Introducing the Friends Wilderness Center & the China Folk House Retreat
by Kimberly Benson.
About 300 million years ago, the Earth demonstrated that unity is physically possible. Laurasia and Gondwana merged, forming a world with one continent and one ocean. The convergence uplifted the Central Pangean Mountains, raising the depths of the ocean toward the Light and ushering in the Carboniferous period, the exploitation of whose deposits underlie much of the division and destruction we experience today.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, near the geographic center and remnants of that geologic convergence zone, Friends Wilderness Center (FWC) and the China Folk House Retreat (CFHR) are aspiring toward a figurative global conjunction, bridging divides in humanity, building community with nature, and lifting all toward the Light and a brighter future.
FWC carries forward the legacy of Henry and Mary Cushing Niles, Quaker civil rights and peace activists who appreciated the power of nature to heal, restore, and inspire those seeking to bridge divides in this world. In 1974, they conserved 1500 acres of their personal property between the Shenandoah River and Appalachian Trail to serve and inspire their community of activists who sought to overcome division and build a peaceful, equitable world.
FWC’s recent management transition revived that foundation of activism and elevated the climate crisis as a focus for this mountain ministry. Kimberly Benson and her family (Carl, Kallan, and Reece) bring to their stewardship their passion for sustainability, protection of the environment, and a just and equitable future for all. FWC continues the tradition of offering services and facilities by donation, to remove financial barriers to those seeking restoration and spiritual renewal in nature.
While divisions in our country and the world appear to have expanded in recent years, FWC has partnered with CFHR to bring the world together, connecting West Virginia and China during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese villagers, faculty and students from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, and Appalachian bluegrass artists joined together to save a traditional farmhouse from inundation by a hydroelectric dam project. West Virginia timber framers volunteered their labor to learn Chinese joinery, raising the structural framework of the house from the Mekong River gorge and slopes of the Himalayas onto a new foundation at FWC between the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge. Ordinary people came together during a global health crisis to bridge political, philosophical, and physical divides to form community from mountain ranges a world apart.
CFHR invites visitors to explore sustainable building practices of the past and future, offering hands-on experience with hempcrete (a sustainable building method expanding in popularity) and ancient techniques of traditional Chinese construction. Volunteers, including high school summer campers, have contributed to the construction of the largest hempcrete walls in North America.
CFHR is an extraordinary project helping FWC expand community, develop as a center of sustainability, and improve comfort and accessibility.
In one little corner of the Blue Ridge along the geologic remnant of global convergence, FWC and CFHR are joining in community to seek the Light and inspire the world to come together.
Kimberly Benson is a Quaker climate activist, member of Annapolis Friends Meeting, and General Manager of Friends Wilderness Center. Learn more and visit at friendswilderness.org.