Dear Folks, “March is a Winter Month! March is a Winter Month!” I keep repeating to myself when I get antsy this time of year. March is also twice as long as any other month, or so it seems, as the thawing tries to win out over the freezing and then gets knocked back by a cold Canadian air mass.
Two weeks ago we had a 2-foot blizzard and it was 15 below.
One week ago I decided I was going to hang laundry outside as a declaration of spring, no matter what. I had to shovel away the drifts so the low-hanging items wouldn’t drag in the snow, but the laundry dried beautifully in the bright March sun.
This week snow lingers only in the deep bowls and on the north sides of things. Snowdrops and one brave crocus are in bloom on the south side of the house. The ground is still too frozen to dig the parsnips in the garden. I haven’t heard a robin or a redwing blackbird. But the ducks and geese are laying, the ewes are enormous (due in 5 days!), and we’ve put up the plastic on the hoop house and started pruning fruit trees. On the farms that do sugaring, the buckets are up, and we’ve had more than a week of perfect sugar weather (freezing at night, warm and sunny during the day.) March is a Winter Month around here, but it’s almost over!
Narayana is with us, staying until he finds a job or gets into graduate school (or gets deported, but that’s an alternative we won’t let happen). He’s a Tamil, from south India, who came to the States eight years ago and has managed to put himself through college all on his own and to find an assortment of fascinating jobs combining nature and teaching. He’s been in Vermont, California, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, the Grand Tetons. He’s good at designing and teaching outdoor courses — he especially likes working with teen-agers. He’d like to get a master’s degree and a green card and stay in this country, but he gets threatened with deportation whenever there’s a gap between one job and another, or one school and another. He’s at such a point now, a job in the Ozarks having fallen through. So if anyone out there knows of an outdoor program that could use a good teacher, please let us know right away.
Scot is in British Columbia gathering data for his thesis. He’s trying to figure out how secondary (cut-over) forests grow (that being the kind of forest that now covers most of his native island of Vancouver ), and how to manage those forests so they grow maximally to restore both ecosystems and timber value. He’s modeling on a computer how the availability of space, light, and nutrients affects the configuration of growing trees — how and where they put out branches, which affects how much sunlight they can catch, which affects how much they can grow. He’s checking his model conclusions by analyzing aerial photos taken above specific Vancouver forests over a period of decades — photos that the B.C. forest ministry happens to have stored away, not quite knowing what to do with them. Scot hopes to take a new set of photos by remote control from a balloon rigged with a camera. He has a spinning laser device to measure the altitude of the base of each tree (since Vancouver is decidedly mountainous, and altitude and hill exposure are also factors in tree growth). This month he’s out there playing with all these gadgets, which is the kind of thing Scot loves to do. He’s also helping his dad on his home farm in Port Alberni, which he also loves to do.
Chrissie is busy taking care of a million or so seedlings, which are growing beautifully in our south windows. She also helps our local food coop do its accounting and computer data bases, and one day a week she works with the Sibleys, friends who live in Hanover, in their extensive gardens. And she sews pocketbooks for Scot’s mother Fay, who weaves colorful coverings for them. Chrissie pretty much runs this farm now and does a smashingly good job of it. Narayana taught her how to plow snow with our big farm truck after that last blizzard, and she thought it was terrific fun.
And me? I’m doing all the normal stuff, writing the column and various newsletters and trying to organize and raise funds for three different Balaton conferences (indicators of sustainable development in the Netherlands in April, community-based management of natural resources in Kenya in June, sustainable water management in Hungary in August). Oh, yes, and I’m trying to buy two farms!
Boy, tell the universe you’re thinking of moving forward on your deepest, most central vision, and the universe will say, “Oh, is THAT what you want?” and sweep you straight into fast-running currents!
