There are magical places.
The problem is many of my readers don’t actually believe in magic. Oh, you might believe in pop magic: prestidigitation, sleight of hand, trickery. But hard magic? Where the laws of physics are getting bent or broken, where compelling coincidence is basically statistically preposterous? This is where our rational sides kick in and tell us this stuff is just not possible. I will tell you one of the stories, but you won’t believe me.
But we can get around this rationalism through stories. It has taken me over two years to get around to telling just a part of my Damanhur story. These are just the easiest to believe parts. I don’t think you are ready for the parts i am still struggling with and i am not ready to tell them in this format. Ask me at a party.
A group of young Italians shared a vision. A vision of a place where people would live in community and cooperation. A place dedicated to the idea that there is an artist inside everyone and the job of community is to get that art expressed. But it was also a place which was encouraging joint creative adventures, rather than promoting the works of single people and thus none of the tremendous artwork is signed.
This group was divinely inspired. They had all manner of signs that they were doing the right thing and they traveled the world looking for the right place. Oddly, it turned out to be just a few hundred kilometers from where they started, about 50 km from Turin.
A couple dozen people moved in back in 1978. They formed a commune. Shared income and assets. They worked straight jobs in the local area and started setting up their own cottage industries. Just like we do now when we are trying to start new communes.
Except there was the digging. Every night, for 16 years, some significant fraction of the members of the Damanhur community started digging tunnels and temples under the mountain that they lived in. They did it in secrecy. Driving down huge mounds of excavated dirt in trucks in the dead of night to be dumped far from the temples.
They were following a vision. They worked in secret and told no one outside their community about the project. But they grew. In the first 17 years, they went from a couple dozen people to over 400. It was a federation of communities, clustered in the town which was adjacent to the temples.
It is hard to keep a secret among 400 people, especially if they are as emotionally expressive as Italians tend to be. Rumor has it there was a domestic dispute. A couple of Damanhurians were splitting up and the one leaving the community demanded greater child custody and threatened to reveal the secret if they did not get what they wanted. When they did not, they went to the local police (who has been hearing stories for years, but had never been able to find their way in) and revealed the secret doors.
The Italian authorities came in and stopped construction of the temple because it was an unpermitted mining activity. But the media rushed in to cover this beautiful space and the UK tabloid the Daily Mail (and apparently the Italian government) called it the 8th Wonder of the World. And the tourists started following in to see it.
Through a somewhat inexplicable series of events, i was invited to Damanhur in 2015. My host Betsy Pool and i had met at one of the most exotic conferences i have ever attended, called Building the New World, in Roanoke, Virginia, earlier in the year.
I was enchanted by Betsy’s story about how she got to Damanhur, about her work founding the Institute for the Mythology of Humanity and the collection of people she was pulling together to try to promote the complex message of Damanhur’s origins.
I leapt at the chance to go to this most exotic place, which was made possible by a generous sponsor (communes don’t pay well, international travel is generally inaccessible). And for a week i toured the temples of Damanhur, learned their stories and chatted with Charles Eisenstein who was part of the same advisory group had been invited to as a storyteller.
I got to do a Transparency Tools workshop in the hall of mirrors (see the picture at the top) which was pretty amazing.
When we toured the temples, i learned some curious things about Damanhur. One was that there were highly realistic portraits of all 600 living Damanhurians on the temple walls. On my tour of the temples, there was a current Damanhur resident. The portrait of her was so realistic that when i saw it on the wall i could immediately identify it as her. When members of the community die, their paintings within the temples are covered and a new portrait is created on the walls of the buildings Damanhur controls around the temples.
When people ask me what the most amazing thing about Damanhur is, i often reply that it is a group of 600 non-smoking Italians. Without a doubt the largest such group in the world.
But when pressed harder, i talk about the plants. It starts with the Music of the Plants. Research has been going on in plant communication for over 4 decades at Damanhur. The accessible amazing thing is that they are able to hear plants performing the music that they all regularly make, by hooking up the plants and measuring and interpreting the very low-voltage electric currents between the roots and leaves of the plant.
