patterns of community

You give, I give, all must give.
— Enga proverb

This is a story about a unique tribe of people in Papua New Guinea. My information is based on the detailed book called Historical Vines, by American anthropologist Polly Wiessner and her Enga colleague, Akii Tomu. The reason Enga are of interest to the project of this blog are several. First, they are a large and successful tribe in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, woven together by culture and language. Second, they have made oral history an important part of their heritage passed down in the men’s houses from generation to generation. There are reliable data going back to about 1650. And last, they have — within memory — moved from mostly hunter/gatherers supplementing with swidden gardens to largely horticultural/agricultural subsistence and trading economy based on introduced sweet potatoes, and pigs. At the same time, they transitioned from what might be termed egalitarian transegalitarianism to pronounced status and wealth differences while maintaining egalitarian ethos. The accompanying changes are described in detail by the various elders interviewed, through direct witness or cross-checked rememberance.

Enga settled in the Highlands of New Guinea as the glacial cover retreated and the climate warmed, many centuries ago. They hunted marsupials and cassowaries, gathered the nuts and greens of the forest, and grew taro in slash and burn gardens. Land was plentiful, and they lived in widely spread-out settlements. There is pollen evidence that at one point they made the decision to concentrate and intensify their taro gardens in the bottom lands, and let the forests regenerate. About 300 years ago, sweet potato made its way slowly from the lowlands, where it was an indifferent crop, to the highlands, where it came to produce so plentifully that it changed the course of Enga history. Originally, men hunted, women gathered, and men and women worked the gardens together, men clearing and planting and women tending and harvesting.

Much changed with the gradual introduction of the sweet potato which turned out to produce prodigious amount of food in this mountainous climate, surpluses became ridiculously easy to come by, and the pig was turned into sweet potato “storage on the hoof.” The women became the primary food producers, while the men began to devote more time to traveling, trading and politics. Populations grew, tensions increased between the “hunters” and the “farmers,” and fights for fertile land became more frequent… Today, all the land is taken.

The population in the early days is estimated at 10,000 plus. Recently, 110 tribes divided into many clans and subclans were documented by the study conducted from 1985-95, and by then the population burgeoned to over 200,000. There are 9 mutually intelligible dialects. The clans are thought of as patrilineal associations of equals, while kinship on the female side plays an important cultural role in opening the society up to wider cultural influences, facilitating exchange with in-laws and beyond. Land is owned both individually and by the clan. A man can pass his land to his descendants, but it cannot pass to anyone outside the clan, unless they become permanent members. Clans and tribes have a common origin myth, sometimes referring to immortal sky people, other times to animals. Genealogies play a large role in establishing inheritance rights to land.

The Enga province is blessed with 7 salt springs, and this salt provided a prime item for wide area trading. It was exchanged for high quality stone axes, shells, cosmetic oils, bark twine, and foodstuffs. The trading paths would in time play an important role in the spread of various cults, as well as the extensive Tee exchange (a carefully organized sequence of trade-based festivals) network.

Westerners began to make modest inroads in the late 1930s. Enga suffered severe epidemics post contact, but unlike other tribes, their population continued to rise, possibly because the Enga had a tradition of stringent quarantine for people afflicted with contagious disease. There’s been an emphasis on large families: sons to assure future strength of the clan, and daughters as producers and links for exchange networks outside of the clan. Until the last few decades, the division between the sexes was strengthened by the existence of separate men’s and women’s houses. Incipient big men were always — as far back as memories reach — found at the focal points of influence over the flow of goods and valuables.



Even in the hunting-gathering days, some men did rise to modest prominence on account of their oratory, hunting prowess, and able mediation of conflicts. This trend intensified as the Enga society grew in complexity. But egalitarianism was deeply rooted, and remained so until modern times.

Each adult in Enga society is a potential equal within gender and within the clan. Exceptions are granted to leaders who share their wealth with the clan. These leaders go to great lengths to show that what they want is also to the benefit of the tribe, while veiling self-interest from the public eye.

People are very careful not to boast about the accomplishment of relatives or ancestors; individual names in history are often replaced with clan names, and while individuals are credited, they are never elevated to the status of heroes. To the contrary, egalitarian ethics structure oral traditions to the point that founding ancestors may even be ridiculed. In the tribal “hall of fame” are such characters as Lungupini who uses his own leg as a block against which to cut grass. His and other ancestors’ exploits showing stupidity, tricksterism, and foolishness have entertained generations.

Among Enga, escalating competition is not practiced, where one loses if one does not give more than one has received. Generous returns for gifts given are desirable, but not necessary; they are aimed at strengthening the bond, not winning in the “game” of giving and establishing temporary superiority. Neither individuals nor clans try to outdo each other by giving back more than they received. Competition is constrained within the clan in other areas as well. For example, people do not compete to “be right” in the matters of history, but rather compare and correct the stories. This is not so unusual. Competition was severely constrained in many pre-state societies. If competition is allowed to accelerate, how would the emerging inequalities be mediated?

Cultural artifacts — myths, magic formulas, traditions, poems, songs, stories and proverbs — were all used not only to anchor one’s identity and to impart certain values, but also specifically to bring about change, or to mediate its effects.

Formerly, cults that specifically focused on rebalancing male and female energies were practiced with the intent to make peace between the sexes. Women are not equal in status to men, but are well respected as producers, and as diplomats behind the scenes. If a woman or child sickens or dies, the man has to make payments to the in-laws for the loss.

