Learning from the Land

Working for Good: An Interview With Jessi Massingale

Floyd|Snider recently held a company retreat at the Whidbey Institute, which included a service component with our staff on the land. From the Whidbey Institute staff perspective, the day was an incredible example of volunteerism done well.

The friendship between our two organizations runs deep—Floyd|Snider has had a longstanding tradition of supporting employee participation in Powers of Leadership, and Kate Snider, founding principal, is the current Whidbey Institute Board President.  I had the opportunity last week to talk with Jessi Massingale, a Floyd|Snider Principal with an oceanography and engineering background, about her team’s experience on the land. Here’s that conversation. —Marnie Jackson Read More →

May 11, 2017

A Gardening Lineage: Saying Farewell to Abigail

Westgarden Steward Abigail Lazarowski is leaving Whidbey Island later this winter to pursue personal and professional goals in the Portland, Oregon area. While we’re sad to see her go, we’re excited about the potential for a new team member to join us, and we’re proud of the care with which Abigail is stewarding our garden through this transition. Yesterday, Communications Manager Marnie Jackson sat down with Abigail to talk about the transition, the garden, and what to expect in the months ahead. Here’s that conversation. Read More →

December 8, 2016

Garden Steward Sought

We are seeking a permanent three-quarter time employee to join our staff team as Westgarden Steward. The Westgarden Steward is responsible for caring for the Whidbey Institute’s Westgarden as a growing and community education space.

The Westgarden, established in 1979, is a half-acre vegetable and medicinal herb garden on the Whidbey Institute grounds. The scope of the Westgarden is broad, and has three main areas of focus: organic food and medicine production; community education and volunteer engagement; and healing experience.

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December 3, 2016

These Plants are Teachers: Walking the Westgarden with Kumudini Shoba

by Marnie Jackson

On a recent late summer afternoon, Kumudini Shoba met with garden steward Abigail Lazarowski and me in the garden. I expected an interview, but what I got felt more like an introduction to old friends. We meandered slowly, meeting self-heal and angelica, apothecary rose and elecampane. We touched their leaves, knelt beside their roots, and studied the bees dancing among their petals. “What I do all day is help people restore balance within themselves, through getting to know the garden and its plants,” Kumudini told me. “Some people only know herbs as a capsule. Many people taking echinacea have never even seen an echinacea plant. I want people to meet these plants—these plants are teachers.”

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September 21, 2016

Landscape of the Soul: a conversation with Kirk Webb

I was excited to learn of the new program being offered at the Whidbey Institute this autumn by Christie Lynk and Kirk Webb, so I invited Kirk to discuss the program with me. Here’s that conversation. —Marnie Jackson

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August 12, 2016

Growing in Community: A Conversation with Anna Strick

I recently had the opportunity to talk with our 2016 Community Gardening Leadership Training Program apprentice, Anna Strick. Anna has been a key member of our community since arriving this spring, and having her living and working on the land has enriched all of our experiences here at the Whidbey Institute. Personally, I’ve been especially touched by her warmth and friendliness, and the welcome that she shows to children in the Westgarden. My own daughters feel capable, wanted, and valued as members of the Westgarden volunteer team in part because of Anna’s mentorship. Here’s our conversation. —Marnie Jackson

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August 10, 2016

Volunteer days are back again!

by Abigail Lazarowski

Westgarden work party season has begun! We will have our first official garden work party of the season on Thursday, March 17, and they’ll continue to run every Thursday until October! We’ll work together on garden tasks from 9 am until noon and a simple lunch will be served midday.

Work parties are open to everyone, whether you would like to learn more about gardening, meet some great people, or simply spend a few hours in the sunshine! For any questions contact Abigail, Westgarden Steward, at abigail@whidbeyinstitute.org.

The spring robins have arrived in the garden and so have the Community Gardening Leadership Training apprentices! Four passionate people have just moved to Whidbey Island from all over the country to spend seven and a half months working in the community gardens of South Whidbey. Stoni Tomson will be the Good Cheer Food Bank Garden apprentice, Liza Elman will be the South Whidbey School District Farm and Gardens apprentices, Devin Mounts will split his time between those two gardens, and Anna Strick will be the Whidbey Institute Westgarden apprentice. Each apprentice will spend the season learning about our community food system here on South Whidbey, growing nutritious food for those individuals in our community that need it most, learning how to manage a growing space, and teaching students and volunteers about the joys of gardening.

Stay tuned throughout the season for more stories from our community garden apprentices! Here are two blogs to watch:

Westgarden: https://learningfromtheland.wordpress.com

CGLT: https://cultivatingcommunitywhidbey.wordpress.com


March 9, 2016

A Hedgerow is Born

Photo 5Those of you who have visited the Whidbey Institute recently may have noticed a mound of logs being laid around the parking lot at Thomas Berry Hall. What you are seeing is the construction of a hedgerow and restoration of the north-facing slope.

The completed hedgerow is intended to border the majority of the lot. It will create an ecologically rich boundary for the parking lot and aid in the restoration of the bramble-bothered north-facing slope. The slope is being cleared of brambles by digging them up by the roots, mulching the slope, and planting native plants.

There could have been many approaches to achieving the same thing, so I thought I would share how we came to the decision of a hedgerow. The truth is, we may not have if I had not lived in south west England for year.

After living in southwest England, this became my personal definition of a hedgerow:

Hedgerow: A snaking berm of exuberance that draws you into the symphony of the living world

Before living in England for a year, my understanding of a hedgerow was a dense line a shrubs, usually just one species, used mostly for privacy, where birds spend a lot of time. I think this is what comes to mind for most Americans.

In the southwest of England, hedgerows define thelandscape. They border most roads, sometimes so tall that you feel like you are in a tunnel. They border farmers’ fields, front yards, gardens, and just about everything needing a border.
Photo 6These hedgerows are made in many different ways, but all are given structure by woody plants like hawthorn, oak, and hazel. Sometimes the plants are “laid,” planted in a row and then bent over onto each other so that they form a sort of woven fence. Others are tall rock walls with massive oak roots binding it all together. Still others are gentle, low mounds of earth and rock that are covered in wildflowers and studded with coppiced hawthorn.

Because hedgerows act as borders, you often come into direct contact with them and can find yourself walking alongside of them for some distance. As a constant presence and one that is clearly manmade, hedgerows grab attention and begin to draw you into the world more than most landscape features.

Cacophonies of wildflowers coming in seasonal waves of erupting blossoms; quiet mosses collecting raindrops; the sound of critters skittering under the cover; the sound of birds quietly practicing their songs in the early spring and letting loose a month later; the thrum of bees . . .

I remember one night while walking home in the dark, I could hear rustling followed by a sharp crunch. The pattern kept repeating itself and I realized that just a few feet into the hedge was a badger poking around and crunching on snails.

So when I looked at the parking lot and thought about how to replace the brambles we constantly fight back with something else, I envisioned people arriving and stepping out of their vehicles into an area hugged by a beautiful hedgerow full of color, birdsong, and the rest.

Photo 8The questions were, did it make sense, and how would we make it?

A hedgerow would help halt the blackberry before the lot and cast shade onto the north-facing slope that would discourage the blackberry from coming back after the slope was restored. It would provide a safer boundary than the existing fence, which cannot halt a car. It would create an extremely biodiverse border for the lot, providing cover, food, and nesting habitat for birds, small mammals, countless insects, pollinators, and so on. It would act as a suntrap, catching and storing the heat raining down from the southern sky onto the lot. This warmth would make a perfect microclimate if we wanted to plant fruit trees or berry shrubs along the top. Lastly, it would be beautiful, fragrant, and make the lot more welcoming and memorable while honoring the craft that went into building Thomas Berry Hall.

Next is the how. We do not have an abundance of earth or stone for mounding, but we do have an abundance of wood. Every year we remove far more more wood from trees fallen across paths and roads than we can store as firewood. Much of it goes to others who need firewood, but we still have a surplus.

Using the hugelkultur method to construct the foundation of the hedgerow would turn our surplus wood from a storage problem into a resource. Hugelkultur means “mound culture” in German and is a method of mounding woody material, covering it over with soil, and planting directly into it. Hugelkultur has become increasingly popular in the past few years, mainly through the permaculture community and its fascination with the curious (and brilliant) Austrian agrarian, Sepp Holzer, who has made extensive use of this method.

Photo 7The method has many applications from garden beds to hedgerows. The basic idea is that the wood decomposes over time, creating a spongy, nutrient rich mass that is great for plants. In places with dry summers, this spongy mass holds a tremendous amount of moisture and can reduce or eliminate the need for watering, depending on what and where you are growing.

We used big rounds of wood. These create an immediate, sturdy replacement for the the split rail fence and made it easy to build the mound up quite high. As the wood decomposes over the next few years, the mound will sink substantially leaving a mound that will likely be a bit higher than the knee.

