ecovillage diaries


You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.
— Tony Gaskins

As I wrap up the long-running series on patterns of community, I want to tackle a difficult subject: protecting communities from disruptive behaviors. How do communities set the boundaries that define and protect their shared space? After all, growing a whole new story to be in requires safe nests for the fledgling memes and lifeways!

The obvious place to begin is the membership process. At Earthaven, people who showed up at the gate were thought to be the right people, and current members are still paying the price for past lack of discernment. At Dancing Rabbit, the sifting has been much more elaborate: first you tell in writing what draws you there and come for 2-3 weeks to learn and work in the community. Only then can you apply for residency. A letter of intention leads to an interview. If accepted, an 8-month residency is a prerequisite for membership.

Ownership and legal arrangements greatly influence community’s ability to censure persistent troublemaking. Earthaven’s 99-year leases and the need to buy out any built real estate got in the way of effective action. At Dancing Rabbit, month-to-month land leases create no debt and anyone can leave at any time, putting their improvements up for sale. And each newcomer must sign a commitment to undergo mediation conducted by a committee that exists for that purpose, if poor relations with another member begin to affect the rest. In addition, every community needs a legally thought out, ethically and financially acceptable process for expelling a member as a last resort.

Another line of defense is the integration of newbies into SLGs (small living groups”), the way Twin Oaks does it. Everyone there is a member of a group house, and people get to know each other intimately. Any significant issues quickly come to the fore. Dancing Rabbits tend to cluster around the various kitchens, but a newbie can fall through the cracks if they don’t join any of them.

These three relatively easy-to-implement strategies will protect communities from the influx of people heavily burdened by dysfunction or mental illness, in addition to assuring that there is a reasonably good fit between the new person’s and the community’s aims and values. It is much harder to deal with disruptive behavior that occurs ongoingly among the established members of a community.

Times of conflict can exacerbate this problem, make it more painful, visible, acute. Some of the conflict at Earthaven, for example, has its roots in the clash of the original vision of the founders, and the new visions and livelihoods brought in by the otherwise-welcome younger crowd. Having children or pets was originally heavily frowned upon, and there was a specific eco-protective vision of the settlement as a forest garden that has not stood the test of time. At Dancing Rabbit, there’s been conflict over the planned large community center (a huge and possibly misconceived project, meant to serve DR as it turns into a town some day); the projected change from consensual self-governance to elected town council is also bound to be a source of ongoing friction. Then there are the innumerable and inevitable issues people have with each other as they attempt to live their cherished values in close proximity and co-governance with others.

But conflict itself is not the problem. Disagreeing with people’s opinions is not the problem. After all, conflict is the stuff of life, making everyday existence more interesting and lively, often sparking changes for the better. The core issue is how we treat one another under pressure. Disruptive behaviors pop up as people attempt to deal with life’s challenges by less than optimal means. Many of us grew up with nagging, badgering, angry pushing, authoritarian crackdowns, and underhanded tactics. Our first impulse, when we left the family of origin, was to repeat the pattern, thus perpetuating the rage of generations. And when we join a community, we bring that baggage along. Life in community greatly amplifies old habits of pushing one’s agenda in less than savory manner, as well as any lack of skills in setting effective — yet peaceable — boundaries.

The purpose of boundaries is to protect and care for ourselves. We need to be able to tell other people when they are acting in ways that are not acceptable to us. In doing so, we take responsibility for how we allow others to treat us. And setting boundaries requires discernment. People often worry about being judgmental. But we do need to weigh people’s behaviors, and discern those which are compatible with our way in the world, and those which are not. All humans have equal value as human beings; boundary setting does not in any way condone judging a person’s essential self as bad or defective. But human behavior is not of equal value; chronic lying is not equal in value to chronic honesty.

Let me restate that even more strongly: All humans have equal value as human beings. I would go as far as to say, with the Quakers, that there is “that of God” in everyone, and to label people’s essential selves as somehow deficient or broken is a dead-end street. I see a difficulty arising in the alternative and therapeutic cultures when this basic and sound assumption about human ‘being’ is extended into the area of human ‘doing.’ People want to believe, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that all human intentions are good and honorable. This belief in turn undermines their efforts to deal with problem behaviors, thus endangering the whole community.

Psychologist Mariane Caplan once published in the Communities Magazine [#98] her anguished thoughts about persistent behaviors she subsumed under the “petty tyrant” label. She says: “We become compassionate when we realize that the petty tyrant is acting in the way that she acts because she is in pain. Period. Her harsh words and actions are stemming directly from her own suffering, and whether it comes out in the form of anger, self-pity, or trouble-making, its source is personal pain. When somebody behaves aggressively and hurtfully towards us, that person suffers the greatest pain. That is why she behaves as she does.” Beware. Ms. Caplan makes Mother Culture’s usual pitch for mind-reading. We can never really know why another person does what they do. Attempts at mind-reading facilitate ‘enabling.’ They distract people from keeping their attention on the problem behavior and on taking protective, healing steps.

We all harbor a mix of intentions, some good and some malign, others poorly understood even by ourselves. It’s a form of self-sabotage to try to figure out what sort of intentions lie behind problem behaviors. When dealing with difficult people — which we all are at one time or another — intentions are irrelevant. What is crucial is that the group successfully protect their social ecology from damage while giving the involved parties useful feedback and plenty of chances to modify their approach. Isn’t that the truly compassionate choice?

Some tools have emerged to help. Intentional communities generally take good care to train its members in NVC (nonviolent communication), and of late, also in restorative circles which are witnessed one-on-one conversations helping the parties take turns to listen closely and so work through to another place in their relationship. What is still missing completely from this picture are skills that have to do with navigating the treacherous ground of bullying, manipulation, and other forms of power abuse.

Are you ready to see human behaviors clearly for the motley crew they are, and learn the boundary-setting aikido moves that protect what you love? Once we master these crucial skills, we can begin to extend them to the larger social spheres that surround us. Only then do we stand a chance to counter the pernicious mainstream patterns of failure to set effective limits on those who harm the commons and the commonwealth.

Open garden gate with roses

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Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields, looks somethin’ like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it Polk salad. Polk salad.
Used to know a girl that lived down there and
she’d go out in the evenings and pick a mess of it…
Carry it home and cook it for supper, ’cause that’s about all they had to eat. But they did all right.
— Elvis

Had I only received the gift of poke alone during my sojourn at Earthaven, it would have been enough. I have been an herbalist and an alternative medicine user for many many years. And still, I missed out on a plant that has quickly become an integral part of my herbal medicine chest. Pokeweed has been surrounded by Appalachian lore going back to the native Indians, then embraced by the hill and hollow folk. To this day, much fearful misinformation is spread by more official channels, but the ranks of poke friends and admirers is growing. Permit me to introduce you to Phytolacca americana, also known as inkberry, pokeberry, pocan, and many other names.

Poke is nothing if not flamboyant. Massive convoluted roots shoot up tall, thick reddish stems by late spring, singly or in thickets. White pendulous flower clusters follow quickly, and from midsummer to frost, the plants are weighed down by a profusion of dark purple berries. It dies back in late fall.

poke1

poke2

Squish a handful of berries and you’ve just created unparalleled body paint of iridescent purple. When Earthaven celebrated the anniversary of its founding last September, a jolly procession of pokejuice-enhanced humans walked from the Gateway Barn to the Village Green while longtime residents recalled the history of landmarks along the way. Poke obliges by easily washing out with soap and water. (Some fiber artisans are using it as a natural dye; it needs a mordant to set the color.)

poke purple

pokeyarn

Using vinegar for mordant, a rich red dye is produced

Before proceeding further, I want to acquaint you with my off-the-cuff classification of plants and fungi in relation to their safety.

Category A: beneficial, easy to recognize, edible (e.g.: chamomile, chanterelle)

Category B: beneficial, modest caution recommended in recognition and/or use (e.g.: cannabis, champignon mushroom)

Category C: beneficial, with significant toxicities, use knowledgeably with care (e.g.: lobelia, comfrey)

Category D: poisonous, often lethal or leaves permanent damage, not for lay use (e.g.: hemlock — no, not the tree!, white snakeroot, death angel amanita)

The noble poke falls in Category C. Some parts of the plant can make a person briefly, intensely ill. The internet reports a death of a small child from crunching on the seeds. (To put this in perspective: the tomato plant has caused several deaths of people eating the leaves.) The plant has not been carefully researched yet; as a result, the sources report its ready use as salad, wine, and the remedy for a variety of ailments on one end, and warn in dire tones against its use on the other end of the spectrum.

A brief overview:
pokesallet2
Spring shoots are commonly eaten in the South as poke salad or sallet; be sure of your identification as confusion with other plants can be hazardous. Parboil twice and throw the water away before cooking for the table.

poke wine

The berries have been commonly eaten in Appalachia as an arthritis preventive (one berry a day is commonly recommended but some people on the web have reported eating many more, swallowing the berry whole). The taste is sweet but a bit peculiar. Old timers often made pokeberry wine and jelly; in Europe the berries have been used as wine coloring. It is unclear if any toxicities are connected with the berries. I have tasted them without any effects. Some people think the berries are not toxic at all, others think that cooking neutralizes the toxic substances. The seeds are said to be quite toxic, but are filtered out in the processing. (Contrariwise, some adults on the internet have reported crunching some seeds by mistake, without ill effects. It may be a matter of quantity.)

