Saturday, December 21, 2013

Spreading the Light

I've blogged each year on the winter solstice since I started this blog, five and a half years ago.  This is the shortest day of the year.  From here the nights get shorter and the days grow longer and light returns to the northern hemisphere.

As people who follow my blog know, I also blog at the end of October/start of November (aka Samhain) about the blessings of darkness.  Light also has its blessings.  We need light in order to see, we need light in order to find our way. 

There are treasures in that darkness, but we often need light in order to find them.  At this time of the year, it's the small lights that count: candles and flashlights and moonlight and starlight.  Given how tough it is to find our way at this time in our world, each of us can be a bit of that light, helping others to find their way and helping to find what is hidden in the fertile darkness around us.

I write this, of course, from my own challenge of finding my way and helping others find theirs.  I'm a bit lost at the moment.  I know where I want to go and I'm not sure how to get there.  But this is the season of wandering.  With the light returning, hopefully the way will become clearer.

Quote of the Day:  "There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it."  - Edith Wharton

Saturday, December 14, 2013


I grew up a good Catholic boy. This season was called Advent--it was a time of preparation for Christmas.  We lit candles on an Advent wreath every night and marked the time until Christ's birth.

I'm no longer Catholic, or Christian.  I'm a funny mix of Agnostic, Pagan, Buddhist, and Humanist--attracted to Sufi dancing and Quaker meetings and Taoist writings, very influenced by my Jewish friends and my Catholic upbringing.  I am a devotee of love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. And try to be in touch with the Earth and the Seasons.  I tend to follow a Pagan/Catholic calendar.  (Not as strange a mix as it might seem given that a lot of the Catholic feasts are built on Pagan festivities.)  I often find myself naturally in sync with this nature based calendar.

And right now is a period of preparation for me.  Not for Christmas, but for a community that might or might not happen.

I've recently been studying group process, carpentry, weatherizing, greywater systems, plumbing, systems theory, anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, first aid, and general health stuff.  What ties all these things together is I see that they might be useful when trying to put together an intentional community.  I'm thinking a lot about infrastructure.  What systems will we need to have in place to be able to take care of everyone and the community run well?  I've recently gone on a book buying binge, buying books on systems thinking, humanure, greywater, a resilient farm in Vermont, and an innovative ecovillage in Columbia.

The key here is preparation.  I feel helpless at times in the process of actually acquiring a place, but the one thing that I can do is prepare myself.  And this is the season to do it.

Quote of the Day: "The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before... What is possible is to not see it, to miss it... So stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon.” - Jan Richardson

Monday, November 25, 2013


My friend Susan has been urging me for a while to read the book The Moneyless Man.  She read it during her year of reading books about living a year of...  In The Moneyless Man, Mark Boyle decides to live for a year without using money.

What got me to read it was when Susan sent me information on Mark Boyle's new book, The Moneyless Manifesto. I immediately checked to see if I could get it through the library system and found that none of the libraries in my area have it.  They did, however, have The Moneyless Man and I requested it and read it.

The first chapter ('Why Moneyless?') outlines the reasons for going without money, including peak oil (see my post on Peak Oil, 7/18/08, for more information about that) and climate change (which is hard to avoid reading about at this point), money encouraging competition rather than cooperation, and 'money replacing community as security'.  This is the theoretical chapter.  He follows this with a chapter on 'The Rule of Engagement' where he outlines the rules he was going to live by over the year.  The rest of the book tells of his life and adventures living without money.

The book ends with the question of whether this is a year-long experiment or whether Mark Boyle will continue living this way indefinitely.  He does talk about his decision and anyone reading the book won't be surprised by it.

One of the things that intrigues me is that the author studied economics and business in college and then managed organic food companies in the United Kingdom for six years.  (Mark Boyle is Irish and the event in the book all take place in Ireland and England.)  It was during a discussion with a friend that he realized that many of the major world issues we all connected by one thread--our disconnection from what we consume--and money is the main tool to fuel that disconnection.  He goes on to point out all the marketing designed to encourage us to use money and consume.

This book encourages what I've been thinking for a while, that money is not a necessity in our lives--in fact, we would be better off without it.  For some of my ideas about what we do need, check out my series on 'Needs' (which I still think is perhaps the most important things I've written in this blog).  The series starts with Looking at Needs, 5/4/09, and ends with Our Needs: One Last Look, 9/19/09.  Perhaps the most important post in there, from the standpoint of living without money is Protection from Poverty, 6/18/09.  I may write more about going beyond economics at some point in the future.

Interestingly enough the whole of the book The Moneyless Manifesto is available to read (for free) online.  It's worth checking out.

Quote of the Day:  "Humans are not fundamentally destructive; I know of very few people who want to cause suffering.  But most of us don't have the faintest idea that our daily shopping habits are so destructive. ...
"... I wanted to find out what enabled this extreme disconnection from what we consume.  The answer was, in the end, quite simple.  The moment the tool we called 'money' came into existence, everything changed." - Mark Boyle

Monday, November 11, 2013

Issues in Community: Recruitment

One of the people at the co-op where I'm currently staying decided to sublet his room while he was away.  Since the other housemates would have to deal with whoever sublet, we interviewed almost a dozen people.  A few of them we decided quickly weren't appropriate.  With the others we ranked them and it turned out different people here had very different preferences.  We had a hard time coming to agreement about what we wanted.  And in the end, it didn't matter.  Most of our top choices, chose somewhere else.  It was less about who we wanted than who wanted us.

Recruitment is a tricky issue.  On one hand, communities need people and want good folks to live there, people who believe in what the community believes in and supports what the community supports.  On the other hand, interviewing people is a pain.  It takes a lot of time and can be very disruptive to the community.  In co-ops like the one I'm in, prospective members get an hour or two each, and sometimes are asked to come back for a second (or very occasionally even a third) interview before we make a decision.  It's a lot like job interviews.  At one point one of my housemates started yelling, "That's it.  No more people.  No more interviews." 

Twin Oaks, Acorn, and Dancing Rabbit all have three week visiting programs, the chief function of is to evaluate prospective members.  (Over the last year I used these programs to visit all of them and, in the cases of Twin Oaks--which I did the visiting programs twice--and Dancing Rabbit, I was very clear with them that I wasn't applying for membership--so you don't have to want to be a member to do the programs.  See my post Nine Communities, Many Thoughts, 7/1/13, for a wrap up on my community visits.)  Having someone visit for three weeks gives you a much better idea of a person than even several multi-hour interviews.  You actually get to live with them for three weeks.  A person can put on a good performance for a few hours, it's a lot harder for a few weeks.

But even three week visits have risks.  Acorn just experienced a nasty fire deliberately set by a visitor who had been asked to leave.  And communities have accepted people who seemed nice but had lied to them and put on a good show for the full three weeks and later caused trouble.   (Or in some cases, the person changed over time.)

One person at the co-op I'm currently at didn't want to be part of the latest decision making process because he had been enthusiastic about two previous members when they were being interviewed, and both of them turned out to be difficult people to live with.

And that's the hard part of recruitment.  There really isn't any way to tell until you've lived with someone a long while, but if you don't do recruitment, you won't have people to live in your community.

Quote of the Day:  "I saw a larger and larger part of the community sitting around on the front steps of the dining hall smoking cigarettes and drinking their wake-up coffee at 11 in the morning, and heard them ridicule as 'workaholics' the people who made the money and kept the organization together.  It looked possible, even probable, that this once-promising community would be undermined and destroyed by it's own people. ...
"I knew this phenomenon was not happening at Twin Oaks, and the difference seemed to be that Twin Oaks selected its members with some care." - Kat Kinkade

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Tools for Connection

Whether you're talking about social change or intentional community, you're talking about dealing with people.  Sometimes connecting with another person is easy.  Sometimes it's not.  Almost always it's interesting.

I've recently come across a couple of tools to help deepen that connection.  I've already blogged about a few connection tools: Nonviolent Communication (11/25/10), Stephen Covey's 'Habit' of 'Seeking First to Understand' (see my post Seek to Understand, 11/11/10), and just plain being willing to listen (see Listening to Each Other, 6/7/10).  Here's two more, both oriented toward building connection in a group context.

