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Growing a Culture of Community Health and Well-Being at Earthaven Ecovillage

Posted on December 7, 2009 by
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Author: Arjuna da Silva
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #145

While the country stresses out over what kind of health insurance policies will not drain the national coffers, most of us Americans seem determined to let others make up the rules for us. Knowing practically nothing about health care and not much more about our own bodies, we neglect the essential and perhaps most mysterious and wonderful relationship we’ve been given in this life—the care, feeding, and mending of our bodies. There is so much information available to us, both from the extraordinary abundance of cyberspace and from within our own experiences, yet we go on ignoring that wealth while accumulating humongous losses.

Care for the Earth, Care for People

An intentional community turns out to be an ideal place to begin assuming responsibility for our own health care, as best we can, because of the diverse knowledge, skill, and availability of support. In the 15 years of Earthaven’s young life, our members’ general level of “self health care” has been very high. At times, emergency medicine for broken bones and other injuries, or allopathic remedies for chronic conditions, have had to take precedence over more idealized visions of on-site healing power. Still, for the most part, our members include health care as one of the major sustainablity issues on our long list. As a permaculture-style project, Earthaven adopted the permaculture principles “Care for Earth” and “Care for People” as high priorities.

To optimize our health, we emphasize foods and medicines we raise, procure, and modify ourselves to suit our various value systems. This naturally leads us to learn about the facts of health as much and as often as we can. Yet it all happens mostly by association and osmosis; brushing up against each others’ lives brings all kinds of new (though often traditional) ideas into our awareness. Lives change radically sometimes. My guess is that no one at Earthaven now eats the way they ate when they first arrived.

Since we’ve been blessed almost from our inception with the presence of member-owned Red Moon Herbs plant medicine and education company, basic knowledge of local native plant medicine has become fairly common here. From years of courses, internships, and other direct and indirect relationships with Red Moon, many members have become adept at cultivating, harvesting, processing, and applying plant medicines both internally and topically for all kinds of acute and chronic distresses.

Energy awareness and bodywork have played major roles in most members’ health care regime as well. We constantly study and share yoga and qigong, massage and acupressure, and a host of subtle and profoundly effective life-affirming practices. One of our members is an M.D. whose practice focuses on integrative medicine and who makes his allopathic and complementary consultations affordable for us. Another member is an experienced chiropractor who gives generously of his time and expertise. A gifted homeopathic physician also joined us recently. The several other skilled folk medicine and homeopathic practitioners among the membership all gift, barter, and accept dollars for their wisdom and service.

Since all homes at Earthaven have needed to be built from scratch, the opportunities to apply the standards of non-toxic and healthy “green” buildings to our construction projects abound. We use a minimum of synthetic materials and usually calculate the embedded energy in any given product, often choosing the more labor-intensive methods (building with earthy clay instead of concrete, for example). Our early experiments in natural building—one-room “huts” of every possible new and recycled material we could think of—yielded a lot of information about what works and doesn’t in this southeastern mountain climate. (When we started Earthaven, we considered ourselves to be in a temperate rainforest; a decade of increasingly dry years began to diminish our apparent need to compensate for all that cool wetness, but now we seem back into the rainforest cycle.) We are still learning about the most effective natural ways to deal with moldy environments, particularly in the middle of the summer; how well we build can play a large role in dealing with the challenges of the climate.

What makes for a healthy diet still remains an open question, although we all seem to agree (whether we prioritize it or not!) that fresh, organic, unprocessed, traditionally prepared foods are best. We are vegetarians and devoted meat eaters and folks in between. We like the principles of naturally fermented foods, from grains to vegetables to fruit to milk products. We’d like to be able to raise most of our own food, yet know that our preferences and habits are likely to keep us connected to producers beyond our own bioregion as long as feasible. How we want to eat affects how we use our land too, so many times our dietary preferences lead to political debate.

A quick survey of our members confirms that most of us don’t have health insurance. We run the gamut from well-heeled retirees to folks who are used to living hand to mouth. Yet all of us rely perhaps more than we realize on the reminders we give each other about health: to listen to and trust our bodies, prioritize plant and energy medicines, and pray at the altars of the wisdom traditions and good old common sense. We did once consider starting our own community health insurance fund, which would cover modalities not actually covered by most insurance companies, but some members felt too poor to contribute while others thought it would take too long to make much of a difference.

I suppose no discussion of health care is complete without reference to death care, a topic which seems, gratefully, to become less and less shadowed by the fear-based culture from which most of us come. Two of our members have passed through that gate, one while living here and another while receiving treatment out of state. One’s body and the other’s ashes are in our ground. Two other dear friends have died this year. All four deaths have been greeted with a fair amount of sadness, yet resulted in unanticipated levels of bonding and spiritual strength.

At the other end of the life spectrum, births at Earthaven have been well-spaced and healthy. Most women of child-bearing age have learned fertility awareness from the Red Moon Herbs instructors, and many attend doula trainings, especially when planning to be pregnant. New parents are tended to for as long as possible during the crucial early bonding time.

Inner Health at Earthaven

Another serious health factor is emotional balance. Although our community has its share of conflict and dysfunctional connections, we’ve managed to create an atmosphere that favors openness and growth, and have prioritized the gathering of tools and teachings likely to be trust-building and uplifting. Over the last few years, the teachings of Marshall Rosenberg as contained in the Nonviolent Communication protocols, and the dynamic tool known as the ZEGG Forum, have both added life and luster to our group process. There’s nothing like an honest and transparent sharing and clearing performed in a truthful yet blame-free context, steeped in compassion, for lifting community morale!

It is still true, given the demands of our pioneering strategic plan, that someone going through an extended emotional crisis isn’t likely to do well at Earthaven, although we are making strides integrating emotional and interpersonal support into the community medicine cabinet. At least until we have sufficiently provided for more basic housing, agriculture, and economic support, folks whose issues demand long-term attention will need to be discouraged from joining.

In the area of spirituality, we’ve evolved to a diverse state of ideas and choices that can be a challenge to the maintenance of solid common ground. For now, care of the body and the planet—the “temple” and the “garden”—is our unifying spiritual discipline, a way we share a deep consensus about the sacred. In our spiritual diversity, we find a beautiful unity at the core of our realities.

We can still feel challenged by a lack of closeness, because spiritual practice, diets, and health care regimens are such core daily experiences. Our likeliest solution may be the evolution of a common mindfulness, a regular practice of being present to each other, ourselves, and the life around us with our attention and energy, instead of being caught up in the vagaries of the thought-filled mind. Perhaps such a “wisdom sangha” can receive from its members the insights and guidance of their individual awakenings and unfold and flourish in the years ahead. Meanwhile, both our diversity and our underlying unity of purpose seem to be strengths, helping support individual and community health in ways no outside health plan ever could.


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