Employing men from one’s own clan would signal exploitation and inequality and would lead to loss of support. The big men only employed servants from among nearby clans, distant relations or immigrants. If a big man broke this rule, he would fast lose influence, because Enga understand that employment creates inferior positions. “Because fellow clansmen were equals, servants were almost always men from other clans who could not set up households on their own land — for instance war refugees, or the handicapped from inside or outside the clan who could not stand on their own. Blatant exploitation of one’s own clansmen, who were by definition equals, would eventually lead to loss of support.”

Cult duties were not part of big man repertoire; it was the elders or traveling hereditary shamen who were the specialists regarding cult ceremony and magic. Sons of low status men could become big men.


Even in the early days, big men — kamongo — are remembered to have risen to leadership. Small feasts based on taro and the produce of the forests were held, and people visited long distances. The pig did not play much of a role then. The kamongo were humble men who worked for the good of the tribe.

Even though the authors stress how durable and difficult to dislodge was the egalitarianism of the Enga clans, it is clear from the accounts describing the exploits of the succeeding generation of powerful kamongo that power indeed corrupts. Where the great grandfather was a modest man seeking to forge friendly relations with everyone, his son was a powerful wheeler-dealer who had many servants, great wealth, and put much emphasis on ceremonial attire and theatrical performance. His speeches stressed his abilities to deliver what he promised. The generation after him was already given to loud and shameless boasting and the insulting of competitors, and after that the kamongo began to lose respect for infighting, intrigue, cheating,  heavy politicking, and political murder.

While egalitarian values were often stressed and catered to, nevertheless, greater and greater inequality crept in, tolerated because the kamongo divided much of his wealth among the people of his clan, or applied it to clan projects (wars, war reparations, cult purchases, increasingly ostentatious ceremonies). In addition to kamongo leaders, the Enga also had local clan elders, war leaders and hereditary ceremonial specialists.

Men had to campaign to be leaders. They campaigned by giving pigs or other things to those who needed them. They paid bridewealth for others. They became spokesmen for their clans during confrontations with other clans. They offered hospitality to strangers. Anything done to benefit or promote the clan would be regarded as part of their campaign for leadership. The people recognized men who did these things as big-men.

Here is a list of kamongo duties:
– mobilize work parties
– settle internal disputes
– distribute food at funerals
– provide group members with dress and ornaments for ceremonial occasions
– host traditional dances
– plan events
– conduct peace negotiations successfully
– orate elegantly in public
– know the skills of peacemaking oratory to restore balance by avoiding implications of superiority on either side
– help finance bridewealth and other obligations of clan members
– mobilize the clan to go out and get pigs for a Tee exchange
– manage and distribute wealth in the Tee exchange
– give special gifts to potential trouble makers in a reparation settlement

They preferentially offered or withheld finance, manipulated both the multiplicity of interpersonal relationships in any exchange situation and the ambiguities surrounding who the proper receivers would be, for his own and his group’s advantage. The kamongo is nothing if not a genius at devising intricate plans which seem to benefit everyone, including the persons who do not receive pigs, and then at convincing people to implement them.

Wars resulting from premeditated homicide, rape, or other aggressive and insulting acts were sometimes engineered by big-men as parts of strategies to attain their own political goals. Successful payback by the enemy tribe reestablished a balance of power, and enabled tribes to hold on to their territory.

Though Enga adults of the same sex are considered potentially equal, men can make names for themselves, become kamongo and wield considerable influence by displaying skills in mediation, in public oration, and in manipulating wealth, among other things. Competition for status and leadership in these arenas is intense. Tolerance for big-men’s having several wives, more wealth, and greater influence than others depends heavily on the benefits they provide to their fellow clan members; should they fail to deliver, their demise is rapid.


From the early generations onward, Enga was a society of long-distance travelers, traders, importers and exporters, innovators and experimenters venturing out on paths forged by marriage ties. New crops, cultivation techniques, goods, valuables, cults, and even styles of leadership were given and taken readily — but experimentally so. They were accepted into the current repertoire, placed side by side with existing heritage, and left to settle into their own niches over time.

Such openness also extended to the realm of ritual. New cults were readily purchased and added to the existing repertoire. For clans who had eight to twelve cults or healing rituals, the solution to competing possibilities was not to narrow the field by discarding some but to perform rites to determine which was appropriate for the problem at hand. The same held true for styles of leadership. The often flamboyant performers and orators who organized the Tee cycle and Great Wars did not replace the local clan leaders, though their roles overlapped. The value of both was recognized, the one to represent their clans in a larger political arena and the other to provide stability in internal affairs. And so the old continued to reproduce the cultural heritage of the past and provide continuity while the new kept abreast of change.

Cults for the ancestors were the anchors of society. In their performances, the ideal relationship between various tribal segments were acted out and central norms reaffirmed, particularly the equality of male tribal members and households and the obligation of group members to share and cooperate. Boundaries were opened and relatives from other clans and tribes came as invited guests to celebrate, bringing specialties from their areas to help provision the feasts. Cults were also exchanged widely among Enga and with neighboring linguistic groups; in this context they became important forums in which leaders could set new directions. As integrative events, ancestral cults grew hand in hand with economic developments and must be counted among the greatest systems of ceremonial exchange.

The authors mention how the recent disappearance of the cults due to missionary activity — while retaining and enlarging economic exchange — left the society unmoored, unable to maintain an equilibrium and harmony through the balance of ritual and exchange. Some of the cults were maintained by ritual experts, others by tribal elders and big men, to establish cooperation with the spirit world and its mysteries, harmony between the sexes, effective response to crises, and mediation of change. Ritual innovation and the purchase of cults created an eclectic and evolving mix of ritual, magic, initiation of young people, and cosmology.

