Hailey Wist

There’s something inspiring about Hailey Wist ’08. When we studied literature together at the College, she possessed a joie de vivre that I immediately liked and admired. For example, during a weekend trip to a friend’s lake house, I balked at jumping off the rickety roof of a pontoon boat. Not Wist – she pinched her nose and leapt without hesitation. “It’s not scary – it’s exciting!” she yelled up at me. I followed, and she was right: I loved the thrill.

Last August, she came to visit me in my tiny Chicago apartment. Dressed in a worn chambray shirt and a panama hat – the brim stained with sweat – she looked more like a farmer than a scholar. But I knew she’d just wrapped an exciting academic project. As part of her master’s thesis, Wist spent the summer on her family-owned farm in Greenbrier, Ark. She grew produce, sold it at a farmer’s market and ate mostly local food. Wist wanted to record the adventure, so she brought four friends along and asked them to film the whole thing with HD flip cams. She’s editing the footage into a documentary called The Garden Summer, which she hopes to show at film festivals next year.

The project began with Wist’s craving for a deeper connection with nature. As a child, she thrilled at visits to the family farm. As a young adult, she read Thoreau’s Walden and dreamed of moving there for good. When Wist enrolled in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology M.A. Program, she began to study concepts such as sustainability, community and the intersection of media and nature. “I’m interested in how humans have placed themselves in the natural environment,” she says, “and then, the responsibility we have toward that environment.” The Garden Summer was designed to explore those ideas outside of the classroom.

In March, she traveled to the farm to plant seeds in peat pods and returned in May to place them in the ground. Friends, including Marie Barker ’08 and Seth Amos ’08, joined her for the harvest season, from late June through late July. On Fridays, they’d rise at 4 a.m. to beat the heat, filling buckets with flowers, herbs and veggies (tomatoes, basil, crookneck squash, sunflowers), which they’d sell the following day at the nearby farmer’s market. The money they earned had to sustain them for the week, so meals were carefully planned to maximize resources.

Hailey Wist“We couldn’t just run to the grocery store,” Wist says. “It was much more conscious. Maybe we’d make a soup with mung berries, and that’d last for a week.”

Thanks to Greenbrier’s thriving food community, they had plenty of menu options. Flour from a nearby mill lent itself to bread, and duck, elk and buffalo meat were all available locally, along with plenty of vegetables.

The crew was quickly accepted into the local community: The head of the farmer’s market became a close friend, and a neighboring farmer and cheese maker often invited them over to exchange produce and share glasses of his homemade wine. “We’d bring him a bouquet of sunflowers, and he’d give us a bushel of tomatoes,” she says.

Along with these new friendships, the rural life offered plenty of leisure. Some days were purely recreational, and the farmers would swim in a nearby lake or play instruments on their porch. Afternoon naps, Wist admits, were plentiful. And though there were some challenges (Wist found it was surprisingly difficult to manage the “here-and-now experience” of rural life with the responsibility of being a character in her own documentary), she left the farm feeling triumphant.

“We were sustained by our own hands,” she beams. “Everyone was blown away by what we could do for ourselves.”

I was blown away, too, and I’m vowing to follow Wist’s lead and experiment with a more self-sustaining lifestyle. Even if it’s only a container garden in my apartment’s windowsill, I’m betting that I’d love the thrill.

– Bridget Herman ’08

Check out Hailey Wist’s rural adventure at thegardensummer.com.

Photo by Ben Williams