I am new to this place, Woolman at Sierra Friends Center. I am meeting it as it is now, not as it once was, before the fire. I walk the trails and wander between the buildings, each day learning something new: where and when the deer like to cross Woolman Lane, where gophers’ paths and pipes run underground, where to stand to get cell phone reception.
My new friend Dorothy and I hiked the campus this week, beginning at Ranch House, then walking through the burn scar where once sat the West Cabin Circle. As we climbed, two hares bolted out from beneath the charred manzanitas. My heart leapt with joy to see their tall ears bouncing up the hill, though I knew we had disturbed them. It seems that no one has walked this part of campus for a long time. We passed two lonely, surviving cabins, waiting for us to continue our work of nurturing the land’s healing from the fire.
Many have told me to keep an eye out for the wildflowers and plants that can only grow after wildfire. As we walked, Dorothy pointed some out to me and taught me their names, fondly remembering the friend who had taught them to her. Reaching a high point, we looked back at the campus below, and Dorothy recounted to me some “Woolman lore.” As I listened, I imagined what the campus might have felt like in the early days, full of students and teeming with life and learning. I am grateful – honored – to have guides like Dorothy to help me make my acquaintance with this place.
I have other welcomers, too. Ponderosa pines stand guard in front of my house, and I salute them daily. A couple of geese honked enthusiastically at my approach a few weeks back, then took flight. At Mel’s Pond the other day, a red salamander met me on my path. As I intentionally make myself known to Woolman, I find that it is welcoming me, or at the very least getting used to me.
During my first few weeks here, colleagues told me about the wild turkeys that behave like they own the place. One day, they made their appearance, as I walked home from the laundry room past the orchard. Their gobbles are now a daily soundtrack, and I like to think they are warming up to me as I am to them, like my neighbor’s black cat, who now sits and stares at me when I pass, rather than bolting. And my neighbor’s dog barks to greet me now as I approach – not in warning, but in welcome.
As I experience my own “easing in” here, I find it magical to note these small milestones of deepening relationship with the land and place. It is not difficult for me to imagine endless ways this place has nurtured awareness, mindfulness, healing, growth, and community in others who have spent time here.
Sixty years ago, the first Quaker residential high school in the West came to reside here in the Sierra foothills – John Woolman School. I am still learning the history of this place, and I am certain that – like the history of most places in the U.S. – it includes varying levels of stewardship and care of the land as well as exploitation and abuse, government land grabs, racist policies, and colonialism. Today, the board and staff of Woolman at Sierra Friends Center are working to understand our place within this ongoing history, our role in its perpetuation, and how we might help to heal the resulting wounds of injustice.
Not a Quaker myself, I have appreciated learning about various Quaker practices. One that is especially relevant in the face of a complex issue like ongoing colonialism is the Quaker practice of reflecting on queries. This practice fits with my belief that, when we lack understanding or need to seek a path forward, one of the wisest steps we can take is to admit our ignorance. Then we ask the right questions and listen: to the inner voice through silence and to the voices of others. What are the right questions, you might ask? I’m not sure, but I imagine that if a question makes us uncomfortable, we are getting close!
Since my arrival, people have been asking me what Woolman will be doing as we move into this next chapter. What service will you offer? What programming will you provide? We are still working to define the answers to those questions, but I can tell you this: Woolman will be asking some uncomfortable questions. And we will be doing a lot of listening. Through our programming with youth and adults, we will prioritize experiences that bring people together to listen and learn and grow. People will find at Woolman a place to belong, a place to learn, a place to be stretched, a place to heal, a place to commune with and learn from nature, and a place to work together for peace and justice. We invite you to join us!
Woolman was honored to reopen its youth programming this spring with a week-long outdoor education program for seventh graders from San Francisco Friends School. Camp Woolman also reopens in June with six weeks of summer camp programming. Pottery classes continue, and later this year, we plan to launch the Jorgensen School for Nonviolent Action. To learn about Woolman’s upcoming programming, to register your youth for camp, or to book retreat space for your group, please visit our website: www.woolman.org. ~~~
Coleen Hedglin comes to Woolman at Sierra Friends Center as its the new executive director after twenty-two years working with a small nonprofit that supports movements to end child domestic slavery and violence against women and girls in Haiti.
Photo of Woolman at Sierra Friends Center is by the author.
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