Excerpted from the Winter 2018 edition of Communities, “The Culture of Intentional Community”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.
As a world traveler who has founded, joined, or consulted on over a dozen intentional communities, my perspective may be valuable.
Here I present my very personal experiences as an involved co-conspirator. Each group offered up their wildly different styles contributing to my broader view. Each had noble characters who set out to create some kind of communitarian future. Each community had its distinct pleasures. [Note: because the actual identities of these groups are less important than the stories told, and because the depictions below are subjective and may in some cases be controversial, names of the first and third communities described, as well as the individuals referenced in those sections, have been changed.]
I ask the reader: What sounds appealing? What could you live with? What aspects suit you? These reflections may help you to ask your own right questions as you choose where to travel, contribute, or commit to…
Back in the early 2000s, the lack of “community” in West Coast cities had me revisit an excellent resource: staging.ic.org. This website provides invaluable information as to where to explore the sharing community.
A friend of mine, Sue, had also been researching ic.org for years. After a cascade of visits she chose Solar City (SC) partially for its immediate warm welcome (and membership without a trial period). I considered her deep effort and trusted her decision.
SC lies just minutes from the Mexican border in a very hot and remote part of southern New Mexico (110 degrees F in July). Sue offered sweat-equity, as it had no-cost entry.
I discovered that the papercrete guru, Mark Campbell, lived there. I wanted to collaborate with him on some designs. On the phone he made me feel very welcome to live in the village.
Sue convinced me to give it a try and even arranged a trailer to rent for $300 a month. I trusted her for this sight-unseen experience. She picked me up from the Amtrak Station in Deming. After a stop at a winery to buy the wine she said I must present (and get a bit drunk), she drove the 30 miles to SC. What the hell was I in for?
She lived at the compound of a harmless, yet wacky old hermit who built very tiny underground hobbit caves connected by little outdoor paths. My nearby tiny trailer was not very cozy, but her digs were worse. Her kitchen: funky wooden pallets tied together by baling wire and filled with red volcanic pumice rock for insulation. Red dust was everywhere and it drove her mad!
Barren desert surrounded us; our village of single-family homes on small lots held what you might call “sweet wackos” or the “tinfoil hat brigade”; despite their unusual ideas and eccentric lifestyles they seemed fairly gentle and charming. The ones I met welcomed me warmly, glad for new blood and fresh company. My international perspective was clearly different.
It seemed like a retirement community for eclectic, old hippies who wanted to build without permits or supervision, which is exactly what they did. A meeting hall hosted potlucks, a small library, and a shared computer and public phone, my lifelines to the outside world. A weekly movie night often gathered eight members.
Daily I walked past members’ homes encountering a few for a friendly chat. Then I wandered into the magical, scrub desert outside SC to get further outdoors. The desert wilderness was my refuge and served as an avenue for economic migrants to the States; I once ran across 10 migrants carrying only water jugs, making their way north.
Even in the warm winter it often seemed like a ghost town. SC was excellent for writing. I had a quiet workspace, creating four chapters for one of my books. The residents kept to themselves. Each had their own weird setup. Some ex-military gun nuts lived behind 10-foot high steel walls never interacting, according to other residents. A glimpse inside said don’t approach.
Live and let live. A community without judgment. That part I loved.
A massive 1970 Cadillac regularly trundled down our dusty, unpaved streets at two miles an hour. Inside was a kindly former country-western star, now retired. Another guy literally slept in a 20-foot-deep hole in the ground. He climbed down a long ladder to his cot.
I met Mark Campbell riding his self-made standup bicycle that he rowed with his hands. A lovable kooky inventor! Most residents like him created fanciful, insulated homes for the heat. None of Mark’s were finished; he lived in a motorhome with his mom.
Sue got sick of her dusty kitchen, begging me for permission to cook in my little trailer; before I knew it, her cookware and boxes of food overwhelmed half the space. She had no fridge. My compassion grew as she struggled with her lousy living situation. I shared what little space I had. At night, she slept in a hobbit hole only big enough for a single bed.
One couple was building an entire house underground. They were more than friendly, sharing barbecues, alcohol, warmth, music, and more. A crazy grandma gave ear candlings, and burnt my ear…she also insisted I receive coffee enemas. Nope.
