Sirius Community is a spiritually based community, founded by former members of Findhorn Community (http://www.findhorn.org/) one of the largest spiritual intentional communities in the world (currently over 400 members), and is located in Scotland. The founding members are American born and were inspired to bring the energy of Findhorn to the U.S. They selected a beautiful mountainous forested region near the Quabbin Reservoir in Western Massachusetts.
We were excited about our stay at Sirius due to its focus on spirituality, ecology and community, the trinity Adrian and I hold dear. Sirius is our longest stay at one place – a 6-week Immersion Program (IP). Our days are generally comprised of working in the morning and a class in the afternoon. Since Adrian and I are the only IP participants, the staff have let us decide the direction of work and classes. Work has included planting and harvesting in the three gardens and one orchard, building a greenhouse, milling lumbar, drying herbs, painting buildings, etc. The classes have ranged from edible forest walk, Transformational Kineseology (a healing modality one of the founding members practices), consensus, Thai Chi, guitar lesson, composting toilets, bike repair. The variety is based on the expertise community members can offer. It’s been nice to have such a broad range of topics.
Days here are full, between meals, working and classes. After cleaning up post dinner, downtime is usually socializing, the occasional movie, ping pong, or a sauna. It’s been a really enjoyable life style. As with every situation, I wish there were more time in the day for writing, reading, meditation and yoga. I’ve been working all of those in when possible, but of course intend to be more diligent with my schedule. A practice in discipline and release!
Bruce, one of the founding members, is an incredibly humble person considering all that he has accomplished in his life. He has a pleasant demeanor that puts anyone at ease and has the patience of saint. He willingly taught me to use a sawmill, drill and left me to my own devices in working on the foundation wall of the greenhouse! He is an incredible mentor.
Shannon Farm Community is one that did not make our initial list of “must visits”. However, it has turned out to be one of our favorites, as shown by our voice recorded notes we take (a whole 26 minutes of them!) =P. A combination of awesome people, beautiful land and opportunities for jobs and right livelihood type of work makes it incredibly appealing. We were also greeted by the most incredible show of fireflies that you could imagine. Every start mimicked on a miniscule format right before your eyes, better than any light show.
Shannon, as they explain on their IC page, is composed of roughly 60 adults and 30 children. They first formed in 1974 and organized their community based on a doctoral students thesis on community living. Based on that thesis, they had their land zoned to ~113 building sites, of which 30 are currently occupied, that are placed in small neighborhood clusters to help encourage community on the human scale. They have a pretty equal distribution of age groups, with the largest two being between 40 to 60 and 0-20 (parents and their children). They collectively, through a land trust, hold 520 acres, of which 70% is wooded and the rest is dedicated to roads, buildings, pasture land, gardens, an acre+ lake, and a community orchard.
What differentiates Shannon from many communities out there are their bylaws, or the things you agree to as a member. As you’ll read, they’re incredibly general! How they manifest these bylaws into action can take many forms and can leave a lot of wiggle room for interpretation. They have done a good job of manifesting their bylaws into some pretty positive agreements and action. So here they are, taken from their visitor guide: We affirm and promote the following values:
1. Belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person regardless of gender, race, age (young or old), sexual orientation, financial resources, property, or income;
2. Respect for the right of all to express their own beliefs about the nature of reality;
3. Concern about each other’s well-being;
4. Sharing power and responsibility to shape our community through a consensus decision making process characterized by a cooperative search for solutions that fulfill and protect the needs of all concerned;
5. Commitment to resolve conflicts without violence, take responsibility for our own actions, communicate directly and honestly, be sensitive to concerns of others;
6. Stewardship of the land and ecologically sound use of our resources;
7. Expectations of membership in Shannon Farm Community include participation in building community through physical, organizational or social work, involvement in community events, and paying dues.
