Black Mountain, North Carolina
May 17-24, 2013
Finally, the long awaited and procrastinated write up on Earthaven! This is a post-dated write up on our visit back in Mid May and since it’s been so long, I think I’m just going to jump right into the nitty gritty.
Earthaven Ecovillage was another one of the four communities on our greater list that we didn’t plan to visit for very long. We wanted to favor those who had visitor programs so we could get an in depth feel to the ins and outs of the community. When we decided to leave East Wind in Tecumseh, MO, we suddenly has three weeks to use. Earthaven was our third community, thus we didn’t have too many others to compare it to. It was certainly different then Dancing Rabbit’s dense and clustered model, and much more similar to the sprawled out nature of The Farm, but it still felt walk-able. There are a lot of interesting visual points and places to stop when you walk through Earthaven. From well tended gardens, to bamboo patches, to alternative buildings of all sorts all running through their valley and designed around their mountain streams. Not only that, but it was easy to meet people along the way. While they are essentially a car culture (being as rural as they are) things are still human scale. Their streets are 1 1/2 lanes and there are tons of foot paths running through that people used. Because of a couple of people who helped fill me in and connect me to others, I experienced Earthaven as unofficially friendly and inviting to guests. They hold and invite guests to their weekly potlucks, grill-outs, and meetings.
Earthaven incorporated sometime around 1993. It was a group of aspiring communitarians from the hip and growing city of Asheville, NC and some folks from Florida. How they discovered each other I can’t quite say, but it’s fortunate that they did because they paved the way for a large and growing community of earth conscious people to live together (or at least right next to each other). If you ever go there, make sure you stop in their meeting house and offices, because they have a large book that will do a much better job at explaining who they are then I ever could. It’s nice when communities give you that option of reading up for yourself and you don’t have to pin people down to ask them all the questions you have and didn’t have. Anyway, they’re not currently around 50 members with 20 rotating guests, visitors, workers, and prospective members always around. They own a few hundred (my memory is now fuzzy, but I think it’s around 300) acres collectively and have agreed upon policy on how the vast majority of it is managed. Given that it was started by permaculturalists, their design on how to manage their land is very site specific, land appropriate, and generally well done. Details always change of course, but in general they’ve been following their plan. Lots of the acreage, especially on the steep hills that lead into their valleys is set aside for light forestry, the keyline area and slightly below for housing and roads, and below and around that down into the valley is set aside for various types of agriculture. Earthaven has some very steep topography to deal with and it’s no small feat that they’ve managed it so well already. They are thinking ahead as a community to figure out what’s the most effective and efficient way to use their arable land. Because they are a proclaimed ecovillage, they seem to tend to think a lot about meeting their needs hyper locally. This means they have to be thoughtful, because they certainly don’t have a lot of easily accessible farmland to feed themselves with.
Earthaven, like some other communities, has buy in fees. There is a $4,000 non-refundable membership fee that you contribute once you’re accepted as a member by a majority (I forget what the percentage is) of the members. After that, what you pay for housing is up to you. There are some rental spaces in cooperative housing, finished houses for sale, empty plots of land that are either 11k or 22k depending on the size (1/4 an acre for the former and 1/2 to 3/4 an acre for the latter. They call them half and full sites respectively. You can share a full site with friends if desired), or you can stay creatively (in a camper on someones piece of land). For some, the buy in fee for land and membership has been either a huge turn-off or just plain unaffordable. This has especially been an issue for younger people who are strive to live their permaculture and low material use living and in the process have no savings. Earthaven’s distance from large population centers is both a blessing and a curse depending on who you talk to. It makes it so those who live there are certain they want to be there, giving them a relatively low turnover rate compared to some communities, and also that it’s hard for some to earn an income or to envision how they will earn an income while there. They are currently building a large wood shop and craft studio that they plan to use for a small community business making toys, furniture, and dolls using what is generally considered waste wood. This, I imagine, would help with the livelyhood of some younger individuals.
Earthaven currently chooses to use consensus decision making. It sounds like this processes (as you can imagine) has been difficult at times, but for the most part, it works really well for them. They are currently changing their community structure to one of 50+ individuals making up Earthaven to small clusters or hamlets of individuals making up the community. It sounds like this would allow each hamlet to make minor decisions for themselves and not have to ask 50+ other people if they can move a stone two feet. There will probably be an over sight group for some of the larger decisions. They have been in the process of changing their legal structure for the past year or so and will be intensely focusing on that for probably one more. The reasons for doing so are to not have everyone in the community at risk if there is a legal action taken against someone in the community and to have a more fluid decision making process for the members of Earthaven.
Given our short period of time there, it was hard to make a judgement call on how much we loved this place. I was there a bit longer and was able to plug in a number of different ways and had invitations to other places I didn’t have time for. They had some social systems in place that seemed to guarantee interactions with others of you wanted to attend them (saunas multiple times per week, a weekly potluck, weekly farmers market, community meetings, community work projects, etc. And if you didn’t want to attend the organized events, there was a directory of people and phone numbers that’s given out and you’re always free to call them. Right next door there’s also the mad farmer Leon and his wife who built a small and incredibly beautiful zen meditation building that’s open for everyone to meditate in every morning together or at any time during the day otherwise. Even though we were away from most others in the campground, I found the people we came across to be very inviting (though, I have also heard there a couple hermits tucked away on the land).
For me, the main deterrents are the sprawled out nature of the community, the limited access to “farmable” land, and the initial buy in costs that don’t get you anything except land and membership. There may be options to farm with others, but they didn’t seem readily apparent and it instead seemed like many people were farming right next to each other. There also seemed to be a strong need and use of cars to meet some personal human needs. Some even drove from their house in or near the community to the potluck or farmers market. I loved the use of green or natural buildings on the property, the close and detailed attention to their landscape, the use of springs for their drinking water, consensus based decision making, and, of course, their use of organic and permaculture principles and growing their food. Like every community, there are some things to love and some room for improvement. Finding the right mix of what you want is part of the process.