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Genesis Regenerated: By Wini Wood

From the moment we set foot on the island, we knew that the Ossabaw magic—that blend of mystery and aching familiarity that we all yearned to feel again—would work to make this weekend far surpass our hopes and dreams. It took the gentle persuasive power of Helen Hamada and our strong desire to see Sandy West and each other, but somehow it happened: fifteen old-timers (old in so many ways….) associated with Genesis came together at the Main House for a weekend of storytelling, cooking and eating, and reacquaintance with the island. Some of us had maintained a continuous relationship with Ossabaw; some had become preoccupied with work and children “out there”; some had been back only once or twice. Some of us had seen each other off and on over the years; a few of us didn’t know the others at all. No matter. It was as if a Genesis community had reformed, with all the love, energy, interest, and excitement (and almost none of the work) of the old times. As Gloria Schoenholtz put it, “I’ve only been here one day, but I feel as if I’ve packed 10 lifetimes into this visit.”

We were: Helen Hamada, Judy Barber, Jim Elicker, Al Bradford, Ann Jones, David Bayne, Leslie Ferst, Bill McCort, Jane Timmerman McCort, Kevin Donovan, Brian Donovan, Stephen Schoenholtz, Gloria Hanley Schoenholtz, Michael Billa, and Wini Wood. We have become (among other things): a financial advisor, an art center director, an early childhood professional, the editor of a medical journal, a writer, a furniture conservator, a ceramicist, a dog trainer, a physician, a carpenter, a lighting expert, a professor of forestry, a science educator, an environmental engineer, a professor of writing. We came from Colorado and Michigan and Indiana and upstate New York and Massachusetts and Virginia and Washington, D.C to convene on this blessed place during the last week of April, 2009. Our reason for coming was in part to aid TOIF in carrying out its Ossabaw Memories Project by sharing our recollections of our times on Ossabaw and what they had meant.

We were joined by Paul Pressly, Elizabeth DuBose, and Jim Bittler of the Ossabaw Island Foundation (TOIF), who collectively reintroduced us to the island; by Marylin Hamada, who filmed the hour-long Memories Project interviews; and by Linda King, who is writing an oral history dissertation on Ossabaw Island. And of course, by our beloved Sandy West, the person we most looked forward to seeing. Richard and Yvonne Boaen and Sarah and Roger Parker were here, too, and later, Grayling and Amanda and Amanda’s St. Bernard (dare I say her name? “Sarah Palin”). And Sandy’s dog Toby, and pigs, donkeys, horses, a goose, and a peahen. Everyone made us feel welcome, but especially Roger, with his trademark barbecue and only-Roger-could-say-this conversation.

We were ushered into the living room on that Friday afternoon for a formal, full-group question-answer session. It was Sandy’s first appearance downstairs, and it took a while for the screams and howls of first sightings to settle down. We heard Sandy’s continued vision for the island—a handful of carefully planned programs that remain interdisciplinary, that bring creative minds here for extended periods of time to allow fertile thoughts to develop, that keep the island at the center as the source of inspiration and knowledge. We got to know the leaders of the new TOIF, to hear and appreciate their vision, and to see the fine work they’ve been able to do in the last few years. We shared our own memories of the island and our times at Genesis (and in some instances, the Ossabaw Island Project), and we left with our commitment to this time, this place, and each other renewed and refreshed and stronger than ever.

Among the collective memories:

• When asked to name our favorite view and favorite place on the island, it was surprising how many of us yearned to see the marshes again—Willows Causeway, Cane Patch, the Buckhead marshes around Middle Place. Middle Place sites came in second; the beaches, surprisingly, a distant third.

• In our group were four couples who had met at Middle Place, subsequently married, and were still together nearly 30 years later. The strength and power of the bond surprised some, not others.

• We recalled many old Genesis members and the knowledge that each brought to the group—Evan Fales and the snakes he would bring back to Middle Place for a demo each day after his run, Toni Hamilton and her journals (yay, Iowa!), Noah Baen and his paintings, Kevin and Brian Donovan and their beach transects, and many others. It was the capacity of the group to keep generating new knowledge and to share that knowledge with each other that kept us flourishing (and still does, amazingly).

• We reflected on why we had flourished and why our bonds were so deep: because we had all worked together to keep Genesis going, weeding the garden, milking the cow, repairing the buildings, cooking for one another, and, on one terrifying occasion, saving Middle Place from a controlled-burning fire that went out of control.

• Some of us recounted to the OIF members how our time on Ossabaw had radically changed our lives, including our careers, and tried to explain why the Genesis experience had the power to do that.

• We recalled how physical our relationship with the island had been, how the sand and the sun would etch itself into our bodies, how we would witness births and deaths at first hand, how our rhythms became timed to the rhythms of the tides and the moon. We felt that same adjustment happening during the short space of a weekend—it took no time at all for us to shift gears into Ossabaw time.

A Saturday trip to Middle Place proved sobering and reflective. We piled into the back of pickup trucks and left with our spirits high, the stories flowing, both old and new. We could have talked about our work, our children, and our lives outside, but somehow our mutually shared experiences made island talk more important. We recalled the building of the Tower House, the outhouse, the solar-powered shower (where we now found a hissing buzzard nesting on the floor), the firings at the kiln, the fire at the old River House and the building of a new one. We tried to picture the sawdust pile as it once had been (it is now nearly hidden by a palmetto stand). We mourned the loss of the A-frame, the treehouses, the Kenner’s shack, the Long House. And oh, the rubble of the cookshack, the one-time heart of Genesis! The stable looks, surprisingly, as it always had. We tried to remember who had built the first sweat lodge, and recalled the time nearly all of us had been on the island at the same time for a sweat lodge, after which we dove into the phosphorescence of the wintry waters of Buckhead Creek (at high tide, of course). We remembered cats eaten by alligators, and roosters that left spur marks on more than one of us, and a cow named Daisy and another named Genie.

Speaking of alligators, it was comforting to see that the big old ones are still feeding and breeding in the marshes of Willows Causeway.

A trip to the beach told us, in geological terms, just how long we’d been away—South End beach has entirely reshaped itself, and at low tide, when we arrived, is nearly a quarter-mile across. The long trek to water’s edge somehow echoed the distance and time that separated us from Middle Place of the 70s and 80s, and the new tide that rushed in with surprising force as we walked back reminded us of the renewal that constantly refreshes this ancient island.

We were in our 20s, 30s, and 40s when we worked on Ossabaw; we are now in our 50s, 60s, and 70s. What happened when we encountered this island and each other this time was something we hardly expected—we quickly forgot the images of our younger selves, quickly slid into companionship as our middle-aged selves, and felt, mysteriously, unchanged, as if (as one of us said—but who?) the past 30 years had somehow not happened. Afterward, the emails and phone calls continued for weeks, as we described tick bites and recounted our dreams to each other—and began to formulate new ideas, new ways of supporting Ossabaw, Sandy, the TOIF, and each other.

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Genesis Directors Return to Ossabaw