We added it to our list of stops since we did not stay for the three week East Wind Visitor Program. Even though we were able to visit, it wasn’t for long; only two and a half days. Upon contacting the community, we were connected with Craig, their current go-to person for visitors, who turned out to be an incredibly helpful liaison. He put us in touch with multiple community members, who each hosted us at their homes for each meal of the day. The amount that people reached out to very short term guests left us feeling genuinely welcomed and cared for. This was not expected, as we heard (and experienced) over and over that people in community are busy and may not have the time and/or energy to dedicate to welcoming and getting to know visitors. As an added benefit, Craig also set us up with a bed in their common house, Monacan. This took us from the normal camping spot named the Meadow, which is fairly isolated in a draw between two neighborhoods on the ridges, into a space where their mailboxes are housed for all community members and where a small group of people live. This was a huge perk, not only to get a break from camping, but because of the people it helped us to meet. It was clear that Shannon Farm had the ability to make visitor experiences stellar and some of them were eager to do it.
The first Sunday of the month is their Community Meeting and that’s when they request that first time visitors try to come to visit in order to get the clearest idea of what you’re getting yourself into when you join. This is when they as an entire community come together to discuss big decisions that effect each other. As a member you’re not required to go to these meetings (and some people haven’t in a very long time), but you are strongly encouraged. If you feel passionate about anything being discussed at the time of your membership, you can show up, get the scoop, and vote. They operate under consensus based decision making, which is an impressive undertaking for a community of their size. Generally, their processes is to form and hold committees made of a smaller number of people that discusses and research issues small and large that would then be brought to the group at large when ready for a vote. They do reserve the right of deciding issues by a 60% majority vote if, after multiple times of being brought back for a full consensus vote, they can’t come to any kind of agreement. Although they reserve this right, they’ve only used it twice since 1974, which is a huge testament to how well they can work together.
As mentioned above, Shannon holds it’s 520 acres in a land trust. This prevents any one person from owning any of the land besides the home that they built or purchased. This, depending on your philosophy, has benefits and drawbacks. Drawbacks may be that you may not have a financially secure and stable investment in the land at Shannon. Land is generally considered a good investment over time and they prevent you from making it there. You also may not be able to manage the land in whatever way you see fit since as a community, they have general agreements on sustainable land use and in order to make any large changes, you have to approach everyone. Some benefits that they’ve been able to manifest are incredibly stable housing prices (houses are generally priced at 1/4 the amount of houses outside of the community because they value affordable housing and they have their land paid for), forests that haven’t been clear-cut and sold, and co-managed agricultural land.
For me, Adrian, Shannon is a very attractive community. I never really knew that I might be able to live in Virginia. I imagined a southern state that is holding onto its southern heritage and truly had no idea about the landscape, people, or climate. While Shannon is not all that close knit (they have no scheduled communal meals, only one meeting every month, and not much is shared beyond the obvious unless you organize it with another member or a few other members in the community), there is, of course, a lot of potential. For me agricultural pursuits come before any of my other interests. I’m simple, really, and having land to guide and one or more people to work with will keep me happy. The thing about Shannon is that it has that and then a diverse group of people (the majority whom are older) to socialize with. I’ve come to realize that for myself the order is farming and then socializing somewhere behind it, while the opposite is true for many community oriented back to the landers. Afton, where Shannon is located, had the benefit of being 30 minutes from Charlottesville and the university there. The university brings with it a lot of cultural benefits and a very progressive community in what is a pretty patchy (red and blue) state. There’s clean water, the blue ridge mountains, Shenandoah valley, a diverse community of people, what ever comforts of modern living a person chooses to take in (internet please), and a climate that lets you grow figs and loquats while grazing sheep inbetween. We were only there for three nights, so it’s really hard to say how true my first judgements are, but I would like to stop by for a couple more before we leave for WI. We shall see.
Acorn Community is located about an hour outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, an impressive college town similar to Madison, WI. (Cool side note about Charlottesville – their one room public bathrooms are unisex! No waiting in line when the bathroom is for one person – genius!) 🙂
My Acorn first impressions: the land was flat, there were a variety of historic buildings on the property, and it was hot. An even more prominent component to our first impression was the sound…the cicadas were in mating season, an occurrence that happens for only 2-3 weeks every 17 years (this cycle varies depending on the region and type of cicadas.) For the rest of the time they live underground. The paths were littered with little holes and the call was a loud and persistent buzzing. I felt lucky to be at the right place at the right time to witness this phase of their cycle. This site describes the whole cycle: http://bugs.osu.edu/~bugdoc/PerioCicada/PeriCicadaBehav.htm
Acorn is unique in a lot of ways. It is a commune, which means it is an egalitarian income sharing community. The community was founded 20 years ago by former members of Twin Oaks, a 40-year old commune down the street in Louisa, VA. From what we’ve heard, Twin Oaks has a lot of structure and organization; Acorn does not. Acorn is currently comprised of ~30 residents who share housing and all work, in some way or another, for the community’s business: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (http://www.southernexposure.com/), a well known and successful heirloom seed saving and selling company. In exchange for their work at the business (which is upstairs in the community building), residents get room and board and a small stipend (~$75/month).