The root is the remedy most commonly used. Various sources list the primary effects as anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, lymphatic cleanser, immune system booster, anti-inflammatory, emetic, cathartic and alterative.

For folks wishing to peruse a few detailed articles, here are some links:
Henriette’s Herbal Homepage
Corinna Wood’s account
A medical case study of yew and poke in lymphoma
A lay compilation of many studies and other information on poke

Both root tincture and salve are available on the internet. So far, I have not seen any commercial berry-based preparations.



Shortly after coming to Earthaven, I had a lovely conversation with one of the herbalists there. We shared our favorite remedies, as well as medical errors we’ve endured, and information about chronic medical issues that are not curable within the mainstream medical model. For me, that would be lymphoma. When my new acquaintance heard about it, she immediately suggested I look into poke. There has been a remarkable full recovery reported on the internet (the original article I read is no longer available, but an abbreviated version still exists). This story was confirmed by another herbalist at EH who knows the woman personally, and if need be, can get me in touch with her. I looked up the woman’s intriguing tale, did some research, and determined to enter into a relationship with the poke plant and to begin — what fun! — experimenting.

My first experiment with the berries was on my skin. I did not find it useful against dyshidrotic eczema. But as I was suffering at the time from post-herpetic neuralgia (a chronic annoyance years past the outbreak of shingles) I tried rubbing the juice into the tiny burny-itchy bumps. It acted fast, and is the best remedy I have ever found for this condition (and I had tried several). Poke is the most powerful antiviral in my herbal medicine chest.

Then I bought a root tincture and began to use it very cautiously as recommended: one drop in water per day, then two drops, working up to maybe 10-15 drops and cycling down. I noticed that the swollen glands in my neck, probably related to some mild infection, went down. Intriguingly, I noticed that my body temperature seemed to have gone up — I am chronically cold because of hypothyroidism. Later, I found that poke is reputed to boost the function of the thyroid gland. At these doses, I experienced no untoward symptoms. I grew impatient. I had also heard that possibly, fresh poke root is the most potent.

poke4

Subsequently the spirit of poke led me toward a few heroic doses. The root is best harvested at the end of the season, after first hard frost, and when the time came, lacking a juicer, I cut off a 1/4 inch piece of the root, chewed it and swallowed the juice. (It tastes strong, unpleasant, acrid, and kills the taste buds for a few days.) About two hours later, the vomits started, as well as the diarrhea and the chills, and continued for 2-3 hours. It was a fairly miserable experience, but by morning, I felt great, and a slight swelling I had in my groin (yes, that would be the lymphoma) seemed to have alleviated. I gained energy and strength as well.

I doubled the dose a month later. The experience was much the same, except I felt sicker, and the malaise lingered into the next day. I felt I reached the limit of my heroic dose, and would try lower doses in the future. I do not recommend chewing on the root at all. The woman in the story juiced the root with carrots, and that would certainly help with the taste issues. Root tincture is easy to make: slice up a piece of the root in the fall, let sit in 80 proof vodka for several weeks, shaking occasionally, filter through a jelly bag and store in a dark glass bottle.

I also made poke vinegar from the berries in order to preserve their healing properties past their season. (Drying is not a good option.) The red vinegar (made by soaking the berries for three weeks in apple cider vinegar and filtering through a jelly bag) has stood me in good stead whenever I still experience the neuralgia, and I plan to test whether with more sustained use, it will go away for good. It certainly comes far less frequently now.

I am planning to experiment with using the berries for an arthritis remedy, in the form of vinegar prepared with greater care for internal use. And I want to mention that a woman neighbor at EH heard of my experimentation with poke, and tried the root tincture for her venous eczema (itchy, dry, discolored skin around the ankle area that frequently plagues the elder population). She told me with a smile that it largely cleared up.

When I saw my oncologist this spring, I was treated to the news of full remission. I had been very close before, but in the year and a half since my last ct scan, the areas in question shrank even more, and remarkably, so did my liver that had had a lesion in it once, but more recently kept showing up on the scans as “unremarkable.” I had not used any alternative (or mainstream) treatment against the lymphoma during this time, and I am encouraged that poke has played a positive role in my further healing. I have not felt this well in many many years, and I am tremendously grateful to my new plant teacher I met so felicitously at Earthaven.

Hail the good poke, a weed for all seasons!

poke3

The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in drinking water and those who don’t.
— Joe Jenkins

I failed. I failed abysmally, ignominiously, and thoroughly. I went to Earthaven to finally — finally! — become one of the people who no longer piss and shit in drinking water. And I failed.

When I first showed up at da Shed, my landlord handed me a pint yogurt jar and said, you can pee anywhere outside, or you can just throw it down the sink. I did both. One day, I lost my balance, tipped backwards, and crushed that yogurt jar full of mellow yellow. My ire was provoked: been nearly 20 years and this community hasn’t figured out a pleasant way to pee indoors to teach newbies? What happened to those comfy old-fashioned chamber pots?

chamber pot

The internet is full of antiques, but not even Lehman’s, the quintessential Amish store, carries them. You can still buy nice new chamber pots in the Czech Republic and UK, bless’em, but importing or paying antique prices seemed like overkill.

I tried my stainless steel soup pot with rounded edges. Not bad, and uncrushable, but heavy and hard to wash in my miniscule sink. I finally settled for a sturdy squarish plastic storage container, 5½ x 5½ x 4 inches. Easy to grab, easy to empty, crush-resistant, and ample for one female bladder. Taller, though, would be better, 6 inches being ideal.

Later on, when the whiffs of stale urine accosted my nose of an evening, I discovered that the plumbing leading from the sink ended in mid-air just past da Shed. What? Not even a minimalist gravel pit in this wet climate, a few yards from the creek? And what happened to the idea of using urine as a phosphorus-rich fertilizer? When I visited EH in 2006, there were collection bottles attached to the shitters — simple outhouses collecting humanure in 55-gallon drums — everywhere. Now even many of the shitters are near defunct.

5-Gallon-bucket-toilet-seat

For the brown stuff, I was provided a 5-gallon bucket sporting a molded plastic seat with lid, the kind sold to campers. Do the deed, throw in some sawdust. Easy enough? The flimsy seat proved barely adequate to sit on. But I quickly discovered another drawback; in this humid climate, the lid held down not only odors (there weren’t any, all true!) but also acted as a collector for the condensation from below. When I opened the lid and sat down, the wet lid glommed onto my bare behind. Ick! But wait, it gets grosser. A few weeks in, I opened the lid and a bazillion of little flies flew in my face. Eew! MAGGOTS!!!

My landlord graciously offered to show me where and how to clean out the bucket. The poop, amazingly, had by now disappeared, leaving behind nice decaying sawdust. But… maggots! The bucket had to be scrubbed hard to get rid of their remains. Worse yet, I was told they’d be back. When the toilet was replaced in the shed part of da Shed, I vowed never to use it again. And never did.

As a consequence, when nature called, I trooped — sphincter firmly clenched — the half mile to the Council Hall’s bathroom. Only one problem: the Council Hall has, mercy me, a flush toilet! And this flush toilet uses the cleanest, most drinkable water at Earthaven to flush poop. Reality bites.

So, you might well ask… huh? I did. Got back a shrug. Earthaven faces a dilemma. In order to build to code, a septic system must be put in. The county is not opposed to composting toilets but insists on a septic tank for greywater. And it takes special dedication and extra resources to put in a composting toilet after all that hassle and expense. So much easier to slap in a porcelain throne and be done with it while listening to that familiar siren song… “out of sight, out of mind.”

On the other hand… Earthaven depends for its existence on a steady stream of pilgrims, and its mystique must be maintained. So it happens that some tour guides have been heard to say to visitors at Council Hall: “This is the only flush toilet you will see at Earthaven.” Technically, it’s true, because there is very little chance said visitors will have access to any of the water-closeted houses. But only technically. To my count, there are 5 other conventional flush toilets at EH, and if the trend to build to code grows, there will be others. Unless.

Unless the eco aspect of the community receives greater emphasis in the years ahead, and with it a firm commitment to the reconnection of the broken nutrient cycle so typical of Babylon.

humanureintact1

Intact Nutrient Cycle

humanure

Here’s my question: couldn’t a pleasant, well-functioning humanure system be provided for all EH homes, including rentals? It doesn’t take much to build one of those simple toilets with a comfortable seat Joe Jenkins’s been popularizing for many years in his Humanure Handbook. But then again… there are the maggots. Aw, crap.

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I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
— Confucius

Anyone coming to Earthaven to live — whether as a guest, an intern, a work-exchanger, or long term resident — must pay certain monthly fees. Some of those fees (for me, $45 included nominal membership, facility fee, and car fee) are payable in dollars, while others are payable in local currency called “leaps.” Each leap is worth an hour of work and is roughly equivalent to $10.

leap

Most of us newer folks owed 16 leaps per month. I had a sheet on the wall where I recorded the work I did for the community. Occasionally, I worked for a private person and was paid in paper leaps. Both types of leaps were acceptable for fulfilling the 16 leap requirement. Falling short meant having to work more hours next month. This was my fate in the early months, when I quickly fell behind because I didn’t understand the system. Later, I usually banked extra leaps for the next month, and when I left, I cashed out with 12 leaps in my wallet. I’ll likely keep one as a souvenir, and spend or gift the rest when I visit EH again.

Apart from paying part of one’s fees to Earthaven, there is not a whole lot one can do with the leaps. Occasionally, someone will offer a service like a massage payable partly in leaps. And established members often pay newbies in leaps to work for them. Based on my conversation with one of the people at EH who helps run the system, the leaps undergird the community labor system. They are not a full-fledged alternative currency, and play a minor role in the overall economy of Earthaven. There is hope of extending this role in the years ahead. Because EH does not have a commitment to redeem all the leaps it issues, many end up languishing in people’s shoe boxes rather than circulating and doing work for the community.

How does one know what sort of work qualifies? I learned as I went. At first, the only job I knew of was clearing pathways of weeds and poison ivy. Then I began to do some clean up work at the Council Hall since I spent a fair amount of time there, and was quickly offered a leap-worthy position a couple of times a week. I drove one of the elder members shopping, made airport runs, did kid-sitting. When cold weather came, I signed up to feed the voracious Taylor stove one, then two days a week. I love playing with fire. Helping with archives and taking minutes for one of the committees added up, as did my work with the Council Hall replastering crew. Once I got the hang of it and understood what was leapable, it was a breeze. Plus I liked the feeling that I was contributing to the community every week. I began to reflect on what skills I might have that would be of use to the community and to make a list of skills I’d like to cultivate in the future in order to become a real player in the local economy.

taylor

Ho hum, you say? This is where it gets good. I’d been using leaps for 5 months when I ducked out of EH to visit family for Christmas. After getting over my astonishment tinged with consternation each time I saw unlimited hot water gush out of a wall, my brain looked for something else to do. I began wondering. What IS money? And what role can local currencies optimally play in small communities?

I wasn’t completely clueless when it came to alternative currencies. I had worked through a couple of interesting and disturbing books by Margrit Kennedy and Bernard Lietaer, but in the end, I had concluded that local currencies are a novelty and accomplish very little for all the volunteer work they entail. If they ever did get somewhere, they would be shut down by the PTB overnight. Besides, none of the explanations of what money is and how it’s created made sense. So I gave up.

Using leaps piqued my interest afresh. And having hands-on experience opened a new window of understanding. I delved into Graeber’s Debt, and Tom Greco’s New Money for Healthy Communities. I scouted the internet for others like me trying to figure things out from another angle (not the one taught in econ textbooks). Let me share a few insights.

Money is an ingenious human invention that allows us to exchange disparate goods and services with ease, asynchronously. Not only the proverbial apples for oranges, but also chickens for copper wiring, shoes for massages, and houses for train rides.

barter

Here are folks offering bicycles, books, muffins and shoes. Without money, they’d be stuck with barter (which almost nobody ever did, points out Graeber). Instead, insert trusted IOUs.

barter2

And now the exchanges can proceed immediately. When the person who sold muffins finds the person offering copper wiring, she’ll have the IOUs all ready to pay with. The IOUs — which can range from printed pieces of paper, to metal tokens, to marks in a ledger — make the magic happen.

Whee! Then how do we create these trusted IOUs?! And do I really mean to say that “we” — any of us — can do it? Yup, that’s what I have discovered. I will describe how in a soonish post.

Money has been shaped over the course of this civilization into a vicious economic weapon. It’s a sword that cuts most of us off from access to most of the wealth of the world. So why don’t we transform this stupendous cutlass into ploughshares and pruning hooks? Becoming local money creators is the place to start. Creating money is one of the most empowering things an escapee from the prison of Babylon can do. Must do, on the way to freedom.

Doing alternative currencies enables us to deeply understand the true nature of money. Only then can we create local economies where money is used for the common good.

money tree

Earthaven lays claim to 320 acres in the middle of a high watershed. There are several abundant springs, some creeks originate there, and others come from not far above. When the land was first settled by European colonists, there were some Scots-Irish families eking out a living via subsistence agriculture, and catering to a stagecoach route with a store and a post office. Clearing the steep slopes caused erosion, and the topsoil is thin in most places, except in the small alluvial meadows near the creeks. But the Founders were not looking for ag land in 1994. They dreamed of land that was remote and spectacular; its raw and rare beauty would hit you in the solar plexus and change you forever.

view above EH

The night skies are almost as dark as in Colorado, and apart from the occasional car, plane, or chain saw, the quiet is amazing and so healing. The land had all gone to forest after the damage of early agriculture. Now there are many clearings, and several small farms, and people cultivate chickens, pigs, sheep, and a couple of milk cows. A few folks have vegetable gardens.

Earthaven’s neighborhoods are far flung over the land; some have several houses, others only one or two, and one is yet to be populated. Houses are experimental in a whole variety of ways, from straw bale to clay slip to cob; a few are made of wood. Natural plasters are very common. I want to describe what I perceive as the essential pieces of the community, those that make it run. And to provide a context for future posts.

council hall2

Council Hall
This temple to consensual group process was built as load-bearing straw bale in a roughly circular design. It’s got a lovely granite mosaic on the periphery of the inside space, and heated round parquetry in the middle where meetings take place. Huge windows admit lots of sun and keep the building bright and cheerful. Originally, a community building was planned nearby, but has not yet been built, and its lack is keenly felt. That means that the Council Hall has had to serve for nearly all infrastructure needs. An office was built inside where paid staff and volunteers answer phones and keep EH organized. A small kitchen and half-bath was added on the side. There is an internet lounge, a DVD library, a free phone, and a toy area. (Sometimes, it’s too much, esp. since the space bounces sound around.) Nearby, a playing field beckons, and a canvas-covered area shelters summer potlucks; in the winter, they move inside the Hall.

council hall inside

Communication
EH’s phone system is at the heart of its connectivity. People do communicate via emails and online forums, but the bulk of the communication happens via telephone. A constantly updated “phone book” sits by the free phone in the Council Hall, and the entire Taylor Creek Watershed uses it to communicate, not just Earthaveners. Just before I left, I noticed an enhancement, where a whole conversation on a topic was embedded into the messaging system. Each member has their own voice box (I was provided access by a kind neighbor). By the way, I think this system has an advantage over putting all communication on the internet as Dancing Rabbit had done. It is easier, quicker and less stressful to listen to a series of voice messages than to wade through many emails. And it is fully accessible to those members who are not particularly wired.

EH of course has systems in cyberspace as well: one forum for the whole valley, mostly used for announcements, one for members only, and a blog (“the Hive”) with restricted access where documents are being stored. Most documents have also been archived in hard copy in voluminous folders accessible to anyone in the Council Hall but this may now be changing.

A simple schedule board in the Council Hall keeps folks updated and events coordinated. But now that a scheduler also posts online, lines do get crossed sometimes.

And let’s not forget the most basic communication tool of all: walking around the community, serendipitously running into neighbors, and striking up impromptu conversations. My favorite.

Food venues
The White Owl restaurant, sadly, opens only sporadically. The rents make it hard for anyone to succeed. Potlucks happen like clockwork every Tuesday night, and while the food tends to be uneven, the socializing is good. At the conclusion of each, joys, concerns and announcements are shared with the community, and visitors are welcomed. Afterwards, WordUp aficionados duke it out at a nearby table. Fish fry takes place on many Fridays in the warmer seasons.

coffee1

Every Tuesday morning sees a Coffee and Trade market where folks from the area as well as nearby farmers offer their wares: eggs, milk, veggies, hummus, canned goods, muffins, bread, honey, flour, what have you.

Special feasts are organized around major Celtic holy days and Thanksgiving. And a buying club for bulk foods just got underway. There used to be a little store offering basics but it’s gone defunct.

Local currency
Earthaven has had its own currency for a number of years now; it plays a muted yet important role, and I will describe it in another post. Some of the community fees are payable in this scrip.

Governance
Councils meet every other Sunday for 4+ hours. There is an agenda committee that sets and publicizes the agenda ahead of time. Each Council has a trained facilitator, and minutes are always taken. Important decisions must be made in Council. Sociocracy is used yearly to select the Weavers (four people responsible for the overall functioning of the community), while slightly modified consensus (I would describe it as unanimity with a loophole) is used for everything else. There seems to be a feeling in the community that moving in the direction of sociocracy makes sense, provided it is done with sensitivity to the current decision-making culture. Only full members may participate in the council, with rare exceptions. Visitors and guests may observe from outside the circle.

