Thursday, November 15, 2007 • 8:55 AM Comments (6)

The State of the Commune in Western Massachusetts

posted by Hayley Wood

My interest in communes was sparked by reading Jennifer Gilbert's and Chuck Light's MFH grant proposal for their documentary about Total Loss Farm in Guilford, VT and the Montague Farm in Montague, MA. Right away I found the intentional communities website and was surprised to see a long list of communities—active and forming--in MA (51 as of this writing). I found a dozen in Western MA. I began my quest for knowledge by reading their websites, visiting and photographing the communities and speaking with members and would-be founders.

Intentional communities, the contemporary parlance for communes or commune-like groups, represent a spectrum of structured living arrangements: from basic co-housing groups formed on resource-sharing and ecological principles, such as Rocky Hill Cohousing in Florence and Pine Street in Amherst, to eco-villages comprised of members who also share a spiritual commitment, like the Sirius Community in Shutesbury and the Nehemiah Community in Springfield. Massachusetts is home to a range of religiously oriented groups that are Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist. Several MA intentional communities with a spiritual component are ecumenical in nature and accept members of diverse faiths. The shared spiritual mission of these communities generally focuses on social justice issues and sustainable lifestyles.

I decided to do my best to visit communities that were representative of the variants I had discovered. Beginning in October I visited: Healing Grace Sanctuary in Shelburne Falls (now a protected land-trust of 70 acres; the truly amazing owner has dreams of forming an intentional community and nature education center), Sirius Community in Shutesbury (a genuine 90% off-grid eco-village and meditation sanctuary that’s been in operation for 30years), Laughing Dog Farm in Gill (a CSA on the property of the former Renaissance Community; the owners indicate on their website that they seek another family or two to move to the property and help develop its agricultural potential), Rocky Hill Cohousing in Florence, and the Nehemiah Community in Springfield (the only urban community on the W. MA list).

I’ve been so flooded by images and impressions that, I confess, I hardly know where to start or how to make sense of it all. I’ve hit on a topic and a reality that is infinite. Since recording a full account of each visit would make an impossibly long blog entry, let me do my best to distill some of the needs and desires I see these communities fulfilling:

  • Living with others in a contemplative, cooperative way, utilizing consensus decision-making
  • Minimizing environmental impact
  • Developing sustainable resources for the larger community (i.e. CSA farm shares, grease-car fueling stations, renewable energy)
  • Sharing resources like time, tools and skills
  • Planning for aging
  • Administering social and racial justice work (The Nehemiah Community is active in this regard in Springfield, and Sirius hosts sleep-away retreats for inner city youth)
  • Creating a disciplined lifestyle that subverts the US addiction to ease and speed
  • Being a living example of peace by lessening or eliminating reliance on petroleum products, corporations, and agribusiness

I witnessed the concrete manifestations of these bullet points. It’s happening. So, to refer to Jennifer Gilbert’s suggestion that the experiences of the 60s communes just won’t become history or be subjected to scholarly analysis, I will assert that the communes of the sixties and the intentional communities of today are part of a continuum. There have been some stalled efforts or transformations—Total Loss Farm and the Renaissance Community are no longer communes, although the folks who were members back in the day still comprise communities (communities that are no longer open to anyone who hitchhikes to their neck of the woods, perhaps). In the sixties, the term for going back to the land to start fresh in an unspoiled Eden was “dropping out.”

What I see emerging today, reverses that trend and seeks to apply lofty principles of living where they are needed but infrequently envisioned: in urban landscapes. I’m referring to intentional communities in urban settings: urban eco-villages. Most of us won’t have the luxury of buying—dirt cheap—50 acres of pristine farmland with a house that can shelter all our friends. Most of us won’t have the luxury of living without day-jobs. But we might all be capable of envisioning where we already live as an intentional community, and finding ways to share resources with friends and neighbors and fellow-residents of our towns and cities. What I’m asking myself now is: How could my block be an intentional community? How could my city government function more as an intentional community? What is my role in that transformation?