Following Enga logic that “name” and prosperity stem from distribution rather than from retention, cults or elements of them were exchanged widely. Both importers and exporters stood to benefit by enhanced connections made possible by shared traditions. They believed that with proper ritual, the spirit world and human world need not work at cross purposes but could cooperate to bring about prosperity. Ritual celebrations also brought about moratoria on warfare. At the more egalitarian, unity-building ritual celebrations, food was provided free for all. Some of the surplus was simply channeled into communing with the ancestors, and curtailed competition.

The cults were manipulated to set new goals and values, regulate relations between generations and genders, and standardize beliefs to make wide area exchange and marriage alliances. Bachelor cults helped young men mature, develop their individual abilities, and overcome the inequalities of birth and background. In particular, they were led to develop an aura about them — posture, movement, speech, and assurance — signaling physical health, inner worth, and social effectiveness. Such a man would then be able to gain the cooperation and generosity of others. Eventually, wealth management was added to these virtues by the leaders bent on extending the networks of exchange ever further. Bachelor cults and initiation ceremonies strengthened the bonds of brotherhood and the chance of future consensus. It also gave the older generation more power to steer the younger one.

The cults provided a counterpoint of opposing ideals — ones of equality, sharing and cooperation within and across boundaries that limited or structured the growing competition. They rewove the fabric of society when it was torn by competition, in order to reestablish continuity and balance in relation to the past, for the present, and to lead into the future.

Each cult was different. To give you the flavor of it, one of the cults — the Kepele cult — focused on building the structure — the house — around which the ceremonies would take place. Several clans collaborated, each having part of the building process as their task. The ritual would include processions as well as specific magical procedures meant to bring to fertility to the tribe, promote cooperation and good relations, and reaffirm the values the tribe depended on. Every household was expected to bring one pig, and the food was free to all.

Ceremonial Wars and the Tee

The Enga engaged in real (destructive) wars, usually over territory after population had grown. But they also staged so-called “ceremonial wars.” Young warriors were hosted by certain clans, strategic skirmishes went on by day, and feasting, dancing and courting followed at night. Spectators came from far and wide. Casualties were few, and after the war had ended, war reparations for the 2 – 4 men slain among allied clans would be undertaken. These reparations were not for lives lost, but rather for the contribution the dead man would have made. As such, they went on for years. In later times, reparations to enemies became common as well, because enemies no longer could just move on to empty territory — you were still neighbors and had to get along in the future. Reparations also prevented destructive feuds. Some elders believe that the Great Wars provided an outlet for aggression and that in total fewer lives were lost overall. The Ceremonial Wars were a brilliant invention that induced people to produce huge surpluses that grew the economy. It also provided new opportunities for creating new trading and marriage connections. They were, in effect, tournaments, carefully arranged and fought to display military strength, form alliances, and cultivate exchange.

The common cause, danger, and spectacle drew unprecedented crowds. Owing to the sheer number of participants brought together by the ever better drama and ritual, the Ceremonial Wars were instrumental in constructing vast exchange networks fueled by intensified home production within a broad segment of the population. The glamour, excitement, group spirit, and ceremony of these great tournaments lent much greater social and symbolic value to pigs, mobilizing each and every household to step up production for the exchanges. Basically, the Enga used the cults, the ceremonial wars, and later the famous Tee exchanges all to crank out surpluses and pass the new wealth around.

Tee exchanges were held for the principal reason of paying back creditors. They were also public distributions of wealth for specific events: marriages, funerals, and war reparations. When a project needed financing, a Tee would be organized. Those who wanted to join would arrange marriages to those along the routes, and began sending wealth into the system; eventually they would receive returns from it.

In order to join the Tee, families had to step up production. Early on, only a few families chose to do so. Many people had only a few pigs, and were not interested in the labor-intensive task of raising more. Only later, as the Tee came to be flooded with wealth from the ceremonial wars and then new wealth introduced by the Europeans and became more visible, did many more families join.

In the end, though, the Tee began to fall apart: partly, the kamongo became corrupt, endless conflicts tore the organization apart, and women objected to yet another step up in production.

The Tee comprised of the chains of finance that tapped into the wealth of non-kin; greater access to wealth was compelling to the neighbors who heard about it and then sought to join, while big men sought new sources of influence and finance to control the trade. Altered values and intergroup competition were needed to develop the system further.

It was constructed by a few individuals along major trade routes who discreetly concatenated preexisting trade and exchange relationships into chains of finance. The early Tee allowed big men to assemble more wealth without greatly augmenting production or arousing the attention of fellow clansmen. Competition to control the flow of wealth was there, but merely as a current that ran under the surface.

And now?

One of the last great kamongo gave up the pigs and converted to Seventh Day Adventism, as did many others. Nowadays, it’s Islam that draws the young. And the tribal traditions are fading away.

Enga who had experienced precontact years as adults described them as a time when people sought ever new ways to keep abreast of change, maintaining equilibrium and harmony through exchange and ritual. Balance was tenuous, however, for ever-accelerating production for exchange depended on a generous environment. Should exchange or ritual fail, warfare was by no means muted but alive and well-practiced as an alternative solution. And the environment could not be infinitely generous. In the face of growing pig and human populations, a time would come when resources would be insufficient for all. Choices then would be more severely constrained by the natural environment. As it happened, Australian patrols marched into Enga in 1939 to set off an entirely different trajectory of development… But one is tempted to ask, had the patrols not marched into Enga, what then?