On the north side of the mound you can see that burlap has been used to hold the topsoil and mulch in place and that sword ferns have been planted directly into the mound. The roots of the ferns will stabilize the soil the north-facing side of the mound. On the slope itself we have planted swordfern, vine maple, salal, and salmonberry, and we will continue to add species to restore habitat, stabilize the slope, and suppress the resurgence of the blackberry.

On the south-facing side of the mound that faces the parking lot, we will begin planting flowering herbs this spring. The rest of the design is yet to be decided. Trellised fruit trees? Berry shrubs? Medicinal plants? Native species? All of the above?

Please let us know if you have any thoughts, questions, or suggestions.

photos by robert mellinger

March 9, 2016

The Awakening Westgarden

by Abigail Lazarowski with Marnie Jones

The Westgarden is waking up and we’re excited about the upcoming growing season! From digging and mulching to interviewing apprentice candidates and placing seed orders, we’ve been busy preparing for the warm months ahead.

Five volunteers joined us for a full day of work on January 25 and  we managed to flip 30 beds of cover crop—every single bed we sowed! This was an exciting and record-breaking accomplishment. We’re mulching these beds with straw and fallen leaves until it’s time for spring planting. In the meantime, we’re still enjoying overwintering carrots, arugula, and sunchokes. It’s always wonderful to be able to send fresh produce to the kitchen, but it seems like a special treat in February.

We’ve just completed our apprentice recruitment process, and we’re excited to announce that we’ll be introducing four new members of our gardening community in March! We had a very strong pool of applicants, from all over the country. The high volume and quality of applications we’ve received helps us see just how much strength and visibility this Community Gardening Leadership Training program has gained over the last several years.

With the new school semester comes a new set of garden experiences for our Waldorf neighbors. Kelly Corson’s 3rd grade class will return to the garden weekly beginning in late February or early March to continue a curriculum which began with the autumn harvest.

Our Westgarden work parties will begin again in late March, on Thursday mornings in the spring and Thursdays into the afternoon once summer arrives. We have a lot to look forward to. We’re excited about growing more annual flowers, replenishing our crop of echinacea, and especially welcoming another apprentice to Chinook for a full season of shared work and learning.

February 3, 2016

Sanctuary—The evolution of our woodland chapel

The Sanctuary holds space for deep contemplation, for reflection, and for small gatherings that invite connection between people. As important is the seamless and visible connection with natural world,the spirit within, and the people who grace the building.”
From a 2014 Whidbey Institute Newsletter article remembering Judith Yeakel.

The Sanctuary at Chinook is a study in balance—it is equal parts humble and grand, grounded and soaring, cozy and spacious. It is of the earth, and of the spirit. It is, for many, a place of refuge and a source of inspiration.

This building has many to thank for its creation—philanthropist Judith, who funded its construction; craft builder Kim, who dreamed into the possibility of rendering a humble chapel in stunning live edge wood; architect Ross, who helped move the project from conception to harmonious execution in an evolving, collaborative process; Chinook founders Fritz and Vivienne, who saw the need for a space to celebrate both the inner life and the outer wonders; Michael, project manager and former Whidbey Institute board member, who bridged the hopes and needs of the organization with the vision and processes of the construction team; and many community members, who labored joyfully over the building’s design and assembly.

Crafted by many, it has become a sanctuary for many faiths. Chinook founder Vivienne Hull remembers the beautiful dedication which was held after the construction of the sanctuary. It included a parade of banners from the Procession of the Species, a Native American blessing, and a rich and diverse interfaith program. “It was quite phenomenal,” she said. “Prayers were shared from most of the world’s religions.”

The dedication of the Sanctuary was the culmination of years’ toil and dreaming. The work began in earnest when, in the summer of 1999, a call went out for concepts for a sacred space to be built on Whidbey Institute grounds with a generous gift from Judith Yeakel. Ross Chapin submitted not one sketch but many—a series of drawings which described key concepts and principles which might inform the project. Grounded in the earth. Looking toward the sky. Surrounded by trees, as a “council of elders”, and inviting an experience of procession and arrival.

Sanctuary 2Meanwhile, Kim Hoelting was conceiving of an organic, unique wooden chapel—traditional in form, rich in texture, inspired by its surroundings and handcrafted from beautiful wood. By 2000, creative sparks were flying as the two friends collaborated on a design which marries the magic of a forest hideaway with the geometry of a classic church, measured throughout by the golden ratio.

This building is inspiring beyond its size. One visitor was quoted as saying, “I’ve been all over the world, in sacred spaces in Burma, India, and Africa, and none has touched me the way that the Sanctuary does.” It holds many secrets, hidden in plain sight—its porch, for instance, is one giant slab of salvaged Sitka spruce.