The first is something developed by Paxus who is at Twin Oaks and Acorn.  It's called Transparency Tools and consists of a variety of exercises designed to help people to share intimate information about themselves with each other and explore their histories and emotions,  particularly within a 'transparency group' (the link gives more information about these groups as well as the tools themselves).  I've done some of these exercises at the last couple of Communities Conferences (see my posts entitled Update 1: The Twin Oaks Community Conference, 9/9/12, and  Circling Around to the Communities Conference,  9/5/13) and found them pretty helpful.  They're particularly good for people who know each other but want to deepen their connection by learning more about each other.  (Note:  Paxus just blogged on the dangers of doing Transparency work with the wrong people in a post he captioned 'Winos with Power Tools'. )

The other one is, surprisingly, a deck of cards--but a deck oriented toward understanding groups and group processes.  Its called group works and each card is a description of a useful tool for groups.  In some ways it's sort of a book about how to use groups to increase connection and create better group experiences, except it's in card form.  The whole deck is available on the internet (via a free download) but having them in my hands feels more satisfying to me. (You can buy the deck from the same website, which also has longer descriptions for some cards and lists of resources for many topics.)  There are 91 cards with topics ranging from Setting Intention to Trust[ing] the Wisdom of the Group. I'm currently making my way through the deck, a few cards at a time, trying to learn them better.  If you do any work with groups (which again can include intentional communities and social change work), this deck might be worth checking out, at least online.

Quote of the Day:  "How can you reconnect with your love for one another? What will nourish your sense of unity, in a way that welcomes the individual while honoring the long-term well-being of the community?" - Tree Bressen (catalyst for the group works deck)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Through the Darkness Once More

I was going to write something else (and will soon) before I realized that it was nearly Samhain.  Turns out, with all the traveling I was doing last year, I didn't even write anything at the beginning of November--a time when I usually write something about the approaching seasonal darkness. (See Darkness, 11/1/08, Out of Darkness, 11/1/09, Death, Decay, Impermanence, 11/1/10, and Darkness and Despair, 11/1/11 for previous posts I've written on this subject.)

This is a time that's important to me as a way to acknowledge all the messy, unpleasant, and scary things in life that we'd otherwise try to avoid.

This year it's coming to terms with the fact that I have no control over life.  Life is going to happen as it does no matter what I do.  For those who may be wondering what I'm doing personally (beyond the occasional post on some subject or other), I'm waiting on a forming community that I'm very interested in.  However, the founders (who I've spent a bit of time with) are looking for a piece of land and I'm hanging out a couple of hundred miles away in the Boston area, looking for things to do until I actually have a real place to go to.  It's a bit frustrating.

But that's life exactly.  The darkness here is that we never know exactly what is going on--seeing the trajectory of our lives is never clear.  We guess and try things and move in directions that we think will take us where we're going, but we can't really see. 

The darkness of this time of the year speaks to me.  It says, wait with patience.  It says, you don't know.  It says, quiet, peace, wait.

Allow yourself the darkness in your life, and may it comfort you.

Quote of the Day: "Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content." -
Helen Keller

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The O&I Board

My blog buddy, leavergirl, wrote me last month that someone that we both know who visited Twin Oaks (also known as TO) "described a large bulletin board at TO that helps people stay connected and talking, and to bring up issues. I was wondering if maybe you'd do a post on how that works?"

I replied that I was a bit preoccupied at that point, but would write a post about it in the future.  I also described the board and its uses in my reply to her and I will quote liberally in this post from what I wrote her.

Twin Oaks has a decision making system which is incredibly complex, involving planners, managers, voting, and all kinds of checks and balances, but most things start when someone is concerned about something and they post a paper on the O&I Board.   According to Kat Kinkade, in her book Is It Utopia Yet?,  O&I stands for Opinion and Idea.

The 'board' is actually large three wooden screens with a number of clipboards hanging on each one.  If you've got an idea or a concern, you can write a paper up detailing the issue.  People sign their papers and leave several sheets of paper behind what they wrote.  Other folks read the papers and leave comments on the blank sheets.  (All comments need to be signed as well--TO folks don't like anonymous stuff on their board.)  The planners read the papers on the O and I board to know what's going on in the community.  The comments are very important to giving them a sense of the reactions to these issues--is this something others really approve of or something that there's a lot of different feelings about?  Actually, many members, visitors, and guests, constantly read the O&I board just to get an idea of what's going on.

What makes this work is that this is a norm at Twin Oaks--people are always posting things on the O&I board.  Most of the time all the clipboards or all but one or two are filled, each with a different topic.  In many ways, this is the heart of how communication as well as decision making occurs at Twin Oaks.  I don't think a system like this would be necessary in a much smaller community, but it works well at Twin Oaks.

For more on TO, see my posts Real Models 1:Twin Oaks, 9/30/10, Update 6: Life at Twin Oaks, 12/4/12, and Snow, Darkness, and Fire, 3/13/13.

Quote of the Day:  "We have several communications devices, but the most important by far is called the O&I Board. ... This bulletin board has been in use since 1970. ... Members read the O&I the way many people outside of Community read the daily newspaper, though in our case the 'newspaper' is mostly one big editorial page, with many editors.  It is our custom to attach blank pages to the backs of our papers, so that others can comment on our ideas.  ...  No one has ever declared a limit on the length of a comment, and sometimes they go on for pages.  The norm is shorter than that, and many people limit their comments to a sentence or two, or to ditto marks under someone else's comment.
"Some O&I papers are proposals which will eventually go to the Planners or relevant managers for decision. Planners customarily watch the O&I Board, and if they can see a path of useful action, they will add the current issues to their agenda." - Kat Kinkade

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Issues in Community: Urban and/or Rural

(I'm returning to this series while my life sorts itself out.)

In the 1990s, I was part of creating an urban community that affiliated with the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC).  Since then I've lived in three different city co-op households.  Last year I did three week visits to Acorn, Twin Oaks (twice!), and Dancing Rabbit, all of which are in very rural areas, and did very brief (several hours) visits to four other communities near them.  And at the moment I'm involved with a group that's trying to start a rural farming community in upstate New York.

I like both urban and rural communities and have had conversations with folks over the years about creating a hybrid that a friend called 'City Mouse/Country Mouse'--a community which would have a house in the city and a house out in the country.  (However, I have no interest in suburban communities. Let's not go there.)

As far as I'm concerned, the advantages of urban communities are close proximity to all that cities have to offer: a large, diverse population nearby and lots of things happening.  However, that's also the biggest disadvantage--urban living offers many distractions that can make it hard to pull a close-knit community together.  (As I found out when I tried to create a community in Cambridge, MA, a couple of years ago.)

The advantages of rural communities are closeness to nature, much larger capacity to grow food, and generally a cleaner environment.  The biggest disadvantage that I can see is isolation. A large community like Twin Oaks (and to a smaller degree, Dancing Rabbit) offsets that by having a lot going on within the community--and a larger population within the community to interact with.

I think different settings encourage different types of communities.  Most co-op houses I know of are either in cities or near more rural colleges and universities.  I think a lot of co-housing is urban as well. On the other hand, many ecovillages are located in rural settings and most of the FEC 'communes' are rural.

There are notable exceptions to this, rural or semi-rural cohousing and urban ecovillages (like the Los Angeles Ecovillage).  In fact, there has to be exceptions given the number of cohousing developments that also call themselves ecovillages.

And, within the FEC, there are two urban communes (the Emma Goldman Finishing School and the FEC's newest member, the Midden).  Having been part of an urban FEC community, I'm happy to see others carry on the tradition.

Meanwhile, I'd love to know if anyone is aware of any successful urban/rural communities.  I know that Ganas in New York tried it for a while.  Someone that I talked with at the communities conference said it fell apart because they were spreading themselves too thin.  I also read a passage by Gary Snyder on a community in Japan in the 1970s where the members hitchhiked between a house in the city, a house in the mountains, and a house on an island.  (I think it's long gone.)

Quote of the Day: "...radical sustainability promotes the development of autonomous communities--that is, egalitarian communities that value equality, justice, and mutualism.  ... Autonomous communities can exist everywhere--from rural to urban, north to south.  Autonomous communities are especially adapted to creating and maintaining a sustainable world." - Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Circling Around to the Communities Conference

Folks following my journeys over the past year may remember that I started my travels when I left the group house I started the year before and went to the Twin Oaks Communities Conference (see my post entitled Update 1: The Twin Oaks Community Conference, 9/9/12).  I spent the last couple of weeks in Virginia, spending a week with cousins that I love, then a couple of days at Twin Oaks proper (working on gardening, food prep, kitchen help, and, naturally, some of the preparations for the conference), before spending the weekend at the conference.  I thought attending the conference again was a fitting way to finish the year long cycle.

This year, three of the people from the group in NY that I'm currently exploring building community with joined me.  Friday night began with dinner, an award ceremony for Ira Wallace (a long time communitarian and one of the pillars of the Acorn community), an exercise on exploring the reasons for joining community, and an introduction to Transparency Tools.  I found the Transparency Tools to be a particularly useful set of exercises.

