holy twins

I have just returned from a week’s retreat at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT. The Abbey was founded in 1947 in gratitude for the American liberation of France during the Second World War. From its foundation, the life of the abbey and its community has been rooted in the land. Today the community maintains dairy and beef cattle, chickens, sheep, vegetable and flower gardens, and an orchard. They make cheese, butter, and yogurt; spin and weave wool; sculpt; paint; make pottery; and so much more. They are living the traditional Benedictine life that so many other communities have abandoned: one in intimate partnership with the land, where physical labor and prayer become twin pillars holding up the life of faith and discipleship.

The nuns at Regina Laudis don’t offer retreat programming the way we do here at Holy Cross Monastery. Rather, they invite their guests to join them in the rhythm of prayer and work that structures their days. During my week with them I harvested raspberries, cleared brush, loaded sheep into trucks, cleaned the church, weeded flower beds, mowed lawns, and weed whacked overgrown hillsides. I have rarely felt so alive. It was a hot week, and I came home with a suitcase full of sweat drenched, smelly clothing. But my sweat, the heat of my body, and my beating heart all told me that I was a living, breathing, embodied creature of God, not separate from the earth and its people, but one with them.

I am used to thinking about the unitive power of a community’s prayer. One of the functions of the Divine Office is that it knits the community together into one praying body. We breathe together, and then we sing together. But I came away from my retreat time more aware of the unitive power of work, and particularly of manual labor. Using my body to tend and steward the land left me feeling more whole–with a greater unity of body, mind, and spirit. But it also led me to feel united with the rest of the community of workers and prayers (both nuns and guests). We were all engaged in a common enterprise, and not only a mental and spiritual one, but an embodied one.

The Abbess Emerita, Mother David, writes of the unifying power of prayer and work in her autobiography on the Abbey’s website.

I knew that even if I spent my whole life in social work I could only do a very little. There had to be another way for me to help. It was that search for another dimension in which to give myself that finally drove me into the monastery. Then, of course, the question is, ‘Did that meet your desire?’ Yes, because in complement to that vast world of need that stretches from end to end is that vast world of interior struggle for redeemed innocence, which by morphic resonance communicates faith, hope and charity. It was that interior struggle I took on in entering the monastery. It is my hope that as we seek to live the covenantal life into which we have been baptized, consciously confronting the demons that assail us and opting for the good of one another, the whole world will be changed for the better. I believe that was the vision St. Benedict entrusted to us when he saw the whole world in a single ray of light.

There is an almost inexplicable connection between groundedness in the body and the earth and what Mother David so beautifully calls “the vast world of interior struggle for redeemed innocence.” As we seek to tend the ground as good stewards of creation, we make the conscious decision to act like Adam and Eve before they ate the fruit: humankind in harmony with the earth, one another, and God. This vision of redeemed innocence, a vision the nuns of Regina Laudis live with such faithfulness (though, of course, never perfectly) serves as an antidote to the alienation from self, other, the earth, and God that so plagues our world today.

While I was at the abbey I bought a print of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica (the title photo of this post). The original is by Tomie daPaola. I hope it serves as a reminder to me of the holy twins of ora and labora, that both are necessary for my own and my community’s wholeness. Prayer and work are, ultimately, one thing and they lay the groundwork for contemplation and unity in Christ.

If you are interested in joining our community’s rhythm of prayer and work, check out our garden and library volunteer retreats. If the dates of those retreats don’t work for you, contact our guesthouse manager, Lori (guesthouse@hcmnet.org), and tell her you’re interested in a retreat that includes work time.

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preserving historic iris

My love of flowers began at an early age. My mother enjoys telling the story of the time, when I was around three, that she noticed me in the backseat of the car looking sad. She asked me what was wrong, to which I replied “I don’t feel loved.” “Well, honey,” she said, “what would make you feel loved?” “A blooming plant would be nice,” I said.

All through my childhood, the iris held pride of place in my floral pantheon. At that time I only knew the flowers in florists’ shops. So, the iris of my youth was the plain blue flag iris. At the time I had no awareness of the iris’ incredible range of form and color, nor that such voluptuous blooms come from a rhizome that looks like a dried up lobster. Still, even then I knew that the iris had more grace than the lily and more elegance than the rose.



