Highland Lake Cove: Meeting Our Longing For Community

Highland Lake Cove
Meeting Our Longing For Community
by Jana Amsellem

It all started with a letter. In June of 2016, we wrote:

We are a family of five, ages 40, 38, 15, 12, and 9. This letter holds a list of the gifts we have to offer the world. The purpose of this letter is to be a beacon to reach an opportunity for service that matches the gifts we offer.

We dream of a more beautiful world. As our world enters a period of great transition, as the ecosystem and the economy, education and politics, our hearts and our intuition tell us that the way of life as we have known it for thousands of years must change if life is going to continue on this planet, we dream of, as Charles Eisenstein calls it, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

We want to find a place to live or a way of living where we can be part of building a self-sustaining vision of the more beautiful world. We view technology, government, and science as tools. We believe any tool can be used wisely. While humanity has seen these tools used unwisely in many ways for many years, we long to discover the beauty these tools can create when used with open minds and hearts, and with connection and healing as the end goal.

We long to find or create a community of like-hearted individuals. We long to combine our gifts with those of others and collaborate to build the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible [. . .]
Canoeing on Highland Lake , Photograph courtesy of Jana Amsellem

Canoeing on Highland Lake, Photograph courtesy of Jana Amsellem

My daughter, twelve at the time, and I had recently attended a four-day workshop with Charles Eisenstein at the Sanctuary in the Pines at Highland Lake Cove in Flat Rock, North Carolina. Our family has unschooled for several years now, which is a style of education that follows the internal motivation of the individual, creating an environment that supports and empowers their learning instead of following a predetermined curriculum. During this retreat that was filled with people who were double, triple, and quadruple her age, she was more at home than she ever was in a classroom full of kids her age. We both felt a strong connection to the land and the types of people that gathered on it, either for workshops, retreats, or to live.

Because of this experience, the very first person we sent the letter to was Kerry Lindsey – founder of Highland Lake Cove, and he responded immediately. Just a couple days later, we met Kerry at the community building at the Cove—a place called Treska’s Porch, named after Kerry’s 92-year-old mother who lives on the property.

Treska's Porch , Photograph courtesy of Jana Amsellem

Treska's Porch, Photograph courtesy of Jana Amsellem

Typical of someone who is in the midst of several projects, including many that are his own inventions, Kerry was appropriately preoccupied. He texted to change our meeting place twice just on our way to the property. But once we met, it didn’t take long to learn that the vision Kerry had been holding – and steadily building – for over 30 years was a perfect match and perfect timing for what we were seeking.

Kerry described the history of Highland Lake and how he was in the fourth of seven phases of the grand plan on the stunning 200 acre property, which includes a 30-acre lake. The first phase included developing Highland Lake Inn and Season’s, a garden to table restaurant. The second phase focused on building a 130-home residential neighborhood with careful consideration for social design—closer lots, porches open to sidewalks, and fifty percent permanent open space. The third phase included the development of both waterfront and garden hamlet vacation and retreat cottages.

Throughout these first three phases, program development was a big piece, including maker/artisan programs and community tools (decision-making processes, conflict resolution, etc.). For example, community tools played a big part in the Sanctuary in the Pines project, where participants of Open Door Teachings built the Sanctuary as an opportunity to practice cooperation and creativity in awareness. This beautiful 1,200 square foot timber-framed meeting space with cathedral ceiling, Palladian windows, and a wrap-around porch nestled in a woodland area of Highland Lake Cove invites the senses to participate with nature. It was in and around this building that my daughter and I fell in love with the property, which is why we sent our letter to Kerry before anyone else, though we’d not yet met him.

While the decades of development and evolution Kerry presented left us amazed, the real magic was yet to come. As the story unfolded, it was obvious how Kerry had been influenced by people like Frederick LaRoux, author of Reinventing Organizations; John McKnight, author of Abundant Community; Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory; Patricia Albere, founder of Evolutionary Collective; and (of course) Charles Eisenstein, author of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.

Amphitheater , Photograph courtesy of Jana Amsellem

Amphitheater, Photograph courtesy of Jana Amsellem

In phase four, Highland Lake Cove begins to focus much more on “Community 4.0” as Kerry calls it. Building upon the foundation provided by the infrastructure and program development in the first three phases that created things like World Café: Collaboration in Community Series; Speaking Circles: Present Company Series; Art of the Feast: Supper Club Series; Sociocracy (holistic, consent-based governance) workshops; and more. It is now time to bring all of these community tools together and begin to implement them.

Built into the very fabric of Highland Lake Cove is the recognition that when we have to go one place for education, another to purchase food, another to work, and yet another to “go home,” it can create a disconnected, car-based, and stressful lifestyle where one never really feels completely at home anywhere.

Our family fell drastically out of love with the traditional model of schooling several years ago. Since then, we’ve been able to create a microcosm of the way we’d like to see humans approach education within our own family. Without the support of the surrounding culture, though, this model (while still undeniably healthier for our family than the traditional model) doesn’t come close to offering the opportunities that it potentially could.

