Author: Darin Fenger
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #134
I absolutely loved my stay at Lost Valley, recalls Polly Robinson, who served as an intern and later a live-in course participant at Lost Valley Educational Center in Oregon. “I loved being surrounded by people of all ages who genuinely cared for me, and the generally relaxed atmosphere of the place, I felt like I was a community member the whole time I was there.”
Communities magazine asked a handful of temporary communitarians— work exchangers, interns, and live-in course participants—to share their experiences of temporary community. These women and men reported that their lessons were often planting and building; their teachers, the gardens, animals, and children.
Nathaniel Nordin-Tuininga, who also lived at Lost Valley, first as a work trader, then an intern, and lastly as a residential student, is equally enthusiastic about his time there.
“Interacting with Lost Valley and participating in both their permaculture and personal growth workshops taught me so much about myself, my relationship to the surrounding environment, and my connection with others. I learned a great deal about my own capacity to grow and develop into the person I most want to be, while cultivating a harmonious relationship to the rest of the natural world. I was introduced to new ways of interacting with plants and animals in order to meet my basic needs. I received personal instruction and hands-on training in land and garden projects. I participated in yoga, dance, mediation, saunas, hot tubs, stargazing, sports, games, group outings and other events—and always had an amazing group of people to share these experiences with. And emotional well-being was better attended to at Lost Valley than in any other community I have visited or been involved with.”
Similarly, work exchanger Ron Laverdiere found true utopia at La’akea Community in Hawai’i, not because it was perfect— but because it was real.
“At La’akea I was able to be fully honest with myself in all aspects,” he reports. “This came from being transparent in relationships, offering support whenever it was needed and feeling supported at all times, plus the willingness of community members to connect in speech or dance or music.”
Even the simple joy of eating food on the same day he helped harvest it amounted to a life-changing experience for him.
“Everything in my life was up for question and I resolved many issues with the help of the community,” he adds. “I went through a full-on transformation during my time there.”
Surprising perhaps is the amount of time such a transformation required. In Ron’s case—just a month.
As enthusiastic as many folks are about their time in community, some had concerns as well.
Nathaniel notes that finding enough personal space at Lost Valley was challenging at times.
Michael “Mojohito” Tchudi, an apprentice and then a work trader at Emerald Earth community in northern California, found that the community’s policies regarding interpersonal interactions only served to become challenges themselves. “A disadvantage of maintaining a practice of nonconfrontational communication is that it was difficult and awkward to address issues of disrespectful or passive-aggressive behavior with permanent members of the community,” he says.
Sometimes the short-term nature of the experience hindered the social acceptance of people who don’t have an outgoing nature.
“As an introvert who doesn’t make friends very quickly, I did sometimes miss the close relationships that longterm living situations have provided me in the past,” recalls Carrie Dickerson, who lived at Twin Oaks Community in Virgnia for three months as a conference intern. “This was also my first experience living away from the city.”
Mostly, however, the people we talked with found that their growth experiences in community far outweighed any challenges.
“Most notably I discovered that my capacity for physical work and exertion is far greater than I had thought, and that I am capable of working in rather extreme heat,” observes Mojohito. “Maintaining a lifestyle of living close to the land and contributing in projects that directly benefited both the community and myself was so satisfying.”
Work trader Molly Morgan turned 50 during her three-month stay at Emerald Earth, a milestone that she says was accidental in timing but rich with its rewards.
“I learned to stretch myself while there,” says Molly, whose interests were building and gardening. “I was learning so many new things, and I was really clumsy and slow at them, but the community members were unfailingly supportive and patient with me. I learned that even at mid-life I could feel awkward and untalented and still be okay with learning new skills and processes. It was humbling and encouraging.”
For many temporary residents it seems that the most amazing experience a community offered them was the simple gift of caring, a social blessing many reported to be far too rare in their regular lives in fast-paced, money-obsessed mainstream society.
“I loved the fact that the well-being of the people of the community was just as important as the work,” says Polly Robinson about Lost Valley. “I loved that there was such a diversity of thought and ways of life, yet we all accepted each other, and for the most part, lived together in peace.”
She stressed that she’d never felt so well cared for her in life. “It was the first time I had ever had all my needs met—physical, emotional, social, spiritual. I had so much love and support that I felt like I was able to truly flourish.”
Travis Fowler, another La’akea work exchanger, explained how living in such a radically nurturing environment truly proved to be the social garden he needed for growing into the person he desired to be in life. “I realized how emotionally closed I was in the ‘real world,’ how I could not express my true feelings or ask for what I wanted or needed for fear of being judged. The community was supportive and was a safe place to express myself. In the community, I felt more free to give the love I was keeping inside—and wow, that felt good!”
“I learned a great deal about my own capacity to grow and develop into the person I most want to be, while cultivating a harmonious relationship to the rest of the natural world,” notes Nathaniel about Lost Valley.
Although the level of participation for temporary workers obviously varies from community to community, Molly recalls that Emerald Earth welcomed her into a role far more substantial than that of visitor or observer. She was made to feel just as welcome at the meeting places or around the kitchen table as any of the full-time residents.
“The community members were very open about their lives and inclusive of the work traders,” she says. “There were very few meetings to which we were not invited. I asked a lot of questions and I was never once told it was inappropriate to ask that nor received any other bad vibe. This was especially important to me because the community was dealing with some very serious personnel issues while I was there and not knowing what was going on would have been very uncomfortable.”
The communities in our small sample seemed to do a pretty good job making their short-term residents comfortable, too. Although rustic accommodations can often be a visitor’s complaint, many of these visiting workers stressed that the drastic and unique change in housing and food only amounted to an even better experience for them.
“I felt particularly grateful to stay in a beautiful, hand-built natural straw bale and cob house,” Mojohito says.
“I was always well fed, and always had a warm dry place to sleep, so my physical comfort along with everything else was well taken care of,” says Polly about Lost Valley. (Yet Nathaniel must not have thought so, since he recommends “improved housing options during the rainy season” for the same community.)
Although Molly disliked her stint living in a tent at Emerald Earth, she raved about the meals. “The food—it was sensational! I ate a lot and still lost 15 pounds. It was great!”
Two short-term residents both liked and felt some disappointment in their community stay. Guillermo A. Maciel and Jodie Emmett were participants a ten-week natural building course at a rural ecovillage. “I liked the natural building teachers immensely,” Jodie reports. “Two instructors in particular were incredible people; each was an inspiration to me. I also enjoyed the natural building projects we worked on in other locations, as well as the optional weekend workshops on specialized topics. Plus, we were living in a gorgeous setting.”
“What I really enjoyed was the intense focus of learning natural building techniques, the opportunity to share our experience in the natural building trade, and the variety of people and experiences in the program,” recalls Guillermo.
Yet the couple was surprised to find differences between their expectations of a course and the reality they found once they got there. For example, they expected to be living in an intentional community, but soon realized that only the program director/founder and his partner lived on the property on a permanent basis; the other founders either lived elsewhere or were no longer involved. “It would have been a lot easier for all of us if we were told in advance that there was no ‘community’ currently,” Jodie observes. “And that the founding group was going through a transition and wanted natural buildings for what they would be doing sometime in the future.”
Guillermo and Jodie also expected that they and the other students would have much more say in how they’d live their daily lives in a place which was billed as “your community.” But they were often told that they couldn’t do or make use of certain materials, go to certain locations or use certain buildings on the property, or employ certain kinds of communication styles. “It was difficult to tell when appropriate regulation of behavior was for the common good of our ‘community’ of students, and when it was just micro-managing us to fit the program director’s vision of community,” recalls Guillermo. It gradually became clear that there were three distinct parties on the property with different rights and responsibilities: the program director and his partner (resident owners who had final say on everything), the program staff (who reported to the program director), and the course participants, who didn’t in fact have much decision-making voice. “There was a genuine intention to create an inclusive environment and avoid an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” he adds, “but unfortunately, towards the end of the program, we failed in this intention.” The process was exacerbated when the program director would change the rules about what was expected of participants, or what was or was not allowed on the property. It would have helped, Jodie points out, if there had been complete transparency about the role the students were to play in the evolution of the ecovillage.
Yet the couple respects the program director and admires what he’s trying to accomplish in the project. They don’t believe he misled the group consciously. “I think the idea that the community belonged to everyone is part of his vision about what a community could and should be, and he was trying to tell this to himself—like having his own personal mantra,” Jodie speculates. “I don’t think he could be honest with himself about the real situation, because visionaries can live inside their visions—the problem occurs when participants see the gap between the founders’ vision and what’s actually on the ground.”
In fact, the most common concern of the people Communities interviewed was “structure.” Many of these temporary residents, while insisting on the magic of their stay, admitted that the lack of a more formal structure ended up cheating their experiences out of some of the potential worth. They gave examples of not knowing what was expected of them in terms of work hours or community participation, a lack of communication regarding financial arrangements or how long they could stay, and sometimes a general lack of any kind of direction for the work they were expected to do.
Several suggested that communities who host short-term workers designate a go-between who could meet with them not just as the beginning of their stay, but several times throughout the visit to check their progress.
One suggested that communities also work to get a commitment from long-term residents in terms of their treatment and involvement with visitors. “Make sure there is a solid commitment on the part of as many community members as possible for including temporary members and rolling them into the fabric of daily life,” advises Ted Sterling, who served as a three-month intern at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri.
But Ted certainly liked what he saw at Dancing Rabbit, so much so that a year and a half later he moved back and remains as a full-time resident today.
“I met my partner here. We now live here in a home we built and have had a child together, Aurelia, who is not quite six months old,” he says. “Talk about life changing! I consider myself a changed person.”