Technologies for Living – Year 2

We were reasonably settled. The locals seemed to have reached an equilibrium point about us. The hippies, though strange and possibly immoral, kept to themselves except when they were spending money in the local economy or helping out some neighbors. We were breaking even and that was OK.

Meanwhile, those of us with any craft skills were hard at work training the majority of us who had none. There were a few carpenters, a few gardeners and even tractor drivers, a couple of printers, programmers, radio experts and electricians, nurses, teachers and plumbers. Because there was no infrastructure beyond The House, a tumbledown shack, a sheet metal barn and some dirt roads, we had our work set out for us.

We invested in used equipment and bought nothing new. This included  a press and copper cooking pans for making sorghum syrup, several vintage trucks and tractors, farming implements, a road grader and backhoe, our aforementioned phone system, big Harris printing presses, washing machines and driers for the laundromat, refrigeration units and a surplus Greyhound Scenicruiser bus.

Through an informal apprentice system we manned crews for construction, vehicle repair and customization, food growing and processing, book publishing, primary health care, midwifery, road and water systems, phone installation and maintenance, and canning and freezing.

We cooked on propane stoves and one of the few exceptions to allowing outside businesses into the community was the propane truck that would fill the large supply tank at the head of the roads. No matter where you lived on the Farm, you had to fill your household tanks from that central supply. If you lived within a hundred yards or so, like us, and had a 5-gallon tank, you could carry it to and fro on your shoulder. Forty pounds. No sweat. If you lived further away, or had a larger tank, you needed wheels – at least a little red wagon and probably a motor vehicle – to handle the refill and transpo.

Firewood supplies came from wherever you could get them during the first winter, but by the second we’d established a working relationship with Homer Sanders, who owned his own wildcat sawmill. We helped him harvest hardwood logs and he taught our guys how to run the mill. In exchange for labor we’d take a share of the sawn timber along with the slap – the bark-covered slices that had no value for construction. The logging/firewood crew would drop off the slab – sometimes cut into stove-sized pieces, sometimes not – in locations ranging from public piles to custom home delivery. You’re luck in getting firewood might vary according to how close you were to someone on the wood crew.

There was also the Salvage Crew, who arranged with local towns and property owners to demolish structures in exchange for our keeping the materials – lumber, bricks, roofing, flooring, windows and doors. These resources were trucked back to the Farm for use in building our own structures. As with any other resources, the policy was officially to provide to those who needed them. But since we were all in need of these resources and there was never enough to go around for everyone equally, some game-playing and deal-making was involved in the distribution.

I’ll bring you firewood if you drop off some bricks.

I’ll let you use my crew’s truck if you fill and pick up my propane tank on your way.

I’ll bring flooring to build our tent platform because, well, I’m driving the truck that carries the flooring.

Some days you were lucky; some days not so lucky. And some people were in a position all day, every day, to make deals. It was perhaps not the most idealistic demonstration of spiritual collectivity, but it was the most organic and practical. Trying to manage pure equality would take a bureaucracy and we simply didn’t have the people or money to support such a management structure.

The functions most closely approached bureaucracy and the “power of the state” were probably the Gate, housing and manpower.

The Gate needed to keep track of the comings and goings of everyone. We kept a Gate Log that tracked every visitor that arrived and/or entered, and every vehicle that exited, whether visitor or resident. It was all hand-entered and visitors were told how long they could stay. If they didn’t show up at the Gate on the day they were schedule to leave, we’d call or send someone down on the Farm to get them.

Housing was closely related to the Gate because anyone staying for a night or more needed to be assigned a household to stay with. That household was accountable for them. And given that we had little housing, even at the most primitive level, putting visitors up was almost always a stretch. And yet, we hoped for visitors once we got beyond our initial “closed gate” period. More visitors meant more potential members, which meant – we hoped – more resources for growing a larger and more exemplary intentional community. And once we issued our invitation to any expecting mother to come to the Farm and have their babies home-delivered for free – along with our offer to care for and even adopt unwanted babies – our housing obligations expanded to providing homes for up to 3 months for these temporary individuals or couples.

Housing was also charged with finding homes for people who, for whatever reasons, needed to change dwellings. We were a restless, nomadic lot, and in the communal living experimentation process, people would often find themselves incompatible. Good enough friends to live on the same commune, but not good enough to share the same bus or tent or small house. For many others, the beginning of childbearing defined the need for more or more weatherproof spaces. It was like musical chairs – to make room for one family required another family to move. There was never a situation where a new housing development opened up. It was always “just squeezing by” and whoever was in the role of Housing Lady (it was always a lady, just as there was always a Bank Lady) had one of the most socially challenging positions on the Farm.

Manpower was almost as big a headache, for whoever sat in that chair had to balance the Farm’s needs for public services with those of income. Strictly through word of mouth, the manpower guy (always a male) learned of every person’s situation. Were they gainfully and effectively employed? If not, did they have an excuse? Did they need to learn a new skill to fill in a vital gap in community needs? Were they a problem to their crew or straw boss? Was diplomacy required or did they require a more hard ass approach?

The deal was, you did as much as you could. Every resident needed to be tapped into the Farm’s needs. But due to many circumstances – our frequent epidemics of debilitating flu or the need to be home with newborn babies or the occasional visits from off-the-Farm family, or the need to move or build a new dwelling structure – even the most responsible hardworking members might become unavailable. And yet, operations could not be shut down when it came to farming or using the good weather to construct buildings, or keeping paid crews working in the field.

We were inventing self-governance practices as we discovered new needs. We didn’t adopt any established practices and procedures; we made it up as we went along and everyone was supposed to go along with our ad hoc solutions. There were occasional protestations and flareups. It was obvious, sometimes, that our systems were not capable of dealing efficiently with business needs. Sometimes operations seemed just plain dumb, but most of us were willing to give the people with the responsibilities the benefit of our doubt. I’d think, “Better them than me” in those position. But being a frequent Gate man, I did my share of negotiating and taking the heat from frustrated friends as I twisted their arms to persuade them to take yet another visitor into the confines of their family lairs.

Our technology for handling these social transaction was ingrained in our way of communicating with one another. The engine that drove it was our mission – our agreement – that these difficult passages needed to be negotiated as gracefully as possible as the means to demonstrating global level collaboration. Patience and surrender were the teachings. We had all come there as students.