from the Living Energy Farm July/August 2017 Newsletter
The first video I’ve made at Cambia since I moved in.
A couple of weeks ago, Caroline (from the Midden) wrote on Commune Life about attending the Communities Conference and then visiting Acorn and Compersia. I also attended the Communities Conference and did some commune visiting. This is my report on the conference and spending time at the new communities of Mimosa and Cambia.
The Communities Conference is an amazing collection of people from various communities, people looking for community, and lots of workshops. My favorite part is the Saturday morning Meet the Communities event. This year there were lots of new communities that I learned about, many talking about income sharing, and some of which I hope that we’ll feature in upcoming posts.
After the conference, I hung out in Louisa. I’ve spent a bunch of time at Twin Oaks (and did more on this trip) as well as Acorn and have had several visits to Living Energy Farm. This year I decided to spend significant time at the two newer communities, helping out and learning more about them from being there. Here’s my report on them:
More than anything, Cambia is an experimental and educational community. This makes it sound a little like Living Energy Farm, but Cambia has a whole different flavor. Where LEF use unusual technologies to move past fossil fuels and demonstrate how we could move past their use, Cambia has set up a series of kid friendly (but adult interesting) hands on exhibits in their forest, to show things like how much land each American requires to live, how our carbon usage could be balanced, how the ground and water table work, and (on a very small scale) how to use various alternative construction techniques. (The last was in an exhibit called ‘Barbie’s Ecovillage’ which featured a timber framed doll house that you could create straw bale or cob walls for.)
The boat at Cambia
Cambia is a community that seems to attract academic types. Ella and Gil are lovely folks who are focused on how to educate others, especially children. (And they have one child, Avni, who also lives there.) Maximus, the newest member, is a grad student who is studying communities as an alternative to mainstream life, and using Cambia as a case study. And, former member Telos, was there visiting while I was there–and he is very interested in the social and political aspects of community.
One of the biggest things about Cambia is their willingness to try all sorts of things. There was the cute little pond they built to demonstrate how plant can clean water. I helped them work on the boat they bought to use as guest space. They seem to have endless ideas on how to repurpose everything.
Where Cambia is relatively new (two years old at this point), Mimosa is brand new. Mimosa took over the buildings and land of a commune that didn’t make it (Sapling). It’s located almost halfway between Twin Oaks and Acorn.
Me with Aurora of Mimosa–picture by Peggy Brennan
Mimosa is focusing on the work of agriculture, seed growing, herbalism, and activism. They only have a few members at this point and are trying to figure out their membership policies.
I got to hang out with them and help out. The place is beautiful and they are creating new spaces where people could stay.
I felt very welcomed at both Cambia and Mimosa and I was excited to learn the nitty-gritty of running a small new community.
Another picture showing the boat and the main house at Cambia, sent by Telos
by Sumner, from the East Wind blog,
The moderate summer is coming to an end and the height of the 2017 season is over. Although cooler than last year, this summer’s harvests were large and plentiful. The tomatoes are starting to wind down and the pepper’s are currently peaking. Honeybees buzz among the buckwheat while large carpenter bees dance around the smartweed.
In the Lower Garden, seven piglets are being rotated through the former potato patch. They are fed anything spoiled in the field (the tomato, melon, and pepper patches are a couple steps away) and act as our kitchen’s garbage disposal, helping to reduce food waste. As the pigs are rotated through cover crops are planted behind them (sunn hemp earlier and rye and vetch later in the season). Sunn hemp is an excellent summer cover crop. Drought resistant, a powerful weed suppressant, and fast growing. It can reach ten feet tall within eight weeks and adds a bounty of organic matter to the soil after it is cut back.
Just today we harvested all the dent corn. This corn has been carefully bred for suitability in our climate and soil by Richard for the past five years. Each year he saves seed from all good specimens. More seed is saved from the best specimens and fewer seeds are saved from the merely mediocre ears. Virginia White Gourd seed and Tennessee Red Cob varieties have been bred in at different times to augment desired traits. Richard aims to maintain a wide gene pool and is meticulous about selecting the kernels for saving himself each year. All the corn that is not saved is eaten. Richard, who regularly cooks community dinner once a week, enjoys making delicious corn tortillas from nixtamalized corn. Nixtamalization increases the nutritional value as well as gets rid of mycotoxins, among other benefits.
