The following is excerpted from Small Stories Big Changes: Agents of Change on the Frontlines of Sustainability, edited by Lyle Estill and published by New Society Publishers.


I was engaged to marry. We were signed up to join the Peace Corps in Central America.

My perspective as an undergraduate Biology major at Elon University left me with a sense of despair and urgency. Global climate change, drastic deforestation and habitat loss, unprecedented species extinction rates, air and water toxicity, wars over scarce resources, overpopulation, and the social implications of the industrial growth society felt like an unstoppable avalanche of catastrophe.

I wanted to help. I wanted to get my hands dirty. I wanted to climb trees and plant seeds. I wanted to understand, from the ground up, how we humans had gotten ourselves into this mess.

I knew I had to escape the industrial society, the house of cards, built on finite resources and dependent on infinite

My classmates wanted to find a cure for cancer. I wanted to find a cure for humanity.

I couldn’t ignore the striking similarities between the epidemics of uncontrolled growth in our bodies and in our world.

Who are we? What are we doing?

What purpose were we meant to serve in this Earth Community? My intuition told me that we had known a better way at some point in human history. There were ancient cultures who had understood our place in the sacred web of life. But we Americans had forgotten.

We had deviated so far as to isolate ourselves in ivory towers and sterile laboratories to perform the “study of life.”

I began to search for the truth in places where traces of traditional cultures still remained.

I heard stories of a “good witch” who lived on a magical farm with a giant treehouse. I knew I had to find her.

Carolyn was almost 70 years old, but as soon as our eyes met, I knew.

After a series of walks in the woods, I cancelled the wedding. I abandoned the Peace Corps.

My soul, parched from sterile biology laboratories, thirsted for her wild wise-woman ways. I followed her around. I made muffins in order to have an excuse to visit her. I lapped up her words. Her ideas, her way of thinking, were like salve to very deep, old wounds.

I volunteered to help with educational programs at her nonprofit, The Center for Education, Imagination, and the Natural World at Timberlake Farm. I fell in love with her land and the children who came. The children likewise fell in love with the land, and that was wonderful to witness.

I learned that much of Carolyn’s perspective came from her teacher and friend, Thomas Berry, cultural historian and eco-theologian.

Thomas writes that instead of being a malignant presence on Earth, we must learn to become a benign—or even better, a mutually enhancing part of the Earth Community.

I began to understand, through his ideas, that the empirical perspective I had honed during my undergraduate years was precisely what was allowing us to pretend that humans are separate from “nature.” The notion of “saving the environment” was lovely, but the general assumption was that we would survive independent of the rest of the Earth Community.

I came out the other side of my own intense religious exploration aghast at the great separation that the church had promulgated. Our understanding of heaven as separate and apart leaves Earth as waiting room, supply closet, and trash can. This seemingly harmless assumption, when multiplied by billions of humans with free choice, has left the beautiful and complex systems of Earth in shambles. For the first time in human history, all life is threatened.

Then came Tim. One morning, after a curiously wonderful encounter with her son, Carolyn held me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes and said “You should marry my son.” We had met at a Thomas Berry Lecture and made a bonfire together afterwards.

At first I laughed, flattered and amused. Then, I walked in the woods with him.
I found a man who shared my deep love for Mother Earth, and my despair over her plight. We stopped to stroke soft mossy patches and watch hawks circle overhead. I cried on
his shoulder about toxins in the air and waters. Together we rejoiced over the sheer beauty of life, and mourned the losses of species and cultures. In each other we found glimpses of our deepest and most true selves, and together we found our path. It wasn’t well-marked, had lots of rocks and knobby roots, and it didn’t seem like many had walked it before.

Tim and I fell in love while exploring the forests, meadows and streams of his land, called Pickards Mountain. On my 22nd birthday, we built a garden and planted our first seeds. We began to learn the names of the plants and animals who shared the land with us.