On Saturday, our community presented during the 'Meet the Communities' and I got to network with folks from other communities.  I took workshops on 'Permaculture in Community' (which focused on applying permaculture principles like 'Design from Patterns to Details' and 'Use Small and Slow Solutions' to community building and living--one point the presenter put out was that "Human communities are a great example of renewable and regenerative resources") and 'Zones of Intimacy' (which applied the permaculture concept of building in 'zones' to human relationships, with zone 0 being the self, zone 1 described as 'marriage'--not only to people but to whatever or whoever is of primary importance to you, zone 2 as 'Strong Allies'--those folks that you can count on and who can count on you, zone 3 as your 'Affinity Group'--your real friends, zone 4 as aquaintances or--as the presenter said--'semi-strangers', and zone 5 being absolute strangers).  Both workshops were facilitated by self-described activists from Earthaven Ecovillage.

On Sunday I took a morning workshop on 'Embodied Intimacy', which was great, but left me wanting to do less brief workshops on intimacy and more time building real long-term intimacy.  In the afternoon I went to an 'Open Space' workshop on 'Polyamory 301' with Paxus Calta where he and I ended up rehashing the dialogue we had on his blog about 'egalitarian relationships'.  Our group stayed for the 'Closing Circle' on Sunday and then left to head north.  The circle ended with a powerful chant that I later found out was from the Rainbow Gatherings:

We are circling
Circling together
We are singing
Singing our heart song
This is family
This is unity
This is celebration
This is sacred

Quote of the Day:  "I think that there are two extreme philosophies of community building. The first is the Field of Dreams Model: if you build it (buildings, infrastructure, gardens) they (community members) will come. The second is the Take Care of the Relationships Model. The relationships between the people building the community are the most important thing, and the strength of the community depends on the strength of these relationships and their ability to successfully work through conflicts. If the relationships are strong, any other problem is manageable by the group. ... I think that the elements of the Relationships Model tends to get overlooked more frequently than the elements of the Field of Dreams Model. People get excited about a shared vision and shared values, and in all the excitement this vital piece can get overlooked; often with detrimental results down the line." - Paxus Calta

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ecology as a Bridge

Last year, as some few followers of this blog may remember, I spent much of the year reading a textbook on biology--and posted some of what I learned, including posts on cells (Biology 101: Cells, 5/3/12), Cellular Respiration (5/10/12), and Photosynthesis (5/17/12).  In spite of the fact that I wrapped up the series early, I read through almost all of the book--almost everything except for the last section which was on ecology.  That was ironic because ecology was one of the things I was most interested in.  This year, as I was traveling--and up to the present, the book has been in a sealed box in a friend's basement.

However, as the last bunch of posts indicate, as I've been resting from my community travels, I've been going on a science reading jag.  I got very excited when I found a classic book on ecology and ecosystems at the co-op next to where I'm living.  The book is Ecology: A Bridge Between Science and Society, by Eugene P Odum.

This is a great introductory text.  It covers almost all the basics including Levels of Organization, emergent properties, The Ecosystem, biotic communities, the Gaia hypothesis, Energetics (which I'll write a bit more on later), various cycles (hydrological, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and carbon), soil as a resource (see my post on Soil Science, 7/20/13), Population and Community Ecology (including things like r- and K-Selection, carrying capacity, commensalism,  cooperation, mutualism, and a whole section on the lichens),  successional theory, and Major Ecosystem Types of the World.  Eugene Odum ends the book with a chapter focused on how the human race can become sustainable, which he calls The Transition from Youth to Maturity.  The book is written simply but with lots of clear information. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get a basic understanding of ecology and ecosystems.

Eugene Odum's brother, Howard T Odum  was also an ecologist. I was able to get one of his books (Environment, Power, and Society) out from the library.  This book is focused on energetics and is a lot more technical and detailed than his brother's Ecology book.  I can imagine it would be useful if you wanted to study ecological energetics in depth, but I decided that it was too technical for what I was currently looking for.

If you are interested in permaculture or understanding how ecosystems work or even the biological and ecological understandings of today's multiple crises, I think that Eugene Odum's Ecology: A Bridge Between Science and Society is a great place to start exploring the concepts you need to understand.

Quote of the Day: "These scenerios are not predictions, since, as we have already stressed, no one (and no computer) can really predict the future; they are more like weather forecasts that have a certain probability of being right or wrong.
"...The logical consequences of placing value only on the individual are continued rapid expansion of world population and degraded life-support ecosystems.  Together these will lead to a less than satisfactory life for all but perhaps a few very rich people, since air, food, and water will be increasingly poor in quality and short in supply.
"The alternate scenerio ... is based on the assumption that we will turn more and more to the long-term view, with value placed on species (ours and all the others) and on maintaining healthy ecosystems worldwide. The logical consequences ... are reduced population growth (with stabilization in the next century) and healthy life-support systems, leading to favorable survival for all people and all life." - Eugene Odum

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Earth's Spheres

While reading books on meteorology and ecology, I've found references to the 'spheres' of the Earth.  One book mentions four spheres and another book mentions four spheres in one place and five in another.  In one place it's called 'the Earth system', in another 'the climate system', and a third just calls it 'Spaceship Earth'.

Some quotes: "As we study Earth, it becomes apparent that our planet can be viewed as a system with many separate but interacting parts or subsystems.  The hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and solid Earth and all of their components can be studied separately.  However, the parts are not isolated.  Each is related in some way to the others to produce a complex and continuously interacting whole that we call the Earth system."  - Lutgens and Tarbuck, The Atmosphere, p 4

"...there is a climate system that includes the atmosphere, hydrosphere, solid Earth, biosphere, and cryosphere. (The cryosphere is the ice and snow that exist at Earth's surface.)  The climate system involves the exchanges of energy and moisture that occur among the five spheres." - ibid, p 321

"The biosphere or ecosphere merges imperceptibly (that is, without sharp boundaries) into the lithosphere (the rocks, sediments, mantle, and core of the earth), the hydrosphere (surface and ground water), and the atmosphere, the other major subdivisions of Spaceship Earth." - Eugene Odum, Ecology: A Bridge Between Science and Society, p 31

As I've been reading books on geology, soil science, meteorology, and now, ecology (probably the subject of my next post), I've become more and more aware of how connected they all are.  I tried to get that across in my post on The Chemistry of the World, 8/2/13, where I talked about how plants use minerals from the Earth's crust (the lithosphere) and chemicals from the atmosphere (especially carbon dioxide and nitrogen) as well as water (from the hydrosphere) to grow from, and how we then get those same elements from the plants.  And, as I've talked about in my posts on composting (see for example, Thinking in Circles, 1/6/13), eventually we return those elements back to the earth.

It's interesting thinking about these spheres in terms of climate change as well.  The book on The Atmosphere listed the elements in the atmosphere by percentages and parts per million.  They listed Carbon Dioxide (CO2) as 0.036% or 360 parts per million.  The book has a copyright of 1998.  The news this year is that CO2 in the atmosphere has just reached 400 ppm.  The book also states that "...glacial ice is the Earth's largest reservoir of water outside of the ocean, accounting for 85 percent of the planet's fresh water.  ... As glaciers are composed of solid water, they are usually considered to be part of the hydrosphere.  Sometimes Earth's ice is placed in it's own 'sphere',the cryosphere (cryo is from the Greek for 'icy cold')."  It occurs to me with the rate that the glaciers are melting, that distinction may not be that relevant for long.

It's all only one planet and everything is connected with everything else--and everything changes everything else.  The boundaries between what we call living things and the systems of air, rock, water, and ice aren't as great as we might think.

Quote of the Day:  "The biosphere includes all life on Earth and penetrates those parts of the solid Earth, hydrosphere, and atmosphere in which living organisms can be found. should be emphasized that organisms do more than just respond to their physical environment.  Indeed, through countless interactions, life-forms help maintain and alter their physical environment. Without life, the makeup and nature of the solid Earth, hydrosphere, and atmosphere would be very different.  ...
"Humans are part of the Earth system, a system in which the living and nonliving components are entwined and interconnected.  Therefore our actions produce changes in all of the other parts." - Frederick Lutgens and Edward Tarbuck

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


A few years ago, I realized that I had a basic understanding of most of the sciences.  A big exception was meteorology.

I would look at those weather maps and glaze over.  High pressure area, low pressure area, warm fronts, cold fronts, occluded fronts, what did it all mean?  What was with all those different types of clouds?  And how could anyone even try to predict the weather?  (Unfortunately, this post won't try to explain how to predict the weather.  I will list some references that you can get more information about weather prediction from if you want to learn more.)  I vowed that at some point I'd study the atmosphere the way that I'd studied oceans, lakes, and rivers a few years ago, and biology last year.

This summer, at a time when I was having trouble finding more books on soil science, and after studying as much basic geology as I wanted, I decided it was a good time to study meteorology, the atmosphere, and the weather.