An even more amazing is the story of a plant which is used inside of Damanhur as a door lock. If the plant detected that the person who had been introduced to the plant was arriving in anger, it would not let the person into the room.
I said you would not believe me. And these are the more accessible stories of Damanhur.
Sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes people find us who we are so pleased are spending time with us it not only restores our faith in humanity generally but also that it makes sense specifically to invite people we barely know into our homes as extended guests.
Zoja is from Zagreb (her name rhymes with Soya). She self describes as someone into plants, herbalism, spiritual healing, holistic medicine, photography, music, yoga, art, and mindfulness. She found Cambia online, corresponded with us for some weeks and just arrived last week. We have quickly fallen in love with her.
This is not just because she is upbeat and willing to chip in on whatever is happening around Cambia. For me at the core of it is that she brings compelling ideas to this deeply philosophical community. Specifically, she qualifies as a mystic by my definition.
A mystic is someone who asks you to think of the central question in your life at this moment and then explains to you why that is the wrong question.
Zoja is a world traveler, it will be months before she returns to her home country of Croatia. A tour which will take her through several continents and advance her experience of new cultures. We are already sad she will only be at Cambia for three weeks. But the key with shooting stars is to be in the moment with them and let them go gracefully when they head off to their next adventures.
pictures from Rejoice
Yes, it’s Thanksgiving week in the US, and while Thanksgiving is a very problematic holiday (where we give thanks for the land we stole from the native people and the prosperity we built on the backs of slaves), there is something very important about the act of giving thanks.
At Twin Oaks (and other communities) the highpoint of the Thanksgiving meal is going around the very crowded room and having each person say one thing that they are thankful for. One community I’ve been to starts every meeting with a time for appreciations.
Being grateful, thankful, appreciative is a very useful community building exercise. Just as there are vicious (destructive) circles, this is an exercise that builds upon itself. I’ve pointed out things that don’t work in community–this is something that does. Many long running communities do something like this and it makes the commune a more pleasant place to live. This attracts people and contributes to the longevity of the community.
We’ve had several posts here on what doesn’t work in community. Gratitude is something that does.
6 a.m. My alarm wakes me up and I roll out of bed, ready to start my day. The sun hasn’t quite come up yet, but there’s some soft light coming through my east-facing window. I don’t have to get up this early-we each set our own schedule-but I like being up before the hustle and bustle of the day really begins. Plus, since nine of us live in my building, I probably won’t have any competition for the shower.
6:15 a.m. I make myself breakfast (toast with homemade bread and an egg from one of our chickens) in the kitchen in the Courtyard, where I live. Lunch and dinner are served buffet-style at Zhankoye (ZK), our main dining facility and community center, but we also have a handful of smaller kitchens for breakfast, snacking, and preparing meals for small groups of people. As I eat, I read a novel I pulled from our public collection of several thousand books-no library card needed.
6:55 a.m. Since I like being up early, I signed up for a 7 o’clock tofu-making shift last week when all of our labor was being scheduled. I head to the Tofu Hut, a mere two-minute walk through the woods from my room-not a bad commute. It’s chilly out, but the Hut is warm and steamy. I put on boots, gloves, a hairnet, and an apron, and start pressing curds into big slabs of tofu.
10 a.m. My shift is over, and I head back to the Courtyard. I check my email on one of the public computers in the office. In addition to actually making tofu, I also do a lot of customer service for our soyfoods business. Someone has contacted us to find out where they can buy Twin Oaks’ tofu in their area; I respond, and also check out the orders that have come in locally from stores and restaurants in
Charlottesville and Richmond.
10:45 a.m. I see my friend Sabrina outside with one-year-old baby in a carrier on her back. She’s doing a “primary,” labor-creditable child care. We make tea and go for a walk together, the baby making cute faces at me the whole time.
12:05 p.m. It’s lunch time, so we walk up to ZK. Lunch is mostly leftovers, supplemented with a fresh salad and baked potatoes. We grow greens throughout the winter in our huge greenhouse, and we harvested enough potatoes in the summer and fall to last us through the winter.
12:50 p.m. I walk back to my room to put on work boots for my forestry shift, then ride a public bike up to Modern Times (MT), where Carrol, River, Purl and I will meet for the shift. MT is our main shop building, with space and tools to fix our cars, bikes, tractors, and vacuums.