Could the inventive Enga have come up with a solution that has evaded humans elsewhere?

Enga in ceremonial dress


The house stands. Green food is here. I give, you give, all must give.
— from a Kepele spell

Many years ago, I was fortunate to discover Pascal’s Wager, and applied it to my own life. Now, in its original form, the bet is tainted by Monsieur Pascal’s own belief that God — the Creative Force — set things up so that humans who do not believe are tormented for eternity in a place called hell. A booby trap.  Suffice it to say that I never was one to paint God in vengeful dictator colors.

pascal's wager

But I was intrigued by the logic. What if, I thought, I make the bet my own? If I believe, and I am wrong, nothing happens after death, no gain. If, on the other hand, I believe, and this turning changes my life for the better, and possibly enables me to make connections to unseen forces and mysteries of the universe, I come out ahead.

Correspondingly, if I remain an unbeliever, and God does not exist, no loss in the next world. But, on the other hand, I miss out on a life that turns me away from the path of arid materialism and, possibly, cynical “nothing matters in the long run” orientation. This was a time when the strictly scientific, rationalist vision of the universe began to grate on my nerves, and I discovered I much prefer my world enchanted. Pascal helped me see that when it comes to beliefs which, at present, have no way of being proven one way or another, my intuitive preference could be a starting point for turning my life around. Decades later, I can confirm that the wager has more than paid off, though of course that rational escape hatch inspired by Pascal was only one element of my younger self’s transformation.

Nevertheless, it was with great amazement I came recently to understand that such a bet was commonly taken by our tribal forebears, who understood our needs and our psychology far better than the modernists who have been predicting the demise of religion for more than a hundred years now. My new insight was triggered by two books: Shamans, sorcerers and saints: a prehistory of religion, and Historical vines: Enga networks of exchange, ritual, and warfare in Papua New Guinea. Though the tomes are dense and slow reading, they are well worth the effort as they trace the deep history of religious/spiritual currents and practices. I will be referring to them in the future; they illuminate the problem of power and the paths away from Babylon.

Tribal people did not have ‘religion’ as we commonly understand it; they had cults. I searched for a better name since the word ‘cult’ has unpleasant connotations, but there are no other options. Perhaps it’s time to rescue it. The dictionary tells me that a cult is “a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols,” or “a system of religious veneration and devotion.” And that is exactly what tribes had. Their cults were always evolving and responding to the social needs of the present; they could do so because the cult’s direction and adaptation was fully in the hands of the local “users.” Indeed, it’s been said that cults were for them a powerful social technology that addressed ecological and other problems the tribe was facing in its cultural evolution. For example, in Papua New Guinea they used egalitarian, altruistic, unifying cults to balance the tribe’s induction into the increasingly inequitable and competitive “cult of MORE” which originated long before the coming of the whites.

Cults were concerned not with the afterlife but rather with effectiveness in this life. First, they were utilized to help assure the thriving of family, clan and tribe by “doing right” by the unseen forces and tribal ideals. Second, they provided a tool for dealing with problems in the here and now. In effect, the power these ceremonies unleashed enabled people to embody certain values and behaviors that were helpful in alleviating a crisis. For example, when a smouldering feud burst into flame and angry, vindictive feelings ran high, a Kepele cult ceremony might be organized that entailed building a ritual house by common effort, storytelling (related to cosmology, tribal origins, and legends), specific rituals, a feast, dancing, and a boys’ initiation ceremony. These shared, hallowed activities defused the tension and helped turn the tide of violence.  Cross-clan and cross-tribe cults like the Kepele opened up local clans to innovation from abroad and fostered amiable relations with distant neighbors while creating possibilities of new alliances for marriage and trade. And lifting people’s spirits and resetting their orientation in the world was a big part of the magic.

If I needed more persuasion to consider seriously the value of spiritual practices at this point, Brian Hayden’s argument from our biological heritage would be the next best thing. I quote at length below. But I confess that for the very first time, I appreciate fully the power of shared ritual, and mourn the magnitude of what we lost when religion was either hijacked by power brokers, or abandoned altogether.

We can look at our ancient human biological heritage in a new way — the aspects of our human emotional makeup that instinctively resonate within us. These include our natural reactions to rhythm, dance, song, drama, ritual, and all the myriad factors that tend to produce altered states of consciousness in us. These are not simply behaviors that we have learned because cultural traditions have taught us to enact them, with our minds serving as a blank canvas. I contend that these are all evolutionarily structured basic behavioral penchants, similar to the proclivity that human infants exhibit for learning and structuring language. All these factors — language, play, family closeness, kinship, ritual, rhythm, dance — probably played important adaptive roles in the early evolution of the human race. Cultural traditions may model the styles and the details, but the basic penchants undoubtedly stem from ecological adaptations. Not everyone may feel the pull of each factor equally strongly. Some people seem more sensitive to music, others to ritual, others to masks and drama. However, there are probably very few people who do not naturally feel some reaction to at least one of these factors. Recognizing these aspects of our human nature and our human heritage and valorizing them as the essence of what it means to be human is an important step in coming to terms with our contemporary religious experience.