Immediately after I wrote you that tentative description last month of my vision for the expanded farm community, Lori Barg called. Lori is one of many people who has been talking community with me in a theoretical fashion for a year or so. She lives in an energy-efficient house she built herself in Plainfield Vermont (about 70 miles from Plainfield New Hampshire), where she teaches workshops on building kayaks and consults for various aid agencies helping villages set up their own water quality monitoring systems. “It’s time,” Lori said. “Life is passing by. Let’s go for it.” She showed up here the following weekend with a sheaf of farm ads from a local real estate agency.
It was my intention to get Lori to move to THIS farm, but I absently started riffling through the ads, and a farm jumped out at me. It’s about 5 miles due west of here, which puts it across the Connecticut River in Hartland, Vermont. (It’s about 14 miles to drive there, because there’s no direct bridge.) House, barn, outbuildings, pond, brook, 1000-maple sugarbush and 150 acres, the ad said. (That makes it twice as big as Foundation Farm, and agriculturally much better.) Let’s go drive by and take a look, I said.
So we all piled in the car and proceeded to get lost in Hartland. Finally we spotted a farmer, busy in his dairy barn, and stopped to ask directions. “Oh, that’s Will Curtis’s farm,” he said. “Right around the corner, abutting my place. By the way, my place is for sale too.”
We did two double takes, or maybe three. First of all, we knew Will Curtis, or at least knew OF him — he does a 3-minute “Nature of Things” spot on public radio every morning, talking about bits of nature lore. Any farm owned by him is likely to be in good shape. Second, we stood back and took in the scene before us — big, well-drained flat cultivated field, cleared slopes rising behind with a perfect south exposure (the snow already off them), forest on top of the hill. Third, we focused on our immediate surroundings: two huge silos, a 55-stanchion milking parlor, a sugarhouse, a bunch of other barns and sheds, a plain, sturdy red farmhouse. Scot and I, at least, were seized with a fit of covetousness.
To condense the two weeks of frenzied activity that followed into a short paragraph, we asked Mr. Hunt (the dairy farmer) a lot of questions about his place, we drove around to look at the Curtis place, we called the real estate agent and went back for detailed tours of both places, (the agent kept pointing out the houses; we kept climbing up to check out the forests — gorgeous views from up there!), we checked the soil maps, and we looked at a dozen or so other places. But our hearts had been won.
I’m a person whose visions are visual — I can SEE the clustered, passive-solar homes bermed into the lower south-facing slopes, the large common house with the big kitchen and dining room and library and meeting and crafts rooms, the organic veggies on the (50 acre!) low fields, the orchards on the southeast slopes, the sheep grazing around them, the Sustainability Institute (in the Hunt house), and the guests, interns, visitors, students who come to practice sustainable living (in the Curtis house). When I see things like that, I get compulsive about making them happen.
There is so much to do to pull this vision off that I can’t begin to understand it all myself, but the first steps are obvious. 1). We have to negotiate options on the farms so they don’t get bought out from under us (and subdivided into Half-Acre Heavens). 2). We have to negotiate prices. (I’m not even going to tell you what the list prices are, because I don’t want to scare you, and I have some ideas for getting them down.) And 3). we have to find enough people willing to join this crazy scheme to have the money ready when the options expire. There are a few hundred steps to follow after that, of course — write a condominium-type legal agreement so each family owns its living unit while sharing ownership of the land; site the buildings properly and design them to be great demonstrations of inexpensive, functional, super-efficient use of materials, energy, and water; build the buildings, using our own labor as much as possible; make a land-use plan; get the Institute set up legally and materially; and above all, from beginning to end, build a loving human community that does its utmost to practice the skills of sustainable living — first among them the skills of community.
Daunting. I don’t know how to do any of it. We may not be able to get those farms (but Lori and I have found other nice farms). There are a thousand ways this can fail. I don’t need it in my busy life. I already have a farm I love. I haven’t got nearly enough money. And I am totally committed to my vision of a larger community.
I’m in danger here of burbling on indefinitely (as Chrissie and Narayana hear me do every day) about the ideas swirling in my head. One day I started thinking about sewage. (Surely we wouldn’t contaminate the water table with septic tanks. Surely we should recapture those nutrients. Composting toilets? John Todd solar aquaculture under glass?) The next day I thought about people. (The values are most important — the commitment to community and sustainability. Young and old, with many kinds of talents, the point will be to let all those talents flourish. At least one or two families who want to make a full-time living from the land, with everyone else helping out part time. We will have to work hard on communication and responsibility and sharing, while still preserving privacy and autonomy. It would be nice to have a forester, a lawyer, a carpenter, a cellist.) I can obsess for hours about the land. (The Hunt forest is trashed; we’ll have to start a 100-year restoration plan. The Curtis forest is beautiful but some of the softwoods need to be thinned. Should the blueberries go on the east slope, or in the little field behind the Curtis house? We can keep the fields in alfalfa and gradually expand the gardens into them. How can we market stuff? Farm stand? Farmers market? CSA?)
I will restrain myself from indulging in any more of that kind of fantasizing here. It’s going to take months, maybe years, even to know if this is going to be possible, and several lifetimes to get it all working.
It’s going to happen, on those farms or some farm. What makes me think so is that, whenever I start describing it, people I would never expect to show interest start saying, “hey, that’s the kind of thing I’ve always dreamed of doing.” It’s fun even TALKING about it, and watching eyes start to light up. Even our real estate agent is excited, and at first she thought we were the wierdest people she ever met. The Upper Valley Land Trust and the Trust for Public Lands are interested in saving those farms from development and having a learning center for sustainability. They will help us negotiate with the owners and put conservation easements on the cultivable lands. As the word is getting around, both old friends and people I never heard of are calling, writing, wanting to know more. And the Curtises, who love their farm with the same intensity I love mine, and who turn out to be dear people, are thrilled. (We haven’t yet talked with the Hunts.) We’re hoping to keep the Curtises in the community, maybe going right on living in their house. They’re in their 70s, extremely vigorous, (they ski all over their land all winter long), but feeling they can’t take care of such a big place any more.
So we’re negotiating. We’re drawing up lists of possibly interested partners. We’re trying to figure out the money and the legalities. I expect you will hear a lot more about this as it unfolds. What I have to do right here, right now, is write a draft purpose statement — you get to critique the first draft, straight out of the word processor.
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The Sustainability Institute will be a nonprofit think/do tank devoted to analysis, planning, and communication that furthers sustainable, equitable, and sufficient societies in all parts of the world. Its central strength will be top-quality systems thinking, supplemented with dynamic modeling and excellent numerical analysis. It will also assemble expertise in sustainable management of physical resources, especially water, land, forests, and energy — and most especially all of those together in synergistic systems.
Its clients may be government agencies, private companies, foundations, communities, but it will not accept work that aims for short-term profit-making according to present money-based accounting standards. The Institute will surely not frown on making money, but it will search for ways of doing so (for itself and its clients) that enhance the long-term welfare of whole physical and human systems — that enhance sustainable development.
The Institute’s overhead will be low, because its staff and physical quarters will work toward high efficiency and creative frugality. Its scope will range from local to global. It will act as a coordinating hub of the international network called The Balaton Group, which consists of people working toward sustainability in many countries. It will put a high emphasis not only on doing analysis, but on communicating the lessons from that analysis through many forms of public outreach, including songs, skits, newspaper columns, participatory workshops, training games, technical reports, radio or television shows, museum exhibits, or whatever the talents of its staff permit.
The Institute will work in close cooperation with two nearby for-profit companies, the Resource Systems Group of Norwich, Vermont, which does modeling and analysis particularly of transportation networks, air quality, solid waste management, and land use patterns, and High Performance Systems of Hanover, New Hampshire, which writes modeling software and conduct numerous training activities on learning to model complex systems.
