Excerpted from the Winter 2018 edition of Communities, “The Culture of Intentional Community”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.
Fourteen years ago, I wrote an article for a past issue of Communities whose theme, A Day in the Life, closely resembled our current one (“In Deep Forest and Meadow,” Communities #123, Summer 2004, pp. 50-54). In it, I described a typical day in my life at Lost Valley Educational Center, where I had lived for seven years at that point (I have since added 13 years to that total, subtracting a year midway between then and now which I spent in northeast Missouri’s tri-communities).
Recalling that article, I wonder: How does my life in community now compare with my life then? What has changed—in me, in my community, in how I relate to my community, and in who makes up the actual “community” of my life now? How has the culture of my daily life and of my home community evolved? Does this mirror the kind of evolution that other communitarians may experience as they spend not just years, but decades, in community? (My observation of others who’ve immersed themselves in community for years, as well as what I know about the history of other long-standing communities, tells me that the answer to that last question may be “yes.”)
The day I described a decade-and-a-half ago came in the midst of a dozen-plus-year stint as one of Lost Valley’s garden coordinators (I also taught in our garden apprenticeship program and led garden interns in managing the gardens even when we weren’t hosting apprentices). My other main job was editing Talking Leaves: A Journal of Our Evolving Ecological Culture, a magazine which we published for eight years at Lost Valley before it folded (as have many other print journals, but fortunately not Communities). Both of those jobs anchored me to our 87 acres and its people. In fact, that kind of on-site immersion was typical. At that point in our evolution nearly everyone living at Lost Valley still worked full-time (or close to it) for our nonprofit educational and retreat center.
Participation in community culture and decision-making was high. We had reduced the frequency of our community-wide business meetings (Purpose Circles) from weekly to biweekly, and had done the same with our well-being meetings, but all residents either attended both (meaning we all met together once a week) or sent their regrets when they didn’t attend. We operated by consensus, were all “in business” as well as “in community” together, all took turns cooking and cleaning the community meals that happened at least twice every weekday and sometimes on weekends too. We all participated in the full meal plan, pooling our buying power and finding ways to meet most of everyone’s dietary needs (with individuals supplementing the community food if they chose to with whatever they craved or needed but that we didn’t purchase or prepare collectively—whether that be beef, fish, durian, papaya, or potato chips). We each put in two hours of “cleansing and creation” weekly—most of us through a regular two-hour community work party in which bathrooms were cleaned, floors swept, trails cleared, etc.
We all had taken part in the personal growth workshop (Naka-Ima) that had helped shape the community in its spiritual rebirth/coalescence in the mid/late 1990s. (The first seven years after its founding in 1989 had been marked, by most accounts, with varying degrees of dysfunctional communication and unresolved interpersonal tension and conflict, until the introduction of this workshop had provided a breakthrough.) Even for those who didn’t continue to assist in the monthly courses (which brought in large numbers of outside students and assistants in addition to onsite participants), that workshop helped shape our well-being meetings and our daily lives together. It provided a shared language and mutually-understood ways of dealing with conflict, as well as an emotional intimacy and comfort (even in the face of discomfort) that came to define the community culture. My account of that day 14 years ago includes three instances of “working through” issues that had come up between people during the course of daily interactions—some resolved almost on the spot, some that were talked through the following day, all part of the process of living and working closely together and being committed to not letting issues fester.
One of those instances involved strong feelings about how to live the ecological values that Lost Valley has always been committed to in various ways. (From the beginning, the group has both taught about and modeled permaculture and other eco-living approaches—at times stumblingly, because of limited resources available to change the mostly non-eco-infrastructure we inherited from the “end times”-expecting Christian community that developed the site.) On that day, one of the garden interns had expressed the belief that our civilization needs to crumble entirely and we need to start over from scratch—while two of us had advocated for a “softer” landing and more compromise in lifestyle as we make the transition to the more ecologically sustainable society we all hope for.