It has been one of the great pleasures of my role as monastery groundskeeper to explore the huge range of iris one can grow. As I have done so, I have learned that my own particular taste–not surprising given the rest of my proclivities–favors the historic iris. The older cultivars tend to be simpler in form, closer to their wild cousins. As such, they possess infinitely more grace than their overly large and overly frilly modern relatives. They also fit better into the context of a monastery garden, where the focus is less on spectacular single blooms than on creating a harmonious environment conducive to rest and contemplation.

I’m thrilled, therefore, that we are partnering with the Historic Iris Preservation Society to help preserve rare and historic iris. We are now one of a growing number of guardian gardens, a network of home gardeners and some larger ventures that dedicate garden space to preserving the most endangered iris cultivars.

The program runs on a brilliant and simple model. Each participating garden hosts as many rare cultivars as it can. Once those iris have grown large enough to divide, the gardener divides them, keeps four or five rhizomes for her garden, and sends the others to another guardian gardener, who adopts the divided iris. The only money that changes hands is the cost of postage.

Guardian Gardens maintains a database of all the iris grown by HIPS members as well as those we know are sold commercially. If there are fewer than four HIPS members growing a certain iris, it’s considered worthy of inclusion on the Guardian Gardens ark.


Our newly planted historic iris.


The Holy Cross gardens have only recently joined this program, but we’ve already adopted 13 rare iris. It’s really a perfect situation for us. As many of you know, we’re in a several year process of renovating our garden spaces. This renovation includes two large iris beds, one on the guesthouse lawn and one on the north side of the monastic enclosure. The Guardian Gardens program gives us the opportunity to fill those beds with beautiful iris that aren’t available commercially at the same time that we help the cause of heirloom and historic plants.

My understanding and appreciation of the iris continues to grow each year, but I remain grounded in that childlike fascination with the beauty of flowers. It’s incredible that such beauty exists in the world, and incredible that I can participate in its growth and preservation. My hunch as a child turns out to be right–blooming plants do convey to me the love of the Creator, and they help me channel that love in and through my own life as a gardener, a monk, and a Christian.


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a little fire

Monday morning the council of the Order, with the Superior’s consent, approved my request to make my first profession of the three-fold monastic vow of obedience, stability, and conversion of my life to the monastic way of life. God willing, I will make my profession on All Saints’ Day, taking the name Aidan, after St. Aidan of Lindisfarne.

How fitting that today is the Feast of St. Aidan, who died in 651. Aidan began his monastic life at a young age at the monastery founded by St. Columba on Iona. Of Irish descent, he is remembered as one of the great early Celtic saints. And, indeed, more so than any other, he connects the Christianities of Ireland, Scotland, and England.

The story goes that King Oswald of Northumbria sent to Iona for a missionary to convert his people to Christianity. The first monk who took the mission returned in frustration, complaining that the people of Northumbria were hard-hearted and set in their pagan superstitions. When asked how he began his mission, this nameless monk said that he told them of the need for repentance and of the fires of hell. Aidan responded that missionary work must begin with an account of the deep and abiding love of Christ for all people. He was then sent to Northumbria himself.


Lindisfarne ruins
The ruins of a later abbey on Lindisfarne.


Aidan’s success in establishing the Christian Church in Northumbria flowed directly from his gentleness and his humility. After founding a monastery on Lindisfarne, he next set up schools for the local children that used the vernacular. He was famous for his insistence on walking his diocese rather than riding a horse as was customary for bishops and nobles. When King Oswald gave him fine horses, he sold them and purchased freedom for slaves. Oswald once reproached him for this practice, telling him that if he wanted money Oswald would give it to him, but that these horses were the finest in the land and Aidan should ride rather than sell them. Aidan rebuked him, asking “Do you care more for the child of a mare than for the child of God?” Needless to say, the king relented.

It strikes me that Aidan’s proximity to the ground was both the foundation and the reflection of his humility. “Humility,” after all, comes from “humus” (also the root of “human”). To be humble is to be earthy, rooted in the reality of our nature as created beings, a part of the earth that supports and sustains our lives. Aidan never lost sight of that connection, as his insistence on walking like a peasant underlines. It was his connection to the earth and to earthiness, that allowed his heart to remain soft to the needs of those he served, and that allowed the fire of Christ’s love to burn in his heart.


