Moving with the Mountain

Early in May the unRival staff gathered with 10 Artisans of Peace in the Blue Ridge mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. We came from Colombia and Croatia, South Africa and Ethiopia, Guatemala and Mexico and the US to express our deep desires for a less violent world. We gathered not as strangers, but as friends who had planned this getaway for months. The hugs and laughter as we welcomed one another spoke of the joy of being together in-person for the first time. 

What would the weekend bring? We weren’t sure, but we couldn’t wait to find out!

Why would anyone choose to stay near a smoking volcano?

On the first day, my unRival colleague Billy Price asked all the Artisans of Peace to choose a partner. He gave each pair a sheet of cyanotype paper, which reveals its colors in direct sunlight. I’d never used anything like it before. Billy laid out a series of steps and assured us  they would somehow produce a piece of visual art overlaid with an original poem each pair would write together. It would just take a little work on each of our four mornings at Black Mountain.

I would have been skeptical if I hadn’t heard this from Billy! But I’ve worked with him for years, and I’ve learned that surprising things happen when you follow his lead. As I looked around the room at the people I’d come to know and love over the last 8 months, I had complete faith in their creative powers. But as I looked at the paper and the shapes my partner Iván Camilo Vargas and I ended up with, my mind went blank. Not even a whisper of a creative thought. 

Suddenly, Iván said, “What do you feel when you think about a volcano, Suzanne?” 

He started telling me about something that was happening back home in Colombia. A volcano was spewing smoke and ash and appeared ready to erupt. Government officials issued evacuation warnings for the people who lived near the mountain. 

When he asked me, “What do you feel when you think about a volcano, Suzanne?” I answered without hesitation: “I feel afraid. A volcano is dangerous. I would be anxious, wasting no time to evacuate.” 

I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought to myself, why would anyone choose to stay near a smoking volcano?

The people closest to the mountain are the ones who know it best

I felt I had stated the obvious, but Iván cast his eyes down in that thoughtful way of his I’ve come to recognize and respect. He is a young man with a great deal of experience working with rural communities seeking to free themselves from unjust and exploitative systems. He deeply appreciates the wisdom and knowledge local people carry about their land. 

One thing you must know about Iván is that he travels with his own coffee and coffee press! Offering you a freshly brewed cup of Colombian coffee is his love language! Believe me when I tell you, it is not like any coffee you have ever had. And the secret to the smooth, deep flavor is the volcano.

Iván’s English is good, but he speaks slowly as he searches for the right words. Over the next two mornings, he helped me see the perspective of the people who live near the volcano, the ones for whom the warnings were intended. People who live near the volcano don’t see it as something to fear, but as life-giving and generous. The volcano spreads nutrient-rich ash over the surrounding area, making the soil fertile and unlike any other place. It is here that the coffee beans grow, nurtured by the ash. It is something to celebrate and welcome, not run from in fear. 

The people closest to the mountain are the ones who know it best. They are intimate with its moods and signals, and they know when it is safe to stay and when it is time to go. They do not heed the calls to evacuate, because those warnings are not based on knowledge of the mountain but on fear of what is unknown and alien. 

“The people move with the mountain,” Iván told me. With those words, I realized we had started writing our poem.

Our question was not, “Why aren’t you afraid?” but, “Where do you find hope?”

Living in the rhythm with the mountain

As we created the art piece, we worked to convey the beauty and majesty of the mountain: the lush vegetation, the village nestled at peace with the volcano. I added the meeting house in the village because that is where the people meet daily to assess the risk. They live in rhythm with the mountain and in solidarity with the community’s wisdom. They would stay or move as one. 

As I reflected on this connection to place, I realized that our gathering in the Blue Ridge mountains (very close to Asheville, by the way!) had become a refuge, a safe meeting house away from the volcanic eruptions of violence and conflict. Nestled in the foothills, we relaxed our vigilance and explored what it is like to live with constant calls to evacuate. Calls that come from outside, but which nag and gnaw from the inside, too, as self-doubt and loss of hope. Sometimes the mountain erupts, and leaving is necessary. 

We shared those stories, too. Through our four days together, we were open and vulnerable with our fears, doubts, and desires for our communities. Our question was not, “Why aren’t you afraid?” but, “Where do you find hope?”  

One answer came through the poem I crafted with Iván, which we wrote in both English and Spanish:

Fear and beauty erupt as one.
Ash merges with the land,
Becomes better fruit.
People move with the mountain.
 
El miedo y la belleza estallan juntos.
La ceniza se funde con la tiera,
Se convierte en un mejor fruito.
La gente se mueve con la montaña.

Everyone is home now, nestled again in the shadows of their respective volcanoes. Each of us knows the fear and beauty of our homes, how to find joy in the better fruit unique to each place. The friendships that deepened over the weekend sustain us like a protective layer of ash as we move with the mountains we love.

A collaborative art project created by Suzanne Ross and Iván Camilo Vargas at the Artisans of Peace gathering in Montreat, NC. The poem reads: Fear and beauty erupt as one. Ash merges with the land, Becomes better fruit. People move with the mountain. El miedo y la belleza estallan juntos. La ceniza se funde con la tiera, Se convierte en un mejor fruito. La gente se mueve con la montaña.
Further Reading

Want to learn more about how unRival Network and the Artisans of Peace program are disrupting rivalry and advancing the cause of justice and peace? Click here to access our free resource, Peace is Possible.

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