One great joy of late summer is fresh watermelon on a daily basis. Just about everyday someone brings a watermelon in to the serving counter and cuts themselves a slice. Although many of the melons are massive they are typically all eaten up within the hour. The watermelon varieties grown this year were: Crimson Sweet, Shooting Star, Orangeglo, Ali Baba, Moon and Stars, Quetzoli, and Strawberry. All these different varieties mature and ripen in different ways. Richard has worked with them long enough to know all the small clues to use to only harvest the watermelons at their peak ripeness and is happy to teach anyone curious and willing to help with harvests.
Most of the fall crops are all in. Carrots, lettuce, spinach, kale (Lacinado, Vates, and Red Russian) and rutabaga outside and zucchini, cabbage, and tatsoi in the hoophouse. Carrots have been thinned and there looks to be a bounty for this winter and spring. Thank you to everyone who labors in the garden and a big thanks to Melissa, Anthony, and everyone else who held down the garden while Richard, PT, and Andrea were mountain climbing in Colorado!
The start of a long term academic video blog about Cambia by Maximus:
There is a little known and not particularly important “law” in economics called Gresham’s Law. It states that “bad money forces out good money”. What it is referring to is important for coin collectors and sometimes for treasuries. For example, in 1965, when they started issuing quarters which had copper cores in them, fairly quickly the all silver quarters disappeared. Coin collectors and people predicting the increasing value of silver pulled them from the market.
There is a much more important principle in communes, which is parallel. Bad communards force out good communards. Unlike the economic law above, this can be an extremely important and tragic situation. People who live in income sharing communities, with some regularity ask themselves, “Should I return to the mainstream?” While there are lots of good things about living in communes, the mainstream for different reasons always has some appeal to most communards. It might be the night life, or the higher disposable income, or the greater privacy, or the social acceptance or a larger dating pool. (Some of these problems can be solved by living in an urban commune.)
This means when there is a serious conflict between people in a community, many people, at least fleetingly, consider the option of leaving. For some problematic members, the community is by far the best option. The mainstream life was perhaps not treating them well, they had limited options, and the commune is satisfying all their needs. For some talented members, Babylon is offering all kinds of treats and rewards for leaving the commune. For some small number of especially problematic members, this can means that they can get what they want (the other person leaving) by just digging in and being assholes.
Communes hate to talk about this. We are egalitarian, right? We are all equal, right? There are no good members and no bad members?
Bullshit. We are egalitarian, certainly. People have access to the same resources and people’s work is evaluated the same hour for hour. But there are definitely “good members” who contribute to the community in lots of different ways: it might be their musical ability, or their ability to facilitate a meeting, or their marketing or plumbing skills. They might simply make everyone happy when they are around. There is certainly no “objectively good” member; it is a judgment call. But talk to anyone who has spent time in a community and ask them if there are members who they were very sad to see leave, and they will confirm this for you because of the loss to the community when they departed.
Similarly, there are “bad” members. And they can be bad for lots of different reasons. They can be corrosive to the social fabric of the commune, they can be sexist or intolerant, they can have under managed mental health problems which bleed out onto the community, or they can be pernicious gossips (something i am accused of occasionally). And they can just be assholes.
This does not mean they should not live in the community. It does not mean they should have any less access to our collective resources. If we have selected them for membership, knowing these things about them then we have added them to our family and we need to be responsible for our choice.
But this dynamic is something to be aware of. It is often the case that people come to Twin Oaks, for example, knowing that living at Twin Oaks would be very good for them. Transformative, healing, giving them the chance that they always deserved. And the right thing might be to reject them anyway. Despite many people’s desires, we are not principally therapeutic communities. And you need not have a mental health problem to benefit from being in one of these communes. Often times living collectively, if done with an open heart and self-reflection can help cure you of being an asshole. Because they are pointing it out to you, people are encouraging you to self-correct and play better with others. [Commune life has not cured me of being a gossip. In fact, i am worse because there are so many strange and amazing people to talk about.] It does not always work out this way but it can.
