Beginnings, Inc.

octagon thru trees iph

One of the earliest of Shummian organizations to form was Beginnings, Inc., a group of people who raised money and bought land communally, as a legal non-profit, then became an umbrella organization that eventually included a community center, several schools, a Tae Kwan Do dojo and, by no means least, a volunteer fire department. Beginnings grew from a smaller organization, a Montessori pre-school called Children’s House.

Children’s House grew from an even smaller organization, a pre-school called The Farmhouse School. That organization took form when the nameless play group that met at my rented house on Briceland Road several times a week was forced to end abruptly when my family was evicted, probably for being both hippies and racially mixed. We certainly weren’t behind in the rent or causing damage. The playgroup included my daughter, Kupiri Waterfall, whose father is John Ibo; Benjamin Bruno, son of John and Sandy Bruno; Liana Pomeroy, daughter of Gil and Karen Pomeroy; Rainbow Boyd, daughter of John and Suzelle Boyd (now Hunt) and Serena Breen, daughter of MaryJo (then Breen) and Girard Breen. Of these parents and children, less than half now remain in Shum.

The playgroup was equally hatched by all the parents, but Karen Pomeroy, who had been Montessorri trained, was indefatigable in supporting it and her educational opinion pretty much ruled. We were all new parents and, certainly in my case, had not a clue on the best way to educate small children. All of us, however, were convinced that there had to be a better way than what we had experienced as children or than what would have been available to us if we had not looked to each other and all of us were extremely motivated to come up with a child-rearing philosophy compatible with our back-to-the-land life. Much of the educational philosophy that later became incorporatead into the schools and pre-schools of Beginnings, certainly the emphasis on Montesorri, can be traced to Karen’s influence.

The playgroup had been functioning perhaps six months and some effort had been put into making the property child-friendly when my eviction notice came and threw us all into a major panic. My relationship to my daughter’s father, which had long been on the rocks, dissolved immediately. Karen, determined that there should be a Montessori pre-school available in the community for her daughter, cast about for a place to establish one, which would include the playgroup members, but be expanded into a formal pre-school supported through tuition and donations.

She located another property on the corner of Briceland Road and Miller Creek Road that, like my rental, had been there for some time, long enough that everyone knew it as “the farmhouse.” There was a man living there who was, I believe, both caretaker and tenant, but occupying and using only a small portion of the space that was available there. I do not remember what deal was made with him, but somehow Karen acquired The Farmhouse and all of us remodeled it into a pre-school.

The Farmhouse School was much larger than the play group had been and Karen was the de facto principal and main teacher of it, aided by numerous volunteers, some of whom were parents paying all or part of their tuition by volunteering as assistants. Among these were Solomon and Gundala Mogerman, whose son, Aaron, attended the school. Solomon confided to me much later, when we were both teachers at the now-defunct Briceland Community High School, founded by Beginnings, Inc., that the final selling point that decided him to move to Shum was the existence of The Farmhouse School.

Soloman, a musician as well as an artist, and his family visited the school while in their decision phase on a day when I was volunteering. I had been bringing various of my instruments to school on my volunteer days, not to formally attempt to teach music (I’m a terrible music teacher), but on the theory that it would be educational for the children just to see and hear them. That day, I happened to have brought my fiddle and while the Mogermans were there, principally because there was a lull in activities and I was bored, I picked it up and fiddled a tune.

Sol was there in an instant to query me when I stopped. When I told him music was a very high priority for me in general and educationally speaking and that it was only after I moved to Shum that I could feel this comfortable playing in public, Sol told me, that clinched it for him. He wanted to raise his child in such a community. So, acknowledging fully that Sol might well have just been “laying it on thick” for me for some unknown reason, it does warm my heart to imagine I played some role in bringing to the community a person who contributed so much to the community, to music and to music education over the years and introduced who knows how many lucky children to a love of music.

For some time after the arrival of the Mogermans, The Farmhouse School managed to stagger onward, but the finances of it were always very shaky and Karen, as energetic and committed as she was, began to burn out. There was a meeting, I remember, in the front yard of the school to figure out a, or some, fundraising strategies, but the purpose of that meeting was sidelined by the arrival of Peter and Karen Ryce.

The Ryces, good friends of the Mogermans, had just returned from years in India, where they had run a, or some, Montessori schools, originally, I believe, as Peace Corps volunteers. They were casting about for something to do in the U.S. and had come to check out the Land of Shum. Karen, the Mogermans and others were leaning on them very hard to come and either take over The Farmhouse School or start their own Montessori pre-school.

