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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Two Seasons in Paradise with Joe Hollis

by Jesika Feather

Joe moves with the light gait of a man who’s spent his life wrangling brief footing from loose stones. He has a slight frame, glasses, and a cloud of gray hair that puffs out beneath his signature black beanie. His hand movements depict a lifetime spent pressing roots into soil, extracting seeds from their husks, and subtly shifting this leaf or that stalk to investigate peculiarities.

Joe’s name is generally spoken concurrently with that of his life-project: Mountain Gardens. Mountain Gardens is a wonderland, a four-acre paradise, and an archetype of the existence we self-proclaimed revolutionaries strive for. The property lies at the base of Mount Mitchell, just outside of Burnsville, North Carolina. Joe bought the land raw in 1972 and has spent the last 40 years nourishing the soil, erecting artistic infrastructure, and influencing hundreds of apprentices.

My husband and I interned at Mountain Gardens for two seasons (2004 - 2005). I was attracted to the internship because I wanted to live simply and to gain more practical skills. Because I was taking a break from teaching, I anticipated some mindless, emotionless, nature-based busywork. I imagined (pre-arrival) that weeding might be the ideal task for me. I fantasized about the black and white finality of a job well done: a bed of lettuce or a row of Echinacea starkly contrasted against the uninterrupted, dark, richness of cleared soil. It was exactly the sort of unquestionable triumph that my mind had begun to crave; like coloring inside the lines, or two plus two equals four.

But Joe’s style of gardening is not cut and dry. It’s an intuitive science; a 50/50 blend of intellect and instinct (sort of like teaching). At Mountain Gardens the line between “weed” and “not-a-weed” is a vast gray area. There are very few, if any, plants that Joe actually eradicates from his garden. Though he may ask you to weed the Agrimony from the Angelica he will, later, suggest that you collect its leaves from the odd, sporadic patches where its presence is acceptable. Agrimony (also called Soldier’s Herb) is commonly used in a poultice due to its ability to slow and stop bleeding. Until you become familiar with the ever transforming appearance of each plant and its varied healing or nutritional properties, weeding is one of the more daunting assignments at Mountain Gardens.

Joe doesn’t grow or process any individual plant in mass. He is dedicated to variety and he specializes in Chinese as well as Native medicinal plants. On his four acres Joe has developed a veining, flowering, photosynthesizing Materia Medica… a living library of plant medicine.

Each year Joe harvests seed from the hardiest specimens within his horticultural throng. He scrupulously organizes his yield into film canisters that are labeled and dated. These canisters are arranged ‘A’ to ‘Z’ in snug-fitting holes drilled into shelves that line his custom-built 6’x4’ seed cabinet. As new seeds come in, the outdated leftovers are hodgepodged into a single envelope. In the springtime this geriatric seed medley is scattered throughout the garden (another incentive to pour over those plant identification flashcards)

After my reluctant realization that this internship would actually require me to learn things and make decisions, it seemed natural to invest two years into this apprenticeship. We wanted to reap the full benefits of Joe’s teachings. Joe was a refreshing anomaly for both of us. We could have spent decades learning solely from his lifestyle.

Joe maintains a lenient attitude about… pretty much everything. He eats meat which, to many intern’s chagrin, is not always hormone free or organic. It would not even be unprecedented to discover… ghasp… the tell-tale foil wrapper of a fast food hamburger in his truck.

Even as Joe approaches his 70th birthday, he doesn’t strive for more amenities, comforts, or conveniences. He plods simply and doggedly into his 40th year as proprietor of Mountain Gardens, influencing his interns with the same, humble, lead-by-example teaching style. He presents himself as a problem-solving equal, never flaunting his mastery of the avant garde techniques that have become his daily routines.

Joe is a catalyst of the Permaculture movement, from before the term ‘Permaculture’ was coined. However, due to his unpretentious, almost Taoist nature, his writings and gardening practices have mostly provided flashes of insight and inspirational whispers in the ears of more prominent writers and activists.

One of Joe’s initial hurdles in 1972, before any of the infrastructure or gardening could ensue, was to pry innumerable stones from his virgin mountain property. Mountain Gardens crawls up the base of Mt. Mitchell at, quite literally, a 45 degree slant. In accordance with Joe’s use-what’s-readily-available philosophy, he incorporated nearly every one of these stones in the winding retaining walls that embrace each of his garden beds. His rock walls extend about two and a half feet high, supporting garden plots that roll approximately three and half feet back before butting into the subsequent terrace.

Joe doesn’t use mortar, though on occasion I’ve watched him press soil and the roots of rambling plants into weak segments, allowing maturing root systems to cinch the stones together. Because these forty-year-old walls are in a perpetual state of deterioration and re-construction, no intern resides long at Mountain Gardens without an extensive tutorial in the art of rock wall formation.

Mountain Gardens Pavilion
Each structure on Joe’s property is assembled with a similar piece-by-piece, meticulous regard for beauty, sound construction, and amalgamation with the natural environment. In 1984 Joe, with help from friends, hand cut every shingle for the roof of the pavilion: a spacious community structure that incorporates an extensive library and herb shop and whose roof extends further to provide coverage for a large, communal outdoor kitchen. Upon completion of the pavilion, the leftover shingles were used to cover the roof and exterior walls of an exceptionally quaint outhouse.

