Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Changeover

When I first visited the Farm in 2007 and then again just a few days ago, I saw a slide presentation by long-time Farm resident Doug Stevenson. The presentation detailed the early gathering of students in the Bay Area in California around the charismatic teaching of Stephen Gaskin, the cross-country bus caravan, the establishment of the Farm in rural Tennessee, and the humanitarian projects that the Farm community undertook in the 1970s. Very close to the end of the presentation comes the description of the Changeover; the time when the Farm re-organized itself economically in order to arrest their slide into debt and head off possible loss of the land to foreclosure. Before the Changeover, the Farm was making six thousands dollars a week and spending ten thousand, and, according to this narrative, it was a simple economic calculation that mandated the transition.

As I say, most of the presentation of the Farm's history focuses on the period between the founding in 1971 and the Changeover in 1983. The next 27 years, over two-thirds of the Farm's existence, gets summed up as a sort of dénouement, but given that the Farm population plummeted from somewhere in the neighborhood of thirteen hundred to less than two hundred in a handful of years after the Changeover, most of the hours of human experience on the Farm did, in fact, take place before the Changeover.

I've been helping Frank Michael, the proprietor of MushroomPeople, a mail order business here on the Farm, pack and ship orders for Shiitake mushroom spawn and cultivation tools and materials during the Spring busy period. What follows is a partial transcript of a conversation that I recorded with Frank yesterday as we packed up orders. The recording is unsuitable for use as a podcast because of the crackling of newspaper and plastic bags and the noise of a tape gun.

The Changeover had been presented to me as an economic response to an economic reality, and I was unsatisfied during much of the following conversation that Frank would not address it in those terms. In my thinking, the depopulation of the Farm came after the economic re-organization of the Changeover, and therefore it must have resulted from the Changeover. (Yes, I'm aware of the post hoc fallacy.) What slowly sunk in over the course of our conversation, and during the time spent transcribing and reflecting on it, is that the Changeover and the depopulation both resulted from dynamics of life on the old Farm that don't get much play in the official presentation of the history of the Farm.

Frank: The people on the work crews were more comfortable talking to each other than to anybody else, so there wound up being a certain amount of cliquishness happening. All very naturally and very understandably. And social position... I don't know if I would call it exactly social position, but there were some people who were much more active and more voluble. Back on the old Farm the real value system was that whoever had better oral skills wound up being the one who got heard more and got to determine what happened more.

We were right on the cusp of survivability because, for one thing, we took a vow of poverty when we arrived here, and so that made things a little flaky. We were always making decisions like, “Oh my God, shall we get penicillin for the clinic or toilet paper this week?”

Those were the kinds of decisions that would come up typically. We would typically burn out a bank person... We used to call them bank ladies – we also had some guys too to do the banking, try to keep up with the finances and pay the bills. We used to burn these people out at the rate of once every six weeks or so. I've seen 200 pound, big, yang guys crying because he couldn't make the budget that week, and, you know, there was no way to make a decision about what to do with what little money was coming in.

So those were some of the pressures that caused the Changeover actually, and there was surprisingly little rancor because some people really sacrificed a lot. They would get up at four in the morning, and get in a truck or bus, drive all the way to Nashville and work some shit job, and come back after hours. And they would do this year after year after year to support the rest of us, and the rest of us were not idle. I mean, we used to work long hours. Sixteen-hour, eighteen-hour days were not uncommon.


Frank: I would say off-hand that one of the major categories [of people who left the Farm after the Changeover] is people who disagreed philosophically with Stephen. It took me years to understand some of the dynamics of what happened with the Changeover, I tell you.

KMO: Stephen was de-elevated during the Changeover, right?

Frank: Very much so.

KMO: So, I wouldn't think that people would leave at that time because they disagreed with him.