What a remarkable adventure living in a very weird town of misfits. Something like “1997 Burning Man at the Border.” A few folks were accessible but most were retired hermits who only wanted to do their thing.
I got to know Tim best. This Texan built a sprawling adobe house, literally filled with stuff, like a giant storage locker except in the kitchen. Strangely, Tim and his wife lived instead in a very small tent trailer parked in the driveway. It drove his wife crazy!
Tim regularly left our village to sell hundreds of his meat-turning barbecue tools, towing their home, the tent trailer, behind his van. He left his angered wife behind to live in an overstuffed storage locker, a divorce waiting to happen.
Tim hired me to work small festivals with him in Yuma, Arizona. At night he drank and stayed up until 4 a.m. watching TV on a satellite dish he set up under the freeway overpass where we camped out. The road trips were bizarre as he drove like a maniac, talking of wild conspiracy theories. I went with the flow, yet quite relieved to return to our gentle community of artists.
SC sometimes struggled to make decisions for months. Few residents showed up for monthly meetings. Honestly, I couldn’t see much future living in this village, as I was not ready to retire in a dusty collection of endearing misfit Americans hiding out while just barely within the US borders.
I preferred the border city of Palomas, Mexico (just three miles away) to SC, where Campbell’s Mexican wife lived. Occasionally I rode a borrowed bike there to shop, and enjoy the food in haphazard eateries, making acquaintances with the kindly Mexican folks who adored their children. They all seemed so reasonable and “normal.”
Mexico was a fantastic contrast, reminding me I wanted more community than Solar City offered. By May the days were already hot. Since I still owned a remote cabin in the wilds of high mountain Colorado I realized it was time to go north for the summer. I hitchhiked a ride with a member fleeing the heat. There I could live without rent at my pine nut orchard and consider what community I might try next.
Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
For many years before the New Mexico adventure I returned twice a year to Tassajara. At the dead end of an 18-mile, steep, dirt road through the Ventana wilderness lies a Buddhist monastery that feels as distant from mainstream life as it is beautiful. During the summers the Zen Buddhist monks open their gates to welcome visitors to a sacred land where native Esalen Indians soaked in the healing hot springs for thousands of years.
Summertime retreatants came to rest, renew, and enjoy the fantastic vegetarian meals that the monks dished up. When the summer visitor season ended it became a closed monastery once again. Volunteers like myself were welcomed for up to a month on either end of the visitor season to help with the immense work preparing for visitors and then preparing for winter after they left.
During the freezing winter most of the monks took a vow of silence during daylight hours, spending up to eight hours a day in the Zendo meditating silently. It was a truly quiet refuge from the rest of California’s speed and high-cost materialism.
I became part of the Tassajara family as a seasonal volunteer worker, during the two work periods (pre-and post-visitor season), over a decade. Around 25 of us volunteered six hours a day. I delighted in this unique cultural world hidden in a cul-de-sac deep in the coastal range of Central California’s Big Sur.
For years I did whatever was asked: scrubbed toilets, cleaned rooms, dug ditches, often changing jobs on a daily basis, where needed. Eventually one regular job became working in the extensive gardens and greenhouse. The beauty of flowers added needed color to the austere world of the Soto Zen monastery.
Few would choose to live there as music is not allowed. Value was placed on mindfulness not speed nor pleasure. Each work season my soul took a rest in contrast to the contradictory world outside. How sweet it was to be part of a community with a definite focus: communal meditation, respect for all life, and the precepts of Zen philosophy.
The fluctuating group of kind people, in an egalitarian community, appealed greatly. We all shared a gentle bow as we passed each other along the sandy path. Sometimes a slow five-minute walk from the hot springs back to my shared cabin took 20 minutes, stopping to bow to each person. There was nowhere we had to be quickly, although everything was on a tight schedule.
Our days began at 4:45 a.m. when the designated Kokio of the day rang a bell in the blackness of morning waking us for meditation. After walking in total silence we sat again in total silence, our tired eyes barely open, gazing at the wall in traditional Zen meditation. Trying to stay awake, focused on your breath and not your ever running thoughts (or back pain) was a mission. If this doesn’t still your soul I don’t know what will.
