I’m starting this letter late Saturday afternoon, with the last, tragic act of Aida playing live from the Met on the radio. Such calm, ethereal love music, sung by two people who have just been entombed together. Opera is either a real hoot, or a real soul-searer, depending on how deep you let it get into you. My guard is down at the moment, so the final duet is probably going to reduce me to tears.
The College Flu has been pursuing me since the beginning of the term, when the Dartmouth students brought it in from all over the nation and started circulating it around campus. Last night I finally got unbusy enough to give in to it. I don’t know about you, but I only allow myself to succumb to flu when I have time. My powers of anti-flu resistance are formidable, but I can only keep them up for a limited period; the minute I let my guard down, the flu takes over. This last month was way too hectic to have flu, but finally I got my first round of papers graded, the Boston workshop over, the marathon monthly community meeting over, and this week’s column filed. So here I sit, swathed in wool, drinking hot liquids, with a drippy nose and a scratchy throat, feeling like an overboiled noodle. I’m intending to stay this way only for this weekend; after that there’s too much to do again.
Let’s see, where shall I start in describing this busy month? When a teaching term adds 23 charming students to my other responsibilities, I suddenly feel like one of those jugglers who’s balancing three spinning plates, while keeping four balls in the air, while riding a unicycle on a tightrope. Definitely keeps me awake and alert!
Maybe I should start with the teaching. Teaching, institute, community, farm. That’s the order in which we shall proceed here.
Teaching. The course is environmental ethics, the only course I teach at Dartmouth these days. I love the subject, the readings, the students, but every year I promise will be my last, it’s so demanding. Then I do it again, because it pays well, if briefly, and because it allows me to maintain my Dartmouth office, internet connection, library privileges, etc. It will probably be two more years before I can hope to have a Sustainability Institute office here at the Hunt house. So that’s how long I’ll probably go on teaching at Dartmouth.
But then when I come to know the kids, every year, I remember why I do this.
(Oh, oh, here come the final soaring notes, Amneris chanting “pace, pace,” the violins rising up into bliss. How could Verdi make such a sad ending so transcendent and serene? Ah! Pardon me while I go blow my nose. Just the flu, of course.)
The kids, the kids. College students are so lively and curious, so cautiously idealistic, so ready to be ignited by any flame of truth. This week we discussed Leopold’s land ethic and Ishmael, a book that always turns them on. By the end of the class, they were ready to foment a revolution on behalf of the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.
I mistreat them badly. I never tell them what I think, and I constantly poke them to explore to the core not only what they think, but why they do. Why do they believe the assumptions they believe? Why do they value what they value? I drive them nuts. They write heroically in their papers that we must preserve the biosphere for future generations, and I scrawl: Why? They tell me they believe that the earth’s resources are finite; I ask Why do you believe that? Julian Simon didn’t. Are you sure you know better than he did? Why are you sure?
Usually somewhere about the middle of the term, they realize they haven’t any idea why — nor does anyone else, including the people they most strongly disagree with. That’s the point where we have the opportunity for real transformation!
Some day when I have nothing else to do, maybe I’ll retire and become a full-time Dartmouth professor again.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
– Walt Whitman
Sustainability Institute. I am the director of the thing, but I don’t think I took that title seriously at first, partly because the institute is so new and virtual and ephemeral, and partly because I have a hard time directing anything or anyone. (Lots of deeply buried issues about leadership.) I’m finally seeing that keeping this institute going, doing its job in the world and following up on all its opportunities is a huge job, that it’s my true and rightful job, and that I need a lot of help to pull it off. I’m seeing that my main concern has to be to work with our staff on the substantive mission, not to be stuffing notebooks and keeping up the supply of address labels. I’m seeing how crucial our work is. Shyness and false modesty are dropping away from me; I’m fired up!
A lot of this new energy came from working with Beth and Phil and Drew and Don on the funders’ workshop in Boston two weeks ago. We developed a great teaching package; many new Powerpoint slides; new experiments to try in getting systems principles across. We were learning ourselves in the process and working well as a team.
Then, having planned so carefully the logical sequence of the workshop, when we presented it, we threw away the whole second day and improvised. We could do that because the funders we were working with were so terrific. It was a privilege to be with them, thinking hard about “why we’re winning battles but losing the war” when it comes to environmental destruction, poverty, and all the other big problems that I see as symptoms of a coordinated system of unsustainability. (The industrial system. The system of money and power and consumption and hurry. The system in which we all, including the foundations, are embedded.)
We didn’t come out with final answers, for the funding community or anyone else. But we gave it all we had, we didn’t pull punches, the group in the room was with us (or ahead of us) all the way, and we — and I hope everyone — were reminded not to erode our goals back down into the arena of token battles, but to keep an eye on the whole big system and its leverage points and its anomalies.
The best moment came at the end when the funders conducted a special round of applause for “your terrific staff.” It was such a pleasure.
We’re preparing for another workshop in Hartland in February, and one at Shelburne Farms in April (for teachers). We are using an “epidemic” or “tipping point” model to plan how to get the most positive reinforcing loops out of each workshop.
And I’m writing SI’s year 2000 annual report and preparing for our annual board meeting. I’m fundraising for shrimp and for meters. With Hal’s help, I’m beginning to plan a board retreat and a capital campaign (to fix up the Hunt house). Thanks to the Luce grant, we’re hiring staff to put new energy into the corn and forest projects.
