written by Martin
Twenty years ago, when I was living in Vermont, a friend of mine moved from there down to middle Tennessee to join a startup permaculture community that was going to be centered around one of the big names in permaculture–honestly, I forget just who. She returned to Vermont a few months later, saying she had been unable to get along with the guy well enough to stay. We’re not talking boyfriend/girlfriend here, just being members of the same team/community. Apparently, she was not the only person who couldn’t make it work with this particular guy, whoever he was, because he is no longer here in middle Tennessee, nor is there a twenty-year old, permaculture-based community in this area, to the best of my knowledge.
While I would love to be proved wrong about this and have members of this community emerge from obscurity and say, “We are here, we have been here, and here are at all the amazing things we’ve done in 20 years,” this apparently failed community is only one of a number of examples I could cite. It seems that the tricky part of manifesting the long-term vision that permaculture demands isn’t molding the landscape, but forming and keeping together a community of people who can forge a common vision and implement it. The same holds true for the whole spectrum of groups committed to “paradigm shift,” including, to name the first few that come to mind, political/environmental activism, the Transition Town movement, and healing centers and intentional communities. I have seen such difficulties arise, and disrupt communities and movements, numerous times over the course of my life. That’s what I’m going to be discussing in this blog post: what I have learned from my 40+ year involvement with intentional communities.
In college, I joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and was one of those who burned his draft card in Central Park in the late 60’s. I attended enough SDS meetings to become discouraged by its failure to address the egos and emotions of those with a neurotic urge towards leadership and/or martyrdom, and its failure to “be the change it wanted to see.” Later I moved to San Francisco and witnessed the unravelling of the Haight-Ashbury as a viable community. (In retrospect, my own neediness and lack of social and material skills probably helped propel that downfall, although I’m sure it all would have come apart just fine without me!) I joined a small group that aspired to the model Robert Heinlein created in the science fiction novel “Stranger in a Strange Land,” but that succumbed to the neuroses of its founders within a month. I slept for one night and one night only at a Digger crash pad that had slid so far down the tubes that people were peeing in a sink full of dirty dishes, because the toilets had long ago stopped working. (OK, that was actually on the Lower East Side of New York, but it was The Diggers.) I attended what turned to be the last meeting of the San Francisco Diggers, where those who had been in the movement for a while bemoaned the fact that they didn’t own the buildings that they were trying to maintain as The Free Store and the Community Kitchen. I met several times with a group of people who were getting together to buy land in southern Oregon. That disintegrated in the face of actually coming up with the cash necessary for the deal. I hung out with the folks from the Harbinger Community, who had the use of a hot spring/resort hotel north of San Francisco. They lasted a few months before dissolving in a cloud of bad drugs and irresponsible people.
I encountered the Harbinger folks at Monday Night Class, an event hosted by Stephen Gaskin, and Monday Night Class was the only community I found in the Bay Area that seemed to be thriving and growing. Early on, Stephen occasionally mentioned how much he would like to have a dedicated building for the Class’s meeting. This concept transformed over the year and a half I attended class into a vision of a country retreat center, a place to bring people who were being driven crazy by the increasingly chaotic environment of San Francisco, that would enable them to find their sanity amid peaceful, natural surroundings, good food, and sane, healthy, caring people. One of the frequent story lines of later Monday Night Classes involved Stephen’s journeys around northern California in search of the right place. He would use stories about the people he met with to illustrate such concepts as karma and subconscous energy habits. Then he got invited to go on a nationwide speaking tour, which turned into “The Caravan,” as a couple hundred hardcore members of Monday Night Class joined him (including, eventually, yours truly) to travel around the United States in vintage school buses that they/we converted into mobile hippie pads. On that journey, we found out that land in Tennessee cost less than a tenth of what it cost in northern California, and the rest is history–the history of The Farm, which has yet to be fully told, and may never be. Our attempt to make a radical change in the American paradigm bloomed and faded in little more than a decade.
