Author: Joshua Canter
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #141
I clearly remember, five years ago, traveling through my home state of California and into the mountains of southern Oregon. Our core group of 12, caravaning in three cars, looked at various properties where we thought we might settle and start our community. One place after another left us uninspired and drastically surprised at the prices of properties that did not fill even a quarter of the specifics that we were looking for in a piece of land.
Did our community want to start with a 30-year mortgage? Already our projected budget for start-up had almost doubled from what we initially thought it was going to cost. Suddenly, our dream of a new, liberated, and simple life seemed more like a mirage; instead, we’d be digging ourselves into a deep, complicated hole. How were we going to do this?
A few months later, after tips from some friends, I took a spontaneous journey to Costa Rica to explore the country and to continue the search for our new home. During the two-month period, I looked at over 100 pieces of property up and down the country. Property was inexpensive compared to where we were looking before, and the land was abundant in resources beyond what I could find anywhere on the west coast, with rivers, waterfalls, tropical fruit trees, rich soil, springs, wildlife, clean air…and the list went on. Costa Rica, the “Rich Coast,” was named by the Spanish. Although they found no gold when they arrived, they considered it rich simply for its natural beauty.
On New Year’s Day, 2004, after purchasing the property, we settled on our land and True Nature began. True Nature is located in the rural farming village of La Florida. For generations the Costa Rican native people (“Ticos”) have led simple, sustainable, and rich lives, with almost nothing to show for it. Most of them grew up subsistence farmers, working with the land they had, using it to provide the necessities for the family. Each family in the village helped one another with growing food, caring for the children, building, and sharing resources. The families, most of them having seven children, also grew together as they participated in celebrations, played soccer, sang traditional “rancho” songs, danced salsa, rode horses, and so on. As we arrived in the village at our new home, we soon realized we were moving into a community that had been flourishing for generations—with, in our eyes, almost nothing.
We showed up on our land with only the goods we could each fit into two duffel bags. Coming from the States, the four of us each had our different standards of living, but with the limited resources we had brought, we would each be leading a more materially-simple existence. During the previous four years, our group had been meeting together, creating vision documents, timelines, and plans to create our community, True Nature. It was to be a flourishing education center, filled with an art studio, yoga center, community lodge, several cabins, houses for the residents, and more. I remember sitting on a stump outside the small Tico house which came with the land, looking out at the vast valley which was our property, and thinking, “How are we going to afford to do this?”
Influenced by the example that surrounded us in the Costa Rican community of La Florida, our vision began to shift drastically. We witnessed a flourishing community, as rich as we had ever seen before in many ways, living with nearly nothing. In our councils we began to ask questions like, “Why do we need a car, when we can ride a horse? Why do we need a washing machine, when we can wash by hand? Why do we need a lawnmower, when we can use a machete? Why do we need such a large vision, when we see the simplicity and harmony of a multi-generational community surrounding us?” The discussion went on for months and still goes on today.
The average wage in Costa Rica is approximately $3 an hour, so we knew that if we wanted to work we would either have to create our own businesses on the land, or go back to the United States to work. We also realized that because we had decided to live here and had paid off the land completely, we had no mortgage. Many variables came forth and created lively discussions at our council meetings and around the dinner table.
As time went on in the village and in the creation of our own community, I saw more and more clearly that the concepts of wealth, scarcity, and abundance are reflections of our cultural mentality. I watched my Costa Rican neighbors, on pieces of land on either side of me, wake up at dawn, work in the fields until sunset, come home to their families and their simple little homes, and do it again the next day. I would visit them often in the evenings and on the weekends and be amazed at how happy these people’s lives were. Children would run from house to house in the village; the men would sit on their decks and watch the sunset after a long day’s work; the women would visit each other often. All they had was all they needed, and they were genuinely happy. In Costa Rica, the mantra of the country is “Pura Vida” (pronounced pooda veeda), which means “pure life.” Wherever you go in the country, people say proudly, “Pura Vida.” The pure life I witnessed in the village of La Florida was a reflection that continues to guide our community today.
