Birch Creek Arts & Ecology Center


Trillium Farm



DEEP turtle of ecosophy

Growing Community Through Education

By Chant Thomas

This article can be found in Communities Magazine in the Fall 2000 issue.

The snow stops just as we reached the summit meadow.  Sun streams through the snow-clouds, illuminating the old-growth conifer forest on Trillium Mountain.  I look back to see the last student emerging from a fairy forest of ancient manzanita and dwarf oaks.  We look down into the canyon at the trailhead 800 feet below where we began hiking an hour earlier.  After hiking the first of four miles, it was time for an early lunch and a check-in.  We sit in the sun on our jackets amid a sea of wildflowers sparkling with snow dust, sharing our observations of the natural world around us.

Several students from various colleges across the country get acquainted as they eat lunch and absorb the panoramic view.  They are beginning the Dakubetede Environmental Education Programs (D.E.E.P.) Ecostery, a residential interdisciplinary field quarter curriculum accredited through Antioch University.  For the next eight weeks these students will experience total immersion in community-- creating their own learning community in an intentional community setting at Trillium Farm.

At the summit we turn our attention from the forests clinging to the north slope of Trillium Mountain to the west where the Little Applegate River flows through its winding canyon, hidden behind a tangle of ridges.  Around to the north, grassy slopes rise steeply up to the higher ridges of the proposed Dakubetede Wilderness.  Ridges and canyons of the higher country stretch eastward across the headwaters of the Little Applegate River to the snowy peaks of the Siskiyou Crest.  

One student notices a cabin roof emerging from the oaks on the next ridge to the east.  Students can see other Trillium cabin roofs on the ridge top and on the south slopes above the river.  I explain how most of the buildings at Trillium are in the next canyon beyond that ridge.  There, Birch Creek flows through several ponds and tumbles over waterfalls, around groves of trees, and across meadows before dropping into the canyon over a 30-foot waterfall into the Little Applegate River canyon.  With three miles to go, we start walking again, tuning into the diverse ecosystems gracing the landscape here in the arid rain-shadow of the Siskiyou’s highest peaks.

We introduce new students to the Ecostery program by guiding them to Trillium Farm via a four-mile hike through the wilderness.  The idea originated when a former student described Trillium as the kind of place she’d be thrilled to have as the destination of a three-day backpacking trip.  Hiking in to their new home immediately helps the students begin to develop a sense of place, nurture a respect for the value of this powerful wilderness habitat, and recognize the threats to its unique biodiversity.

By the time we reach our destination, the students understand that Trillium Farm, a former trout hatchery, is a historic homestead surrounded on three sides by thousands of acres of federal wildlands.
The ponds, creek, river, forests, woodlands, meadows, and grasslands comprise a diverse landscape that provides a wonderful classroom for learning about ourselves as community in place.  They also know our motto: “Wilderness is our classroom, Nature is our teacher.”

What is the real purpose of an intentional community, and what positive role can it play within the local community, county, watershed, bioregion?  For the last 25 years over 100 community residents have pondered this question at Trillium Farm.  These collective ponderings have distilled into our two crucial goals or “intents,” which I believe can apply to any intentional community seeking to play a positive role in their local region.

Our first intent is to maintain and enhance the quality of life in our habitat, which we embrace by organizing our neighbors in this sparsely populated canyon to fight federal government plans for opening the surrounding wilderness to large scale commercial helicopter logging operations.  We have found that working locally on such quality-of-life issues builds a larger community as the neighbors appreciate our commitment and understand our motivations.

Our second intent is education.  People are often drawn into intentional community because something special happens there.  A community may have evolved especially effective bodywork, high-yield gardening, innovative building techniques, or a particularly inspirational spiritual path.  Just as parents want to teach their children all the great things they’ve learned, intentional communities often perform an educational role, spreading the word about that something special they do well.

As a lifetime environmental activist, I see how education involves and empowers the first intent, to defend habitat.  Active education is the crucial process to inform people about imminent threats to their quality of life, possible courses of action to mitigate the threats, and the potential consequences of failure. Here at Trillium, an accredited higher education program has both renewed our community internally, and has brought us into a well-regarded position as activists in our watershed.