Aidan Statue
St. Aidan’s statue on Holy Isle.


I find Aidan’s example of gentleness, humility, and ardor for the reign of God incredibly compelling. He embodies for me the hope of what a monastic life, faithfully lived, can offer. So often my own zeal for justice and for the kingdom of God can lead to self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and harshness. If justice isn’t tempered by mercy and love, it will never really lead to wholeness and healing. I pray that as I live my own life, Aidan’s example will continually return me to my own need for mercy and thereby soften my harshness.

The name Aidan is Gaelic for “little fire.” The little fire that Aidan became was an icon of the raging fire of Christ’s love for the whole creation. Like his Lord, Aidan poured out his life for his flock. Rather than consuming him, that kenosis fed the flame of his life, making it burn brighter. May we all be guided by such examples.

Blessed Aidan, breaker of chains and icon of Christ’s firey love, pray for us.


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a certain quality of attention

Gardening demands a quality of attention rarely found outside of poetry. Perhaps that is why so many extraordinary writers have also been gardeners. The gardener, like the poet, must pay attention to the minutest details of her garden, from soil texture to the striations and cracking of tree bark. But she must also see the invisible: the total picture of what her garden can be and mean.


If you look closely, you can see three different kinds of bees foraging on this sunflower.


My work as monastery groundskeeper is teaching me this quality of attention. I have learned, for instance, that soil can be both powdery and rocky at the same time. Further, I have noticed the particular beauty of the way that water beads up on powdery soil, and also my frustration that that water never actually sinks in to slake the thirsty roots below its surface. I have come to see that the great chunks of rock I dig out of the packed earth with astonishing frequency provide the perfect platform for iris, who seem to adore twining their rhizomes every which way. This summer in particular I have come to appreciate an exuberant swath of Queen Anne’s lace (that sometimes weed) when it gives me one more year to figure out what to do with a certain spot of the perennial border. There is nothing truly good or bad in the garden. All things have their beauty and their use.

I remind myself of this axiom when I find myself feeling overwhelmed by infestations of insects, mold, and other blights on the landscape. These grounds survived without me for millennia, and if I don’t eradicate every Japanese beetle from the property, the roses will still bloom next year. Every problem is, after all, an opportunity to learn a new skill, to see in a new way.


The bark of this dogwood indicates the presence of insects eating the tree from the inside.


Lately I have been learning to prune. I have found little in the gardening world that so stretches my ability truly to pay attention, as pruning trees. As such, I find the work engrossing and fulfilling. To prune, one first has to notice all the dead wood in the tree. Just when you think you’ve cut it all out, there’s more. It’s amazing to me that I could have spent many years walking past these same trees and never have looked at them closely enough to notice how many bare branches they hold.


One of these crossed branches ought to have been pruned away years ago.


After I have cut out the dead wood, I have to look closely at the shape of the tree. Where do branches cross? Where do limbs grow inward? What shape does the tree want to take naturally? This kind of seeing is even more difficult than looking out all the dead wood, because it requires me to pay attention at the same time to the movement of individual branches and the shape of the entire tree.

The final step, though, proves most challenging of all. What will the tree look like in ten or twenty years, when the small twigs protruding from its branches are branches in their own right? How will the cuts I make now, or don’t make, affect the tree–and, indeed, the entire landscape of the grounds–in the years to come? This kind of seeing requires not just attention, but imagination.


The buds of the anemone are nearly as beautiful as its flowers, small though they are.


My gardening makes me a more attentive person in the rest of my life. I am quicker to see opportunity where once I would only have seen problems and slower to judge the rights and wrongs of how I or others live. Most important, though, I am more attuned to the profligate, wanton abundance of beauty in this world. And I am more apt to sing its praise.


