By Simone Liu, AP’19

I started week four hunched over in a three-walled shelter, trying to dress myself as quietly as possible before meeting up with two other students to milk the cow, Clover. We filled a metal pail with warm water and walked to her summer field. I shocked myself a little on the electric fence as I reached to fill her trough, and then we welcomed her into the run-in and tied her to the stanchion, which looks, to me, like a bladeless guillotine. Two of us tugged at Clovers body at a time, while the other pet her slowly and whispered to her (a task which we call “modeling serenity”). Clover was remarkably still, somewhere between calm and resigned. After we “stripped her dry,” we filtered and stored the milk, then used the two hours before brunch to nap and read and do yoga.

This week, the slogan “Free Clover” has become something of a rallying cry among our cohort, or at least it has begun to pick up steam. We scrawl it on the tupperwares where we deposit her milk twice a day, laugh in a game of superlatives about who would be most likely to actually let her loose.

Many of us were drawn to Arete in part by an interest in feeling connected to the labor and growth that fuels our lives; many of us have felt excited to harvest blueberries before baking them into muffins, to watch squash swell to massive sizes over the course of a few days, to repair our own roofs and flooring. Because of Arete’s small scale, we can trace the effects of our daily labor and identify how it supports the community by feeding us and keeping us dry. I, at least, hoped that Arete might be a space where I could feel like my contributions were meaningful, and it has been so far.

Still, proximity to the production that sustains me hasn’t been so simple as a feeling of connection to myself, my work, or the land. In class on Monday, our instructor asked us to go out into the land around campus and write about what we saw. I waded through a stream to a rocky place to sit and stared out at a landscape that looks almost impossibly picturesque, except for an unruly branch of rhododendron jutting out across the water and hanging, limply. I looked at that branch and remembered being taught how to lop it, how to sever its limbs from its trunk. For me, a close-up view of how people interact with land that isn’t paved over has exposed how violent humans are to everything around them, and that those who choose to live close to nature must also confront and perform that violence in carving out rustic home space.

I have no doubt that the conditions of the AMS garden and barns are more ethical and sustainable than those of commercial farms, but it still feels twisted to learn that the baby turkeys which arrived so charmingly in the mail will never be able to mate, their bodies warped by generations of breeding for oversized breasts and thighs, and that not killing them isn’t a particularly humane option because their bones won’t be able to support their weight when fully grown. Many of us feel unsettled by our participation in taking milk from Clover’s body, but we also know that if we let her out of her field, she might not fare well in these woods. Domestication means a certain lack of self-sufficiency, and rewilding isn’t something we can do by unlatching a gate. More than anything, I’ve been feeling pessimistic; human violence and self-centeredness is everywhere, and divestment from exploitative structures is a difficult task. Our cohort has been engaging in a lot of conversation about why we’re here and whether or not our presence feels selfish or self-cultivating—in establishing the limited boundaries of our isolation policy, some members voiced that they felt as though checking out of outside communities was largely not an option, and that doing so would feel irresponsible. What kind of privilege does it take to choose not to engage with a wider world for two months, and what kind of security does one need for that to feel like a reasonable choice? Isolation, to me, feels like an impossibility: it is presented to us in Nunnian communities as a flexible yet necessary thing even though participants enter such spaces already tethered to people and communities and structures that inform how they live, think, and interact with others. We bring our histories with us wherever we go, and that has communal implications—from a need to make space for people to deal with trauma to often-harmful impulses to replicate norms that make us feel comfortable without considering how they might impact those around us. The call for isolation allegedly furthers a focus on in-person community, but functionally can erase the backgrounds and connections of the people who make up that very community. Self-governance and a lack of structure doesn’t mean we’re building a community free from larger or outside influences, although it sometimes means that those influences aren’t adequately resisted because their presence is denied. Denial of harm allows oppressive systems to self-replicate without disruption. In witnessing human interaction with animals and the land, we also witness the pervasiveness of violence and self-prioritization, as well as the inescapability of those things in allegedly idyllic spaces. There is no way to be clean in a complicated world, and that’s something we’re going to continue to wrestle with for the next four weeks. How can we each work to mitigate harm without denying that it’s happening or expecting congratulations?