Landing Softly, then Listening to the Earth: an interview with Maggie Mahle, our new land care coordinator

On a sunny morning I sat down with Maggie Mahle, who recently moved from Boulder, Colorado to start at the Whidbey Institute in April as our new Land Care Coordinator. She spoke about her first four weeks on the new job, what keeps her grounded, and the transforming power of motherhood.

—Hannah Lee Jones

It’s been an intense time of learning and acclimating to your new role here! Tell us a little about your first four weeks. 
There are many highlights, and over all, I’ve already learned much about the Natural and human culture of the Institute. There have been several work parties in the Westgarden since the start of the growing season – prepping the beds for full-on planting, clearing out the greenhouse. We’ve seeded carrots, beets, herbs, and transplanted bok choy, kale, and lettuce. We’ve put in peas, which are now up and climbing. Potatoes are also in the ground. And what’s been wonderful for me has been seeing how much further ahead we are in the growing season compared to Colorado, where I’ve come from. We’re planting on the island at least three weeks ahead of when we’d have started there. It’s been a forward-shift in timing for me, along with factors like the climate and the soil.

I’ve been meeting many new faces, such as Mara Grey, our volunteer in the Appletree garden. Among volunteer groups, the Waldorf kids visited the land since my arrival, as well as LEAF from Evergreen. LEAF helped us with projects in two main areas: flipping compost piles and using mature compost to complete the potato bed, and hauling landscaping compost for mulch; then helping us clear out the chicken run by the Westgarden by pulling the nettles and comfrey which had really become overgrown, then built and extended the tunnel so that the chickens have more room to roam. Alexa brought in the four new chicks, and they’re growing big fast. Eventually they’ll be able to enjoy their new habitat.

The high winds we got in late April brought down a massive white pine limb behind the Farmhouse. I was working in the garden early in the morning when it fell with a huge crash, and just-missed the vine maple tree. Fortunately no one was around or got hurt. Terry Bourk came by shortly after that to take some of the wood to turn into his signature bowls and vases, and then Jerry Millhon took a chainsaw to the rest, and stacked them (which was no doubt a non-trivial amount of hours)! The gift of this happening is that it’s brought to the fore the importance of our relationship with the trees and our responsibility for their health as well as our safety when they age and begin to fall.

Could you tell us a little about your learning process with Cary Peterson? As well as with the land apprentice and other interns?
I am benefitting tremendously from Cary’s guidance. We have taken a number of long walks on the land, and she showed me the many plants, trees, and projects which were to become part of my work and experience at the Institute. I also got some wonderful history lessons about the organization, which helped place the land in the context of the broader story of this place.

I am inspired by Cary’s will, her capacity and drive. Her energy and enthusiasm are quite contagious, and have reminded me of the importance of turning to others in the face of projects or challenges with immediate needs. I have always valued individual initiative, and through Cary’s example have come to understand the value and impact of approaching such challenges in a collective way. In enlisting the help of many others, we also grow a community.
I am still “landing” with regards to the many circles of relationship which my role involves, and their unique rhythms: with the Good Cheer Food Bank, with Chef Christyn and the Institute kitchen. It’s been lovely meeting so many members of the community through Fresh Food on the Table, and a recent luncheon I had with Jerry and other members of the community who are also involved in the gardening and land care trades.

It’s been fun getting to know the workflow of Lynne Carlson and Amber Hamley, the housekeeping staff, and Mary Jakubiak, who has looked after the land for many years. Clayton Carlson, the Facilities Manager, has been answering all my questions and has been very helpful to me, and his assistant Jesse Durbin has been very accountable; the facilities staff have been getting used to checking in with me since there are many areas where our responsibilities overlap.

The apprentices – Westgarden apprentice Alexa MacAulay, Good Cheer apprentice Camille Green, and School Garden apprentice Casey Jackson – are incredible. They are inspiring, energetic doers in their own right, and I also appreciate how involved they are with each other’s work between the Institute and Good Cheer, as well as with the other young farmers in the south island community. Peyton Tabash, who is with us through the the Service Alternatives program in Oak Harbor, also brings a different kind of energy and presence on the land, which becomes fertile ground for those looking to acquire job and self-support skills.

The running joke is that “the Mahles are taking over,” with you and your son Dan as our new Program Assistant, being two of the newest members of the Institute staff! How is it working in the same place as Dan, and any thoughts about your respective roles here and how they relate beyond kinship? 
It was certainly a surprise that Dan and I wound up working in the same place; I applied for the land care position while Dan was working for another organization. Then it turned out that he was able to come to the Institute, and we have been blessed by the chance to work in such close proximity to each other.

Dan comes down to the garden for the Thursday work parties and lunches, and often gets others to join him. We share reflections, ask each other questions, and laugh together. With him being a member of the office staff, the two of us represent the different and equally vital arms which keep the Institute thriving: the office staff, and the land and facilities staff. The beauty of this is that we have already seen how our relationship as family is beginning to bridge the two worlds, the “outdoors and indoors,” so to speak.

It has been a tremendous beginning for you at the Institute . . . any thoughts about your relationship with this place, and along the lines of this month’s theme of motherhood? 
My time here so far has reminded me how, when the learning curve is steep and there are moments of overwhelm, the land is always there, quietly offering its wisdom. Though our task as stewards may be to care for the land, the land has its own needs, and messages for us which only a deep listening can discern so that we can better focus our energy. The earth becomes an ally, and I’m reminded always how much our love and attention and care matters.

And as for motherhood, I’ll say only this: that my experience of unconditional love, for others in our lives and for nature and for the earth, really began when I became a mother. It is truly a beautiful thing.

May 7, 2013

People & Partners