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Merrie Sue Holtan, SheSays contributor, Published February 09 2012

Moorhead woman embraces life of travel and learning

MOORHEAD - Play a game of connect the dots with the places Jane Gudmundson’s life has taken her, she will likely have you beat.

Looking back, the 65-year-old native of England sees a map that forms a pattern, strung together with experience, curiosity about the world, a love of culture, passion for the arts and an addiction to travel.

Gudmundson’s latest adventure began last spring, after she retired as the long-time manager of the art gallery at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Jane began her role as a “woofer” for two weeks in rural France.

WOOF, which stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a program provides access to the international countryside and a chance to support the organic movement. Founded in 1971 in London, there are 99 countries with hosts that offer room and board to volunteers in return for a day’s work assisting on the farm.

Jane’s adventurous vein didn’t emerge after retirement. In fact, she might qualify for a lifetime achievement award for her dedication to adventure and the arts.

“I wasn’t surprised about her woofing decision,” said her husband, Wayne Gudmundson, a photographer and MSUM professor. “I’ve always admired her sense of adventure. She went to the USSR during the height of the cold war, worked on a kibbutz in Israel in the ’70s, wandered the backwaters of Turkey on an old truck, taught Finnish kids who spoke no English – and she no Finnish – and taught special education in a rough neighborhood in London.”

Born in Bromley, Kent, southeast of London, Jane attended college for education at St. Osyth’s College, Essex. Her teaching career led her from London to an Israeli kibbutz and eventually to Finland as a nanny and teacher. She then landed at an international school in Copenhagen, where she met, Wayne, a teacher from Minnesota.

After Jane made sure Fargo-Moorhead was on a map, the couple married and moved here.

Then the artistic adventure began.

She and Wayne both worked at Fargo Public School’s Creative Arts Studio for more than a decade. Jane, who believes the arts should be for everyone, also served as education director for the Plains Art Museum for nine years.

Jane found out about woofing from the couple’s daughter, Liv, who lives in Paris and is studying for her master’s degree in visual culture.

“When my mom wanted to spend time in France to improve her French, I thought it would be hard to achieve in Paris, so I suggested living in a small town with a family and woofing, something I hadn’t tried yet myself,” said Liv. “I helped her set up an account, select families and write an introduction letter in French. She did the rest.”

Woofing: Week one

Jane spent her first work week in the fields at the Ferme de la Reviere, about six hours by train southeast of Paris and 35 km from the nearest town of Cahors.

Jane’s journal recounts her “greenhouse living” on the farm.

“I stay in a room constructed inside a greenhouse along with a scampering mouse, Davide, and a wily chicken, Henri, who evades capture and returns to the coop,” she wrote. “Food production all year. Rotation of crops is practiced. Rhythm and routine to everyday. Calm and contentment reign. Little if nothing is wasted.”

About 30 members of a cooperative received produce from the farm.

Produce – such as cabbage, radish, beetroot, spinach, leeks and green beans – was cultivated in open fields. Lettuce, aubergines, strawberries, mandarins and turnips were grown in a greenhouse.

Two pigs, 400 happy, free-range chickens and two donkeys rounded out the farm.

Melon rinds fed the chickens, as did weeds, dandelions and red grapes. The donkeys ate fallen apples, and their dung was used as fertilizer.

Farmer Jean-Luc was “the rois” (the king), Jane recalled.

“He has knowledge, patience and foresight and works incredibly hard – like a conductor of an orchestra, he brings harmony to the whole. His wife is a willow basket weaver and has a studio in a converted greenhouse.”

Woofing week two

Jane traveled back to Paris, where she said she really “felt like a country bumpkin.”

She then headed north to Normandy for her next week of work at La Ferme d’Esmeralda with a teacher and his wife, Lucile, who had been farming for three years.

This farm had three pigs (with huge ears like windshield wipers), 10 free range chickens, 50 goats, one ram, 10 cows and one calf.

“We stayed in the original house with timbers dating from the 16th century,” said Jane. “The brick and the stucco additions were from the 19th and 20th centuries. The structure had layers of history.”

At this site, Jane worked alongside two young Australians and a woman from South Korea, picking apples, feeding animals, weeding the garden, making jam and milking goats.

“Apple picking (for cider) seems to be quite primitive,” she wrote in her journal. “We knock down the apples with a long stick, then search the clumps of grass for the apples before Edwin, the dog, tries to eat them. Hardly state of the art technology.”

Goat milking was easier said than done, according to Jane.

“I am trying to be as mindful as possible, observant, listen carefully and better my French. Lucile demonstrates how to milk a goat, ‘Make a nut with your thumbs and forefinger. Use the other three fingers to squeeze the teats,’ ” she wrote in her journal.

Five goats were milked at a time while standing on a waist-high platform. Their heads were secured by a guard while they ate a mixture of grains. The milk was collected, hand filtered and transferred to a churn before being taken to a cheese lab a couple of miles away, where it was then processed into rounds of goat cheese.

“I really enjoyed connecting with my mom before and after her woofing days,” Liv said. “I got a kick out of picking her up at the train station and seeing her travel as a backpacker.”

After her month in France, Jane felt unsettled coming back. It was difficult to absorb everything and have no routines in place.

Now, she waits for her next project as she researches a series of Polish posters from 1939-1980. She feels there is an exhibit here somewhere.

Jane continues as a board member of the Lake Region Arts Council and a review panel member for the Minnesota State Arts Board Touring Arts Program.

But her love of travel, art and education will surely continue.

“Remember,” she advises, “to take a journey outward to go inward, be mindful and keep your eyes and ears open.”


Merrie Sue Holtan is a regular contributor to SheSays. She lives near Perham, Minn., and can be reached at msholtan@gmail.com.