From Shelburne to Yelapa: Local woman stays grounded in the natural world

  • Abigail Rose Clarke designed her small home in Yelapa, Mexico. When she was five years old, she witnessed the building of her mother’s home in Shelburne Center, which was designed by Connie Clarke. PHOTO BY ABIGAIL ROSE CLARKE

  • Abigail Rose Clarke’s home in Yelapa, Mexico was built from on-site lumber. It overlooks a cliff, with a fabulous view to the west, attributes shared by the home in Shelburne Center where she grew up. PHOTO BY ABIGAIL ROSE CLARKE

  • Connie Clarke, who raised her daughter Abigail Rose Clarke on a farm in Shelburne Center, employs creative approaches to gardening, including stripping an old box spring of fabric in order to use it as a trellis for beans. PHOTO BY CONNIE CLARKE

  • Connie Clarke recently salvaged a 5-lb. jar of honey when she assisted with a hive removal from an Ashfield barn. Clarke notice a huge basswood tree nearby that had just finished flowering, and said the color and taste of the honey “is all basswood.” PHOTO BY CONNIE CLARK

For the Recorder 
Published: 6/20/2022 2:20:59 PM
Modified: 6/20/2022 2:20:39 PM

Happy solstice and welcome to the longest day! It seems fitting to celebrate someone who brings light and wisdom to people around the world, while never forgetting her western Massachusetts roots. Abigail Rose Clarke draws on early farm and garden experiences as she teaches somatics, the exploration of how the human body can exist in relationship with our world.

Clarke’s work is particularly meaningful these days. “I focus on helping people navigate the pandemic and political and social upheavals,” she said. How did a child from Shelburne land in this work? Her mother, Connie Clarke, has inklings.

“I’ve watched Abi go from being a little girl working with sheep to someone who teaches yoga, explores permaculture, travels throughout Central America, goes back to college, studies human behavior sciences, and so much more,” said the elder Clarke. “With Abi, there’s always an unfolding. It’s a marvel to witness.”

When the house Connie Clarke designed was under construction in Shelburne Center, her then five-year-old was frequently on-site. “We set Abi up in a safe spot, and she spent hours singing and telling stories to Willie, the farm cat from down the road. Our house went up around her.”

Perhaps the experience wove into the child’s imagination: years later, in her thirties, Abigail Rose Clarke designed and helped build her own, much smaller home in Yelapa, in the western Mexican state of Jalisco.

“Abi called me one day and said, ‘Mom, I’ve built another house overlooking a cliff, with a beautiful view to the west!’ And Abi’s home in Yelapa has an open floor plan, like ours in Shelburne,” said the elder Clarke.

Abigal Rose Clarke has lived for eight years, on and off, in Yelapa, which has about 2,000 inhabitants, making it similar in size to Shelburne Falls. Now back in the area — at least for the time being — Clarke feels at home in both places.

“I grew up on a small sheep farm, gardening alongside my mom,” she said. “During those years, we also had chickens, goats, pigs, and geese, along with sheep herding dogs and barn cats.”

Clarke said her mother is a “voracious canner and devoted beekeeper.” The pair began building no-till, sheet-mulched garden beds about 20 years ago, and many edible species have naturalized. “Some of our most persistent so-called weeds are kale, mustard greens, and the inevitable potato that eluded the harvest and now pops up amongst the collards,” said Clarke.

While tending crops in Yelapa, Clarke brings to bear skills she learned from her mother. “In Yelapa, we grow turmeric, avocados, coconuts, bananas, and pineapples. For greens, we have sweet potato leaves that can be eaten like spinach, and chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius), known as tree spinach.”

Add to the list mangoes, passion fruits, medicinal herbs, and different types of flowers. “Almost all of the plants I grow in Yelapa came from cuttings provided by neighbors, who also help care for the gardens while I’m in the U.S.”

When her first banana crop came in, she sent a photo to a friend in the States, who asked how Clarke planned to preserve the load of fruit. “I did freeze a few,” she said, “but mostly, I shared with neighbors, having been on the receiving end for years. When we share, there’s no need to preserve the harvest. We have enough, because we’re part of a community.”

Clarke’s small, rustic house was built by her neighbor, Toño, from trees he cut in the mountains above the land and milled by chainsaw. “Very little has been brought in,” said Clarke, “since there are no cars in the village, and any materials must be brought in by boat and horses.”

Toño, his wife Nereida, and their son Elias helped Clarke build an ecologically-friendly septic system. “We get the water from a spring above the land; Toño maintains the pipes,” she said. “At the end of the dry season, we use an electric pump and a shallow well in the river.” One member of the family Clarke especially misses is her five-year-old goddaughter, Caoba, whose name means mahogany.

Living with the land, in community, has been central to Clarke’s work. “We have much more in common with the natural world than with systems like governments or institutions. Think of recessions or sub-prime mortgages,” said Clarke. “Our bodies don’t work that way. There’s an inherent humility when nature rules the show. In Yelapa, when the ocean is too rough, we don’t go to town. Power outages are frequent during the rainy season; we accept them as part of life.”

Clarke’s work focuses on “strategic, tangible, embodied methods to create lasting change, rippling out from individual to systemic change.” She earned a degree in health behavior from Smith College and focused her undergraduate work on the use of mind-body modalities in the treatment of anxiety disorders. In addition, she’s worked as an exercise therapist and taught yoga and mindfulness. Currently, she teaches a variety of online classes.

Clarke explores barriers to wellness due to lack of access for reasons related to class and race, and “the ways wellness and the wellness industry are inherently political, even as the body transcends politics.” Here’s where Clarke’s childhood on a farm and her subsequent training as a healer meet in earnest.

Clarke points out how strongly how we’re educated influences how we think. “Academic disciplines are viewed as unrelated,” she said. “So it’s no surprise that, in facing a flood of social issues, we try to address them separately. Climate change is seen as distinct from systemic racism, and ecological collapse is seen as distinct from pandemics and inflation.”

In our region, Clarke noted, “the proposed pipeline was seen by many environmental activists as separate from issues of job security and inflation, which led them to miss opportunities to connect with union workers who supported the pipeline because they needed jobs and lower utility costs. We tend to isolate ourselves into echo chambers,” she added. “Some people prioritize protecting our rich natural beauty, while others emphasize feeding their families. But when we don’t recognize the inherent connections between the issues and one another, our communities become less resilient.”

Citing a campaign known as “No Mow May,” Clarke said the practice strikes some as “something lazy liberals do to get out of yard work.” Some are annoyed by perceived eyesores, she said, while others may be alarmed at habitats harboring ticks.

“But if you have a chance to experience an unmown lawn in late May,” said Clarke, “you find entire worlds buzzing and crawling with life. It might seem like a small thing,” she added, “but it’s about connections and choices that ripple out. In this case, it’s about creating habitat, lowering the use of fossil fuel, water, and chemicals in lawn care, and reminding us that we’re not alone here.”

Living in our world, according to Clarke, can and must include dissecting pieces to understand them better, “but it has to include returning the pieces to the whole, and remembering that the whole is always more than the sum of the parts. To study the body and the world somatically is to explore the relationships between the pieces and parts, the messy middles, and to engage in the world and ourselves as changing and changeable, always in relationship, never isolated, never alone.”

To learn more about Clarke’s work:

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and an avid gardener, artist, musician, and mom.


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