Volume 1: Beacon, Jan/Feb 2022

Welcome to MidMountain!


We are a project in constant growth, and this is Beacon: the very first volume of our evolving attempt to chronicle this journey via the MidMountain MidMonthly.


I am also a human project of constant growth, and I am many other things: non-binary, queer, neurodivergent, and disabled among them.


But at my core, I am a storyteller and a person obsessed with the way that narratives shape our reality. This is, in large part, because I think sharing thoughtful stories is how we build empathy with each other—and how I hope we can grow something together here.


Ultimately, I believe artists are oracles: That they have the power to be beacons that contextualize the past and the present to imagine a better future.


So this year, at MidMountain (the literal place—five acres, an old house, outbuildings, and river frontage on the outskirts of what is now Natural Bridge Station, Virginia) we are growing a creative community focused on sharing time and natural space to develop and reflect upon the art of storytelling and literally nourishing our neighbors.


We’re starting by hosting folks in a flexible residency program to explore storytelling as an art form across multiple platforms while laying the groundwork for a native food forest, vegetable garden, and seed bank—and using this evolving literary space (the MidMountain MidMonthly) to reflect on it.


Stories have great power, no matter if they are song, visual design, or words on a glowing square connected to billions of other glowing squares in your pocket via a metaphorical cloud we’ve built our entire lives around most of us having the time to stop and think about how it works.


In my own yet-unfinished narrative, stories taught me I could challenge the bigotry ingrained in parts of the communities where I grew up and escape to places where I could explore what it meant to be myself.


(I honestly was always both an adventurer and a storyteller, and this project feels like both.)


Stories based on facts are also how I built a career in journalism and survive in our current economic structures as I try to understand and explain the depth of the digital connections in our world. And at times, I get burned out by the pace and incentives of an industry continuing to adapt to our collective awareness of our connectivity.


I believe we can—and in fact through our experience of life, must, at times—be simultaneous heroes and villains in humanity’s shared story, depending on the individual perspective.


History is the retelling of that shared story, but we are able to more deeply understand and place ourselves in it when we close information gaps by sharing experience—including very real gaps that have grown around concepts that we as humans have collectively created, including gender and race.


This shared story was always there, but is made more complex—multiplied, transformed—by digital connections.


Through the internet, we now live in a mass, continual retelling of the human narrative at a speed no one has ever experienced before. The inputs can be so overwhelming that we often forget that they are also ultimately, somehow, people or derived from people’s decisions.


Too often, personal narrative becomes a meme, leaving people struggling to even understand let alone assert their own story.


It’s happening even now, as I try to reconfigure and edit our way out of the dystopia as I type.


And it’s a lot to process.


But disconnecting and finding the luxury of time and space in nature to process the complexity of my own role in this shared narrative helped me reconnect with the value of my own creative voice and transformative power of storytelling as art. Instead of being worried my brain is broken, I understand it is beautiful for being able to understand and translate the fragility of our systems to others.


And now I’m grateful to be working with friends to cultivate a creative community and sustainable agricultural endeavor, MidMountain, where we focus on mutual aid while growing resilient bonds rooted in our shared humanity.


This feels like tangible good we can do together.


And that feels urgent now in a world on fire with greed, with hatred, with plague, and with a constant barrage of information that makes it hard to stay hopeful.


But fire can also be a beacon—an act of rebellion that inspires or illuminates better paths.

Early on in the pandemic, I spoke with science fiction author Terry Bisson about the challenges of imagining better worlds and how his activism was key to imagining the world in his novel Fire on the Mountain. The book is an unapologetically utopian alternative history where the raid on Harpers Ferry—the failed attempt to lead a second American Revolution to end slavery by inspiring a campaign of radical self-emancipation spearheaded by abolitionist John Brown—succeeds and grows into an egalitarian state.


In fact, our history lives in this story as a dystopian timeline—a book within a book called John Brown’s Body, the name of the marching song Union Soldiers sang to pay tribute to the raid.


Back in reality, I cannot shift our dimension.


But I was shaped by the mythos of John Brown’s allyship, which loomed over the plains of Kansas where I grew up—and literally in the State Capitol Building’s mural “Tragic Prelude,” even as it was incompatible with the casual racism all around me.


