Monday, June 17, 2013

Twin Oaks, Earthaven, The Farm, IDA

In April, car trouble in West Virginia makes me three days late to the Twin Oaks Community. (The car trouble is an epic saga in its own right, but that story can wait.) Twin Oaks is an egalitarian community of about 100 people in rural Virginia.  It's probably the most well-known secular intentional community in the country, but I'd never heard of it until last year, when a former co-worker mentioned buying a hammock there (thanks, Jeff!). "It's definitely worth seeing," he told me, and when I started digging up info on this place, I realized he was right.

Twin Oaks members and visitors gather round the Maypole

Of course, the one place I visit on a pre-planned schedule is the one place I can't manage to arrive when I'm supposed to. Twin Oaks hosts several three-week Visitor Periods a year, crash courses on life in this very particular, uniquely structured setting. Missing the first three days, and showing up exhausted and stressed out, makes for a very rough beginning; but once I get my feet under me, things get better. I make new friends and learn new skills, like how to weave a hammock harness and how to inspect tofu packaging for imperfections, and a milking machine breakdown allows me the opportunity to improve my hand-milking technique. There's a lot to appreciate about Twin Oaks, which has had 46 years to get its act together, and which runs like a well-oiled machine built of crazy found parts. It has its quirks and glitches, but consider this: under the inevitable "Criticisms" section of its Wikipedia article, the worst thing anyone has to say about it is that sometimes it's not very tidy. (Having now visited 17 communities, I can authoritatively say: it could be much worse.)

Attending a Visitor Period with a group of guests is very different from showing up at a community on your own. At Twin Oaks, visitor groups are housed in a single residence and are encouraged to form community with one another, so I get to know the other visitors really well. This has its downsides -- living in close quarters with loud voices and big personalities is a challenge for someone who needs as much sleep as I do -- but it also sets me up with a great storyline. Seven of the nine visitors are applying for membership, which means they're in constant suspense about whether they'll make the cut and be invited to join the community. The whole thing has such a reality TV feel to it that I occasionally find myself eyeing corners of the room for cameras. Who is the Weakest Link? Who will be the Survivor? Plot twists, memorable characters, and sordid details abound. Writing the Twin Oaks chapter of my book is going to be fun.

* * *

At Twin Oaks, I meet a woman from Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, a place I've looked into but never quite figured how to visit without paying a lot. (Finding cheap/free places to stay is one reason I'm approaching the two-year mark of this trip with a decent amount of money remaining in my savings account.) "I've been wondering," I ask her, "how would I go about visiting Earthaven?" She beams: "You talk to me! I'm the Visitor Coordinator." Thus, after Visitor Period is done, I head for Earthaven, in the mountains of western North Carolina. Krystal, my roommate from Twin Oaks, meets me there. We settle into the perpetually-under-construction Medicine Wheel House, formerly the Guest House before the hepatitis scare of 2007, when the Health Department said Earthaven couldn't invite the paying public to stay overnight anymore. But we are not the public; we are here as personal guests of the Visitor Coordinator, a smiley woman known as River Otter.

Cob construction at Medicine Wheel House, Earthaven

Earthaven is quite a contrast to Twin Oaks; founded in 1995, it's still trying to come to consensus on what kind of community it wants to be. Its members are scattered across 329 acres, which means that they're more casually friendly (you get a wave from every vehicle rolling past at 5 mph), but less unified in their lifestyles. (Meanwhile, at Twin Oaks, everyone is so crammed into each other's personal space that some members will avoid eye contact when passing on the paths, in order to get some downtime from interaction.) Some Earthaven residents live in trailers, some in handbuilt earthen homes, some in cohousing apartments. After the regulated egalitarianism of Twin Oaks, the contrast between the facilities of Earthaven's fancier homes and the crusty composting outhouses at Medicine Wheel is a little jarring. Because members' finances are independent, everyone at Earthaven is scrambling for money (unless they have a pension, alimony, or a trust fund), so nothing is free. This, too, is dramatically different from Twin Oaks, where everyone gets (and is limited to) the same small monthly allowance and the same access to shared resources.

During our ten days at Earthaven, Krystal and I have no trouble finding interesting things to do: lending a hand with household labor at Medicine Wheel, alternating sweating in the sauna and freezing in the creek, making papier-mache masks for a Transition Town parade, driving in to Black Mountain or Asheville for sightseeing and a contradance. We are also not at a loss for interesting people to talk to. We enjoy getting to know the various residents and interns of Medicine Wheel House. We get a tour of Rod Rylander's "Hobbit House" from the architect himself, and have a chance to get hands-on with one of his paper-clay building techniques. I have a good long chat with Derek Rowe, director of the Within Reach documentary, which chronicles a young couple's quest to visit 200 sustainable communities in two years... while circumnavigating the boundaries of the continental U.S. on bicycles. Their journey makes mine look very sane and sedate by contrast. Years ago I donated to the project via Kickstarter; it's very satisfying to finally see the end product, get to hear Derek's perspective on how the project evolved, and share thoughts on on storytelling and our observations of community. I'm likewise delighted to meet Christie and Adrian, a couple who recently embarked on their own community-based quest. Like Ryan and Mandy from "Within Reach", they are looking for a community to settle in; but like me, they're traveling in a much more practical, deliberate manner. I thoroughly enjoy getting to know them and comparing notes on our journeys. I'd also like to mention that they are a little more conscientious about keeping up with their blog than I am.

* * *

Twin Oaks is hosting a Communities conference Labor Day weekend; I wish I could attend, but I am planning to be considerably farther west by then. However, the Farm Community, south of Nashville, TN, is hosting a smaller conference on Community and Sustainability over Memorial Day weekend, and that timing works out pretty well for me.