OUR COMMUNITY began 25 years ago with 12 partners: five young couples and two single men. Relationships strained under the new stress and pressures of moving onto a remote homestead, consumed as we were by cleaning up and restoring the land and building gardens, cabins, and water systems.  We accomplished much, but as a community we were unable to reach a balance between those who desired dependable incomes from “regular” jobs off the land, and those who depended on the riskier income of music, crafts, or seasonal work.

In 1979 half the original partners left.  I experienced how our having begun Trillium School, a preschool through high school, helped heal the fabric of our community after this split.  That same year, other community members also started a natural food store in the rural hamlet 13 miles down river, and organized an environmental group in our watershed.  These three projects provided jobs for community residents and involved substantial educational outreach activities to the local community.  Trillium grew and thrived for a few years as we all became teachers in one or more “classrooms”.

Several years later, a similar but more serious split developed in the community between those with regular incomes and those who wanted the community to support their physical needs while they continued to develop incomes from arts, crafts, and seasonal work.  Over half the community, most with regular incomes, decided they would rather Trillium become a neighborhood, with the land divided into individually owned parcels.  Frustrated by the impossibility of reaching consensus on this issue, they threatened legal action to dissolve the community.  Those of us who wanted to continue as a community dug in and refinanced the land so the others could leave, and they did.

During the wrangling, I reached for education as a limited solution, offering to rehabilitate the abandoned two-story octagonal schoolhouse from our 1979 school if I could create a residential university program here.  I had long since grown weary of commuting to town to teach, and was eager to work with students in the best classroom of all: our beautiful organic homestead surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness.  Desperately looking for something to agree on, our fractured community passed consensus on my proposal with surprisingly little discussion.  Thus Dakubetede Environmental Education Programs (named for the people native to our watershed) was born.  With over half the community gone, I wondered how the remaining half would fare in rebuilding community at Trillium.

Within a few years a severe flood forced more community issues to surface as we faced an overwhelming workload to recover from flood damage.  This led to a third community split as most of the remaining residents left to pursue goals outside community.  I soon realized that I wanted D.E.E.P. to provide enough students to both generate a sufficient income, and bring a diverse group of new people to embrace community life at Trillium.

The Ecostery Foundation of North America defines an “Ecostery” as a place, a center, a facility, stewarded land, and Nature sanctuary, where “ecosophy” (ecological wisdom & harmony) is learned, practiced, and taught.”  When I first read that definition many years ago, I realized that a large part of the original vision of Trillium was to be an “Ecostery.”  Soon the residential academic program evolved into the “D.E.E.P. Ecostery,” fully accredited through The Heritage Institute of Antioch University.

If we could host a group of college students and/or continuing education school teachers at Trillium for a two-month Ecostery program, what five courses would best comprise the curriculum?  I developed our curriculum around what we would look for in prospective Trillium residents. (See “The D.E.E.P. Ecostery Curriculum at end.)

Evolving Trillium Community as an environmental education center seems to be working.  My wife Susanna and I are growing a new community of former and future Ecosterians.  Two full-time and four part-time residents form the core residents at Trillium, with a population that fluctuates with seasonal interns, students in the spring and fall quarter Ecostery sessions, summers, when the community swells with former students and friends; and winters, when it’s quiet with just a small family.  

We live the dream of enhancing and rehabilitating the land and physical infrastructure at Trillium around the vision of an organic permaculture ecovillage on the edge of the wilderness.  One former Ecostery student wrote: “To interact with elders who spend their lives doing what you propose to do with yours lives is an incredible opportunity.”   While Susanna and I are hardly elders, this kind of response is one of the rewards of educating in community.  Students see and live what we are doing here, and then want to take a similar path for their own lives.

What does the education program look like?  A typical Ecostery day in the fall quarter might start with students rising early and having breakfast together in the octagonal schoolhouse where they live and study.  Some students may step into the morning sun and continue the previous day’s project of keying out some of the diverse shrubs growing along the edge of the meadow.  Other students head down the trail along Birch Creek, past the dome (a meditation space and classroom), between twin ponds, past the llamas corrals, through the playground and garden to the cedar barn, a study center where they work on papers and check email.  At 10 a.m. we convene in the garden circle for a check-in, and a student shares the poem she wrote during a tree-sit.  We spend the morning working in the garden, taking time for some birding, identifying whether certain insects are pests or helpful garden partners.  Discussions range from communication skills in community to the practices of deep ecology in determining how and where to shop for food.  