Communes need to ask themselves, “Is this person we are considering for membership good for us, collectively?” If the answer is “no”, then it does not matter how good commune life might be for them, they should live somewhere else. This does not mean everyone rejected from a community is a “bad person” hardly. There are all kinds of reasons why it might not work for someone to be in a particular commune.
But understanding the dynamics of Gresham’s Law of Communes is important to make sure that you don’t lose members who you really want to hold onto because they have other options when the person they are in conflict with might not.
It started with the asparagus and a hole.
For 50 years the lepers hospital had been abandoned, fenced off and losing the struggle against entropy. Late in the fall of 2002, a handful of liberators cut a hole in the fence, letting themselves and the locals in. These mostly poorer pensioners from the outskirts of Barcelona had for years watched the fenced off asparagus sprout inside and go to seed. Not this year.
But the story only begins with this “chance harvest”. While locals reclaimed and seeded this newly available agricultural land, the squatters planted roots of their own in this place they renamed Can Masdeu (house of many springs). And as expected, before the first plants had sprouted, the police had arrived – not worried about the vegetables, but rather a different “weed” taking root. In April 2003, several dozen Barcelona riot police arrived to remove the illegal occupants from this long abandoned 3 story “mansion”.
What the police found was 11 people suspended on various platforms and perches designed so that to remove any one person, would cause another (or in some cases two other) people to drop from great height, potentially to their deaths. To this day, there are chairs mounted on the outside of the building – outside the top floors, where protesters sat for 3 days, through a rainstorm and mostly without food – waiting for justice. And finally it came. A local judge ordering the police to retreat, declaring human life is more important than property. It did not hurt that the dozens of local and imported supporters at the squat were aided by very visible protests and lobbying going on inside the city of Barcelona and even the Spanish Embassy in Am*dam was under siege by sympathetic anarchists.
But as romantic and exciting as the origin myth of Can Masdeu is, it is the current projects and dreams which makes it such an important and seductive place. Two dozen young people (from 22 to 39) have built gardens and bread ovens, opened a community bike shop, constructed meditation spaces, planted fruit trees, installed solar cookers and reversed entropy. They have inspired a DIY/”we can do it” culture which manifests both cordial relations with the locals and deep connections to the rural squatting movement (which is more secure than urban squats, because Spain, like most places, is suffering from urban flight). Meals at Can Masdeu are a cross between a noisy family reunion, a conspirators clandestine gathering and a polyglot’s wet dream, with the colorful players switching languages every few moments.
The internal economics are pretty simple. Everyone (visitors and members alike) pays 1 Euro (about $1.20) a day for the dry goods – mainly organic and bio regional foods which are collectively cooked by volunteers each day. On our last night there no one signed up to cook and cheerful, last minute, self selecting recruits finished cooking at 11 PM. (Which is only an hour or two later than dinner normally is. This is Spain – or more precisely Catalonia – after all.) The food is good. It is mostly vegan of necessity since cheese is expensive – but there are no culinary restrictions placed on the group.
Though simple, the meals were wonderful. Culinary success is fostered by a culture of joy and political action. Stuff from the gardens, food left behind after the farmers market (in a novel twist, farmers don’t feel it necessary to put broken glass into food which they can not sell, to keep others from eating it as we are so fond of doing in the US), bread from their clay ovens, dry goods purchased with the money chipped in – all create a squat cuisine which kept us out of the wonderfully tempting Barcelona restaurants.
We were lucky to get in. Jana and Frodo recommended the place, but June is one of their closed months. They have been so popular that they need to control the visiting of folx so as not to get overrun with outsiders. Our boat into Tarragona arrived just as a closed month began – but we were generously granted an exception (which we had arranged by e-mail in advance). We gave back to the squat with a presentation on Twin Oaks which was attended with great interest. They were trying to figure out many of the sharing systems that more mature communities have already developed. At 1 AM I was still answering questions, Hawina having fielded the first hour of them, while I chased after Willow (at this writing was age 2), who seemed to get the infectious spirit and thought that he owned the place.
