Western Massachusetts is a friendly place for those who want to shape
their lives by finding neighbors of like mind.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
By Hayley Wood
It's been 15 years since anyone else has taken Total Loss Farm: A
Year in the Life by Raymond Mungo out of the Forbes Public Library.
The cover has a trippy line drawing of a branched tree with a yellow
and green sunburst background. Raymond, on the back cover, flashes a
smart-assed twenty-something smile. The prose is an exuberant account
of 1969, his second year living on the Total Loss Farm commune in
Guilford, Vt. It is also a year in which he, together with the Poet
of the Farm, Verandah Porche, recreates Thoreau's 1839 journey on the
Concord and Merrimack Rivers and takes a Christmas road trip from
Vermont to California, picking up other jolly slackers along the way.
Raymond wrote this account at the age of 24. Raymond thinks that the
American public doesn't have the power to stop an unjust war, that
economic collapse in the U.S. is imminent, that petroleum products
are best avoided, and that going back to the Stone Age is a virtue.
He believes that the best answer to the world's problems is to live a
sustenance lifestyle with friends.
A youthful veteran of the peace movement and co-founder with Marshall
Bloom of the Liberation News Service, a radical spin-off of the
College Press Service that provided weekly packets of international
news stories and photographs for over 500 underground newspapers in
the U.S., Raymond gave up on urban activism in 1968the year I was
bornand chose, with a group of friends including Porche, to found a
new agrarian world order on 100 acres in Vermont. They "dropped out"
And what's stopping me from doing the same? I ask myself regularly. I
see the world implodingendless war and violence, famine, natural
disasters, peak oil and a rapidly slimming comfort margin for most
adultsand I'm groping for answers. Pampered being that I am, I also
want the changes I make to be . . . gentle. My fondest hope now is
that the knowledge so earnestly being shared on the national level by
writers like Bill McKibben (Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities
and the Durable Future) and Richard Heinberg (Peak Everything: Waking
Up to the Century of Declines) begins to take root in the minds and
hearts of ordinary people, myself included, who are willing to
recognize some personal responsibility in this scenario. How bad does
it have to get before we achieve some solidarity?
In search of brotherly and sisterly love, last fall I decided to find
out if commune cultures exist today, in Western Massachusetts. They
do. Now they're called intentional communities.
Intentional communities, groups living in consciously designed and
structured dwellings, roles and relationships, are on the rise in the
U.S., according to statistics published on the website of the
Federation of Intentional Communities. There are, at this writing, 50
intentional communities (14 of these "forming") in Massachusetts.
Over a dozen of these are within a 45-minute drive of Northampton.
I visited five sites representative of types I'd observed in my Web
research (www.ic.org was my principal source). The people I
encountered were farmers, gardeners, solar experts, meditators,
believers, social justice activists, and education consultants. They
had committed themselves to their places and their people. They were
disciplined and thoughtful about what they wanted their lives to feel
like. I met founders and initiates, and every one of them was
oriented toward doing something constructive and living with a
consciousness of land and neighbors.
No one was dropping out. I saw a common push to divest from standard
utilities and to use alternative energy sources like the sun and
wind. Three of the five places I saw used wood heat. A sense of
urgency has grown into practice for many of those I met; they're
interested in food security, they're sharing their knowledge about
sustainable energy with their towns, and they're sheltering the
homeless. They are coping with and preparing for hardship.
Daniel Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm in Gill got hip to food security
issues in preparation for Y2K, when it was widely warned that major
systems reliant on computers might fail in the dawn of 2000. He
decided in preparation for possible chaos that what would ease his
mind the most was stored food and the ability to grow enough food to
meet his family's needs in his own back yard. When 2000 arrived
without incident, his urge to increase his food production ability on
his three acres remained.
In his essay, "On Politics, Vegetables and Community-Supported
Agriculture," originally published in the Montague Reporter in 2005,
he writes, "Many say the world is ruled by money, some say oil; now
others are talking about the coming 'Water Wars,' as global aquifers
become stretched, depleted, polluted and lost. ... Myself, I tend to
see food as the common denominator, the great and illuminating
mega-issue that links us all in the global community. Think about it:
when all talk of economics, war, politics, terrorism and ethnic
difference is said and done, food is left standing as the last and
most hopeful thing between us."