To begin with, what causes the weather, the winds in particular, and the complexity of the weather in general, is a variety of factors in the way that the sun heats the earth. The first and most basic factor is the shape of the earth, which is a sphere.  The sun's rays strike and heat up the atmosphere around the equator more than at either of the poles.  This is because the angle of the sun's rays is more direct in the tropics (close to 90 degrees at noon) than it is at the poles (where it might be, perhaps, 30 degrees).  So, as we all know, it's a lot hotter in the tropics than it is within the arctic circle.  When air is heated, it rises (ask someone who lives in a third floor apartment), and when it's cold, it sinks.  The warm air rising causes the air pressure to fall (the area becomes a low pressure zone) and the cold air sinking causes the pressure to rise (creating a high pressure area). 

If the earth were a simple ball and the sun revolved around it, this would mean air would be constantly moving from the tropics to the poles. (And air moving is, of course, wind.)  But the earth does revolve and this causes the winds to shift (in several zones).  In the northern hemisphere, this causes winds blow from west to east.  (I had learned that in New England, our weather usually comes in from the west--in this case, New York.  Now I realize that weather can travel all across the continent, beginning at the Pacific Ocean.  In Europe, the weather comes off the Atlantic and moves west.)  But the earth isn't a perfect little ball.  To begin with, two thirds of it is water, mostly the oceans.  The water takes longer to heat up and longer to cool down than the earth.  (Ask anyone who lives near the ocean.)  Then there are mountains and valleys--not to mention concrete cities that form little heat islands.  The upshot of all this complexity is our ever changing (and difficult to predict) weather.

When a warm, low-pressure area, encounters a cold, high pressure area, it creates a front.  (This was figured out during World War I by Norwegian researchers with battles on their minds.)  If warm air is in charge, it's a warm front.  If the cold air advances, it's a cold front.  If it's more complex, with cold air and warm air 'battling it out', it's an occluded front.

I could write a whole post on clouds--but I won't.  I've got a lot more things I want to write on (including more science).  The basics are that there are three main types of clouds, cirrus (high, wispy clouds made mostly of ice-crystals), stratus clouds (a layer of clouds, just hanging there--if it comes all the way down to the ground, you've got fog), and cumulus clouds (big, white, puffy--and often fair weather--clouds).  These are subdivided into ten categories: cirrus, cirrostratus, and cirrocumulus (the high atmosphere clouds), altocumulus and altostratus (the middle atmosphere clouds), stratus, stratocumulus, and nimbostratus (the low clouds), and cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds (which develop vertically, that is, up).  Obviously many of these clouds are combinations of the basic three. 'Alto' means high in Latin, but this describes the middle level clouds. More importantly, 'nimbus' refers to a rain cloud.  The nimbostratus are your ordinary rainclouds, the cumulonimbus are 'thunderclouds' bringing lightning, and often squalls, hail, and occasionally tornadoes.

This is just the slightest bit of meteorology.  I've been reading a lot of books on the subject, but there are two in particular that I'd recommend.  One is a textbook on the subject that I got out of the library:  The Atmosphere by Frederick Lutgens and Edward Tarbuck.  The other is a more readable (and sometimes humorous) treatment that was loaned to me by my brother, Spencer Christian's Weather Book by Spencer Christian with Tom Biracree.

I know I originally said that I was going to write three posts on science.  I'm still reading and learning and I want to write a few more.  Next, I'll talk about the earth's five spheres.

Quote of the Day: "The sun is the source of almost all the energy that has, is, and ever will be used on Earth... Because our world is solar powered, the sun is the engine of the global weather machine." - Spencer Christian

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Chemistry of the World

This post is a lot more geeky than most of my writings and most people won't lose much by skipping it.  On the other hand, if you want some insight into the way that the natural world works, you might find this post useful.

I'm going to start with four tables that will be the basis for my discussion.

Elements Essential to Human Beings
(by volume)

  • Oxygen
  • Carbon
  • Hydrogen
  • Nitrogen
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Sulfur
  • Sodium
  • Chlorine
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Iodine
  • Silicon
  • Florine
  • Copper
  • Zinc

Elements Essential for Plant Growth

  • Carbon
  • Hydrogen
  • Oxygen
  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Sulfur
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Manganese
  • Copper
  • Boron
  • Molybdenum
  • Chlorine
  • Nickel
  • Silicon
  • Sodium
  • Vanadium
  • Cobalt
  • Iodine

Elements that Make Up the Earth's Crust
(by percentage)

  • Oxygen
  • Silicon
  • Aluminum
  • Iron
  • Calcium
  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Titanium
  • Hydrogen

Constituents of the Atmosphere
(by percentage)

  • Nitrogen
  • Oxygen
  • Argon
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Neon
  • Helium
  • Methane
  • Krypton
  • Hydrogen

Let's start with the first two lists.  The elements essential to humans are very similar to the elements necessary for plant growth.  The order of some of the initial elements is slightly different and it's obvious that plants need a lot less chlorine and sodium than humans (in fact, some scientists question whether plants need sodium, or any of the last five elements on that list, at all).

The similarities between the first two lists shouldn't be surprising.  Humans get most of what we need from plants.  (See my posts on Biology 101: Photosynthesis, 5/17/12, and Biology 101: Cellular Respiration, 5/10/12, for the details of our essential chemical interactions.)  Where do plants get these elements?  The most important elements come from the air (atmosphere) and the water in the soil.  Plants take in carbon dioxide and water and use the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen from them to create sugars.  (Again, see my post on Photosynthesis.) They then use these sugars as the basis to build more complex chemicals (for example, cellulose which makes up plant walls).

Plants also get nitrogen from the atmosphere--but not directly.  As I wrote in my last post (Soil Science, 7/20/13), the soil is filled with pores that contain air and water. Bacteria in the soil convert nitrogen (N2) to ammonium (NH4+), and then to nitrite (NO2-) and nitrate (NO3-).  These ions (as they're called) are easier for the plant to take up.  (A small amount of the nitrogen in the atmosphere is converted by lightning into nitrous oxide--N2O--which gets carried into the soil by the rain and the plants can also take up.)  This process of conversion which is so important to plants is called the nitrogen cycle.  (There is also a carbon cycle and a hydrologic or water cycle that carbon and carbon dioxide as well as water go through.)

The rest of the elements come through the soil.  As I explained in my last post (Soil Science), soil is made mostly of broken down rock.  If you look at the table of elements in the earth's crust, you'll notice oxygen is the top element (and is, in fact, in one of the first three categories on all four lists).  But the next two mystified me for a while.  Silicon is at best a trace and relatively unimportant element for humans and plants and aluminum isn't used by them at all.  Then I discovered that silicon and aluminum are bound tightly to the oxygen in the compounds found in rocks.  However, the next five elements (iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium) are, along with sulfur and phosphorus, the most important elements in living creatures (well, sodium isn't so essential for plants) after the basic carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. It turns out that these elements aren't so tightly bound to the rock.  Ions (parts of compounds that are separated and thus have a charge) come loose.  The ions of these five elements (all metals) are positively charged and known as 'cations'.  (Negatively charged ions, such as chlorine, are known as 'anions'.)  One of the main reasons that humus and clay in soil (see my last post) are so important is that they have negatively charged areas that can hold these metal ions.  (This is known as the Cation-Exchange Capacity of the soil and is very important in understanding soil and plant nutrition.)  The roots of the plants exchange hydrogen ions (also positively charged) for these essential metal ions.

The whole thing is very delicately balanced and is, of course, circular.  (See my post on Thinking in Circles, 1/6/13.)  It makes me convinced that the whole earth is just one giant ecosystem.  Gaia.  We live here--and we live here because of the plants, and the rocks, and the soil, and the atmosphere.  It's all connected.

Next, the weather.

Quote of the Day: "We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity." - Margaret J. Wheatley

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Soil Science

Now for a three part digression back to Science World. 

When I was at Dancing Rabbit, I discovered that they had a pretty good library.  I spent quite a bit of time there reading various books.  One thing they had a lot of were books on soil science.  (Which make a lot of sense since many people there were into growing food.)

As I was looking through the books, I realized that a lot of the things I'm interested in (composting--see my post Thinking in Circles, 1/6/13, humanure--see Humanure, 1/10/13, and growing food--see Gardening as Social Change, 5/7/10) were related to soil and that soil science was a very complex discipline involving the sciences of geology, botany, microbiology, ecology, and a lot of chemistry. (I will write more about chemistry in my next post.)   I've also written about extensively about soil and my interest in it before--see Food (Soil and Seeds), 5/13/09, and especially The Story of Soil, 3/13/10.  This post will be a recap of a lot of that.

Soil science begins with rock. Due to water and wind the rock is broken down or weathered.  The fractured rock becomes boulders, stones, cobble, and gravel.  This collection of loose mineral material is called 'regolith'.  This is the 'parent material' from which soil is born.

As even the gravel is pulverized, it's broken into the grains which become soil: sand, silt, and clay, each finer than the one before.  A soil of mostly clay won't drain water very well, a soil of mostly sand won't hold water and drains too quickly.  Loam, the best soil for growing things is 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay.  (A little clay goes a long way.)

