Peak Oil News: Earth Angels

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earth Angels

Willamette Week Online

Happy Earth Day! Bet you’re not as committed to “sustainable living” as these 22 Portlanders.

By Adrienne So

It’s 9 am on a Thursday, and the thermostat in my 1999 Volkswagen Bug registers 36 degrees. If I were going to work, I’d be shivering inside my parka and heels.

But this April morning, I’m snugly layered in thermals, flannel and fleece.

I lace my boots around two pairs of hiking socks as I get out of my car. Then I sling my pack on my back and start down the broad, winding trail toward Tryon Life Community Farm, where boots and flannels are pretty much everyday attire.

I’m here at the edge of Tryon Creek State Park in Southwest Portland to visit the 7-acre farm, a nonprofit that offers youth programs in the summer and holds other events year-round. I want to learn what life is like for the farm’s residential worker collective, known as Cedar Moon—16 adults and six children ages 3 to 9 who live in two buildings directly off a long, pothole-speckled driveway.

Approached by car, the two buildings appear low-slung and nondescript, nestled under layers of verdant foliage. Ten residents live in one building, which has single rooms for them as well as a rec room and kitchen for the community. The other 12 live in a second building, which has been quartered into mini-apartments, complete with tiny kitchenettes.

Descending the wood-chip-carpeted trail into the farm, however, reveals a collection of small structures—a sauna, an outdoor stage, a composting toilet (don’t worry; it doesn’t smell) and something called the “T-Whale,” where residents sip tea in the summer—clustered around an open pavilion, next to the skeleton of a huge outdoor kitchen that’s under construction.

Elsewhere, partially shrouded by a gigantic blooming star magnolia, tidy trails wind through gardens, where bees buzz, chickens scratch and an occasional volunteer hoes the beds. Beyond the gardens, a pair of dog-sized sheep in a wire pen demand to have their chins scratched. A flock of 20 chickens fusses. Farther down the trail, there’s a barn for goats, which shriek like children when hungry. On the farm, the sound of minivans whooshing by on Southwest Boones Ferry Road vanishes behind the the surrounding trees.

Each adult in this little piece of heaven pays for rent and food, most with money from their day jobs in Portland. They also share chores, like cooking, cleaning and tending community gardens, which grow everything from staples like leeks to rarer fare like exotic Asian greens.

Taken separately, each part of this setup is unlikely to turn heads. Many students and professionals live in shared housing. And many farms have residential workers.

Conspicuously absent, however, are commercial motives or convenience. People don’t live at Cedar Moon because they answered a Craigslist ad. Moving here is akin to taking a second job, one in which your roommates are your best friends and also your co-workers.

It’s an ancient idea, but one so modest it’s practically un-American—that with effort, you can live with less, and be happier and healthier at the same time.

In the face of so much going awry on the planet—ice caps are melting, irreversible climate change is looming, and buying compact fluorescent light bulbs doesn’t feel so empowering anymore—coming here is like the beginning of a religious conversion. There’s got to be a better way to mark Earth Day each April than holding hands and singing songs.

Brenna Bell, co-president of TLC Farm’s board of directors and spokeswoman for the farm and collective, says I’m not the only one with a sneaking suspicion that a better way can be found on the farm.

“The intersection of economic and environmental crises has led to more people actively questioning how they live their lives,” says Bell, a 34-year-old environmental lawyer with slim glasses and coveralls over a hugely pregnant belly (her first daughter was born four years ago with a midwife’s help in a maple grove on the farm, and Bell hopes to re-create that experience with this child when it’s born in June).

Hmm. Is going off the grid indeed a workable model? To answer these questions, the community graciously allowed me to hang around for a few days. Here is what I learned about what the farm residents call their “intentional living” lifestyle:

Intentional living is sharing.

Before John Brush—a lean 33-year-old with a goatee and glasses—came to the farm five years ago, he worked in youth social services. Now he is a mediation and organizational consultant, as well as one of the farm’s prominent resident nerds.

Brush says sharing is something most people learned in kindergarten and soon forgot. Sharing is the key to why the farm and collective works: By splitting up chores and food, residents can save both time and money.