1 p.m. We head out into the woods, where we’ll selectively cut trees and haul them in to be processed into firewood. All the wood we harvest is done so sustainably, and all of our buildings are heated with wood all winter long. It’s too hot to do forestry work in the summer, so during the off-season, I’ll switch some of my work scene indoors to do data entry and accounting work to monitor our communal
5:15 p.m. I hang out in my room a bit before dinner, finishing up a letter to my family and listening to music. I find it’s important to carve out alone time for myself–it’s very easy to get sucked into the social scene 24/7 here. There’s always something going on, someone to talk to.
6:00 p.m. Dinner is served! Tonight it’s my favorite–veggie burgers. (And, OK, hamburgers too. But I’m a vegetarian.) There are plenty of side dishes, like steamed spinach and sweet potato fries. A large percentage of the meal, both veggies and meat, is homegrown. I sit in the Lounge with about ten people and chat with McCune about his latest plumbing adventure. Sometimes at dinner there’s one main conversation but tonight several smaller discussions have sprung up. Besides copper-vs-plastic waterlines, people are talking about the new fruit orchard we’re planting, the latest news from our sister community 8 miles up the road, and trying to work out if people’s schedules will allow our belly-dance troupe to meet on the same night as the queer-theory discussion group.
7:30 p.m. Mala has invited me to her residence (named Beechside) to hang out-there’s a really cozy kitchen/living room there that’s highly conducive to fun social gatherings. A bunch of people come over, and we sit draped on the couches and on the floor. Debbie and Trout play fiddle and guitar, Casey is knitting a pair of socks and Ezra makes a large amount of popcorn. It’s a festive atmosphere, though there’s no particular occasion; we just like to enjoy each other’s company.
10:00 p.m. I head home to my room. I record the work I did today on my labor sheet and write in my journal a bit to unwind before bed. I’m very tired, but happy. It’s been a good day.
If you are looking for a nice peaceful life in a commune, forget it. I often tell people starting communities, that conflict is not a question of if, but of when.
This isn’t a design flaw of communities. Basically, whenever you have two or more people doing something together, at some point, there’s going to be conflict. This is because no two people are identical and no two people see things the same way. Add more people and there are more chances for conflict.
And the important thing to realize is that conflict isn’t bad. In fact, working it through is a good way to reach a better solution than simply accepting what one person says. This is why consensus is more powerful than voting. In voting, the minority is overpowered. In consensus, you need to listen to everyone and try to learn from each side.
And I say all this as someone who is a chronic conflict avoider. Believe me, I am scared of conflict. But I’m even more scared of not dealing with conflict. Not dealing with conflict is one of the things that destroyed a community that I loved.
After it was all over, one of the folks I had been in community with asked me if I hadn’t been aware of all the conflict going on. I replied that I knew it was happening, I just didn’t know what to do about it. So I basically ignored it.
I still don’t know what to do with conflict, but I’ve learned a few things. The first is to actually say, “Hey, there’s conflict happening. We should deal with this.” It doesn’t go away by pretending it isn’t happening–in fact that generally makes it worse.
Listening generally does help. If you can, don’t take sides. Assume there are good reasons for all positions and try to figure out what each person needs.
And sometimes a mediator helps–someone who is outside the situation and sometimes someone who is outside the community.
A few other things about conflict. What I’ve found is that the bigger the community, the less intense conflicts are. It seems counter intuitive until you realize that with a couple, for example, each of them will try to meet all their needs from the other person. The more people there are, the more points of view, the more different people who can meet folks needs, the bigger the buffer, the more likely there will be folks who can hear all sides.
And, for the last couple of years, I’ve been living in a community that embraces conflict. It’s been amazing to see people who will be screaming at each other in a meeting (this doesn’t happen all the time but it happens enough) and later be working together. These folks have lived like this for years.
And this leads to looking at one other thing about conflict. The goal isn’t to eliminate it, the goal is to make it safe to deal with. And something that makes it safe is commitment. If you know that you can disagree with folks, get upset with folks, even occasionally yell at folks, and they are not going to run away or never speak with you again, then it makes conflict more possible and therefore more manageable.