When Adrian and I arrived, we only had a few days to stay there. They have a formal three week Visitor Program, but Adrian and I opted not to commit to that much time there. Since we were only there a few days, there was no cost to stay nor to eat their food, and they told us we were not required to work. However, we wanted to work to repay the generosity and to get to know the people, business and community better. Adrian worked in the garden and I helped out with preparing seed orders for mailing. I particularly liked my work gathering seed packages since that’s the only air conditioned room on the property (and it was sweltering outside).
As I mentioned, there isn’t a lot of hierarchy within the community. No one is the kitchen manager, farm manager, etc. Of course, this occasionally leads to some disorganization. But for the most part, I was very impressed by the level of self determination and personal responsibility people exhibited. Stuff got done without bosses or much discussion. I wish we could have been there for a community meeting to see if that’s where the bulk of the ‘hard stuff’ comes up. We’ll be back in the area when we do the Twin Oaks three week Visitor Program July 12 – August 1, so there’s a chance we’ll be able to attend one of their meetings then.
Overall, I was surprised by the degree to which I developed an affection for the community. My personal first impression was that people were busy, on their own paths, with little interaction and cooperation. However, as I spent more time there, I actually felt I could both understand that way of being and also find unexpected opportunities to connect. This may not be the place we end up, but I appreciate the experience we had there and certainly support this ‘alternative’ way of living and working.
There is a trifecta of intentional communities in Rutledge Missouri: Dancing Rabbit, Red Earth Farms and Sand Hill Farm. Filmmakers have created a documentary of these three communities called Rhythm of Rutledge. Trailers of the film and more info can be found at this link. I’ve only watched the two trailers; they are meditative and artistic. I look forward to seeing the film when it is available. It is exciting to see the places we’ve experienced documented in such a beautiful way.
One of my favorite activities at Dancing Rabbit thus far has been helping a couple build a living roof atop their cob home. We had a bucket brigade system, transferring the soil from a pile in front of their house along a chain of folks to the final two guys who were standing on top of the roof for most of the morning. We got a lot accomplished! And we got delicious homemade lemonade as a reward for our hard work to boot! We plan on going back next week to finish the task. After the roof is set, Hassan and Danielle will scatter the seeds of vegetables and native grasses to hold the soil. It will be quite a site by this autumn!
Ok, so the title is somewhat of a misnomer. Here in NE Missouri, with the temperatures hovering in the 40’s to 50’s and the soil just starting to wake, we haven’t been doing all that much digging in the soil. It’s far too wet with the spring thaw and three inches of rain in one long dark day. The hydrological cycle is refreshed for the moment and so are we. Coming from southwestern Florida suburbs to a tightly clustered community currently housing 70 people might be a culture shock for some. It certainly took me (Adrian) more than one day to get used to how busy this place can seem with all of the building that is taking place, business happenings, and the constant flow of people in and out of the common house. But let me assure you, the rabbits (a nickname for residents here) here made it easy to jump into the flow.
I’ll provide a little context. Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, as defined on their website, is “an ecovillage and intentional community of about 70 people set amid the hills and prairies of rural northeastern Missouri. Our goal is to live ecologically sustainable and socially rewarding lives, and to share the skills and ideas behind that lifestyle.” Their website contains a plethora of information, but we’ll offer a little of insight into what we’ve learned firsthand.
