How Ecology Led Me to Community

Posted on June 7, 2009 by

Author: Chris Roth
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #143

In Communities, we like to feature personal stories about real experiences, rather than abstract theories or dry analyses. In this article, our editor plunges into the fun. He asks that you imagine listening to the following story around a crackling campfire, and remember that “I” is just a figure of speech, and might just as easily be “you”…

I’d never been one who tried too hard to conform, but my marching to a different drummer became decidedly more pronounced in high school. There are various ways to describe what happened: you could say that trees started to speak to me, or that long-distance running connected me with the natural world in new ways, or that an earth-centered spiritual awakening led me to find that that “God,” increasingly elusive in church, resided in the outdoors instead. Whatever the explanation, I started to take my guidance from ecologically-oriented voices that seemed at times audible only to me, but which spoke clear as crystal and left little doubt about what I needed to do.

One might think that “marching to one’s own drummer” would lead one away from community, into isolation and even hermithood. But in fact this particular drummer led me invariably toward community, which I discovered to be inextricably intertwined with ecology. Although I was marching without a map, with little idea where I’d end up, the outcomes seem inevitable in retrospect.

Here are just a few of the off-beat marching orders I received and the mysterious places they took me:

“Avoid Cars!”

I had never liked cars. As a young child, I had to be coaxed to get into them, and I never experienced that automotive fascination that many boys develop. I disliked the noise, the fumes, the confinement, the danger, and, as I learned more about them, their other impacts (ecological, social, economic, political). In the wake of the mid-’70s oil crisis, I wrote an editorial in my high school newspaper inveighing against excessive car use. Most of my classmates, meanwhile, eagerly anticipated and then celebrated the day when they were allowed to drive and own a car. I walked, biked, ran, and tried to stay out of motor vehicles. The drummer I was marching to told me that the world could not sustain them. At the time, it seemed like a potentially lonely path.

But as I continued my education and explored different ways of living, my resolution to avoid the need for a private car produced unexpected results. The best way I could see to be free of vehicle dependence was to live and work in the same place—better yet, to seek out ways of living that seamlessly combined living and working in direct relationship with the land. (My drummer had also told me that, despite my suburban roots, revelation was to be found rurally.)

With the ability to be car-free in my daily life as a top priority influencing every decision, I have spent most of my adult years living and working together with others in land-based intentional communities and on small organic family farms. In the modern world, rural survival on one’s own or even in a nuclear family can almost require a private motorized vehicle. But joining with others to create a local economy on a piece of land reduces the need to leave it, and makes combined trips and shared vehicles feasible. I did in fact eventually acquire a car, which I use occasionally (hopefully for good causes, including cultivating community connections beyond our 87 acres), but upon which I have never depended for my livelihood.

Now, in addition to gardening and helping develop my community’s land as an educational center and nature sanctuary, I also telecommute to my other job (crafting a magazine out of other people’s words—except when, as in the current case, my own bubble out in possibly overwhelming abundance). None of these essential activities requires a car. I sometimes go weeks without getting into one—whereas I bi cycle every day, both around our own land and into the neighboring forest. I do not miss those hours stuck in traffic—in fact, I never even had to experience them. Instead, I am happy to have spent my life among pedestrians, and discovered community in the process.

“Stop Watching Television!”

My drummer sometimes lacked subtlety, and cast things in black and white that did in fact possess a few shades of gray. By the end of high school, I had identified television as one of the key elements keeping people detached from real life, out of touch with their inner selves, separated from one another, and cut off from the natural world. In my view, it was entirely evil, and I had fantasies of some kind of cosmic pulse that would simultaneously incinerate all televisions and force people to start actually living again. (Since then, I’ve decided to relax my judgments and cut Mr. Rogers, at least, a little slack. I know that there is, in fact, some “good stuff” on television, though not enough to make me want to have one in my life.) I resolved to be TV-free once I left home—a resolution I have kept. At the time, this seemed like another lonely-making, solitary choice.

It turned out to be anything but that. Not owning or watching television propelled me into a multitude of television-less experiences among people who were also looking for something more real. Neither my inner nor outer explorations during and after college could have happened in the same way in an environment featuring a television—they were simply incompatible with a mesmerizing image- and noise-making machine being anywhere within sight or earshot. I lived outside, worked with Native Americans, learned to garden, and ultimately settled into a rewarding, TV-free life on farms and in intentional communities. In community, homemade culture and direct personal experience have proven so much more satisfying than manufactured culture and vicarious experience that television has never even tempted me. I’ve discovered that the world of birds living all around us here in the country, in three dimensions and surround-sound, fascinates me more than could anything on a screen. I’ve also learned to play the guitar, an almost endless source of do-it-oneself entertainment, often even better when shared with others.

