You can’t know how much your heart has longed for a place like Timberlake Farm Earth Sanctuary until you’ve walked the mossy Creeping Cedar Trail, or sat in quiet contemplation in the makeshift chapel overlooking Lake Mackintosh, or become present, as they say here, to the sun on your face, the breeze on your arms, a tree’s last leaf wavering on the wind.
Timberlake is where pilgrims and seekers come to recover a sense of the sacred.
“The place itself has great energy,” says Carolyn Toben, who’s owned these 165 acres for 48 years. “A lot of people tell us that when they come down the driveway, the energy feels different here.”
The feeling takes you by surprise: Timberlake is not situated in the middle of nowhere. It’s 20 minutes east of Greensboro, with a Whitsett address, just five minutes off Interstate 40. But once you turn onto the farm’s gravel drive, pass under the tall wooden entrance sign — even before you pass the Field of Blessings — you know: This is a special place. There’s been a conservation easement on the land since 2001, which means that Timberlake is protected from ever becoming a shopping center or a housing development or a golf course.
“We want this to be a place of peace and renewal,” Carolyn says. “It’s not just a backdrop. It has its own integrity.” Like a living thing, the land has changed and evolved through each stage of its life.
When Carolyn and her husband, Boyd, bought Timberlake in 1967, “the land was nothing,” Carolyn says. “There was nothing here at all.” The fields were overgrown, the woods inaccessible. There was just a gravel road and a concrete block cabin in front of a pond.
But the couple saw enormous potential nonetheless, a place where their three sons could grow and thrive and be close to nature. “We wanted to raise our children in a way that was sane and sensible in the 20th century,” Carolyn says. “Looking back, it was kind of a pioneering effort.”
The family lived in Greensboro while Boyd and the boys came out and built fences and roads on the land. They renovated the concrete cabin into the spacious farmhouse where they moved in 1977 and where Carolyn lives today, and eventually added the chapel on Lake Mackintosh, a barn, nearly five miles of trails, and a second lake. (One night, Boyd came home with a used bulldozer. “How else are you going to build a lake?” he asked an astonished Carolyn.) While Boyd transformed the land, Carolyn earned two degrees in higher education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She traveled the world in pursuit of her studies; taught at public and private schools, colleges, and universities with an emphasis on alternative and interdisciplinary education; and presented teacher renewal seminars in North Carolina and California.
At home, the family settled into rituals: a rope swing on the creek in the spring, Fourth of July fireworks over the pond in front of the farmhouse, stargazing on the deck. They made friends with the animals on the land, and even now Carolyn is keenly aware of the creatures who live around her: 16 deer, fox, migrating otter, 80 species of birds, raccoons, possums, groundhogs.
“As we shaped the land, it shaped us,” Carolyn says. “It was the backdrop for our human activities, and then it began to be more than that. It took on a depth and quality and character. It became part of my inner tissue, and my sons’, as well.”
In 1998, Boyd was diagnosed with cancer. Even in his final years, he continued to be a steward to the land, and his last creative act was the beginnings of what would become the guesthouse at Timberlake, better known on the farm as “the TreeHouse.” Though he only lived long enough to see the platform built, the family encouraged him because they knew the work fulfilled him, and prolonged his life.
When Boyd died in 1999, Carolyn was overcome with grief and the uncertainty of how to take care of the land they’d fostered together. Her background was in English, humanities, psychology — not business or land management. The boys had grown up and moved away and started families of their own. And because she’d spent so much time traveling over the years, she felt she had no local community to rely on. “It was the abyss of not knowing,” she says. “The bottom dropped out.”
Her lifeline, as it turned out, was a man named Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest, monk, mystic, scholar, philosopher, self-termed “geologian,” and, Carolyn says, “he was my friend.”
Berry was born in Greensboro in 1914, the third of 13 children. When he was 11 or 12, his family decided to move to the Kirkwood neighborhood. One afternoon in May, while exploring the area around his family’s half-built house, Berry discovered, across a creek, a meadow covered in lilies. Something about the scene, some combination of the lilies and the singing crickets and the woodlands in the distance, spoke to him, determined the way the rest of his life would be: “A magic moment,” he wrote later in his essay “The Meadow Across the Creek,” “this experience gave to my life something, I know not what, that seems to explain my life at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.”
Though he acknowledged that it lacked the majesty and power of the Appalachian mountain range or the oceans, Berry saw in the meadow a microcosm of the magnificence of life, and it became the kernel of his philosophy:
“Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good,” Berry wrote. “What is opposed to this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple.”
Berry would later become a monk of the Passionist order, a doctoral student at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and the founder of the Riverdale Center for Religious Research in the Bronx in New York City. And when he retired in 1995, he came back home to Greensboro.
