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Village-Building Stumbles: A few of the things Earthaven Ecovillage has gotten wrong

Posted on October 1, 2019 by
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Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

I’ve been living in community for half my life. I started visiting and living in intentional communities and ecovillages all over the US in the mid-’90s, finally settling down at Earthaven Ecovillage in western North Carolina in 2001 when I was in my early 30s.

Those early years were marked with ambition, idealism, and a strong intention to contribute to the world. Now, a long time later, I am integrating and reflecting on my journey. Community life and all its various personal manifestations has been my vocation, my life’s path, and my career. It has included sustainable agriculture, off-grid living, alternative relating, consensus-based governance, and a whole host of other engaging practices.

At age 51, I still live at Earthaven Ecovillage, have way more realistic expectations of what can be accomplished, and have a much clearer understanding of the shadow side and challenges. In fact, I could do a whole series of articles highlighting the shadow side of consensus, of rural community development, of permaculture, and of the notion that we can change the world.

For obvious reasons, the most poignant examples of “shadow” in community are personal, because they are lived and embodied experiences. Two such experiences during my time at Earthaven Ecovillage stand out as both the most challenging and the ones that embody the most shadow.

In 2009, I went through an extremely hard breakup of a long-term partnership. In relationship for eight years, we moved mountains together. We built a shared housing project from scratch including a 4,000+ square foot, multi-apartment, hand-built building with all the wood sourced from our land, and with off-grid utility systems (waste, water, power, and heat). In addition, we cleared many acres of forested land; designed, developed, and managed a five-acre homestead farm, which included running a dairy cow operation; ran our own businesses; participated in the creation of our community’s governance systems; and contributed regularly to family and friends. We were burnt out and our intimacy had been suffering for years in the face of the immense tasks we undertook. I initiated the separation, which was quite hard for both of us, but over time we agreed to slowly disentangle and take some space. We both wanted the transition to be kind, thoughtful, and mutually respectful of each person’s process and needs. We wanted to stay connected, continue to farm together, and live in the same neighborhood.

This conscious uncoupling worked for a while, but when my partner’s attention turned to a 22-year-old intern, new to our community, things completely fell apart for us. I was no longer a priority and neither was our plan to ease out of our partnership into a supportive life together. My whole world came crashing down, with the accompanying agony, terror, rejection, aloneness, and trauma that can happen during a difficult divorce process. And, in community, it was worse. I could not get away from my recently separated partner who was now “coupled up” with someone 20 years my junior. They were everywhere, at community functions and gatherings, and even started to live together right next door to my home, which just a short time ago had been our home.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in deep shock and grief for a very long time. And I was unable to metabolize the unfolding process over which I had so little control. Community members who are not versed in this kind of emotional upheaval had little empathy. They thought I should be over a breakup I just wasn’t over. The healing process was so slow because I was constantly triggered by seeing them together and not having any space that was just mine. At that time, my whole life (farm, work, relationships) was in community. I had no easy option to leave.

The second important and challenging event occurred when a few of us presented a much-needed, well-written agriculture plan to the community in 2009. We had been working and visioning together for years as colleagues and as a committee with the intention to “develop policies and guidelines for sustainable food production at Earthaven,” and all of us were farming for at least a part of our income.

Agricultural development had been slow at Earthaven for the first 10 years because the founders chose a completely forested piece of land. Clearing land for agricultural use at Earthaven cost $10,000 per acre, with lots of hard and heavy work. The plan we put together would have sped up the clearing of agricultural land, thus prioritizing economic viability for the community’s farmers. We felt that with the strong core group of farmers at Earthaven, investing in these clearings would enable many things for the community: fruition of our mission; reduction of our ecological footprint; fulfillment of existing needs; provision of long-term village food security; creation of soil fertility faster and sooner; augmentation of long-term capital and operating income; development of employment opportunities; attraction of new members (particularly those with needed skills, tools, and aspirations); production of materials for use in community and homesite building projects; and growth of the demonstration we were trying to offer the outside world.

Those were all good things. So what could go wrong?

What actually happened with this agricultural plan was a series of community-wide meetings that got progressively worse. A contingent of community members were anti-agriculture, anti-development, and anti-forest clearing. They did not support the group of young and ambitious farmers proposing to clear more land and create viable economic models. They expressed fear of the fast transformation that we were proposing. At that time, Earthaven operated at 100 percent consensus, which means everyone must agree in order for a proposal to move forward. In such a governance system, the “No’s” win out unless everyone can be convinced to be a “Yes.” [Read more about “Tyranny of the Minority” in Diana Leafe Christian’s great article from Communities#155, “Busting the Myth that Consensus-with-Unanimity Is Good for Communities,”at www.ic.org/busting-the-myth-that-consensus-with-unanimity-is-good-for-communities and in Wisdom of Communities Volume 3.] After months of trying to build support for the agricultural plan, we got more and more demoralized and finally gave up. Some of the farmers moved away, others stopped farming, and to this day no more agricultural land has been cleared. The “play it safe and small” contingent won out and it was a huge loss for the development of the community and the economic viability of the farmers.

