Could You Live Here?
The industrial-sized refrigerator door opened and inside there were shelves and shelves and shelves of…cheese! This was no pre-packaged, buy at the grocery store, Kraft variety cheese--this stuff was fresh from the cow. A new friend pulled out some mozzarella she had just made and offered me a piece. "It's not as creamy as I would have liked," she sighed. I was still mightily impressed. I can eat cheese with the best of them, but I must admit I don't know the first thing when it comes to making it.
I visited the Twin Oaks Community in Virginia, where the residents actually produce a large amount of their own food such as tofu, dairy products or vegetables. This "intentional community," like another one I visited in Tennessee called the Farm, is based on the idea of living communally, cooperatively, and in harmony with the land. Twin Oaks and the Farm are just two examples of the alternative lifestyles that are out there.
The commune movement was born in the late 1960s in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, when the hippie movement was in full force. "My first walk down Haight Street was a defining moment," one Farm resident told us. "Everyone was in the same state of mind as me." A university professor named Stephen Gaskin articulated this state of mind through talks and classes on street corners in the Haight. Students who had dropped out of college began asking Stephen to speak at their old campuses, prompting him to go on tour around the country in 1969. Not wanting to be left out, a whole caravan of people got in buses and followed along on the journey.
By the time they got back to San Francisco, Stephen and over 300 of his followers decided to live together in a community and create a simple existence in the country. They bought land in rural Tennessee and the Farm was started! Everyone threw their belongings into a collective pot and split up the work to be done on the community. Some were farmers, some worked in construction, others as teachers. More and more people wanted to join, and eventually the population grew to almost 1500.
What was the attraction? Why did people want to establish communes such as the Farm?
First, there was a desire to make more personal, human connections with those around them. Also, many people were drawn to communes because they were tired of the obsession with material things and were looking for greater spiritual connections. They wanted to return to nature and go back to the basics. By focusing on rural life and growing food, communes gave people a chance to get back in touch with the land.
The Farm was an experiment in a new type of society, but the idealism could not last forever. In 1983 reality hit hard. The Farm was $750,000 in debt and a big change was needed. "It was no longer about fun, but about survival," according to one long-term resident. The members became responsible for their own finances instead of having everyone share from a community pot. Now families have their own homes and their own bank accounts, but the sense of community still exists. Members pay dues that go towards a Foundation to help the place run and community dinners are held every Thursday as a fundraiser for the Farm School.
Happy New Years!
Many people work outside the community, but others are involved in Farm businesses, from publishing vegetarian cookbooks to working for Plenty, an international aid organization based on the idea that there are enough resources in the world for everybody. The Farm is also known for its midwifery program that has delivered more than 2,000 babies. This program supports the belief that birth experience should be more spiritual than a medical.
The 70 adult members and 15 children living in the Twin Oaks Community tackled the financial issue in a different way. Their community still shares income, thanks to their business of weaving and selling hammocks! They also share housing (SLGs or small living groups, as they're called), meals, cars, bikes, and clothes.
These days, what draws people to live in an intentional community? For most people, the answers seemed to boil down to these same two reasons: the people and the connection with nature.
Vickie, a resident of the Farm since 1977, explained, "I love the land and living out in the country. I really get to experience nature, all the life force, the energy, and the people-it's like an extended family. I feel like I have sisters and brothers and my daughters have aunts and uncles. We care about each other."
As you can see, the ideas that originally brought people out to the communes - returning to nature and rebuilding personal connections are still relevant today. I must admit, these were the same aspects I found so amazing during my visits: walking underneath the safety of the star-studded sky, taking in the beauty of the rural landscape, meeting some very wonderful and welcoming people.
It's not just about appreciating the people and the land. It's about being aware of our impact on each other and striving to create a sustainable and healthy environment. While at the Farm, Irene and I stayed at the Ecovillage Training Center, part of the Global Ecovillage Network that offers conferences on topics such as organic gardening and strawbale construction. Both the Farm and Twin Oaks are attempting to minimize harm to the natural environment by experimenting with renewable energy, such as solar power, and recyclable building materials.
A 17-year resident of Twin Oaks told me one of the most exciting aspects of living in an intentional community is the idea of creating social change, "being able to take our ideas and spread it to the larger community." This could include everything from alternative methods of education to the development of cool non-profits. However, the challenges, she continued, are getting enough people to cooperate and accept what you are doing.
Does this mean that we should all be living in an intentional community? In my opinion, our attitudes and behaviors are more important than the type of community we live in. We should all strive to be intentional in our interactions with each other and the environment. Maybe making our own cheese and getting our sweaters from a shared closet isn't for all of us, but living together on this earth is, so we better make the most of it. Just remember that our actions do have an impact and that a little cooperation and kindness can go a long way.
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Links to Other Dispatches
Irene - FBI spies, Pigasus for President and Yippie hippies
Nick - Hangin' in the Haight with Wavy Gravy
Stephen - The summer Woodstock REALLY rocked!
Stephen - Taking a stroll down not so easy street
MAD - Drugs: Take a stand against life in the $60 billion fast lane