Published in the Sun September 8, 2012
Forced to survive on the produce from my own vegetable garden, I would certainly starve to death within one season. I’ve never plucked a chicken, or butchered a hog, or even milked a cow with any success. So why is the idea of homesteading so appealing to me, and to so many of my grocery store dependent peers? Why do city dwellers yearn for a piece of rural property with poultry and fruit trees and a family harmoniously doing rustic chores?
My completely unsubstantiated theory is that humans have an evolutionary need to band together in small groups and work for food. If you live in the city, food is everywhere; more food than you could possibly eat. The thrill of the chase is gone. Where is the satisfaction in buying a hamburger at a drive-up window? By relying on agribusiness for nourishment, oil companies for energy, and Hollywood for entertainment, we have accepted the role of hungry baby birds, helplessly waiting with open mouths to devour what others regurgitate.
True self-sufficiency is not realistic in modern society (thank goodness) but we still have an urge to work together with friends and family; to plant, to build, to sweat, and to high five each other at the end of the day and say, “We did that ourselves.”
Last week I visited an ecovillage in British Columbia. As described on the website, an ecovillage is a settlement in which “human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.” This particular ecovillage, created in 1999, is called OUR (One United Resource) Ecovillage, and seems to have been started as a commune devoted to sustainable lifestyles. At first 10 to 20 semi-permanent members were growing their own food and building small artistic houses out of cob, a mixture of clay, straw, and sand. They planned to be a demonstration center where others could learn techniques of living close to the land, but nobody anticipated how wildly popular the concept would be. The number of visitors and temporary residents exploded, reaching 10,000 a year. People were coming from all over the world to see what was going on, revealing a tremendous hunger for getting back to nature.
Arriving at the gate of the 25 acre farm on Vancouver Island, my family and I were announced by a noisy flock of turkeys. Patrick Jackson came out to greet us. With a lovely South African accent and wavy blonde hair tied into a ponytail, Patrick looks like the aerial performer he used to be. Patrick and his family have lived at the ecovillage since 2008, so he is an old-timer. His job is to keep the legion of transient and unskilled volunteers working productively on the many building and agricultural projects that are in various stages of completion.
Patrick leads us to the outdoor dining area where a vegetarian lunch is just being served. We have a bowl of onion soup with homemade croutons and vegetable slaw. Patrick calls the kitchen a “zero mile eatery” because generally the meals consist of food grown on site. They rarely serve meat, but they recently killed some chickens and are planning to butcher a pig in the fall. A resident cow provides milk.
Brandy Gallagher, the executive director of OUR Ecovillage, sits down to visit while we eat lunch. A social worker by training, she was raised in a commune in the wilderness. Brandy describes herself as a “long, long term visionary.” She explains that most communities like this one maintain a very low profile, staying as far away as possible from regulators and code enforcers. Brandy has taken a different tack and tries to bring code enforcers around to her point of view; to compromise on acceptable ways to water the orchard with gray water and compost the latrine output. I sense that sometimes the code people balk. Brandy admits that she and the bank have different views of mortgage payments and community ownership, so the commune part of OUR Ecovillage is struggling a bit. The education mission, in contrast, is proceeding full throttle.
Brandy rushes off and leaves me with a group of women who have just finished a two week permaculture design course. They have been staying in tents and using a latrine. The latrine is called the “Credit Union” because it takes deposits. Withdrawals are also required; users have to take turns dumping the latrine bucket into the humanure composter. One of the students, Rebecca, an ecology professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver, volunteers to give a tour. We see the doomed pig enjoying a sunny day in a mud puddle. Chickens and goats comingle around a coop near a greenhouse filled with produce. Rebecca shows us a peach tree planted on the south side of a cob wall where it can soak up solar heat as the days get cooler. She also shows us several of the latrines, which have apparently made quite an impression on her.
Most of the buildings, while quite artistic, are not completely finished. I ask Rebecca how she, as a university scientist, interprets the non-linear thinking prevalent in the ecovillage. She smiles and reminds me that solving humanity’s current problems will require all kinds of different thinking.
Rebecca and the peach tree soaking up solar warmth
My son Jeffrey in front of the "Credit Union"
A pig who doesn't know what's in store for her
A volunteer digging potatoes