Here is how I got to community, was in it deeply for over a dozen years, how I came out the other side—and what happened then.
My perspective on the community idea is a long one—roughly spanning the last 40 years. But before that I’d lived in Italy in the 1950s, joining an inspiring humanitarian project started by my future husband, Bel Paulson, to help sort out an appalling postwar scene of starvation and homelessness. I’d served as logistical backup for his surprisingly successful refugee resettlement experiment on the island of Sardinia. And I’d done the same in the dustbowl of northeast Brazil where he was researching village dynamics. But these were specific assignments, focused around dire political, social, or economic crises, and I zeroed in mainly on my particular supportive role within that larger context.
I came of age in an era when women married young and took it for granted that any career based on personal creative expression was sublimated to caring for a husband and children. I got that—for about 10 years after we’d settled in Wisconsin. But then came the national ferment of the l960s, and I began to seriously question this role. I left the housewife job to help run a school teaching altered states of consciousness.
Findhorn: Introduction to Community
Then, in 1976, while organizing conferences around consciousness and paranormal research, I happened on the mesmerizing legends coming out of Findhorn, the renowned spiritual community in a remote corner of Scotland—tales of people so attuned to enigmatic forces in their gardens that they began growing improbably large vegetables. I determined that I had to go and see for myself.
By some miracle I managed a solo voyage to Findhorn. There, a dream—a mission—began to take shape as I plunged into the vibrant life of this utopian enclave, whose primary purpose was to redress the balance between people and nature.
At the end of my stay, I was seemingly pushed by some mysterious cheerleader to take the Findhorn ideas from the blustery North Sea and sand dunes home to Wisconsin. These were imperatives to live in connection, in community, in mutual compassion with each other, and with all life they touched.
It was a message coming at exactly the right time in our part of the world. The passion that had been ignited for me in Scotland turned out to be contagious. People flocked to my talks from across several Midwest states. They were hungry to hear about alternatives to tired belief systems. They wanted to learn about new, different ways to think, organize their own lives and society, and to plan constructively, not only for the survival of human civilization, but for the very survival of the earth. Remember that this was a couple of decades before “sustainability” became a familiar buzzword. I think everyone was astonished at how quickly and deeply the ideas caught on.
I did manage to stick with my initially skeptical family while, at the unlikely age of 50 (with the help of an escalating number of enthusiasts) I started to implement some of those far-out imperatives. Eventually I was able to draw in my husband to be my lifelong, essential partner in creating our own intentional community.
And so it was that for the next 20 very earnest, alternately frenzied and epiphany-like years with my fellow pioneers, we put everything aside “for the good of the whole.” Our purpose was to implement the grounding and outworking of the venture we called High Wind—blending the spiritual vision of Findhorn with the ecological goals and experiments of the New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts.
Here is our High Wind credo that laid out a comprehensive approach to living together sustainably and designing education around these concepts:
To walk gently on the Earth;
To know the spirit within;
To hear our fellow beings;
To invoke the light of wisdom;
And to build the future now
Epiphanies as Well as Power Issues Surfaced in the Community
My Findhorn experience reflects what I think often happens in mid-life—when one’s ideas and maturity are peaking, as well as energy and flexibility, and an inner sense of personal power, savvy, and confidence takes hold.
High Wind attracted mostly folks a generation younger than Bel and me. As we discovered, especially in situations where community founders are older than their recruits (and perhaps more financially viable), a dynamic develops where the founders find themselves the “parents” and the other members the “children.” And, as in mainstream families, there’s a natural tendency for the kids to test their muscle against those they perceive as authority figures, and to rebel. Bel and I frequently saw our ideas and proposals challenged, especially when people arrived and discovered that the fixed ideas about community life they had brought were not the reality at all. Despite our insistence that we all held equal authority and made decisions by consensus, fingers were predictably pointed at Bel and me as the “power” figures. Members thought that if we didn’t like an initiative they put forward, it had little chance of materializing.
As the self-appointed “vision-holder,” I especially found myself to be the prod to remind others of the particular lofty purposes and standards that had been articulated initially—the ideas that had excited and attracted everyone. My problem was that because I cared so deeply about this fragile organization I saw as my “child,” I suffered when I saw it tilting away toward another track (as to a closed homesteading model instead of reaching out—“serving the world”—through education and demonstration). Often, our very lengthy, sometimes heated meetings ended with me limping away, fully inhabiting my thin skin, doubting myself and distrusting those who had joined High Wind. I wondered what had happened to erode such a compelling, important goal. Over and over I was knocked down just because I was in a position to be perceived as a leader—exactly what I didn’t want. A pretty big comedown from my Pied Piper image upon returning from Findhorn!