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grandmother oak

My favorite place to sit in the monastery is the little cloister, where I can pray with the white oak at the heart of our grounds. This oak is nearly 300 years old. It had been growing in the same spot for over 100 years when our community first moved to this property, and we constructed our buildings around it. When what is now the guesthouse was the monastery and the only building in the complex, the high altar faced the oak. When we constructed the Middle House and St. Augustine’s Church in 1920, we built the new buildings so that they enclosed the oak on three sides and provided a space to meditate with it. I have yet to meet a visitor to the monastery who doesn’t immediately sense the spiritual power of this incredible tree.




As I have reflected on and prayed with our oak, I have taken to calling her the grandmother oak. I cannot help anthropomorphizing. Our oak reminds me very much of my grandmother: wise, stable, strong, flexible, beautiful in her age. Her very strength and stature provide sustenance for so much other life. The squirrels eat her acorns; moss grows on her gnarled limbs; and the swallows build nests in her leafy top. I have learned a great deal from this tree about what it means to be stable in a monastic community and a Christian life. Grandmother oak has also helped me lately with my grief.

On Christmas Eve last year my grandmother died. The timing of her death was poignant and appropriate. As the world waited in vigil for the birth of Jesus, I waited in vigil by my grandmother’s bed for her rebirth and homecoming. My grandmother, who had been a powerful force for good in my life, was returning to her God, her 85 years’ labor over.


IMG_0099 (1)


She was a woman of quiet faith. I asked her about a year before she died if she prayed. She looked at me like I’d asked the dumbest question imaginable. “Of course I do,” she said. “Oh,” I said. “You never mention it.” “What’s there to say?” she asked. “It’s between me and God.” That was her: unshakable, matter-of-fact, deeply faithful.

When I remember my grandmother, the impression I have is of a woman whose strength lay primarily in her solidity and stability. She was not inflexible, but she didn’t bend with every wind that blew her way, either of spirituality or of taste or of culture. She grew with the times, but she retained what today seems an almost old-fashioned view of life, a view whose simplicity belies its depth.

In a book she gave me when I was a child, she wrote this about her ideals:

Most of all, I have tried to be truthful, even though sometimes the truth hurts. Family has always been extremely important to me. I have tried to maintain strong family ties to all our family members. I have tried to live a Christian life which I think is the most important thing a person can do. I have tried to live a life that would make my family proud of me and that makes me feel good about myself.

My grandmother rarely called attention to herself. She didn’t need to. She lived with such integrity that it ultimately didn’t much matter to her what other people thought of her. Once she had a sense of what was right, she was unwavering in her commitment to that good. It amazed me that at 80 years old, after a lifetime as a Southern Baptist, she became an Episcopalian. As she said at the time, she couldn’t bear to be a member of a church so hateful toward gay and lesbian people. The example of her integrity has profoundly impacted the way I try to live my own life.




In many ways, I can see seeds of my monastic vocation in my grandmother’s quiet approach to her faith and her life. She embodied stability, one of the components of the Benedictine vow. Like our own grandmother oak, we monks seek to grow in one place for the rest of our lives. This place is not primarily physical. Rather, it is the spiritual space of our life in the monastic community, bounded both by our threefold vow (obedience, stability, and conversion of life) and our relationship with Christ. We don’t seek rigidity, but nor are we swayed by every fad that comes along, spiritual or temporal.

Stability lends a kind of gravitas to one’s life. By gravitas I mean not heaviness, but rather seriousness, a commitment to encountering the Truth and to allowing one’s life to be changed and molded by that encounter. Stability allows the monk to point toward the truly important things in life, which is to say, to the rushing of Christ’s love and life into the world. Stability is ultimately a way of allowing the Truth to claim one’s life totally.

I pray that over the course of my life as a monk I will become more and more like my grandmother, like our oak. I pray that I will become a strong and stable pillar and a channel of Christ’s redeeming love. I pray we all will.

In loving memory of Mary Carolyn Evans Owen, 8 October 1930 – 24 December 2015.

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a spirituality of weeding

There is no way to escape it. Gardening is weeding.

Thomas Keller, the famous chef behind The French Laundry and Per Se, has said that if one doesn’t enjoy, or at least appreciate, the act of cutting vegetables, then one will never enjoy cooking. So it is with weeding, I’m afraid.