The conference at the Farm is a good opportunity to get a guided tour of the Farm and an overview of its history, as well as a great opportunity to network with about 20 other people who are interested in the possibility of life in community. I'm not the only writer at the conference; Mark Sundeen is here doing research for a book about simple living and the back-to-the-land movement. It turns out that Mark is the guy who wrote the biography of Daniel Suelo, a chap who lives pretty much entirely without money. I haven't read the book (yet), but back when I had time to ramble the wide fields of the internet, I found lots of food for thought in Suelo's blog. It's good to have an opportunity to hang around with a successful professional writer/journalist, to observe how he pursues leads and teases out interesting threads in conversations. It's extra good because our planned end products really don't overlap at all, so we're not in competition. (Whew!)

Visitors inside the "Wholeo" at the Farm School

I stay a few extra days after the conference to get to know the Farm better. The name is deceptive; it's not a farm at all, these days. The Farm was once a for-reals hippie commune with a population numbering well over a thousand, but after upheaval and economic crisis, it reinvented itself as something considerably closer to the mainstream. I attend a community potluck at the Swimming Hole and see nary a hairy-legged woman the entire time. With only about 175 residents, the place seems deserted as I cruise the gently rolling paved road on my bike -- though one member assures me it's easy to get overwhelmed with social events here. It's tough to imagine this place as it was in the '70s, crowded with bodies grungy from fieldwork... and babies, babies everywhere. The Farm has long been known for its groundbreaking Midwifery Center, founded by Ina May Gaskin, which trains midwives and provides top-notch care for women during childbirth. No expecting mother has ever been turned away for lack of funds, and for many years, the place was jam-packed with babies and mamas. "I came here to have my baby, and I never left" is a phrase I hear from more than one member.

Like at Earthaven, you get friendly waves from passing cars on the Farm, but it's not so easy to get to know the folks who live here. Also like Earthaven, community members have independent finances, so nothing is free, and finding a source of income is the key to survival here. For every beautifully constructed cob home, there's a shabby trailer.  Though the Farm is also different from Earthaven in some ways, there are a lot of parallels, and I eventually come to the conclusion that if Earthaven is an ecovillage, well, so is the Farm.

The thing at the Farm I get most excited about is the Farm School, a homeschool of about 20 K-12 students, including kids from outside the Farm. At $3500 a year, the Farm School happens to be the cheapest private school in the nation (and will even take work trades to supplement tuition). It may also be one of the coolest. The man who gives us the tour, Peter Kindfield, proudly introduces himself as the Principal and Janitor of the Farm School. He says that the Farm School fully engages students in all levels of decision-making, uses non-violent communication, focuses on social development and group sharing, and operates on student-created "agreements" that everyone, including the staff, has to abide by. "Every summer," Kindfield tells us, "we have a whole-school meeting, and we reinvent the school." The end result is that students take ownership of their education and get excited about it, rather than enduring it. I'm amused to discover that their "outdoor classrooms" are actually classrooms they never finished building, so classes are often taught in in roofless classroom-shaped spaces containing gardens, picnic tables, and murals painted by students.

* * *

On June 6, while staying with friends in Nashville, I make a day trip to IDA, a small rural LGBTQ community about an hour away. IDA is in the process of hosting Idapalooza, an independent music and arts festival, so I figure this is a good time to visit without violating a sanctuary of sorts. IDA is in a gorgeous and very rustic location, one of those places where they tell you to just pee anywhere (I've been to a few of these now). The clearings in the lush green woods are full of tents; Idapalooza has only been happening for a few years now, but every year more people show up than the year before, and this year's attendance must number in the several hundreds. I'm completely boggled by how IDA's handful of members manage to put on such a huge yet well-run event, with programmed and spontaneous workshops and performances, valet parking, volunteer labor, and enough tasty vegetarian food for everyone. Volunteers wearing pink armbands are on call for anyone who needs a sympathetic ear. Announcements are made, and politely listened to, before every lunch and dinner. Stuff gets done -- not in a particularly orderly or punctual fashion, but nobody seems too stressed out about that -- and the air of unabashed hedonism is inextricably interwoven with a prevailing culture of respect and care for others.

Waterfall near IDA

I don't identify with any of the letters in LGBTQ, so even though no one is checking for credentials at the door, I feel very self-conscious about infiltrating a minority's safe space. I also feel conspicuously square in my everyday don't-draw-attention-to-yourself attire (not to mention old; this crowd tends heavily toward early-to-mid twenties). It helps to connect with a friend from Twin Oaks who drove out from Virginia for the event; he introduces me to some other people, conversations happen, and suddenly I don't feel like such an outsider anymore. Still, though marvelous sights appear around every corner, I leave my camera in my bag; I don't want to be the journalist who comes to gawk at the weirdos and then put them on the internet so everyone can talk about how weird they are. These folks are clearly enjoying expressing themselves in a safe atmosphere... in all the astounding diversity and oddness that implies. Early in the day, I look around at what everyone's wearing and think, "This could be just another day at the park in Portland." Toward evening, I look around again and reconsider: "No, even Portland doesn't typically get this outlandish." There are all sorts of gender representations, from high femme to burly-butch to wild mashups of the two, an impressive range of tattoos and piercings, shaved and semi-shaved and shaggy scalps, people in exuberantly elaborate outfits and people wearing not much at all. After a while I give up trying to fit the people I meet into a gender pigeonhole, and every time my brain starts picking at the he-or-she question, I silence it by saying, "Person. This is a person." The mental shift is difficult, but deeply rewarding. In an atmosphere where everyone's a person, I'm not nearly as likely to be marginalized or objectified as a woman, and that makes me feel safe in ways I don't get to feel on an average day.

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