Daniel learned organic micro-agriculture farming techniques that
produce a wide variety of crops: the integration of multi-use beds
that are heavily mulched to retain moisture. He has a 65-foot long
hoop-house, an arched tunnel of translucent plastic. The hoop-house
produces tomatoes in November. Daniel and his wife Divya grow food
for 10 families, who purchase shares of the yearly harvest and
collect vegetables all growing season. The operation doesn't pay for
Daniel greeted me kindly on an unseasonably warm day in early
November. The CSA operation had concluded and he had a bit more time
for curious strangers. My son communed with some Nubian goats while I
was shown the hoop-house, full of ripe and ripening Sun Gold tomatoes
(other varieties as well) and a few blooming zinnias. Daniel picked
and allowed me to help. He introduced me to Divya, who was cutting
down some outdoor tomato vines. I trudged about the raised rows and
observed how small the total cultivated space was.
I asked Daniel, "I have a quarter acre. If the shit hits the fan, can
I feed my family on that?"
"Yes," he answered, "if you've done your homework and prepared."
"What's the first thing I should do?"
"Build a hoop-house," he answered without hesitation.
Laughing Dog Farm sits on a steep hillside with a view of the
massive, 1970s shingle-style mansion of a dorm that housed many in
the Renaissance Community from the mid-'70s to 1988. Daniel and
Divya's house, another Renaissance Community relic of '70s
architectural optimism and grooviness, is ample and was also built as
a dormitory. Daniel and Divya consider the idea of sharing the house
and property with one or two like-minded families. According to the
entry for Laughing Dog Farm on the Intentional Communities website,
they "seek a serious-minded, committed individual, couple or small
family to join [their] venture, with the possibility of eventual
business partnership and/or co-ownership or land trust
establishment." They train, feed and house interns in return for
work. Their house is open to screened strangers.
They're making it work with sacrifice, and they've learned to grow
enough food to live onin case they need to one day. At one point
during my tour I burst out, "But it all seems so hard." Daniel smiled.
"We've been talking about the fact that we will take in refugees one
day," Wendy Germain informed me at lunch recently. She was referring
to Americans. She is a new member at the Sirius Community, a
30-year-old ecovillage in Shutesbury. Members, most of whom live on
or near the 90-acre wooded site, meet weekly as a community.
Scotland's famous Findhorn Foundation defines ecovillages as
"communities with tightly-knit social structures, united by common
ecological, social and/or spiritual values. Working with the simple
principle of not taking more away from the Earth than one gives back,
ecovillages are consciously diminishing their ecological footprint."
Two of Sirius's founding members, Bruce Davidson and Linda Reimer,
originally met at Findhorn.
When I visited the Sirius Community during one of its Sunday
open-house brunches (a creative vegetarian buffet and the best meal I
ate all growing season), I was shown around by Germain, who had been
living there only a few months. She took me through the October woods
to the site of the community's wind turbine, which was on the ground
and being worked on by Bruce Davidson and some other men. Deeply
involved in the task at hand, Davidson was living up to his
reputation for being a never-ceasing maker and fixer. His wife, Linda
Reimer, prepared the brunch and is the community's master gardener.
It was obvious that they were respected leaders.
The community center is the largest structure on the property, which
is abutted by several community members who own their own land. It's
an octagonal post and beam structure with solar roof panels, a green
house with raised beds, a frog pond for insect control, a dining
hall, several dorm rooms, composting toilets, and a top-floor
octagonal meditation room. Carved details are everywhere. Bruce was
the foreman and a principal builder of this and other buildings at
Sirius. Almost all the building of the sizable community center was
done, over the course of several years, by volunteers.
Bruce serves on the town of Shutesbury's Energy Committee. In 1999
the Sirius Community's wind turbine was erected and evaluated by the
town's Board of Health, which issued a provisional permit. The
turbine provides the electricity for one multi-unit residential
building. In 2006 the Energy Committee presented the town a proposal
to build a 10-kilowatt wind generator behind the Shutesbury town
hall. According to the proposal, the generator would "provide 30-50
percent of the annual electrical power needed by the town hall."
Bruce predicts the electricity bill will be reduced by $250 a month
once the turbine is up. When the project was originally proposed,
nearly all the money for it was expected through grants. An objecting
abutter threatened to sue the town over it, citing bylaws prohibiting
cell phone towers. A new zoning bylaw explicitly permitting wind
generators had to be voted for in Town Meeting. The measure barely
passed, and the proposal is again active. A hoped-for grant for the
project is pending.