Community. Up on the hill Stephen and Kerry’s and Jan and Ellen’s duplex has windows in, the standing-seam roof on, stairs and wiring and plumbing. They say they’ll start sheetrocking next week. Gail’s house has its framing done, so we can see what a single-family house with a gable will look like. Ann’s house and Claudia and Flea’s house are getting their first-floor framing, and Matt and Sophie’s house and the duplex to be inhabited by Don and Colleen and Judith and Phil have basements framed and capped, protected from the weather. These buildings will be worked on for the rest of this winter. When spring comes more foundations will go in. We’re expecting move-ins to start in early June and to proceed, one or two families a month, until the following June.
We can begin to glimpse what the community will look like, climbing the hill. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that it looks exactly like the computer-generated elevations we were given 18 months ago. It looks like our dream of a close-clustered European village with every house slightly different, but nevertheless in harmony with the others. Of course it looks like the plans — we’d be in trouble if it didn’t! But still I have to blink when I walk out every morning and see it becoming real.
Our community meeting spread over two days this month, because there was so much to do. It was our first official Annual Meeting of the Corporation (Cobb Hill Cohousing Inc.), so we selected officers and did other formal things we had not yet got around to doing. We had two families from afar (one from California, one from Florida) going through what we now call “exploration meetings,” on their way to clearness. Two very different families; we hope they both will join. If they do, that will leave three units (two duplex units and an apartment) — with households in the pipeline for all of them. We can’t count any of these last five sold yet. There is many a slip, as we have learned, between the exploration meeting and the signed purchase and sale agreement. But I have great hopes that we now know who will be living in every unit.
The hard part of the meeting was the latest, and I hope last, sticker shock. It was finally the proposed contract for the Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP), which we should have had before we started. (At the moment, reckoning in percent of the budget expended, we’re about one-fifth of the way through construction.) At the meeting we learned that our estimated (and now guaranteed, provided we make no further changes) prices have leaped by over $25,000 a unit — more than $700,000 for the project as a whole.
We had been expecting a jump. All fall we watched the blasting to break up rock in basements and trenches. (Total blasting cost looks to be $77,000.) We knew materials had gone up. We put in a gravity-feed water system, having been told it would save money, which it decidedly didn’t. (We get a lot of bad advice.) And people have been adding bells and whistles, special tiles and windows, cabinets and shelves. (That kind of request, of course, we charge to that household, not to the whole community.)
Still, it was a shock. This is not a community of rich people. We pictured adding $25,000 to already stretched mortgages; we said good-bye to money we had hoped we could put into solar hot water or barn repairs. We reeled. We asked why the construction industry is so crazy. We asked ourselves if we would be crazy to keep going. Some families honestly thought they could no longer stay in.
The good news here, if there is any, is how we behaved as a community. We didn’t seek a scapegoat. (We could see too many people to blame, including ourselves.) We resolved to set aside a long time, with all the people we’ve worked with on this project, to walk through precisely why it is coming in at something like twice its original budget, and to say everything we have to say about our process, so no anger or resentment remains buried. (I don’t know whether we’ll do that soon, or wait till the project is finished — or both.) We will write down whatever lessons we can learn, to save other cohousers this kind of pain. (Lesson #1: Hire a professional developer.)
Then the community rallied in a wonderful way to keep everyone in. A surprise gift of an additional $100,000 for affordable housing subsidies appeared — which should allow us to keep all three of our qualified families on board. So far all the committed families have seen their way through to staying in, though I’m not sure that will be true for the families still in the exploration stage. We met with the clerk of the works and the construction loan bank, and they’re still with us; they didn’t even seem terribly surprised.
Farm. Maple had a New Year’s calf, a little bull named Miguel. The milk flow has gone up to 15 gallons a day. All three calves are thriving, given special care and hugs by Kerry’s sister Rachel.
Twice a week Marsha and Gail process 300 pounds of milk into cheese. Marsha and her crew are slowly getting the barn refurbished into a cheese room; soon they won’t have to drive the milk to Weston to make the cheese. The dairy operation still has to be certified by the dairy inspector. The whole crew is working to get ready for that. (We’re waiting for a plumber at the moment.) Until it happens, we can’t sell raw milk, only aged cheese. In the house, however, we’re drinking the milk and turning it into all sorts of wonderful dairy products. Yum!
My chickens have noticed that the days are getting longer and are starting to lay again. It’s either the longer days or the daily servings of whey from the dairy.
The weather has turned from the storms of December to the beautiful settled weather we so often get in January and February. Bright sunny days, clear chill nights, no wind, occasional flurries of snow to keep everything clean and white. Good weather for the animals and the skiers and the construction crew. It has hardly been below zero, and it hasn’t decisively thawed. Perfect winter.
Rachel is going to Woodstock High School now, where she was instantly whisked off to the winter ball and a steady dating life. Kerry keeps busy at her winter job at the emergency room of the Ascutney Hospital. Stephen is milking and teaching yoga and working with gelding Tristan and trying to put time in on his Great American Novel. (You will be pleased to see that his cartoon has returned to this newsletter.) He and Kerry have just put out their brochure for the upcoming CSA season. They’re going for 100 subscribers this year.
Marsha is helping the teachers in the Hartland elementary school incorporate computers into their classrooms. Jan is in Cyprus on a peace-keeping mission. Gail Holmes stays in his room, when she comes to help Marsha with the cheese. Susie and Hal are in Portugal for a sustainable agriculture meeting. (How are you ever going to keep straight all the members of the growing Cobb Hill community?) And me, I think I’ll do the seed order, a sure cure for sniffles if I ever heard of one.