Taking off from Florida, a pit-stop in Atlanta, and on to the BlueRidge Mountains of North Carolina. On a rainy foggy morning, I wound around the stoic mountain sides, climbed (the car climbed that is, while I sat back, comfortably driving it) about thirty minutes up from the little town of Black Mountain, up alongside the Eastern Continental Divide, and onto the unpaved gravel roads of the Earthaven Ecovillage.
I arrived on a Saturday morning for a short tour of the village, and then stayed four more days in their campground. In that time, I explored some of the lush mountainside, listened to the rushing streams, crossed foot bridges adorned with statues of goddesses and boulders artistically ornamented, hung out in the different neighborhoods of the village (these crawl out into the forest on unpaved roads from the main thoroughfare, “Another Way,”), and chatted with some of the members and residents who have helped sustain this off-the-grid community for the last twenty-one years.
An Introduction to Organization and Structure Woven Into a Short Aside about Radicalness
Many would call the members and residents of Earthaven "radicals." It's a designation we use to describe those who live in the extremity of their beliefs, and in that sense, it's probably the right word. Hell, I'll call them radicals, though I admit it feels strange. The most common unifying belief of Earthaven’s population, and the underlying principle of its organization and structure, is the push to live a permaculture life (for those who may not know much about it, the word is a mashup of the words “permanent” and “culture”) (and here are some lectures on it by Bill Mollison, one of the pioneers on the subject). A permaculture life means cultivating a system of human living that utilizes, and is in tune with, the natural ecosystem. Human beings, as it were, are included in this vision of "natural ecosystem." To live more simply and in touch with each other and the world...is it really so radical? Perhaps making the decision to live in the mountains and to build something from scratch is extreme, revolutionary even, but are these underlying principles not also deeply rational?
I guess my point here is: when you spend some days with a big group of rural mountain hippie freaks, and then come back to the common world of America today, it can feel like the delineation between radical and popular, between fringe and mainstream, is really comically (and maybe a little terrifyingly) backward.
My first afternoon and evening at the village I spent with Arjuna da Silva, one of the founding members of Earthaven, in her naturally built house (the “Leela House”) in the Bellavia Gardens neighborhood. Arjuna is one of four founding members (from an original eighteen) who still lives at Earthaven. We talked about the founding of the village, its spiritual elements (those parts of our conversation I’ll return to in subsequent blog posts), and some of its successes and disappointments.
Arjuna's involvement in the dream that would become Earthaven began with a group of people, she tells me, “who I was in spiritual community with.” “We joined up with a core of about eight to ten people," she says, "maybe not quite that many, plus a few people who knew them. These were people already in their 40s and 50s, who had been on spiritual paths, not all on the same one. There was zen, and there was sufi, and others. They all had experience living in Community. They felt that it was their destiny: they had to start a Community somewhere in Western North Carolina.”
Those earliest years were filled with the many ups and downs and difficulties of making such a project come to fruition. There were disagreements over whether or not to purchase this particular piece of land (“They saw this one and rejected it [at first] because it was a recovering juvenile forest,”), differing visions of Community, and various levels of commitment to the work required to pull off such a monumental feat as turning a road-less expanse of trees into a living human village. For some the dream was steeped in the ideals of permaculture, for others it was country living in Community with friends and family, and still others dreamed of spiritual outreach and education. “The original group started maybe in ’91 dreaming this dream,” Arjuna tells me. Through much conversation and meditation, eventually enough pieces fell into place for the land purchase to occur in 1994. There are stories that circulate about one of the founding members having a dream that this was the land, and that being the final great catalyst to actually buy, although I was also told that every founder carried their own version of the founding story.
Arjuna tells it: “We started and we had probably four or five ecstatic years together before we had to get to the down and dirty stuff. Wonderful connections, camaraderie. We grew in those five years to be 35 or so people. It was very rich. We followed the advice of a community in Virginia called Shannon Farms to build a community center before we allowed people to build their own homes.” This became the Council Hall.
Following the community center’s building came the first neighborhood, the development of the energy-systems, and then, really, day-to-day life: some years of steady growth, some decline, some legal issues, many successes, some failures, lots of grit, strife, double-down determination, and commitment.
More on Language: Community and Utopia, And an Insight
I think this is a good place to draw an important distinction. In my days at Earthaven, my first visit to a Community that’s been around for some time, the notion of Utopia was on my mind. In the grand quest to balance rationality and belief, this type of marriage between rational ecological living and spiritual community made me think about using Thomas Moore's word for his perfect society. John Lennon "imagined all the people living life in peace" and I found myself asking: okay, what of it? The Bruderhof seemed to find that life of deep peace through total submission to a single uncompromising way of life. So what of this ragged, rugged mountain bunch?
I’ve long been of the mind, like Rachael Cohen, that there is no Utopia. Indeed that the very pursuit of Utopia, of perfection, can become so bugged with moral pitfalls and enticements into either chaos or totalitarianism that any use of the word “Utopia” inevitably becomes its opposite.
I stand by that thought.
Most of the people I spoke to at Earthaven would probably be the first to decry any description of their village as “Utopia.” Earthaven is an experiment, one without a whole lot of working models to learn from, and this means lots of daily nonsense and failure to deal with. Here's a good case in point: During the tour, led by long-time resident Sara, we stopped at a pair of shipping containers outside the Council Hall. They had been purchased by several members a few years ago with the intent of creating a dining facility for the general public called "Off the Griddle." The project collapsed when they discovered that the health department requirements would take costs through the roof. The roof leaked, mold grew. Now the containers are decorated with sweet uplifting slogans and colorful paint and used by the village kids for ping-pong and foosball. It was an example, Sara said, of the plain truth they deal with every day: a lot doesn't work. It's not all happy ideals and triumph. Shit happens.
This is evidenced through a little bit of comfortable cynicism that simmers through the population. Comfortable to me I should say. It felt like an assurance that, while they work on their "radical" experiment, the people of Earthaven are careful to stunt any hubris that might creep in concerning how cool their world is (it really is so cool) (also, worth saying, they're probably pretty exhausted from the work to have much time for hubris). This kind of cynicism acts at once as a mechanism for coping with the difficulties of carving a village from scratch out of the forest and living so tightly with other people, and as a surface mask, one covering a deep meaningful pride. Because they’re really fucking doing it.
An example: During one walk I came upon two members, both of whom had been there about seventeen years, who were doing some work at the hydro-power station. Both readily complained about the grinds of day-to-day living, and I asked them if they were jaded.
“We are and we’re not,” said one, “we’re still here.”
And that’s the important part of the story: they’re still there, despite (and because of) all the hardships. The overarching message conveyed by the people I spoke to was “I find meaning and fulfillment in my life here.”
It's a powerful thing to hear from nearly every person you speak to in a day.
All of which is precursor to my first experiential insight into part of the meaning of Community. It may not be all that deep, but it’s something. So here it is: Rather than trying to work towards some fixed abstraction in the mind like a “Utopia,” perhaps it is more advantageous to focus on living and working each day to be a little bit better than the day before. This usually ain't easy, that's for sure, even if it is conceptually simple. The work of living in Community is the challenge of personal daily existential and spiritual struggle. It is work that begins with listening. First to ourselves, then to others and to the land we live on. It commences with cultivating presence, patience, honesty. If done well, the reward is the deep pride of accomplishment that springs fulfillment and meaning into our days, and maybe some sight to the path that leads to those seductive, hard-climbed mountain peaks of experiencing our own deepest being, which is maybe to say, feeling the presence, in moments, of Godliness.
I think that sounds alright. Not perfect.
The “Come Back Next Time for More on Earthaven Spirituality” Pitch, and a Story about Mountain Climbers and Snakes
It would seem I haven’t written much about God and spirituality in this introduction to Earthaven. At least not directly. It’s difficult to imagine a Community successfully coalescing without some spiritual backbone, and this is certainly true at Earthaven. It is an ecumenical space - I met self-described Zen Buddhists, Wiccans, Pagans, Jews, and Quakers during my visit - with a reverence for nature as portal to the divine at its heart. Every person I met and asked about spirituality described having a sense of there being some greater mystery, and many interesting conversations arose between us. In my next post I’ll go into more detail, including a conversation with a Wiccan priestess and some thought on a common trope I heard from a few people wishing that they had a “common cosmology.” I was also fortunate to have part of my visit overlap with the NextGEN Youth Ecological Summit. That group graciously let me sit in and participate in some of their meetings and workshops, and if any of you are reading now, I do have a reflection I’d like to share with you, which will come soon.
Now a story. I know it from a speech given by Abraham Joshua Heschel to a group of Quakers in Frankfurt in 1938, during the years of the Nazis’ rise to power. I thought of it often while walking around the mountainside village of Earthaven.
The tale is told of a band of inexperienced mountain climbers who set recklessly to scale a mountain without a guide. Barely a quarter of the way up, their ropes snap, their footings slip, and they fall, pulling each other down into a cave. When they stand again in their new surroundings, they find that they are beset from all sides by snakes. Every shadow hisses, every crevice squirms with the slithering venomous creatures priming to attack. The hikers begin to use what tools they have, as well as their arms and legs, to fight the snakes back, to thwack and pop each snake so that they will not succumb to the onslaught. But for every snake they chase or kill, five more appear.
Suddenly a group of the climbers, barely conscious from all of their fighting against the snakes, realizes that one man has stopped fighting, is standing aside from the rest.
“What the hell are you doing?!” they yell at him, “help us kill the snakes!”
“We can fight snakes forever,” he says in response, “but more will continue to appear. If we stay here they will eventually kill us. Someone has to look for a way out. I am searching for an escape for all of us.”
The world is always full of snakes, of pettiness and greed, blindness and foolishness, and searching for the escape is as basic, difficult, and necessary to our survival as staying and fighting might be.
Here’s a kudos to those standing and searching on the North Carolina mountains.