After lunch we head down to the river where a student gives an oral report on aquatic ecology while we watch water ouzels dipping underwater.  We end up in a discussion about how clearcut logging in the upper watershed makes the river more vulnerable to sedimentation that can smother the eggs of salmon and steelhead.  Two students report about an educational display they’re creating for a local environmental group to clarify the relationship between logging forests and the resulting spring floods caused by premature snowmelt in the high country.  Before breaking for dinner with Trillium residents, we head back to the cedar barn, where a student shows us progress on the Web site he’s building for D.E.E.P.

When Trillium resident Laurel Sutherlin was an Ecostery student here, he wrote: “This sort of education is unique: all encompassing, and intense in its laid-back style.  The unconventionality and loose structure can make me forget this is school.  When I step back and think about it, I am learning a huge amount, more real, worthy, useful and practical knowledge than any classroom could hope to produce.  Each conversation leaves me with a fresh perspective and much food for thought, each experience makes real a different issue, each problem resolved is a lesson.”

Our philosophy of intertwining education and community life exemplifies the suggestions made by David Orr in Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World (Island Press, 1994):

“Education in the modern world was designed to further the conquest of nature and the industrialization of the planet.  It tended to produce unbalanced, under-dimensioned people tailored to fit the modern economy.  Postmodern education must have a different agenda, one that is designed to heal, connect, liberate, empower, create, and celebrate.  Postmodern education must be life-centered.”       

Dinner begins with a circle as each person shares from their heart.  Organic vegetables from our gardens compose much of our hearty vegetarian dinner.  After washing dishes, the students hurry back to the cedar barn to spend the evening studying.  Trillium residents remain behind, sipping tea in the community house, and discussing the garden, a potential new resident, and our schedule of upcoming events.

Susanna and I excuse ourselves a bit early, as she’ll leave at 7 a.m. for the 50-minute morning drive to her job teaching high school in town.  We stop by the cedar barn on our way home, where all but one student pass on our offer of a moonlight walk through the garden--the rest being enthusiastically on an academic roll!  That one student comes arm in arm with us into the garden.  It’s quite cold and the stiff wind blows giant golden leaves out of the bigleaf maples.  Clouds race across the sky in thickening masses hinting at snow tomorrow.  It turns out that the one student needed this time to open up about some personal issues.  We talk in hushed tones under the swaying trees as we walk up the canyon.  The wind and moonlight collaborate in a shimmer of sparkles across the surface of the twin ponds.  We stop in the dome to light some incense and pray together, then walk up to the school and kindle a fire in the woodstove.  We hug goodnight, then Susanna and I begin the long hike up to our ridge-top cabin, giving thanks for the opportunity to grow community and environmental learning in this wonderful setting.

The D.E.E.P. Ecostery Curriculum

  • Natural History of the Dakubetede Wilderness (5 science credits):  The first step in developing a sense of place is to learn about the flora, fauna, ecosystems, and human history of the place.  We connect with nature through a deeper understanding of its physical manifestations and biodiversity.

  • Applied Conservation Biology: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity (3 science credits):  With that deeper understanding of nature, we learn about strategies to counteract the threats to biodiversity, and to protect and strengthen the power and balance of the natural world.  We defend our habitat, our quality of life, and our sense of place through education and organizing with our local environmental group.  Love where you Live; Defend what you Love".

  • Environmental Ethics: Practicing Deep Ecology (3 humanities credits):  Connecting with nature, and working to protect nature, forms the foundation for learning to develop our own personal code of ethics, a biocentric guide for our decisions of lifestyle as members of the planetary community.  Do our personal choices help or hinder nature, and by effect, humankind?

  • Community Studies: Ecostery as Intentional Community (3 social studies credits):  The global marketplace, toxic culture, consumer society, and increasing destruction of nature all require a paradigm shift in our concept of community.  Here we explore how intentional community can serve as an experiential and educational setting for an Ecostery. 

  • Creating a Wilderness Education Center (3 education credits):  Many educators dream of finding an old camp, lodge, or farm to outfit as an environmental education facility.  Trillium is all three, located on a remote historic homestead and former trout hatchery.  Here we learn how to plan and perform the physical tasks and academic organization necessary to create a center for environmental education as an aid for our transition to a postmodern world.


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