Today, the word “Serenbe” represents our community and everything in it, from the Inn and spa to the farm and a calendar full of events. But in the fall of 1996, it began its life on a sign outside our little bed and breakfast.
Or so I thought. More on that later.
That one little word quickly became a conversation piece. And to this day, the No. 1 question people ask us is: What’s the story behind the name?
Over the years, I’ve parceled out pieces of the story — a drive down a country back road; a hidden folk-art mecca — but until now I’ve never sat down and told the whole from start to finish. There are so many good stories behind the beginnings of Serenbe, but this one put the magic in motion:
In the spring of 1996, Steve and I hopped in the car one weekend and headed to Americus, Georgia. We loved doing drives along country back roads — it’s the way we found what is now Serenbe — but I can’t recall why we decided to make Americus our destination. A circa 1892 hotel? Habitat for Humanity headquarters? It doesn’t matter. We just loved to take our time and explore.
As we cruised down a tiny two-lane road, I got lost in thought about the farm and what it meant to me. How it was a place to be serene. And in my mind, the words “serene” and “be” became Serenbe. It instantly felt right. I knew that second that I’d just named the bed and breakfast we’d open in the fall.
Either a short time before or after, I noticed a faded old sign deep in the trees with nothing more than the word Pasaquan and an arrow. I’d never heard of Pasaquan, but something about it struck me. I said to Steve, let’s turn and see what it’s about.
Turns out, Pasaquan is an unbelievably fascinating folk art installation. I’m not talking about a few sculptures in a field or some small shack full of outsider art. It’s a seven-acre compound with four acres of brightly painted concrete walls and six structures, including a farmhouse. There are totem poles, painted snakes and peacocks — all in concrete. It was created by Eddie Owens Martin, who later called himself St. EOM. He was a sharecropper’s son who returned to his homestead in the 1950s after many years in New York City when his mother died and left him the land.
Pasaquan was the manifestation of a vision he had to create a peaceful place. Since Martin’s suicide in 1986, Pasaquan has been preserved and is on the U.S. Register of Historic Places. His work has been displayed from New York to L.A. and in Atlanta’s own High Museum. But for most of his life, he was known as the village fool.
When we arrived, at Pasaquan, we walked around alone for quite awhile before meeting Gwen, Martin’s protégé, who gave us a tour. It was just wild and we’ve returned many times to share the experience with friends.
We traveled on to Americus, which was ho-hum, but I’ve always felt an invisible string connects the naming of Serenbe with our discovery of Pasaquan in the same 30-minute time frame. Just as people thought Martin was insane for creating his vision, people thought we were nuts to build a town in our backyard. First they call you crazy, then they honor you as a visionary.
Fast forward to 2011. I’d gone to England for a conference, as I do as often as possible. England and Ireland are sacred ground to me and always feels like a return to my roots. While I was speaking to another woman about Serenbe, a groundskeeper approached, politely waited for our chat to conclude, and asked if I knew that Serenbe is an ancient Gaelic blessing meaning to be of the stars.
It was one of the most exquisite synchronicities I’d ever experienced. In that moment, I realized that what I’d thought was an original word wasn’t original at all, but a word my ancestors used hundreds of years before.
It didn’t feel like a job well done message from beyond — it felt like a blessing. And a confirmation of the magic that is, and has always been, Serenbe.