In December of 2014, my wife and I visited one of the more established ecovillages. Located in southern Virginia, it has been around since 1967. With more than a hundred people, it is a vibrant, robust ecovillage that has been giving back to others for a long time. It was modeled after BF Skinner’s Walden Two. It has a proven track record, and is spoken of by Diana Christan in both her ecovillage books Finding Community and Creating a Life Together. This was originally posted on my blog cohesivecreations.com.
Our arrival at Twin Oaks coincided with the arrival with someone else. I want to share this because it’s a great example of what not to do when visiting an established ecovillage. The host I had been in contact with gave us over to another resident in the office who answered a lot of our questions. At the same time, a young guy showed up. He looked around at the books in the office, eventually bought one, but his arrival had been unannounced and he had no one to receive him.
An ecovillage is kind of like a big home. If someone just arrived at your house, looked around a bit and then took off, how would you feel? A little weird, right?
Anyways, some residents brought it up. And some thought that my wife and myself might be that guy. The fact they had two new parties there was a little confusing to some. It got straightened out, but even after the guy left there were questions regarding if he had really left, because it’s a large facility. Did he come by car? Did anyone see him leave?
So our arrival was a little discombobulated. While the host I had been in touch with was very busy, we were well received. We were given a brief tour of some of the grounds, and had a chance to sit down for a conversation with Valerie.
It is remarkable listening to stories of living in an intentional community. It is really hard to express how different this community structure is assembled, and how things work, but it’s brilliant in its own right.
Twin Oaks has two businesses that form it’s core, hammock and tofu manufacturing. Similar to Acorn, the community is set up where it asks for about 40 hours a week in work. It isn’t always towards the businesses, but there’s always something to do. These businesses provide for their employees by covering living expenses like housing, food and health care. While there is nothing stopping anyone from just leaving if they want, people get three to four weeks vacation. At Twin Oaks, one can set their own hours. One doesn’t have to work 8-4:30, Monday through Friday. So long as one gets about 40 hours a week is what’s important. So it’s kind of like having a salaried job where one sets their own hours, and can break it up however they want, and one is working at home with co-workers that live in the same condo. In this kind of community one does not have to do the same job every day if they don’t want to. Or one can find something you like doing and do it regularly. All human needs are met by the collective.
But this structure doesn’t come easy. It really becomes underscored that these communities require a strong work ethic. The success of the community depends on everyone working together, communicating openly, and living cooperatively. This means that in the community work is really a whole different meaning of work.
Strong personal responsibility comes into play. Residents in these communities need to be able to trust that everyone does their fair share. This is one of the key reasons there are graduated intake processes. Not just anyone can show up and join. Processes like these help the community to get to know new people and residents to get to know each other.
At Twin Oaks, the first step of this is a letter of introduction. This is where you introduce yourself, your background and values. It’s not like a cover letter for a job interview, where there is only one position that many are competing for, but more of a ‘Hi, here I am and this is what I’m all about.’ That said, instead of one HR person going over it, any number of eyes will be going over it. So it’s best to be as honest and straightforward as possible.
The second step of that process is a three week stay as a guest. This is where you really get to know the community and the community gets to know you. As a guest you’re doing everything a member would, working side by side, living and sharing some meals. You can sit in and watch community meetings and get familiar with the decision making process, but you’re not a voting member just yet. That comes later. After the three weeks, there is a meeting by the Membership Team, which is a group of six people who decide viability based on the membership interview and input from the community.
One of the neat things about Twin Oaks is consensus decision-making with variations to make communication easy. They call it participatory democracy, and every member has a chance to have their voice heard. It’s a perfect fit to an egalitarian community.
Another feature to community communication is a bulletin board with cards of ideas, events and things happening around the community. This makes it easy for members to stay up to date on the happenings of their community. I really liked this idea, as it brought people into a central place on a regular basis, and kept things handwritten.
The environment of the community was amazing. The place felt handmade with love. Weather in Virginia is temperate, and there isn’t much snow and ice, at least not the way we’re used to in Manitoba. Subsequently, there isn’t the need for lots of heavy winter gear. We visited on December 30th, and the temperature was around 7 degrees Celsius. Seasonally, this means there’s a longer growing season.
Walking through the community and one can tell the land and area of Twin Oaks is treasured by the people that live there. Beautiful and evocative, the landscape is well tended. The buildings are in great repair, and seem to disappear into the trees. There are 450 acres of room to move around on, and there are lots of bicycles the community owns to do that with. There are decks overlooking gardens and paths through the trees. There are vineyards and a solar installation.
Twin Oaks captivated us. This is where we wanted to raise a family. It was firmly established and well organized. It is egalitarian and it’s culture is one of openness, sharing and cooperation. This was a big draw, as it really does help a large group feel more like family. The place really looked and felt like it’s members were happy and successful. There were community events and some meals together, but not all. We found nearly a perfect balance between community and alone time. They had a wealth of time and freedom unknown to outsiders and were able to pursue life on their own terms while still supporting each other.
But alas, while it is currently open to new members, it’s ratio of children to adults is pretty much where they want it right now. While we were not ruled out, we didn’t get the feeling that it would be easy to get in.
This was disappointing! See, Julia and I share the same views when it comes to planning and raising a family. We want to raise our family in a small, rural setting where there are common values. An egalitarian outlook is important to us, as well as cooperative endeavors and a carbon negative lifestyle.
These sort of things are built into a community like Twin Oaks. In fact, a resident of Twin Oaks manages to live on 10% of the resources that the average American does, which makes a terrific amount of sense when you look at the things they’ve done.
We plan to revisit Twin Oaks the next time we go visit my family in Virginia. We definitely want to learn more about the ‘how’s’ of the community, as they have got a lot of things very right.
As an egalitarian community, Twin Oaks lives these values by hosting a Communities Conference that attracts people who live in and are interested in intentional communities. This conference usually occurs Labour Day weekend. It brings people from all over the world for connecting, networking, workshops and panels. This is something that Julia and I plan on attending later this year. It sounds like something we would really enjoy and plan on visiting for it.
Until our next visit, we have more communities to visit and more research to do. We have more adventures lying in wait to explore. I’m sure we will be revisiting Twin Oaks in the future, and undoubtedly learning lots from the community. I draw this to a close by saying we are still in search of a community to settle in and call home.
As Homer Simpson would say, Back to Winnipeg!
For more information check out the Twin Oaks website.
Federation of Intentional Communities (FIC)