And I have been haunted for years by the way our collective memory centers Brown as a hero over the legacy of his Black comrades-in-arms who fought on behalf of their own human dignity—including Osborne Perry Anderson and the shadow his story casts over the city I rooted myself in: Washington, DC.


Anderson, the sole Black survivor of the raiding party, went on to publish his own firsthand account of the raid, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry, with the help of Black woman publishing and legal pioneer Mary Ann Shadd Cary.


Both were buried in a cemetery in Washington, DC—but what was expected to be their final resting place is now the site of a Metro stop and strip mall, one of many such sites removed through racist displacement and gentrification of Black burial grounds.


That’s not the end of their story, which community members are actively working to memorialize, and I will assuredly tell you more about this in the near future.


But by choosing to tell you about them now, here, I have memorialized them further in story.


And shifting back to MidMountain, the power of stories to connect us in almost intangible ways is also why we are committing to utopia as praxis now: embracing that our collective destiny is to repeatedly fall short of our ultimate aspirations, but while doing so, understanding that we have the opportunity to grow deep roots together while learning from our mistakes.


(“Ad astra, per aspera,” which could mean to the stars through difficulty because I’m from Kansas or the same thing, essentially, in a language most people no longer speak to suggest other connections.)

So we accept whatever we grow will be temporary, and we claim the power of pursuing growth in a world on fire.

Even—or perhaps especially—when a place is haunted.

And I believe we are all literally haunted—not by the way most people envision ghosts, but by the stories and collective memories we share about the pasts of places and people. We are haunted by facts that can often only be shared as a story, imperfect memory, or inference from an incomplete archival record.


(We are, for example, generally haunted by the fact that our country was built on grave economic injustice and exploitation of slavery. I am haunted, more personally and specifically, by the displacement of historic Black cemeteries to make room for strip malls and transit systems I used without understanding the connection for years.)


So from the beginning, we want to acknowledge that we know terrible historical wrongs are connected to MidMountain, the physical place. I don’t know all of the terrible things, but I do know already that the house has ties to some of the earliest European colonizers in the area, people who enslaved other people—who separated them from the humanity that connects us all.


So part of our project will also involve researching and seeking community input about centering future historical interpretation and programming around the stories of those too often erased.


Reading Mary Anne Shadd Cary urging her community to “do more and talk less” in the face of a reality with more harrowingly clear injustice—more direct personal threat—then still shared stories to change that reality is what haunts me out of inaction when I am paralyzed by anxiety that embracing being unapologetically utopian at MidMountain will be misread as pandering or naive.


(Or, that even just by invoking her as inspiration in this—an essay, that is by definition ofa form “talk,” but at least a declaration of some kind of action—will be mocked. Or, that in fact, I am deeply uncomfortable with being perceived at all because of always being othered, making the decision to do an essay as form a specific, concerted choice, a small act of rebellion?)


But, instead, I choose to revel in the earnesty of inspiration—that good can still come from connections, if we manage them with care, if we nurture them for resilience we all will need.


I choose to believe that just because we are all haunted does not mean we are cursed, or doomed.


And, in fact, those that often feel the most haunted can be the most sensitive—the artists.


The same people we can show how to be oracles at MidMountain.


We are still figuring out—well, all of this: the residencies, the gardens, the historical programming, and even this core attempt to chronicle this work.


(That’s why this first edition is “giving blog”—don’t worry, get excited for contributions from residency beta-testers announced in the Community Calendar section below—and objectively more “LateMonthly” than MidMonthly as we figure out what platforms and editorial practices make sense for us! )


But we are doing it.


So consider this a beacon—a fire on the mountain that will leave stories behind even after it smolders out.


Would you like to join us?


-ap

So who or what is MidMountain?
The person typing these words is Andrea Peterson or Andy (they/them) in most references, often digitally @kansasalps, but the ideas that inform the person are stories. MidMountain, the place, is also my home studio.


I tell stories about our deeply digitally connected world, mostly with words, as a journalist, but also because I am constantly trying to understand structures and my role in them. I also make other art that explores the intersections of people, policy, place and purpose.


