"It's edible," my tour guide said as we browsed through the community garden. I picked the nasturtium from the stem and was immediately taken aback by the deliciously sweet peppery taste of the small flower. It was just as he had said it would be and made a perfect garnish for that afternoon's lunch salad. The city-dwelling skeptic in me was a little nervous about eating a flower (no matter how edible) straight from the stem without injecting pesticides or small bugs. I was assured that the garden was organic and very few bugs feasted on the vegetation. He was right, not a trace of an insect on my nasturtium and very few multi-legged creatures crawling on the many other plants around us.
In response to my confusion, my guide eagerly explained how bugs usually attack weak and unhealthy vegetation; unlike the healthy foliage in their garden, which was kept strong by a mixture of healthy soil, organic compost and lots of love. Healthy roots meant a healthy plant that's better able to fight off life's pests and troubles. Like the vegetation, the residents and visitors at Easton Mountain Retreat are nurtured in much the same way.
A healthy, accepting escape was the original purpose of Easton Mountain Retreat when John Stassio founded it seven years ago and the retreat remains much the same today. He sought a refuge where he and others could retreat, reflect and relax—all while being themselves.
Stassio has a deep rooted history in the healing arts. The former Catholic seminary student spent time at Mother Theresa's House for Dying Men in India after coming out. His journey then led him back to the States where he witnessed the clients of his massage practice get sick and die of AIDS. The worst came, however, when Stassio survived his long-time partner.
"Death really was a big theme in my mid to late 20's. My way of coping with it was to party a lot and have a lot of sex and I realized that was not very healthy." Stassio continued to explain, "So, as a way of dealing with my own existential kind of losses and loss of community, fun and friends I started leading men's retreats in 1989; mostly because I needed to find a community that was healthier."
Stassio's affirmative retreats continued for 10 years in Boston until the idea for a refuge of their own turned into Easton Mountain Retreat—175 acres of nature including and surrounding Easton Mountain, located in the Hudson Valley just 30 miles North of Albany, New York. On a clear day (which is most), you can see across to Canada to the North and Vermont to the North East. The vivid greenery of the rolling farmland surrounding Easton Mountain was surreal and reminiscent of the pristine landscape of a childhood model train set.
John Stassio describes the land as a "healing center; a welcoming community; a place where artists can come; a place where people can come to heal, grow, stretch, or hang out with nature."
Home to near 15 permanent residents and hundreds of visitor throughout the year, Easton Mountain is a place for men who love men to culivate their own soil and creating a more healthy and actualized life (whatever that may be for each individual).
I was eager to see this concept in action when I was invited to join the residents and work weekend visitors at Easton. They provided me with food and lodging with only one expectation: That I come as I was. What I saw was a supportive gay community in action.
Easton Mountainers live by what they call "radical hospitality," which means all are welcome to commune with the Easton community whether that be for a day, a weekend, or in some cases many years. But Easton is no hippie crusade, separatist camp, or mere campground to escape city life. Everyone at Easton Mountain comes for a different reason: Some seek to nurture their muse; some seek refuge from an otherwise mundane concrete existence; and many others allow the healing energy of the surrounding land and community to help reconcile personal troubles or those pesky bugs of life.
At Easton you can put your life on pause, free to work out all of your life's troubles for however long you need. And there to support you are others in the same holding pattern. Once you are ready, you can simply press play and return back to your previous life - changed, healthy and free. Many find this fulfillment by coming, as John Stassio said, just to commune with nature or by volunteering to work on Easton's many building projects or in the kitchen. A stay at Easton becomes, in essence, a natural playground for your inner self to play. And Easton welcomes such inner love. Build a tree house, a cabin, a stone structure or a doll house. Participate in yoga, hike up the steep terrain of Easton Mountain or go visit the community garden for a snack of fresh basil, greens or tomatoes. The options are limitless and the choices are truly yours.
There is a slight transitory feel, however. Visitors come and go, staying for varying lengths of time with their own focus and purpose. Surprisingly, this blends well with the stability of the 15 or so permanent residents. After all, most that come share the same vision and have the same daunting need to heal in some way.
Residents and visitors vary in age, background and experiences. Take 81 year old Alf, for example. He spent 55 years living as a Trappist Monk at the Abby of Gethsemane and now resides at Easton Mountain. He talked of Easton's importance, "It does good work for people. I can be who I am in a social way, which is very good for my human growth—of which there's still some things to do."
Then there was 21-year-old Damian, a student at nearby University of Albany. He arrived for Easton's popular Queer Spirit Camp for young adults age 18 - 23. Damian chose to stay for the adjoining volunteer work weekend. He spent his afternoons helping demolish an old building just beyond the main lodge. "I really care about Easton. When I'm helping out here I feel good about what I'm doing." Damian continued, "It doesn't even feel like work. I can see the fruits of my labor, I guess you can say. I feel connected to this community so my work feels good."
Easton Mountain's unorthodox history also adds to its appeal... read more