Ecology and Spirituality Meet at Fern Hill Cottage

By Kate Judd

A certain magic hangs over Fern Hill Cottage. Even the directions to get there have a fairy tale quality: cross the river, pass through the twin stone pillars, wind up the narrow track through the woods. At the top of the hill, the grand old house with its gambrel roof, gables and dormers could almost be a fairy castle.

I certainly felt like a wandering traveler from an old tale as I knocked at the door. In a moment, out popped Avery Cleary, director of Fern Hill Cottage, a new center for ecological awareness . She greeted me with a smile.

“That was the kitchen door,” she explained, as she escorted me around the outside of the house. “Since you are having the grand tour, I want you to come in properly at the front.”

Fern Hill Cottage welcomed me with a mixed atmosphere of peacefulness and energetic activity. Avery ushered me through the first floor, pointing out the future library and reference room, rooms for lectures and workshops, and the large kitchen. Several rooms have had their floors refinished recently by a crew of eager volunteers. A bathroom, Avery told me, was restored by spiritual teacher Brenda Morgan, who recently offered a retreat on the premises. In the kitchen I met Brenda’s brother Kevin Morgan, who, with his wife Chris and small daughter Rachel, have moved into the second floor rooms in order to donate a year of their services to restoring Fern Hill Cottage to its former grandeur. I was also introduced to Kevin and Brenda’s mother, who was staying for a month. Elderly but spry, she was painting a steep set of cellar stairs when I met her.

“The thing that’s so amazing about this property is, no matter who comes here or what they come to do, they love doing it,” Avery said. “The women who came extra hours to clean said they wished they didn’t have to leave to go to other jobs because they just loved cleaning this place. We’ve had so many volunteers come and help, and every one of them has been enthusiastic.”

As Avery guided me up to the second and third floors, and even down to the marble-floored basement, she told me a little about the history of the house. “It was built in 1891 by the daughter of Julia Dorr, Vermont poet. There’s a plaque in Rutland about Julia Dorr—she wrote a book of sonnets, and she started the Rutland Public Free Library. Her daughter built the house on land that was formerly part of her estate. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others visited Julia Dorr and walked on this land, before Fern Hill Cottage was built. We feel that we’re carrying on the tradition of the New England naturalists who walked the property, and who knew that a connection to the Earth was the basis for the development of the human spirit.”

I asked Avery how Fern Hill as a community center for ecological creativity came to be. “Fern Hill Cottage is a project of the Becomings Foundation. I never intended to begin a Foundation,” Avery said, laughing. “My initial vision was a very small center for creativity—a place where I would live, do some workshops. Once I started talking to people, it just literally took on a life of its own. You have the environmental movement on one hand and you have the spiritual movement on the other, and both of them are pressing through the psyche of Western culture. It’s the marriage of those two that is going to enable us to solve the problems that seem to be so elusive a this point in time.

“Back in the seventies I owned a nursery school. I really felt that my contribution to the world was creating a creative space for these young beings. My sister invited me out to California for the first Women’s Convocation, for an organization that was then known as Beyond War. That really catapulted me into social action. I realized that I thought I was doing this good work for these children, and yet there were all these things happening on the planet that I was basically immune to. This began my search for what my role is in helping the planet take its next step in evolution.

“Beyond War has changed its name; it’s now Foundation for Global Community. Through them I became aware of Genesis Farm which is an ecological learning center in Blairstown , NJ, which is actually the model that this center is based on. So those two organizations are really the parent organizations for Becomings. Genesis Farm lays out the vision or the dream of a mutually enhancing relationship with the planet. And the Foundation for Global Community is really expert in how you take a new idea and move it out through a population. By the way, both of these organizations have given us interest free loans to help us get started. Meanwhile, my own personal spiritual search led me to Brenda Morgan, who is a spiritual teacher and friend and mentor. Brenda offers talks and workshops called “A Gathering in Spirit” on a regular basis at Fern Hill Cottage. I would say she’s like the Fairy Godmother to the Foundation. It was my work with her that helped me get over my own fear, and begin to understand that I had the dream of creating a place like Fern Hill Cottage.

“The idea of the Fern Hill center comes from the philosophical basis of Genesis Farm, which is Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme’s work. Thomas Berry is a Passionist Priest, and Brian Swimme is a Mathematical Cosmologist; they coauthored a book called The Universe Story. As Swimme says, “By telling the story of the Universe we are awakening the human species and altering the destiny of the Universe,” the point being that we come out of that creative process that we call evolution, and it’s continual. I believe we’re in the midst of a major change point in evolution. I think it’s as big as when we had microorganisms producing oxygen and there were so many of them and they were producing so much oxygen that it actually became toxic to the environment, and would have brought the whole system down, had it not given rise to oxygen breathers. It doesn’t seem like we’ve gone down this horrible path of no return. It’s just that we’ve created conditions that force us to take the next step in evolution. My question had been “How do I make sense of being here as a spirit on this planet? How do I make sense of the environmental crises?” I kept thinking, I “get” this, but I don’t get what it means for me. I get we’ve got a problem. I get we have to change. What am I supposed to do? That’s really how Becomings and the Center at Fern Hill Cottage came about, from a lot of dialog around how the environmental and the spiritual come together.”