Chad Dermann, who manages a farmers market in Portland, buys food for the community.

By buying in bulk and eating organic produce residents grow themselves, Dermann says they can serve meals more cheaply.

Residents also save money on child care. New mothers on the farm can go back to work as teachers, lawyers or accountants, while their children dig for worms or pick nettles under the watchful eyes of other farm residents.

The shared expertise of these 16 adults also means never having to go to a computer store or bike-repair shop again. Someone is bound to know how to troubleshoot a computer bug or change a flat.

And shared resources let the community slash its carbon footprint. None of the buildings has central heating, and the residents operate only one kitchen and one washer and dryer.

But here’s what no one can admit without feeling like a horrible person: Sharing is hard, psychologically as well as logistically. In order to maintain large common areas, personal space is sacrificed.

Bell estimates each farm resident has an average of 265 square feet of personal space, less than one-third the national average of about 845 square feet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Navigating the farm’s common spaces requires exceptional conflict management skills, and conflict can range anywhere from annoying to agonizing.

For example, 22 people—including toddlers—place a huge burden on one washing machine. “People weren’t putting other people’s loads into the dryer in winter,” Bell says. “So, we created a series of signs indicating whether something should be spun-dried. And we set up specific mornings that were diaper-priority times.”

Relationship skills are just that—skills. You must learn them.

Resident Jenny Leis—a small, sprightly woman with thick gray hair and an animated face—has a habit of occasionally wiggling her fingers at me, a sort of small-scale jazz hands. I incorrectly attribute this finger-wiggling to a past life as a concert pianist. “Oh, whoops,” she says. “That’s how we signify agreement in meetings without disturbing your flow. Like, ‘I agree!’” she sings, wiggling her fingers once more.

I do not think I will pick up this habit.

Another point about sharing: The farm is within the urban growth boundary to provide an accessible demonstration of sustainable living. Before being accepted into the collective, community members must acknowledge their willingness to teach any outsider the intricacies of everyday life at the farm. That means even more communication. I consider myself a voluble person. But if talking were baseball, I am barely a decent community-league pitcher compared to these folks, who could pitch Game 7 in the World Series of Talk.

After the goats have been milked and the chickens tended at 8:30 Saturday morning, one of these teaching sessions starts when volunteers begin arriving for the weekly work party to renovate the barn, part of which is slated to become a public space and office. I take my turn sifting clay and sand for plaster, while Brush explains earthen building techniques. It involves electron strength. I think.

I then head straight to Leis’ farm tour, which today has about a dozen visitors—a mixture of students, curious older women, and one visitor from a similar community in Oaxaca, Mexico. Then there’s a mushroom workshop and a wild foraging expedition, and more talking, more demonstrating and more learning. By 5 pm on Saturday, I am a beaten woman. I can’t process another word.

But as exhausting as the constant sharing and learning and communicating is, the benefits are worth the effort. As much as my cynical, dried-up heart would like for me to stop talking RIGHT NOW, I do conclude after my three-day stay that caring for the earth means first caring about each other.

Here’s an example: Earlier in my visit, I helped Bernhard Bach prepare dinner on a Thursday afternoon. A barrel-chested, stern-looking German man, Bach didn’t fit the profile of a typical farm resident, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s with an academic background in sustainability. Bach is 49 and works as a nurse in Portland. While I peeled and cut up Jerusalem artichokes, he chopped and sautéed leeks we had dug up from the garden.

I asked what had drawn him to the community a year and a half ago. “I went through de-WAHRS,” he said.

“The wars?” I asked. “You were in the military?”

“No, de-WAHRS. You know, after marriage.”

“Oh, divorce!”

“It’s different in Germany,” he said. “In a small village, you can’t escape everyone’s expectations. It’s difficult for you to become better than people expect you to be. Here in America, you can become anything you want to be. I believed in that, and I liked it.... Then my wife left me after 20 years.

“I was alone, and I realized this American way of life is not everything I expected it to be,’’ he continued. “I started looking for a village. I came here and volunteered a few times, and I liked it. When I applied, you know, I was not expecting to get in. Everyone here is so young. But I did, and I was glad.”