Evening meditation was also optional for us guest workers; we could rest with only the sound of the wind, bells, and a wooden “roll down” (a call to Zendo) in the distance. Hot coffee and tea waited in the shaded courtyard below the dining hall. The sound of the creek rushing directly below us under the sycamore and ash trees was enchanting. Steep canyon walls and impenetrable brush surrounded us.
Each day, after a delicious vegetarian breakfast, we gathered in a massive circle, all of us standing and facing each other. Announcements followed: evening lectures, maintenance projects to begin, lost and found articles, people’s needs for rides out of the wilderness, and then finally, the request for volunteers on a dozen projects. We each had one day off per week.
I loved this morning circle when we also welcomed newbies, and said goodbye to workmates, students, or monks. Even the Abbot, a strong woman who led us modestly, shared this equanimity. The fragile and kind humanness was evident in each of their faces; compassion grew. I saw beyond their exterior as we stood shivering in the cold morning twilight before the sun reached the bottom of the canyon.
I felt a sweet, joyful camaraderie in achieving our tasks, whatever they be: repairing a cabin, laying irrigation pipe, clearing the creek of fallen limbs, sweeping or shoveling. Some monks washed dishes daily for over 100 people. Society at large treats dishwashers clearly at the bottom; I gained respect for dishwashers outside of this refuge as well.
Other guest workers became friends; some returned each year as specialists, like trained carpenters who contributed a great deal to the village. Others like me were general hard-working hands one could count on to pull their weight. We enjoyed solid work amidst the bothersome flies on hot afternoons or bundled up on freezing mornings. We all remained equal.
During mealtimes we shared the stories of our lives. Deep friendships were forged. Students stayed for six months or more. Even monks opened up freely: Luminous Owl shared a photo proving he was once a bearded “Deadhead.” Others remained in a monkish repose and attitude.
One special day when working on a culvert outside the village and up the dirt road, a 25-year monk named Carol did something forbidden inside the village: she played a worker’s guitar while singing, something she hadn’t done in decades! A magical moment of sweet rarity: it surprised her more to hear her own singing voice than it did us.
The verbal silence felt soothing rather than uncomfortable. We simply did what we were supposed to do: peacefully contribute to this close-knit, finely tuned community.
In conversation I found that many of us struggled as Tassajara truly tested each person to face themselves. The place challenged our preconceptions and assumptions of “outside” life and our own pasts. As a result of our intense closeness and the simple truth of our interactions, relationships sometimes began here. However, they were discouraged as another distraction from the intense Zen work at hand. Each of us confronted “our ancient, twisted karma” and messy lives.
The common thread that ran through these weeks was a sense of clarity, mindfulness, integrity, commitment, and focus. Rarely was someone asked to leave for breaking this order, but it did happen.
For the monks our work period was the most relaxed time of the year. It stood in contrast to the extremely austere winter when they were hard pressed to complete daily tasks and maintenance. Hence our need to prepare. Imagine black-robed monks shoveling snow.
The summertime was also challenging for the monks and students who had to keep their vows in sharp contrast to the paying visitors who came to soak their city bones in the hot springs. Visitors drank the wine they brought in, absent-mindedly forgetting where they were, a monastery. The times I hiked in from China Camp in the summer I found loud New Yorkers and Californians trying to impress each other in a place where no one cared about such things.
So many fond memories of being there: Soaking alone in complete darkness under star-filled skies. Hiking through the wilderness to the river narrows where waterfalls and pools beckoned us to throw off our clothes and all the nonsense from our minds, to dive into the cold water, then lay naked on the rocks above. Making hidden stone sculptures for the monks to find. Listening to ancient chants in English or Japanese while I sat in impassioned silence in the Zendo. Digging irrigation ditches with laughing acquaintances. A chance two-minute meeting with my future girlfriend, April, who later traveled to Colorado to my remote personal hermitage.
Amongst the most powerful and salient memories were the very long, quiet minutes when time seemed to stand still for me. Each day before bathing I stood all alone in front of the simple altar at the entrance to the hot springs bathhouse. There the reflection in the glass showed me something wonderful and rarely noticed: I could see myself as an integral part of everything I was within, not separate from the world as an identified being, but wholly of the scene—a reminder that I am not at all distinct as a separate being in this world, but entirely a part of all that surrounds me. At those moments there was no duality; I was not separate from anyone or anything else, or indistinct from the forest. My self-identity briefly vanished. It softened the self-absorption that can occlude the mind. Compassion grew.
I especially loved working in the gardens where I’ve spent more than half my total of 10 months there. I eventually became deferred to as an efficient, reliable senior gardener. What a pleasure. Maintaining the herb garden, planting seeds, or transplanting baby flowers from the nursery, I knew what to do; I learned much from those elders who passed their experience down to me to then instruct garden novices. Year after year we witnessed the flowers we planted bloom in beauty.
As guest workers we were allowed a more relaxed freedom with time to get to know one another. We talked candidly, joked, and deeply listened, often growing closest to our assigned roommates. Reading was encouraged; excellent books were available in the small, cozy library.
We were not encouraged to hurry, but rather to do each and every small task and large job mindfully. We cut vegetables very slowly; to cut yourself was indeed mindless. Sometimes we walked at a snail’s pace, as a walking meditation, or stood still for an hour.
The Abbot bowed to every one of us. I did not sense the hierarchy. Expert builders were deeply respected as artisans, but were not above anyone as they fashioned unique handrails and custom doors, constantly beautifying and maintaining the aging wooden cabins where we slept without much furniture. Within the simplest cabins there was only a Japanese tatami mat on the floor and a kerosene lamp, perhaps a chair on the porch above the sometimes roaring Tassajara Creek.
Another year my girlfriend April joined me for two weeks. As a couple we were lucky enough to get one of the luxurious stone cabins that had a huge soft bed and a fireplace to keep warm on the freezing September nights (none of the buildings had insulation). Otherwise, the luxury of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center was in its tranquility, food, society, and the ancient healing waters.
I was honored to be encouraged by the Abbot to live in Tassajara long term. I stayed behind to fight the 1999 Kirk Creek Fire (98,000 acres burnt surrounding the village). We had evacuated nearly everyone to the San Francisco Zen Center for their safety; it looked like the village would burn as trees flamed on the hilltops and rolled downhill towards us. The smoke nearly enveloped us.
My old friend Lourdes and I volunteered for the skeleton crew risking our lives to remain there in support of the CalFire firefighters, and prison inmates (90 of them) as we helped defend the village from flames on three sides. I felt no greater honor or duty.
After each work period I hitched a ride back to uncivilization. Relationships deepened on the ride home, crawling up the crazy, twisting long dirt road. A sweet camaraderie we shared, our rejuvenated selves carried forth, excitement building as we re-entered the mainstream world.
The noise and speed gradually increased. Being in a car after three weeks was strange enough; hearing the blare of television at lunch in Carmel Valley Village was a strange alien sound. We knew the serenity of where we had been. We continued to bow, even though in this wealthy wine community and in far-flung cities we felt entirely out of place. Yet for weeks the feeling of respect remained. We were forever changed.
Returning again each year I felt absolute joy seeing these beloved friends knowing we would work and laugh again bonded in the depth of beingness, true community, and the gentle kindness and respect we shared with one another.
Tassajara remains arguably the most wonderful community I’ve ever been a part of in 35 years of world travel.
Karaka Casu, New Zealand
Not too long after Solar City I moved to New Zealand. I first met Tom, a founder of Karaka Casu in northern NZ at the 2005 Ecoshow in Auckland. We met respectfully as part of a panel of five experts discussing sustainable building in the NZ building world. As a main speaker I also gave a daily program of hands-on workshops teaching Hybrid Adobe.
Tom invited me to teach a series of workshops at his village. I knew about this place already as it has a famous vegetable stand and shop that operates on Highway One north of the “Big Smoke” (Auckland).
I always loved going there and thought it would be great to live there. The two-to-four-day workshops went very well with eager participation from volunteers and attendees. Tom suggested I remain there in between workshops and help him with some projects as a consultant and designer. At one workshop we tore down a crumbling outhouse made of cob and rebuilt it using the exact same earthen material (true on-the-spot reuse and recycling) adding a few ingredients to form a much stronger Hybrid Adobe and composting outhouse. Strong, funny Maori women decorated it with sculpted spiders and Maori words. The workshops succeeded and I made many new Kiwi friends.
The community vibe was great during the workshops as members came by to see what was up, but living there was quite a bit different. Each member or family owned an approximately one-acre lot with fruit trees, vegetable gardens, or some animals; some just had a big house. Effectively it was more like a subdivision, with a profit motive, as ownership was sometimes seen as merely an investment. Some members commuted to the big city and then flipped their property (like other big city folk they were sometimes called “JAFA’s”—Just Another F*cking Aucklander, in the local slang).
There were very few regular meetings for the whole village, other than a potluck that was not always well attended. Some land was held in common as a reserve, but the community center was seldom used except for workshops and special events. So I really didn’t get to meet most of the people that lived there.
In the end they had no designated place for me or other volunteers to sleep or live (for more than a night or two) other than a 14-foot trailer parked on the one narrow road coming in, with no electricity. I was quite a bit disappointed that this large, wealthy community, with large homes, offered little provision for volunteers other than a cold, moldy, dark trailer. Not much of a warm welcome.
Nonetheless, I took part by volunteering hard work, and sometimes attending a weekly music jam of only four people. Little by little I realized that it was an intentional subdivision. Many people worked online or commuted to Auckland. The draw for me and other volunteers was to the famous shop. And also to Kathy, Tom’s wife, whose warmth and knowledge as a famous permaculturist was legendary (she held the largest pre-European seed bank in NZ).
Since the accommodations were impossible to work or get comfortable in, I maintained an apartment in Whangerei north of there where I could have a proper bathroom, bedroom, and work area. Of course commuting in my Toyota meant splitting time with another city and this village life.
Things changed rapidly with two strange occurrences. The huge mixing machine we spent many weeks building for Hybrid Adobe was purposefully destroyed by the owner of the local concrete business. Then Tom suddenly sold his business to Richard, a wealthy member who showed no interest in running it, much to my dismay as that was the vehicle for my sustainable building panel design work. That shut me down as neither one put any further energy towards our project in a rather backhanded method to abandon our partnership.
Then one day Tom sat me down in a tiny café in another hamlet and let me know that they had sold the farm, but he still owed over 50 people a lot of money besides me. He told me coarsely that I would never be reimbursed for my effort or loans and I should except this shitty situation. Sorry, mate.
Definitely the opposite of community.
Tom and Kathy quietly and quickly fled the next week to a remote part of NZ where his creditors could not find him. They just vanished. Many of us were literally S.O.L. (shit out of luck).
The intentional subdivision suffered greatly as one of the founders caused true embarrassment due to the deceit, excessive borrowing, and financial disgrace. Despite having given months of volunteer work, I had very little to show for my strong efforts. With no reason to remain, I moved to my place in the nearby city.
Beware and be aware.
Contrasts to Fiji Organic Village (FOV)
Fiji Organic Village has been extensively covered in recent issues of Communities, notably issues #171, #172, #174, #179. Rather than repeat myself, I use aspects of FOV to provide contrast. Briefly, I cofounded the ecovillage with the local chieftain and his extended family at their strong request. We also built a traditional-style village homestay (like a backpacker’s lodge) and sustainability education center that succeeded for five years before I moved to the US.
Whereas Solar City (SC) was a collection of adorable, obtuse artists, dissimilar to each other and society, doing whatever they liked, members of FOV were a distinct culture of mostly ethnic Yasawan Islanders following cultural traditions. Respectful of elders and old-school traditional lifeways, it was very clear how we would interact and honor each other, similar to Tassajara in the clarity of its microculture, sharingness, and common kindness. Yet in Fiji there was immense joy, music, and kava.
Having an agreed-upon concrete focus (religious, permaculture, or otherwise) and set of guidelines as to behavior does provide order, camaraderie, and cohesiveness, as opposed to unfocused Karaka Casu (KC) or SC.
Karaka Casu included about anyone with cash enough to buy a plot, and Solar City welcomed anyone at all, with or without cash or a commitment. In contrast, both Tassajara and FOV welcomed people on a trial basis with their contribution to the community in personal, direct, ongoing, and concrete ways. Important was labor given, compatibility, and respect shown to the mores and values of the microsociety. Gift giving, income, food, and material sharing were the glue that held FOV together, like most traditional societies. We all sank or swam together. Those who continually lazed about, didn’t share properly, or were disrespectful or racist were asked to leave our southern end of the island in Fiji’s Blue Lagoon.
Plots of land were purchased at SC and KC, with volunteers welcomed but very little provision was made for them. Membership was principally based on land ownership and some monthly contribution. In Fiji the land is held in common with personal garden plots (yams, etc. for trade and gift giving) assigned annually based on effort from the previous year. At Buddhist Tassajara, no one had land rights of ownership or control that they could exclude others from. We were all welcome to enjoy nearly every part of the place; even longterm monks’ lodgings changed regularly. Basically everything was shared in Fiji and Tassajara; little was shared at SC and KC other than the designated common areas. Sharingness is perhaps the telling signature of true community.
A common sense of engagement and full participation was always evident at FOV, while diversity was welcomed and appreciated. Tassajara welcomed all people’s diversity but was much more strictly governed by strong precepts one must follow to remain there during or past the work seasons. It was a monastery, after all. Rule breaking was dealt with, as opposed to SC or KC where you could do whatever you wanted, strange as it may be, behind the closed doors of your own private spot. Shared accommodations were the norm at FOV and Tassajara, and getting to know your roommate or neighbor created familiarity, and closeness. No man or woman is an island.
Perhaps most importantly, all meals were shared with nearly every member at both FOV and Tassajara. Everyone could speak around the circle when we joined each evening at FOV, and everyone’s voice was heard, just like at Tassajara. Sharing food is often the societal glue that holds everything together and joins people across nearly every land-based society.
People rarely ever shared meals at the other two, except at weekly or monthly potlucks. Those rare meals took an outsized importance as it was often the only time you would meet your neighbors. The poor attendance said even more about the community, that it could exist without much interaction. Clearly SC and KC resembled more or less neighborhoods with some infrastructure or land in common, but they were not true “intentional communities.” This in fact begs the question, what fits that definition, and what belongs on the ic.org website?
These contrasts have everything to do with the cohesiveness and longevity of each community. Certain cultural guidelines or controls for acceptable actions may inhibit personal and aberrant behavior, but contribute greatly to a culture of shared values. For intentional communities to flourish (and not by property values or return on investment) it becomes evident that an agreed-upon focus is absolutely imperative. Indeed extreme individualism has everything to do with the violence and division in the United States’ mainstream society.
In general it seems the more food, objects, and values (especially trust) that are shared, the greater the strength, resilience, and unity there is. The more individualistic or suburb-like these communities are, the more they are prone to alienation, internal division, deceit, or collapse. I’ve seen this in at least three other communities not mentioned that were based on money and not values—they completely disintegrated as a result of desertions or ended in lawsuits with complete dissolution.
In evaluating the health and vitality of a prospective community to join, one must consider how much is shared, what the focus is, and how much emphasis or reliance there is on money. Questions to ask: Do a few members control decisions? Is success based on the leadership or wealth of a single person or founder? These can be red flags.
Truly it seems that the more egalitarian, interactive, and focused we are on shared labor, the stronger and more long-lasting the community will be.
Philip Mirkin is the founder and executive director of the Fiji Institute of Sustainable Habitats (www.SustainableFiji.org), now partnered with the Fiji Government, and the cofounder of the Fiji Organic Village. He is also founder of Hybrid Adobe International, which designs and creates new building materials and architecture to respond to climate change. He has designed ecovillages in Fiji and New Zealand, and is currently designing hurricane-resistant natural shelters. Philip has led more than 120 workshops in sustainable building at University of California Santa Cruz, The Institute for Solar Living, the American Institute of Architects, and many other locations. Since 1981, Philip has led annual humanitarian aid relief expeditions around the world. He has also authored several books including The Hybrid Adobe Handbook. He can be reached at philipmirkin [AT] hotmail.com.
Excerpted from the Winter 2018 edition of Communities, “The Culture of Intentional Community”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.