Of course the community was right. Bel and I did embody a certain power. We were the founders, High Wind was our idea, and it began on property we had owned. We had an income because Bel continued to teach at the university, not an easy juggling act. Our recruits had abandoned paying jobs and rushed to give their hearts and energy to an ideal as volunteers. They found, though, that High Wind had no money to support them, and they had to scramble to provide their own sustenance.
In intentional community, where egalitarianism is a central tenet, such a collection of factors might have been a pretty deadly deterrent at the starting gate. Bel and I didn’t always succeed in diminishing some people’s unease around this reality, but we found that after members left, those who had often struggled and grumbled the most about money issues, about fitting in, or realizing their goals, came back to tell us that High Wind had been a pivotal growth experience. Being here had set a compass direction for the rest of their lives.
Besides the issue of who held the power, and a subtle hierarchy of haves and have-nots, there was also the fact that High Wind was unfolding in a larger community considerably more conservative than we were. With a flock of young singles, we didn’t fit into the traditional rural family structure surrounding us. When I encountered a couple of young hunters on a walk in the nearby woods, they lit up when I told them where I lived: “Where do you keep your animals for sacrifice?” they wanted to know. Or when Don collected a pile of scrap wood after building his house and invited the rest of us to come to his bonfire to lift a few celebratory beers, the rumor went out the next day that we were dancing around a ritual fire in black robes reciting Satanic incantations. Much more fun to believe juicy gossip than to realize we were hardworking, boringly straight, ordinary mortals! But this, of course, pinpointed a major flaw in our calculations: we hadn’t done the essential political spadework of getting to know our neighbors better, blending in, allaying unnecessary fears about alien influences. We relied for support on the hundreds (thousands over the years) who flocked from Milwaukee and from across the country who were already believers. It was a lot harder to convince those unacquainted with our perspectives.
Gifts of Community
We should have realized that introducing values and practices that ran counter to those of the dominant culture was going to be a hard sell. Such is the lot of pioneers. High Wind certainly felt the brunt of this divide, but on the other hand every one of us grew stronger and took away a huge array of new skills. We got to wear a lot of hats.
My personal takeaways: how to dig French intensive raised planting beds, nail up sheetrock or a roof, split wood, construct a wigwam, cook for groups, lead tours, talk about solar buildings, put out a newsletter, and handle outreach and fundraising. At High Wind workshops, I became familiar with everything from Permaculture design and indigenous healing methods to weighing the wisdom of the Perennial philosophy. Probably the most valuable lifelong skill was learning to negotiate the emotional shoals of living with other people. And, as well, we would always carry with us the ideals and aims projected by the wider communities movement.
The Tyranny of Ideals
However, when you have some 20 people doing everything together for months or years on end, everyday life and relationships can get to be challenging. When our folks, who’d been fiercely motivated to install their own images of what the ideal community should be like, started to experience what our community was, some pretty intense dynamics were bound to surface. Emotions became fragile, and we began to realize that, ironically, the most precious (and scarce) commodities, and what we longed for, were more privacy and the right to indulge in personal pursuits—the antithesis of community?
At a certain point, all of us at High Wind saw that our personal zeal for the cause was being eroded by creeping burnout. Besides our regular jobs in construction, the vegetable and flower gardens, the grounds, kitchen, and office, we were servicing increasing numbers of visitors and participants in many educational programs. We decided to step back, take a deep breath, and reassess.
For a dozen years we’d been living and working in lockstep, aspiring to what we believed was the highest and purest of what a community could be. Then some of us (certainly I was one) began to realize how badly we were also craving an independence from what had come to be the tyranny of our ideals.
In the early 1990s there was a momentous, unanimous decision to let go of our intentional community image. Opting to relax our dogged earnestness (which sometimes had threatened or puzzled townspeople), we agreed to become a considerably looser “ecological neighborhood.” To our surprise, those of us who remained found that we actually related better and took more pleasure in caring for each other and organizing group events than when such togetherness was obligatory. Eureka moments!
Togetherness or Individualism: Is That the Question?
In the founding of the United States, freedom and independence were mandated. Individuality was prized and protected. It’s irrefutably in our bones, in our DNA as citizens and as a country. It’s been our history from the beginning, unlike much of the rest of the world with its kingdoms and fiefdoms—rulers and serfs. It’s what compels us to struggle to shine as autonomous beings.
There’s the wisdom now that we do need to function with far greater consensus and community—to see ourselves as citizens of the earth where every being/life form has rights and must be protected. Where cooperation for mutual survival of all species is more imperative as threats of extinction loom. Yet within that realization there also needs to be acknowledgment of the birthright of individualism that requires freedom to break free, to express, create, and develop without guilt.
