Oh, sweet, sweet Summertown, Tennessee

In April 2010, I had the privilege of visiting The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, which is located about an hour and a half south of Nashville. This farm was not the typical farm with the silo, barn or fields upon fields of vegetables. This farm was home to an ecovillage, a printing press, a few horses, cabins, a swimming hole, a frisbee golf course, hippies young and old and of course, the farm midwives. It was a magical visit from the moment I was picked up from the Nashville airport.

The farm was settled back in the 1970s by Ina May and Stephen Gaskin and their friends when they drove across the country in school buses wearing tie dye and believing in spiritual energy and living life in community. They lived in the school buses, later in army tents and developed the land to grow sorghum and built a soy dairy. They were vegans, lovers and depended on one another for everything including childbirth. Ina May became the first lay midwife as they traveled across the country relying on her experience as a child on her aunt’s farm watching animals give birth peacefully and naturally. Surely, she believed it had to be the same for women. “Just be nice to the woman,” she would say and nature would take its course. After a few births on the road, she was given some pointers from a local doctor and the rest came from instinct, belief in birth and experience. 

Today, Ina May is a world renown birth advocate, midwife, winner of the 2011 Right Livelihood award, writer and speaker. She has been featured in numerous documentaries and articles on her work and views on birth and maternal mortality. There is also a maneuver named after Ina May called the Gaskin Maneuver used in Shoulder Dystocia. When a baby’s shoulder gets stuck coming through the pelvis, the mom is positioned on her hands and knees to allow for more space in the pelvis, allowing the baby’s shoulder to come through. 

I first saw Ina May in The Business of Being Born and was inspired to read Spiritual Midwifery, which was Ina May’s first book. It starts off with beautiful birth stories documenting sacred and spiritual experiences and goes into the science of pregnancy, labor and birth. For once it all made sense to me, birth is a combination of the spiritual and physical bodies. It is something bigger than all of us and each experience is unique. Just because it is unknown, it doesn’t have to be scary.

Feeling inspired and drawn towards hippie culture, I was determined to meet Ina May and visit the farm so I enrolled myself in the Assistant Midwife workshop. There were no prerequisites nor certification acquired after attending but a chance to explore if this really was something for me.  

I did all my reading, took a week off of work (I was working as a producer at Mother New York, an advertising agency appropriately named for my interests!), and I flew to Nashville, Tennessee, a magical place in its own right. I was picked up by the farm’s ecovillage manager and husband to a midwife. On the hour and a half drive, we spoke about where we were from, what the farm was like and then the majority of the conversation was about the spirituality of plants and their ability to communicate with humans. I knew this was going to be an amazing week. And that conversation later got me interested in herbal medicine!

There were about 14 women attending the workshop and most of us stayed in a small cabin across from the clinic. We came from all over, California, Washington, Oregon, Canada, Georgia and I was the only one from New York City.

We attended class in the morning, ate the most delicious lunch from the farm store, often vegetarian chili and salad and then attended another class in the afternoon. The weather was sunny and perfect.  There would be a short break before walking up to Louise’s house for an amazing homemade vegan dinner. Before bed we’d watch movies, or Ina May would read us stories. One night in particular, Ina May spoke to us about the history of witchcraft on the back porch of Pamela Hunt’s house.

During the workshop we learned about what is expected of a midwife assistant, how to chart, what is a birth kit, breastfeeding, fetal positioning, how to take blood pressure and use an oxygen tank. We practiced cutting the cord using dolls and red fabric pinned on the doll’s belly to mimic the umbilical cord. We learned how to sterilize instruments using a pressure cooker, post-partum and newborn care. It was a basic 101 on everything pregnancy, labor and birth taught by women that had first hand experience by seeing and doing. There were no text books. They taught from the heart, personal experience, and by telling stories. Their information was true and their techniques were tested.

After a week of learning, living and bonding with my classmates and teachers, I was excited to get home but sad to leave at the same time. At closing circle we sang a song called, “Bold Woman” and I will never forget the way Pamela Hunt sang it as she swayed her hips and snapped her fingers. It goes something like this:

I am bold woman

I am such a brave, bold woman

walking right into the dragon’s mouth alone

I am a brave woman

I am such a brave bold woman

Seeking love and beauty

I go on my own

I go on my own

Seeking love and beauty

On my quest I go

No matter what may happen

I know I will grow

Yes I will grow

I still didn’t know if becoming an assistant midwife, midwife or even a doula was right for me but I was hooked and have admittedly become a birth junkie ever since.

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