The Farm’s failure to maintain its original vision, which cost the community its existence as a focused collective, is a far greater testimony to the necessity of the successful practice of “interpersonal permaculture” than any of the fleeting examples I have cited so far. The Farm was, due to the special circumstances around its formation, unique, and unlikely to be repeated, but there are many lessons to learn from what happened there that can be applied to smaller communities. In The Farm’s heyday, a typical household would consist of anywhere from 20 to 50 people, including families, single parents, their children, and unmarried individuals, which is about the size and composition of a traditional band of humans through most of our history as a species, and, as far as we can tell, for the species from which we evolved. This is also, in my observation, the size of the active membership of a typical community/advocacy organization, although they do not usually consider members’ children as part of their crew.
In these groups (on The Farm), there seemed to be a natural hierarchy, in which one family, or occasionally two, was the “alpha family,” commonly regarded as the center of the household unit. They were the ones who took the most responsibility for seeing that the building was maintained/improved, the kitchen supplied and kept clean, infants and children properly looked after, firewood available, and, most importantly, that the “vibes” in the home were good. Delegation of responsibility was not done by fiat, but by discussion, compromise, and agreement among the relevant members of the household. The process required household members to maintain more psychological openness with each other than is the norm in conventional society. People were encouraged to talk about their internal states, and about their perceptions of each other’s actions and internal states. In retrospect, what we were putting into action was a kind of early, rough version of what is now called, among other things, “Nonviolent Communication.” We believed that, by doing this, we were cementing the bonds between us and helping each other evolve into higher consciousness. Our intention was to start a new, saner, smarter society that would supplant the old, separative, emotionally shut down one all around us.
Household groups on The Farm were not static. Some families hit it off well and stayed together for years, but others moved around, in search of greater compatibility. There was even a crew of “housing ladies” (yes, it was a gender-specific role!) who maintained an overview of what living situations were desired, available, and in flux, and who discussed, both among themselves and with those involved, what the strengths and weaknesses of the parties involved were, and who might fit well with whom. The discussion phase, called “sorting it out,” (as in, sorting out what vibes/thoughts/opinions spring from whose perceptions, and the validity of those vibes, etc.) could get quite heated, in which case it transitioned into “working it out,” but the object was always to come to agreement through mediation, and decisions were rarely imposed on participants, except in cases where somebody was so out of phase with the community that they needed to be told to leave. That was not a common occurrence but it did happen. The ability to reach mutual understanding hinged on our agreement that there was a commonly perceivable “right way” to do things, that could emerge from the discussions, and would be sensed intuitively by all participants. That was the theory, although it was certainly not practised perfectly!
The only thing close to this in conventional society might be a conversation among social workers, but the housing ladies on The Farm were not in the “power over” position that social workers have vis-a-vis their clients; the Farm was intended as a community of equals, whether or not it succeeded in being one. “The average communal religious society lasts a hundred years; the average secular communal society only lasts thirteen,” Stephen liked to tell us. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that The Farm’s attempt to be a communal religious society only lasted 13 years.
Unlike an independent commune of similar size, a Farm household had few responsibilities concerning the land around the building. There might have been a small garden, but most household food needs were met by the Farming Crew and the Farm Store, which was the central distribution point for what we grew and what had to be purchased–which, for most of the community’s existence, was just a few items–sugar, oil, margarine, and pasta. We grew our own veggies, grains, and beans, ate mostly windfall fruit from nearby orchards, and had our own flour mill. The Farm Store distributed all these items without charge, although there might be per person limits on things we had to buy or didn’t have a lot of, to make sure there was enough to go around. Firewood was provided by a full-time firewood crew and rarely originated from the immediate vicinity of the household.
In spite of The Farm’s uniqueness, the lessons I learned about group dynamics and interpersonal interactions from my experience there (where my family and I lived in over a dozen different households, involving around 300 people, over the course of the thirteen years of the collective community’s existence) have continued to be valuable. For openers, I discovered that you can get along with just about anybody for approximately two weeks, by which time issues will likely arise, and it’s how/if you work through those issues that determines whether your relationship has a future or not. Second, I saw the importance of not only a common vocabulary and set of protocols and assumptions for dealing with the issues that arise, but the availability of a person or, better, several people, even several layers of people, who can act as impartial, competent, compassionate arbiters when people are at loggerheads with each other. Third, it is important for those who embark on a big, long term project together to have ways to celebrate and commune with each other. There are many ways to do this. Shared meals, doing physical labor together, making music (which ideally inspires dancing), hikes in the woods, meditation, eye gazing, and what used to be called “encounter groups,” in which people reveal themselves psychologically to each other in a safe setting, are all modalities that were formally or informally applied on The Farm.