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That conversation, and many more like it—about the big picture of our civilization, and how our species relates to the planet—probably happen just as frequently today at Lost Valley, both among residents and among visiting students of permaculture, ecovillage design, and similar topics. Many current residents also share an equal interest in and commitment to working out interpersonal issues and exploring healthy communication. Although the last part of the last decade and the beginning of this one saw some major challenges to the culture that Lost Valley had developed in the mid/late ’90s and into the 2000s, much of it (after appearing to almost totally disintegrate through community and organizational crisis) has reestablished itself, at least among a significant subset of the population. In fact, our criteria for residency and advancement to membership involve familiarity and commitment to compassionate communication, ecological living/permaculture principles (however those are interpreted in each person’s case), and the spirit of consensus and shared empowerment via sociocratically-based governance and decision-making structures and practices.
Some things have changed in major ways, however—and I find that those things mirror changes in my own life. Our population has expanded, partly because we’ve opened up some additional living spaces and options. At the same time, employment by the nonprofit has declined significantly—only a few people work full-time or close to it for Lost Valley’s businesses. Since the 2008 financial crisis, conferences, events, and educational programs have been harder to run successfully—people have had less available resources to invest in those opportunities—so the majority of our income now comes from rental fees, rather than from hosting guests and students. Lost Valley cannot afford to employ most of its residents, and we also no longer host interns or work-exchangers, for a variety of reasons; as a result, most residents need to find outside sources of income. This means that, rather than the great majority of residents spending most of their time in community/Lost Valley work and activities, and therefore staying on site, a significant number of people go off-site at least part-time for work or other reasons, and/or engage in non-Lost Valley income-producing work on site that has them interacting, on average, less with other community members.
Partly because of this greater diversity in schedules and amounts of on-site presence—and also because, as seems to have happened in the wider culture as well, personal diets have become more individualized and varied, food allergies more prominent, and economics more tight for many—meal plan participation is now optional (except for participation in the “minimum meal plan,” two meals a week), and only a few residents take part in the full meal plan, which covers all of their food (except for special-purchase items). Likewise, only a minority of residents do cook and clean shifts. The site-and community-maintenance tasks that used to be spread more evenly amongst residents via the two-hour weekly work party are now distributed, unevenly, to whoever has time (and is qualified) to do them, and are credited against rental fees (some people take on no tasks through this system, and have zero rent reduction, while others may earn $100 or more in credits per month, depending on their participation in the system).
All of this also means that residents are on average less involved in daily interactions with each other. The “core community” as many of us experience it may be approximately half of the on-site residents—typically those who participate in the meal plan at higher levels, attend more community meetings, involve themselves more in community governance, resident interviews, etc. Each person’s “core community” will be somewhat different, however, depending which neighborhood they reside in, what their activities are, etc. The distinguishing feature, however, is that the community as currently configured is larger in size, less of a cohesive whole, more individualized and varied in participation than the group I was part of 14 years ago. The main strains of culture—involving commitments to personal growth, open and healthy communication, mutual empowerment, ecological living, educational mission—are still all very much present, but manifested in different ways and to varying degrees of intensity in different residents’ lives.
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Where does this leave me? What’s my typical “day in the life” now?
My own evolution has mirrored Lost Valley’s. Whereas in 2004 I was fully committed to the on-site community, and to my work and relationships there, I find I’ve branched out quite a bit, that my sense of community has morphed considerably. My 2004 essay included a reference to a friend in town with whom I was arranging a meeting. At that time that was an anomaly…she was the only “town friend” I saw semi-regularly, since I was so involved at Lost Valley. Aside from occasional long weekends spent at Bioneers or other conferences (where I represented Lost Valley and Talking Leaves), I traveled on average once a year, to visit my parents in Ohio in the middle of the winter—the only time I felt I could get away from the gardens.
Nowadays, I typically visit that same friend in town weekly—along with, somewhat less frequently in some cases, and even more frequently in a few, close to a dozen other friends with whom I’ve lived in community but who’ve moved to town or its outskirts in the interim. Not only has the Lost Valley “way of life” become less all-consuming for most residents, but my own sense of connection has taken me away from Lost Valley. Two major physical setbacks, involving parts of my body (first my knees, then my ears) essential to immersing myself in areas I was deeply involved in, have helped shift my focus from those activities (gardening, birding, music, nature-guiding) to human relationships. I’ve come to recognize, in ways much more than just intellectual, that we are all mortal, are all on a path to having our capacities diminish and fall apart, are all dealing with a lot more challenges than we may care to admit, all experiencing loss on an ongoing basis, all having fallen (or soon to fall) from whatever Eden we might once have experienced or imagined ourselves occupying.