When they say village, they mean it. They set out with the intention of designing and living in a human scale village between 500 and 1000 people. You may ask yourself “how did they find this number? Why set limits?” What Tony, one of the co-founders, had to say is that when they were still in the meeting phase of the project while in Berkeley, California one of the first articles came out on the realistic number of people you could actually know and have some kind of relationship with before people just became numbers. They decided somewhere around the numbers stated above. This number sets them apart from many other intentional communities or eco-villages out there. Many hover around 100, with a few exception, and many never grow above 30. They see their future to be one modeled after the old villages of Europe. They have set some limits to do this by organizing distinct land-use committees to help guide their growth. They set aside 40 acres of their current 280 for the sole use of village development and possible light industry. This number may not mean much until you realize that at their current warren (or lot) size for residential buildings, that comes to be about 1/17th of an acre per house. You can guarantee that in this country and in these times, this type of planning is very unique. Whether they’re trend setters, adapters to future growth constraints (peak oil and climate change anyone?), or just very unique in their ways, we can all agree that it has to be fun to experience and learn from.
You may next ask “why would you ever do this if you have the option of upward mobility and unrestrained growth/income, and the largest house that money can buy?” There is definitely more than one answer to that and I guess it’s up to individuals to choose what fits their needs best. It’s not always bubblegum drops and candy circuses here and there certainly are trade-offs for many people who move to rural Missouri. On the other hand there’s an immense amount to gain. I recently heard Ethan over the Possibility Alliance (an electricity free intentional community 35 minutes away) describe his decision as one (in part) of sacrifice. What I didn’t know is that sacrifice is defined roughly as giving up something of value for something of greater value. Now, in my eyes, that depends on what you want out of your life and of course what you value. For example, I personally want to trade my access to the abundant and cheap global markets for quality local ones. I value knowing how, where, and in what conditions what I purchase is produced and the more locally it’s made, the more I know. I also value setting limits and realize that humans have lived in many different ways throughout history and we can do without things we’re told we need. Mostly people tend to want to trade of social isolation and fragmented ways of living for a model that makes it much easier to meet your basic human needs. The inherent sharing that takes place here is what makes it easier. People here have the advantage of village life while having 240 acres to walk through or manage when they need the gifts and insight that being close to mother earth brings.
One last thing to know is about their plan for the rest of their land. By most models 280 acres is not enough to feed a population of 500 to 1000 people their needed daily calories. With well done permaculture designs, there’s a chance this could change. Currently they just took out 20 of their 240 in the Conservation Reserve Program to open up for agricultural pursuits. This is land that’s close to the residential space that they plan to keep leases at 1 acre or under per person. This is so it won’t be gobbled up by a few people and thus leaving the rest to wait until more space (which would also be further away) to open up. They’re assuming that not everyone in the community will want acreage larger than their home garden space. For those who want larger tracts for rotational grazing or nut canopy food forests, there are and will be other options. The land that’s further out can be selectively opened up for these forms of management. Until someone is ready to manage it more intensively, it will remain under conservation easement and DR will receive government payments for keeping it so.
Over these past two weeks we have been amazed at the amount of organization and time that has gone into coordinating the visitor program here at Dancing Rabbit. There is definitely truth in the fact that it’s impossible to know a place all that well in three weeks time. Dancing Rabbit goes above and beyond to try to make sure you know the ins and outs of community life here. They even make sure that you’re well informed that life here is not perfect and that there is a lot of process to work through conflict that occurs. Sometimes you just want to pull your hair out (or someone else’s), but through the systems they have in place for resolving conflict, that usually that doesn’t happen =). We’ve had classes on everything that DR values and integrates into their systems for living. From restorative circles to consensus and permaculture design to natural building, they work hard to live healthy and holistic lives and you get to see that while you’re here. If you are interested in community living and don’t mind the idea of rural Missouri, it is a place worth visiting.
We did it! We finally began our long planned community journey! First up, Dancing Rabbit in the rolling hills of Northeastern Missouri. Much like Western Wisconsin, you will find painfully steep and curvy hills with Amish and Mennonite farms perched where they should not be. Somewhere in this unlikely place, between the tilled fields and forested draws, you will find a cluster of three nearby intentional communities. We arrived at our first stop on April 15th to experience the three week visitor program for one community. In the coming weeks we will be writing on our experience here and at neighboring communities. Below is our visitor group for this session.