I, in the interest of full disclosure, was a bit miffed that this new development had not been run by me before the Ryces were invited to the meeting. I had put in some effort researching how hard it might be to have a crafts fair as a fundraiser–such a thing had not yet been tried, to my knowledge, in Shum. I really wanted to discuss organizing a crafts fair and did not want to be shushed in favor of recruiting the Ryces.

I was also very put off by the husband-wife interaction I was observing in the Ryces, apparently modelled after traditional Indian families. When Karen timidly asked her husband for permission to speak, all the alarm bells in my head went off simultaneously and I had to be physically restrained by the people next to me from stomping out of the meeting in a snit. No way, thought I, would I ever subject my daughter to that kind of female role model. Not wanting to send my mixed-race daughter to Redway Public School, where her older mixed-race half-brother had single-handedly integrated it, I would have been forced either into home-schooling her or abandoning my whole back-to-the-land thing and returning to Berkeley, where she at least would not be the only person of color in the school.

Fortunately, I did not leave, the Ryces decided to move to Shum and be land partners with the Mogermans, and The Farmhouse School was replaced by a much more financially stable pre-school run by the Ryces, called Children’s House. I became mollified in my initial reaction to what looked to me like a potential model of female oppression, Karen Ryce largely snapped out of asking her husband for permission to speak, I got to know and love them both as Karen and I were pregnant together (big female bonder in Shum) and to thank my lucky stars I had such a wonderful pre-school to send my daughter to. The problem with Children’s House was that, for a long time, there never was a “house.”

The pre-school lived in the basement of the Community Presbyterian Church for a while, then moved into a house in Redway with a big yard. The Ryces began to really want their own building for a pre-school and this, as far as I know, was the final factor that led to Beginnings. All of the Children’s House parents were eager to, as I said to Peter, “get a roof over your heads.” The Ryces, the Mogermans and probably others, but not me, located a parcel of land in Briceland and fundraising efforts began.

The land was purchased and Children’s House, still today called Children’s House, was moved into a collection of mobile homes, trailers and sheds and a fenced-in playground was built. The organization of Beginnings, Inc. took place somewhere in that time period and I served on the first Board of Directors and, in later years, on subsequent boards. Controversy over various aspects of the direction, philosophy and tactics of Beginnings were present from the onset, but somehow things actually happened, much to my amazement.

I mention one of the earliest controversies I remember just because it feeds poignantly into controversies that rage in the community to this very day. There was one small meeting on the grounds, immediately after the purchase of the land had gone through, that had been arranged by a Children’s House mother to discuss a particular fundraising offer that had been made to her. At that meeting were Gil Pomeroy, Gerald Myers, the mother in question, myself and about six or seven other people.

The proposal was that, through the mother’s connections in the city, a moderately well-known rock band had offered to do a benefit concert on the new land. It could be promoted in the city as a fun country weekend, people could camp on the land, volunteers could perform necessary functions. A cut of the take would be funds for the Beginnings building. The land was a natural amphitheater for the sound of the band.

In short, it was to have been much like Reggae on the River, a huge annual fundraising event organized by the Mateel Community Center, that took place for years, years later. After this proposal was presented, there was about a full minute of complete silence in the group, at the end of which Gil, Gerald and I all rejected it immediately and simultaneously, as the complete antithesis of everything we had moved to the country for. No one defended it and it died “aborning.” Fundraising concerts did take place, but not-rock, not huge, not overnight and inside the Redway Elementary School auditorium.

A second major controversy was what the function of the finished Beginnings building would be. The charter of Beginnings, worked out during hours of late-night wrangling by the first Board, defined us as a community organization to include a community center building and an unspecified number of schools (we were leaving options open for later). There were people in the community very interested in having a building to house events, a community center, but they were not interested in schools. And, there were the opposite– people with small children were eager to use the building as a school, an upgrade from the trailers, less interested in having a community center.

People not interested in schools were eager to use the building for boogies, concerts, meetings, religious services, etc. It seemed that the two uses were mutually exclusive. In my book, I describe one general membership meeting wherein a non-school person asked if fundraisers would be for Beginnings, the general organization, Beginnings the pre-school, or Beginnings, the community center. As an example, she said, suppose we hold a big potluck fundraiser and I donate a big bowl of potato salad because I want a community center. Can I designate the proceeds from my potato salad as being for the building, not the school?

