Sky Meadow: a place to be

I’ve just returned from a three-day Sacred Harvest event at Sky Meadow, an idyllic 115-acre spiritual retreat in the rugged and mountainous Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The Harvest is a work-stay arrangement, with free accommodation and an organic feast on the final night offered in return for harvest labor – weeding, picking vegetables, stacking wood for the winter, etc. There is also a generous amount of free time to explore the many wonders of the retreat property, swim in the ponds and engage in deep conversations on spiritual pathways through the Meaning Crisis.

Sky Meadow is especially germane to the nascent Cultpunk/Spiritual Naturalist/nontheistic religion/etc. scene because its caretaker, Brendan Graham Dempsey, is prominent in the emerging metamodern spirituality movement. Metamodernism is a complex and nuanced subject and so difficult to summarize; think of it as the cultural paradigm that follows postmodernism, in response to the compounding crises of the present day. Metamodern spirituality eschews belief in the literally supernatural while, enthusiastically and with deep sincerity, embracing multivalent soulful practices. It also allows for the creation of “new” practices as Poetic Faiths.

Here follows a day-by-day, impression-by-impression account of some of my experiences at Sky Meadow, with photos taken during the Sacred Harvest.

On arrival we were welcomed by Brendan, who gave us a walking tour of the property. Seen above is part of the mid-19th century Retreat Barn – the hub of Sky Meadow – and the verdant landscape outside.

Accompanying us on our orientation tour was the clearly magical Shadowcat, who was to become our faithful guide and watchful bodyguard over the next three days.

There are several accommodation options in the Barn itself but we also had our pick of the various rustic cottages scattered about and chose to stay in the Pond House, seen below. The cozy two-level cabin has basic amenities – electricity, running water from a filtration tank on the roof, a vintage woodstove, a gas cooking element and a composting toilet. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the Barn and adjacent to the spectacular Big Pond.

After a grocery trip to the nearby small (and deeply quaint) town of Hardwick, we assisted with weeding the Three Sisters garden and then settled in for the night.

Day 1 began at the civilized hour of 10.00 a.m. with the task of transporting a cord (pile of around 600-800 pieces) of firewood from outside the Barn to the woodsheds. Sweaty work, energized by the appropriately rustic strains of Celtic rock music drifting from the Barn.

We ate our ploughman’s lunches on the Barn porch, observing and being observed by a small herd of alpaca.

We also explored the upper level of the Barn and came across the cozy Library room.

Days 2 and 3 were mostly garden work, harvesting crops of carrots, snowpeas, shallots, beets, green and red beans and potatoes to tide the Sky Meadow residents over the winter months. Also a lot of weeding to get rid of a plant whose name I can’t recall but which sounds somewhere between “gorgonzola” and “Godzilla”.

Casual conversation as we gardened ranged over topics including Poetic Faith, complexity theory, artificial intelligence, the 1960s and ’70s counterculture, ritual design and the history of Sky Meadow as a spiritual retreat dating back to the 1980s.

The Three Sisters Garden, about half-way through the Harvest.

A personal highlight was making good use of the DIY, extremely rustic and powerfully rejuvenative sauna on Saturday evening. I fired up the woodstove and we gathered for multiple rounds of soulful, sweaty storytelling interspersed with cooling off periods, including leaping (or, in my case, staggering – I’d endured at least one round too many) into the pond mere steps from the sauna door. With trees shielding the moonlight, the sensation of being suddenly weightless and cold in profound darkness was akin to being teleported into outer space. Who needs drugs?

The sauna in daylight. I never found out whether the tempting berries were edible.
The sauna pond; imagine plunging into this, but in almost pitch darkness.

Post-sauna, afterglow discussions reconvened in the comfortable lounge area in the Barn, wherein much philosophy (and maybe even some wisdom) was shared, from wildly diverse perspectives, over glasses of wine. We covered far too much of this terrain for me to recall it all now, but flashes of insight were gained from conversations on personal heroes and role models, life and work at the nearby MAPLE (Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth), mortality sapience and the potential spiritual implications of artificial intelligence.

We finished most of the gardening on the morning of the last day, then assisted with processing the vegetables in the kitchen, making efficient work of sorting, washing, chopping and storing.

The garden, post-Harvest.
Chop veggies, carry water.

In the early afternoon we set out to see a show by the famous Bread and Puppet Theatre – a hippie political circus that has been a mainstay of the Vermont counterculture since 1974, and which is headquartered on a farm about 20 minutes from Sky Meadow. We had time for a quick tour of their museum, housed in another huge and ancient barn, before walking back down to the natural amphitheatre that has been the site of Bread and Puppet performances for nigh-on 40 years.

Welcome to a very small section of the cavernous Bread and Puppet Museum.
Mother Earth embraces her pagan witch-children while rejecting an evil cabal of Big Oil industrialists.

We then returned to Sky Meadow for an al fresco and delicious feast of the organic produce we’d helped to harvest over the weekend, prepared by Brendan’s co-caretaker and fiancĂ©e, Erin. More wine, more deep talk, including a harrowing and hilarious account by another harvester of a close encounter with a huge Eastern black bear some years before.

The feast table at golden hour. I agree with the Epicureans; it doesn’t get much better than this.

Later that evening I found occasion to present a gift to Sky Meadow in the form of a wind phone – a disconnected 1957-vintage General Electric telephone, intended to be used ritually by bereaved people to speak to those they have lost. This was installed in the Cave – a subterranean alcove on a higher part of the property – and I hope that it may be of some use and comfort to future visitors to the retreat.

The Buddha, a skeletal tipi in the background and incandescent late-Summer fungi, en route to the Cave.

Approaching the Cave entrance.
The interior of the Cave. Note the vintage woodburning stove: with a bit of forethought, the alcove can be made comfortable even during the winter months.
The wind phone in its final resting place. The legend on the dial reads “If you have lost someone you love, let your words be carried by the wind”.
The uncannily ubiquitous Shadowcat escorts us back down from the Cave site.

Fond farewells were made late that night between the harvesters whose schedules diverged the next morning, and then we slept the sleep of the just.

As we prepared to depart, Brendan made us gifts of some of the harvest bounty and of two of his own Metamodern Spirituality series books, which are detailed here. One final fond farewell and we were off again, driving through the spectacular Northeastern Kingdom mountains and already missing Sky Meadow.

We shall return before too long, and – noting that metamodern spirituality retreats are held each Spring and Fall – strongly recommend visiting this very special place.

Leave a Comment