-Michael Tierney, Big Ugly

As I write I am still buzzing with ideas and connections from the Grow Appalachia All Hands Gathering this past week.  I’ve been involved with community education and development for almost 40 years now, from a soup kitchen on the Bowery, to supporting children on the streets of Colombia, from housing projects in Boston and up hollows in West Virginia.  I can honestly say that I have never been among more committed and consistently optimistic people dedicated to making a difference.

First, of course, the setting was perfect.  Berea College’s vision, that “God has made of one blood all the people’s of the earth” perfectly describes the eclectic tribe that is Grow Appalachia—young and old (probably about a 50 year span among those present), multi racial and interfaith, and a breadth of educational and economic backgrounds that are rare to have in the same room.  As diverse as we are, there are several themes that run across our gardens and our communities:

Enthusiasm: It is hard to find a more passionate group than people who can’t wait to get their hands in the dirt.  The conversations started at 9:00 in the morning and were still going strong with those of us lingering in the cafeteria 9 or more hours later.  Whether it’s the best heirloom seed, strategies for fooling deer or wiping out pests, or stretching the growing season, our insights are hard-won and heartfelt.  One example was an eruption of opinions on the best gardening hoe. We can only hope that the audience drawn to our proposed reality show “Hoe Wars” won’t switch the channel until they get some planting tips.

Gratitude: I’ve also been to a lot of grant requirement sessions and have never heard less whining.  As much as our Grow App Moses David Cooke offers to be cited as the mean patriarch when it comes to core requirements for home gardeners, we really aren’t grumblers.  For many of us, this opportunity to provide real food security in often desperately poor communities is the answer to long haul dreams.  We are grateful to John Paul for his unstinting support, and for every scrap of guidance and knowledge David and his incredible staff provide. Personally, I look forward to seeing what programs Candace and Mark are running in twenty years—efforts we can’t even imagine right now.

Generosity: Finally, if you want to see paying it forward in action, hang out with a posse of gardeners.  Any challenge a site brought up was energetically responded to with suggestions, connections with resources, and invitations to come visit and see how we do it back home.  We are a community ready to roll up its collective sleeves to face any challenge.  I must confess that I probably have gardened less than anyone else in the room (with this project my role is often to write grants and leverage resources. If I am honest about my own gardening ambitions before joining Grow App it was to be self-sufficient in salsa and pesto.)  But being in a room full of problem solvers is inspiring and contagious.  One of the reasons I love the increasing importance of gardening with our teen leadership work on Big Ugly Creek it is that a spirit of “can do” is perhaps the ultimate transferable skill.

At the end of two very packed days we gathered our notes, fixed our calendars for visiting new and old friends, and hit the road all the while talking about which idea or strategy to tell people back home about first.  We return more deeply rooted in our dedication to bring food security to our neighbors and strengthened by the cross-pollination of a region full of experience. If I can lay the gardening metaphors on even thicker, from the compost of Berea (and as David Cooke and I can testify, past 55 it is pretty much all composting) we will spread and nurture many seeds.  And as newly embraced sons and daughters of Berea College, may we have permission to slightly tweak the vision:

God has made of many gardens, one dirt.