Saying “no” to television made it possible for me to eventually say “yes” to community. As long as I have community in my life, I am staying unplugged (unless, for example, it’s for a large-group Inauguration viewing at the local organic eatery, or for a Fred Rogers tribute show watched for old times’ sake at my parents’ house).

“Eat Low on the Food Chain”

Once again, that nonconformist, earth-minded drummer put a bee in my bonnet during high school, in the form of a vegetarian friend who urged me to read Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet. Once I had started thinking about food—its origins, its impacts, its larger implications—I could not retreat back into ignorance or not caring. I became the sole vegetarian in my family and one of only two I knew in my school. This looked like another surefire path toward social isolation.

Since then, I have gone through a number of different phases, often for many years at a stretch: ovo-lacto-vegetarianism, situationally-dictated omnivory, pure veganism combined with a commitment to organic food, modified veganism, all-organic-mostly-vegetarianism-with-occasional-fish-or-fowl-thrown-in, etc. However, I have never returned to a standard American diet, and my food choices (tending toward the macrobiotic vegan much of the time, and the sustainably grown all of the time) would be considered strange by most people.

In the communities I’ve lived in, by contrast, my food choices are not strange—sometimes, especially in the presence of raw foodists, they seem downright middle-of-the-road. In these communities, we’ve eaten a significant portion of our own, homegrown whole foods—especially vegetables and fruits—and seen food as having not only health and spiritual but also political and ecological implications. Eating in ways that minimize our ecological footprints aligns us with the global community, and brings us together as a local community as well. My “small planet” food choices, far from isolating me, have helped me find communities in which I share common values with others.

“Read and Write Consciously or Not at All”

At a certain point in my education, I realized that, even though I’d dispensed with the unreality of television, I was still living mostly vicariously, through words. I had read about many more things than I’d ever experienced. I had learned how to write but felt I had little of substance to write about: I was passionately—and tiresomely—familiar only with the labyrinthine workings of my own mental circuitry. Limited by my academically-bound situation, and out of touch with almost everything outside of it, I realized that I had fled from the world of feeling and experience into a world of word-dominated thinking.

I decided to take a fast from the written word. For an entire summer, I read nothing (except for interpretive signs on Cape Cod National Seashore and an American Youth Hostel guidebook) and wrote nothing. I focused instead on my and others’ feelings (even if unexpressed) and on the land around me, unmediated by words and without other distractions. I began a process of immersion learning in the language of the natural world, and in my own feelings and relationships within that world. I joined a school that lived, learned, slept, and woke outside every day, exploring the vast areas of wild America to which my suburban upbringing had never exposed me. Before reading or writing anything (once I broke my fast), I tried to gauge whether it would bring me closer to understanding the actual nature of life and the world, or whether it was just human-generated distraction, mass-produced entertainment, overintellectualized delusion, or philosophy divorced from the earth. If it was any of the latter, I skipped it. Like television, irrelevant words would have taken me away from, rather than toward, the kind of integrated ecological life I envisioned. I recognized that words could distract as well as communicate. I returned to reading and writing only cautiously, and, to the best of my ability, consciously.

Since then, my involvement with words has always been a byproduct of my life, rather than something defining my actual reality. In my first few years of college, being wrapped up in words had isolated me. Initially, backing away from words isolated me even more. But it also opened me up to the real world, a prerequisite to finding real community. Like freedom from television, it allowed me to experience new situations more fully, open my senses more completely to the natural world, and make actual connections with people. Rather than creating imaginary situations on paper (or in a computer hard drive, or in cyberspace), I found that I could discover and build real relationships. I was also able to recognize the limitations of human language and tune in more fully to the language of the land and its creatures. I experienced both human and non-human community in ways that most books I’d read had at best only hinted at, and that I could never have described beforehand except in the most general, theoretical terms.

“Get Back to the Land!”

Getting back to the land is not something that most people born and raised in a New York City suburb ever do. That path hadn’t even occurred to me during most of my formative years, since I’d had the impression that farmers and rural people were “dumb”—that’s why they lived in the country. No, I hadn’t actually met anyone fitting this description, or ever lived in the country or on a farm myself, but from what I could gather from the media and from word on the street, rural people talked slowly, did boring physical work, inbred, and chewed tobacco, all sure signs of nonintelligence. In other words, blind prejudice and ignorance kept me from ever aspiring to rural life.

This all changed, in several different phases, as my drummer became more insistent. First, local wild edible weeds caught my interest. Then the notion grabbed me of not only running and bicycling outdoors, but living outdoors. My traveling environmental education program got me used to being outside almost all the time, and also familiarized me with some of this continent’s original outdoor livers, whose endangered cultures still survived to a degree. I decided I wanted to live like a Native American, and, when I had a chance, I acted on that desire, moving to a reservation for a year and a half and becoming the only white employee in a center for developmentally disabled Hopis. While there, I received a further marching order (channeled through a Hopi client of the center): I needed to learn to grow my own food. This led me to study organic gardening, which created a role for me to fulfill once I ended up going “back to the land” via organic farms and intentional communities. I also started to study local ecologies, especially plants and birds, allowing me to contribute in other realms of eco-education.

