Oberlin Blogs

Getting Lucky in Kentucky (Part II)

April 5, 2009

Daniel Tam-Claiborne ’09

Most of my work at Open Ground centered around hauling bricks for a new kiln, helping to rebuild and repair a sink cabinet, and setting up wooden posts and wiring for a grape orchard. In the orchard, I learned a ton, first about how to use a posthole digger and tamping bar to carve two-foot holes in the soil where we planted and leveled large wooden stakes as on a grid. From there, we measured and hung long metal wire, tightened it around the posts with a come along tool, and hammered it down with large metal staples. The cabinet also proved challenging, requiring us to raise and meticulously level the base, screw in the cabinet to the counter and the wall, create sideboards and floorboards out of plywood and cork, reinstall the sink, doctor and upend a cabinet extension, and create and replace door frames, drawers, and handles, all of which required me to properly use a drill, circular saw, jigsaw, and other tools for the first time. There was a certain primal connection with the work that made it both appealing and rewarding--oneness with the outdoors, working with one's hands, and an emphasis on simple, functional strength.

A yard with stakes and wire
The orchard where we forged support beams and wiring for the newly transplanted grapevines.

With so many of us we were able to finish tasks quickly, but Don always seemed to have more up his sleeve, even during a long stretch of days midway through the week where it rained hard throughout the morning and most of our work had to be confined indoors. On most other occasions though, the weather was great, and many of our days were defined by our after-work activities in the sun. This included everything from the insatiable mess of wrestling and sexual frustration that is Lap Tag, to the highly amusing Miniature Tanks, along with more civilized bouts on both the trampoline and the swing set. There was also a watering hole nearby where a select few lost the unofficial "last to shower" competition upheld over the course of the week. But with the omission of traditional games like Taboo, Apples to Apples, and Catchphrase, the most popular by far was Mafia, which occupied without exception a chunk of every night of the trip. Mafia, a highly addictive Whodunit that pits a community of "townspeople" against two slyly deceitful "Mafia" through questioning and interrogation, was integral to both our bonding and the development of certain signature character mannerisms.

Red cabinet
The (nearly) completed sink cabinet. We later went on to add a faceplate and handle to the leftmost extension.

Indeed some of the best aspects of the trip were the evening activities. In addition to chatting and games, we reserved a few nights for special events. For the first two, this meant tackling what was soon to become an artistic obsession: pottery. Having only dabbled briefly in pottery in my very early childhood, Don's lessons in both the pinch pot and the wheel were wholly engaging. The whole group spent the first night making and throwing pieces, and on the second, while others were off in Ibu, a dedicated group of three was furiously working on improving the craft. Myself, frustrated at my initial good fortune and subsequent downfall, had some help learning how to better center the clay (and my temperament), and eventually emerged at the ripe hour of 2am, clay-stained and brow-beaten, with a couple of bowls that I was proud to call my own. Potters have a few resources on campus, Oberlin's Pottery Co-op being the primary one, and I only wish I had been able to get into pottery at an earlier age.

Clay pot on a pottery wheel
After Day 2 of pottery, we spent part of the next afternoon fashioning "feet" for our ceramic crafts.

We took the afternoon off from work on Tuesday to explore a little hiking trail on the Open Ground acreage. With Don leading at the helm, we skipped stones and played trust games, reveling in the spectacle of our eventual completion of the "human knot." After a brambling uphill climb back to headquarters, we all returned that night in time for dinner and the makings of a bonfire that lasted well into the evening. Not only did it serve as a venue for the usual s'mores, campfire songs, and acoustic guitar you might come to expect, but it was simultaneously helping the Open Ground cause, for in the depths of the fire we were making charcoal--done by putting dry wood in an "airless" metal receptacle and engulfing it with flames so the wood chars without being oxidized (thus, not burning). On Thursday night we had a talent show, which featured music, singing, reading, photography, and an interpretive break-dancing-meets-juggling performance that was difficult to follow. Don read some poetry that he had written and I did a couple of pieces from my joint senior reading back in December.

On Friday morning, we extended a heavy-hearted goodbye to Don as he was attending an out-of-state conference over the weekend, and made a trip to the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, America's largest restored Shaker community. Going in with almost no knowledge of the Shakers, it was quite an educational experience, exploring the grounds and speaking with re-enactors engaged in broom making, carpentry, weaving, and the like. I learned that there is now only one surviving Shaker community, located in upstate New York, with three members, but currently accepting applicants. We heard from an employee there that it was prophesized that the Shakers would experience a huge decline in the 20th century, but by the 21st, would undergo a resilience and resurgence due in part to an economic collapse. From the way things are looking now, it doesn't seem like such a bad career move--the Shaker lifestyle, if fervently religious, latently sexist, and most likely quite racist, is at least at its core, simple and built on an ideology of rigid norms.