In retrospect, High Wind can feel that it has influenced and inspired legions of supporters, regionally and nationally, and ultimately has made a bit of a positive dent in our surrounding area. Those of us who remained in the eco-neighborhood, as well as the residents who left, were indeed changed. Those going back into “the world” usually sought new paths with more meaning and significance to fit their talents and personal proclivities than they would have if they’d never risked dipping their toes into community.
For me, there were mixed emotions. I felt an enormous sense of satisfaction at what we’d collectively pulled off and the legacy now in place. It also came as a blessed relief to step off the merry-go-round of togetherness and responsibility. I felt as though I’d been on a treadmill 24/7, trying to move the world—my smallish world at least—into a better, saner place.
With this weight lifted, in the next years I stepped back to reflect and revisit what had been a lifelong touchstone—Nature. I’ve always had a connection to the magic of land or place, and have felt compulsively driven to create visual images and words to describe all this. I caught the spirit embodied in meadows, forests, mountains, streams—whole communities of elements conspiring to capture human sensibility, if only we’d pay attention. Post-community, I resumed the delicious, solitary exploration of wild places, much as I had long ago.
In 2008, definitely an elder, I began to write and publish the first of four books that unpacked some of my most vividly remembered experiences of the last eight decades—experiences that shaped what I ultimately believed in and became. I’ve written of our concerted attempts at social change, as well as remembering and recording personal adventures throughout the past 70-odd years.
Here in our High Wind neighborhood I can initiate leisurely interactions with my near neighbors. (As I write this, I’m about to amble next door for a potluck house concert that will involve not only our former community members, but also friends from the area.)
I look forward now to several months a year living out-of-state where I become simply one more villager, seen around town with my easel and paintbrushes (that I resurrected after 40 years). I don’t carry a label (positive or negative) that screams “radical” or “revolutionary” or “ideologue.” My circle of friends can include those who may oppose my political, spiritual, or societal views, but these differences might not even come up. I can step through now permeable barriers, which is really freeing. It’s trickier in my area of Wisconsin (though for the past dozen years I’ve been getting together regularly with a diverse, thoughtful, often wonderfully outrageous bunch of women from neighboring towns).
Togetherness and Solitude, Action and Reflection
I think how one approaches this dichotomy depends on what stage in the arc of life one is. How is it that I could relinquish the most important and fulfilling happening in my life, shared with a group I loved, and trade it in for a life filled with silences and very individual projects with a community of just two?
I may have moved beyond intentional community, but it’s still my tribe. Of all my adventures, creating community was undoubtedly the most meaningful. It was my central life mission. I’m still of it, but not in it. Some of my close friends remain with me on the still-active High Wind board that now gives grants to regional groups for sustainability initiatives. (Check the other articles by some of these extraordinary board members in this issue.) And I love sharing our experiences with groups and individuals who seek us out at the threshold of starting or joining their own communities: I talk about the satisfactions, opportunities, pitfalls, and our painful learning curves. People also come to inspect the environmentally sensitive home we designed in 1986—a design now superseded by more efficient technologies, but which can still keep us toasty without backup heat when it’s zero out and the sun is shining.
At this stage I can relax and accept the opposing pulls of dual forces within myself: a messianic call to promote community and a lifestyle imperative for the continuance of civilization—and also the absolute need to be alone, quiet, independent. I know that both are possible and that I can open doors at will to either. I’ve finally learned that moments snatched for deliberate loafing and ruminating are not only possible but essential. We don’t always have to keep running to catch up with the Red Queen.
Note: I’ve touched only briefly on some of the dynamics of our community experience (focusing more on the challenges instead of on the times that were absolutely glorious and rewarding—which were many). Some readers may recall that several of our thorny problems were aired in much earlier issues of Communities. Both the difficulties and the very positive impact or significance of the community are spelled out exhaustively in my 2010 book: An Unconventional Journey: The Story of High Wind, From Vision to Community to Eco-Neighborhood (available through the FIC Bookshelf). Information about the other books both Bel and I have written can be found on our Thistlefield Books website (thistlefieldbooks.com).
Writer and artist Lisa Paulson met her husband, Belden, in the slums of Naples while backpacking through Europe. She joined him to help alleviate the dire conditions among homeless Neapolitans living in ruins following World War II devastation—and also to provide relief for Iron Curtain escapees interned in refugee camps there. After work in Sardinia and Rome, they settled in Wisconsin. Then, inspired by her trip to the Findhorn community in 1976, she and Bel cofounded the High Wind community north of Milwaukee.