It is not utopia yet either; one problem and benefit is the clash between the Spanish “manana culture” and the North European (esp. British and German) punctuality. The squat is perhaps 2/3rds locals and 1/3rd internationals and Gesine (who was our host and is from Germany) was really struggling with the group’s ability to make decisions effectively.
While we were there a couple of Dutch co-counseling instructors were there teaching a class. But their meeting techniques did not seem to take hold the way some of the squatters had wanted. I found myself wanting to be able to materialize Tree and plant her in this place for some months.
Squats, especially large ones which are likely targets for eviction are generally a mix of disheveled and broken stuff – and that which has been repaired or renovated. There is dodgy wiring and the same “second world” plumbing style as East Wind (running water inside, but outside composting toilets). But these folx were fast on their feet. At one point Willow charged into one of the living rooms, with cushions missing from chaotic couches, piles of papers on the dirty floor. An hour later we returned and the couches were complete and positioned for a meeting, the floor cleaned and cleared, a meeting agenda on the easel in front of the space. And in my favorite anarchist tradition, no one was claiming credit for the magical transformation. It just sort of happens, because it needs to.
It is not hardware or architecture which makes Can Masdeu important, it is the culture creation, the social relations and the politics which does. “We don’t just wear black,” says Gesine, explaining that part of the perceived threat of the squat to the establishment is that they are media friendly, accessible to (and in fact supporting of) locals from different ages and classes and constantly doing outreach. Barcelona is one of the most heavily squatted cities in Europe. The combination of poverty, speculation on rising real estate values and a legal system which does not deify property rights has caused an explosion in squatting and the anti-military service campaigns. The moneyed class does not want popular, accessible squats like this one – it emboldens folx to take matters into their own hands. Squatters are supposed to be dangerous fringe criminals, not helpful, friendly, folx fixing people’s bikes and respecting each other and the land and local tradition.
Even during their closed month there are tours and workshops every Sunday. There was a series of sessions on healing arts when we were there – taught not by folx from the squat, but by Barcelona practitioners using the space with the squat assisting in promotion for the event. The local school has several student groups who choose (and are encouraged) to meet there, in the café and ample conference spaces. There is a growing book library, a free shop (a commie clothes look alike), and a tool library as well as all the squatting propaganda you could possibly want. One of the rooms is for storage and construction of giant protest puppets and is also the flamenco dancers practice space. These types of multicultural mixed use spaces are common.
My last day, by good fortune, I ended up in a long conversation with Martin from the UK, who spent a year looking for this place before actually squatting it. His was an amazing and tragic tale, complete with getting cut from the rope which was blocking the G8 from arriving at their Swiss retreat. He dropped over 60 feet into two feet of water, broke his back and was lucky not to be paralyzed, much less alive (see www.aubonnebridge.net website for the amazing and disturbing video of the action). We talked about the culture of Can Masdeu, the meetings and process, the hopes and relations with other projects. For me it was the perfect arrival to Europe. People who had a very high level of commitment to radical political work, but were not stuck in old boxes, which would for example, keep them from the media, or distance them from the local population. We talked about his desire to protect this ecosystem, which he felt was at the edge of its carrying capacity with the gardens which had already been planted. And how amazed he was at what they had so far created.
And it might all end in October. After 5 failed criminal cases have been run against them, Can Masdeu now faces a civil suit, which it may be nearly impossible for them to win – because in fact they don’t own the property and someone else does. The police might not evict – this happens sometimes. But the most likely future is that in the winter of 2004/05 there will be a call to defend the squat. They hope hundreds of people will help defend the house and if they resquat there may be a popular action, hopefully with many hundreds of people especially people from the barrio. They have grown deep roots. My guess is many more than the original 11 people who risked their lives will be in dramatic and dangerous positions, with more than 3 days food and a very enthusiastic and very large group of people all around them supporting them.
I’ve seen the future and it is off the end of the metro green line in Barcelona
Update Nov 2016: The police did not come. To this day Can Masdeu continues to host events, political protests and a dynamic scruffy band of anarchists, who are now joining 20 other Catalan communities to build their movement.