Several years later, in August 1999, Berry invited Carolyn to dinner at Green Valley Grill in Greensboro. They’d met before, back in 1978 at the Riverdale Center in New York, and he’d heard about her situation through mutual friends.
“Tell me about yourself,” Berry said when Carolyn arrived, and she began to cry. She told him about her grief and loneliness and uncertainty in the wake of Boyd’s death. “Stay with the grief and it will ultimately heal you,” he told her gently. “Most people bob right back up to the surface. Blessed are they who can grieve.”
It was the first of many teaching moments, which Carolyn would later write about in her book, Recovering a Sense of the Sacred: Conversations with Thomas Berry. That night in August, Berry planted a seed: “You live in an earth community of woods, meadows, creatures that protect and care for you, as you are caring for them,” he told her. “You live in a mutually enhancing relationship with all around you; you need never be lonely.”
It was still light out when Carolyn got home from dinner that night. She went for a walk in the woods with her dog, Blossom, and she felt comforted by everything around her. “There is a sense of community here,” she says now. “There’s a grief when I lose a tree or a creature.”
Carolyn continued meeting with Berry over the next decade until his death in 2009. She always had a pen around her neck and a notebook, and she’d write down everything he said during their meals at Green Valley Grill. “If I forgot my notebook,” she says, “he would pass over a napkin. He was a consummate teacher.” In the conversations that ultimately filled 67 notebooks and napkins, Berry helped Carolyn realize: The land must be protected. There were people who needed what it could offer. A generation of young people was coming of age in what Berry called “perilous times” — the unprecedented separation of humans from the natural world — and those children desperately needed Timberlake.
On a Wednesday morning, when most school-age children are sitting behind desks in a traditional classroom, a group of eighth graders is gathered around the fire pit in front of the TreeHouse at Timberlake. They’re here for one of the programs offered by the Center for Education, Imagination and the Natural World (CEINW), a Greensboro-based nonprofit that co-evolved with Timberlake from 2000 to 2012 and one of the organizations that rents Timberlake to host programs for children and educators.
“During its first nine years, the center was deeply privileged to be mentored by Thomas Berry, who guided its work at every turn,” says director Peggy Whalen-Levitt, who has been with CEINW since it started in 2000, and who holds a Ph.D. in Language in Education, with a concentration in childhood imagination, from the University of Pennsylvania. “Early on, Thomas shared one of his poems with the center that was to become a touchstone for its work with children and educators that began like this: The child awakens to a universe. / The mind of the child to a world of wonder. / Imagination to a world of beauty. / Feelings to a world of intimacy.”
This morning, the children are sitting quietly, watching Sandy Bisdee, CEINW’s director of children’s programs. “Our day begins with music,” she tells them. “We play in the spirit of gratitude, and there is so much to be grateful for.” She takes out her Native American flute and plays a welcoming song, dedicated to everything that lives at the earth sanctuary; to the seen and unseen; to the children; to the sun, moon, and stars.
Bisdee explains that an earth sanctuary is a place where everything is safe and protected, including plants and insects. “I work out here, but I’m a guest to everything that lives here,” she says. She tells them that this is a place of “love and deep, deep notice.” “To notice is a prayer,” she says. “Everything will speak to you if you listen with an ear of love.”
The children are to break into groups and walk through the woods with Bisdee and her fellow earth guides. They will stop along the way, sit in watchful silence, write into poems what they see and hear and feel. In preparation, Bisdee asks the children to go around in a circle, saying their names and what they’re present to this morning. And somehow, each of these eighth graders is ready with an answer: They are present to a dangling leaf, a soft breeze, the vibrant orange of a persimmon, a line of marching ants.
When they head out on their earth walks with Bisdee and her colleagues, they seem wiser, more reflective, than their eighth-grade years.
When the recession hit in 2008, Carolyn had to find a way to bring in more money to help maintain Timberlake — while staying true to the farm’s mission to promote love of the earth. When some wedding planners came by to meet with her, she knew she’d found in the love and joy of wedding ceremonies the next stage of Timberlake’s life.
“I always tell brides and grooms about the sacredness of the land,” Carolyn says. “They come because of it, not just for the backdrop. They’re people who are interested in caring for the earth. I find a lot of young people are these days.”
The schoolchildren still come to learn, and Carolyn’s family still comes to visit. It’s as if, Carolyn says, Timberlake’s purpose “has expanded exponentially, like concentric circles.”
And at its heart remains the memory of Boyd, whose hands built the trails and fences, and whose signature remains, too, somehow, on the birds and trees and creeks and creatures he helped care for and protect.
Carolyn says, “His spirit animated the land.”