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SMOKEFARM 2013: Talks, Food, Tree Houses, Camping, and Rural Splendor.

This summer I was invited to speak at  the Smokefarm Symposium 2013, an event run by the Rubicon Foundation at an former dairy farm just an hour outside Seattle.  It sounded intriguing at first, but I will admit, I hadn’t heard of it before and wasn’t totally convinced about attending.  That was until the co-hosts, Brendan Kiley of The Stranger and Stuart Smithers, a professor of comparative religion from UPS, convinced me that it came with great food and incredible landscape, and I wouldn’t regret it. Turned out they were right.

The event is in it’s fifth year, and was advertised as follows:  “For several years, a small, unpretentious, invite-only symposium of scientists, artists, economists, and culinary talents has gathered in the rural splendor of Smoke Farm, an hour north of the city, for a weekend of talks, fireside conversations, river swimming, and camping. This year, the Symposium is open to the public. Speakers included Micah White, editor of Adbusters and co-creator of Occupy Wall Street; Deborah Gordon, an ant biologist at Stanford who studies colony behavior; Kathryn Rogers Merlino, a professor of architecture at the UW who wants us to stop recycling and start repairing, and David Shapiro, UW philosophy teacher and former LA comedy writer. Stranger staffer Brendan Kiley co-curates the symposium, but don’t let that stop you….”


The printed announcement for the Smokefarm Symposium 2013 is of the watchtower constructed on site, and shown with the stars as seen the night of the event. The print was done in the Smokefarm print studio.


The view to the main building from the meadow.

Smoke Farm is a pristine 365-acre property nestled between the foothills of the Cascade mountain range and the Stillaguamish River, near Arlington, WA. Once a dairy farm owned by the Smokes brothers, the land has since been converted into a natural reserve under the Cascade Land Conservancy and a performance/retreat space for educational and artistic projects hosted by the Seattle based non-profit: Rubicon Foundation. Artists, educators, scientists, philosophers, and youth explore ideas and creativity while engulfed in a rural, communal setting. For more information, you can visit the official Smoke Farm webpage here, or see a map of the property here.


The former loafing shed turned was soon packed with 200 Symposium attendees.

As I drove down Smokes Road with my family where we came prepared to camp for the weekend and attend the Symposium, we rolled by an assemblage of vernacular farm buildings in various states of repair.  The landscape was breathtaking. The main building housed a large kitchen and dining area, some other small buildings, and sat high above the meadow on a small hill. Below was a sprawling field with more buildings spread around; a large barn, a lookout tower, sheds, and an assortment of kilns in the yard.  The large barn, open air on one side, was in a previous life the loafing shed for the dairy farm, and now was equipped with the best audio and visual equipment in a semi-outside venue.  All the buildings were constantly being repaired and transformed into something new; a printmaking shop, a place to store windows that needed to be repaired, a pottery kiln stage or places to sleep and eat.  The entire farm just felt like it was constantly changing with the seasons, yet had the feeling of permanence and tranquility.  Just a few minutes walk away, was the north fork of Stillaguamish River, which we learned was just perfect for an afternoon swim.

The event began with a speaker’s dinner the night before prepared by Monica Dimas, (Monica has cooked at Campagne, Le Pichet, Spinasse, La Bête, and Monsoon and is currently working at Anchovies & Olives…so this was enough to get me there, in all honesty), along with her mother, who had been preparing handmade tamales all day for the lunch the following afternoon.  During dinner we heard of many building projects that were done by the incredible staff and volunteers of Smokefarm, including Adam Nishimura, who runs Sawhorse Revolution and Fortnight Summer Camp.  Nishimura hosts camps for underprivileged high school kids and along with other volunteers, has been building structures around the farm, such as an awesome tree house, a lookout tower and the kitchen structure.  We have been scheming on collaboration with UW students in the future, as well.


Giving a talk in an open-aired barn structure ranks highest on my list of speaking venues.


Monica Dimas and her mom creating amazing fare for the lunch and dinner.

The speakers event began the next day at 10am, and to my surprise, the previously quiet farm suddenly was filled with 200 or so eager participants who had driven up for the day to attend the event.  They attentively listened to each speaker and each talk was followed up with thought provoking discussion.  During the six-hour stretch of talks, fresh tamales were sold for a low price to keep energy rolling. Discussion rolled on through the night and dinner, where many connections were made, ideas were hatched, friends were made and great food was eaten.

Smokefarm has many events from arts festivals to yoga retreats; workshops in pottery, printmaking and carpentry; camps and Sawhorse Revolution events; Burning Beast and the Symposium. Check it out!


The dinner crowd.


The awesome tree house created by Sawhorse Revolution.

Written by Kathryn Rogers Merlino
Assistant Professor

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