The most important element in the soil, both to hold water and for plant growth, is the organic matter, also known as humus.  This is the endpoint of things like compost and humanure.

About half of typical soil is solid material (sand, silt, clay, and humus) and half is air and water, which is also very important to the health of plants, since roots need to breath and take in water.  Pores in the soil (the spaces between soil particles) is where the water and air reside.

"Good structure allows the soil to retain adequate water as well as drain excess water; promotes ease of seedling emergence, root penetration, and tuber growth; air movement; and erosion control."  (from Eash, Green, Razvi, and Bennett, Soil Science Simplified, Fifth Edition--this is a good reference book on soil science that I got out of the public library and have been reading since I got back from Dancing Rabbit. It's not one of the books I read while I was there.)

There are also a lot of creatures that live in the soil, ranging from microorganisms such as bacteria, actinomycetes, algae, fungi, mycorrhizae (fungi that live in or around the roots of plants and provide nutrients and water for the plants), protozoa, and nematodes,  (a really good book about all of this is Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, a book I did read while I was at Dancing Rabbit) to larger organisms such as earthworms, springtails, mites, pill bugs, sow bugs, ants, and even larger animals like mice, shrews, rabbits, and moles.

There's a lot more I'm learning about soil chemistry (see my next post), erosion, and types of soil, but this is the basics.  If we are going to focus on the needs of people (which I think any radical social change is going to need to do), we have to realize that plants provide our food and air and basically keep us alive.  Soil is what keeps plants alive.

Quote of the Day:  "The soil is the lifeblood of your land and, therefore, you." - Nicole Faires

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Same Sex Marriage and Social Change

In spite of how it feels sometimes, social change happens--and it sometimes happens fairly quickly.  The Vietnam War was ended.  Racism is not okay today.  It still exists, even if we have a black president, but the very fact that Obama is in office shows how much things have shifted.  Discrimination against women is no longer okay either, even if the Equal Rights Amendment never passed.

But if you want to see the speed at which things can shift, look at what's happened over the last decade with same sex marriage. Prior to 2012, thirty states banned it--including eleven states which voted to ban it in 2004 and seven more voting to ban it in 2006.  However, last year four states voted in favor of it.  It's now legal in twelve states and the District of Columbia, and one of last week's Supreme Court decisions made California the thirteenth state.  The polls have shifted over the last five years from a majority of the country opposing same sex marriage to a majority favoring it. I think the Supreme Court was pushed into their twin decisions last week.  It wasn't hard to see which way the wind was blowing.

While some of this has come about because of protests and other actions, I think most of the change was due to hard work in what I will call 'education' and Joanna Macy refers to as 'A Shift in Consciousness'.  (For more about these ways of looking at social change strategy, see my posts on Creating Social Change, 7/2/08, The Great Turning, 1/15/09, and Social Change: My View, 6/29/10.)  I think that change came about mostly because queer marriage activists kept putting out one clear, simple message:  "I deserve the right to marry the person I love."  They made it clear that this was a matter of fairness and justice.

On Wednesday of this week I went to a public reading (led by the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick) of a speech by Frederick Douglass, "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro".  It was given in 1852 before the civil war and the end of slavery.  It was a powerful speech, mainly because Frederick Douglass had one clear message in it: slavery was inhuman and violates all the principles implied in the American Revolution.  He makes a very clear and simple case for it--this is just wrong and there can be no argument about it.

I think that the climate change people are trying to do something similar now--putting out a message that fossil fuels cause climate change and we are going to need to stop using them.  We'll see how well it can be heard.

At some point, I'm hoping the message will get out that our whole way of life is oppressive and not sustainable and that we could live very differently--and live quite well.  It's a hard message to get out, but I take heart when I see what's happening with same sex marriage, and what happened with slavery.  Social change is indeed possible, but it takes time and persistence.

Quote of the Day:  "But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? ...
"Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong?  No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength than such argument would imply." - Frederick Douglass

Monday, July 1, 2013

Nine Communities, Many Thoughts

As of the moment, I feel like I'm done my community touring for a while.  I started off, as you might remember, at the Communities Conference at the beginning of last September.  I went right to the Acorn community after the conference, to begin a three week visit.

Now, ten months later, while I still intend to end the year with another Communities Conference, I feel like I'm done otherwise.  At this point, I've checked out nine different communities, two of which are barely up and running (the community I visited in Pennsylvania and Living Energy Farm), one of which had just ended before I got there (Skyhouse), and six up and functioning communities (from the six year old Still Waters Sanctuary/Possibility Alliance to the forty-six year old Twin Oaks--not to mention Acorn, Dancing Rabbit, Red Earth Farms, and Sandhill).

I did three-week visits at Acorn and Dancing Rabbit and two three-week visits at Twin Oaks. I spent nearly five weeks in Pennsylvania with the couple trying to build a community there and I've done three work days at Living Energy Farm.  I've done tours of Sandhill, Red Earth Farms, and the Still Waters Sanctuary, and I talked with three different people involved with Skyhouse about it (and ate several meals in the building, which is still around).

What have I learned from all this?  First, that community comes in all sizes and flavors--from the hundred folks at Twin Oaks and the seventy at Dancing Rabbit, to midsized communities like thirty-person Acorn, to smaller communities like Red Earth Farms, the Still Waters Sanctuary, and Sandhill.  However, small communities can have it rough--the community in Pennsylvania hasn't really started because it's just the couple that are starting it and Living Energy Farm hasn't really got going because it was also mostly two people (with a bunch of interns).  Similarly, a good part of why Skyhouse fell apart was because it shrank away.

Most of the communities that I visited were rural communities but I have a soft place in my heart for urban communities like the one in Pennsylvania.  (In the nineties I started an urban community that lasted five years.  It also fell apart partly because of the small number of people involved.)  Twin Oaks, Acorn, and Sandhill are all income-sharing communities, as was Skyhouse and hopefully Living Energy Farm will be.  The Still Waters Sanctuary runs on a 'gift economy', Dancing Rabbit has various forms of entrepreneurship (or, as I put it, reinvented capitalism), and Red Earth Farms is homesteads that all run individually.  The folks I visited in Pennsylvania were also trying to do things on the gift economy.

Each community had it's own tale to tell and lessons to be learned from it.  From Twin Oaks I learned if you grow a community large enough, it can last fifty years or more. (At this point I'm sure it will be going strong for its fiftieth anniversary.  It could fall apart--as could anything--but I think it would take a while if it did.)  I also learned that over that time systems will evolve in their own way and may not turn out as anyone would have intended--but may work very well anyway.  From Acorn I learned the importance of persistence (they were down to a couple of folks at one point, but one of them--Ira Wallace--wasn't willing to give up) and the importance of community support (the other thing that got them through was having Twin Oaks nearby).  From Sandhill I learned that persistence can pay off unexpectedly.  After hanging in as a very small community for over twenty years, they persuaded Dancing Rabbit to build an ecovillage near them--and eventually they had a community of communities grow around them.  Likewise, from Dancing Rabbit I learned the importance of building where there was already a community, and Red Earth Farms is even stronger for having two communities nearby. Living Energy Farm is also benefitting (as they struggle to build) from having two large, well functioning communities nearby.  (In spite of their problems, I'd be surprised if they didn't succeed with Twin Oaks and Acorn supporting them.)  The location far from any other communities is one of the difficulties that the crew in Pennsylvania is struggling with, and I'm not clear whether the Still Waters Sanctuary is close enough to the Rutledge communities to really benefit from them.  On the other hand, Skyhouse had Dancing Rabbit all around it, but without the internal connections that wasn't enough.  (In fact, Dancing Rabbit ended up taking energy away from Skyhouse.)

The biggest lesson I've learned is that there's many different kinds of communities out there and communities can be quite different and still function very well.  There's also many wonderful people in those communities and I'm glad that I got to know some of them.  (These were in the communities that I did three week visits at--Acorn, TO, and DR--and obviously not the ones I had just had brief tours of.)

I'm glad I visited these nine communities.  Now I want to live in a community.

Quote of the Day:  " long as I can remember I've had a desire to make some difference in the world.  But the world is one great, big, hard place to make a difference.  Community is a small enough chunk that you can make a difference.  And it also is a good place from which you can, from time to time, try to make a difference in some bigger subset of the world." - Ira Wallace

Friday, June 14, 2013

Thoughts as I Leave Dancing Rabbit

I'm pretty glad I came here.  I've gotten numerous tick bites and had to share my tent with ants, spiders, and pill bugs, but overall the experience was positive.  In addition to workshops on DR's ecological agreements, consensus decision making, deepening communication, alternative construction, alternative energy, and, of course, land use planning, we've also had workshops on permaculture, humanure, their co-op fee structure, and their alternative currency.  We had a session devoted to 'inner sustainability', which is their term for various techniques to keep yourself going--including NonViolent Communication, ReEvaluation CoCounseling, and Restorative Circles.  We later learned more about Restorative Circles in a discussion group about conflict resolution at Dancing Rabbit.  There was a useful session on the whole communities movement (with a tool that I liked to compare communities as well as figure out what you're looking for) and discussion session about 'community economics' which tied together a bunch of the earlier workshops (like co-op fees and alternative currency) and provided a good framework for looking at how people manage at DR.  I liked the blend of focus on technical stuff (construction, energy, land use, and economics) with ways of connecting and taking care of yourself (communication, conflict resolution, and inner sustainability).  Obviously some people here are aware that there's more to community than building houses and growing food.