The four Weavers (finance; documentation, membership and promotion; legal and well-being; and infrastructure) meet as a group, and each area also has a number of committees with varying levels of activity. One member has the job of caring for Earthaven as a whole in hands-on terms: wood-cutting, clearing paths, making repairs, gathering volunteers for work parties, and so on. This is one of the few paid positions.

theater

Events
There is an organization run by several members that brings cultural events to Earthaven, and markets events presented by Earthaveners. Many interesting venues come to EH on account of their efforts. Last year, a horse-drawn theater came to EH for one night to the delight of all. But Earthaveners who want to organize events on their initiative do so as well. Or simply put their own happening on the schedule. Learning, story telling and fun activities abound.

Kids’ learning place
No, I won’t utter the S word. This cute little cob house becomes available after 3 to anyone wanting to give private lessons.

Free store
An old log cabin has been converted into a place where old things find new life. Clothes upstairs, everything else downstairs. Good to visit.

Land tenure and property ownership
Earthaven organized itself as a Homeowners Association that holds the land in common, and made long term leases to those who became full members and looked for a homestead of their own. Homesteads came in two sizes: a 2-person, and a 4-person one. This process is now on hold.

Because the early EH pioneers paid insufficient attention to North Carolina requirements and zoning regulations, the community is now refashioning its land-tenure structures into something that fits well with outside regulations and preserves the commons and EH’s sharing values, yet gives each neighborhood more autonomy. It looks like the creation of “pods” out of the current neighborhoods is the wave of the future: each pod will form a housing coop and administer the 10+ acre holding under its care: the rest of the commons will still be managed by the HOA or its successor. A land trust for part of the land may or may not be in the offing.

Wholeness centers
Christopher Alexander talks about special spots on the land that need to be preserved and enhanced. Many such places are cherished at EH — a labyrinth, several altars, a peace garden at the confluence of two major creeks, and a fire circle up Hidden Valley, a special and remote area in itself. Off-land but walking distance is a lovely small zendo whose gong resounds across the land. And of course, the Council Hall is a wholeness center as well.

[Here is a quick summary of the theory of centers: a center is a region of more intense physical and experiential order that provides for the relatedness of things, people, situations, and events. In this sense, the strongest centers gather all the parts into a relationship of belonging].

Ways to make a living
Useful Plants Nursery employs several people every year. There used to be an herb tinctures and ointments manufacturing business, Red Moon Herbs, but it’s been sold and moved to Asheville. People often earn money working for more established residents, esp. doing gardening, repairs, or building. Some folks have small individual businesses, like offering massage or giving workshops. But often people who are neither retired nor have independent income must commute to town. Heavy debt is not uncommon.



What’s missing?

Speakers’ corner
When I got to EH, the community was deep into a dysfunctional slough of despair, and folks were not talking. While there are now some big efforts to turn things around, it basically still was true when I was leaving that there was much talking about talking, but the actual talking rarely happened. Free-wheeling discussions are not suitable for the tightly managed space within the Council; nor is the Council inclusive. I would have liked to see a regularly scheduled series of discussions, ongoingly, open to all, and not under the control of any particular official body or person. One notable discussion happened last fall around the fire; a mood of good will prevailed throughout.

Couple of other things were done that helped: inviting some grad students who are spreading a process called WorldWork, and organizing (I was told) a world cafe. Still, a regular forum for speaking your mind would seem like a good idea. For example, one Sunday a month when the council is not in session could remain as an open invitation on the calendar, with the content up to the people who show up. But I may be putting the cart before the horse: if trust is lacking, people won’t be inclined to speak up publicly.

Ombudsperson
A designated person to turn to with problems one has noticed or is experiencing would have been a godsend.

Boundaries
A way to deal with (and potentially exclude) members who have been harming the community, long term, is sorely lacking. EH has been struggling with this one for a very long time; it is seen as a desirable thing but they have not yet figured out how to be both fair and effective.

jigsaw-puzzle

It’s been two months since I left Earthaven. It was time to leave the hardships behind, and clear my head. So I headed west… into the heavy snow in the Cumberland Hills of Tennessee, into the ice storm that shut down everything in eastern Arkansas, and into a whiteout blizzard on Colorado’s Front Range as I was nearing home.

Apparently I packed the hardships along for the ride! The ice storm that hit Arkansas was not as bad as the one that hit Slovenia in February but it sure put a kink in my knickers. Clear roads in western Tennessee did not prepare me for what followed. Half-way across the Mississippi the bridge suddenly sprung half a foot of snow and ice. I hastily took the first and barely navigable exit out, and smacked up my car in some casino’s parking lot amid a rising feeling of panic, surrounded by dark, surreal landscape peppered by stuck cars and bundled humans trying to dig out.

ice storm slovenia

Only persistence and sheer luck got me what must have been the last motel room east of Little Rock. We holed up for two days, me and my kitties, then finally got out by following the locals’ advice to bypass the stuck portion of the highway on side roads (which, sadly, had yet to see a plow). The thing is… when Arkansans saw it coming, they briefly reflected on their dearth of plows and snow shovels, and simply gave up. Crossing the parking lot at the motel meant navigating heaving frozen waves of an ancient ocean and gingerly stepping up to the rooms on stairs padded with three inches of granular snow.

But the real heartbreak was all the fallen, broken up trees along the road — heavy with opening buds, they could not withstand the weight of ice that clung to them for days. I will never forget one red maple — still young, so full of spring joy, clothed in the red glory of its flowers — lying fallen at the edge of the forest. May it grow forever in paradise.

flowering red maple

Well, enough about the hardships visited upon the American midwest the year Siberia enlarged its domain within the northern hemisphere. Let us now speak of the hardships of Earthaven, the idyllic dell high above Black Mountain, North Carolina. In summer, its lovely warbling creeks bring not only life to the watershed, but also smothering humidity amidst the heat, aiding and abetting the vast armies of the Mold Kingdom. People pack their winter clothes in plastic bags and chase the mold on all surfaces with vinegar and peroxide. Forget about bringing pictures with you to enliven the walls — the damp will ruin them, as I learned the hard way.

Just after I showed up, the torrential rains that made last summer the wettest in 53 years in that part of Carolina came down with no let up, affecting people’s sanity, ruining the third successive plantings of area farmers, and swelling the creeks with muddy runoff.

Then, the bugs. Ah, yes. The bugs. People say if you live there long enough, the itch gets less itchy. I am not sure I believe it. Chiggers, skeeters, fleas, gnats, who knew them all? I went to bed dabbing iodine all over me, and woke up scratching. One night, I woke with my arm afire. A spider? But a happy exception amidst the itchy carnage — EH is an oasis amidst the Lyme plague-ridden lands of the eastern seaboard. There are occasional dog ticks, but no deer ticks. A true blessing.

And there were the ant invasions. Storing food inside my hut — da Shed, I called it, as it is in fact a modified shed — became impossible. I had no refrigeration and so stored food in the car, and ended up eating a fair amount of non-perishable crap-foods which I rarely do in Babylon. Feeding the cats outside on the porch, however, precipitated one of the conflicts of EH’s perennial pet wars.

Autumn was clement and dry enough to permit several delightful gatherings around the fire. Then, winter set in. I tried sleeping in my clothes. No go. Only when a neighbor lent me a fluffy feather duvet was I able to warm up. And then I discovered that it was not lack of coverings that made my nights so miserable, but rather the fact that my mattress and the space underneath were sucking heat from my body. Once I laid down insulating layers over the mattress, the misery finally abated.

The deep freeze of the polar vortex reached down like the finger of Satan all along the Appalachian ridge, my boots sprung leaks, the snows came, the water froze, and I was running to town every couple of weeks to refill the propane bottle that fueled my little stove so the hut could stay nominally warm. By day, I survived in the Council Hall whose Taylor stove, fed prodigious quantities of wood, capably warmed the building via its floor heating system. At night, I bundled into bed, cranked the heater for a couple of hours, and tried to sleep. Sometimes with success. The old timers told us it was the coldest winter in 130+ years.

A strenuous life on the edge invites accidents. I fell down the steep, minimalist stairs from my loft one day. Then, I burned my hand while feeding the Taylor stove. Only a few days later, a neighbor burned her hand on her wood stove so badly she ended up at ER. When you body gets sluggish from the cold or fatigue, a momentary inattention can lead to harm. I fell, many times. I cut my hand… stopped counting the smaller insults to my body. But the cold damage to my joints was the worst. The jury is out whether it will heal yet, or whether it will give me a good dose of arthritis in the years ahead. The cold of the Appalachians is not like Colorado cold — this is damp, insidious cold that creeps into the marrow of your bones and refuses to leave.

My hut had running cold water for washing up which froze for much of the winter. It had a two-burner Coleman stove which was unusable because an attempt at cooking produced copious quantities of condensation and subsequent mold chasing. Still, though, the place was clean if spare.

