On a warm spring morning recently, the hills sheltering our little coastal valley are showing a tinge of gold and the little orange faces of our emblematic California poppies can be seen in every meadow and along the roadsides. I’m walking my daughters from their dad’s house to school on Walk and Roll to School Wednesday. The flowering blackberry hedges bring the promise of summer berries, though laced with threateningly shiny poison oak vines.
Nearly exactly ten years before, I had first conceived the idea of compiling a book about ecovillages around the world, along with environmental activist and filmmaker Louis Fox. It was still the era of mainstream climate change denial in the U.S. We were inspired by the potent cocktail of an unexpected pregnancy that was forcing us to face what it would mean to inherit the problems of such a troubled planet, and a stay at Plum Village, the retreat center and community in Southern France founded by Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. We wanted to find examples of sites around the world that were demonstrating a positive future, intentional communities that were demonstrating that cutting edge of change where the wisdom of the past meets the technology of the future.
We left Plum Village with the echo of some powerful words by Hahn in our ears, and they still carry so much meaning for me– even after a decade of research and practice in community building that has included its share of disappointment and disillusionment:
“It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. And the practice can be carried out as a group, as a city, as a nation” (Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Next Buddha May Be A Sangha,” Inquiring Mind journal, Spring 1994).
Fast-forward a decade. Louis and I end up becoming parents to not one but two fabulous little girls who seem to have decided to crash our party in order to keep us in line, focused on our vision of a future where humans evolve to struggle toward peace and even create abundance in a thriving natural world. Our book was published in 2014, and included profiles of 60 sites spanning five continents and just about every type of climate. When we started visiting places that identified as ecovillages, we realized that many of them were using a system called permaculture to inform the design of their gardens, water and energy systems, and even what they called the “invisible structures” like community governance and decision-making processes. So we began studying permaculture, an approach to design based on the observation of natural patterns that goes beyond sustainability to the concept of regeneration.
David Holmgren, co-originator of the concept, saw a broader “permanence” or stability that can be found beneath the ever-changing surface of natural systems. He encourages tapping into that deeper sustainability to create abundance. Permaculturists see the potential for people to restore and regenerate ecologies and economies using techniques drawn from cultures that successfully lived in balance with their natural environments. Design (of landscapes and community projects, urban and rural and on every scale) is based in set of principles for design rooted in simple ethics: care for people, care for the earth, and fair sharing of resources.
Our book is called Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide. It includes not just ecovillages but examples of regenerative design in traditional and indigenous communities and in urban settings. We visited about 15 of the sites and drew on a small army of contributors including some eco-luminaries such as Paul Hawken and Vandana Shiva as well as an international crew of photographers and writers. After it was published, I heard from people all over the world who were inspired to learn about the international scope of the permaculture and Ecovillage movement, and gave talks at a number of venues around the country. I got to see my vision, born out of my heartfelt desire to find that Buddha in the form of a community, turned into a beautiful book that helped educate and motivate people.
And yet, manifesting the vision of living and raising my own children in such a community in my own life has been extremely challenging. Louis and I were among the founders of a forming ecovillage in Costa Rica, bringing our toddler and new baby down to the jungle for six months in which we built a small cabin, hand washed a ton of cloth diapers, learned how to make ceviche with green mangoes, and narrowly avoided venomous snakes, scorpions, and being consumed by the ever present mold in the rainy season. Formed out of a Burning Man camp that wanted to cultivate its communal seeds in a more sustainable way, we experimented with natural building, permaculture and consensus to bring forth a small international collective on a beautiful piece of land by the Machuca River. While that community continues to develop, in large part due to the dedication of a number of local families who became members through sweat equity and now form the heart of the village, most of the international members (including us) have found it impossible to move there full time and make a living in the remote location.
After a number of years of meetings with our California Bay Area circle of friends interested in buying land and starting a community, we found ourselves facing a number of insurmountable obstacles. Besides the obvious issue of aligning with several families on finances, timing, founding ideals and location in order to purchase a property, there was the problem of zoning. Most parcels in rural areas are zoned for single-family use. Getting a situation where a number of families could co-house would require a huge sum of money in this vastly expensive real estate market, to buy undeveloped property zoned for multi-family use. This is the reason that many modern, successful co-housing communities (and there are a number of them in the Bay Area, check out Cohousing.org for information about them) are built by more conventional condominium developers rather than founded by members. Finally, in 2011 we decided to buy a house in the closest thing we could find to a small village within an hour of San Francisco, a district where the conventional school had been shut down for lack of enrollment and families could participate in an alternative, cooperative school that was still free and public. San Geronimo Valley, West Marin.
Back to that spring morning as I’m walking the girls to school. I’m reflecting on the way that my vision for living in an ecovillage didn’t turn out quite the way I’d imagined, but that there are many ways that living here I am part of a thriving community. At the Open Classroom, parents take part in their child’s education as classroom assistants and with other jobs. We get to know each other and shape the direction of the school, raising the extra funds needed for healthy lunches, arts and music and gardening when those programs are no longer supported by public education funds. In the four years I’ve been part of the school, I’ve gotten to know the other children in a way I never would if I weren’t there in the classroom on a regular basis. There are even interminable, sometimes excruciating meetings, just like at most ecovillages. I might suggest next year that we follow the path of many communities and change from consensus to a more sociocratic, committee-based structure for making decisions.
I founded a local nonprofit teahouse and book commons where locals could have a space to share books, cultural events, films, and action in pursuit of a more just and sustainable world. Pouring much of my idealism and passion into this new project carried its own stumbling blocks, but today the project is continuing and has been a way for me to meet many incredible neighbors I never would have. Many people have enjoyed and benefitted from sharing tea, talents and ideas there. I’ve been part of the community garden, another way to break out of the isolation of most modern suburban lifestyles, and learned from my fellow gardeners. This year I’m eating greens from my own lush plot. I know a lot of my neighbors, and we can exchange childcare or carpool together. Community begins with a shared sense of place, and I’ve glimpsed bits of the ecovillage utopia I’d pictured as I walk to school past our school garden, waving hello to friends on the way.
In the introduction to Sustainable [R]evolution, I wrote that although we didn’t find one shining example of an idyllic community we could call the next Buddha, we started to see pieces of the puzzle coming together. I’ve found the same to be true in my own personal journey to integrate ecovillage principles into my life. The orange poppies along the path seem to wink at me as we pass, sharing in the cosmic joke that the best way to make God laugh is to tell her your plans.