The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Creating a Life Together

Creating a Life TogetherCreating a Life Together, by Diana Leafe Christian, is a step-by-step guide for building intentional communities.  Rather than summing up the key points the way I usually do in my book reviews, though, I want to take this opportunity to go off on a tangent and explore one of the exercises the book recommends as part of a community visioning process.  The idea is to write about times when you've felt like part of a community or a shared group activity, then to use these recollections to consider what makes community-building work for you specifically.

Beyond my family, the first community I met was the science-fiction club at college, which turned out to be a sort of non-drinking, non-gender-specific, geeky fraternity.  In retrospect, it's easy to see why the community worked so well --- we had shared interests, we ate nearly every lunch and dinner together (four meals a week is the book's recommendation as the minimum shared meals in a community), most of us went to folk-dance classes together (shared movement seems to bond people), and we had a high tolerance for unconventional or even problematic members (since that was most of us at one time or another).  On the other hand, our club had a seamy underbelly in that people who attended fewer events were considered para-club members, and they were never really included.  Later, I was to discover that this aspect holds true across many communities and makes it tough for introverts to find a good balance of personal space and community involvement.

During my year abroad, I spent four months in Monteverde, Costa Rica, where a band of expatriat American Quakers had developed an intentional community in the midst of Hispanic culture.  Although my father is a Quaker, he didn't convert until I was a teenager Monteverde, Costa Ricaand he didn't drag the rest of us along with him, so I was definitely in the "para" category in Monteverde.  (My short-term stay also put me in that category, since the community sees lots of lookie loos passing through and can't commit limited energy to each one of them.)  So even though I was inspired by the community potlucks, their shared library accessible by walking paths, and the way they seemed to involve their Costa Rican neighbors, I never felt like part of the Monteverde community.

Fast forward ahead a decade, and Mark and I had settled a mile down the road from another intentional community.  After a few years of sporadically attending their events (and perhaps because most of them knew my parents during the 70s and 80s), there were even noises about asking us to join.  I like my crazy experiments (no way urine fertilizer and trailersteading were going to fly there), and I'm just too antisocial to live that close to anyone except Mark, so we graciously declined.  Again, we've ended up in a para-community situation, although this time I feel a little closer to the core because we're definitely in the area for the long haul and we share many of the community's ideals.

Intentional communityBut we still miss having like-minded friends our own age around.  (As you probably gathered, the neighboring intentional-community members are primarily from our parents' generation.)  So Mark and I have considered crazy community-building concepts of our own from time to time.  We'd tossed around the idea of buying up a large tract of land, planning it as a community, then selling tracts to interested and interesting folks.  Or perhaps finding a couple-sized homestead nearby and partnering with someone who might trade labor for the cost of the land.  Or finding a partner to do the day-to-day work but being involved in the bigger-picture planning and implementation of an educational/internship program.  The truth is, though, that even if we found just the right people, neither Mark nor I has the socializing budget to put in the hours required to build a real community from scratch.

Which brings me to my main complaint about Creating a Life Together (and the intentional-community movement it portrays so well).  Even though most of the communities in the book are located in rural settings, they're essentially country homes for city people --- the inhabitants generally come from urban areas, they live clustered together on their new land, and they are presumably highly-social people.  There's a short segment titled "Creating privacy in the midst of community," but the page basically consists of telling you to plan your house so you can feel alone when you're indoors.  Isn't the whole point of homesteading to be able to do whatever you want outdoors?

So here's my thought-question for our readers.  Have you ever met a community that adequately involves introverts without draining their social energy past their limits?  Or is community really just for extroverts, no matter where it's located?

Our chicken waterer keeps intentional communities of chickens happy with dry coops and clean water.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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This is a topic that is very interesting to me. I am fascinated by intentional communities, and fantasize about either joining one or starting my own. However, much like you, I'm an introvert and can't see myself being able to invest the energy required for the type of socialization required in such a setting.

On the other hand, I feel that community is very important, especially for homesteaders. Things like working on major projects and tool/equipment ownership can be much more efficient in a community setting. There are plenty of tools that I own, and many more I'd like to acquire, that could easily be shared across a whole community.

I also find that it is hard to find truly like minded people interested in homesteading. People get into this lifestyle for a variety of reasons, and so far I've found few whose reasons closely match my own. That isn't to say that everyone in a community should be there for the exact same reasons, but I suspect that more commonalities tend to reduce the amount of major disagreements.

Comment by Jonathan Sun Jun 16 06:53:41 2013
I am an introvert and my husband and I have our homestead to be away from people. This year we have been more involved with the Farmer's Market which brings us together with like minded people, it's only 5 hours a week and seems to fulfill the need for community without draining us. It's a great way to have a feeling of community and not feel overwhelmed.
Comment by Amy A Sun Jun 16 06:57:03 2013
Though not quite as interactive this blog which I check every couple days is a community of like minded. While I'd like to do a similar setup work and family make such unlikely. So I read your blog!
Comment by Jim Sun Jun 16 09:03:43 2013

There are communities that work well for introverts.