Frank: Well, it was a slow turning set of issues. Some people wanted to close the gates for a while in order to upgrade our material plane, here. And, you know, we were living on a dollar a day. We were voluntary peasants under a vow of poverty. But some people were saying, “Look. We're getting older. Our kids are growing up. We can't afford to keep living in tents and buses. We need to sheet rock some of these tents. We need to frame some of these structures and make real houses of them. As we get older, we're going to need bathrooms; not outhouses. So, come on. Let's close the gate for a while and stop this crazy influx of thousands of visitors every year who need to be guided, and toured, and fed, and coddled. And stop taking some of these people from jail and from the nuthouse who want to straighten up and we give them a companion to be with them 24/7.”

We call them a tripping buddy. Some of these people were really tripping all the time. Some of these people were highly neurotic or psychotic. And we tried to get them well. If they understood what we were all about and wanted to be here, we'd say, “Okay, here's the lick.”

And also we were delivering babies for free for ladies who were contemplating having an abortion. We'd say, “Well, don't have an abortion. Instead, we'll deliver your baby using natural childbirth, and if you don't fall in love with her and take her with you, we'll raise her for you.” So, talk about a burden on us.

KMO: What happened to those kids?

Frank: Many of them grew up happily and went to the Farm school and are now in college or have jobs. You know, there were so many of them it's hard to keep track of all of them. My wife and I adopted a little girl, and she grew up and had her own kids.

But it was quite a drain on a bunch of folks living without bathrooms. Sometimes we had really insufficient quality of nutrition. That's the reason my wife left; because she was really pissed off. Sometimes the kids would not have shoes that were decent. You'd wear out the shoes, and if people weren't there when the big shoe buy came in on the truck and got put out in the middle of the road someplace, at the head of the road, typically. There was a little place; a dry goods store... tent. And if you didn't hear it through the channels that the shoes had come in, then you just missed out, and that's one way in which social position manifested; If you weren't popular, if you weren't a good networker, and we weren't.

We were pretty square compared to everybody else. Most other people here were either hippies, Haight-Ashbury friends that had been knowing each other since the year zero, or they were highly gregarious, and [my wife] and I were not. We were typical squares. Actually, more typical than most squares. We were techno-squares. You know, she was a highly gifted mathematician, and I was a mediocre physicist, and so we weren't typical folks. And it wasn't that easy for us to talk about our tripping experiences with the rest of the folks on the Farm. We just didn't have any, but we shared the ideals. We loved it here; loved the energy and the goals and everything else.

So that put us in a place where we missed the shoes. And sometimes there would be someone coming back with a truck full of avocados and grapefruits and greens and all kinds of goodies, and we'd miss out on some of that stuff. So [my wife] wasn't real happy with it, and I wasn't either.

We said there was no class on the old Farm. Well, there was no arbitrary social position because of money or privilege, inherited titles or any of that crap, but de facto there was a class structure that made it so some people made out much better than other people. And a lot of it arose naturally. It was along the lines of friendship. I think that's what made groups of people who were more simpatico with each another, you know, totally understandable.

It was like accelerated social evolution from a charismatic revelation – in this case, acid revelation – religious tribe to where we are now, which is a fairly enlightened co-op; modern community. You know, we're more advanced than people in co-housing because we're co-landers. We share the land.

KMO: You know, one thing that just occurred to me was that after the Changeover you went from a population of about twelve hundred down to about two hundred in a few years.

Frank: Right.

KMO: [A] short span.

Frank: Yep.

KMO: It seems to me that two hundred is closer to the size of a traditional human clan or tribe.

Frank: True. That's right.

KMO: And, at this level, everybody can know everybody. And there will be natural cliques and social structures that emerge, but given that it's not [on] a huge scale, there are not enough people for there to be all that many levels in the social hierarchy. You don't get the same sorts of disparities and stresses and whatnot.

