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.


  1. Hi KMO,
    check out the rest of The Farm if you want to experience the village part. It's full of loving people who've been there for almost 40 years. Douglas at Village Media makes a good argument that the whole place is an ecovillage. I'd say it's evolving in that direction, everything being relative or a matter of degree.
    Enjoy the spring there, say hi to the birds and the bees for me and tell Carl E. next door I said "hello!"
    Kathleen Rosemary, long-time member and resident of The Farm, now in Bolinas,CA at Regenerative Design Institute

  2. Hi Kathleen, I've been over to Carl's to sweat in his sauna a couple of times. I'll convey your greeting the next time I see him. He's spending most of his time in Nashville these days.

    Here's an article that makes the case the the Farm is an ecovillage: