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This article first appeared in Communities Magazine, Issue 184, Fall 2019, here. The theme of the issue is The Shadow Side of Cooperation.
I’ve been living in community for half my life. I started visiting and living in intentional communities and ecovillages all over the US in the mid-’90s, finally settling down at Earthaven Ecovillage in western North Carolina in 2001 when I was in my early 30s.
Those early years were marked with ambition, idealism, and a strong intention to contribute to the world. Now, a long time later, I am integrating and reflecting on my journey. Community life and all its various personal manifestations has been my vocation, my life’s path, and my career. It has included sustainable agriculture, off-grid living, alternative relating, consensus-based governance, and a whole host of other engaging practices.
At age 51, I still live at Earthaven Ecovillage, have way more realistic expectations of what can be accomplished, and have a much clearer understanding of the shadow side and challenges. In fact, I could do a whole series of articles highlighting the shadow side of consensus, of rural community development, of permaculture, and of the notion that we can change the world.
For obvious reasons, the most poignant examples of “shadow” in community are personal, because they are lived and embodied experiences. Two such experiences during my time at Earthaven Ecovillage stand out as both the most challenging and the ones that embody the most shadow.
In 2009, I went through an extremely hard breakup of a long-term partnership. In relationship for eight years, we moved mountains together. We built a shared housing project from scratch including a 4,000+ square foot, multi-apartment, hand-built building with all the wood sourced from our land, and with off-grid utility systems (waste, water, power, and heat). In addition, we cleared many acres of forested land; designed, developed, and managed a five-acre homestead farm, which included running a dairy cow operation; ran our own businesses; participated in the creation of our community’s governance systems; and contributed regularly to family and friends. We were burnt out and our intimacy had been suffering for years in the face of the immense tasks we undertook. I initiated the separation, which was quite hard for both of us, but over time we agreed to slowly disentangle and take some space. We both wanted the transition to be kind, thoughtful, and mutually respectful of each person’s process and needs. We wanted to stay connected, continue to farm together, and live in the same neighborhood.
This conscious uncoupling worked for a while, but when my partner’s attention turned to a 22-year-old intern, new to our community, things completely fell apart for us. I was no longer a priority and neither was our plan to ease out of our partnership into a supportive life together. My whole world came crashing down, with the accompanying agony, terror, rejection, aloneness, and trauma that can happen during a difficult divorce process. And, in community, it was worse. I could not get away from my recently separated partner who was now “coupled up” with someone 20 years my junior. They were everywhere, at community functions and gatherings, and even started to live together right next door to my home, which just a short time ago had been our home.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in deep shock and grief for a very long time. And I was unable to metabolize the unfolding process over which I had so little control. Community members who are not versed in this kind of emotional upheaval had little empathy. They thought I should be over a breakup I just wasn’t over. The healing process was so slow because I was constantly triggered by seeing them together and not having any space that was just mine. At that time, my whole life (farm, work, relationships) was in community. I had no easy option to leave.
The second important and challenging event occurred when a few of us presented a much-needed, well-written agriculture plan to the community in 2009. We had been working and visioning together for years as colleagues and as a committee with the intention to “develop policies and guidelines for sustainable food production at Earthaven,” and all of us were farming for at least a part of our income.
Agricultural development had been slow at Earthaven for the first 10 years because the founders chose a completely forested piece of land. Clearing land for agricultural use at Earthaven cost $10,000 per acre, with lots of hard and heavy work. The plan we put together would have sped up the clearing of agricultural land, thus prioritizing economic viability for the community’s farmers. We felt that with the strong core group of farmers at Earthaven, investing in these clearings would enable many things for the community: fruition of our mission; reduction of our ecological footprint; fulfillment of existing needs; provision of long-term village food security; creation of soil fertility faster and sooner; augmentation of long-term capital and operating income; development of employment opportunities; attraction of new members (particularly those with needed skills, tools, and aspirations); production of materials for use in community and homesite building projects; and growth of the demonstration we were trying to offer the outside world.
