INTERVIEW: Miriam Therese MacGillis…Part II

I came out here to the farm in May of 1980, and I had just turned forty.

Were you alone? Did you have a friend, a big group of people to start?
In the process with the proposal that we presented eight months earlier, it was approved, and then we came out, there was another sister, Jean Goyet, she was a biologist, and she was interested. I was still working at GEA, and there was a young couple who also worked there, Vinnie McMahan and his wife, Liz. They were young and just married. I asked them, “What do you think about this venture? There’s this farm up in Blairstown and Jean, and I are interested in maybe putting a proposal together. Would you want to be part of that?”  We had a lot of conversations, and then the four of us put our names on the proposal. We submitted it, and ours was approved.

But you’re a city girl! You grew up in the city, and now you come up to the country. There’s not much around here anyway, but there was a lot less around here then.
I was a city girl. I grew up in Bayonne, but when I was seven years old; the four kids, my mother, and father; I don’t even know how they scraped the money together, but they heard about land on the Muscanetcong river outside of Hackettstown, and it was all wilderness. Route 80 didn’t even exist. This was 1947, and it was all wilderness, farms, and this little section of land called Rustic Knolls, and it still exists by Stevens State Park, all wilderness, but Rustic Knolls had a private road. It was a co-operative place owned by fishermen and hunters. So there were little cabins in there, and a dirt road that went all the way down the hill to the railroad. My parents were able to buy a Lot in there.

When I was seven years old, we got packed into the car, drove out here. My father had rented one of those little cabins, which was infested with mice…I remember the smell of it…we stayed there for a week while he cleared the Lot of the trees. Then he put up this wooden platform, and he had purchased an army tent, and we lived in that army tent. So the six of us lived in the army tent while my father kept clearing the land and putting in foundations and other stuff.

Over the next ten years every weekend and every summer we were out there as a family building that house. So you see I grew up in the country, and there were kids in a few of the other little houses, and we got to know each other. But we were wild.

We lived in the woods and in the river, and that’s where my connection to nature was born. Huge!

Ok, let’s come back to when you moved out here to Genesis Farm. You started an organic garden.
Right here.

Oh, right here? Where we’re sitting in the grove of the Founders?
Right here. Twenty raised beds that were all double dug French intensive, but it was slow. And all we had was the farmhouse, without the kitchen and the addition on the back with the bathroom. It was just four rooms, and everything else was…tractor shed….we had no place to gather everybody, and we couldn’t use Bread & Roses.; that wasn’t in the deal.

At what point then did you discover Thomas Berry‘s work?
1977, when I was working with GEA. We had a conference to which he was invited to give a presentation. That was Easter week of 1977, and it was another (explosion sound), complete conversion. I didn’t know what he was talking about, none of us did, but we began to publish his works in The Whole Earth Papers. He didn’t have his books out or anything. He was still teaching at Fordham, then he retired to Riverdale Center, but he would publish a paper occasionally, or give a talk, and he would mimeograph them. When he had ten, he would put them in a little binder, and they were called the Riverdale Papers.

So, was this an influence in your coming here at that time?
Yes, but much less conscious. It affected my entire psyche, but I had no way to relate to the concepts…they were totally foreign. From ’77 each time he would publish a paper we’d have it put into The Whole Earth Papers…I should show you the history because it’s really interesting to see his papers evolving. Then in 1980 when we came here, I already had just the slightest sense of what he was trying to talk about. The Three Principles and that I was the Earth in the form of the human…I really got that because when he said that in 1977 in that lecture I realized…I wasn’t crazy. Because up until then, in the convent I had this longing for the woods and nature and animals and we couldn’t…. When I would talk about that people thought I was……dingy, ya know?

It was like a validation of my own experiences in Rustic Knolls, and I realized I wasn’t crazy.

Let’s talk about the creative process, the creative vision that became awakened once you were here on the land. And what made you decide to change the name from Red Cat Farm to Genesis Farm?
We were struggling, the four of us, “what are we going to call it…what are we going to call it….”, and it just seemed that Genesis was such a generic word that meant “new beginnings,” the new beginnings of things. Everybody just seemed to click. That’s why we called it Genesis Farm.

Now that I look back, what we had to do those first four years; first of all we all worked at other jobs and commuted back here. We didn’t have a lot of focused time, we had to earn a living. We had to pay the bills, we had no subsidy. It was really, really hard. When we would meet to talk about what is our vision going to be, we had to sort out where we were coming from.

It was clear Jean had a strong commitment to the city, but she also had a strong commitment to a place in Canada called, Combermere. It was started by this Catholic laywoman, Catherine Doherty, she was a Russian, intellectual, activist who had a strong sense of agrarianism, but she was very hierarchical. Everything was the priests and the father’s, the Bishops and the church, in this country place. She imposed a very strict discipline on the young people who would come to farm there for the experience. It was very community building, and she did a lot of good work, but it was way too rigid for me, and it was so biblically oriented.