Politicians, philosophers, scholars, scientists, and others have often expressed dismay that in this age of science and enlightenment, such large proportions of even the most modern populations continue to hold irrational, unverified superstitions or beliefs about the existence of a supernatural world, gods, ghosts, or spirits. For such people, science and modern social or political life should have eliminated the need for supernatural beliefs and ritual practices. But they have missed the point. Religion satisfies an inner craving for meaning, a feeling of wholeness or union with greater forces, and an inner satisfaction that comes only from ritual life, just as music and rhythms satisfy an inner emotional craving deep within our souls and minds for the trances, the ecstasies, and the profound experiences only they can produce. These are fundamental adaptations of our biological heritage. To argue that advances in science or politics have eliminated the need for religion is tantamount to arguing that science and politics have eliminated the need for music….

Rational thought on its own becomes pathologically self-serving and destructive of life. Einstein purportedly expressed a similar sentiment when he said that the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant; we have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.


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

While thinking about tribal structures, and at the same time arguing against the patronizing, patriarchal vision of the future some novelists irritate and intimidate women with, it occurred to me that those of us learning neo-tribal living patterns should pay attention to how tribes dealt with key gender issues: division of work, and power.

That in turn led me to muse over how modernity has assiduously promoted “everything coed.” Until relatively recently, even within western cultures, separate men’s and women’s worlds still existed. Then, an avalanche of pressure came from all those modernizers relentlessly pushing coeducation and comingling of the sexes in work, play, and everywhere. Anything less than enforced heterosociality — constant male-female interaction in virtually all spheres of life — was decreed hopelessly old-fashioned and outmoded, even unfair. I’ve decided to give it another look.

In tribal situations women’s society and men’s society tend to remain distinct. Sometimes, there is also older children’s society as well, and room for other-gendered people. Women work and talk together, do their own rituals together, and are steeped in the lore and wisdom that women have shared from time immemorial. Their power in society derives in large part from the very fact that they have a separate vibrant culture of their own. A tribal version of “sisterhood is powerful,” if you will.

Among the Iroquois, for example, the men were hunters, warriors, and chiefs. The women were farmers, anti-social behavior watchers, allocators of common resources, and the makers and unmakers of chiefs. Each gender had its own sphere, but neither’s work was devalued, and neither was out of luck politically.

What strikes me as really important is that the insistent co-mingling of the sexes in our society has fed the gender wars — neither sex has a sphere where women can hang easy with other women, or men with men. And men and women must compete against each other economically in the increasingly vicious workaday world. No wonder we get on each other’s nerves! We’ve got to find a way to end the gender conflicts, because the resource constrained world of the future will see those come ahead who are part of effective alliances, and able to duck the efforts of the elites to “divide and conquer.” Learning from tribal knowledge that enabled women and men to live at peace with each other, cooperating successfully in times good and bad, may be crucial.

While I don’t expect that people will flock to living in matrilineal longhouses, I see a trend returning to the tribal affinity clusters of friends (both kith and kin). Blood/marriage families are unsafe for women trapped in abusive relationships and ongoing power struggles; many men are conditioned by the culture they grow up in to expect entitlements from “their” women they never would dare insist on with others. Moreover, blood families are unequal by definition; younger people are expected to defer to the authority of age, eldership, experience, convention, and property. But groups of friends are groups of equals. When groups of equals form the self-organizing foundation of society, then the larger social formations — bands, clans, tribes, as well as villages, small towns, neighborhoods — tend toward equality. If I were 20 again, this is the pattern I would choose. Husbands come and go, but good friends remain.

Women’s and men’s cultures have staged a small comeback with women’s and men’s therapy and support groups, women’s moon lodges, and men’s gatherings such as the ManKind Project. Once, there was a flurry of women’s communities, but that did not last. Perhaps militant separatism does not stand the test of time. I have followed with interest reports on a Brazilian village where the men work in distant towns during the week, and the women have formed a cooperative and run the place according to their rules. Apparently, this is a something of a trend in many rural settlements in Brazil, as government payments and land transfers go mainly to women. (The story surfaced as the crassest click-bait, the worst I have seen, of a “women-only” community looking for men. Lurid come-hither pictures taken out of context.) This village of 300 has existed as an unconventional community for over 100 years. Perhaps it gives us another model to work with… women run things in place — not the home; the entire community! — while men go out to hunt down the money. It allows for the creation of a strong women’s culture, yet also brings men and women together in a way worth celebrating.

Which brings back to mind a memorable book, Sherri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. In this utopia/dystopia the women and their gentle men friends have pulled off a big one. Outwitting the warriors, they contained them and gained power of life and death over them. Yes, the means are underhanded and the results are tainted by the means. That part rubs many of us wrong way. But it is one of the very few realistic fictional takes on what it may require to turn society back to one that is run by “reasonable” people, after we’ve been hijacked by warmongering, egomaniacal bullies for thousands of years. Like the baboons, we must find a way to reset. We need to grow a powerful women’s culture, far more imbued with solidarity than is the case today. And we need a strong alliance of gentle(r) people of both genders, and a way to give the warriors scope for who they are while constraining their ambitions to some extent so that they stop wreaking such havoc with the planet and our human world.

Here is how one society has done it. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the Mosuo of China, a matrilineal, agricultural, tribal ethnic group of Yunnan high country, bordering Tibet.

The Mosuo language has no words for murder, war, rape, or jealousy, and the Mosuo have no jails and no unemployment. Although the Mosuo culture is most frequently described as a matriarchal culture; it’s more accurate to refer to it as “matrilineal”. Accurately speaking Mosuo have aspects of matriarchal culture, in that women are the head of the house, property is passed through the female line, and women tend to make the business decisions. Political power, however, remains in the hands of males, creating a gender-balanced society. Mosuo women carry on the family name and run the households, which are usually made up of several families, with one woman elected as the head. The head matriarchs of each village govern the region by committee.