One of the ways in which it would be difficult to duplicate the genesis of The Farm is the organic way it grew out of numerous group psychedelic sessions in San Francisco. These were usually small groups, typically occurring in the communal households that formed the backbone of Monday Night Class, but there were times when enough of one psychedelic sacrament or another filtered through the meetings to get us all going on the same “bus to never-never land,” as the Grateful Dead sang. Once on the Farm, the pressures of jobs, children, and chores made group psychedelic sessions difficult, but sharing marijuana gave us a taste of the Territory, ideally loosening the partakers’ self-concept enough to allow them to escape their own egotistical viewpoints, understand how somebody else saw the situation, and shift graciously. Learning to do this with the help of marijuana, we found, seemed to make it easier to do it, period. The topic of “how to gracefully allow change to happen” brings me to perhaps the most important lesson I learned about group dynamics on the Farm, that the first thing to do when you think there’s a problem is, check yourself!
One further lesson from my time on the Farm was that, when you’re pulling a group together, it’s important to educate newcomers about the community’s common vocabulary and methods of problem-solving. In hindsight, The Farm did not do this adequately. Those who had been part of the community’s San Francisco genesis gradually became a minority, while the standards and insights we had shared, which we considered the community’s basic agreements, were simultaneously watered down and turned into “rules”–and rules, as every hippie anarchist knows, are made to be broken. It was, I believe, this compromising of our original integrity that played a major factor in bringing The Farm’s communal period to a close, more than it being the fault of our “sortout” procedures themselves, although they were not perfect.
We see the rules being questioned in many situations where a long-established traditional society reaches the end of its period of stability. In such societies, people are raised from birth to understand that community is the difference between survival and death. Modern society, by contrast, exalts the individual and tends to view traditional community as something stultifying, to be defied and escaped in the all-important quest for personal fulfilment. There is truth and wisdom in both of these polarities, and we need to somehow synthesize the strengths of both approaches if we are to evolve further as a species.
If this was a radio show, it would be about time for a music break….
Tradition-bound culture worked for so many centuries because things stayed the same, or changed very slowly. There were ways to do things and roles for people to play that maintained the society, and the failure that might come from innovation or “role breaking” was fraught with peril for the survival, not just of the individual, but of the entire community. Over time, however, the actions of human communities changed the world in which they lived, and the old ways, entrenched as they were, became less and less appropriate. Our culture has grown and complexified based on the assumption that nature is an infinite fountain of resources, but now we are running up against severe natural limits. Some might say that the childhood of the human race has come to an end, and we have entered adolescence, the time when our awareness expands, we ask embarrassing questions. Mom and Dad no longer know everything, and we want to do something with our lives besides learn our parents’ skills and carry on the family tradition.
As the old ways and roles have become less appropriate, the value of innovation has risen, because it is only by trying new things that we can adapt successfully to new conditions. This makes individualism and a strong ego, so dangerous in a traditional society, more likely to be survival characteristics. At the same time, not everyone recognizes the value of innovation, thus creating division and tension, especially since not every new idea is a good one, or works well the first time it is tried. Societal stress and strife levels rise. Those who cling to traditional values attempt to enforce the old ways, resulting in groups like The Moral Majority, The Tea Party, and Al Qaeda. The highly structured, static societies of the past, that all such groups yearn for, existed because they were appropriate at the time. Once such structures are no longer appropriate, no amount of preaching, law, or terror will keep them in place. As German Green Party founder Rudolph Bahro said,
“When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.”
Let’s get back to the lessons I learned on The Farm. In 1983, the community went through “the change.” Stephen was defrocked as a spiritual teacher/authority, and the collective treasury system, along with the community’s money-free economy, was done away with. There was no longer a way for the community as a whole to engage in the collective action that had allied us with Greenpeace, the anti-nuclear movement, and the American Indian Movement. (more about this in the next post I write) Most importantly,the community was repurposed. It was no longer about personal evolution in community, or about making the world a better place on a grand scale. Instead, it was a simple land trust, whose members each had to find their own way to fit in to American society. The majority of remaining Farm residents seemed to want it that way–less commitment to social change, and more commitment to supporting one’s family. Hey, your kids are your karma!