Frank: That's right. If I had to characterize the Farm with a single word, I would say kindness. People are so kind and so sweet to each other on the Farm. I think it comes directly from our philosophy that gave rise to the Farm in the first place. You know, the psychedelic spirituality. It was the first religion or philosophy that I could subscribe to that didn't insult my intelligence. And I loved it. You know, it was great: We're all one. We take care of each other. We're out to save the world as the only task that's really worthy of a grown up. And take care of all the children as if they were your own children, and help other people. You know, don't just take care of yourself and feather your own nest only, but take care of other folks who have it harder than you.

So that 's how we got started helping our neighbors, most of whom became very kind and benevolent towards us once they understood who we were; that we weren't just a bunch of druggie, weirdo hippies.

KMO: Most of the things that you've described that motivated people to leave, it seems, would have been motivation to leave before the Changeover. What caused such a dramatic depopulation of the Farm after the Changeover?

Frank: Okay. A little background. We were extremely different individuals to begin with. You know, there were people from all walks of life here, and what brought us together and kept us together for ten years or so was the strong glue provided by the philosophy of the Farm and by Stephen Gaskin and Ina Mae's real charisma, and good sense, intelligence, and loving personalities. You know, they're some of the most loving people I ever met. And also some of the smartest and funniest people I ever talked to.

And here begins a fascinating element of the story, but I'm going to leave off here for this week and pick up on the role that Stephen and Ina Mae Gaskin played on the Farm before and after the Changeover in future posts. Click here for the next post in the series, Growing Up.

Images of the ETC

This video was made by Merry, the innkeeper here at the ETC. Last year she was an apprentice.

I'm going to get started on today's essay here shortly. Look for it later today.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ecovillages in a Money Economy

I had a brief but in-depth email correspondence with someone who is certain that the industrial phase of human civilization has all but run its course. I'll call him Adam. Adam is sure that a collapse and Malthusian Correction are immanent. He is Canadian, and for a time he thought that ecovillage living was a viable response to impending calamity and something worth pursuing. So Adam set about looking for the ecovillage that was the best fit for his desires, skills, and financial means.

He eliminated all ecovillages outside of Canada from his list of candidates . He'd spent 10 years as a vegetarian and found that he required some meat in his diet for good health, and so he removed all vegan and vegetarian communities. He is an atheist who spent time in India and who now has a strong aversion to cults and gurus, and so he disqualified any ecovillage that set off his cult detector. By this time the list of potential ecovillages was growing short.

In his email dispatches Adam named names, but I don't want to make things personal or get into a shooting war, so I will withhold the details and give a brief summary of the opinions that Adam formed regarding ecovillages and their shortcomings.

Upper-Middle Class Enclaves: The list of remaining candidates that survived the weeding out of obvious cults left several candidates that, upon closer inspection, revealed cult-like characteristics; the most obvious of which being that they were seeking prospective members with money. The price of admission was rarely less than $150,000 and after buying in, new community members would still be expected to build their own houses. These ecovillages amounted, in Adam's estimation, to little more than gated enclaves of upper-middle class privilege, in which the residents paid a considerable amount of money in order to live in a spiritual/intellectual monoculture.

Not Interested in “Lifeboat” Skills: Adam claims proficiency in a range of skills that would qualify him for the lead role in a story by James Fenimore Cooper, but the ecovillage communities that he surveyed were not interested in people with such skills. He writes, “Few were asking for hunters, meat cutters, butchers, cheese makers, dairyers, livestock husbands, horse wranglers, mule breeders, oxen drivers, foragers, leather workers, shoemakers, clothing builders, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carriage makers, leather tanners, trackers, snowshoe builders, gunsmiths, bullet re-loaders, bow-and-arrow makers, or any other "lifeboat community" skills practical after the Great Correction.”

What these communities wanted and needed were people who could reside on the ecovillage and still make money, either by commuting long distances or by working remotely.