So the commitments we have help us weather the conflicts and the conflicts make us stronger. If you want a commune that can last, learn to deal with conflict.
It seems to me that Twin Oaks is thriving, but I don’t want to believe that Twin Oaks is doing well when we are not. The Farm in Tennessee went bankrupt in the eighties because they thought they were doing fine, when actually they were sliding deep into debt. So is there some sort of accurate empirical measure of the health of a commune?
Twin Oaks doesn’t have any debt—that’s significant—perhaps the most significant economic indicator there is. Twin Oaks’ Dun and Bradstreet rating is as high as it can be for a “business” our size. So Twin Oaks is unlikely to fail due to debt. Maybe that’s all we need to know. But I wonder…
Using other economic indicators, Twin Oaks is doing rather poorly. For instance, everyone at Twin Oaks lives below the poverty line. Twin Oakers could get food stamps since we qualify, but we really don’t need food stamps, we can grow our own food, thank you very much.
Twin Oaks is larger, at 500 acres, than a handful of countries; if Twin Oaks were a country what would our GDP be? [From Wikipedia: Gross domestic product (GDP) is the market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a year. GDP per capita is often considered an indicator of a country’s standard of living and is one of the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country’s economy.] If Twin Oaks were a country, economically we’d be at about the same level of GDP as Armenia, Swaziland, and Guatemala. That’s not good.
Collectively, Twin Oaks’ bank account might seem large, but divided out among 110 people, it’s not that much. Why is it since Twin Oaks has no debt, we own 500 acres, have a dozen buildings, run a handful of successful business that we don’t rank better using standard economic indicators?
There are some other economic indicators that can be measured at Twin Oaks, e.g. Unemployment: current unemployment in the United States is just above seven percent. [This is actually falsely low, since there are many people who would like to have a job, but who have given up looking; they are considered employed, or at least, they aren’t counted as unemployed–OK, that’s bizarre] Twin Oaks has zero unemployment. Everyone works, unless they are elderly or sick. That is, if you can work; you work; if you can’t work, you don’t work. Twin Oaks has always had full employment. By that statistic Twin Oaks is doing great.
In the mainstream economy a worker cannot casually try out being a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic, an accountant etc. Students must pick a career path early, expend lots of time and money getting the required certification, and only then see whether the work is suitable. Additionally, it does not pay to be a dilettante in the mainstream culture. Work security comes from working full time, and work satisfaction comes (if it comes at all) from getting promotions.
Twin Oaks does not have protective barriers around jobs. Anyone can try anything that they want to try. The outcome is a labor scene that is far different from the mainstream labor scene—immeasurably different. No one works at one job at Twin Oaks; people easily switch jobs. People, we discover, are happier not having to work 40 hours at one job. And still the work of the community gets done. There is no work sabotage, or sneaking off with inventory. Twin Oaks wins on worker satisfaction.Because there is no unemployment at Twin Oaks, there is no class stratification. Because there is no class stratification there is no poverty, no crime, no need to hire a police force, or live in a state of constant fear. The crime rate is, essentially zero. Twin Oaks wins on crime statistics and, of course, income inequality.
Twin Oaks is hardly outside of the market economy in our businesses. Twin Oaks’ hammocks business has been thriving for over thirty-five years while other hammocks businesses in the United States have gone out of business. Twin Oaks’ tofu business and East Wind’s nut butter business demonstrate that a communal society can successfully start and operate a capital-intensive business.
When Pier One Imports dropped Twin Oaks hammocks, which accounted for 75% of Twin Oaks’ income at that time, there was no desperation or impetus to start making a shoddy product, do false advertising, or other strategies common for mainstream businesses undergoing stress. Workers switched to other work, the community expanded smaller businesses, and everyone took an equal pay cut, metaphorically speaking. The other businesses grew. Within two years, Twin Oaks’ income was back to where it was. And, of course, no one was laid off.