Even for those accustomed to “alternative spaces,” an initial glance at the pavilion will probably result in the universal first impression: “is this for real?” This space was not created to look like a wizard’s lair, but for all intents and purposes, it actually is one.

Upon scanning the table where Joe prepares Chinese tonic prescriptions for the patients of a local acupuncturist, you will notice the coffee mug containing a few pens, an herb-dusted spoon, and several dried gecko heads on wooden skewers. Like everything else in his mystical apothecary, these disconcerting leftovers are not for show. Many ancient Chinese recipes do indeed call for há jiè (dried gecko): just one reason why most of his tea consumers prefer their tea un-translated.

With the exception of the slow winter months, Joe rarely leaves Mountain Gardens. Dancing is one of the only activities, besides sustainable wildcrafting, that lures him from his property. Nearly two weeks into my internship, as I watched Joe crouched on his haunches - tending a fire, a strange familiarity in his utilitarian grace snagged a two-year-old memory to the forefront.

Long before I’d ever heard of Joe or Mountain Gardens I was at a music venue in Asheville. Though the musicians were giving us their wholehearted-all, the audience was utterly unenthused. The band made animated comments into the microphone and intensified its musical fervor. Still… the audience remained unmoved.

The lively man with gray hair was immediately conspicuous. Aside from tipping the age demographic by a good forty five years, he was clearly unaffected by the surrounding apathy. He danced with abandon. Soon enough, the band gave up on our stodgy crowd and began playing just for him.

I watched as the musicians and their nimble enthusiast transported themselves to cloud-nine. They channeled a full-on shamanic boogie while the rest of us, we humdrum leftovers, remained to fend for ourselves.

As an intern I looked forward to every drum circle, full-moon party, or spontaneous shin-dig that evoked Joe’s crazy imp jive. There were plenty of these opportunities because Joe is a virtuoso at whoopin’-it-up in the woods.

Over the years, Mountain Gardens has inspired the construction of many inventive party enhancements including a wood fired hot tub, a cob pizza oven, and a large deck that bounces under the force of ecstatic dancing.

The revelries generally commence as the hot tub achieves a reasonable temperature. As the night progresses the fire is stoked with increased zeal until only the most hard-core or the most inebriated can dip more than a toe in the celebratory broth. Joe waits until the very end, until everyone else has gone home, passed out, or sustains a healthy intimidation of the smoking hot tub. He is known for his assertion, “I don’t get naked for anything under 108.”

Perhaps it’s this propensity for scalding water that perks Joe’s vitality. Or maybe it’s his proclivity for bushwhacking up sharp inclines on regular wildcrafting expeditions. On each of these off-trail plant missions, Joe easily outpaces his interns. Seemingly unaware that his near-sprint up the mountain puts the rest of us 20-somethings to shame, he scampers along at a solid, inexhaustible clip… rather like he’s darting up a household staircase. There is nothing for us to do but pick up the pace and pray he will discover an oddly colored trillium or an unfamiliar patch of bloodroot… anything that might waylay him while we regain our breath.

Joe also puts a lot of stock in his daily intake of Gynostemma tea. Gynostemma (Jiaogulan) is a Chinese veining plant that Joe has adopted as one of his specialty herbs. It is a longevity booster with very similar chemistry to the Ginseng root. Gynostemma’s medicinal properties can be extracted from the vine and leaves and, therefore, it can be harvested far more sustainably than Ginseng which is currently verging on extinction in our native forestland.

During the 16 months that I interned at Mountain Gardens, I retained very little knowledge concerning plant medicine or gardening. Instead I was inexorably influenced by my daily interactions with a man wholly committed to his life-mission. His dedication is not based in an intellectual ideal or a nine-to-five obligation. Whether he is teaching, dancing, gardening, or re-directing a compulsive intern, Joe is wholeheartedly contributing to a positive outcome in the cosmic plot line.

In an addendum that he attached to his well-known essay, Paradise Gardening Joe wrote:

… I still hold firmly to the belief that the best way to address global warming, diversity loss and other planetary problems, the best way to address war, injustice and other social problems, and the best way for humans to live on the planet to realize our full physical, mental and spiritual potential are the same ‘way.’ Mountain Gardens is an effort to act out this theory – We are actors in a piece of ‘visionary ecological theater.’

When I think of Joe I imagine him accompanied by his ubiquitous mug of Gynostemma tea, sifting through piles of gardening literature at a table dusted in potting soil and residual root tendrils. Or I imagine him meandering through the day’s projects… repotting, seed saving, weatherizing… the seemingly minute alterations which, over time, have built his Utopia.

In a world mesmerized by quick progress and instant gratification, Joe holds a space for methodical, meaningful, real-time change. At Mountain Gardens the tedious cycles of growth, decay, and reconstruction are understood, simply, as the Earth’s stalwart style of instruction. Joe nurtures his own property with a similar relentless, unassuming nature. He is a true “Earth-style” instructor whose very life demonstrates his fundamental belief: that humans can interact courteously with the rest of this planet.

Jesika Feather is a mother, teacher, writer, and community organizer who lives in Eugene, Oregon. She enjoys living closely with brilliant, zany individuals and then writing about the ensuing rigmarole. You can find some of this in Communities Magazine or on her blog at: