The Ethics of Why: By Anderson Reggio
When one thinks of the traditional college experience, their thoughts are often filled with images of drunken men hoisting empty kegs above their heads and swarms of coeds cheering them on. Rarely does the collegiate image include solar powered trash compactors, sensor operated water bottle refill stations, and students frustrated with the lack of efficiently located recycling containers on their campus. This is a daily experience for the modern college student at Saint Joseph’s University; an individual focused on truly trying to make the world a better place through their actions and words.
As an alumni of Saint Joe’s, that mantra of conservation and sustainability has stuck with me and I find an increasing desire to see some of the “best practices” I have been taught being put to action. With organizations such as 11th Hour Racing leading the charge, I think a difference is starting to be made as more and more people are seeing the need for positive change. Recently, I had the pleasure of returning back to my university in a unique way and saw that this focus on bettering the world is truly taking hold not just in the sailing world, but among all different types of people.
Each March, when most college students escape the confines of their education for beaches, bikinis, and booze, over ten percent of the student body at Saint Joe’s piles into vans and heads towards the Appalachian Mountains for a week’s worth of service work. This student led program is now in its twentieth running with nearly five-hundred kids taking part this year. These students are spread among sixteen different communities in the Eastern Appalachian Mountains, working on everything from new home construction to old home repair, from working in soup kitchens to working on farm. As an alumni, the university asks me to join a group each year and bring to the table a real world perspective. Obviously if they’re asking someone who spends their life immersed in the world of competitive sailing, a reexamination of their definition of “real world” is quite necessary, however, they ask and I continue to join; mainly because of these students. Their energy, their focus, and their passion for change is refreshing and inspiring. My role is simple: make sure no one dies.
This year, our group traveled to a small village called Floyd, Virginia to work upon an organic farm called Riverstone. Located twenty minutes from the closest town and an immeasurable distance from the nearest stoplight, Riverstone boasts sixty plus acres of vegetable harvests, sheep, chickens, and donkeys (you have to keep the coyotes at bay somehow). Purchased nine years ago by the owner of a local lighting manufacturer and his wife, Woody and Jackie transformed overgrown woodland into a sea of rolling hills filled with fresh food produced in a sustainable manner. New gravity fed wells have been dug for irrigation and a wood gasification burner installed to heat the home in which we stay. The local wrangler, Jason, works the woods to harvest logs with his horses to feed the heating system in the cold winter months. He promotes himself as a “biological woodsman,” engaging in the practice of restorative forestry. He and his children have made a name for themselves locally for their use of the Suffolk Punch horses to draft wood in a way where the only impact is the walking trails they leave behind. In typical Appalachian style, the stories are many and the lessons are rich as they described to us the conscious decisions they make every day to minimize their impact on the land. They are the embodiment of refusal to make moral sacrifice in the name of the bottom line and active in sharing their motives to anyone who will listen. As Jason tells his many apprentices, “if you come here with the ethics of why, we will teach you the skills of how.”
Most mornings with the group are spent performing various farm chores, making oatmeal, and dealing with the joys of twenty-five people sharing two bathrooms and limited hot water (look for our hashtag #letitmellow now trending on Twitter). On one entertaining morning, we met Gunter, a world-renowned honey bee researcher who runs his orchard and apiary in a sustainable way and is working hard to resurrect the honey bee in the local ecosystem after years of annihilation. He, like many who have chosen to call Floyd home, have brought new world, “hippie” ideas of sustainability, organic, local, and green with them to their Appalachian brethren. Sustain Floyd is an organization that has recently come to prominence in the area. Founded upon the idea that many local farmers are struggling due to their crops being bought and shipped off by large corporate entities, Sustain Floyd is attempting to work to keep things local. Additionally, in recent years, crop sharing has become increasingly popular. The idea of buying local has taken off like a rocket as people have jumped aboard the train supporting Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSA). By purchasing local goods from a farm that one supports you can develop a one on one relationship with your farmer and have a true stake in where your money goes. Sustain Floyd works with a variety of CSAs in the area as well as farms like Riverstone and people like Gunter to keep the food local, fresh, and produced through green practices. They are currently in the process of procuring funds to build a food production facility and a dairy processing plant which they hope will enable them to keep the local agricultural economy running.
The essence of Floyd, Virginia is community; the strength of people coming together here is astounding. What is more astounding is that, in an area of our country often stigmatized for being incredibly impoverished and having a populace yearning to leave, Floyd is growing (population up ten percent in the last decade) and thriving with a communal approach to everything. A sense of “we’re all in this together” is in the air and unmistakable. Don’t get me wrong, Floyd is still incredibly poor. With a mean per capita income of around twenty thousand dollars and a poverty rate in the mid teens, there is no doubt a need for services. The local food bank is growing at an alarming rate as nearly fifteen percent of students in the county are on food stamps. Luckily there are organizations such as Sustain Floyd and Riverstone Farm who are actively engaged in a green lifestyle and working hard to bring jobs to the area.