Exploitative Caste System: Folks who can afford to buy into an ecovillage because they have good jobs often have to keep working those jobs and don't have the time or energy for a double life as a farmer, and so these communities need farm hands. In other cases, the founding members of the community had grown long in the tooth and were no longer able to maintain the level of physical labor that their communities required and which they did, in fact, perform in years gone by. The members of these communities recognized the need for “new blood,” but in most cases the financial requirements for new membership disqualified almost all interested parties who possessed the physical robustness and vitality implied by the phrase, “new blood.” Communities in each of these situations turned to an organization called WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), and Adam reported that he encountered tales of exploitation and abuse from former WWOOFers on internet forums.

The email from which I'm quoting and paraphrasing ran to over 3,000 words, so I won't try to summarize all of Adam's complaints and comment on them in a 1,500 word essay like this one. The three complaints listed above form the core of the problem with ecovillages in Adam's experience, and they really all come down to a single phenomenon in my mind, but before I comment on their unity, let me say something in response to each of them.

Upper-Middle Class Enclaves: In a world where governments are no-longer giving out free land to homesteaders it costs a lot of money to create a new community. This is equally true for an ecovillage, for a mainstream retirement community, or for a gated community built around a golf course. That expense comes only in part from the need to acquire land.

An ecovillage can be established near existing centers of commerce and non-eco-residential areas, or it can be out in the boonies. If the former, then you have to build it to conform to a system of standards that codify waste and inefficiency and which provides a source of continuous income for the people certified in building to those standards and to inspectors and regulators who are the institutional defenders of the dysfunctional methodology.

If you build your ecovillage way out in the boonies so that you can do your own thing, then you've got an even tougher row to hoe in terms of generating income. Your members either have to commute long distances to jobs, have sufficiently fast and reliable internet access to do “knowledge work” at a distance (in most instances satellite internet will not cut it), or your community needs a sugar daddy or a sugar daddy caste, which creates a killer counter-current to any egalitarian aspirations with which you might have started out.

Not Interested in Lifeboat Skills: While you can use money to buy organic yogurt, you can't pay your property taxes by bartering your “lifeboat skills.” The government doesn't want you to shoe the Mounties' horses. They want you to cough up some cash or forfeit your property. Until the collapse is well under way you will have to have a way to make money.

Exploitative Caste System: I checked the WWOOF Wikipedia entry, and it doesn't have a section on “controversy” or “reported abuses,” but I don't know if that's because no such controversy exists or because vigilent WWOOFer sentries keep watch over that entry and “scrub” any dissenting edits. I can say that I have heard first hand from someone who described very callous and predatory exploitation while working on a supposed ecovillage. I have not asked for his permission to share the details of that experience, so I'll say no more for now.

I do have the permission of Merry, the innkeeper here at the ETC to share her experience as a massage therapist at a spa at a small Mississippi casino prior to hurricane Katrina and how it compares to her experience here on the Farm. She is a hired hand and not an official Farm resident, and so she is clearly a member of a lower Farm caste, but she says she feels more like a person in this environment and less like a unit of corporate production than she did at the casino. For the casino, extracting money from the patrons was the unifying goal of all the activities that took place under its roof. Here at the ETC, economic realities require that everyone contribute to making enough money to keep the operation running, but the unifying goal remains providing an educational resource for people looking to live in a more ecologically enlightened way.

I don't want to embrace cynicism, but the old adage seems true: Life (in a capitalist oligarchy) is a shit sandwich. The more bread you have the less shit your have to eat. The fact that this adage holds true on ecovillages operating within the larger context of a capitalist society only demonstrates that ecovillages are not utopias. Hopefully you know enough to put your hand on your wallet and back away slowly when someone tries to sell you shares in Utopia.

In addressing each complaint individually the general theme shines through. The system does not allow actual dissent. You can say whatever you like, but it doesn't matter what you say. You may not opt out. You are more than welcome to spend your money buying into the “opting out” demographic, but the talismans of membership for that consumer category remain quite pricey indeed.