I’m already starting to move into…. (laughter)…but I didn’t have the words for that….I just knew I couldn’t give my energy to that model, but I didn’t know what kind of a model. So, we had to work through all of that. Liz and Vinny, who were the young couple, he was a teacher, and she was still working at GEA, they didn’t have the same background, and they had two little babies right away, their life was complicated, and they’re living in the cottage, Jean and I were living in the farmhouse before any additions. We had so much we had to work through, and on very limited time, and when we were here we had to work. I mean all we had to mow the lawn was a riding mower that broke every other day. I want to say to you, the first four years I wiped it out (laughter), I can’t go back there it was so hard.

By the end of those four years, I was here by myself. Jean had decided to go back to the city, Liz wanted to get her Masters from Fordham, and Vinnie was teaching in North Arlington, and the commutes were just crazy. I was here alone…….and that was a year I had space to think. I was also lecturing all over the country. By then I was affirmed as a lecturer on hunger, world order, peace, and increasingly, cosmology was slipping into my talks even though I didn’t know what I was talking about.

By ’84 I called Thomas, I had read his paper; this was before Dream of the Earth was published on bioregionalism. His paper was magnificent. I remember reading it driving with this other Sister through the great plains of Montana, one of us was reading it aloud, and we were crying it was so beautiful. He was putting language around instincts we had no way to describe. When I got home, not shortly after that, he wrote another paper on the Hudson River Valley as a bioregion, and I realized I didn’t know where I was. I’d never heard of bioregionalism. In 1984, this stuff wasn’t being written yet. I realized that and called him up, and I said Tom, I called him Tom, I said, “I don’t know where I am. I know the Delaware River is close by, but I don’t know where I am. How can I be running an ecology center when I don’t know where I am?”

I realized how naive and utopian…. we were just naive. The four of us, one was more naive than the other (laughter). That’s when Thomas invited me to come study with him for a year. I would go out one day a month, make a big pot of soup, go out, spend the day; and he would just talk and talk and talk. Send me home with all these books. I was supposed to read them by the next time I went….I did. Came back and said I don’t know what I read because I don’t know anything about chemistry and astrophysics…you know…you get the sense of it…you get the sense of it. By the end of that year, I wrote a paper to synthesize my studies on bioregionalism and on Genesis Farm as a center for bioregional learning. Then he said, “Ok, you’re ready to start.”

That would have been ’85. Then we wanted to get that kitchen built. Once I was clear, for everything to fall into place, it took a lot of learning and study because I had no background in anything. But there was a direction, there was a clarity about the direction it would take, and then convincing the congregation that that’s the way we should go. Once that was clear we could proceed, before that we couldn’t go anywhere.

What was the vision for the style you created? It’s got a little Shaker, some country simplicity, but it’s all you. The way things are set up, the way the elements are aligned in the different rooms, the furniture you’ve used. What was that sense?
I think from the earliest….earliest sense of the farmhouse, which, by the way, everyone said, “gut the whole place, take it down and start over again.” I couldn’t, I loved it, even though it was a mess. Pictures of when we first walked in….radiators broken, leaks all over, it was terrible.

This is really interesting…it was the sense of living simply and making beauty and simplicity….I wasn’t thinking of Shakers then, I didn’t know much about them, I’d heard of them, but now I’ve really done a lot of study on them, and they are a very clear model. But if we were going to have this reflection center where people of good will could come and ask questions in a safe place about the state of the world; I mean that’s basically what we were saying, we didn’t have answers, it was a place people could ask questions.

We knew the simplicity of life had to feature in that, that’s before we came here. So, how to furnish that house without expensive furnishings or things that would reflect that you had to have money to buy that. We worked with the discards of other people and turned it into something beautiful. I think I just had an innate sense of how to do that, but we had to develop patience if we didn’t have the money. We didn’t even have the money for a tape recorder. We had to save for a tape recorder, just to play music.

I know one thing, one of our friends gave us a painting done by her brother.  Now you’re giving this artist….but because her brother did it, and this was after we were getting going, and we were always working with community consensus and community building…so I had to say no. That could have started World War III.

The other thing, my brother Bobby is now a very prestigious painter, and he’s got paintings in shows all over the place, and he’s in galleries all over the place, and he gives me this gorgeous watercolor, and I had to say no.

Because everybody can’t afford his paintings. So we have to do it without that kind of art. You’ll notice there’s very little art, anywhere. Then the whole thing became simplified, take things away rather than fill walls, fill everything, keep taking things away and allowing just space to be simple and peaceful. That’s been a whole process, and I know it’s based on principles of design…that really is how it works.

So now, this time present, how do you satisfy your creative process? You’ve achieved a lot, you’ve come to a certain point in your life, you’ve transitioned in these last years. I notice you’re working more in the design of the land, the Valley of Aluna, the opening of the solstice portal, the pilgrimage walk along the Paulinskill River. You’ve come from the learning center and back out into nature…is it a full circle?
Well, it is, but with a deeper understanding of nature and the role of what I would call contemporary art. Where I believe that, in this particular society, art is seen as investments for very wealthy people, and putting a value on painters, paintings or sculptors speculatively. It is mostly decorative, and not necessarily functional at all. There’s an aspect of contemporary art that’s become degenerative. It’s about prestige, elitism, and to me, that’s not art.