As I contemplate these events from years ago, here are the shadows that I can identify clearly. Still other shadows are not yet seen, given the infancy of our village creation and our inability to fully understand both the larger culture we swim in and the subculture we’re slowly creating. I hope that elucidating these can help educate other community builders as they navigate equally tricky terrains.

 Lack of Relationship Skills: Community often offers more opportunity to learn to relate in conscious ways than most environs. Many people who come to our village learn about nonviolent communication, restorative circles, heartshares, reevaluation or co-counseling, Enneagram for personal growth, and many other tools that facilitate skillbuilding in both intra- and interpersonal relating. Yet across the board, it’s safe to say that very few of us are taught healthy relating and conflict resolution skills in our homes, schools, or work lives. And we’re certainly not taught them through media of any kind. Even when we seek out these skills―which often doesn’t happen until we find ourselves in the midst of complex adult relating, such as my divorce example―we generally don’t have enough experience or support to navigate through unscathed.

 Unresolved Trauma and Group Dynamics: I’ve heard it said that if you want to understand a person’s relationship with their mother, look at their relationship with the group. This may be an oversimplified way of saying that the group brings up all our unresolved issues. And to be sure, we all come with a suitcase full of them. Our culture is pathological: rife with species extinction, mass incarceration, abysmal race relations, rampant misogyny, and no safety net for the most vulnerable, to name just a few of the problems. Anyone who has lived decades immersed in this insanity has a good amount of trauma. Those of us privileged enough to find ourselves in an intentional community often imagine that our environment will be free of the horrors and evils of the world. But alas, we bring it all with us. And what’s more, we tend to bring it into our relationships and groups at full volume. Each person is psychologically integrated only to the extent they have done the work to unwind their issues. Groups push all our buttons at one time or another. In my example of the failed agricultural plan, so many factors were at play including an immature governance process, triggered people, and an inability to navigate towards whole systems thinking due to lack of skills and larger context.

 Mental Illness: One step beyond cultural trauma is the manifestation of mental illness. I’ve learned so much over my years in community about myriad forms of addiction, personality disorders, and neurosis that can present in people. No doubt there are deeply entrenched patterns, both biological and environmental, that lead people to struggle with these afflictions. Maybe it’s a sane response to cultural insanity. Whatever the cause, the outcome is beyond disruptive and stressful.

 Overwhelm: As suburban and urban refugees immersed in a rural land-based project, most of us discovered that there is a long, slow learning curve to meeting our basic needs for food, water, and shelter―particularly because we were and are doing it all ourselves. Setting ambitious goals in a pioneering context is the perfect recipe for overwhelm. And those of us who have been successful in the outside world assume this success can translate to land-based living, even when we have no experience with it. This assumption is the epitome of arrogance. Several of my elders tried to convey to my 30-year-old self that village-building is a multigenerational project. But I didn’t listen. I threw myself into every aspect of creating the alternative culture and forgot about pacing, rest, and recovery. Eventually, overwhelm leads to burnout. And sometimes there’s no recovering from that.

 Everybody’s Business: Martin Prechtel, author of Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, who lived for many years in a Mayan village, quips that “people in the village know the color of your pee before you’re done peeing.” This is a perfect example of both the upside and the downside of community. Since all of our interactions deeply affect everyone, folks are acutely tuned in to the movements of all the players. For private and/or sensitive people, or those going through challenging circumstances, this can be especially problematic. During the depth of my grief and heartbreak, one community member felt very strongly that I should host a community-wide event to discuss my process and inform everyone of my strategies for healing. I found this suggestion beyond my capacity and the opposite of what I needed.

● Classism: Classims rears its head inside of community very much as it does outside of community. Class conflict in community sometimes shows up as “the talkers and the doers”: the older and more financially resourced folks tend to be the talkers, while the younger and less-resourced folks tend to be the doers. Action requires conviction, strength, passion, intention, focus, and often considerable effort. According to one long-time communitarian, Angelo Eliades, “To sit back and talk takes little effort and a few thoughtless utterances of opinion, more often than not in criticism of the doers.” [Eliades, Angelo, “Science, Technology and Permaculture―How much do you really need to know?,” permaculturenews.org/2016/12/16/science-technology-permaculture-much-really-need-know.] This is a big mistake in a community that relies on young people to drive development and wants the hard work of agriculture in its midst. This is exactly what happened in our community, and we’re still paying the price for these dynamics.

