Exploring Zephyr Mountain Grove

We walked up the northern road to an undeveloped portion of the land, where native grasses and manzanita are speckled with inviting granite boulders. I climbed a cluster of boulders with my 6 year old. The rocks were warm in the afternoon sun, and the hills smelled of white sage and orange flowers. The other kids trickled in behind us: some timid about jumping from one boulder to the next, some bounding across them fluently. My oldest wove his way through whispering native grasses, enjoying the panoramic view into the valley. It was our first time visiting Zephyr Mountain Grove, an organic avocado and citrus farm nestled in the rolling hills of Wildomar, California.

Over the weeks that followed, we began to visit the grove every Wednesday, with permission from the owners, Shane and Nicole. It’s their first farm, but they’re no strangers to the wild — when I compliment Nicole’s shoes, she tells me stories about getting them for a trail running adventure through rivers in Zion National Park. The couple takes motorcycles out into the wilderness, bringing only what they need for a dry camping trip, to see how minimalist they can go. They talk about developing a coffee grove in the understory of the avocados, and using organic permaculture methods to gently nourish the grove. We talk about art, playing with math, building treehouses, keeping guinea fowl, and where to grow passiflora vines. 

On windy days, ripe clementines tumble out of the trees and roll into our path. On cloudy days, the valley below fills with an ocean of fog. We spend a day hunting for a secret waterfall that you can hear near the southern edge of the property, identifying mule deer tracks and native wildflowers. The little ones get tired, but they keep going. They bring bags of snacks they pack themselves, and find more avocados on the way — the bright mountain air is a fresh break from cozy indoor activities. We collect ripe oranges and juice them by hand.

Sometimes, people ask me how kids at a self-directed democratic school will be able to discover their interests and follow their dreams. There are many pat answers for this — free play, group collaboration, and age mixing are all great ways to develop basic skills and diversify interests. But as a self-directed learner, my question is the inverse: if you keep your children from the wilds of the world, how will they come to fall in love with the sky, become a friend to the lizards and sages, or realize they’re strong enough to climb a little higher today?

If they are prevented from engaging in continuous, authentic debate about real life issues that affect them, how will they learn the part of writing that goes beyond just following the instructions on grammarly? If they don’t have access to restorative justice and the right to vote, how will they become effective participants in an egalitarian democracy? If they’re better at blindly following worksheet instructions than they are at seeing how what we’re doing could be edited and improved, how will they ever find a way to genuinely guide their own lives? If they can’t use this moment to run, play, love, dance, count, explore, ask questions, and be themselves, when does that life get to become real?

The ranch house waits for us when we return from hunting for the waterfall. We were unable to find it that day — we’ll look again after the next winter rain, when the trickle will be an audible rush. Three girls settle in on the floor under a wide window and begin to play a game together. They negotiate with the previously established rules, collaboratively improving and customizing the way they work together. Outside, the wind is laughing in the high branches of eucalyptus trees. These children are the authors, and their story is already real. 

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