 Art is the capacity every human being has to make something beautiful and to make it well.

If you’re making a table, I don’t care how many paintings you put on top of it, if the table isn’t made well and it falls apart….it has to be functional and beautiful. That’s where the Shakers have been a great inspiration to me.

But everyone can do that and if we were all released internally from our, “Oh, I’m not an artist, I can’t draw, I can’t make a straight line”. As a teacher, I lived through that in my students for 15 years. I had to break that before I could make them see that art is an innate human capacity.

So, what would you say to these young people coming up now?
Well, it’s really interesting. There was a group of young musicians that I invited to help me create some music for our Portals and Passages. I was trying to give them the larger context, and they composed one piece, we did it once, and they wrote back to me and said that was not the kind of music they want to do. They were into Pop and all that, but they’re young. That was probably my most clear invitation to participate in what we’re doing here.

It’s hard in this culture when music is all about superstars, and money making and labels and flashy videos. I mean, it’s an expression of the soul of our society. I have conversations with young people, one, in particular, I’m thinking about, and we can sit forever and talk about Leonard Cohen’s music, and his poetry, and the themes he evokes that are so archetypal, and this kid’s fifteen. So it’s there, but if it’s not nurtured by their parents, by their friends or by their culture, it’s rare.

What would you tell them directly?
What would I say to today’s generation? First thing I would say is that I am so sorry that my generation and the generation before have been so selfish. We’re dooming you to a world where beauty is going to be for the rich. I would love to share with you how you could have an infinite source of beauty to inspire you, but it’s not going to look like you think it is. Are you willing to come and camp out here for a week and we’ll explore that?

An invitation then? It’s true that to experience and to see it is much more powerful than just to hear some words.
Yeah, yeah…and you need to be steeped in beauty. For me, beauty is the cosmos, is earth, and then there’s the beauty of human artifacts. We make beautiful things too, but if it’s not integral, the way earth makes it, it’s not going to be substantive.

What would you say to young Miriam starting out, knowing what you know today? Is there any advice you’d give her?
I probably wouldn’t do much differently or make different decisions, but I would suggest developing a little more capacity to break through naivety. There is a naivety that I grew up with, this idealistic sense that it will all work out in the end, and it’s going to be ok in the end, and all of that. It’s funny, I don’t believe that anymore. What I do believe is the possibility of the human creative spirit, but it has to participate. It’s not going to happen because we’re waiting for it to happen.

It doesn’t happen just because you’re sitting in meditation or praying to some deity. We are capable of incredible creativity, compassion, and goodness, and we are capable of incredible self-centeredness and selfishness, and hatred, and bigotry, and war-making. Look at what we are doing right now as a nation. And we are still perceiving ourselves naively, as the greatest nation on earth. That comes from a lack of discernment. You have to rationally analyze things, as well as, intuit. That’s why Thomas says that…you have to have both of those aspects.

To begin to understand more deeply what you’ve done here at Genesis or the model you followed, is there a book or two books you would recommend for people to begin their understanding?
I am so steeped in Thomas Berry’s work, I would say that you cannot skip over reading, The Dream of the Earth, and The Great Work…like sixteen times. Because you cannot get it all in one reading. The other day I was reading the end of one of his essays on Universities, Chapter 7 in The Great Work; and the last paragraph he’s talking about the role of the University, and he says,

We are not prepared for the mind tormenting ambivalence we have to live in now.

And I never saw “mind tormenting,” and I knew what he was talking about, but I never saw it before, and I read that chapter many times.

So, Dream of the Earth, The Great Work, The Universe Story. Then you can go into the scientific. Brian Swimme’s tapes are very instructive, especially one set called The Powers of the Universe. I would recommend that as essential reading. That’s the comprehensive view; but to wake us up from our naiveté I would suggest you go and read a book called The Peoples Advocate, by a lawyer by the name of Daniel Sheehan. It is his story of how he was privy to information from one of the major law firms in New York, who understood how prior to World War II, a very small, very wealthy group of Americans formed a cabal to fund Hitler because they didn’t believe that democracy would work and they wanted to shift America from democracy to fascism.

And how George Herbert Walker Bush’s grandfather was one of them and the Dulles family. When I was able to go back historically and reconstruct that everything fell into place. We’ve studied here the rise of theocracy, and how after Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the ’60’s this intention to create the Republican Right, and the religious right, was a strategy. We were steeped in this, but prior to Danny Shehan, I didn’t have the background.

So, basically, you are asking people to educate themselves.
Yes, but what I am saying is not going to be taught anywhere.

I know, and these events have led to where we are today.
It’s a major part…a huge part. It’s the core. People ask how did we get here? Well, this is how we got here.

Well, Miriam, thanks so much for sharing your life as an artist with us.
Now, that’s just my perspective, don’t believe me, figure it out for yourself.

Be creative!
Yes, exactly.

The founders of Genesis Farm

All photos of Genesis Farm by Delia Quigley (taken over many wonderful years walking the land.)