"Internet communities" (for want of a better term) are one possibility, because you can choose to be online/offline.

Work is another one. I like to think I get along OK with my coworkers, but by choice I don't socialize much with them outside of work hours.

The key to both is that you have some control and/or limits on interaction.

In a physical community (especially in close proximity) that won't work well. (unless they're all introverts. :-) )

Comment by Roland_Smith Sun Jun 16 09:59:53 2013

My mother use to take us to a painting of Guaghin's, which was, in French, "Who are we? where are we going?" or something to that effect. To her and my father, who met in the Canal Zone, and had read Conrad, and lived at least10 yrs there, she in the Gorgas Hospital as a head dietician, and he, for different jobs as an engineer on the Canal, the community of, as you say, Anna, "ex-pats" with all the advantages of exploration, ended suddenly with Pearl Harbor, and their return to the States...A large extended family, and absorbing work, plus being in the Navy, codmprised most of my father's need for community. But he also kept up with classical music, composers, conductors and performers. For my mother, the extended family was it, but gradually, by the time we had moved to Boston, around the corner from my paternal grandparents, who, Swedish, had a small Swedish community still, and lingering connections with Vose Art gallery people--whom my Grandpa Eckberg had been the framer for, also the gilder of frames for, with my father helping there, too, from his early teens on--my mother connected with a Latin America co-op in Boston, then, thru her sister, with political meetings (my aunt was terrified of the McCarthy hearings). So in my childhood and youth I realized that political groups were necessary, at least for my kind of family. But in HS, when the Beats were starting, and Joan Baez came to town, I was on the fringes of things, and didn't have a chance to be in self-chosen commuities, even tho I was part of the literary magazine at school. And, I guess my being in ithe glee club and church choirs was self-chosen... Anna, you might have been part of the Sow's Ear mailings? Also, might have gone to an APEC event as a child? But it takes being on one's own to be part of a community, as a decison-maker. (I did help in community orgnaizing against the war in Vietnam, when I was a teacher in New Bedord. And was in the New Bedford Community Choir...) I resisted joining an intentional community that someone raised in the Bruderhof wanted me to help start. But I already at that time was part of a close net-work of friends in NYC. The venture to move to Mendota from NY was, in part, inspired by my having been to the Catholic Worker Farm at Tivoli, in '68--They appeared to be a viable community, but were, frankly, "too old" and too esoteric for me as I was then (in my late 20s). But they did have seminal books! And I was so helped by the cleanliness and simplicity of the bedrooms, and their communal, very simple meals, straight from the garden. But this was just the surface, I knew. The real "work" of the CW community was in the Lower East Side, in the soup-kitchen. And in writing their paper.

Right now, having read your Good Neighborhood book, Anna, I'm thinking about how I can make a difference, here in Bristol... When we moved to Mendota, we actually were mainly trying to learn what it meant to live in this part of the country. Wendall Berry, in his new book of stories, A Place in Time, portrays the farming community--all the people who knew everything about each other--as if, after his generation, since farming is so changed, the old fellowship of country people might not be maintained the way it was. Mainly because not only farming itself, but people's culture has changed. We do live in such strange times, now, with so many people who feel part of a community because they write to sites like this! But I think that the Farmesrs' Mkt movement, and seed-swapping, does maintain some of the old ways of relating to each other. The key is, can peple really turn to each other, to help, and to ask for help, and are these people different than just friends? One last thought--I think that a person can be too cavalier about her role in a community--/for ex, I think I have too self-absorbed at different times, Also, I really think that how decisions are made in intentional communties has to be re-evaluated over time. I guess, when I was "too self-absorbed" I was needing my own space, and resisted being just part of that community, which maybe was becoming insulating to me. Maybe I needed more contact with just ordinary people, not always with people I knew so well! It was partly because of that, that I never wanted to home-school you kids, Anna. Well, thanks for the start of another interesting topic!

Comment by Sun Jun 16 10:04:27 2013

Celo is the oldest active community and happens to be nearby. They have been studied by utopian scholars including my employer for their success. Interesting enough, Celo is a grand place for introverts. Quakers actually are more likely to be introverts than not, and in my experience of Celo, there is much time for solitude even though there is a Friends Meeting and different gatherings that I am not up to date on.

Maybe you were at Celo, actually. I have a hazy memory of a visitor over the freak event weekend when there was a huge puppet/music/hippie festival deep in the woods.