As ridiculous as this seems, it triggered hours of heated debate, ever after known in Beginnings circles as “the potato salad argument.” I have no idea how it was resolved, but, magically, the building was built, and was used as a pre-school and an elementary school and as a community center for years, by means of movable partitions and lots and lots of people moving them.

Eventually, spaces were built for Children’s House and Skyfish (the elementary school) and the building, The Octagon, now expanded and still standing, has been consecrated over the years by uncounted boogies, religious services, fundraising events, meetings, classes, reunions, weddings, parties of every description and, as it turned out, memorial services.

The organization and the building and all it represents were so holy to me when I lived there (and even now that I don’t), that I always thought if I got word that the world were going to end in the next hour or two, I would go straight to The Octagon. (In my case, I frequently have had no land or real home of my own, in Shum or anywhere. The Octagon was the most permanent home-like structure available to me for most of my sojourn in the Land of Shum.)

Octagon House

Above, the Octagon under construction. The extended room on the right is the office.

Interior of the Octagon set up for a communal Thanksgiving meal.

Grounds of Beginnings, looking toward Children’s House (roof of the trailer just visible), during a party I’m guessing was probably a benefit for the Beginnings Volunteer Fire Department.

Same party, slightly different view, including speakers for the band about to play.

Same party, children play in wading pool. Background shows part of the setting of the land of Beginnings, a major plus to the buyers. Beginnings is in the same valley as the town of Briceland, but back from Shelter Cove Road slightly. It offers a 360 degree panorama of the hills in which most of the original members had their homes, ie, it was literally, for many of us, the center of our world, physically and spiritually, at that time.

Children play, aiming a fire hose at a beach ball on a line, at a Beginnings Volunteer Fire Department fundraising BBQ. Engine is one of many used over the years.This one might be the semi-antique we bought from the Fortuna VFD and rebuilt. Building under construction is the Tae Kwan Do dojo, constructed by parents, students and other volunteers to house the Tae Kwan Do program associated with the schools.

The driveway from Briceland Road, again showing part of the hill panorama in which Beginnings is nestled and the extension housing the office. The buildings on the far right are not part of Beginnings, but houses in Briceland. The stone wall in the foreground is Skyfish school under construction.
Again, controversy about building use. At the time of this photo, it was intended to be a greenhouse, but as the builders built and Fall approached and Skyfish faced another winter in the Octagon, builders at the site (according to Soloman Mogerman, ever and always one of the builders at Beginnings) just made a flash decision on site to keep building the wall and turn it into a school. Those who had donated for a greenhouse were understandably livid. One of the rationalizations I heard about this sequence of events was that no one who wanted a greenhouse was doing any of the building. If they had been there working, they could have made their case–demonstrating a certain “be here now” quality to Shummian decision-making as well as a tendency to value labor over money that at one time prevailed.

Moving day, once the roof was on the Octagon. Children’s House moves in, a visiting grandma assists.

Inside on moving day, a mother pauses to nurse her baby while conversing with a pre-school student. Shummian mothers usually nurse their babies for at least a while after birth, in addition to often birthing them at home with the aid of a midwife. Some, as in traditional societies, continue for years, others wean them in under a year. Anyone raising any objection about a woman nursing a child in public at Beginnings would no doubt be quickly re-educated. I can’t be sure of that because I never heard of such a thing happening and can scarcely imagine it.

Setting up Children’s House in the newly roofed Octagon.

Moving day, the pre-school into the Octagon. Note the stovepipe. The Octagon and most Shummian owner-built homes are heated with wood heat, an environmental issue now but not in the past. These days, in winter, Briceland, Garberville and Redway are often to be found under a cloud of wood smoke, largely due to the population increasing while the heating method stays the same. It is currently an issue among Shummian environmentalists of my acquaintance.

Mothers and children take a moving break. From the body posture of the ones in the background, I’m guessing they are deciding what should go where, unless they are debating when to break out the food.

The hills south of Briceland and a Beginnings daytime party, as seen from the Skyfish school site. The roof and stairway on the far right are the Octagon extension the includes the kitchen.

Halloween party at the Octagon. Children’s House children and mothers dance while the band composed of parents warm up for the all-community Halloween party shortly to ensue. Bass player is Bill Andrews, partly seen guitarist is no doubt Soloman Mogerman.

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