The water in da Shed came from a spring reputed to harbor some tiny critters frowned upon by the health department, so a betook myself to the Council Hall every couple of days with a gallon jug to bring well-water home. Cleanliness? Well, our neighborhood had a greenhouse with a hot shower. Ok in the warm part of the year. Come late fall, many of us went dirty much of the time, and the joys of peeing outside sans toilet paper lost some of their luster. A few times, I bummed a tub bath from kind neighbors; the rest of the time I felt right at home when people began to crack jokes that began “when was the last time you took a shower?”

Even the young people at EH feel the harshness of life there acutely. Earthaven is lacking in infrastructure, and frequent runs into town on a half hour worth of switchbacks becomes a necessity for food, laundry, supplies, library, and contact with the outside world. And much of the housing is, well, er, what mainstreamers opaquely call substandard. But who cares about mainstream standards? It’s what I politely call inadequate.

But not all of this was a downer in the end. I threw myself into a demanding way of life that involved a lot of walking everyday, work for the community, participating in various events and activities, seeking out neighbors, hiking around the lovely hills and hollows, and making the steady effort it took to survive. It changed me. I went from a near-recluse who had gotten way too sedentary over the last years of my life to someone who is active again, back to her youthful weight, and fit. And remarkably stress-resistant. This newfound vigor has stayed with me as I enjoy for the moment the luxuries of the outside world. I am grateful to Earthaven for this unexpected gift.

brr

Sunday July 14th.

Rain.
Rain.
More rain.
Drizzles.
Sheets of rain.
Waterfalls of rain.

After drought stricken Colorado, it first seemed like manna from heaven. But heavens have been fickle this year. While the rest of the country bakes, the Carolinas are getting swamped. And when the rest of the Carolinas are enjoying a respite, it still rains in these thar hills! The 80+ oldtimers swear this is the wettest year of their lifetimes. The swollen creeks run mud, EH’s first bridge is underwater — I had to wade through rushing water twice today — and molds are having a field day. My prized possessions (a few treasured paintings) are beginning to moulder and warp. I am beginning to moulder and warp. What a time to move to Earthaven!

I must say that EH lays much less social stress on an introvert like me, than Dancing Rabbit did. The houses and settlements are spread out, and when I go out walking, I meet very few people most days. Besides, folks drive, even from Earthaven to Earthaven. [Hm…] There is more traffic under my window than there was in my old neighborhood out west! But interaction is far more optional.

The farmers at EH are now producing eggs, milk and veggies, as well as some lamb and pork. The gateway field, clear-cut during my visit 6 years ago, is now a picturesque pasture with multicolored sheep, a few goats, and a sheepdog. There is a small farmers’ market one morning a week.

Potlucks, held once or twice a week, are informal. No circles and obligatory hand-holding. Everybody brings a small dish, grilled bits of meat or fish can be had for a couple of bucks, and people chow down and visit. Yesterday, one of the members staged a rare treat, a genuine Cajun crawfish boil, with critters imported on ice from Louisiana. All as a gift to the community.

crawfish boil

Huge swallowtail butterflies are everywhere. Flocks of them. Did you know they were carnivorous? They perch on road-flattened frogs sucking their juices. Wineberries are ripening into delicious roadside snacks despite chronic lack of sunshine. And cardinals warble from the trees, blessing all who hear them.

wineberries

I ran into a herbalist the other day who got intrigued by my lymphoma history, and wondered if I’d be interested in trying poke root therapy. I may well be interested after some joint research. Serendipity? I’ve met more congenial people in the three weeks here than I had in the last three years in the mainstream.

My favorite Earthaven sight? A girl walking around followed by four tiny just-born goatlings. Tumbling behind like puppies…

earthaven

When was the last time you expressed gratitude for gravity?
— Ethan Hughes

In early September, before I went to Dancing Rabbit, I spent two weeks at Possibility Alliance, or as they are now calling the farm itself, the Still Waters Sanctuary. Possibility Alliance is more of a name for the entire project which includes the farm, the Superheroes Rides, the new permaculture school next door, and a support network of similar communities elsewhere.

The farm is located in north-central Missouri, about 3 miles from the nearest small town with a train station (and 40 minutes’ ride from Dancing Rabbit). The college town of Kirksville is only 13 miles north. The land itself is slightly rolling, mostly deciduous woods and old exhausted pastures, a couple of ponds. This is an agricultural area and many of the neighbors are Amish. It all began with an 80 acre farm and a rundown Amish house which has been partially renovated.

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There is an outdoor kitchen made of cob, a large barn, and a nearly finished tiny cob house for the founders, Sarah and Ethan Hughes, and their two small daughters. Another house, a straw-bale duplex built on durable osage orange stilts, is about midway in development. More land has been added since. Friends of Possibility Alliance have also been buying land and building in the neighborhood.

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Along with me, three other visitors came: soft-spoken Nathan from Chicago, a musician and shaman in training, irrepressible Danny from Florida on a train tour of communities, and Corey, a raconteur and jack of all trades from St. Louis who showed up unannounced in his 1951 truck. Six adult residents were living on the farm: Sarah and Ethan, Ariel, Mark, Dan and Phoenix; many day visitors dropped in all the time. There is a large flock of chickens and several ducks and geese. A small herd of goats provides milk for the delectable goat cheese we were lucky to nibble on almost every day. A cow with a calf was being milked as well, and two draft horses helped with the big chores. A couple of barn cats and a working dog complete the picture.

corey's truck

Gardens are fenced and the chickens run free. First impression is a farming idyll: happy scratching hens, ducks in the pond, many fruit trees and grapevines surrounding the house, and a friendly bustle as everyone goes about their farm chores. The day begins at 6 am with the ringing of the bell (luckily, I slept the sleep of the exhausted and I never heard it except once). The first bell calls people to sit in silence; yoga follows. Breakfast bell rings at 7:45, a quick check-in after breakfast divvies up the chores, then work until another bell rings. Lunch, a bit of a siesta (or a consensus meeting, or a discussion) and more work until the dinner bell. Some chores don’t go by the clock, and those who care for the animals are often out till dark. Several times during the day, the ‘bell of mindfulness’ peals slowly, calling everyone to stop work, become aware of the surroundings, and bring one’s consciousness into the now. ‘Noble silence’ reigns in the house on Thursday nights. Mayhap this is a version of the new monasticism?

The farm runs on the gift economy. Only about $9,000 per year covers all expenses. A 20% portion of incoming donations are passed on to other communities. They only have three monthly bills to pay (phone, water and bulk food), and minimal yearly property taxes. No visitor is charged for the stay. All workshops — even permaculture classes — are offered on donation basis; no one is turned away. Each person who joins the community is expected to give all their assets away. One builds social capital instead of financial capital, while “looking for a way to live so that all life can thrive.” The detailed vision (more here) is inspired by Gandhi and Lanza del Vasto.

There is no electricity; I kept groping for light switches the first week I was there. Home-made beeswax tapers light the inside of the house. Running water, provided by the county, is supplemented by stored roof run-off. No cell phones or fossil fuels are allowed on the farm, and people who wish to smoke or drink can take it out on the road. Computer use is discouraged even off-farm. The otherwise peaceful and dark nights are marred by trains passing less than half a mile away at all hours, shaking the earth and honking like mad; as one train disappears over the sonic horizon, another one rumbles in. Bicycles are the main conveyance; no one owns a car.

candle making

My day started with fowl liberation. I got up before 7 to open the door of the chicken coop, and stood there transfixed with astonishment and delight as the feathery avalanche poured out, running, flying, and squawking. A new day, woo-hoo! Enough infectious joy to turn this night owl into a morning person. And for a few days I also went with Phoenix to assist with evening milking, tucking the goats in with some night fodder. The days are intense, and everyone works very hard. When chores are done, there are meetings and workshops to attend, or events to host. That Friday, we had visitors from a nearby old folks home and put on a show for them. The following day was Harvest Festival. It started as a country-craft show — candle dipping, bread baking, cider pressing, bicycle-powered flour grinding, bow making — and evolved into a pleasant neighborly hangout. Kids having fun, helping with crafts or running off to explore. Grown-ups standing around, chatting, making leisurely connections, reluctant to leave. Over a hundred people attended. The other Saturday was filled with workshops: morning and evening devoted to the study of coherence counseling, and that afternoon Ethan gave a spirited presentation on beekeeping to about 10 people who had signed up. On Sunday mornings, the farm hosts a Quaker meeting.

horse rides

flour grinding

The food was very good, and plentiful. Though one of the gardens died this year because of the drought, the remaining four gardens provided much of our food, and sadly, we also ate one of the ducks, and a rooster. Diet’s omnivorous, though heavy on the side of fresh produce. Some of the meals were extra yummy and downright creative. Ariel’s eggplant zakuski (a garlicky chutney) was out of this world, and so were Mark’s fresh breads and Dan’s fluffy eggy frittata! One notable dinner included a sumptuous lasagna, goat cheese with lime liqueur, and old fashioned apple pie. Our hosts took turns cooking in the outdoor kitchen equipped with three rocket stoves, 3 solar ovens, and an earth oven. A summer kitchen is essential in this climate. It was — with the exception of one day — hellaciously hot, and frequent leaps into the nearby pond let me live another day. (My little LED alarm clock melted in the heat.)