Living in an intentional community does not necessitate giving up on
civic participation and the local governmental structure. Rather, the
community living ethic is well suited to the collaborative solution
of pressing practical problems.
The Hill That Will Never Boast a McMansion
Never without a red or orange hat, miyaca (pronounced "me-yah-cha")
dawn coyote is a well known figure in Shelburne Falls. Having
suffered a stroke at the age of 56 while wintering on her land in a
teepee in 1996, she now uses a walker and makes trips into town on
her tractor Critter. Her corporeal home is the elder-housing
community in Shelburne Falls, and she hopes one day to live on her
Shelburne Falls land in an intentional community that is "sacred,
sane, and humane." The community of her dreams will adhere to her
creed: "We need to become outdoor creatures that occasionally go in,
and stop being indoor creatures who occasionally go out." Her ardent
description of the future "Healing Grace Sanctuary" on the
Intentional Communities web directory led me to herthe first person
I met on this journey.
Minutes before I met miyaca, I found a stray copy of the West County
News in a booth at McCusker's Deli. It reported on the recent
protection of 73 of miyaca's 90 Shelburne Falls acres: a long term
project of miyaca, the Franklin Land Trust, and the Massachusetts
Department of Conservation and Recreation. In exchange for four acres
on the same parcel of land that the FLT had purchased recently from
the town of Buckland, miyaca granted a conservation restriction on 73
acres. That conservation restriction permanently protects the land.
Miyaca told the West County News: "The exchange was the long-awaited,
oh-so-welcome dream come true. The land is no longer at risk of
multiple, conflicting agendas, and no 'McMansion,' ever. I'll sleep
much better now. . . All parties are smiling." I wonder how much she
could have sold that land for, had she no wish to protect the land
from development? The vow of poverty comes to mind.
Elders as effective as miyaca may be rare. So too may be those
idealistic and courageous enough to strive for what I can only
describe as lived virtue. But I met these folks, too, the younger
initiates who are new to the life. What led them to choose to live in
these well-defined places? Was something about explicit rules of
conduct and high standards in neighborly interactions appealing to them all?
The Urban Mission
Prayer is the core spiritual practice at the Nehemiah Community on
Union Street in downtown Springfield. My last community visit so far,
my meal at Nehemiah was a pleasant, talkative affair. The community
had invited me after my initial conversation with new member Jonathan
P?rez. A Nehemiah Community member since May, 2007, Jonathan P?rez is
an Americorps VISTA program employee. He attended a week-long program
with Nehemiah called Urban Project while he was a student at Amherst
College. What he got from his initial taste was total immersion into
Springfield, a city he's "come to know and love." Witnessing
"Christianity in practice," a group of adults interacting deeply with
a troubled and abandoned urban center, changed his life.
Jonathan is the first 20-something I've ever met who is willing to
make a serious commitment to a community that asks members to "avoid
even the appearance of impropriety." The community's two houses are
owned by two couples, Patrick and Debbie Murray on Union Street, and
Paul and Katie Foster on Dartmouth Street. These couples, older than
most of the other members, assume leadership roles and administer
authority that it's hard to imagine most people my age acquiescing
to. Each member strives to be a "peacemaker" as opposed to the more
passive "peacekeeper;" airing problems with the goal of resolution
is, as P?rez describes it, "definitely a work in progress."
I attended one of the weekly communal meals, and there were 12 of us
around the huge table in the old urban mansion. Before dining, we
stood in a circle holding hands in the kitchen and sang a devotional
song. Just before that, Paul Foster, who assesses the effectiveness
of programs run by the city of Springfield, brought me around the
huge house, answering questions like, "Are you a creationist?" (sort
of, in that he thinks God made the world, but he's not anti-science
or anti-evolution) and "You are also concerned about people's souls,
right?" (yes, but their current lives matter too). The visit sanded
down some of my prejudices and preconceived notions about evangelical
Christians doing service work.
Members of Nehemiah go out at night, looking for the homeless people
that they know. They make sure they have blankets and food if there
are no beds in the city's overflow shelters. They are aware of who
dies. A new project they are organizing is a quadruplex in
Springfield called The Village for single mothers and their children.
Jonathan organizes Mission Phoenix, twice-weekly designated art space
at Christ Church Cathedral in the Loaves and Fishes kitchen. The
program provides free materials and art classes for low-income and
homeless people. In 2006 they held the first holiday sale of their art.