Probably the most famous – and most misunderstood – aspect of Mosuo culture is their practice of “walking marriages” (or “zou hun” in Chinese), so called because the men will walk to the house of their partner at night, but return to their own home, within their own tribal family, in the morning. The man will never go to live with the woman’s family, or vice versa. He will continue to live with and be responsible to his family, and the children of his sisters and nieces; she will continue to live with and be responsible to her family. There will be no sharing of property.

Among the Mosuo, since neither male nor female children will ever leave home [to marry], there is no particular preference for one gender over the other. The focus instead tends to be on maintaining some degree of gender balance, having roughly the same proportion of male to female within a household. In situations where this becomes unbalanced, it is not uncommon for Mosuo to adopt children of the appropriate gender (or even for two households to ‘swap’ male/female children).

According to patriarchal macho Argentinean writer Ricardo Coler who decided to find out what it was like to live in a non-patriarchal culture, and spent two months with the Mosuo in southern China: “Men live better where women are in charge.”


a Mosuo woman in festive garb

Governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.
— Elinor Ostrom

It was Elinor Ostrom who began to speak of nestedness as one of the key components of a successful co-governance of the commons. But tribal societies had long been organized along these lines. A regional tribal alliance nested within it several tribes, which each nested several bands, and those nested several affinity clusters, composed of individual human beings. This way of organizing has an organic feel to it; our own bodies are “nested enterprises.”



It’s a curious thing. Human (tribal) organization units — affinity clusters, bands, tribes, tribal confederacies — don’t scale up. They don’t grow by proportional increase. What happens if an affinity group is pushed to grow past its natural limit? Ill will rises amongst the members. The strengths of the group — intimacy, trust, spontaneous conversations, easy problem solving — begin to fade. The group turns dysfunctional. People leave. When it reaches some 20-25 members, the size of a small band, it begins to function again, as facilitation, talking sticks, councils, committees and other formal devices are implemented to manage group process. It looks like a band, but is it? The previous formation out of which it has grown has been destroyed. The resulting “band” is just a growing collection of individuals, no longer anchored in smaller units, and vulnerable to the misuse of power. This is the violence of “biggering” that this civilization brings into everything it touches. As hamlets grow into small towns, and towns into cities, the person’s political clout vanishes, and anonymity and deracination take their toll.


Why don’t we learn from the growth of entities that are not known for ravaging the inheritance they have been given? A healthy cell does not grow unchecked. It divides. The divided cells form clusters, which form tissues, which form organs, and eventually, an organism arises, all without anyone dictating the development. That is how nestedness works. Some call it holarchy. They say it’s a type of hierarchy, but it seems to me the inverse of a hierarchy: there is no top or bottom, and there are no bosses. As this diagram shows, there are always more potential levels each way, as atoms give way to subatomic particles, and organisms rise together to form societies, ecosystems, and beyond.

Holarchy: a meta-system of irreducible wholes that are themselves part of larger wholes, ultimately comprising all life on earth from a single cell to the entire planetary ecosphere.


What if we were to grow communities via natural self-organization? Individuals spontaneously form affinity groups. Some flourish more than others, and divide. Out of several, a band emerges. Out of a few bands, a tribe emerges. (It would take only 7 layers starting with groups of a dozen to include every human on the face of the earth!) Note that this sort of growth does not do violence to the prior, more local, smaller groupings. They keep on flourishing, part and parcel of the logic of that particular social organism.


holarchic schema of a tribe

What is the advantage of this way of growth and organization, besides imitating the success of Mother Nature? Governance can take place appropriately; the smaller, earlier units largely retain their autonomy; the broader, more encompassing later units like bands and tribes deal with broader matters that pertain to bands and tribes. Easy conversations, intimacy and trust are undiminished. At the same time, the larger, later units bring with their emergence novel advantages: coordination, attention to larger parts of the commons, diversified talent pools, and clout. And the organization that remains anchored in small groups of trusted associates has a leg up on the problem of free riding. It is easy to see what other people are doing within your group; easy to apply peer pressure if needed. The genius of successful commons management summarized in Ostrom’s eight principles rests on trust which is impossible without people knowing one another well over time.

Nested systems are self-organizing, emergent, bottom-up systems. They preserve direct involvement of each member. They are polycentric, having many semi-autonomous decision nodes rather than one. This makes them robust, adaptable, and resilient. Rules too are crafted from the bottom up, and are adjustable by the members with a focus on creating a structure of incentives favorable to both trust-building and maintaining a diverse environment favorable to discovering better solutions to problems. To paraphrase Ostrom, “when large systems fail, there are smaller systems to call upon — and vice versa.” Each smaller, earlier level is influenced by, and itself influences, the broader, later levels. Each cluster, each band, each tribe is an entity unto itself, and a part of an entity larger than itself. Allowing decisions to be made as close to the scene of events and the actors involved as possible, each affinity cluster, each band is a self-regulating, open system that displays both the autonomous properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts.

So. What’s stopping us?

Democracy is born in conversation.
— John Dewey

I was wrong. The band is not the fundamental natural unit of the human species. And neither is the family, as we are enculturated to believe. The affinity cluster is. Gang kids call it the fam. Workplaces use work groups or committees. Revolutionaries convene cells. Small therapy groups form among people growing out of old wounds. There are study circles, book clubs, and hobby groups… the list goes on, even in the post-tribal human world.