Whatever the flaws of ecovillage living as it exists today, the more people who have some experience growing food and who have an informed idea of what a hard day's physical labor really feels like, the better. Better still the larger the pool of people who appreciate how a desire for community, sustainability, and a soft ecological touch can be turned to exploitative ends. The collective pool of skills and experiences that we'll have to draw upon in a post-collapse environment is richer for the existence of these ecovillage experiments and for the people who lived them. Our post-collapse prospects would be no better had those burned WWOOFers spent that time as standard corporate cubicle serfs.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Village of One... and Counting

The weather is warming, and the Farm is starting to wake up. When I got here, it was cold, and keeping the wood-burning furnace in the basement of the Ecovillage Training Center going was a perpetual task. Now it rarely dips into the 30’s, even at night, and I haven’t kept a continuous fire burning.

I’ve also been selling the hours of my life, which long-time listeners to the C-Realm Podcast probably know is not my preferred mode of living, but this gig is cool because it’s on a human scale. I’ve been helping Frank Michael with his Farm-based mail-order mushroom spawn business. It’s called Mushroom People. Frank, a long-time co-conspirator with Albert Bates, is bubbling with ideas about all manner of topics that would fit right in on the C-Realm Podcast, but he does the bulk of his mail order business for the year in the month of March, so those wide-ranging conversations will have to wait.

Albert left for a two-week stint in Central America a few days back, and even when he was here he was working furiously on his upcoming book, The Biochar Solution, and he would spend many hours on at a stretch holed up in his two-story octagonal house which is next door to the Eco-hostel. The Eco-hostel is the largest building and the hub of social activity on the ETC complex, and it is where I lay my head at night and where I spend most of my days when I’m not packing up boxes of shitake mushroom spawn. I’m sitting at the kitchen table in the Eco-hostel as I type these words.

Yes, as the weather has warmed and the Farm residents are emerging from their winter dens, I have retreated indoors and planted myself at my computer. I am working furiously with the help of skilled volunteers recruited from the ranks of the C-Realm Podcast audience to prepare my book for publication. It’s called Conversations on Collapse: C-Realm Podcast Transcripts, and it features interviews with Dmitry Orlov, Albert K. Bates, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Sharon Astyk, Albert Bartlett, Cornelia Butler Flora, Bill McKibben, James Howard Kunstler, Colin Tudge, Joe Bageant, and Daniel Pinchbeck.

Albert is gone, but I’m not alone here at the ETC, the full-time, real deal in-keeper has arrived for the season. In fact she’s standing about three feet away from me at the kitchen sink cleaning up after her adventure in apple pie-making. For the first time in years I’m actually sitting down at a table to share meals with another human being on a daily basis. What’s more we’ve started pooling edible resources and collaborating on meals. Her efforts far outshine mine, and I’ll say nothing of last night’s attempt at grilled cheese sandwiches which would have set off working smoke detectors. In recent years, except on the recent Transitional Alchemy tour with Neil Kramer, I’ve eaten most of my meals alone and almost always while reading or listening to a podcast, and even, I admit, in front of the television. On weekends when my children stayed with me at the Heartbreak Hotel on eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, I was typically in the kitchen while they ate, and sometimes I would even be seated at the table with them, but mostly I stayed in motion preparing their individual meals, cleaning up, and attempting to keep the peace between them. It’s not like a shared meal with another adult.

I hope that these shared meals represent the beginning of the end of my isolation. A theme that comes up again and again in the transcripts I’ve been preparing for publication is that in the United States, we use the things that isolate us from other people as measures of our success. If you never have to share a bathroom with anyone, that means you’re doing well. According to this set of values, only losers who live in small houses or apartments have to share bathrooms with children or other family members. Pity the poor flunky whose financial situation forces him to cohabitate with roommates to whom he is unrelated. If he works hard and gets lucky, he may yet strike it rich and move into his own starter castle out in the ‘burbs where he can be assured that he and he alone pees into his porcelain bowl of drinking water.