Woonden spinning wheel
One of the spinning wheels in the weaving room of Shaker Village.

We spent Friday night as our only night on the town, dressing up in "nice clothes" and driving out to Frankfurt to see a performance by folksy singer-songwriter and Kentucky native Carla Gover. The concert was held at a little independent bookstore where we sipped wine, played Scrabble, and listened to the soothing waves of acoustic guitar. I used the opportunity, as I had all week, to record snippets of the performance for a podcast I am currently putting together to tell the story of Don and Open Ground in audible form. Those on the trip can vouch that I was almost never without a voice recorder, whether it was to capture the sounds of chirping birds and buzz saws, snippets of dinner conversation, or interviews with a handful of those on the trip. It was all for an EXCO I am enrolled in called "Audio Journalism and Podcasting" and should prove to be an interesting project.

Midway through the week, we also killed and ate four chickens (how's that for a twist?!). Don initially extended an invitation to the group because he wanted to get rid of three of the four roosters in the coop, notorious for terrorizing the hens, as well as one hen who was destroying all of the eggs. I was very conflicted initially about the prospect of killing the birds, mostly at the fervor that seemed to characterize the initial mood as a Lord of the Flies-esque desire for carnage. However with time I began to understand the motives behind it--we were killing these chickens for food and not sport, and as a meat-eater, it should make sense that I know where my food comes from and be comfortable with preparing it. So much of today's food comes prepackaged and so far removed from its source that we as people seem to forget that what we buy in a grocery store isn't all it's advertised to be. The chickens we would later eat were the epitome of local--farm-raised on site with no preservatives or antibiotics. Ironically, though, it was four vegetarians on the trip that did the physical killing.

Roosters perched on a stick
Two roosters and a hen we would later kill and eat.

Don invited a woman named Angela to speak with us about how to humanely kill chickens and helped to round up all four of them from the coop, along with a sharp cutting blade and a sturdy rope we hung between two of the orchard posts. Angela demonstrated on the first one. Standing before the crooning bird, its feet knotted with string and hung upside-down along the line, she looked almost reverent, making a silent prayer before slicing just below the jugular. It was probably the first time I had seen an animal being killed. But even knowing the reasons for why we were doing it hardly made it any easier to watch. Three of the group-mates followed suit and in those agonizing silences, the only noise that suffused was the flapping of wings from slain birds whose hearts would soon stop.

After a time the mood lightened, and we got to work preparing the birds for cooking, dunking them in hot water, pulling off the feathers, and cutting through to remove the internal organs. Mary, who herself grew up on a farm, engaged us in a mini-biology lesson on the parts of the birds as we sorted them into "keep" and "discard" piles. I had the solid role of separating the necks from the heads to use for stewing. What was most interesting was seeing the hen, herself pregnant, and all of the eggs, big and small, that lined her uterus. The experience served to strengthen my conviction as an omnivore and made me truly realize the importance of the hunter-gatherer culture that had been passed down by our forebears. It didn't hurt that the chicken was also some of the best I had ever eaten.

On the last night, four students from Michigan State University who had previously volunteered with Open Ground came down for the weekend to drink and largely create chaos be a great asset to our service. After we split for the evening, our group decided to throw a slumber party (affectionately known as a "cuddle puddle"), where we packed as many as could fit (and not already sleeping) onto the combined three-cot faction of Katie, Hannah, and myself. It was, if not conducive to any actual sleep, a wonderful way to stay warm.

Given the randomness in our selection and our relatively estranged strata at Oberlin, the group got along shockingly, and almost miraculously well. I was fortunate that one of my good friends and current quasi-housemate Peter came along for the common bond of shared experiences, but I am equally fortunate for everyone else (almost all underclassmen) who, I would contend, I probably never would have had the chance to meet in my remaining two months at Oberlin. They certainly had a way of injecting life back into this jaded senior's heart, a feat for which I am incredibly thankful. And as far as the damage goes, I now coddle the vestiges of a pair of pants and sneakers that I once held dear, but other than mud, a few splinters, and some scrapes, I'd say I did pretty well for myself.

After nine days in Kentucky, it was more difficult than I expected to come back. Being surrounded by that environment--a slower change of pace, fresh mountain air, wilderness, few distractions, a regular schedule, hard labor and hearty food--my mind and body were very much at peace. But in a strange way, the trip reminded me too of my initial journey to Oberlin, the transition from a big city to a rural town, the desire to stay local thanks to opportunities and events on campus, and the ability to connect deeply with new people from diverse backgrounds and walks of life. And if you need any more indication of those connections, our little group of 13 has already had three reunions in the five days since we've been back at Oberlin. Kentucky, I miss you, but I will certainly be back.

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