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My Road to Taliesin

April 22nd

By Joanna Larson

I came to know Taliesin at a transformative time in my life. I was a year out of university, living in a new city, and a couple of months into a new job in Sun Prairie, WI. My partner and I had just returned from three months of backpacking across Europe and South America, where I had grown my cultural perspective and appreciation for remote, wild places. The pandemic chased us home and pushed my start day as a test engineer with an agriculture equipment manufacturer out a month.

I was excited to begin work on projects that make a difference for family farms like where I grew up. Determined to put my heart and soul into the beginning of my career as an engineer, my partner and I agreed to do the long-distance relationship thing so that we could each pursue our dream jobs. With him out in Washington and me in Wisconsin, it became impossible for regular visits in the new normal of Covid. About two months in, I was homesick, and I found it challenging to make Madison friends during the lockdown.

My company’s director knew that I was looking for ways to get involved in my new community. Over lunch one day, he described the area around Taliesin in Spring Green as one of the most beautiful places he had ever been. I was intrigued. He suggested I give his wife Sherri a call. As Taliesin’s Human Resources Manager, she was recruiting volunteers to help in the garden at Taliesin. I had no idea what Taliesin was, but after a bit of research online, I realized that Taliesin was way more than I initially thought – it had been a while since I had watched the Ken Burns documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright on PBS with Grandma. Excited about the chance, even just to visit Taliesin, I filled out the volunteer form. Then Sherri helped me arrange a day to meet with Caroline, Taliesin’s Director of Programs, to introduce the estate and the kitchen garden.

When I first drove out to Spring Green, I got so caught up in the beauty of the farms and hillsides of the Driftless Area that I found myself meandering along at only 25 miles an hour. In my mind, the Welsh Hills of the Wright family homestead resembled the rolling Swedish Hills of my family’s ranch in North Dakota. While the Drift Prairie of my childhood was swept with prairie grass and dotted with beef cattle, these were carved out by cornfields, dairies, and tree groves, the effect on me was the same. I felt the energy you get from a landscape that fosters hard workers, kind neighbors, proud traditions, and artistic achievement. It’s a culture worth preserving.

Rolling hills of the estate.

When I arrived, late of course, to my meeting with Caroline, the conversation came easy. We talked as we planted cucumbers, discussed ideas for the kitchen garden, and shared our passions for travel, sustainable farming, local food, and agriculture education. She told me all about the Food Artisan Immersion Program, where students from different cultures could live and learn together on the estate. I was happy to be a part of something that would offer such a neat experience to the participants.

The garden worked its magic on Caroline and me, connecting total strangers in community with one another and the environment. It was easy for me to feel right at home, and I had made a friend.

I went back to the garden to volunteer on the weekends whenever I could. I would get lost in the methodical motion of pulling weeds for a couple of hours, and then I would break for a sack lunch on the lawn before driving back to Madison. The change I saw between visits was satisfying as volunteers’ collective effort brought spring seedlings into rows of beans, hills of potatoes, and blooms of flowers.

Kitchen Garden. 2020

By mid-summer, the months of isolation and social distancing were taking a toll on me. My trips to the garden became more and more critical. I was increasingly anxious about all the unknowns around my loved ones’ continued health, the injustices toward people of color, and the presidential campaign. I found it harder and harder to be away from my partner. I had a lot on my mind. And like many, I felt helpless to do anything meaningful about it.

Taliesin gave me clarity and space to breathe. Amidst the chaos, I found peace in the history of the place and inspiration in the organization’s mission and ideals. While working in the garden, I was able to center myself; I reflected on essential things in my life and gave thanks for all the opportunities I have had. And most importantly, I was able to make the difficult decision to quit my dream job and move to the west coast. Because I was able to retreat at Taliesin, I gained the courage to start a new path.

In a world full of uncertainty and confusion, we all need places like Taliesin. Places where we can be one with the landscape, laugh with a friend, be quiet in solitude, or just bathe in the fresh air. A place where we can sort through the distractions, choose to act on what truly makes us happy, and celebrate life’s transformations.