We also had a bunch of work parties--some of which were cancelled due to the wet weather and other problems, but we did get to help finish a living roof, help build a straw bale wall, help mulch pathways in a vineyard, help stake out pasture land, and help work on the foundation to someone's house.  The hands on work was a nice supplement to all the lectures and workshops.  I also attended a men's group, several Quaker meetings (which, for some reason, they hold here on Saturdays), and a Five Rhythms night of dance and music.

The people at DR were very welcoming and helpful.  We were hosted at different people's houses for dinner and lunch and so got a chance to talk with many of the folks here.

I did get to talk with Tony Sirna about what happened to Skyhouse, the income sharing community that was part of Dancing Rabbit until last January.  He told me that there were three other people he'd been doing it with for years.  At one point, one of them (another founder who Tony was close with) left to go on to other things, and when the couple that was left decided they wanted to raise a child outside DR, it left Tony to start a new group.  He told me that he really likes income sharing communities but didn't have the energy to keep Skyhouse going because his focus right now is on building DR and guiding it through the next stage in its process.  So, right now, he is renting rooms in Skyhouse and there is no income sharing community at DR.

Which brings me to my biggest difficulty with DR.  Dancing Rabbit is not an income sharing community.  As I wrote in my post on Red Earth Farms (6/4/13), "at DR there's a strong sense of 'this is mine' and 'I need to make sure I'm being paid for what I do'".  It can be a bit much at times.  The alternative currency discussion focused on their electronic currency and made me feel like they were trying to reinvent capitalism.  Still, I do believe there is a need for many different types of community--I don't believe that income sharing is the only way to go.  The problem, as it became clear in the discussion on community economics is that it makes it easy for some people (especially those with jobs where they can 'telecommute') to live here because they have worked hard to make the place affordable, but for others, they are barely making a living trying to work from the land here.  Unfortunately, they seem to have reinvented economic classes as well.  I heard from some people who talked about who had power here and who didn't--and made me aware that those who were barely scraping by did not have time to be involved in decision making groups, even if those groups are open to anyone (at least in theory), let alone take any leadership. 

Please, don't let that last paragraph turn you off of Dancing Rabbit.  Like any other community, DR is a work in progress.  None of the communities I've visited has been even near perfect and I'm very glad they all exist.  In fact, because DR is still growing and early on in their community building, I think I've learned more (at least from the point of view of someone who wants to build community) here than at any of the other communities I've visited.

Which leads me to my last insight.  I have made some nice connections here and it feels really weird to be leaving never to return.  I had thought of visiting other communities (like Earthaven in North Carolina and Heathcote in Maryland) and now I'm rethinking that.  Twin Oaks and Acorn were fine, because I intend to keep returning there, but I don't want to just hop all over the communities circuit--perpetually visiting places and leaving.  Besides, I hope I will be actually building community with others soon.  (More on this in the future.)  It's good I got to see DR, Red Earth, Sandhill, and the PA, but I've had enough of traveling.  I'm headed home.  I will be going to the Communities Conference again at the end of the summer but aside from that, I hope to settle down for a while.

Quote of the Day: "In addition to being a wonderful home for us, DR is a model for social change. Outreach and education are integral to our mission. Rather than isolating ourselves completely from the mainstream, we promote DR as a viable alternative. We enjoy sharing discoveries and ideas of sustainable living with people who have a wide variety of lifestyles." - from the Dancing Rabbit website

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Possibility Alliance

A week ago Monday, we got to visit yet another community, this one in La Plata, 40 miles away from Rutledge, called the Possibility Alliance (and also known as the Still Waters Sanctuary).  I had hoped to visit it after I was done with my Dancing Rabbit visit because the train station I was being dropped off at is in La Plata.  However, I was told the only time we could visit was in the middle of our DR stay (because they're in a 'retreat year'), so I figured it wouldn't happen.  However, it turned out that most of the
visitors group wanted to check out the Possibility Alliance and a couple
of people had cars so a whole bunch of us went off attend their community

The tour was led by Ethan Hughes, their charismatic leader. (At least one
person at DR warned me about him--but for our brief visit he seemed fairly
easy-going.)  He began the tour by citing the mission of the Possibility
Alliance: "Living for the upliftment of all life and reaching for our
highest human potential."  He also claimed that the PA was guided by five
practices: 1) Simplicity--he said others called it 'radical simplicity'
and he thought of it as 'necessary simplicity', 2) Service--many different
kinds of service, but one that's often associated with the PA is their
'Superhero Bike Rides' where people dress up as superheroes and ride into
towns offering to help in any way that's useful, 3) Social Engagement and
Nonviolent Activism, 4) Self Transformation, and 5) Silliness,
Celebration, Gratitude, and Joy.  Finally, after quizzing us on things
like dying people's regrets and what our most passionate wishes were, he
led us on a tour of the sanctuary.

We got to see his house and the new timberframed/straw-bale home that they were building, the very mellow draft horses that they own, the pond that they've recently tranformed, and the land and how they've been taking care of it.

Life at the Possibility Alliance is extremely low-tech.  They don't have
electricity (they use candles, they also don't have a website although
they do have a phone).  All the building done there is with hand tools
rather than power tools.  They try to apply permaculture principles to
their work.

They also run on 'the gift economy'--taking what is offered but not
charging for all their courses and workshops, including a permaculture
design certification course which other places often charge enormous
amounts of money.  We all enjoyed the tour and the place, although we were
clear that this was only a taste of what the place was about.

For another view of the PA, see this post by leavergirl on her blog Leaving Babylon.

Quote of the Day: "What we would like to do is change the world.  Make it
a little easier for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God
intended them to do.... There is nothing we can do but love, dear
God--please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor,
to love our enemy." - Dorothy Day (as quoted in the Possibility Alliance

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sandhill Farm

There once was a small village in northeast Missouri called Sandhill.  In
the 1960s it disappeared as it was incorporated in the town of Rutledge.
In the 1970s, four people (two couples) were searching for land to start a
commune and purchased a plot in Rutledge very near the Sandhill Cemetery
(which is still there).  They named the place Sandhill Farm.

It's still there nearly forty years later.  On Tuesday night last week,
there was a 'tri-community' dinner at Sandhill Farm and along with that,
we visitors to Dancing Rabbit, got a tour of the Sandhill community.  Of
the three communities here in Rutledge, this is the only one that's an
income sharing community.  Unlike Twin Oaks or Acorn, it sounds like the
income sharing procedure at Sandhill is rather informal.

Sandhill makes its income on what our tour guide called 'value-added
products'.   He mentioned honey and salsa and other products like that but
their biggest money maker is sorghum--which is used to make Sorghum Syrup, a natural sweetener popular in the midwest.  They produce about 800 gallons of the syrup a year  and sell it in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa,
Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

The Sandhill community has never gotten very large.  They currently have
around six adults (and one child) and have had at most twelve adult
members.  They also (like the other two communities here) have a bunch of
interns and work exchangers.  Sandhill also participates in a lot of
interactions with Dancing Rabbit and Red Earth Farms.  To give one small
example, there are a bunch of maple trees at Dancing Rabbit and last year
someone tapped some of them and collected the sap.  Since there wasn't a
facility at DR to boil it down, they brought it to Sandhill which has a
'sugar shack' which they use mainly for the sorghum, but they also boil
down maple syrup.  Sandhill was glad to boil the syrup down for DR (and
they got paid in a small amount of the maple syrup).

A bigger example is that the very reason Dancing Rabbit is in Rutledge is
because Sandhill was here.  It's fascinating to watch the interactions of
the three communities and see how much they depend on each other. There's another way of living going on in Rutledge, MO, and Louisa County, VA.

Quote of the Day: "We envision Sandhill Farm as a stable, progressive,
fluid and vibrant community thriving in abundance. We prioritize building
and maintaining the health of our members, systems and facilities. We hope
to integrate more alternative energy, natural building, empowered health
care and self sufficiency in our lives. Sandhill Farm, in cooperation with
our friends and neighbors, will continue to expand and network a culture
of sustainable living in northeastern Missouri." - Sandhill's Vision

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Red Earth Farms

A week ago Saturday, the visitor's group I'm in at Dancing Rabbit went on a tour of the nearby community of Red Earth Farms.  The relationship between DR and REF reminds me of the relationship between Twin Oaks and Acorn.  (See my posts on Update 2: The Acorn Community, 9/14/12, and Update 6: Life at Twin Oaks, 12/4/12.)  Dancing Rabbit and Twin Oaks are both large sized communities that are high on structure and policies, where Red Earth Farms and Acorn were much smaller and more into individual freedom and figuring it out as they went along.  The big difference is that where Twin Oaks and Acorn were both income sharing communities and very strong on sharing everything, DR and REF are both much more individually oriented--while they both share a bunch (particularly DR), at DR there's a strong sense of  'this is mine' and 'I need to make sure I'm being paid for what I do', and REF (which is a homesteaders community) is divided into individual sites with the expectation that each site can pretty much do what they want (although they're all pretty committed to sustainable, ecological living and most of them live rather simply).

On the other hand, the REF homesteads are quite interesting.  Since there
are no rules about what anyone can do or can't do, each of them is pretty
different.  One in particular had a house that was very old fashioned and
obviously hand built.  Several people said that when they entered it they
had the sensation of going back more than a century in time.

And it's important to note the back and forth between DR and REF--I've
seen a bunch of folks from REF hanging out at DR from time to time and
people at each community will say, 'I built this with the help of
so-and-so at ...' the other community.  This interconnecting of the two
communities also reminds me a lot of the relationship between Twin Oaks
and Acorn.  But both communities here have a strong interelationship with
the third community in Rutledge, Sandhill, which is also the oldest of the
three.  I'll write about that next.

Quote of the Day: "Red Earth Farms is an intentional community of
homesteads sharing a 76-acre land trust in the rolling hills of northeast
Missouri. Our community’s mission is to creatively explore and evaluate
sustainable ways to meet our needs in accordance with our guiding
principle: 'Love the land; love your neighbors.' " - from Red Earth Farms'

Friday, May 31, 2013

Land Use Planning

Tuesday I attended a workshop on Land Use Planning run by Tony Sirna, one
of the founders of Dancing Rabbit.  It was fascinating because it focused
on the social and relational aspects of buildings.

Tony started out by pointing out that DR was built using the 'village'
model.  A major influence was the book A Pattern Language by Christopher
Alexander.  Tony said that they modeled the layout of DR on how New
England villages and European villages are structured.  They focused on
things like courtyards between the buildings and creating social spaces.
They looked at questions like 'Where do people gather?', 'Where do the
accidental interactions occur?', and 'How can you create situations where
more of these accidental interactions happen?'

One method is to have the houses at angles to each other, so that their
front doors open facing each other.  He pointed out that buildings
generally have a 'primary access side' and a 'secondary access side'--the
primary side gets used a lot more and so it's important that this is the
side that faces other buildings.

He also pointed out that a problem with using classic permaculture zones
in creating houses in ecovillages is that the way that these zones are
applied to people's houses is as if each house was a homestead in
isolation from other properties.  But at DR what people do with each house
affects the houses around it.  For example: people have the house face
south for solar gain and classically would plant large trees in the north
as a wind break.  But, as he said, 'One person's north side is the person
behind them's south side and trees planted in the north can diminish their
neighbor's solar gain.

Tony made it clear that it didn't make sense to build the community by
adding a house here and then another house much further away and just
slowly filling in the pieces.  He suggested starting by building
'microcosms'--modeling what the eventual community will look like by what
you build initially.

Finally, he said that one difference between Dancing Rabbit and Earthaven (the two most famous of the ecovillages) is that Earthaven is in a highly forested area and DR is being built in former farmland, so at Earthaven they have to cut down trees to build houses and at DR people not only don't have to cut down any trees to build but they're actually planting trees all over the place.

Quote of the Day: "People will not feel comfortable in their houses unless
a group of houses forms a cluster...  The most obvious and tribal-like
cluster--the homes on either side and across the street--forms roughly a
circle, and it is there that most contact occurs." - Christopher
Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

First Week at Dancing Rabbit

This is the beginning of my second week at Dancing Rabbit.  DR is an
'ecovillage' in the small town of Rutledge, Missouri--deep in the
northeast part of the state.  As I've written before, it's one of three intentional communities in Rutledge.

And it's by far the biggest--there's over seventy people here, and that
includes a good number of children.  (Not as many older folks as Twin Oaks
but I'm sure there's a few in their sixties and one of the newest members
is seventy, I believe.)

I'm here with a visitor's group that started off with nine adults (and a
one year old), but we just lost someone who had only signed up for a one
week visit. I'm living in a tent, which has been challenging--especially
during some really rainy weather--but it hasn't leaked much, so I'm happy.

I feel like I'm learning so much being here.  We've had an orientation
tour of DR, and later a longer walk exploring their land, and we've done
workshops on their ecological agreements, consensus decision making, and deepening communication.  On Thursday we did back to back workshops on alternative construction and alternative energy complete with being able to look at examples of different ways that construction and energy is being done at DR.  DR has dozens of amazing buildings, no clothes dryers or flush
toilets, four communal cars for everyone, and lots of very friendly people.

Quote of the Day:  "At Dancing Rabbit we strive to be ecologically and
socially conscientious--to put our ideals into practice, and to have the
strength and patience to work hard for their achievement."  - from Dancing
Rabbit's 'Building Sustainable Community' brochure

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Off to Missouri

As I said a couple of posts ago, I won't remain settled in Boston for long.  (See Life Erupts, 5/1/13)   I've gotten into the visiting program that I applied for at Dancing Rabbit and I'll be leaving Boston Sunday, May 19th (less than two weeks from now) and getting to Missouri the next night.

While I've talked about this before (see my post on Communities of Communities, 6/9/12), I'm going to recap my community info so you don't have to look so hard.  If you do want more info on this, you should look up that old post. Dancing Rabbit (DR) is one of three intentional communities in the small town of Rutledge, MO--Sandhill (a small income sharing community that's been in Rutledge since the 1970s) and Red Earth Farms (a homesteading community that split off from DR and is located right across the road) are located nearby.  But DR, with 70 or so members, is by far the largest.

I'm going to DR, first of all, because I want to learn how it works. Along with Earthaven in North Carolina, it's one of the best known rural ecovillages.  I also want to see and understand the connections and cooperation between the three Rutledge communities.  What I've seen makes me think of the way that Twin Oaks, Acorn, and Living Energy Farm work together.  I've seen that first-hand, now I'm going to get to check out how they do it in the 'Show-Me' state.

While I'm out there, I may also visit the Possibility Alliance, a community forty miles away in La Plata (which is also where the train station is).  I haven't arranged that yet so we'll see if that happens.

Meanwhile, I'm learning to take life as it comes and not plan too much, because I'm never quite sure what comes next.  And so the journey continues...

Quote of the Day: " seems to me that knowing where we are going encourages us to stop seeing and hearing and allows us to fall asleep....
"Not knowing where you are going creates more than uncertainty; it fosters a sense of aliveness, an appreciation of the particulars around you....
"The truth is that we are always moving toward mystery and so we are far closer to what is real when we do not see our destination clearly." - Rachel Naomi Remen

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Issues in Community: Decision Making

The Spring 2013 issue of Communities magazine has a very interesting article by Diana Leafe Christian entitled "Consensus and the Burden of Added Process: Are There Easier Ways to Make Decisions?"  This is part three in a series that she has been writing on the problems with consensus and alternatives to it.  What I find interesting about it is that with previous articles she focused on her issues with 'consensus-with-unanimity', here she seems to realize that it actually does work for some communities.

In this article, she seems to be saying what I've been thinking for a while.  For certain communities it seems to work (she suggests these are communities formed in the eighties or earlier, but Acorn is one of the communities I know where it seems to work and Acorn was founded in 1993--I also know several co-op households, founded in this millennium, where consensus seems to work as well), whereas for others ('founded after the 1980s' and she specifically cites cohousing and ecovillages) it often becomes a burden and can "lead to disharmony, distrust, lower morale, and dwindling meeting attendance".  The whole article is worth reading--even multiple times.  (In fact, the whole series, including various people's replies to the articles, can give you quite an education in the nuances of consensus and other forms of decision making.) Here I'm simply focusing on which communities consensus works for.

I think she's absolutely right on why this type of consensus doesn't work for most cohousing and many ecovillage-type communities.  A large, very diverse group will probably need something more structured and less open to what she (and others) refer to as 'tyranny of the minority'.  She points out that not everyone is willing to go through the intense processing that this type of consensus can require. On the other hand, it's been my experience that many smaller households and communities (regardless of when they were founded), especially if they share common core values, are willing to do the work of building closeness with each other by working through conflict.

I want to be clear--I don't think that one situation is superior to the other. Diana has a sidebar to this article listing the reasons that 'Cohousers and Ecovillagers Join Community', and I can really understand them. Many of them become impatient with endless processing, especially if building the closeness and trust that comes with this isn't one of their priorities.  I don't believe in 'one size fits all' when it comes to community. In one of the earliest posts on this blog (Looking for The Answer?, 6/28/08) I wrote that I didn't think there was any one solution to our problems.  Like anything else, consensus is just one of the tools in the decision-making toolbox.  It's quite useful, but I know that it won't work for all communities.  I'm glad that Diana has pushed us to look at this, and I'm glad she's realized that this can vary from community to community.  The moral here is that as you're building community, think about what kind of community you want, and then explore what decision-making tools can help build that.

Quote of the Day: "I agree that some people do join communities mostly to experience deeper relationships and are willing to put in the time required.  But I don't think most people join for this reason.  Most cohousers and ecovillagers that I know seem to have other reasons for living in community." - Diana Leafe Christian

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Life Erupts

It's full spring once again. May Day, Beltaine, whatever you want to call it.  The time of year when life not only renews itself, it bursts forth in a vibrant, pulsating frenzy.

I'm currently staying in Dorchester, a rather gritty neighborhood of Boston.  Quite urban. But you can't avoid noticing this resurrection.  I've got a third floor room and on the deck outside the kitchen a maple tree is exploding into new being, thrusting yellow-green blossoms at me every time I go out there. Walking around the block confronts me with flowers of purple, yellow, pink, blue, and white. The daffodils still linger and several houses have a riot of many-colored tulips in their yards.  At the end of the street, a tree has wrapped itself in a shimmer of greenish-white.

The street itself is only slightly busy, so a group of boys stuck a basketball net on the curb and were using the road to dribble and shoot hoops from, moving out of the way briefly when the occasional car would come by.  A girl down the other end of the street leapt at a branch of a tree with pink blossoms, pulling it down and collecting a bouquet of petals to bring home.

And my life is renewing as well.  I am reconnecting with a nearby co-op house that I used to live in, where I'll be cooking and eating over the next few months.  I just got an email from Dancing Rabbit in Missouri and I'll be visiting there at the end of May.  And I've been slowly connecting with people who say that they want to create or be part of income sharing communities in New England or nearby.  I've been doing this too long to believe that most of these connections will lead to something, but who knows? Life erupts and right now I'm cruising on the pure joy of that.

Quote of the Day: "Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are." - Marianne Williamson

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lessons from Pennsylvania

Sorry about the long delay in posting.  (over a month, I know.) I'm back in the Boston area after many adventures. (Quite a few of them involving travel--my most recent was trying to return to Boston last Friday when the city and the public transit system were shut down.  If you've been following the news you know why.)

I just spent a month in Pennsylvania.  I learned a lot of things in my time there.  I worked on projects involving hugelkultur and sheet mulching.  One of the people there has a very different method of doing humanure (see my post on Humanure, 1/10/13) involving newspaper.  It was a bit tricky but it was useful to learn.  I took a field trip to Lancaster to learn about the Amish and Mennonites.  I didn't actually go to any Amish locations but I did have an interesting conversation with a Mennonite man who had some insights into why the plain clothes (this was what the common people wore when the Amish were starting out--as opposed to the dress of the aristocracy) and why the Anabaptists (the ancestors of the Amish and Mennonites) and early Quakers were persecuted (the imperialists are always interested in getting rid of those who threaten their way of life).

I also gave a few presentations--one on sprouting (see my post on Sprouts!, 2/26/10) and another (of course) on intentional community.

A bigger learning was from watching these folks and how they were trying to set up something. It turned out not to be what I wanted and I'm not sure that they're actually going to get what they want (I'm not even sure they know what they want) but it makes some of the things that get in the way of building community much more apparent to me.

Probably the most important learning I had was about the ways I don't communicate clearly.  There was a bit of misunderstanding that happened and I could see how I contributed to much of it.   I did try to leave there well but I'm very clear that I need to work on some of my stuff if I'm going to build community (feedback that I got from others as well).  As one of my friends puts it, "Wherever you go, there you are."

Quote of the Day: "The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Snow, Darkness, and Fire

I am in the midst of my final week at Twin Oaks.  Much of the last few days has been spent recovering from the events of last week.

Last Wednesday it snowed here.  I had been wondering if I'd see any snow while I was in Virginia.  Well, we got six inches.  In the Boston area, that wouldn't mean much.  But here there aren't sidewalks or even paved roads.  (At least not within Twin Oaks.)  Everything is dirt roads and paths.  So the experience was quite different from six inches in the city.  To make things worse, it was a wet snow that brought down a lot of power lines.  We were without power for four days.

At first it was fun.  The first night without power, I walked to the far end of Twin Oaks--a place they call Emerald City.  But unlike the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, the road there wasn't paved with yellow bricks.  That night the road was a muddy, slushy mess.

But the stars here are beautiful at night--and the stars and snow kept things from getting too dark.  Four days later, though, the charm was wearing off.  Fortunately, there is a nice woodstove in the visitor's cottage, so we kept warm at night.  And there were lots of candlelight dinners.  And even with all the inconveniences we were very lucky.

Acorn, the community that I stayed at last September and seven miles down the road from here, was not so lucky.  They got their power back much sooner.  However, when the power went out, someone ran into one building to rescue some baby chicks that were being kept warm by an electric heater and apparently moved the heater to the wrong place. When the power came back on it started a fire that turned into an inferno that destroyed the whole building.  Very fortunately, this wasn't a building anyone lived in and no one was hurt--but there was thousands of dollars of damage, including their communal clothes supply and there was at least one automobile nearby that the heat of the fire literally melted the bumper.

Last Saturday, I did what I'm calling a communal trifecta.  A small group of us went over to Acorn briefly (so I got to see the damage firsthand and talk with some of the folks there) before we went on to Living Energy Farm for a work day there.  By Saturday much of the snow had melted, but Living Energy Farm (most of which isn't built yet) was a mud pit.  I was able to help with putting up a fence for an orchard there, but I returned a muddy mess.  Still, it was good to see some of what's going on in the other communities around here.

This Friday, I'll be leaving Twin Oaks and going to stay with a couple of my cousins (and their large and loving family) who live near Richmond.  Then next Monday I'll be off to Pennsylvania, for my next community adventures.

Quote of the Day: "To enter the courtyard at Twin Oaks is--sooner or later--to come face-to-face with the profundity of the utopian question.  Although that same question is everywhere, including wherever you are now, it is perhaps clearer on this commune in Virginia only because in our time several hundred of our contemporaries have totally committed a portion of their lives to wrestling with it in the context of these four-hundred and eighty-three acres." - Ingrid Komar

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Issues in Community: Task and Morale Functions

Back in 2008 I wrote a post (Equality and Leadership, 10/2/08) that mentioned a pamphlet which influenced my thinking.  'Leadership for Change' was focused on creating a 'feminist model' of leadership and, among other things, talked about two kinds of group functions that they saw leadership focused on.  The first, which they called task functions is defined as working toward 'group achievement'; the second, which they call morale functions (and I've also heard referred to as process functions) works toward 'group maintenance'.

The authors (Bruce Kokopeli and George Lakey) go on to list ten task functions (information and opinion-giving, information and opinion-seeking, proposing goals and initiating action, direction-giving, summarizing, coordinating, diagnosing/figuring out group difficulties and blocks, energizing, reality-testing, and evaluating) and ten morale functions (encouraging participation, harmonizing and compromising, relieving tension, helping communication, evaluating the emotional climate, observing process, setting standards, active listening, building trust, and solving interpersonal problems).  Their point is that groups need both of these type of functions.  I've heard it said that groups that focus only on tasks either fall apart before they complete their first task--or right afterwards, and groups that focus solely on morale often end up drifting and eventually falling apart because members get frustrated about not accomplishing anything.

I'm convinced that communities need both.  Unfortunately, many communities end up focusing on only one of these, since they may be stacked with either people who joined to get things done or people who joined because of the supportive atmosphere.  The result is that I read complaints about these groups, either that they spend all their time 'processing' and never get anything done, or that they burn out their members with overly ambitious schemes.

I think that one reason Twin Oaks has lasted so long is that they do a good job of both: they have thriving businesses, abundant gardens, and wonderful meals, and they have parties and support members social lives and find many ways of taking care of each other.  So my advice to people forming communities is to look at both of these functions.  Ask yourself (and each other) two questions: What do you want to accomplish as a community?  (Also known as, what's your goal or mission?) And how do you plan to take care of your members?  How can you support each other?

In a good community, members enjoy themselves and feel cared for and get things done.

Quote of the Day: "Understanding these functions can make the difference between a group that flounders and a group that moves... Shared leadership... values the morale functions highly and sees that the power of the group in the long run is as dependent on the nurturance of its members as on its efficiency in particular tasks." - Bruce Kokopeli and George Lakey