solar racks

As you can see, there is much to admire here, and much to love. Being part of a subsistence farm again after a lifetime away was, for me, a dream come true. I learned so much! Cheese and candle making, cooking on rocket stoves, solar apple drying, chicken care… and last not least restorative circles, wellbeing meetings and gratitude rituals. The parting ceremony, where each person leaving stands inside the circle while the others take turns showering them with appreciation, truly touched my heart. Internal organization runs smoothly, and unlike in most intentional communities, there is an emphasis on external politics: protests attended, bike coops and school gardens started. Service to the larger community — such as their give-away plant nursery in the spring — is an ongoing practice. You want radical? This place is radical.

coop door

Hygiene was atrocious. Thick, maddening swarms of flies were everywhere, on the food as it was being made, as it was being served. And this with the stinky composting privy a stone’s throw away. Dirty rags are used to wipe kitchen surfaces with vinegar water, people don’t necessarily wash hands, er, when they should, I saw food served after getting dropped on the ground, water for washing dishes came off the roof, and at Friday night shabbat dinners people drink from the same wine cup and feed each other bits of bread, regardless of their own state of health. During the first week, several people came down with vomity queazies. My bad turn came the following week when I caught a nasty intestinal bug — or should I say, an E. coli caught me? — that refused to leave even after I went home, would not respond to any home remedies, and finally necessitated a course of two antibiotics. And I brought Corey’s cold home with me as well.

But it wouldn’t be accurate just to say I came down with the runs. What happened? Well, ten days into my stay I collapsed. My sickness was one part of it, and so was exhaustion from unaccustomed work and the heat. What bore down the heaviest, though, was the relentlessness of the life. Relentless physical work. Relentless commitments. Relentless socialization. Relentless overscheduling (even music nights were scheduled!). Relentless gregariousness, relentless ‘people everywhere,’ all the time. The life of the PA farm is one long self-imposed crisis — a crisis caused by too few people, with too few resources, running a working farm, hosting hordes of visitors (some 1,500 a year) and trying to fulfill a vastly ambitious and demanding vision that never quits. It was like being on a treadmill, albeit different from the one we know in Babylon. One of the younger residents was suffering from severe fatigue and debilitating body pains, after two years of this onslaught. The misery of no solitude, no privacy. The stress of always running according to the bell. Never a chance to reflect. All bread labor, no head labor; ouch!

And there was another increasing burden weighing me down: cognitive dissonance. The vision, and the reality on the ground were, in some instances, pretty far apart. Feedback, so prominently stressed in our welcoming tour, was actually not welcome. People were exhausted and overwhelmed and last thing they wanted was us visitors speaking up and adding to their heavy load. Our initiative was not appreciated, and was sometimes flat-out shot down. As far as I could ascertain, there was no financial transparency and overall accountability. The place is in private ownership, not a land trust; the other members are not vested and in effect work for room and board. And permaculture is about working smart, not hard, right? Yet with so few people and such a hectic pace, living beings inevitably suffer, and not just humans. Many of the farm’s young trees and bushes were distressed or dying from neglect, lacking mulch and extra care in a dry year.

I came to find out, specifically, how an IC farm might be successfully run while each person chooses freely, out of affinity and love, their own daily occupations. I had so resonated with that part of the vision which stresses self-chosen activities that bring joy! Much is made of this in Ethan’s talk; he tells of some young people on a day visit who chose to fish instead of working. When they later gloated over getting off so easy, they were praised for feeding the community. Alas, reality tells another story. When my work diverged even a tiny bit from the assigned tasks, I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms.

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Watching Ethan go about his business took me back in my mind’s eye to the days of tribal Big Men, those high-energy, gregarious, expansive, driven, attention-seeking, talented, hard-working, visionary movers and shakers. Ethan is all that and more; an amazing person to know. He could talk an auctioneer under the table, loves to perform for an audience, gives highly articulate and inspiring speeches and presentations, and wields the knack of persuading people to make radical life changes. A consummate alliance builder, his presence is felt everywhere on the farm and among those drawn to closer affiliation with the Experiment.

But Big Men are also dangerous people whose larger-than-life downsides can threaten the long-term well being of the community they serve. Their overweening ambition, domineering and intimidating presence, power-hogging, stealing other people’s limelight, hype-mongering exaggerations, and relentless people-driving will alienate people and damage the very values they profess to uphold. They too easily slip into letting their ambition override their caring for the mundane needs of the community. Their quest for tight control and their compulsion to dominate every group event dampens spontaneity and blocks felicitous emergence.

The people at the farm live in far harsher conditions than are necessitated by their chosen subsistence lifestyle. I believe this is because pursuing PR-worthy outside goals has been more important than paying attention to everyday human needs. For example, the wash is done in a tub of water with a bar of soap and a washboard. Please. You might as well dig a posthole with a spoon. There are well designed and effective Amish washers available; one of them would have made a nice addition when the second baby was born last spring. It seems to me that sending money to the poor of St. Louis while ignoring the needs of the Poor Clares and Francises on the farm is a misallocation of resources, and something Diana Leafe Christian once called ‘visionary abuse’: “when dynamic, energetic, visionary founders, burning with a spiritual, environmental, or social-justice mission, work grueling hours in primitive, cramped, uncomfortable, or health-risking conditions, and happily expect all members, interns, and apprentices to do the same.

amish washing machine with wringer

The Possibility Alliance farm is exploring the edges of the ‘known world’ not only while bravely and cheerfully inventing an experimental, low-impact neo-Amish lifestyle, but also regarding power. Will the other members rise into greater power themselves to counterbalance the excesses of their leading man? Can they find a good mix of checks and balances regarding someone so clearly gifted and valuable, yet so equally clearly out of control? Next year, the farm community is finally taking a sabbatical from the extreme busyness and visitor overwhelm of the past five seasons. Whether they succeed in slowing down and reorienting will be of much interest beyond the boundaries of the farm. I am certain that the issue of the right balance of leeway/restraint of dominant individuals is something highly applicable to other intentional communities as well as to mainstream society. And so Possibility Alliance may yet pioneer a reconnection with an ancient path our ancestors lost in the far reaches of the Neolithic.

PA (from another site)

Direct action is when you just go and dig your own well [when water is privatized]. Direct action is a matter of acting as if you were already free.
— David Graeber

After describing the Dancing Rabbit community as it appeared to us visitors, I offer a few additional observations and musings. (Floating your mouse over pictures will show the descriptive text.)

Using the body as it’s meant to be used

I loved being physical, always walking and outside every day, all the time. People are in motion; it is impossible to be sedentary. Everything takes more effort at DR; I was noticing how even small differences require more “work” — like peeing outside. It adds up to greater fitness, a more limber body, one motion at a time. When did Babylon switch from helping us past some drudgery to pushing us toward exertion-free life? The two are very different; one is helpful, the other… not so much.

State of the land

pond from afar

It was only after living at DR that I finally grokked the scope of land damage in the Midwest. The reason that their county provides tapwater to all residents is that water — in this humid part of the country! — is hard to find and of poor quality. Rains are lost to runoff instead of soaking into the topsoil and staying there — because little topsoil is left. The USDA program pays farmers to keep the land fallow, but that only prevents further major degradation through plowing; it neither stops the erosion nor does it help the land regenerate.

DR has been trying for years to restore several acres of tall grass prairie. They have repeatedly burned and reseeded the area; Jack from Red Earth was critical of this approach. Regenerating prairie without the grazers may be a tedious exercise in never-ending human management.

Fruit trees in DR are thriving. They have a tree committee that cares for them, and lets the people know when fruit is ready to pick, and how much each person can take. But the seedling trees that had been planted far out on the land have suffered from the drought, and many are dead despite the mulch and plastic shields for protection from the elements.

DR land

Old fashioned resilience

One day, as I was coming back home, I saw my “landlords” butchering roosters next to the cob house. It did me good to see April — a young woman of lovely delicate features whom I can easily see in my mind’s eye surrounded by the blandishments of Babylon — running around covered in blood and guts, showing the DIY spirit of recapturing the old skills that permeates DR. I tried to talk them into cooking the chicken feet too — no luck there yet (I keep trying).

Haley, a budding farmer from Montana, kept a couple of sheep this past summer, and after the Mennonites came from Rutledge to butcher them on the land, she proceeded to stretch the skins on a wooden frame, and to tan them with brains and egg yolks. I felt then like I was witnessing another American revolution: people falling in love with the old self-reliant ways, and throwing themselves enthusiastically into relearning them.

Creep of the loud, the lit, and the oblivious

While DR is still mostly dark, there is progressive evidence of more and more outdoor lights. The Rabbits seem particularly fond of strings of Christmas lights which they happily festoon here and there, on houses or inside. While Babylon wages war on the night, in DR it is rather a slow creep, where light trespass from big windows goes unheeded, electricity use no longer has to be restrained, and outside flood lights are making their appearance. On the level of noise, it is still a peaceful place — except for the trains which rumble and honk not too far away at all hours. The small wind turbines create a constant, soft hum overhead.