Another lesson for me from the Farm: nothing turns people socially conservative like having their children reach the age at which they experiment with sex and drugs the way their parents did. If your social radicalism can survive that, it’s the real deal. I didn’t care for this new conservatism, and the conservative majority didn’t much care for me, it seemed, which probably says at least as much about me as about the community. I left, initially to join with friends who were committed to learning from The Farm’s shortcomings and carrying on the best of what it had been in a new intentional community.
In our attempt to create The Farm 2.0, each person/family was responsible for providing their own land, housing, and maintenance. That was a compromise for me right there, but, practically speaking, we were a small group and it was easier to decentralize our finances. We did pledge to contribute 10% of our income to a common fund that could be used to support causes we agreed on. We went on camping expeditions together. We adopted Vajrayana Buddhism as a common spiritual practice that had deep roots and a long tradition, unlike the Farm’s stripped-down “hippie Zen.” This involved us in group study, chanting, meditation, and an attempt to revive something like the kind of late-night brainstorming/encounter sessions that had spawned The Farm.
But this group sputtered for the opposite reason The Farm had. The Farm had been too loose, and the original vision had become watered down to the point where it was simply discarded. Our offshoot, on the other hand, was, in my opinion, too tight. The brilliant, charismatic figure who served as our focal point had such high standards that nobody could meet them. “I don’t like anybody,” he once told me. He became increasingly glum about the world’s failure to meet his expectations, in direct contravention to what His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said somewhere about the most important quality of a spiritual teacher being cheerfulness.
I half bounced, half was bounced, out of there and eventually landed in a community in Vermont that was, in many ways, the opposite of both the Farm and our little offshoot, although everybody around it referred to it as “The Farm,” too. It was, indeed, a working organic vegetable farm, owned and run by a hippie visionary who also knew how to work his ass off. The community was his friends and the farmworkers he hired, all relatively like-minded folks, but here there was no aura of ashram, no “community agreements,” just a goodhearted attempt to make a living from the land and treat everybody right. There was plenty of celebration–daily informal gatherings at the end of the work day, community potlucks, and a monthly mens’ gathering in the farm’s sauna that could be anything from profoundly ecstatic to gratingly banal. It was what it was, and it was all a huge lesson for me about community, and my expectations. For example, I had been used to doing sweat lodges, which had a much more formal structure than the saunas. But, as I observed, the saunas nevertheless managed to touch all the same bases as the sweat lodges.. Understanding that the structure of such a ceremony is intrinsic to human nature and can arise spontaneously if everyone just relaxes and lets it happen helped me loosen up my general approach to life.
Around this time I discovered Helena Norberg-Hodge and her work in the traditional Buddhist enclave of Ladakh, which strongly pointed to the importance of deep roots and long term relationships as ways to heal our ruptured society and haemorrhaging planet. I had to confront the fact that my deepest roots and relationships were not in Vermont, but in Tennessee, and that contributed to my decision to leave Vermont and return to Tennessee. I left the land of friendly people and long winters, and went south, identifying with the north-south divide in Starhawk’s novel, “The Fifth Sacred Thing,” in which “going south” meant leaving a sane, civilized culture to work in a crazy, dangerous society with the intention of bringing sanity to that crazy culture.
I found I had a harder time actually connecting with my former community. Attempts to deepen friendships with members of the Farm and reintegrate there seemed to hit snags. My old friend the Buddhist, at “Farm 2.0,” was even more curmudgeonly than ever, and after three years of increasing conflict, isolation, and poverty, I moved into Nashville to work full time in the produce department of a natural foods chain store. I felt very depressed about my failure to connect. Reflecting on my experience, I came to realize that I had depended on the causes I took up to create my identity, and began to enquire within myself to find who I really am and what I really like and want to do with my life.
But I was not done with living in community. The house where I stayed in Nashville was a small community itself, where four or five adults shared the kitchen, living room, and yard. It seemed like “the last hippie house in Nashville.” There were weekly drum circles which sometimes drew forty people. There was, however, no common purpose beyond getting along with each other well enough to allow us all to relax, and everybody had their own rules and boundaries. Negotiating this situation was definitely a learning experience for me, teaching me more about how to be myself, let others be themselves, and not lose my standards. This living situation came to an end when the house was sold out from under us, and I moved to CIndy’s long-time home, Rabbit Hole Hollow.