At Woodland Hall, off Maxwelton Road, builder Kim Hoelting stores part of his one-of-a-kind collection of old-growth and salvaged wood. “The Board [of the Whidbey Institute] came down here, and we sat on a big slab of wood,” Kim said, “They asked if I could imagine what this building might be, and I said that in my mind’s eye it would be something that’s like a Native American Longhouse, but which feels as though you’re a kid, crawling into a stump and looking out through the cracks. I patted the block of wood we were sitting on and said it was going to be the front porch.”

Kim seems to know every piece of wood in the building, describing them like friends. The porch was once a 9-ft. diameter old growth spruce tree which fell in a 1991 windstorm at Olympic National Park’s Lake Quinault Lodge. “It smashed a bunch of cars,” Kim told me, “and was milled in Elma.” The wood in the gable above the front porch was salvaged from the same windstorm, he said, while the shakes on the porch and roof were salvaged from the Humptulips River drainage basin and hand-split on Whidbey by builders and volunteers. Other large slabs for the project were hand-selected in Southeast Alaska.

“The building is rough and rugged on the outside and refined on the inside,” said Michael Hansen, who served as project manager and as liaison between the board and building teams. “The construction was a very fluid process, though we needed a talking stick at one point to resolve the question of whether the main sanctuary should or should not have windows. It was a tough discussion, settled in two philosophical camps—do you look to nature, or do you look inward?”

The results of this teamwork are stunning: skylights let in the sun; light from hidden windows draws the eye to the altar at the far end of the space; and richly textured interior spaces leaves a visitor with the sense of being held within a living forest.

One does not march directly into the Sanctuary. A visitor steps first into a shadowed foyer, face-to-face with a unique slab of wood seemingly grown out of a stone on the floor.

“The tree on the stone, that’s art. That’s Kim,” Ross said. “It stops you in your tracks, but it opens you to another universe if you really stop and behold the mystery that is that tree.

“The walk in the woods—the getting there—is important. You see something, you’re drawn in, and as you go on there’s an experience of procession. You come upon a meadow. What’s that? It’s tucked away. You approach, you open the door, and you smell this amazing aroma of wood. The ceiling is low, and the light is dim, and your coats come off. And then you see this wood . . . it could be the end of your journey, this tree on this stone. There’s light coming through. You’re drawn in not straight on, but askance—from the side. The ceiling goes up, and up, and up . . . That’s where form and human experience come together.”

The building holds many stories. Kim remembers the camaraderie of the building team, which he called “an odd collection of people with a playful sense for wood.”

“This was one of my favorite collaborations with Ross,” he said. “Beno Kennedy, Gordon Sandstad, Sky Hoelting, and Jim Shelver were on the team. Lon Peterman did the siding. Michael was incredible—a stabilizing force, taking a lot of feedback from many people and bringing it into working form.

“We put in afternoons up there and spent our mornings on other work, which made a project which might have taken six or seven months stretch over a year. It allowed us the freedom to push the pause button if the weather flared up, or if we were stuck. That’s part of the reason the building turned out as cool as it did.”

Ross remembers one moment when the Sanctuary was touched by events in the world at large. “Detail is utterly important to me,” he said. “The curve of the wood, the shaft of light, the height of a beam. One day I walked up to the site and gasped.”

Ross’s surprise was caused by a beam, already in place, which he recognized as having been prepared upside down. When he learned the circumstances of its production, he realized that the flipped piece was part of an important story.

“I found out that as this beam was being finished and adzed, Gordy got news that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Instead of stopping his work, he refocused. He stayed on that beam all that day and all the next day. Meanwhile, human culture was turned upside down.”

Like people, buildings are shaped by the events of their upbringing. This building has been shaped by brilliant collaborations, insightful vision, clear intentions, and a careful resolution of tensions into harmony.

“I remember the community of workers and what happened between and among us while we were there,” Kim said. “We did work that was true and authentic—a real expression of who we are in the world and what we hope to become. My greatest hope is that all of us can find that little, holy place in all that we do—that we can dare to make it a real expression of who we are in the moment, and what we see, and what we feel. It doesn’t matter if you’re a janitor, or a neurosurgeon, or a carpenter—with courage and fortitude, what you love should be able to bubble up out of you. That’s what the Sanctuary means to me.”

Plan and Elevation by Ross Chapin Architects

Plan and Elevation by Ross Chapin Architects


January 11, 2016