Creating a “perfect” garden that eventually will be overrun by weeds no longer has the luster it once did. Blissing out to birdsong is no longer even possible for me—my ears are always ringing, as a result of a badly mismanaged ear infection and too much trust in a particular medical practitioner (who has come to represent to me the economic juggernaut that is destroying or degrading the well-being of the earth itself and its less-privileged peoples, not just my sense of hearing, all in the name of money and whatever drives the desperate perceived need to acquire as much as possible of it, regardless of what serves the greater whole). It is harder and harder to deny that our planet is in the midst of its sixth major extinction event, that humans are already confronted with increasing climate emergency, that as a species we are certainly “fallen” now even if at some point that was mainly a fable. For me the only thing that makes these realities tolerable is cultivating the community and connections with other fellow travelers that I’ve found over the course of—now, unbelievably—five-plus decades of life. My relationships with ex-community children, in particular, give me a visceral sense of hope that all may not be lost for us as a species—and at least cheer me up (it seems better to go down appreciating life than bemoaning it, all other things being equal).
I enjoy engaging fully at Lost Valley when I am there, making best use of the tools I’ve acquired over the past decades in the areas of communication and dealing with people—tools I never developed as fully when I was so immersed in more ecologically-focused missions. I deeply value the connections I feel within the community, and the opportunity to practice ways of empowering us all to create the community we want, while pursuing the kinds of open, honest connection that are most important to me—“falling in love” with each other by truly seeing and experiencing each other, including our vulnerabilities (this phenomenon having nothing to do with romantic love, at least in my own life right now).
And at the same time, it is important to me to cultivate those other connections I’ve made over the many years I’ve lived in community, during which most of those I’ve lived with have eventually left. A significant part of my life is now shaped around keeping up those connections—which feel like, and in some cases are in all practical respects, family. In community I have made some lifelong connections which I can’t imagine ever giving up—children that I hope I know (even as adults) for the rest of my life, people I love deeply (again, not romantically, but in a way that seems much more sustainable than that in my case). A typical day in my life now is almost as likely to be spent off-site as on, exploring a different kind of community with a larger network and family of friends, aware of how this may contradict some of my previously-so-closely-hewn-to ecological values (I drive a car now) and my ideal of total commitment to place (I now feel at home in a bunch of places, not just one). As I write this, I’ve spent the past five weeks (carless, thankfully) visiting friends and family in four different states—Oregon, Vermont, Maine, and Ohio—while away from Lost Valley at a time of year (late summer) when, 14 years ago, I never would have dreamed of being gone. In each of these settings, I’ve felt the kind of connections that I came to community for. I’ve felt “family.”
Communities may be partly responsible as well for this shift to a wider focus: editing it has connected me to people all over, and helped me see community in a much larger context. It has given me work that can be taken anywhere (at least anywhere within range of an internet connection). It has shown me a bigger picture in which our lives in community always turn out to be about change, evolution, transition, exploration, connection, and the mystery and wonder of finding that some of our once-firmly-held ideas have given way to new ones, grounded in experiences we never expected we’d have. We and our communities are likely to continue to go through transformations, setbacks, rediscoveries, ceaseless challenges and opportunities, as we recognize more and more that, for better or worse, we are all in this together.
Chris Roth lives at Lost Valley Educational Center (lostvalley.org) in western Oregon, and has edited Communities since 2008. A month-and-a-half after the completion of this article, Lost Valley’s fall re-visioning retreat charted a course back toward higher participation and greater connection community-wide, making some of the descriptions above a bit out-of-date already. Meanwhile the author’s circle of community and involvement now also includes a public Waldorf School in Eugene.
Excerpted from the Winter 2018 edition of Communities, “The Culture of Intentional Community”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.