There is concern among the Rabbits that now the community is on the grid, the former hard-wired limits — like having to attend to electricity usage — are disappearing, and there seems to be a slippery slope in the direction of more gadgetry, inching toward the mainstream. It occurs to me that the big problem with running water and electricity is not that we have it, but that the mode of delivery allows us — even encourages us — to be oblivious not only to wastage, but also to the overcomplex, hidden, vulnerable and damaging cycles that make such delivery possible, and to the subtle effects of all this on the community.

Politics

Most of the focus at DR naturally goes toward internal politics: learning about consensus, practicing it, and running the community via the 6-monthly planning process, the monthly plenaries and the committee structure that supports them. External politics does exist but not in a regional sense; the Rabbits see themselves as playing an important role of enlightening outsiders and showing that more energy-sustainable communities do not have to be “primitive” but can have all sorts of modern amenities and even luxuries. There are some connections to the tiny town of Rutledge and to the area Mennonites, but it does not seem to be important enough to work it into the governance structure of DR. Surely creating a larger, regional alliance will turn out to be crucial once economic localization kicks in earnest?

As of late, metapolitics has been given prominence by a campaign of some members who have pushed for greater power-equalization. Several workshops with outside facilitation have been organized to deal with “power dynamics” and people reported to me they feel it’s already helping. We visitors were not allowed into the power dynamics workshop going on one weekend, so I have no details as yet. But my sense is that the Rabbits are ahead of many communities by giving this issue the attention it surely deserves, and growing the skills needed.

Hygiene

The DR settlement is really one huge construction site, but there is quite a bit of an effort to keep things reasonably tidy. And every Sunday morning, people pitch in with cleaning the community house. Hygiene? Well, I came to DR already sick with an obstinate intestinal bug I had caught at Possibility Alliance, so I was pretty sensitive to the passage of germs. I had also caught a cold at PA which I had taken home with me, and that actually turned out to be a good thing, because that same virus was making its rounds at DR when I got there, and I was blissfully immune. The truth is, a community of people living with so much contact with one another is one big party for the germs. And holding hands before eating does not help. I countered with lots of handwashing but that means little if you are forced to hold hands even when an infection is passing through the community, and the utensils are handled by everyone as people line up for food.

When we visited Sandhill for a two-community potluck, one of the people there was just at that blubbering and zizzing height of his cold; this did not keep him from mingling with the large group, nor from holding hands in the circle and sneezing around the food-laden table. That night, I reached my limit: gross-out! As for cleanliness, there was a real effort, but with so many people using the facilities, and life being so indoor/outdoor permeable, it’s a struggle to keep things clean. Don’t expect the kind of clean to which we are accustomed in the outside world. Overall, though, cleanliness was not a major problem for me at DR. It might be for someone who is a real neatnik.

Sandhill

One afternoon we walked to the Sandhill community, three miles away. The land there has a different feel; plenty of woods, almost park-like in places, and real orchards; extensive gardens and well cared for fields are covered by sorghum straw in the fall. Sustainability at Sandhill has not focused on the use of fossil fuels; the main effort has gone into eking out a good living out of the land. They have a large motorized set-up for extracting and boiling down sorghum syrup, and sell it to the other communities in the area, as well as to the outside market. It turns out that sorghum production in Missouri has dwindled as small farms have dwindled; Sandhill serves the market for old-fashioned organic foods.

This peaceful community houses 7 permanent residents in three different buildings. Work exchangers come in the summer, many volunteers come during the sorghum season. They also grow potatoes, wheat, corn and soybeans in quantity. Residents share their income; two people work off the farm intermittently, and the rest of the income comes from produce. In addition, they run the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. Sandhill’s woods provide some building material for DR, and wild persimmons add exotic flavor to tasty pies. Sandhill has a strong commitment to the land, and the signs of it are everywhere. A lovely well-run place.

sandhill

harvesting sorgum at sandhill

Red Earth

Red Earth Farms, a direct neighbor of DR, split the land into 7 homesteads; one of them is still available. I was told that the Red Earth people broke off from DR because they wanted to run homesteads without having to go to meetings all the time.

red earth

I recall most the establishment of our excellent tour guide, Jack, whose family until recently lived in a very large tent, and who is still finishing the house. It was obvious that he had started with the commitment to make a living off the land, and he is familiar with running livestock over the pastures to improve the soil. He showed us an electric-fenced paddock where most of the animals were, clustered together with two dogs to protect them at all times. They were nibbling down a very overgrown and neglected area next to a wash; once they were done — the goats eating poison ivy and creepers, the pig rooting out weed roots, and the rest grazing down the overgrowth so that fresh grasses can grow — he would move them over to the next area to be regenerated. The undulating, green land was a pleasure to behold. The difference between carefully grazed land and ungrazed at Red Earth (or DR) stands in stark relief: green, lush grasses vs dead weeds with grass clumps trying to poke through.

red earth2

Village design

The Rabbits say that they are modeled on the European village. This is only accurate in the sense that the dwellings are all clustered together. I think it would be truer to say they are modeled on early 20th century American suburbia. Small houses close by, a shed, and a bit of land to play with, walkable and community-minded; it reminded me of the “garden city” utopias of that time. Originally, the idea was to have themed neighborhoods, but this would have encouraged sprawl on the land and so was abandoned. I very much regretted this; I wondered aloud if a more primitivist (low gadget) neighborhood would be welcome, and was told this is not really doable. There is a trend, however, toward clusters of small houses around a courtyard, with a shared kitchen and dietary preferences.

The community of Red Earth Farms was created next door by dissidents of this vision — they wanted to permaculture-farm according to personal initiative, without having to wait for endless meetings to ok every step. So they sliced the land up, American style, into several disjointed parcels. Each lessee presents a proposal to the community which is then attached to the lease, and after that, each family does its own thing.

In contrast, the European villages I know begin not with the dream of a house, but with the commitment to make a living from the land. A village starts with the ‘homesteading mind’ — with commitment to soil and landbase and critters, integrating humans into the land’s ecology. The early settlers created adjacent homesteads with the houses very close together, while each holding stretches back in a narrow strip where the utility buildings, gardens and orchards are located. Small fields separated by hedges and grassy margins follow. There are two patterns that predominate in central Europe: the ribbon pattern, and the circular ray pattern.

ribbon village

radial village

I wonder: if the settlers of Red Earth Farms had been aware of the radial pattern, would they have been interested in creating a hamlet centered roughly in the middle, with each homestead raying out? When we did the Red Earth tour, Jack was stumped by my question as to why they did not build close together. My impression was that they were simply unacquainted with the possibility, and so did what Americans do. One of my fellow visitors commented that perhaps they wanted more privacy from each other. I just don’t know, and see it as an opportunity missed: they could have had the neighborliness of a hamlet along with homestead independence.

The DR land use planning committee has a design for the town, and future road loops for more neighborhoods. A new community house, much larger, will be at the center, plus a game field. They expect to accommodate maybe 300 people on the current land. If growth continues, more land will be bought. The development surrounding the community house will be dense, with shops, and people living upstairs above them.

Early design flaws?

Several chicken flocks live contained in small (fairly cramped) chicken-tractor type of coops. People’s house gardens are unprotected; complaints have blocked free ranging chickens. You either have to confine the chickens, or fence in the gardens; an issue that is difficult to correct later on. In European villages, chickens range freely on each fenced homestead; being close to living quarters and stables — as well as being within the village proper — protects them from predators. (Free ranging chickens on isolated homesteads are far more vulnerable.)

Early DR settlers were drawn there primarily for the natural building experience. And natural building itself was motivated by the desire to provide highly affordable shelter accessible to anyone, using site and nearby materials. This vision seems to be fading at DR, as tiny cheap houses are largely non-existent, and overpriced houses proliferate. Not only does this seem to counter the original vision, but it also buttresses the stratification of DR society: the division into those who can afford fairly fancy buildings, and those who can’t, and end up tenting it or living in very uncomfortable conditions in other makeshift shelters. The situation is complicated by the skilled builders’ pressure to make “good wages.” This might be a “type 1 design error”; bringing Babylon’s economic system with you wherever you go.

A few customs

DR has very sensible pet rules, where one cat or dog can be added to the community per so many people. Cats need to be kept indoors during the nesting season. Everyone shows kindness to the few dogs and cats running around.

Men cook. All the time. Yey!

The Rabbits are heavily invested in promoting good relationships. A conflict resolution committee has the power to insist on mediation when a conflict develops and begins to affect the community at large. Reflective listening is taught (listening without putting your own story on it). The other tools they use are as follows: restorative circles, NVC, and doing your own personal work which can take many forms and is aided through workshops, support groups and private practitioners offering their services.

Holidays? Halloween is big at DR, with a procession going from house to house, and each house they visit does a skit or a ride or some other surprise. Thanksgiving means a huge community meal. Solstice is celebrated by some, privately. Christmas is ignored.

