The Guest House: A Ferocious Love

In June 2018, Magazine by Seth O'DonovanLeave a Comment

The story of The Guest House is not a linear story.

It is not a story about having a concept idea and then writing a business plan and then choosing a name and then conducting a property search and then moving our staff to the land and then renovating buildings and then opening our first season.  All of those things have happened, but they are not the story, nor the substance of the work.

The story is more like a spiral.  A visitation of the same point over and over but from a new place on the path.  And recently I’ve been realizing that the points on the path can be represented in things other people have said that have had an impact on my path and that have become truer and truer to me as the path has developed.  Or rather, I have learned along the path how to live into them in deeper ways.

I’d like to tell the story of The Guest House through the lens of these quotes and the meanings they’ve brought to the spiral path of this work.  I’d love to tell the story through concepts my elders and mentors have expressed in their own paths.

 “at the moment, what matters is that something is magical and whether it opens up a new path”  —  Ferran Adria, Chef of El Bulli

The chef of El Bulli said this in the documentary of the same name about the cooking process in his restaurant.  I heard this quote for the first time in 2014 right before moving to Napa Valley and although it captured me enough to compel me to write it down, I really had no idea what it meant.  I had always been driven by an internal sense that what matters about anything one does is that its right or that its correct.  So the idea that what mattered most to this chef was that a new path, a new magical path was opened up was a paradigm-shifting thought.

What would new magical paths be like as a goal for the work?

A quality of magic is that it invites your brain to interact with the world in a new way or to at least consider new possibility.  If the rules we believe about the universe can be played with, then possibility is infinite.  The question then became, what are the tools and the skills of the magician?

I think most of my time in Napa was actually about being in magician school–

— which is really about finding the limits to the rules we believe about the universe, and in this case, the limits to the rules we believe about hospitality and food and cooking and service.  My exposure there of how to hold suspense for a guest, how to heap surprise upon surprise in a meal, and how to ask ourselves daily the question of ‘what would open up a new path for us as craftsmen?’ was critical in my magician training.  Mostly, my time there convinced me that people really are hungry for new paths and new possibilities.  In an over-saturated, overfed culture, we want new paths and new possibilities more than we want food.

I think a surprise of mine in Magician School was that a foundational element to being a magician was diving into the discipline and the structure of the craft.  The key to making magic wasn’t in disregarding the rules of physics in the universe or disregarding the structure of classic dining room service.  The key to making magic was knowing those rules so well, so internally, that ‘play’ became possible.  Drills and drills and drills.  Practice and practice and practice.  Our “reps” as we’d refer to them in the dining room in Napa, made us advanced craftsmen.  And then we could play with the very rules of gravity.  And open up a magical world for ourselves and those we served.

“love the people til you die”  — Dr. Cornell West 

“we must love each other, or die” — W.H.Auden

Love is why we cook.  It is why we serve people and serve the land.  The thing you’re not supposed to talk about in business is love, but we actually don’t find a reason to do what we do here at The Guest House without love.  Dr. Cornell West spoke one evening on the Auraria Campus in Denver, 2014. His main two topics from my notes were death and love.  I think its interesting that both he and W.H. Auden have brought the two topics together in statements they’ve made – Dr. West from lifelong work with community and justice, and Mr. Auden from lifelong work with writing and the land.  I have actually left out two other quotes from this article also by people who thought it fundamental to talk about the connection between death and love.  The theme isn’t to be minimized by those thinking most about the people and the land.

And there is something we are afraid of about confessing that love is the ‘why’ of our work – as if it compromises the trade or softens the respect for the craft.  But I think we can no longer afford to talk about our work in hospitality as if it is a removed, stoic, distanced engagement with people.  You can’t participate in the most intimate relationship between what the land provides and how animals die to nourish us and about the moment that someone places themselves in your care to feed them and not confess love.

I was talking recently with a love of mine, who is a chef, about the intention you put into food and how that makes it taste.  How an alchemical relationship occurs between the cook and the food that is then experienced by the person fed.  It is the magic that we experience from our grandmother’s soup.  It is even possibly why recipes of our ancestors are so important to us– because they even carry the magic of the love of generations who have fed each other.

Life, death; love, ferocity

I think our work here is not worth anything if not a practice of, a living into, love.  And this does not mean it is soft, delicate, or squishy.  It is fierce and it faces the reality of death in our lives and it provokes anger at disrespect of the land and it insists on aliveness and takes responsibility for our own lives and for the lives of others.

This is part of the reason our model of lodging for people is one that requires multiple days – because it takes time to fall in love.  The experience with the land and the food here is not about an a la carte selection; it is about an immersive experience that allows the space and time and interactions that cultivate love.

“this is no paradisal dream; its hardship is its possibility”–  Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry continues to be our most influential mentor here.  He returned to his family’s land in Kentucky after traveling the world and attaining graduate degrees and being recognized as an author because he realized that what he valued the most was the land.  And that in the land his substance rested.  He said this quote in response to someone suggesting that he was living an “idyllic life”: returning to his family’s property, farming for food, writing about the agrarian endeavor.

And when I heard this quote of his in the documentary, “Look & See” about his philosophy, I wept.  We had just moved to the land where we’d chosen to pilot the concept of The Guest House and it all seemed like paradise for the first 19 hours.  And then the work of it set in.  And the time of it set in.  I remember standing on the edge of the field outside of our staff house thinking, “this will be the view for the rest of my life” (in a very not romantic, but in love kind of way).  And I started to realize, or feel, in my body how hard it would be.  And Wendell just swooped in two weeks later as we held a viewing in Carbondale of the documentary and said to me, “its hardship is its possibility” as balm to my soul.

Constraints…or possibility?

We talk about the idea of “creative constraints” here at The Guest House a lot.  That in taking on the constraints and boundaries of sourcing only from our own property, of using our grandmothers dishware, of remaining Colorado-funded, of building our winter pantry from harvest about to be composted, of building menus only from what the garden dictates to us, and of reading from the books of our elders before we ever look something up from the internet, we are actually forced into the work of creation.  We create and manifest possibility because we’ve said no to the oversaturated world of endless surplus.  In denying that we can have whatever we want whenever we want it, we gain something no one else has ever had.

The hardship of this project IS its possibility.  And it holds possibility for each of our lives and for the land.  We become better craftsmen because of it.  We become more honest people because of it.  We engage in more accountable relationships because of the hardship.   What more could we ask for?

…almost 3000 vines; Terror Vineyard

Seth Siobhan O’Donovan calls the base of Mt. Sopris home after residing on many lands across the northern hemisphere throughout her life.  Her primary vocation is in the hospitality craft & trade and the focus of her work is serving the bigger vision of building community connection with the land.  

The Guest House is a unique experience in the valley, proffering ‘an interconnected experience of the land’. The blog alone is entre to tranquility, surrender and opening in its honoring of farm, hospitality, dining.  TGH provides wedding possibilities and lodging to those seeking genuine, soulful experiences grounded in that which matters: the land.