Me, I like to pee outdoors. A couple of days ago I stepped outside with the intention of gifting a stand of bamboo with a bonus dose of nitrogen and found a young woman I did not recognize standing and admiring the very bamboo I had intended to visit. She was soon joined by three other young woman who turned out to be on the farm for a midwifery course. I ended up taking them on an impromptu tour of the ETC.

Bill McKibben talks about the poverty of more, by which he means the social isolation we experience because our fossil fuel lifestyle has transformed us into the first people in human history who have no need for their neighbors. It provides us with physical comfort but insulates us from the human interaction that is the key to our emotional satisfaction and sense of belonging. We compensate for our lack of genuine human interaction with on-line relationships of one sort or another, with video games or pornography, and mostly with television.

Other folks come through here most days. I haven’t asked them for their permission to reveal their identities, so they shall remain nameless for now, but they each take responsibility for helping the ETC fulfill its mission, though none of them live on site. I like them all and enjoy my regular interactions with them. For me, those face to face interactions and conversations about topics that I find worth-while represent tangible and verifiable progress in my transition to the kind of life I want to create for myself.

In April the first group of apprentices will arrive, and that will likely put my commitment to these touchy-feely ideas to the test. Ideas about community and human contact aside, I am accustomed to a life of quiet and solitude, or one animated by the frenetic energy of my children. A life in which adult conversations take place by phone at scheduled times or in the asynchronous realm of email is a life in which those contacts can be put aside at will. Not so when those people share your actual living space.

I’ve been getting emails and other communications from readers and listeners who encourage me to explore this or that topic in my conversations with my fellow ecovillagers. This reflects the misconception that the Ecovillage Training Center is an ecovillage. It’s certainly eco, but it’s not a village. You can’t have a village without villagers, and the ETC has only one-full time resident; Albert, and he travels frequently. The majority of my time here thus far has been solitary, but when the apprentices arrive, this place will morph into something much more akin to a village than it is now, and that experience my yet alter my fuzzy ideology about what makes for a satisfying human existence.

I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Locals

In the spring of 2003 I moved from Perth, West Australia to Berryville, Arkansas with the intention of building an eco-homestead. Highway 62 runs through Berryville connecting it to Green Forest to the east and Eureka Springs to the west. On several occasions I saw a man walking along that highway with a walking stick and wearing a backpack. I remember he walked with a limp. I’m sorry to say that I never offered him a ride. His name, I learned later, was Darrell Michael (Hitchhikin' Mike) Heaster. He was fifty years old and lived on disability.

While I never spoke to him, I now know Hitchhikin’ Mike’s name because one day, twenty-four year-old Cory Lynn Howerton offered him a ride. Cory drove Mike about a half a mile down a little-trafficked logging road, beat him, took the $500 from Mike’s recently cashed disability check, poured gasoline on him and set him on fire. Hitchhikin’ Mike died 30 days later in an Oklahoma hospital.

This was not a routine occurrence in Carroll county, Arkansas. The old locals that I talked to about it said it was the kind of thing they thought only happened in places like Los Angeles. To the best of my knowledge, no acts of comparable brutality have followed it since then. So what’s my point?

In this blog I detail my impressions and experiences at the Ecovillage Training Center at the Farm, an intentional hippy community in Summertown, Tennessee. After last week’s blog post, Albert Bates, my host and sponsor here at the ETC told me that I seem to have gotten the wrong impression about the Farm and its relations with its neighbors. Albert explained to me that in the early days of the Farm, when it had nearly 2,000 residents (today it has fewer than 200) and it outnumbered the muggle population of Summertown, the Farm residents voted in a block. A solid block of 2,000 lock-step votes in rural Tennessee was a force that no would-be elected official could ignore, and the Farm residents made significant inroads into local and state politics and forged lasting relationships with the local movers and shakers which continue to bear good fruit to this day. The nearby town of Hoenwald, due in no small part to the on-going outreach efforts by denizens of the Farm, has officially set itself on the Transition Town path. As a result of the community-building efforts of the Farm’s founders, “You can cash a check on long hair anywhere in a 20 mile radius,” Albert tells me.