(I occasionally, with the help of friends, am also MidMountain: the band. I know, it’s confusing, but it also feels right for how this project evolved out of years of Google Docs and to this time and place.)


So here, in this missive, I am the narrator—inviting you to a community we are growing: MidMountain.


“We” are also a Board, tending to MidMountain to grow with that community of other storytellers.


We are still growing, but today that it includes me (as in Andrea Peterson) and some other humans I cherish:


Chad Clark is founder, composer and producer of the Washington, DC band Beauty Pill. Clark is also a film and theater composer. Additionally, Clark is an essayist and author of the forthcoming anthology Pet The Bomb Sniffing Dog (Bohannon/Harper Collins 2023.)


Carolyn Fiddler is communications director for Daily Kos and is the nation’s foremost expert in state politics. She's spent her professional life working for various Democratic and progressive organizations. Fiddler is from a small town in Virginia you've never heard of, and her comic book collection is probably bigger than yours.


Abby Wendle is a sculptor of metal and sound. She enjoys swimming and saunas, gardening, and walking in the woods with her cat. Wendle currently works as a reporter and producer for NPR’s Invisibilia.


So, there are several MidMountains that simultaneously exist, but mostly here we will talk about MidMountain as community and place for now?


You can also find out more MidMountain on a website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok—but we are still figuring out what platforms and communities we will ultimately fit our needs.


Have ideas? Share them with us.

Community Calendar


We are grateful to announce several residency beta-testers coming to share space with us in 2022! We expect this Calendar to grow throughout the year.


March 13-19: Mali Obomsawin

Mali Obomsawin is a songwriter, bassist, composer, journalist and #landback organizer from Odanak Abenaki First Nation. Known for her many years with the group Lula Wiles, Obomsawin is stepping forward as a bandleader in 2022 with her highly anticipated jazz debut, Sweet Tooth, and is working to complete her first solo album as a singer-songwriter. She will be spending her time at MidMountain completing several original songs for her solo project.


Join us on the MidMtn social media channels (tentatively, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter?) for a live online concert with Mali Obomsawin on Friday, March 18, at 7pm-8pm ET!


April 2-24: Edward Ongweso, Jr

Edward Ongweso, Jr is a New York City-based reporter covering labor and technology for Motherboard, VICE News’s technology section whose work has focused on app-based gig labor platforms, antitrust and antimonopoly law, labor movements, capital markets, and surveillance technologies. Ongewso also co-hosts a weekly podcast on technology and political economy: This Machine Kills. Ongweso will be writing a science fiction project at MidMountain. Event details to come!


Fall – dates TBA: Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is the Executive Editor of Popular Science and the author of the forthcoming book Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex. In her spare time she loves to cook, bother her 15-year-old cat, and write weird experimental fiction, trope-filled YA sci-fi, and erotica she'll only ever share with strangers on the internet. Feltman will be working on a short fiction project at MidMountain. Event details to come!

Plantings

New projects and announcements!

  • We think we want this project to be a non-profit and are exploring our options, including fiscal sponsorship, so we can pursue grants to support storytellers financially during visits to the property and fund arts programming for the public. We’re also considering other ways to offset property operational costs and generate funds for direct community aid, including rental for when property isn’t in active arts use.

  • We hope to establish a vegetable garden, a seed library, and the beginnings of a food forest this year and are researching how to focus our plantings and approach based on local community needs.

  • We are seeking input and partnership with the local community while doing archival research on the property’s past for future historical programming and interpretation.


Do these projects speak to you? Can you help? Get in touch! Seriously.

Growth

Updates, progress, and reminders!

  • Since mid-November, we have furnished most of the main house and stocked it with basic necessities for residency beta-testers.Things are still a little bare, but we hope to cram the walls with art produced on site over time! Major thanks to various Goodwills, Habitat for Humanity ReStores, Andrea’s neighborhood Buy Nothing group, and kind Craigslist folks.

  • We are working with the James River Buffer Program—a partnership from the James River Association, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation–on plans to convert much of the rest of the lawn at MidMountain into a sustainable natural food forest. We already had a first site visit late last year, and are in the planting queue for the fall! This grant program will cover planting and three years of maintenance for native edible trees and shrubs—including pawpaws, persimmons, plums, blueberries, blackberries, black cherries, and more! (Thanks for all your help, Sarah!)