In the US, I had grown up in an upper class family in Los Angeles. Richness was seen not through intact natural resources or quality of life, but through the vacations we took, the cars we drove, and the clothes we wore. America today, more than ever, is looking at the question of “What is enough?”
Gradually, we at True Nature began to want more and more. Our original vision had never been to live as the Ticos do; and some of us, more than others, were now eager to begin to grow the vision that we came with. Struggles arose within the group as some proposed that we begin to obtain additional resources to help us move forward. After a year and a half, one community member purchased the first vehicle. We followed by deciding to ship an overseas crate from the United States, containing tools and materials we could not obtain within the country.
Around the same time that we bought our vehicle, a few other foreigners bought property in the surrounding villages to start their own community projects. They came with their own mission and vision. It was to “build, and build fast.” Just as many Americans have done in the country, they came with all of their wealth from the states and created what they wanted, at the pace that many people create in the States. As this began to happen around us, it affected our community and affected the village. As the new people around La Florida brought their own form of wealth, everyone, including the Ticos and ourselves, began to watch and feel the result of this new form of abundance.
Subtly we began to desire more. We watched the new people get new cars, washing machines, chainsaws, and hot water. And naturally, we wanted these things. We watched people build structures within months, and already begin to host groups of people, a vision we had had years before; and we wanted these things. And most of all, we were struck by the effect this all had on the simple native people of the “rich coast”; they wanted these things.
The next years became a dynamic time of change, growth, and learning at True Nature. The key to our growth was acceptance: acceptance of all the many ways and forms in which life provides us gifts.
In response to this dynamic new phase in the village and in our group, two of the founding partners of True Nature began the CREER Service Organization. The mission of the organization is to provide a bridge of education, awareness, and a global perspective from the world to the villagers of La Florida, helping to support the native culture through changing times.
We began to accept more and more the delicate balance we were finding in living in the village of La Florida and at True Nature. We understood that change was inevitable and we acknowledged also our roots, values, and each other’s diverse upbringings.
We embraced the vehicle which took us to town each week, and we also embraced the machete which cut down coconuts so efficiently. We shared gratitude for the hot water which cleaned our dirty bodies, and also marveled in the cool waters of the waterfall on our land. We used the telephone and the dial-up internet to communicate with our families and spread the word of our community and sprouting education center, and we visited our new adopted Costa Rican family nightly. We learned that, truly, all we have is all we need.
Many of the experiences of the past four years have melded into who I am today, and also how I see scarcity and wealth within myself, my community, and the world. After witnessing such drastic differences between the lifestyle I grew up in and the lifestyle I adopted in the early years at True Nature, I feel that I have a broad perspective in this area. Deep within myself, I know that if I need to, I can live with very little and appreciate the richness of life. If the resources of our apparent “abundant” American culture run out, I will be one of the minorities of people who will be okay, accepting “all I have is all I need.” I also understand that life is not easy, and it takes hard work to live in a way that is so simple and truly rich. I have a deep gratitude and appreciation for the ability to share in the material abundance I grew up with and that I have today in its various forms. I cherish the plethora of experiences, education, and resources I have, that the Ticos in the village of La Florida may never have.
I also have learned my greatest gifts: acceptance and compassion. I have gained an understanding that abundance, wealth, and richness mean different things to each person. I now recognize that we all have deep feelings about these topics that are sensitive and connected to some of the deepest primal parts of our selves. And I understand that throughout time, people will continue to evolve and learn more and more what the gifts of life mean to them.
Just yesterday I received an article sent to me from my grandmother. The article was about a research project that studied the top four areas of the world where people live to be the oldest on the planet. To my surprise, one of the areas is just north of True Nature, in a village similar to La Florida. The scientist interviewed one of the oldest women of the village, who was 100 years old. He asked, “What is the secret to living such a long and healthy life here in such a simple village?” She answered, “Oyeee… I am blessed.” It is my wish that no matter what life gives us, we can realize that we are all, in our own unique ways, truly blessed.