Most other residents had a similar story as to what attracted them. Yes, all had a common interest in sustainability. But most were aching for human connection in a world that is becoming increasingly devoid of it.

“Most people come home to their separate apartments after work, turn on a movie, go on the Internet, and don’t speak to anyone for the rest of the day,” says Brush. “City life can be isolating. We want to support people in making communities, without telling them what to do.”

It’s one solution to the “tragedy of the commons,” the theory that when individuals act in their own self-interest, they will destroy a common resource that is in everyone’s best interest to protect. It is now possible to add to that statement after visiting the farm: Individuals will continue to act in their own self-interest, unless they’re friends. The less connection we have to our resources, the less interest we have in protecting them—and by extension, each other.

Intentional living is holistic.

At first, “intentional living” looks like “intentional chaos.” On Thursday at 9:30 am, I can’t find a single student, let alone anything that looks like a classroom at the Mother Earth School, where I’m scheduled to help with the two dozen or so children who come here for classes five days a week. Finally, Bell catches me heading toward the barn and the farm’s three goats—I am obsessed with the goats—and shoos me uphill.

Another resident, Kelly Hogan, has allowed me to observe the year-round Waldorf-based kindergarten and preschool where the 3- to 6-year-olds eat, learn and play. All profits from the school, which charges $360 a month for tuition, go toward the TLC nonprofit.

Up on the hill, a “yome” (combination yurt and geodesic dome) huddles under the cover of trees. One of the teachers, Trent Price, tends a fire under a pot of water. Another, April Blair, assembles a grain mill on a picnic table. Inside the yome, Elena Wood, another teacher, is cutting vegetables at a table set with some of the tiniest cutting boards I have ever seen. The children arrive with vegetables to make their own midmorning snack—vegetable soup with dumplings.

The holistic part for the schoolchildren—and the full-time farm residents as well—is summed up in the phrase “plerk,” a word used by Blair and others to describe how play and work merge.

“I was tired of having my work and my downtime and my values out of sync with each other,” Brush says, regarding the farm’s adoption of plerk.

Tending a fire and collecting nettles are indeed more entertaining and educational than the coloring books I remember from kindergarten, though during the day we must rescue one girl from the advances of an ornery rooster and another from a blackberry bramble. We eat the soup and dumplings and wash our hands in a basin. Then we listen to a story in front of the honeybee hive before tromping off for free play in the woods.

Growing up on the farm means renouncing boundaries. Grinding a mill is more fun than recess, and learning about trilliums in a story is both entertaining and educational. School isn’t dreary work and useless play. It’s just...plerk. For the rest of my stay, I repeatedly talk about plerk, just because I like the way the word sounds.

Later, Bonsai Matt—a 34-year-old landscaper and gardener with thick black dreads—unconsciously illustrates the benefits of plerk. I find out he used to snowboard and rock-climb for fun. “Why did you stop?” I ask.

He gestures broadly at the vista before us—the greenhouse, the garden, the blackberry brambles and the adorable sheep pair. “I had enough to do here,” he says. “I just stopped thinking about it.”

Intentional living is questioning.

On Friday morning, I sit with Bell on the porch swing on the deck behind the community building, waiting to join Bonsai Matt in the garden. Two of the collective’s children climb onto Bell’s lap, and one carefully arranges my arms around a bald doll. Later, after I’ve started raking rows in the garden, Bonsai calls me to help him water the lettuces in the greenhouse. I follow him on his examination of the beds. While a lot of people like working in the kitchen gardens, Bonsai has a kind of de facto authority, just by virtue of knowing more than most about plants.

To me, the garden beds are about as indecipherable as The New York Times to a blind person. Every few minutes, Bonsai kneels down to pluck and hand me another bunch of fresh, succulent greenery. “This is lovage,” he says. Or, “You want some chives?” Pretty soon, I’ve taken a more active role in my own feeding. “What’s that?” I say. “Can I eat that?”

“Well, that’s a weed,” Bonsai says. He picks something else. “This is the most delicious thing in our garden,” he says, and hands me four or five wide, 3-inch-long leaves. When I chew them, a bright, sunshiny taste fills my mouth. “That’s lemon sorrel,” he says. “The tart taste comes from oxalic acid.”