From the beginning, Cindy and I wanted to find ways to include others in our living arrangements. We had a mutual friend with us for a while, but Cindy had a hard time with her, and so it was back to the two of us, and there it has stayed, with occasional guests, for most of the last ten years. One young man spent a year living in our barn loft, in exchange for helping us a few hours a week with the necessary labor of a homestead. He hoped to concentrate on his talent for magical realist painting, but found himself instead spending his evenings on the internet. (Well, that wasn’t our fault!) But a bathroomless barn loft is not a good place for a young man who is also interested in wooing a partner, and so he left us for more civilized digs. Various permaculture enthusiasts have made proposals to us and even come out and started projects in a few cases, but so far none of those seeds seem to have germinated.
Maybe it’s us. Cindy and I both grew up as only children, and, while we love each other and enjoy our marriage, we are more a marriage of co-conspirators than a traditional family unit–we are happiest with each other when we give each other space. I like to write essays and songs, and aspire to turn out a book or two before I leave this body. Writing is a craft that requires solitude, but even when I’m not writing, I enjoy being alone, and I tend to stay pretty focused on the many, generally enjoyable things I have to do to maintain and build our homestead. At sixty-five, I am aware that my time is running out, and I sometimes look back in wonder at the years when I spent hours, afternoons, even days and weeks “just hanging out” with friends. I am also becoming deafer as I get older, which has made it difficult to hear other people if there is any background noise or other conversations going on in the room. Because of that, parties just aren’t that much fun for me any more. I do play music with friends once a week, in a jam/drum circle format. It’s the most community I’ve got these days, kind of the descendant of the Vermont sauna experience in terms of what it delivers.
I also seem talented at finding ways to slight, ignore, or outright insult people I really care about, as if I were saying, “You think you like me? Will you still like me if I do THIS to you?” Often enough, the response is an understandable “no.” Minutes, days, or months later, I realize what I have said/done, but by then it’s usually too late. Yes, I should have cut loose of what I was doing and taken you to the health food store, since you’re a rare visitor in this town. Yes, I should have told you you’d be welcome to come commune with the woods even though I might be too busy to spend much time with you. I was angry with myself for being so lame when I told you I’d never loved you, and I’m sorry I said that. I wish I’d shared my oatmeal with you. You know who you are. The good news is, I know better than to think I’m always Mister Cool.
Cindy, too, for all her yearnings for community, is a bit of a loner, who enjoys spending hours in the woods by herself, communing with nature. She keeps odd waking and sleeping hours, and some of what friction there is between us occurs because she is asleep and I am awake and trying to be quiet. She enjoys the company of others perhaps more than I do, but on her own terms.
So here we are, both conceptually eager for community and knowledgeable about what makes community work, but perhaps psychologically/behaviorally not well suited for it. Our ability to remain alone together on this land is largely dependent on my continued good health and strong back. As I’ve already mentioned, at 65 I know I don’t have much longer to enjoy those. If we are to live out our lives here, as we would like, then sooner or later we will have to attract some younger people who share and complement our vision.
We learn the most from our mistakes, and, when it comes to “interpersonal permaculture,” the cultivation of long-term relationships, Cindy and I have made or witnessed a great many mistakes. We must have learned something!
Maybe we’re kind of like Moses and the Israelites who left Egypt, and had to wander in the desert for 40 years, or until Moses and all those who had spent most of their lives as slaves had died, and only their children, born free, remained. While I am not a totally uncritical fan of my children’s generation (electronic devices, oy veh! And did anybody learn how to cook from scratch?) and the up and coming crop of their newly adult children, I do see psychological/social changes that seem to me to be very adaptive to the kind of world into which we need to transition. Greater emotional awareness and resilience, an impatience with self-important people and power, and a willingness to fly under the radar are not universal, but widespread enough to give hope for a better tomorrow–and hope that, once we are back on our feet and living in a finished building again, we will not long be alone here in our hollow. We have seen the future, and it is communal.
music: Jane Siberry, “Imagine a World”
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