale,” that pointed them to the home of John and Barbie Hunt. They pulled in and took a hike around and eventually meandered up the big hill toward the giant spreading oak, where they sat down to catch their breath and take in the view. Dana knew that this was the place, she could see the whole thing spread out before her as if it were already up and built, the houses on the hill, the livestock grazing the pastures, the bottomlands filled with productive gardens, orchards and croplands, all of it tended by the people of that village of her dreams.

We soon established our Cedar Mountain Farm business with a 3-acre market garden on land rented from a neighbor. We started a small CSA the following year, worked two farmers markets and began selling produce to the Upper Valley Food Coop. Dana delivered some of the weekly CSA shares on her way to work at Dartmouth. We did all this even though both of Kerry’s legs were broken in a training accident with our young horses during the winter. We did it because we were determined to become established farmers, but we were able to do it because Dana had our back.

If you were a farmer, Dana Meadows made you feel as if you were a knight gallant going out to do battle with the dragons of modernity. Her personal practice was a mix of on the ground, hands-in-the-dirt work combined with teaching, writing, and advocating for the environment and those who protect it. For her, working in the garden, planting bulbs, putting up food, pruning fruit trees, tending to her hens and sheep and a gaggle of ducks and geese, cooking nourishing winter soups and baking her own fresh sourdough rye bread (leavened with something ancient and malevolent looking that lived in a jar hidden in the back of the fridge) were activities that were all part and parcel of “being part of the solution.” Add to all that a daily dose of piano playing, most often Bach, and you had Dana’s version of a well-rounded life. Amid her perpetually over-committed work schedule, carving out time to tend to her homestead was essential to her well-being and to the integrity of her writing.

In between jetting off to conferences, writing articles and books and teaching and influencing policy, Dana’s careful attention to her farm and household were not the symbolic gestures of an acclaimed environmental scientist but labors of love. Although she was a visionary of the first magnitude, she was also cut from the cloth of Midwestern practicality, from people with agrarian roots. She found joy singing from the old Protestant hymnal in the UCC Church in town and was a member of the bell choir. A freshly harvested slice of kohlrabi with a dash of salt was a treasure to be savored and shared.

She kept her sprawling house at Foundation Farm in meticulous order, no easy task what with three dogs and three cats and several less than zealous housemates and a seemingly endless stream of visitors and house guests. Her cure of a Sunday was to drive every one out of the house by turning her stereo system up to full volume blasting out Live from the Metropolitan Opera and transforming herself into a Valkyrie as she cleaned with such a fury that even her old dog Basil got his coat vacuumed.

Foundation Farm had a kind of open-door policy. Dana took in strays, human and otherwise, and though we were the beneficiaries of that generous and trusting heart, we did have to put our foot down on at least one occasion to ward off the harder cases she wanted to take in. You never knew who might be sitting next to you at dinner — a soil scientist from Mumbai, a nuclear activist from a former Soviet Republic, a singer/songwriter from New York city or an aging hippie looking for a free meal and a place to crash.

Dana’s hopes for her new community were akin to the “New Jerusalem” where all goods were held in common, though she was realistic enough to put her highest ideal on the table and negotiate downward from there. She was a committed pacifist who embraced nonviolent means for social and political transformation, but she was a fierce warrior for her causes. She could be a romantic and a dreamer but she was eminently practical in the management of her daily affairs. She lived life to the fullest every day as she sought to find that balance between attention to the particulars of place and tackling the big problem of Saving the World.

When the fledgling community purchased the adjacent Hunt and Curtis farms in Hartland in 1997, Kerry and I assumed stewardship of all the agricultural land. We made arrangements with neighbors to make the hay and graze the pastures with horses and beef cows. Before we moved from Plainfield, Dana, in true pioneer spirit, had been busy planting fruit trees, some of which survive still. And she had me till up ground for the “welcome flower garden” at the driveway entrance to the property. When we moved across the river in the fall of 1999, we brought along our two horses and seven Jersey heifers. We lived with Dana in the little red farmhouse on the property. It had little or no insulation and we stayed warm only as long as we kept both woodstoves roaring, but when the north wind blew in December, the bedroom curtains fluttered and a fine frost would settle on the bedspread.

In conceiving the structure of community-farm-institute, Dana saw the farm as the “on-the-ground” expression of the work of the institute, a place to flesh out and experiment with the systems thinking that guided her philosophy. The triad would create what she referred to as “an island of sanity” in a consumerist society gone mad from its disconnection with living systems.

One of the many aspects Dana loved about the location of the Hunt/Curtis farms was their proximity to the village of Hartland. She once proposed that we rent space to the Three Corners post office as a way of bringing the local populace onto the property — and that we should have a farmstand, bakery, café, etc. Dana knew we had to generate income, but she also saw these activities as a way to get the public engaged with the community and the farm. She was willing to try to change the world one person at a time if that’s what it was going to take.

In November 2000, Dana was devastated by the Bush-Cheney coup along with the disturbing evidence of accelerated melting of the polar ice caps. And looking out her west-facing office window, she beheld what had been a lush hillside meadow grazed by horses and cows and home to countless songbirds and small wildlife the previous summer and which was now a stark landscape of dynamited terrain with looming hulks of framed-out houses that were much larger and more expensive than she had ever imagined they would be.

I think she knew then some moments of despair — she was not feeling well, “being pursued by the campus flu” in her words and angry that her body would not allow her to get done all the work she felt she so urgently needed to accomplish, forgetting to extend to herself all the magnanimous forgiveness and compassion she bestowed upon our broken world.

Dana became seriously ill in early February 2001 and a few weeks later died from a bacterial infection. We were totally bereft — orphaned. But as the shock began to subside, as we emerged from our deepest grief, we came to realize that her leadership had prepared all of us to stay on the journey, to honor our commitments, to carry out her vision of the institute, the farm and the community. Her leadership style was subtle — her inspired and purposeful optimism, her marvelous energy, her ability for deep listening, she moved others to act out of their highest and truest selves.

How I wish she could see that view up the hill as it stands today. The houses look to scale in the landscape, with plants and trees growing all around, children playing and people tending the land. We are an eco-village of 23 households clustered on a hillside surrounded by woods, pasture and agricultural fields. All the homes are heated in winter by a single wood-burning furnace and have solar hot water panels for the summer. The houses are super-insulated and situated for maximum solar gain. Composting toilets greatly minimize the use of fresh water. In addition to the dairy and market garden, other Cobb Hill enterprises include raising sheep, chickens, forestry management and producing artisanal cheese, yogurt, honey, maple sugar and mushrooms.

It is not Eden — people have come and gone and we have faced daunting challenges and still do. But after a beginning shrouded in tragic loss, we kept going and we are still here.

While Dana was deeply concerned about the future, about the generations that would follow us, she was a natural optimist. She believed in our ability to rise up together, to care for one another, to reinvent the world. And she knew from her own life experience that hope and strength have a way of building on each other once we set our intentions and create systems to put them in motion. It is 15 years ago last month that we lost Dana, but her great spirit and the power of her ideas and her vision are not lost — they are all around us.

Stephen Leslie is the author of The New Horse-Powered Farm and Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century (Chelsea Green). An artist and organic farmer, he lives with his wife, Kerry, and daughter, Maeve, at the Cobb Hill Eco-Village and farm in Hartland.

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