That said, Albert tells me that a certain segment of the population of rural Tennessee consists of scallywags and rascals and always has. The point being that acts of vandalism and larceny reflect the character of rural life more than they reflect any tension between “the locals” and the hippy culture of the Farm. The contracting legit economy here just isn’t up to the task of providing living wages to all of the folks who live here, and so folks make due with their given circumstances. The more brazen and/or sociopathic of the individuals who are getting by on the economic margins are the ones who make the headlines.

When I speak of headlines, I mean both the metaphorical headlines of informal conversation and the actual headlines of the local newspaper. Here is a full list of all of the headlines that appear on the front and back page of the news section of March 3rd, 2010 edition of the Lawrence County Advocate:

Resident returns to find pets killed

Injunction remains to stop ‘puppy mill’ dog adoptions

100 years, 100 miles

England candidate for Sheriff

Lawrenceburg man awakened by vandals

Resident warns of scam attempt

Summertown man chases prowlers from his home

Mobile home buyer is victim of fraud

Victim tracks down stolen property

South Lawrence Head Start taking applications

Do these headlines illustrate the moral poverty of rural life, or do they exemplify the media maxim of “If it bleeds, it leads?”

It’s also worth noting that the top story in the fyi section of that same issue of the Lawrence County Advocate opens with a full page story on Ina May Gaskin, the world’s most famous midwife. She is married to Farm Founder, Steven Gaskin, and she founded The Farm Midwife Center (It is mainly due to Ina May’s book, “Spiritual Midwifery” that my two children were born at home.)

Yes, there have been break-ins and vandalism on the outskirts of the Farm. The victim of one such incident told me that he thinks the locals in the immediate vicinity have a good opinion of the Farm and its residents and that the perpetrators probably came from some distance away. I asked him if he thought that the incident was a one-off or if his living arrangement required on-going vigilance. He said he remains vigilant, but he also thought that his relationship with the non-Farm locals was improving. He told me about trying to rent a video in Summertown. The proprietor was wary of him until she learned that he was associated with the Farm. Once that was on the table the tension lifted. “I’ve never had any trouble with those folks,” she told him. The implication being that she had had trouble with other folks.

Another of the younger folks who work here at the Ecovillage Training Center expressed some impatience with the very notion that there’s a conversation to be had about the relationship between the residents of the Farm and the locals. It just takes one or two rowdy jerks in a pick up truck to conjure up a conversation about “our relationship with the neighbors” when for the most part relations are amiable and generally a non-issue. What’s more, the land bordering the Farm is a patchwork of plots some of which are owned and inhabited by people associated with the Farm and by the so-called “locals.”

Gaining membership to the Farm is a long process which requires more compromise than some would-be residents are willing to make. The Farm, with it’s marked and defended borders, is a bit like a fort in Indian territory. Some settlers think they can set up housekeeping outside the walls of the fort and thereby enjoy the cultural benefits of living in proximity to the Farm without all the strictures of life within the fort. Then after having their homes violated and their property vandalized they decide that the security afforded by the fort’s perimeter defenses is worth the cost. I hear that that process works the other way as well; that the bother of internal Farm politics motivates some people to move out but not away.

What’s more, the line between hippy Farm denizen and “local” is sometimes blurry within individual people. So-called Dreadnecks, children who grew up on the Farm with friends out in the local community, embody the blurring of the categories. Which is not to say that all tribal affiliations are ephemeral or academic. As is true in just about every place I’ve ever lived, there are certain crowds and locales that common sense tells me to avoid.

This topic connects to several others that I hope to explore in the coming weeks, not least of which is the question of whether rural living is a responsible or even viable option in an energy descent environment. I won’t attempt to address that question today except to say that, without a massive Malthusian Correction, we’re going to need ecocities at least as much as we need ecovillages, and the quality of ecocity life will play a much larger role in human consciousness than will the quality of rural life. Again, sans an enormous dieback.