 Fundamentalism: Earthaven Ecovillage was founded largely on the principles of permaculture, the art and science of integrating humans and their lives into the natural world in a less harmful way. While there is much to gain from this practice, there’s something about permaculture that seems to attract the metaphysical know-it-alls. Maybe it’s that any new solution or formula for change can come with a certain religious conviction, in part because of the desperate need to believe that something, anything will save us. Yet these sort of purists can dampen creativity and lead to all-or-nothing, good-and-bad thinking, which is a death knell for progressive design. We’ve had our fair share of extremism at Earthaven. Many projects, people, and enthusiasms have taken their exit in the wake of the “that’s-not-good-enough” and “that’s-not-acceptable” refrains.

● Structural Conflict: Even though, on the spectrum of the world’s population, Earthaven members are highly aligned with one another, we find plenty of things to dislike and distrust about each other. Like squabbling siblings, doomed to endless comparison and fear of unfairness, the more we share in common, the more we seem to move towards conflict and misunderstanding. The first time I heard the phrase “Structural Conflict” it was from Diana Leafe Christian, an Earthaven member and internationally renowned author about Intentional Communities. It refers to conflict that is centered around different interpretations of the core mission and vision of a project. It can often appear as interpersonal conflict because passionate advocates on either side can vehemently argue their perspective, but it is born from a lack of shared reality on core purpose. Lois Arkin of LA EcoVillage speaks of it here: emerging-communities.com/tag/structural-conflict.

 Ignorance: Modern humans are awash with unrealistic notions on all manner of things related to land, life, food systems, children, governance, and the like. We know more corporate brand logos than we do wild plants and more television commercial jingles than we do signs of coming weather. And so it is with each wave of new people joining Earthaven Ecovillage. In our community, this ignorance masquerades as sentimentality which can be seen by the enactor as some sort of purism or worse, activism. But it is often seen by those in the know as immense cluelessness. Examples include new members who hold the opinion that cutting down a single tree is akin to murder and deforestation. To those of us in forest management leadership, we have the context that our degraded forest system and very acidic soils need to be transformed to include more biodiversity and soil health. In this context, felling trees, selective logging, and even large-scale logging are a means to a much better and regenerative end. As you can imagine these different world views don’t lead to harmony.

 Separation from Traditional Ways of Knowing: It’s important to acknowledge that Earthaven Ecovillage currently inhabits what, for millennia, was Native Land. In more recent eons, it was Cherokee land. Because our project is comprised of mostly white people with significant racial advantage, we are not only disconnected from land-based people, but we are culturally and physically segregated from people of color who tend be closer to the traditional ways of knowing. Given that people of color are oppressed worldwide, projects like ours exist without the benefit of their integrated ways of knowing, practices, and deep wisdom. Either our systems of oppression force these life-giving traits underground or worse, we appropriate and use them without context or reverence. Our world desperately needs the wisdom, mentoring, modeling, and presence of these traditional peoples and yet these peoples are often oppressed and traumatized by white people. We need to be working to resolve these injustices so that all people have equal access to land and resources. Only then will our community be able to access the old ways with respect and not through stealing.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it does highlight a few of the things we need to work through in order to be effective at building community. Given that we are all steeped in a patriarchal worldview by virtue of being raised in this toxic paradigm, and we all come with a bag full of wounds, we are likely to get more wrong than right for many generations to come. What we’ve inherited is a dying culture. What we’re trying to build is a living system out of the scraps of that inheritance.

The upside is that we’re in good company and we’re living meaningful lives.

Ten years after these two devastating events in my life, I am happy to report that I am delightedly single, employed in sustainable agriculture, and more empowered than ever before. That breakup served to help me grow into an entirely new person, one that has come to question the pair-bond model and build an even richer version of community, both within the walls of Earthaven Ecovillage and without. My work in agriculture, which focuses on the Southern Appalachian organic growing community, has much broader impact than if I had stayed focused on the small-ish ecovillage agriculture plan. And while Earthaven’s model still does not meet the criteria of an economically viable agriculture plan, there are ongoing efforts on the part of some brave farmers to get there. It’s happening more slowly than I could ever have imagined and I’ve come to accept that sometimes that’s the way of things.

In addition, I’m slowly healing from burnout and overwhelm by living part-time outside of Earthaven, where I am cultivating the ease, peace, and distance that I need to rest, recover, and regain some of the nervous system function that I wore out over the past 25 years in community. I credit both the positive and the challenging experiences in making me who I am today: a more integrated and fully alive human.

There’s no doubt that we will continue to stumble. I truly believe that village-building, whether rural or urban, large or small, is a worthwhile endeavor. We need to continue making mistakes and getting it wrong. How else are we going to build a repository of lived experiences that instruct us on how to commence this crucial task of village-building?

Lee Warren has been living in community since 1995 and at Earthaven Ecovillage in the southern Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina since 2001. She is a cofounder of Village Terraces CoHousing Neighborhood and Imani Farm, Executive Director of Organic Growers School, and a founding partner of the School of Integrated Living. Lee is also an herbalist, writer, teacher, and food and social justice activist, with an avid interest in rural wisdom, sustainable economics, and women’s issues.

Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.


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