People who shared our compassion for the crisis came to potluck dinners on Wednesday nights. A wind turbine and solar array were erected to provide clean energy. Composting toilets saved fresh water. A little space in the barn provided a home for a small co-op of folks who made Biodiesel fuel out of vegetable grease. A beautiful chicken coop held a flock of 20 hens who gave delicious eggs with deep orange yolks. Friends, hungry for simple living, asked if they could camp in our woods. Some stayed for a long time. We made explanations to neighbors and invited them to join us for farm suppers. Over long conversations, we discovered they shared our concerns for the world.

I received phone calls and emails from people curious about our projects. We began hosting educational programs and field trips and called our work “Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute.” The name always felt a bit presumptuous to me, like we knew the answers, but Tim convinced me that we wouldn’t be taken seriously if we called it “Pickards Mountain Center for Loving the Earth, Healing the World, Making Peace, Living in the Woods, Growing Food, Holding
Hands in Circles and Learning Together.” (Plus, we weren’t trying to come off as a commune.)

So, Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute was born. UNC-Chapel Hill asked us to be one of their Triangle Sustainability Field Study Sites. The Abundance Foundation invited us to share their 501(c)3 nonprofit status. We hosted classes from over 40 local schools who watched the wind turbine turn, learned about biofuels, pulled and ate organic carrots, and asked questions about the future of life on Earth.

We signed up as a host site with the international organization Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Members, usually recent college graduates restless to see and save the world, sign up to help on farms in exchange for room and board. People came from all over the country, and a few from outside the US. We met people on many different journeys, invited them into our daily lives, and learned from each other.

We’ve probably had two hundred WWOOFers over five years. Some only stayed a night, but some stayed almost a year and became integral to farm life. The garden kept them busy with pulling weeds, watering, and harvesting vegetables. They fed and fell in love with the chickens, pigs, goats and ducks. Someone taught us to dry herbs and make baskets. We read and talked about the state of the world. Around evening bonfires, we listened to stories of their adventures and songs they had learned along the way. We shared ideas of the latest sustainability techniques, most of which were resurrections of ancient methods or technologies based on natural systems. Sometimes their dogs would attack chickens or they would accidentally almost set fire to the woods, but mostly it was a mutually enhancing experience.

We invited inspirational teachers to host workshops in herbalism, wild foods, holistic medicine, wild mushrooms, permaculture, simple living, growing food, cultivating mushrooms and the Transition Town movement.

I always invited WWOOFers and interns to attend workshops, tag along with field trips and join community potluck dinners. Our potluck group grew, until there were sometimes 100 people in our circle. Many of them were new faces, and I was always amazed at the relationships and realizations that emerged. There were doctors and lawyers, teachers, students, vagabonds, clergy, anarchists, legislators, engineers, entrepreneurs, and their families. People in ties would sit next to people with dreadlocks, and end up chatting about politics and eggplant. Tim and I loved it. Local schoolteachers found great fodder for classroom discussions. Families asked questions about rooftop solar and hired local contractors to install systems. People tasted baba ganoush, red pepper hummus, and nettle pesto. Many said they were the most delicious meals they had eaten. Kids chased chickens, fed goats and played in the sand beneath the shade of the solar array. At least three couples fell in love on the land and eventually married.

I felt incredibly fulfilled. Our first child, Kaia Maathai Toben, was born in August of 2005. She was named after Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai who started the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, and was christened by Thomas Berry. Kaia rode on my back while I farmed and taught.

Margaret Krome-Lukens came into our lives just in time to save me and the farm from falling apart. Deep dedication to my new role as mama was teaching me about my limits
as a human being. I couldn’t do it all. Margaret had the infectious optimism of sunshine and the self-disciplined work ethic of a ninja. We found ourselves in a beautiful partnership, taking care of the farm together.