Social justice work and Christianity have combined with community
living standards to serve Springfield. Some of the younger single
members of the community relate to a Christian movement called New
Monasticism, which promotes living simply and serving troubled urban
centers. You might say they've set up headquarters in the landscape
of decline and they are ministering to its victims.
The Suburban Cohousing Community
At the more familiar and bourgeois end of the spectrum of intentional
communities is Rocky Hill Cohousing in Florence. A condominium
association, the development comprises 28 homes in 15 buildings
(mostly handsome duplexes) on 28 acres. The architect for the homes
was Bruce Coldham, who has traveled the world studying co-housing
communities and is also designing homes for the future ecovillage
being built at Touchstone Farm in Easthampton. Anyone can get on the
waiting list to buy a unit, and applications to be on the waiting
list are considered and approved by residents.
At David and Dorothy Entin's Rocky Hill home, I met Brandt and Eva
Passalacqua and their three-year-old, Ezrah. They had come from
Brooklyn, where, as Eva described it, living in a heavily populated
city and apartment building resulted in one's "wearing blinders,"
shielding oneself from others, and tuning out people-noise. She and
her husband had been researching intentional communities for years,
and when they learned about Rocky Hill's vacancy, they took the
opportunity to alter their lifestyles significantly and change their
relationship with their neighbors.
The sequestering of all cars to a parking lot (homes face each other
and share common land; residents use carts to bring groceries to
their houses) encourages greater freedom for children, who are more
apt to play together spontaneously when they see each other outdoors.
Arranged play dates are no longer required for kids to play together.
One oft-traded commodity there is childcare. Kids my son's age had
roamed freely in the woods of the Sirius Community, too.
I'd tasted the fruits of communal child care practices over
Thanksgiving when my husband, our almost-three-year-old Otis, and I
shared the holiday with a friend and her teenaged son who'd just
moved to an apartment in an old house. Below them lived other good
friends, a couple with a baby. The upstairs/downstairs, open-door
lifestyle of the holiday weekend added immeasurably to the joy of our
time there. The day after Thanksgiving, Otis, for the first time
ever, used the toilet by himself without prompting or assistance.
Engrossed with something else, I heard his voice call out, "I pooped,
mama!" The luxury of my not paying all that much attention to
himbecause I knew my friends were aware of his whereaboutspromoted
independence. His mood soars in group settings, and he doesn't
hesitate to tell me so.
Friends living with friendsit just may be the heart of the
revolution. Expanding from an exclusive nuclear family focus to
considering other people and families as having reciprocal claims in
our lives is a way to take radical responsibility while, perhaps,
regaining some freedom. In 1971 Ray Mungo mused, "What remains to
discover is why the kids here can look on each other as brother and
sister, protect each other from all harm, and cast their material
lots together without concern for the fraudulent privacies of
yesterday: why have they not quarreled over money, how can they live
all in a heap, do they not find each other's manner offensive, never
fight over a woman or man to love as property, why have they no
ambition?" His answer, in part, is that it's easier together, and
that together they have true freedom, having no jobs, no sole
proprietorships of home or business. For him the sacred task is
survival. "Togetherness" is a voluntary arrangement.
Total Loss Farm did not run on a community-service model. I can't
imagine one of that household tolerating the kind of discipline,
adherence to code, and direct service work that the members of, say,
Nehemiah Community practice. Being apart from the sadness of cities
is the Total Loss bent. They invoke the child as the ideal being:
smart and free and beautiful. The modern iteration of the communal
living impulsein our neck of the woodsis more a portrait of adult
problem-solving in and with towns, neighborhoods, and cities.
Ray Mungo and his companions sought to spread their good news, and an
evangelical voice infuses his words. The models I'm witnessing in
Western Massachusetts address the overuse and waste of resources of
all kinds. One can see it as the professionalization of the commune.
In every case, members of these communities have not flinched from
worst case world (and therefore local) scenarios.
On a municipal scale, we need to work on crafting community
"Sustainability Plans" that squarely address peak oil, an evaporating
job market, and the increase in poverty that both trends will cause.
We need to do it together. Raymond Mungo might add that love is
necessary. I emailed him the other day. I wrote, "I read your words
of personal revolution in the face of the failure of a movement and I
balance them with my responsibilities, and work little by little on
cultivating some Total Loss spirit on our quarter acre of suburbia.