I say “I’m afraid,” because I really dread weeding. Of all gardening activities, it is my least favorite, the one I avoid until there is nothing else left on my to-do list. When I start, I find it actually does have a contemplative dimension to it. Like the life of conversion, if I look at the whole of our flower beds and the thousands–nay, millions–of weeds trying to out-compete the asters and iris, I feel completely overwhelmed, immobilized by the enormity of the task. But if I can focus on the weed right in front of me, and if I can ignore the high probability that next week another weed will have taken its place (despite all the mulch), the task becomes a kind of meditation.

The spirituality of weeding is one of imperfection. There is no possible way to rid the garden of weeds, no matter how much effort I put into it. Especially at this time of the year, with heavy rains followed by warm days full of sunshine, the weeds take over. I am forced at such times to confront my assumption that the garden is only beautiful if it is perfect. Really, the assumption that I need to confront is that I am only beautiful if I am perfect.

In his book on humility, A Guide to Living in the Truth, Michael Casey writes of the importance of patience to the spiritual life:

One of the qualities we find emphasized in the ancient accounts of the martyrs was their joy. There is no question of finding pleasure in pain. Rather, it is the joy that comes when everything is lost but love perdures. We always suspect that love attaches itself to our good qualities and we fear that it will be lost if they decline. In the days of our abundance we can never experience the unconditional quality of divine love. We secretly believe that something good in us attracts the love of God. It is often hard to go on believing when we discover how unlovable we are. But how great is the joy that follows the discovery that God’s love precedes and prescinds from any human love. We are not defeated; Christ’s love for us ensures the ultimate victory. (p. 123)

It is not my perfect goodness or my eradication of the spiritual weeds of greed, judgment, self-righteousness, and all the other shortcomings that plague me that earns me God’s love. Nor does my effort to create the perfect spiritual landscape somehow make me more worthy of God’s loving care than I would be without that effort. This kind of outlook, subtle as it can sometimes be, makes an idol of spiritual work. I earn God’s love from my own strength rather than relying on and celebrating God’s grace working in and through me.

If I take the garden as my evidence, I might even conclude that the distinction between weed and flower is one that I make from the limitation of my human estimation. God pours the rain down on the aster and the mugwort, just alike.

I’m not quite ready to let the mugwort take over the gardens. But, perhaps I would do well to listen to the wisdom of one of our garden volunteers who recently told me that she loves to weed because she sees in flowers the face of God. By weeding she is giving God’s face room to shine and breathe. Perhaps clearing that kind of spiritual space is the only task with which I need concern myself. I don’t have to worry about getting rid of all the weeds. I can simply pull up, for now, and with God’s help, whatever crowds out the glory of God’s light shining from my face, understanding that some other weed will soon take the place of the one I’ve just pulled, and trusting that, in the end, God will take care of the rest.


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a great cloud of witnesses

One of the aspects of gardening I love best is the congregation of stories and histories that comes together in any one garden. The history of the land itself joins with that of the gardener as well as the stories and interests of plant breeders and purveyors. There is a great cloud of witnesses in any garden.

This cloud of witnesses is especially numerous and palpable in our gardens here at the monastery. We have lived on this property since 1902. In those 114 years many monks have had their hands in the dirt of our gardens. Though no trace of them remains today, in the earlier days of the monastery we had large vegetable and fruit gardens. A 1904 article in the New York Times claims that “the fathers themselves will help till the soil and reap the harvests” from the 2,500 grape vines and hundreds of fruit trees that were planted on the property. No one living seems to know whether we ever actually did harvest those grapes.

Harvest or no, our property still bears the marks of those who have watered its ground with their sweat. The magnificent copper beech that dominates the guesthouse lawn testifies to Br. Will Brown’s vision of simple elegance. The daffodil lawn still glows in the spring, reminding us of our former brother Kevin’s passion for naturalizing bulbs. And the iris garden behind the enclosure, as full of weeds now as iris, highlights the vision of a unnamed gardening forebears. All around us the voices of our ancestors invite us to join in the song of their creative praise.