So, when we discovered that, at Highland Lake Cove, the mission is under way to build a community where all of the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, education, and providing a meaningful service to the world (aka “work”)—are all interconnected, we rejoiced, as we believe that’s a huge part of the remedy for a life of separation. In our vision of the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, all of these different aspects of life must support and promote each other. In the transition from a life of separation to a life of interconnectedness, everything from laws and governance to community design, education, and our food sources have to work together, or they won’t work at all.

Kerry explained that one of the first steps to creating this level of community involved beginning a long process to get zoning laws amended so that residences, businesses, education, and farming are no longer relegated to different areas of the county and can instead be woven together in one walkable community. An important piece that we hadn’t even considered.

Another necessity is to design in a way that supports—both materially and non-materially—those who are discovering, testing, and developing the technologies that will help heal our planet and ourselves. The Cove is developing one version of this “new paradigm campus” as well as partnering with existing universities. For two years, groups of college students have been coming to the Cove to develop a solid connection between what they do and why they do it. Plenty of hands-on experience in a setting that fosters curiosity, creativity, and a connection to nature and self can be a powerful bridge between thinking about what one wants from life and knowing one’s purpose. The stories and testimonials that come from both students and faculty are transformational.

This new paradigm campus is also a way for retirees and others to invest in a community that truly gives them a “rich” life. They get what they want and need the most—connection, relevance, and meaning—while knowing that they’re giving back in a meaningful way. From sponsoring classes and investing in rental units to easing into active retirement by doing and teaching what they love, there are many ways to support this work.

The aim is to design back into community life all of the key elements that have been commoditized out: to go from daycare, school, offices, and nursing homes to a community where the elders share wisdom through storytelling; where kids learn naturally from each other, apprenticeships, and taking risks; where you begin discovering, developing, and living your life’s purpose from a very young age; where the question is not, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” but rather, “who are you now?”; and where your job also happens to be your passion, mission, purpose, and your gift to the world.

One perfect example of this is Kerry’s mother Treska, who, in a typical American family, might be in a nursing home—almost a necessity in a way of living where every part of life is separate from the rest. She needs assistance, but she also has a fierce independence, fiery spirit, and intense love for nature and animals. So, her apartment on the property is next to the goat pasture, the greenhouse, and the chicken/turkey/goose yard. It even has an aviary attached so that she can interact with her favorite animals—fan-tailed pigeons—right from her kitchen window. She has multiple generations checking in on her, bringing and sharing meals with her several times a day. She has visitors from the community who come to sit and love to hear her stories. As the seventh of eleven children, her family fled the Nazis in Belgium when she was fifteen. Her stories of struggle and triumph, including her journey to the mountains of Western North Carolina, where she married, raised four children, and became a celebrated artist and author, all have room to be honored in this way of community life.

Because what Highland Lake Cove is developing is embedded in the larger culture that needs change, a big focus is to have people come to the Cove from all over to learn the skills and tools required to build a world of interconnectedness and to spread “Community 4.0 seeds” everywhere. From introductory levels to deep practice, people can come to the Cove to learn basics like cooking from the garden, artful shelter, and primitive woodworking as well as community tools, such as Sociocracy and conflict resolution, and even entrepreneurial skills. Regardless of form, each offering is fundamentally a vehicle that can be utilized for deepening awareness and unfolding a richer life. How the Cove designs and leads every aspect of these programs is informed by this dedication and a life-long passion for helping people birth their gifts, especially in the context of creating community and small businesses.

Some come for a quiet, personal retreat. Some come to rent space for their own events. Others come for their first taste of community at this level. And of course, some may decide to stay for the benefit of raising kids in this environment, for meaningful work, or to age in place. Whether they’re looking for a “tiny” starter home, shared housing, or a more traditional model, it all works together at the Cove. This environment allows for several “villages” within the community, offering a wide range of levels of involvement.

It all comes down to Real Food, Real People, and Real Places, creating a place and offerings that support and facilitate our collective evolution from separation to unity.

Needless to say, shortly after we met Kerry for the first time, our family moved to the Cove. We are doing exactly what we always dreamed of; we are using our collective gifts and talents to build a new and richer, more interconnected way of life.

My oldest son gets to apprentice, learning masonry and other hands-on skills that bring him great joy. My youngest son loves nothing more than working with his dad in the community woodshop here or playing games with community members, particularly chess with the set he carved by hand based on the mentoring of an elder from the residential community here. Watching all of my kids connect with the people here so naturally and seeing each of us to be able to contribute in meaningful ways confirms that we landed in exactly the right place. §

Drum Circle , Photograph courtesy of Jana Amsellem

Drum Circle, Photograph courtesy of Jana Amsellem



Jana Amsellem is the program director at Highland Lake Cove, a freedom-loving unschooling mom to three amazing humans, community builder, and website developer. She’s passionate about civil rights for children and elders as well as bringing people, tools, and resources together to turn life into a work of art. She can be reached at jana.amsellem[at]gmail.com.