A band is too large to give people the experience of intimacy and close connection we crave. Anthropologists have often documented how bands break up into small groups of close companions. The Delaware Indians, for example, would wander off in the summer, the time of plenty, to enjoy foraging with a small group of friends, some of whom may have been relatives. Similar data have been reported the world over.

Anthropologist Nurit Bird-David describes a south India hill tribe she studied. This valley was inhabited by a band of 69 people (adults and children) who lived in tiny groupings of one to three huts separated by 2-10 kilometers. The band was part of a larger tribe called Nayaka. Blood relations were of course common, but people had little interest in genealogies. Bird-David argues that kinship means something quite different to the foragers. “‘To relate’ in a pragmatic sense is something one does when one shares a place and cooperates with others.” This sort of ‘relating’ is what makes relatives!

People from the various clusters visited all the time, for varying periods. They all lived in easily constructed bamboo shelters, and so it was simple for visitors to add their own space onto what existed if the visit turned into a stay. Some moved away to another band; newcomers came into the valley and were integrated into the “kinship” stories. The Nayaka band used what anthropologists call “universal kinship” — all children were called sons or daughters, elders were senior mothers and fathers, the younger adults were junior mothers and fathers, sisterhood and brotherhood was similarly fluid. Even names changed often. She gives a picture of a society in constant sociable motion.

Britannica’s article on tribes and bands tells us: “The [Sioux] Sisseton, Sicangu, Yankton, and other independent “bands” in turn comprised numbers of smaller entities, each consisting of several households that lived and worked together. Membership was at this smallest level very fluid and typically coalesced around the bonds of kinship and friendship. Flexibility of residence provided an excellent way to access social support and to cope with the vagaries of a foraging economy.”

I speculate that blood families only came together as a firm social unit when foragers, first in the Near East, began to build permanent dwellings, forming towns. It was then that lineages, relatives’ burials in the floors, skulls on display, and mythical genealogies began to assume importance. After all, housing that lasted many generations needed uncontested inheritance customs. This pattern was reinforced when, later, families appropriated certain parts of the commons as gardens and fields.

How large would such a cluster of friends ideally be? Christopher Allen’s blog Life with Alacrity has a treasure trove of posts on “community by the numbers.” Here is my favorite one, explaining not only affinity clusters but also the limits of larger groups. Two or three people seem perfect as study dyads and triads. “Where two or three gather in my name…” — the first Christians began their house churches this way. A committee consists typically of 5 to 9 people. It has enough resources for effective decision-making, yet is small enough to keep conversation flowing easily. Everybody gets their say. I was once part of a wonderful women’s therapy group that was capped at 10. It worked best when 2 or 3 people did not show on a particular night; when we were full up, I fretted I might not get enough input into my own issues. At Twin Oaks Community, everybody is part of a small living group (SLG); one or two SLGs inhabit a group house.

If, as I believe, sociopolitical self-organization begins with conversations, then effective social units must begin with groups small enough to converse freely, leisurely, in-depth, without the encumbrance of rules and agendas attendant larger gatherings. Such informal conversation then prepare the ground for all-band or all-village decisions. Robert Wolff, in his remarkable book Original Wisdom, relates a story about a tribal village in Malaysia that lost its chief. Instead of organizing a decision-making body, they engaged in small group conversations for a full two years, at which point everybody knew who the next chief was; he at some point began to act the role. No vote was ever taken, and if a council was convened, it was to validate the choice the village had already made.

Jan Martin Bang notes in his book Ecovillages:

From my experience in community and with people, it seems to me that for most households it would probably be best to live in a group around a dozen. We all can gather around the table and have a conversation over a meal. When the table grows to fifteen or more, conversations tend to split into subgroups and the noise level grows, often uncomfortably. It’s crowded.

So here are some characteristics of affinity clusters that come to mind:

  • they are composed of people who like one another, enjoy each other’s company, work well together
  • they tend to stay within a dozen or fewer
  • the exact size is given by the purpose of the group, and can be adjusted up and down based on how well the group functions
  • they are small enough for easy-going, informal conversations
  • in a small group, simple consensus is usually easy and natural
  • odd-numbered groups may work best because the “odd man out” can moderate polarized views

Interestingly, psychologist George Miller had decades ago studied the connection between numbers and our neural capacities, as did Robin Dunbar much later in another context. But Miller focused on small numbers. In his paper The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, he hypothesized that we discern and remember best in clusters of sevens. I have a feeling it may provide a clue to affinity cluster size as well. I enjoyed his whimsical closing:

And finally, what about the magical number seven? What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week? What about the seven-point rating scale, the seven categories for absolute judgment, the seven objects in the span of attention, and the seven digits in the span of immediate memory? For the present I propose to withhold judgment. Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all these sevens, something just calling out for us to discover it. But I suspect that it is only a pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence.

An aside: George Miller also formulated Miller’s Law which states: “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.” One of my personal major eye-openers.

Well then. If you show up worrying whether you’ll have a chance to express yourself, your group is too big. If you have to wait for permission to speak, your group is too big. If you’ve passed the dozen, your group is too big.

Beware the Judas Number! 😉

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

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.


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.

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.


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.

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

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.


One of my first ventures here at Earthaven has been to take Diana Leafe Christian’s two day workshop on sociocracy. I aim to turn my learning into several blog posts. What I say here is not a recap of Diana’s views, but rather my own effort at working through the material on my own terms, so I may successfully internalize it. Diana’s workshop was well attended, and was absolutely fabulous. I had read up on sociocracy, but only after taking this workshop did it become vivid in my mind: Diana’s many creative and experiential teaching methods made it all come together. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn this method of governance!