During this time , a well-established and well-known leisure goods company approached Twin Oaks to make cotton hammocks. Twin Oaks had, at that time, slack production capacity. The offer sounded very profitable for Twin Oaks. but we turned the offer down. Why? Because cotton rope is hard to work with; the rope is heavy and would have contributed to wrist injuries. Also, cotton hammocks don’t last as long. We would be selling an inferior product at a higher price. None of the workers wanted to work with cotton hammocks. If the order had been accepted, it is likely that workers would have found work elsewhere in our community.
Health, happiness, and ethics won out over mere profit. How do you measure that decision? Literally, how can you measure happiness? How to measure an un-hurt wrist, or a happier workplace? Doing work that is aligned with your own ethical compass? Those considerations don’t have much of a place in the mainstream economic model.
The goal of mainstream economics is to atomize society into individual consumers and to monetize every transaction so that they can be more accurately measured. People re-using stuff, and people sharing stuff all lower global GPD. Growing a garden lowers GDP. Sharing a car with a neighbor lowers GDP. The goal of Twin Oaks is to bind people together in a strong, mutually-supportive group. The by-product of these structural decisions is that lives at Twin Oaks are de-monetized; being de-monetized, Twin Oakers lives don’t measure up.
Boom and bust cycles, unemployment, class-stratification, planned obsolescence, poverty, crime—these are the logical, predictable, and inevitable outcomes of mainstream economic measures. Not the system, not inefficiencies in the system, not poor implementation of capitalism; the very yardstick itself causes these bad outcomes.
Maybe the yardstick itself is wrong.
Maybe the yardstick itself is wrong…Imagine that building materials weren’t measured in inches and feet (or centimeters and meters), but, let’s say, by weight. So, the only thing we would be able to measure on a building is its weight. Obviously, a bigger house would weigh more. Wealthy people would want to live in a house that is massive. The wealthiest people would compete to have “the heaviest house in the world.” Building trades would quickly adapt and start using materials by weight and clamoring for heavy materials. Developers would want to appeal to the upper class by advertising how much heavier their homes are than other similar homes. You can run this bizarre fantasy out yourself, everything in the building trade would get distorted, and, more to the point, houses would not be better in any sense of the word, in fact, many houses would be worse.
Mainstream economic measures give rise to a fundamental short-sightedness that we at Twin Oaks would do well to avoid. At Twin Oaks we are not bound to an irrational economic philosophy. When asked what ideology or philosophy Twin Oaks uses in guiding our decisions we can only gesture vaguely in the direction of our collective judgment.
Mainstream economic models measure something, but that something is not really relevant to Twin Oaks. Twin Oaks uses a more nuanced—human-centered, ethics-based, long-range decision making model. This makes the comparison of Twin Oaks as an economic entity with other economic entities essentially impractical, if not impossible. What Twin Oaks does doesn’t often make “economic” sense, but it makes “sense”–sense in the human-scale, ethical, sustainable way that people typically mean when they use the phrase “makes sense.”
Each year Twin Oaks is doing better at being communal, that is, we put up solar panels, develop hydroelectric power, share more with each other, and provide more of our own entertainment. Each of these steps in the direction of more communalness makes us slide ever downward in our economic indicators. Until there is a widely accepted measure of happiness, of sustainability, or of ethical living, Twin Oaks won’t be able to come up with an empirical analysis to demonstrate to the world how effective and sensible what we are doing is.
I’m Ok with that.
Pictures from Raines Cohen, Cohousing California, captions by GPaul Blundell
(Also see GPaul’s report on the conference)
The conference was at Terra Madre Gardens outside of Escondido, CA, all of 40 miles from the Mexico border. Hot and dry, succulents seemed to be having a grand old time and even the oak trees’ leaves had spikes like hollies as if to say “keep your thieving mitts off of my water!”
Welcome to the conference! Here’s an orientation board.
The folks at registration came up with a colorful way of communicating what you were seeking in an intentional community.
Much conversation was had over the delicious food cooked by the crew at Terra Madre Gardens.
Sky opens the conference on Friday night with some framing thoughts for the weekend ahead.
Alayha, the event’s MC (and occasional cosmic clown), gets the crowd warmed up before one of the workshops.
The dining area was always active with conversations large and small.
GPaul and Betsy share their thoughts on a panel at the conference.