Taking a break from explaining the philosophical underpinnings of the new Center, Avery filled me in on some of the practical details. “We are having an architectural assessment to tell us what we need to do to make it historically accurate,” she said. “It is our intention to preserve the house with as much historical authenticity as we can and still meet present building code. We also plan to introduce as much green building as we can. The goal eventually is to have a composting toilet, as an educational model as well as just convenience. We want to have solar panels as much as is appropriate in this area. What we’ve done with limited funds and limited time is to stabilize the house. We’ve had to make do with the materials that were available. It is the goal that Fern Hill, at least the first and third floors to start with (where staff are not living), will become a model and that we will hold to green building standards in all the materials we use.”

We peeked into the rooms where Kevin, Chris, and Rachel are spending their “year abroad.”

“ Kevin and Chris are just the perfect couple to help get Fern Hill up and going,” Avery told me. “Kevin is a builder and an electrician. He was beginning to renovate properties down in Florida where they live. He thought that by making a one year commitment to live in and work on this house, he would not only get to do what he loved, but do it for a cause that he believed in. And Chris is a vital, energetic person who is wonderful with community outreach, has a lot of experience with inviting volunteers in and likes her home to be open in that regard. Both of them are really excited about this project.”

Avery next suggested that we take a tour of the grounds which surround the house. Fern Hill Cottage is located in a surprisingly serene spot. Though it is close to the heart of downtown Rutland, its spacious lawn and old perennial beds are shielded on one side by a thick grove of trees. On the other side the land abuts the remainder of Julia’s Dorr’s former estate, which is now owned by the Church of Rutland. Avery pointed out projects which are underway—a compost pile, a small organic garden—and described the future plans for the grounds. These include a substantial organic vegetable patch which can be used to demonstrate growing methods and grow food for staff and for donation to the local food pantry; restoration of the original flower borders; a meditation garden; and a nature trail.

“These gardens will be open to the public,” Avery explained. “We are networking with the community and with schools, to educate and provide hands-on activities. One of the major themes of the Center is to create a model for what is possible; so it isn’t just theory, but an actual way to begin to live in a mutually enhancing relationship with the planet. The Becomings Foundation has three connected projects that are evolving simultaneously here. The physical center Fern Hill Cottage in Rutland is one. The second, called the Web of Feeling, is an internet network of people around the country who are interested in exploring the idea of the spiritual and the environmental coming together. And the third is called Earth Intimacy, a network or coalition of individuals and organizations who come together at certain points during the year to attend conferences and share ideas. Fern Hill Cottage is the central hub of communication for the Web of Feeling and Earth Intimacy, as well as a meeting space. How do you get a town engaged in the idea of looking for creative responses to environmental crises by bringing in the whole intuitive, spiritual, creative dimension, and have that become part of the daily flow of life? That’s what we hope to discover together.”

“To reach these goals,” Avery continued, “Fern Hill Cottage is already offering a wide selection of classes, workshops and conferences on topics related to personal and planetary healing. We’re working on a speakers series. We’ll be offering events in conjunction with VINS (Vermont Institute of Natural Science), and teaching lead paint abatement in cooperation with the State of Vermont. We want to become a community resource center, where people can find out about other environmental organizations in our area and around the world.”

I asked Avery if there was anything else she would like people to know about the center for ecological creativity at Fern Hill Cottage “Everyone is invited,” she said. “It’s a special place that’s evolving a life of its own. We want more people to come and explore. Fern Hill Cottage will truly become an asset to the community by the nature of the people who come here and get involved. We welcome people’s ideas and input.”

Before I left the magic of Fern Hill behind, I sat for a moment in the old swing which hangs in front of the porch. The distant rush of traffic blended into the sound of the river and the whisper of the wind in the trees. I pictured flowers and vegetables filling the yard before me with lush, healthy growth. I thought of the excitement Kevin Morgan had expressed about using “green” methods to restore the house to its former grandeur.

“There’s something about this place...” Avery had said.

There certainly is. I hope you will go and experience the magic at Fern Hill Cottage for yourself!

Kate Judd is a Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique. She also teaches voice. She holds an Artist Diploma in Voice from the Longy School of Music, but her Bachelor’s Degree (from Marlboro College) is in creative writing, a passion which she is attempting to revive in her life. She can be reached at

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