Why sociocracy?
I am not a long meeting lover; I like to come together with others to get things going; I remember endless processing as a bane of my Green days. Sociocracy avoids these pitfalls. It also appeals to my desire for a self-organizing, bottom-up governance system that gives voice to all.

The four elements
According to Diana, there are four key elements of healthy communities. Community glue is generated by enjoyable shared activities that engender gratitude, trust, and feelings of good will. Potlucks, singalongs, games, personal sharings, and many other activities are the glue that keeps community functioning well. Good process and communication results from community members acquiring the skills to speak, listen, and deal with conflicts in ways that build interhuman harmony. Non-violent communication and restorative circles are a few examples. Effective project management covers all those ongoing things — like keeping a community tidy, its paths free of poison ivy, visitors welcomed and showed around, and cash flow flowing both ways– that need doing to keep the community humming along. And good governance is at the heart of a well-functioning community, tying together the strands into a unified whole.

The word governance comes from the Greek for steering. It is the manner in which power is exercised among those involved in a collective endeavor. A quick foray into wiki and other sources identifies four main aspects of governance:

  • defining expectations (what are we hoping for? what are we responsible for?)
  • laying out the structures and patterns of interaction and power flows (what is the organization’s diagram? how does it work? who governs?)
  • decision-making (who will serve in this role? how do we deal with this issue?)
  • performance monitoring (how are we doing?)

Sociocracy, as a whole-system governance method, covers all these key aspects of governance. It was invented by a Dutch engineer in the 70s, wanting to run his small company in a way that would foster harmony in the workplace, while making sure everyone has a voice (equivalence), information flows freely (transparency), and the company succeeds in the marketplace (effectiveness). His thinking was influenced by Quaker-based consensus, cybernetics (feedback loops), and self-organizing systems.

More to come!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Introversion — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness — is now a second class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.
— Susan Cain

Remember the heady days when we non-smokers finally stood up for ourselves and our way in the world? Once we linked together in awareness, once we began to empower one another and to affirm our boundaries toward smokers and their inconsiderate, stinky, illness-promoting behaviors, the world changed. I believe we are now at another such momentous juncture: introverts rising!

For too long have we been relegated to second class molluscs in the extroverts’ oyster-world. They are the ones catered to, celebrated and accommodated; we, on the other hand, are mostly invisible, sometimes ridiculed, and always expected to adapt, to assimilate, to come out of our shells, to get better at extroverting so we can blend in.

But our day has arrived. We are half! We now know that introverts comprise slightly more than 50% of the population. The stats may even edge upwards as more introverts come out of the closet. We are not some small, socially impaired minority of wallflowers and geeky recluses. The socially impaired ones are the extroverts, if you ask me in my high dudgeon, who can’t seem to get that fast talking without pauses is a royal pain, who are oblivious to the needs of half of their fellows, who not only talk too much but say too little, listen poorly, and ignore signs of distress in those who would like to have a word in edgewise. And that’s only the beginning of my shit list. Say… wasn’t it reckless extroverts who gave us the 2008 financial collapse?

Just the other day, I realized who stole my beloved fireworks. When I was growing up, the magic of the swoosh and pop then the sudden bloom of color in the night sky never failed to take my breath away. Fast forward to America: the colors and shapes are even more magnificent, the bloom morphs from one color to another… what a delight. Until I get close, get battered by the cannonade of rat-a-tat-tat boom-flash-flash-flash-boom that sends birds, dogs, cats and introverts fleeing, if not for their lives, then for their sanity. Another lovely bit of my world, trampled by the heavy hooves of the extrovert herd.

Let’s face it: extroverts have taken over. Highly represented among the egos who have pushed the excesses of modernity on the rest of us, they wage war on peace and quiet, war on silence, war on darkness. They push speed and razzle-dazzle, playing havoc with our senses. And how much of the assault on nature is really carried forward by the extroverts’ overly ambitious and aggressive ways of dealing with the obstacles they encounter? How many problems of industrial civilization are due to the extroverts’ tendency to act now and think about it later, if at all? How much has privileging extroversion along with the relentless promotion of rapturous gregariousness and compulsory optimism cost us all in health, authenticity, and integrity?

Extroverts’ hunger for more and more stimulation is depriving the rest of us of our accustomed ways of gathering energy amidst tranquility, amidst solitude. They’ve been killing “our world,” and we won’t put up with it any more! 😈

The Atlantic published an article in 2003 that garnered its author, Jonathan Rauch, more letters from readers than anything else he’s ever published. It provided the first spark.

Also interesting, the Top Ten Myths about Introverts.

A quick free test for introversion/extroversion that also pegs your Myers-Briggs type.

There are several books out worth reading, none heavily recommended, but each imparting an important message. Psychologist Laurie Helgoe went to the trouble of digging up the results of the best, most recent, randomized, large group studies identifying introversion. The first group came in at 50.7%, the next at 57%. Her book, Introvert Power, is worth checking out just for that chapter alone.

Quiet by Susan Cain contains lots of research, and a scary chapter on the cult of extroversion promoted by the likes of Tony Robbins seminars, the Harvard Business School, and evangelical megachurches. Yup, dontcha know, extroverts are God’s and capitalists’ favorite people! 🙄

glenn close = introvert

Glenn Close = introvert

michael jordan = introvert

Michael Jordan = introvert

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