--Hayley Wood, Program Officer, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Comments (6)
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I found this very interesting. I didn't know there were such communities in the area. I am wondering, what is an "intentional community"--mentioned in the 3rd paragraph. Dan Gordon
Posted by Daniel Gordon on 11.15.07 at 17:16
i definietely want to read hit on some very salient points-there's the looking at the communities you have visited and fleshing out a more comprehensive picture of their particular orientation and how thier members thrive and struggle with the commitment to the community and the needs of their own lives...AND the ties to the history and how those earlier communities, sucessful or not, laid the groundwork for the communities of today (dropping out was the old folding in a possible new term?). The third aspect is how we can intentionalize in situ...if that is possible, and I would agree that it is worth taking a serious look at and I am glad you end your blog entry there, rather than just lamenting the lack of community a traditional neighborhood can offer or that our current suburban subdivisions and typical sprawl models seem to acticely discourage. Sorry to reflect more than offer more to the discussion but the three points here open up such wide possibilities for discussions. the concept of people being more intentional about their own communities is very compelling.
Posted by ea on 11.15.07 at 17:48
Interesting . . . I had no idea there were so many communities in our area. I have friends who are getting serious about starting a sort of retirement commune out this way. . . a small version, about a dozen (childless) long-time friends sharing resources, hoping to skip the retirement home scene. Could be a baby boomer trend.
Posted by carolyn moore on 11.16.07 at 8:36
In the past two blogs, the question of ?what is history? has been fairly central. Can something ongoing also be history? If elders refuse to behave like elders and tell the story, are they - nilly-willy -- elders with lessons nonetheless? Some of this has to do with the definition of history. Is history the past itself, or is it the story we tell about the past? WWII veterans may want to tell their story partially as a lesson, but perhaps mostly because in their youth they were part of something incredibly intense - the fight of good against evil - that, no matter how violent and how gory, seems to motivate people quite strongly and fuels them throughout their lives. Members of communes and other intentional communities, however, are part of a story of failure: a communal living arrangement will fail. How long it takes to fail is a matter of quantity, not of essence. It may take 500 or 1,000 years, as in the case of some religious orders, but fail it probably will. I would even assert, without any statistical evidence whatsoever, that the stamina of an intentional community shortens directly with its distance from the central values of the culture. What does this have to do with Hayley?s questions, "how could my block/city government [have some of the characteristics of] an intentional community?" (Which, I realize, are rhetorical and thus a handy way to frame my comment) Let?s for the moment assume you live in Northampton. Both your city's government and your block were once - and could very easily still be - part of an intentional community: the Massachusetts town as established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What did it take to make a town ? or ?church? in seventeenth-century parlance? Some fifty families and a pastor who wanted to make a town and were willing to settle an area of between 30 and 100 square miles (local practices varied ? see The so-called witchcraft trials and a wealth of other court records tell us that they had all the problems intentional communities face today. In the end, however, they came up with some pretty good solutions. (And, in the process, did away with the requirement of fifty families moving into the "wilderness" as a group. At first the fifty families concept stayed, but you could buy your way into it. And this is how the block got into the fray of the intentional community.) They invented the Massachusetts-style town government, an early and as yet incomplete form of democratic intentional community: the town ruled by its Meeting and run by a Board of Selectmen. It seems less than coincidental that the word is the same as that used by off-the-charts communal religious groups with roots in that same seventeenth century -- Quakers and Puritans. The model: All householders take part in the governing of the town, elect those who run the town, and are free to run for any one or more of the myriad committees of offices that take care of the town. Some of the latter, Fence Viewer for instance, sound as nostalgic as they were very necessary in their own time. That form of government persists today in many small towns in Massachusetts. Towns now run on the ?council? system, with or without mayor, originated in the same way. The reason for the more professional system of governance and management of the larger cities and towns is, I think, that people with jobs in a fast-paced world do not have the time to take care of their community the way those householders did. But in my town, it still exists. And the burden is heavy even for the many extremely competent recently retired people who do most of the work. It could be a fulltime job and more. For that very reason, most people run for positions unopposed. You want to be Road Boss and Tree Warden simultaneously? Go ahead if you think you can do it and remain sane. I sit on one of the least demanding committees. Four manly men and myself gather every other Wednesday night at Town Hall and decide things about the maintenance of the four - now five - town buildings. Including grumbling about State Inspectors and other idiots from cities, the meetings take half an hour flat. Add five minutes to get there and five minutes back, it it still isn?t a whole lot. And yet, I am hard pressed to keep evenings free for it. I am already dreading the start of a bidding process for the project of restoring the second floor of the historic building in which we meet. Which brings me back to the question of history: time is of the essence. Intentional communities take a great deal of it, and work best on a pre-or extra-industrial schedule, and where community maintenance is a matter of survival. Which is, of course, what the communes of the ?sixties were doing ? dropping out, in good Thoreauvian fashion, of the commercial, rat-race infested industrial world, in order to perform some much-needed maintenance. In doing so, they told us that there is but one thing to do to make a community intentional: spend time on its maintenance. Not ?merely? on doing something socially useful or interesting, but on the essential task of keeping the beast alive: governance, management, maintenance. Democracy thus being not created by the vote but by participation in government at all levels, beginning with the block. Cheers to Hayley for raising the question.
Posted by Pleun Bouricius on 11.16.07 at 11:06
Whoa, where to start. Daniel, I do take a stab at defining "intentional communities" as a "spectrum of structured living arrangements." I see the term as a very broad category, within which you have more specific kinds, such as eco-villages and religious communities (to name just two examples).
Interesting, Carolyn, about your friends getting together to think about a retirement community of pooled resources. We have talked to some friends about something like that too--I wouldn't be at all surprised to see these kinds of places becoming a well known alternative for the elderly. Indeed, I think that already informs the thinking for several "forming" ICs in MA. My guide at Rocky Hill cohousing showed me his and his wife's home, and they had made several design decisions with "aging in place" in mind. Pleun, I'm now reading Nathaniel Philbrick's _Mayflower_, attempting to consider that emigration as the formation of an intentional community, as it most certainly was. It's really interesting to think of the structure of New England towns within that framework. The project continues . . . I'm attempting to synthesize my findings and continue conversations with the excellent people I've met so far.
Posted by Hayley on 11.19.07 at 8:00
So much good conversation here. This topic "communities" is a treasure trove. One of the most challenging issues (and this always comes up when I teach these topics to undergrads) is recognizing that for any "community" to exist (and I would hasten to add that I think sometimes "intentional community" is a bit oxymoronic) there must be some people who are outside of the community. No, I'm not against talking about or creating intentional practices of community (I lived in an intentional community in my 20s), but I am asking that we consider the really challenging notion that part of what makes "community" work is a group sense of unity that sets members apart in some way. This, of course is what held the separatists (aka "Pilgrims") together. A great read (it is still the best starting point even 30+ years out) is Tom Bender's "Community and Social Change in America".
Posted by elizabeth duclos-orsello on 11.26.07 at 13:05



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