The Farm (whose name will have to be chosen by the whole community) will be an intentional community of people who want to explore the challenge of Right Livelihood — living and making a living in ways that are materially sufficient, socially and ecologically responsible, humanly rewarding, satisfying to the soul. As a rural community, one of its concerns will be sustainable land management — organic farming, sustainable forestry, minimization of and creative use of wastes. Another concern will be building skills of community (sharing, responsibility, compassion, communication, conflict resolution, appreciation of diversity, just plain old ordinary LOVE), in the belief that these skills are critically necessary to bring the larger society to sustainability and sufficiency.
The lifestyle of the community will be frugal in terms of quantity, rich in terms of quality. It will strive for a sane balance between the dualities of privacy and communality, labor and leisure, freedom and order. Decisions will be made, insofar as possible, on what would be best for the community, for the land, for the world over the long term. The community will not be organized around a single spiritual practice, but spiritual ways of living will be encouraged, and joint, ecumenical spiritual practices may evolve.
Community members may earn their livings (which should require considerably lower income than the U.S. average) in many ways — from the land, through the Institute, through teaching or workshops inspired by the land, through arts or crafts based on the land, or through outside jobs. The community will not be a non-profit organization; it will pay taxes to the town of Hartland (or whatever town), send its children to town schools, participate in town affairs. The community will work toward self-sufficiency of food, water, energy, building materials, and waste-processing from its own land.
People of all types and ages will be welcome. We are not looking just for PhDs, rich people, or perfect people (though PhDs, rich people, and perfect people may apply). We want to try something that ordinary folks can imagine doing, not something that depends on special advantages. The only qualifications for admission that I can imagine at the moment are commitment to sustainability and community, enough maturity to be responsible to others and open to learning, and a willingness to work. (Maybe we’ll think up more qualifications later.)
Each person or family will own a joint share in the land and private equity in a living unit. Those who arrive with more energy, time, and talent than money can earn their shares through sweat equity, as long as the overall financial needs of the community are met. Those who leave for any reason will sell their shares back to the community, to be resold to new members. Specific decisions about operating budgets, capital investments, schedules, land use — everything — will be made jointly by the community, through processes to be determined by the community. Decisions and processes will be revisable over time — this is a learning exercise; we don’t expect to get it right the first time.
The institute will work on the Big Picture. The community will work on the practical implementation of that picture in one particular place. Institute and community will constantly inform each other, macro to micro, micro to macro.
Not everyone who lives in the community will work in the institute; not every who works in the institute need live in the community, but I expect there will be a significant and fluid overlap between the two.
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All of the above (except the central values of sustainability, sufficiency, community, equity, service, efficiency) is subject to question, elaboration and revision as more people bring more wisdom into the vision.
Whew! That’s all I can think of at the moment. How would you amend it? What would you add? What would you question? Want to join?
We will know this is a go when we find out precisely how much money we need to get started and whether we have enough serious participants to raise or take on a mortgage for that money AND when we have enough serious participants to know we can handle the responsibility of the property (logistically) and the institute (operationally). Once that critical mass has formed, people, living units, farming and institute projects can be added incrementally.
I don’t know how many people will make up that critical mass to get started, or how many would be right for the ultimate community. I can say this; given my guesses (wild guesses) for the purchase price of those two farms, plus the construction of living units and common house, if we had ten families, each willing to invest or mortgage themselves for $100,000, we’d have it made. I hope we can do it for less.
Meanwhile, back on this farm it’s a beautiful sunny day, the last patches of snow are in real danger, and I’m going to go out, hang up laundry, and cheer on the spring. April’s almost here, and even in New England, April is nearly always a spring month!
P.S.. Now you all go out this week on a clear night and look at the cool comet. It was nearly straight overhead a few nights ago when I went to check the barn at 2:30 AM. It’s a surprisingly big blur between the Big Dipper and Arcturus. If you’re privileged to be in a really dark place, you’ll see its long, wispy tail. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Ain’t the Universe grand?