Margaret and I both loved the way the schoolchildren came alive on the farm. The look on parents’ faces when their children reached for, picked and ate green beans and tomatoes from the vine was priceless. We also loved the way chil- dren immediately saw the wisdom and beauty in working with nature. Why wouldn’t we get all our energy from clean sources like the sun and the wind?

Once, a little boy in the first grade visited on a field trip with his class. He sat quietly listening to our explanation of the solar energy system. His brow furrowed as he examined the huge panels. “Where does the energy come in? And where does it go out?” Then, later, as his teacher had requested, we were exploring the way plants catch energy from the sun and turn it into what they need to grow. We were imagining together that our bodies were plants. Our feet were the roots growing down into the soil, our arms the branches, our faces the flowers. As we reached our hands/ leaves up to the sun, this little boy jumped up and yelled “A plant is like a SOLAR PANEL!”

Children’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge come from their inborn love for the natural world. One of the greatest gifts we can give them is time outdoors to explore and wonder. The heartbreaking times are when children have been denied these opportunities and disconnected from that love by fear. I will never forget a group of girls from a Greensboro inner city school who simply would not step off of the gravel. They clung to one another, shrieking about dogs, spiders,
and snakes. When, finally, by the end of the day, these girls were sitting in the grass describing bird songs they heard and loved, I felt like the morning had been a success.

This work is not about giving people all the answers—we don’t have all the answers to give. But we know how to listen for good clues. And one of them is the knowledge that we don’t come into this world afraid. We come into this world curious and amazed. We come into this world believing we can talk to animals, and that trees deserve to be climbed and hugged.

One day, a middle school ESL (English as a Second Language) class came on a field trip from Durham. When the teacher first contacted us about the class, I assured her that I was comfortable with conversational Spanish, and my wonderful co-leader Margaret with conversational French. She responded that her 30 students, mostly from Southeast Asia and Africa, spoke 12 languages, not including local dialects. She assured me that they would “mostly” understand my English.

The students were afraid to get off of the bus. The teacher had warned me that some of these kids had been through serious life trauma like abuse and refugee camps. Once we coaxed them off the bus and into a circle, the next task was getting them to speak their names. The teacher helped, and repeated the names, many of which were new to us. I began to explain that Pickards Mountain was about learning to meet our needs in ways that were healthy and good for the Earth. We knew that the air and waters were being poisoned by industrial processes, and that people were acting without respect for the natural systems and other living beings. We were trying to change that.

They looked at me with huge eyes and guarded expressions. I have no idea if they understood a word I said. Eventually I gave up on talking and walked them over to the rabbit hutch. Since rabbits are prey animals, every time they get lifted off the ground they think they are getting eaten. As I sat down with this scared rabbit in my lap, and motioned for the students to come closer, I didn’t know who was more afraid. One shaky hand reached out to stroke the rabbit’s fur, then another. I thought I saw a little smile.

Our next stop was the greenhouse. I picked a few leaves, tasting them and passing them around to share. I wasn’t using many words, except maybe the names of the plants. I started to notice sounds of recognition, and realized the students were naming the plants in their own languages. I will never forget the excitement one African girl expressed over the beets. She summoned up the words “ We have this in my country!” She hadn’t yet seen them in the US, and was so thrilled, I gave her an armload to take to her family. The taste of the beets had taken her back to a time and a place when her life had roots.

I’ve gotten used to kids falling in love with our two playful farm dogs, but one small boy from Burma couldn’t leave them alone. He played with them, wrestled with them, and hugged them. At the end of the day, I noticed him telling his teacher about how he used to take care of the dogs in his village. She later told me that was the most English he had spoken all year.

A group of high school students visited Pickards Mountain one spring from a school in Raleigh. At their teacher’s request, we created a three-day program for them. When they arrived, a kid named Jake caught my eye. With his
multiple piercings, henna tattoos, and shaggy blue hair, he was hard to miss. My first impression was that he wasn’t so excited about the field trip.