Those were all good things. So what could go wrong?
What actually happened with this agricultural plan was a series of community-wide meetings that got progressively worse. A contingent of community members were anti-agriculture, anti-development, and anti-forest clearing. They did not support the group of young and ambitious farmers proposing to clear more land and create viable economic models. They expressed fear of the fast transformation that we were proposing. At that time, Earthaven operated at 100 percent consensus, which means everyone must agree in order for a proposal to move forward. In such a governance system, the “No’s” win out unless everyone can be convinced to be a “Yes.” After months of trying to build support for the agricultural plan, we got more and more demoralized and finally gave up. Some of the farmers moved away, others stopped farming, and to this day no more agricultural land has been cleared. The “play it safe and small” contingent won out and it was a huge loss for the development of the community and the economic viability of the farmers.
As I contemplate these events from years ago, here are the shadows that I can identify clearly. Still other shadows are not yet seen, given the infancy of our village creation and our inability to fully understand both the larger culture we swim in and the subculture we’re slowly creating. I hope that elucidating these can help educate other community builders as they navigate equally tricky terrains.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it does highlight a few of the things we need to work through in order to be effective at building community. Given that we are all steeped in a patriarchal worldview by virtue of being raised in this toxic paradigm, and we all come with a bag full of wounds, we are likely to get more wrong than right for many generations to come. What we’ve inherited is a dying culture. What we’re trying to build is a living system out of the scraps of that inheritance.
The upside is that we’re in good company and we’re living meaningful lives.
Ten years after these two devastating events in my life, I am happy to report that I am delightedly single, employed in sustainable agriculture, and more empowered than ever before. That breakup served to help me grow into an entirely new person, one that has come to question the pair-bond model and build an even richer version of community, both within the walls of Earthaven Ecovillage and without. My work in agriculture, which focuses on the Southern Appalachian organic growing community, has much broader impact than if I had stayed focused on the small-ish ecovillage agriculture plan. And while Earthaven’s model still does not meet the criteria of an economically viable agriculture plan, there are ongoing efforts on the part of some brave farmers to get there. It’s happening more slowly than I could ever have imagined and I’ve come to accept that sometimes that’s the way of things.
In addition, I’m slowly healing from burnout and overwhelm by living part-time outside of Earthaven, where I am cultivating the ease, peace, and distance that I need to rest, recover, and regain some of the nervous system function that I wore out over the past 25 years in community. I credit both the positive and the challengin
g experiences in making me who I am today: a more integrated and fully alive human.
There’s no doubt that we will continue to stumble. I truly believe that village-building, whether rural or urban, large or small, is a worthwhile endeavor. We need to continue making mistakes and getting it wrong. How else are we going to build a repository of lived experiences that instruct us on how to commence this crucial task of village-building?
Lee Warren has been living in community since 1995 and at Earthaven Ecovillage in the southern Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina since 2001. She is a cofounder of Village Terraces CoHousing Neighborhood and Imani Farm, Executive Director of Organic Growers School, and a founding partner of the School of Integrated Living. Lee is also an herbalist, writer, teacher, and food and social justice activist, with an avid interest in rural wisdom, sustainable economics, and women’s issues.
 Read more about “Tyranny of the Minority” in Diana Leafe Christian’s great article from Communities #155, “Busting the Myth that Consensus-with-Unanimity Is Good for Communities,” at www.ic.org/busting-the-myth-that-consensus-with-unanimity-is-good-for-communities and in Wisdom of Communities Volume 3.
 Eliades, Angelo, “Science, Technology and Permaculture―How much do you really need to know?,”permaculturenews.org/2016/12/16/science-technology-permaculture-much-really-need-know.
agriculture, ambition, classism, community, consensus, enneagram, ignorance, mental illness, permaculture, shadow, structural conflict, trauma
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