The unsung heroes of our monastery gardens, however, are the hundreds–perhaps thousands–of volunteers who have watered our grounds with their sweat over the last century and a bit.


the small cloister before renovation


It has been my primary goal in my work as groundskeeper to renovate our garden spaces and retune our collective ears to the voices of those who have worked this land before us. These workers include not just brothers but also hundreds of volunteers, associates, and friends whose vision and labor has gone into making our grounds beautiful and productive over the years. In the last two years most of our gardening work at the monastery has been largely the work of uncovering. We have cleared away weeds and debris, cut back encroaching brush, pruned dead tree limbs, and excavated crumbling flower beds. Beneath all the clutter that nature had accumulated, we have found beautiful plants, yearning for a little space to spread themselves out and flourish once more. They just needed a little attention.


the small cloister after renovation


This work of renovation extends, too, to the choice of new introductions to our gardens. I am captivated by historic and heirloom cultivars, many of which have their own histories and stories to add to our chorus. Take my favorite daylily, ‘Theron,’ for instance. This beauty dates back to 1934, when A.B. Stout introduced it as the first red daylily. It’s so rarely grown now that you almost never see it, yet its simple, straightforward beauty is remarkable. Plants like these remind me that my work as a gardener is as much about preserving beauty as it is about creating it. Knowing the histories of the plants that fill our flower beds also gives those plants a personality and brings them to life beyond their short bloom time and connects us to the community of people around the world working to preserve heirloom plants and their histories.


‘Theron’ daylily, 1934


Much like the monastic life itself, our gardens are much the more beautiful for the hundreds or thousands of lives that have been lived, at least in part, in proximity to their blooms.


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anointing and anointed

During last week’s garden retreat, one of our volunteers asked me about the social aspects of gardening. The question gave me pause. I am, largely, a solitary gardener. As such, I’m in tune with the many ways that gardening bolsters my prayer life and aids in my conversion. I also give space in my reflections to the role of gardening in healing both my own wounded places and those of the wider world. But I rarely have the experience of gardening as corporate prayer.


We were clearing brambles to make room for roses, lilacs, and blueberries.


This volunteer and his wife, who was also on the retreat, shared with our group the importance of gardening to their married life and the many ways that working the soil together draws them closer. Others on our retreat named similar experiences. Two of our group were a mother-daughter team who had come on the retreat together as a way of sharing a time of contemplative garden work. Another retreatant shared his experience gardening with indigenous people using ancient techniques, and another about gardening with juvenile convicts.




These stories enriched our time together by illuminating the sacramental force of our garden work. And they reminded me that we do not garden for or with ourselves alone. Gardening is a way of channeling our creativity, which is to say a way of inviting the Holy Spirit to flow through our bodies and to guide our hands in bringing forth beauty from the created world. This experience of openness to the Spirit is extremely intimate, and it deepens our awareness of the fundamental unity of body, mind, and spirit. When we share that experience with another or others, it nourishes a kind of intimacy that words alone cannot touch. At the same time, we grow together in relationship with one another and with God.

The healing that comes from this kind of intimacy with one another, ourselves, the land itself, and God is subtle and not immediately apparent. And yet, over time, our communal working and praying attunes us to the quiet movement of the Spirit within and among us, knitting us more and more fully together.


We also prepared the folly to be planted this fall.


This conjoining of our spirits with another through the Holy Spirit was obvious on the last morning of our retreat. The seven of us gathered under our grandmother oak in the small cloister. Holding hands, we spoke aloud our thanks, hopes, praise, and awe for the work of God unfolding in and through us. We then laid hands on one another as we anointed each other’s hands with holy oil, much as we had anointed the soil with our sweat in the previous three days.




Looking into the tears in one volunteer’s eyes I could see my own soul reflected there, my own gratitude and my own need for the grace that God so freely gives to us all. Hearing the tremble of another guest’s voice as she spoke aloud her praise for the beauty of God’s creation, I could hear my own awe and reverence. I believe we were all more whole after our few days together.

As our guesthouse prepares to close for August, I offer my thanks for the support of all those who have labored to bring forth beauty on our grounds over the years, and especially to this year’s garden volunteers: Wendy, Mike, Yanick, Randy, Kelly, Jacob, Robin, Robin (there were two!), Puck, Steve, Beth (twice!), Brenda, Lorraine, Hannah, Tessa, Bo, Sunny, Stuart, Meg, and Ken.

If you’re interested in joining future garden volunteer retreats, please check our retreat listings.


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