The people at DR are friendly and helpful. Part of the reason for the friendliness is that visitors are wooed, seen as the source of future growth. And partly, it is truly a neighborly place, where everyone walks everywhere, children run in kidpacks, safe and off to their kid adventures, and everybody makes frequent contact with others. We were of course cautioned to respect people’s privacy and not to assume they necessarily want to talk to us at that particular time, or have their pics taken.

DR does not have any community work requirements, apart from being expected to serve on at least one committee. Large community-wide projects needing people’s time are announced as needed, and people get paid for the hours given.

Sharon’s and Dennis’ house

I will close by telling you about a magical house being built by an older couple at DR. The house’s “bones” are made of round logs and wood & peg joinery, and large chunks of urbanite serve as the foundation. The roof, covered by a plastic membrane, will some day sprout a vegetable garden. Walls of straw bale and plaster will complete the structure. My amazement came from the way they are building — it reminded me of the way cathedrals were once built, one large stone, one massive beam at a time, with hand tools and lots of patience. A timeless way of building; each piece placed just right is a joy. When I first saw it, I was thinking “true dedication,” but those are not the right words. This is more than a building philosophy; it is a certain way of life embodied. Craftsmen unhurried in the flow of generations. I stood before that rising house humbled and awed.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

bth_Verasphotos053

Everything here is a little bit harder.
— a Rabbit

From each community I have visited, something wonderful’s stuck in my mind. In Earthaven, daffodils blooming at every fork in the road and the lovely floor mosaic in the community house. At Possibility Alliance, the clear pond with its happy flock of ducks and geese and cat-tails all around, and funky cob outdoor kitchen. At Dancing Rabbit, the enormity and clarity of the night sky, and the endless buckets of humanure that travel from the community house to the composting ground (a good good thing! :-)).

I spent two weeks last month at the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, which finds itself on a large old farm far from just about anywhere, in the area known as NEMO (North Eastern Missouri). The land itself is mostly rolling pasture, with some trees and woods along the creeks and washes. Walking the land is easy on the paths mown in the tall grass and weeds. Next door is the Red Earth Farms, an offshoot of DR. And three miles down the road is another small, older community, Sandhill.

The Rabbits run a very well organized visitors program. The six of us newbies would meet every day for a check-in, and to attend some workshop or work party. The group itself was multifarious: an LA man working in the film industry, retooling himself as an alternative builder, wanting out. A woman touring U.S. communities, freshly come from a large Hare Krishna ashram/cow sanctuary in West Virginia where she had been learning farming. A Canadian with Old Colony (very old fashioned) Mennonite background who knitted her way through our DR days. A musician from North Carolina who used to run a nightclub, realized that he had thrown out one drunk too many in his life, and time had come for a radical turnaround. And an intrepid man from Boston looking to start an ecovillage in New England came to explore both DR and Possibility Alliance.

Our workshops covered the history of DR and took us on several tours of the land, the main community kitchen and its rules, and the houses. We learned about consensus, permaculture, land use planning for DR’s future expansion, a bit about how DR gets things done, the various coops, and about the alternative building and energy at DR. DR builders are moving somewhat away from natural building and into green building which goes up faster and doesn’t grow mold. They use propane and county water, are on the grid for electricity, and produce enough from wind turbines and solar panels to sell back to the grid. One rather notable workshop dealt with “inner sustainability” and learning to navigate relationships and conflict at DR. We discussed various techniques for inner work, from Coherence Counseling to Naka Ima/Heart of Now and Zegg Forums, and co-counseling was demonstrated.

One night we were treated to a Q & A session where many Rabbits came to offer answers to our questions; they all stress that each person’s answer is partial and particular, and we were always encouraged to gather a number of points of view. We participated in the WIP (“week in preview”) session on Sunday where announcements are made for the coming week, people schedule car trips, and in general everyone coordinates their activities as needed. We also hauled dirt to someone’s future green roof, learned to make joinery pegs the old fashioned way on a shaving horse, planted garlic, and some people helped with a new round house going up made of pallets, clay-straw, cob, and natural plasters. We were also treated to delightful tours of the neighbor eco-communities.

A particularly interesting workshop was on DR’s internal currency. It’s called ELMs, is entirely computerized, practical, and unique, and run by two volunteers. Converting into dollars 1:1, it is widely used, and the community pays those who work on its behalf in ELMs. About $40,000 worth changes hands every month, increasing fast. How do people make a living in DR? Well, there are those who live off their trust funds or pensions, a few run computer businesses, and others go off-farm for seasonal jobs (for example, a cruise ship job, sheep farm job, soil testing for area farmers, and the like). The community does provide some limited flow of money to those who live there and decide to provide child care or building and maintenance services. DR itself offers several part-time accounting and high-level coordination jobs.

The car coop serves this community of 70+ with three biodiesel cars. On one hand, this is part of the glue that helps the community stick together. It is however fairly expensive to pay per mile into the coop, and some people hang onto their own cars so they can work off-farm or visit relatives. This is creating considerable tension at the moment, and will be the subject of a large (and contentious) community meeting this month. I am expecting that the strict standard will be somewhat relaxed, but at the same time, it presents a difficult issue to the Rabbits because the commitment to shared biodiesel cars is one of the founding principles of DR. The tiny town of Rutledge is 3 miles away and people do bicycle or walk there, and to the organic dairy nearby.

One of the amazing things about DR is the richness of the cultural life there. I often wondered… how come the typical small town in America feels so dead, with very little going on, esp. for young people, whereas DR is just brimming with events and gatherings? Every night, there was something of interest: potlucks, a concert, support groups, self-growth workshops, men’s and women’s groups, singing and healing circles, yoga, parties, movie nights… or simply informal gatherings in the community house to share stories or to make music. A true cultural oasis.

The food, on the other hand, was often dreadful. We circulated among the various community kitchens which are run as coops into which people pay a monthly fee, and share the chores of cooking and keeping the place stocked and modestly clean. Veganism seems to be the prevalent ethos even though most of the people there are not vegan. I guess it’s cheap to feed people that way. To give you the flavor of it, one day for lunch we got some tasteless split peas with carrots, millet, and popcorn. Ugh. There were meals that were tasty, but they were more of an exception to the rule, and when Thursdays came, many of us converged on the Mercantile to wolf down handmade pizza. (The Mercantile is a straw-bale B&B inn and a shop/bar.) The community kitchens range from modern kitchens all the way to outdoor open sheds where cooking is done on hand-crafted rocket stoves.

Most of the current settlers at DR are quite young, and the turnover is considerable. Many people go for the experience, not to settle there. This may shift as DR keeps on growing. The community is really one big laboratory for building methods, community design, relationships, co-governance, and now, finally, gearing up for restorative agriculture. I attended the ag committee meeting, and it turns out that most of the early settlers came here for the natural building opportunity (no zoning laws). The ag lands have lain fallow for 15 years, harvesting a government subsidy that helped DR pay off its land mortgage. Now 19 acres have been removed from that program, and the ag committee is busy setting up some basic guidelines for farming. The land itself is very degraded: I was told that much of the topsoil blew away in the 30s, followed by bad farming practices, and now there is only about an inch of topsoil overlying clay. People who garden have had to resort to importing soil from elsewhere for their raised beds. Given the vegan ethos of the community, regeneration of soil via rotational grazing is regarded with suspicion, but a go-ahead has been given for a small herd of goats and sheep, beginning next year.

Well. I am just bursting with more stories from the stay, and the post is getting lengthy. I think I will tell you two more things, and then tuck in. I have enough memories and reflections for another post or two! The thing that completely caught me off guard and unprepared was this: DR is inhabited mainly by extroverts who have taken over. It was hard for me to bear, all the compulsive socializing, the fast talking without pauses, the loudness and ruckus attending gatherings, the obligatory hand-holding circles, the many meetings, and the lack of sociable silence. The extroverts are aware their ways are hard for introverts to live with — that is, intellectually, they are aware. Behavior-wise, they seem oblivious. The extrovert culture has at its roots an assumption — a sense of entitlement, even — that introverts adapt and assimilate. In the sense that the outside culture is driven by extrovert values and needs, the Rabbits have brought Babylon in with them (says this much put-upon grumpy introvert).

I did not camp out as my mateys did, but rented one of the more notable structures at DR; a tiny cob house named Gobcobatron, built as a spiral and very lovely and enjoyable for a brief stay (see its pic below). High on charm, it is also mostly unlivable, having no insulation in the walls or the roof. One afternoon when I dozed off without covering myself, I woke up chilled to the bone even though it was warmish outside: the massive earthen walls just suck the heat out of the living body. Evenings, I put a little stove to good use. The house was a quiet and calming retreat for me from all the bustle of the community. Its owners have learned some important lessons and are now living in a partially finished straw-bale house built on stilts to insulate it from the damp ground.

I am very grateful for everything these brave pioneers so whole-heartedly and generously shared with us visitors. All hail the hard-working, merry Dancing Rabbits!