The first day we talked about their current understanding of the state of things, learned their names, and gave them a tour of the farm and projects.

The next day, we put them to work in the garden and on the cob building project. They learned the basics of planting and harvesting, soil testing, irrigation and natural building.

On the third day, we explored the details of the environmental crisis, using a framework created by the Pachamama Alliance (
Where are we?
How did we get here?
What is possible for the future? Where do we go from here?

We witnessed a beautiful shift in consciousness over these three days. After they left, I got an email from Jake, the blue haired kid. It read, “Thank you for allowing me to visit Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute. I now know who I want to be and what I want to do with my life.”

Jake spent much of that summer camping out on the farm and collaborating on a cob cottage. At the end of the summer, he was indeed a new version of himself. His parents credited our work together for his successful graduation from high school and his passionate pursuit of further education.

Tim was invited to Iceland on a fishing trip with Bill McDonough, one of the world’s leading green architects. Together they dreamed up a groundbreaking green building project for Chapel Hill.

Tim purchased a portion of a block in downtown Chapel Hill. The few buildings on it were condemned, and the soil laced with trash and leaked toxins. I watched as these two visionaries created one of the most beautiful, cutting edge green buildings on the East Coast.

In 2009, the economy tanked, and the bank panicked. Bank of America paralyzed Tim’s project. It’s true what they say about banks. They don’t play fair or nice.

I didn’t understand the details of bank foreclosure, but I knew my husband wasn’t sleeping at night.

Month after month, Margaret and I kept the Eco-Institute work alive while Tim wrestled with Bank of America.

I didn’t care that we were losing $14 million dollars. I cared that Tim sleep again.

After much soul-searching, we sold our house and over 400 acres to pay the bank. We gave away half of our stuff so we could fit into a smaller place.

We asked the Pickards Mountain community to help us move the farm, and people came with shovels, gloves and trucks. We rolled up the fences and dug up the herbs. We caught the chickens and moved the goats to a neighbor’s place.

The process felt both frightening and liberating.

I’ve always been a sucker for frontiers and wilderness: chopping wood, building fires, growing food, pulling together. We hired a couple neighbors and fixed up an old cinderblock cabin on the piece of land we had left.

We camped out in a crumbling old farmhouse for six weeks, amused by the critters we found under the leaky roof with us.

We and the Eco-Instute found a wonderful new home by the pond on our remaining 68 acres. The cabin is sweet and cozy. The farm is thriving. There is food on the table, laughter in our days, and warm beds at night. The PMEI calendar is more full than ever. And Tim is sleeping again.

We still find ourselves in despair sometimes, but we pull each other out of it. We regain our sanity each day by stepping outside, practicing gratitude, putting our hands in the soil, and remembering that life is a sacred opportunity. We know we’re living in an incredible moment in time, when the story could take a drastic turn at any moment.

There is a wonderful metaphor I love to share with groups of high schoolers, who are beginning to feel jaded by the magnitude of the crisis and the vast momentum of the current system.

When a caterpillar reaches a certain point in its life, it gets a voracious appetite. It becomes over-consumptive. This triggers the formation of what biologists call “Imaginal Cells.” As the caterpillar eats and eats, these imaginal cells begin to vibrate at a different frequency than all the other cells. As the caterpillar makes its cocoon, they begin to find each other.

Then, all the other cells in the caterpillar’s body melt into what is called “nutritive soup.” They actually un-differentiate, from being heart cells or brain cells or stem cells, to create this nutritive soup.

The imaginal cells then orchestrate the formation of a completely new being. A butterfly, completely unrecognizable from its earlier state of being.

Our culture is in an over-consumptive state . . . one which we can’t sustain. And amazingly enough, imaginal cells are
beginning to appear. We are finding each other and gathering, and have the potential to orchestrate a whole new form of being.

May our understanding continue to evolve, and may we once again find our rightful place in this Sacred Earth Community.