Questioning everything is a key point of living intentionally. And, not coincidentally, a lot of people on the farm identify themselves as scientists, like Brush, who blows my mind by trying to explain the van der Waals forces between molecules.

“No one ever thinks about most things,” Bonsai says. “It’s like when someone asks, ‘How are you?’ Most people just say, ‘I’m good,’ and move on. Very few people take the time to say, ‘This is what’s going on in my life, and this is how I feel about it.’

“A lot of what’s wrong in the world,” he continues after a few minutes, “could be solved if people were more open, honest and humble.”

That’s definitely the approach at the farm. But constant questioning can be a humiliating, exhausting process. When you’re surrounded by relentlessly inquisitive minds, your basic assumptions are constantly being upended.

“Why do you like fashion?” Leis asks me later that day. We had spent the afternoon unloading salvaged wood for the sauna, and now we’re having tea sweetened with honey and goat’s milk.

I start to answer, then pause. Then start to answer, and stop again. “I don’t really know,” I say. “I’ve never asked myself that question.”

“When it seems that you can’t make sustainable choices, I like to break down the question,” Leis responds. “Is it because you like new things? Is it the primping? You can do that with handmade beauty products. Lena makes all sorts of natural shampoos. You should ask her about it.”

While I’m trying to break down why I like shopping (I like pretty things. Are flowers pretty?), I think back to earlier that morning. Before I went up to the community kitchen for lunch, I asked Bonsai for one simple tip to be more sustainable in everyday life. Without hesitation, he said, “Pee on your plants.”

“I always thought pee killed plants,” I say.

“Nope,” he says. “When diluted by rain, it’s some of the best fertilizer out there. And do you know how much water we waste by flushing all that fertilizer away? It’s crazy, once you think about it.”

Maybe it is crazy. When contemplating a multiple-member commune hidden in the woods, it’s terrifyingly easy to reduce the concept—and the residents—to a bunch of delusional pinko commies and trustafarians.

Certainly their anti-technology, (mostly) anti-convenience stance doesn’t help. No one wants to feel like a bad person because they occasionally enjoy the many fruits of modernization, like Popeye’s buttermilk biscuits or Netflix.

But if there was anything weird or strange about life on the farm, it was how utterly strange it wasn’t. Cooking in common and shared child care are hardly revolutionary innovations. Life on the farm was surprisingly familiar, a return to a way of life that vanished after the Industrial Revolution. Technological advances in the 20th century brought a lot of positive change—vaccines and clean drinking water come to mind—but a lot of social alienation and environmental destruction as well.

Standing under the blooming star magnolia, with the taste of fresh goat’s milk lingering in my mouth, the exigencies of modern life—with student loans and the like—seemed very far away. It was hard not to fantasize about setting up a similarly idyllic arrangement. Maybe on the coast. My boyfriend and I would live with several other friends and share childcare, cooking and gardening duties, but also have a widescreen television and a wireless Internet connection.

Leis has a routine greeting for strangers like me. “Congratulations!” she says whenever she starts a tour; most curious visitors come because they want to change something about their lives, and making the decision to do so is the hardest step.

When I got home, I started researching supper clubs to integrate more sharing into my life. But only after a hot shower, takeout pizza and Quantum of Solace in my blissfully empty apartment, of course.

TLC Farms organizes grassroots efforts for legislation promoting sustainability. One bill would make it easier to reuse graywater, or water already used for laundry or bathing. A measure to make graywater use legal in Oregon has passed the state House and is currently in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Three years after Cedar Moon began, eight of its original 14 inhabitants still live on the farm. One original member who left is Matt Gordon. A 29-year-old musician, Gordon says he returned last September to Northeast Portland to be nearer to the bands he plays and practices with. “It was a hard decision,” he says.

Brush estimates each farm resident has a carbon footprint of about 0.06 tons a year, compared with the average Portlander’s load, which varies from 2.1 to 3.2 tons.

April 22 marks the 39th Earth Day. The first Earth Day, coincidentally, marked the 100th birthday of Vladimir Lenin.


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