  • Andrea did an initial research visit to the Augusta County Court House, where many source documents related to the house are preserved, and secured researcher access to their basement archive for future visits.

  • Carolyn and Andrea visited the Monacan Ancestral Museum in nearby Amherst. Andrea is in touch with Lou Branham from the Museum about potential programming ideas and connected with the Monacan Nation Food Bank to consult on our garden and food forest plans.

  • We are grateful for the warm welcome from all our human neighbors and their help during the snow this past month–including help clearing the drive so we could get things delivered after the blizzard!

  • We are also entranced by our Horse Neighbors, who the human neighbors have graciously given us permission to feed carrots and apples. Forever may they neigh!

Harvests

Presented works and acquisitions.


“Inner Ear, unfinished”


A MidMountain community piece curated by Andrea Peterson, with generous contributions from: Don Zientara, who graciously shared stories and let us scavenge from what remained in the final hours of Inner Ear’s existence in the physical place it inhabited since 1990; friends who were willing to rearrange their schedules around a last minute moving truck rental and increasingly desperate series of emails during the pandemic; plus, the kindness of then-strangers and now neighbors at the Natural Bridge Country Store & Cafe who helped unload the piano at MidMountain.


(It was a three-person job, minimum. And you found them!)

“Inner Ear, unfinished” is a semi-permanent, interactive exhibit in MidMountain’s current gallery space featuring artifacts from legendary Washington, DC-area recording studio Inner Ear, a including the piano from the studio, the rug from the engineering room, the VCR with a selection of rescued VHS tapes (Harold and Maude, Muppets in Space, and Home Alone), as well as an alleged master from the recording of Coriky’s debut album in a format (magnetic audio reel) which MidMountain currently cannot play to verify.


(Thus, it is a physical NFT.)

Zientara was incredibly kind with his time and things—and in fact, was clearly less attached than we were to what remained of the physical arts history being displaced as part of an imminent domain development for a new arts district.

“This building will be leveled and will be asphalt. And there will be a temporary stage here for performances,” Zientara told WUSA9, in November.


“Blocks, Unchained–Alice, Bob, Carol, and Dan.”


A semi-permanent exhibit by Andrea Peterson

This series of small physical metaverses that exist in the MidMountain gallery explores the subversion of reality, ownership, and linguistics by cryptocurrency.


The blocks are built into drawers repurposed from a local human habitat. Each features live moss and other flora (plus, assuredly, a bit of fauna) as well as human representations of entropy, secrets the artist is tired of keeping (sealed inside tiny glass bottles), and other transparent vessels awaiting fulfillment.


An artificial cloud made primarily of the byproduct of former lifeforms condensed by the crush of time provides sound-reactive illumination above the blocks.


Patrons may “own” the metaverses for a set period of time with that ownership maintained via a network of trust with the Artist. During ownership, patrons may have their name associated with the work on the MidMountain website and make monthly requests for alterations to a block’s contents by the Artist—subject to Artist approval.


Patrons purchase the right to visit their block once, subject to Artist approval and schedule.


During that visit, the patron may touch the moss in their block. Once.


Patronage requests considered upon direct application to the artist.


Project subject to cancellation at Artist’s will.


Mystery acquisition!

This piece was acquired by MidMountain via a Lynchburg-area Goodwill. Striking style and form, with offset mirrored femme presenting figures, in apparent stencil or print in antique frame, painted gray.


Signature, similarly stylized.


Do you know more about this piece or who made it? Let us know!

Seeds

Citations and inspirations that helped inspire this MidMountain MidMonthly.


  • The film The House, which uses stop motion animation to tell three stories centered around a (haunted) place, available on Netflix. (2021)

  • The podcast series Nice Try!, hosted by Avery Trufelman via the Vox Podcast network, the first season of which focused on Utopias.

  • The podcast episode “A Story Of Us?” from via Throughline at NPR. Actually, most of Throughline?

  • The ever-expanding and inspiring 1619 Project, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones.


And an infinite amount of other narratives, consumed consciously and subconsciously, through many different filters.