While those voices beckoning me to live in more direct relationship with the land seemed at first to be promising a lonely, socially marginalized existence, the exact opposite turned out to be the case. Each phase of my entry into more integrated ecological living brought me into new kinds of community. Some, like the Hopi Center and the organic farms I worked on, were “unintentional” community, but community nonetheless. The intentional communities in which I’ve settled have been rural and committed to education, thereby developing much larger extended communities beyond their own boundaries. I’ve never had so little interaction with others as I did in my last couple years in the heart of urban/suburban civilization, and I’ve never had so much human interaction as I’ve had way out in the country, becoming rural folk myself, enjoying being connected to the land together with others through organic gardening and other forms of immersion in the landscape. Getting away from human and civilized distractions has helped me discover not only the natural world and how dependent we all are on it, but, surprisingly, the world of people as well.

“Focus on Life, Not on Money”

I grew up in a family that had enough money—not too much, but enough to meet our basic needs. Most of the people in our town, however, had significantly more material wealth than they actually needed. This did not prevent them from striving for more, and transferring that orientation toward money and things to their offspring. My parents instilled different values in me, reinforced as I grew up by poets like William Wordsworth:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

I recognized that, while money is not necessarily the root of all evil, it is often associated with the squandering of our time and energy in its pursuit, the degradation of the quality of our human relationships, the distraction and demoralization of our spirits, the plundering of the earth’s resources to meet manufactured demand for nonessential items, and other forms of destruction of the natural world. As a conscientious objector, I also saw that tax dollars fueled the war machine. I resolved to have as little to do with money as possible: to spend little, and therefore to need to earn little. Aspiring to be “downwardly mobile,” to follow Henry David Thoreau’s example rather than John D. Rockefeller’s, I sensed myself in the distinct minority in my economically privileged town.

Despite its reputedly low survival value (about which I didn’t care, since I had my marching orders), I doggedly pursued voluntary poverty. Fresh out of college, I moved into my first house: a tent, pitched on the aforementioned Native American reservation. I spent in the low double-digits per month for food, cooked with free fuel (the sun) in a solar cooker, lived unhooked from the electrical grid (a small solar panel and rechargeable flashlight supplied my lighting needs), traveled on a $50 used bicycle, and had few other expenses. I became a full-time volunteer, knowing that my several thousand dollars of savings could last me quite a while in this situation. Meanwhile, my own unique experience in the heart of Native American country could not have been purchased at any price. I spent all my time with the developmentally disabled in an ancient culture—taking them for walks on land that their ancestors had known for thousands of years, and helping them cope with daily tasks made challenging by their disabilities (many of which resulted, no doubt, from the uranium mining perpetuated by the white culture for which I could never hope to do full penance). Even after being hired as “direct care staff” several months into my time there, I continued to volunteer during the hours that I wasn’t employed. Despite donating 20 percent of my salary back to the Center, I still saved enough money to bridge me through a number of the years which followed, in which I pursued “right ways to live” rather than money. All of my needs were already met, and I was surrounded by the kind of community that most of us from nonindigenous “settler” culture can only envy for its longevity, depth, and cultural richness.

When I felt the call to leave that culture and return to my own, I also knew that I could never in good conscience return to a resource-intensive lifestyle. And as luck would have it, in pursuing organic food-growing and eco-agricultural education, I chose one of the least remunerative, yet most rewarding, paths that modern society has to offer—one in which community, whether “unintentional” or intentional, is a most essential component. My second organic gardening internship turned out to be in an intentional community and educational center dedicated, among other things, to voluntary simplicity, self-reliance, and “deconsumerizing.” Shared efforts and shared resources made many things possible in this setting that no amount of money could have bought—and with negligible or even positive impacts on the natural environment. I have lived in settings with similar ecological orientations (all manifested, of course, slightly differently) ever since.

Over the years, I have relaxed my attitude somewhat toward money: I no longer see it as necessarily a virtue not to earn it or spend it, and I have gradually done more of both. But my cautious attitude and valuing of “life” over money have stayed with me, continued to bring me together with others sharing similar values and similar paths, and made my life “rich” with forms of nonmonetary wealth that can never be owned or horded, but only shared.

I’ve found that, more than anything we can do (or refrain from doing) as lone individuals, community has an unrivaled ability to lessen the toll we take on the earth, establish new relationships between the human and non-human worlds, and inspire and educate both ourselves and others. This “community” does not need be strictly intentional in structure, but it does need to involve both intention and action: a commitment to sharing that reflects the truth that we are all interdependent parts of the web of life.

Perhaps my drummer wasn’t so off-beat after all.

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