Today a clothesline hung. Tomorrow a new rain barrel. Can the magic
combination of self-reliance and solidarity exist on a quiet
residential street in a small city?" He wrote back:
Thanks for your letter. You should consider attending the 40th
reunion anniversary of Total Loss Farm this August 22-24. There will
be people there from many other communes around southern Vermont and
western Massachusetts, as well as returning alumni from TLF like
myself. You will find that your dream is possible, including a place
where your child as well as you can have many friends! ?After 40
years, Total Loss Farm is still there and we still don't have any
money. Who needs it?
I'll be there.
Peak Oil is here, and it is a catastrophe in the making. Many of you
are looking ahead to the time when oil runs out. Solar and wind are
not sustainable after the crash, and really, electric power will be
of little use when there is nothing coming in on the Inerstate and no
power grid. Read about it here:
Anyone interested in retiring in a nice sustainable location?
clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com or 603-668-4207
Posted by Clifford J. Wirth on 6.18.08 at 20.28
Peak oil and concern about other global calamities are not actually
the main reason we seek to recreate sane and meaningful (intentional)
community around us at Laughing Dog Farm. Even in the best of times,
mindful, permacultural stewardship of land and small-scale, organic
food growing require intensive attention and hand labor. I've always
observed that too many subsistence farms exist precariously just one
broken arm (or mental breakdown) away from oblivion. This is yet
another key reason to keep at that old, elusive vision of intentional
community - whether the shit hits the fan, or not - to train,
energize and equip legions of skilled backyard food growers in
sustainable principals and methods. This vision of local food economy
and community sustenance makes sense today, notwithstanding politics,
climate change or history.
Today we understand that "community" exists in many forms on many
levels, simultaneously - on the land, in our kitchens, within our
families, political associations and outward into the internet and
world. Hopefully we've evolved some and learned from the idealistic
efforts of Mungo, Renaissance Commune, etc, gleaning, refining and
integrating the values and goals of collectivism and smudging out the
dated and foolish. You don't have to be a hippie farmer or fanatic to
understand and practice community building. You can do it in your own
Posted by Daniel Botkin on 6.19.08
The times, they are a changing! I've been involved in the intentional
communities/ecovillage movement for over 20 years, first through a
doctoral thesis on children and education within "communes"; then
through founding Living Routes (http://www.LivingRoutes.org), an
Amherst-based non-profit that partners with UMass-Amherst to run
college-level study abroad programs in ecovillages around the world
A few years ago, I attended an event called GEN+10, which
commemorated the 10-year anniversary of the Global Ecovillage Network
(http://gen.ecovillage.org), which started in 1995 with the intention
of documenting and supporting this expanding movement. While there
was much excitement and praise for how far we've come, there was also
a reluctant acknowledgment that intentional communities and
ecovillages aren't developing anywhere near the rate required to
become realistic options for the general population. With
skyrocketing land costs and tightening planning regulations, it has
become much harder to "drop out" and start new communities.
This does not mean, however, that these communities don't have an
important role to play in the "Great Turning" towards an ecological
future. Quite the opposite! But many in the movement are letting go
of the notion that the "Good Society" will be created by the mass
replication of these sustainable communities. In its place, we are
recognizing the transformational power of ecovillages serving as
research, demonstration, and training centers for more sustainable,
With Peak Oil here now and Climate Change literally breathing down
our necks, governments and big business absolutely need to change
their acts. But it is also becoming evident that their responses may
be too little, too late, and that real change will likely only begin
when WE start shifting towards sustainable lifestyles. But what does
that look like?
Ecovillages have been navigating these uncharted waters for years now
and have learned a great deal about what works and what doesn't work,
ecologically, socially, economically, and even spiritually in
developing cooperative communities in which folks can live "well" and
"lightly". They're all different and each is inspiring and
instructional in its own way. There are important lessons that can be
learned in ecovillages that can then be applied to the development of
"Energy Descent Action Plans", "Transition Towns", and "Resilient
Communities" (as Richard Heinberg and Rob Hopkins call them).
Ecovillages offer coherent, new paradigm "stories" and models that we
can bring home and apply in ways that work for our localities. That's
when real and lasting change can happen. This is the inspiration
behind Living Routes collaborating with ecovillages as "campuses" for
students to learn about sustainability while actually living it; and
why I think ecovillages, far from being marginal or irrelevant, are
actually becoming one of the pivot points upon which our society will turn.
URL for Laughing Dog Farm community ...