by Gil Cambia
Intentional communities are a strange creature, they can be only as strong as their weakest link, but in other ways they could be greater than the average or even the sum of their parts. I’m referring to the various ways of decision making / agenda setting in a community. At least in theory, the larger the community the greater range of ideas and knowledge and therefore the greater possibilities for excellence. However, I think it mostly depends on the age of the community both in physical years, and in spirit, and not necessarily the share number of members.
When Cric House was a young community, just like a young child, it was very playful, spontaneous, social, optimistic and even adventurous.
It wasn’t very coordinated, organized, or thoughtful, even though many of its members, individually were much more “together”, the “super organism” that it created was clearly young.
We just loved doing shit together. Didn’t matter what it was. We invited tons of wwoofers and interns, and could not even tell the difference between work and play. Everything was fun and exciting. When money was needed, we found ways to make money, when work was needed we all got together to make it happen.
But of course this phase didn’t last, Cric house got older and grumpier, lost much vibrancy and adventure. Though its earning potential and resources increased, the willingness of the members to give to the commons had shrunk in both social, monetary, and even artistic ways.
In the same ways that kittens sleep in a pile but older cats just want alone time, the energy of a community can be young and compel its members, regardless of age, to need less personal space or autonomy, and more interaction and group expression.
Cambia community is only 2 years old. Some could say that it hasn’t fully been born yet because we have not had consistent membership. That is completely fair and I can’t argue against that, but still, at Cambia we adopt much more adventurous measures than some of the older communities.
We are currently known for the community that has a boat that won’t float.
It’s kinda crazy, right? It was a huge project to get it here, to cut the lead keel, to build a deck for it, figure out the solar-electric and water system, and now we are thinking about how we are going to erect a mast and set up a windmill and a zip line from it. So it’s extra crazy, right?
Why does a small struggling community that has so little money, labor, or other resources invest in such a challenging form of housing? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to get a used camper or a single-wide trailer with some water damage for cheap?
Why spend so much work building a pond instead of a doughboy pool with some bleach from the dollar store?
Why build a barn out of live-edge lumber instead of painted OSB? Now that’s really insane. Not just the cost, but the fact that every piece has to be chosen and cut to size. We also didn’t get a bushhog to carve a path into the forest, instead we went with hand-clippers and worked for hours on what a machine would do in a few minutes. Furthermore, we continue to have to maintain such paths with the same slow tools that made it.
So the explanation for this insanity has to do with our age again. We are in some kind of teenage phase. It’s a phase where we have to wear our identity externally so to communicate it with the world as well as internalize it more thoroughly.
This is also analogous to cultural development. In small tribal societies, all over the world, it might seem to us as if a disproportionate amount of effort is spend on wearing one’s identity.
It is completely natural and maybe even healthy to be in this phase, but when some people from Twin Oaks community came to visit, they were rather bewildered; we were asked “how are you guys able to accomplish so much when you have so little?” a more cynical questions could be: “why are some under-developed cultures wasting so much time on non-pragmatic things?”
So there is one other part to this answer that goes beyond identity expression: in a small community, there is a greater chance of people saying “yes!” to someone’s crazy idea. That craziness could be art, it could be environmentalist ideology, it could be implementing a new ritual, and it could even be a financially risky move.
In older communities there seems to be much more caution and pragmatism. Much more of an institutional memory of all the ways and which things have gone poorly before when people were irresponsible. But there is also something even deeper than that: there are disappointments and grief that simply don’t get worked out, they are old scars that never heal, and they manifest in the unwillingness to rejoice in someone else’s party, because one’s own party didn’t go so well.
So communities end up recapitulating the normal biological processes of aging by turning every injury into chronic muscle tightness around it. With age, flexibility is reduced and tensions increase, certain routine ways of doing things turn into deep grooves of wrinkles, and a general tiredness sets in.
This doesn’t mean death. And even death doesn’t mean death because communities keep on being reborn all the time. And members of community X that may have been grumpy and conservative might become much more liberal and open when they move to community Y after it falls apart.
But I’m not sure this is actually always true, and I’m even less sure that its inevitable. In the same way that tribal cultures and religions can be thousands of years old but maintain elements of inspiration and vibrancy rather than cold pragmatism, there must be a way for communities to be able to pursue this quality. By analogy, there are endless anti-aging products, services, and exercises out there. We need to figure out how to be able to apply these to community to keep it thriving longer.
There was a time when colonizers simply treated land as though its useful when its young but after it has been worked for a few decades it will be depleted of its vitality and new land must be acquired.
Everyone of us in the commune world knows a fair bit of what it means to give back to the earth so it can continue to sustain us. I think we ought to start thinking more of community as having similar depletion process if we don’t really know what the process of replenishing would be.
I would love to hear ideas!