I think a number of elements contribute to Celo's vitality. 40 families on 1200 acres does mean space. The people aren't the type to get disinterested in one another. They have something to do: run the school, the camp, the solar farm, the store, and that highland river bottom land grows some wonderful crops.

They aren't seeking new members, really, though.

Comment by Maggie Sun Jun 16 10:33:18 2013
I think about this subject soooo much. I have few answers. I'm not even certain if I'm an extrovert or introvert! The tests have me as introvert, but I am outgoing around the right people. Of course, those are hard to find. I wish I had thought about those types of questions before putting down roots (in the form of putting an immovable wood shop in our basement LOL) too much. I might look into the book, albeit probably with a similarly critical eye.
Comment by Katharina Sun Jun 16 14:01:30 2013
Having felt like an outsider almost my entire life, I am beginning to lose hope on the community idea. At least on the terms in which I have previously sought it. My radical ways are more inward than fertilizing with pee, but still manage to separate me in perplexing ways. I am learning to enjoy friends when I see them and keep to my own tiny homestead the rest of the time. I'm anti-social, too. ;-)
Comment by Brandy Sun Jun 16 19:27:28 2013

Hi Anna,

What about the free software community your brother is such a proud and prominent member of? A lot of introvert people there.

Kind regards,


Comment by Mark Mon Jun 17 06:36:43 2013

If I didn't have a son here in Floyd I would seriously consider moving over near you and Mark! As you know, I've ended up in a situation where there is somewhat of a community (my neighbor Tommy, his two little girls and his ex, me, my son, increasingly my girlfriend, and possibly my ex and her partner) though me and my neighbor own our own land. I like the idea of having a "community" in which everyone cooperates and enjoys each others' company, but can also maintain their privacy and autonomy.

I always hear you talk about your anti-social ways Anna, but you do a good job of hiding it... at least for the short bursts of time I've been able to hang out with you guys.

My problem with being around people in a community setting is always wanting to make everyone happy, and fear of being misunderstood or taken the wrong way. Dealing with complex communication issues (feelings, various backgrounds, temperaments, rules and norms, expectations, non-verbal cues...) can be EXHAUSTING even for extroverts. If you can come and go as you please, dipping your toes into community activities without being expected to attend meetings every week, have dinners with everyone, etc... it might be OK.

I hope you and Mark find a few great neighbors with similar interests. If you still don't have any in 16 years look me up. ;-P Of course, I'll probably be "married" to this property by then.

Comment by Everett Mon Jun 17 09:28:32 2013

I really appreciated reading everyone's thought-provoking comments here and on facebook! A few of the thoughts provoked:

  • Clearly, we need to create an intentional community entirely made up of introverts. :-)

  • This blog does provide a significant amount of community, which I'm grateful for. I think I actually get less of the community feel than the rest of you, though, because Mark and I are the ones who share the most about ourselves here, and we already know each other. It is really fun when people whose blogs I read comment, though --- then it feels more two-sided.

  • Mark is totally right that Joey's free software community does a great job of uniting introverts. (I'm assuming they're mostly introverts, but I could be wrong.) I think that part of why it works as a real community, though, is that they get together in person multiple times a year. Internet communities with no in-person interaction feel lacking to me.

  • Like Jonathan, I do have a yearning for local community, mostly because I adore swapping plants.

  • Mom has a good point that intentional communities can have the negative side effect of insulating you from the "real" world. Yet another reason to not go whole-hog in that direction (although that was never likely for us, given our love affair with this farm and our introverted tendencies).

And, finally, personally to Everett --- I think that's the kind of setup we're probably going for in the long run. Just a few close friends within walking or close driving distance. While it probably wouldn't count as intentional community by most extroverts' standards, that does sound like just what I'm looking for. I like being social for short bursts of time, but then I need those long hours (days) to recharge before the next burst. We'll mark you down for moving closer in 2029. :-)

Comment by anna Mon Jun 17 13:09:39 2013


Why don't you arrange an informal get together with your readers? You could do a once/twice a year thing, maybe some place more neutral than your home.

You have essentially already built up a community here online, but you could remove that one-sided feeling perhaps by meeting your commenters.

Warmly, SideStep PS. Because of your comments on 'community' I am starting an informal Block Association in my neighborhood. :)

Comment by SideStep Mon Jun 17 13:55:34 2013

SideStep --- Two different batches of my favorite bloggers do that, and I always consider it, then get scared of hosting such a big shindig of strangers. What if only the annoying people show up? (Not that any of you could possibly be annoying. :-) ) But now that we have the option of renting out the nearby community building rather than having everyone here, we might just give it a try! Perhaps during the winter when things slow down.

Good luck with your Block Association!

Comment by anna Mon Jun 17 14:27:38 2013

My family attempted the communal living thing in the early '70's, with some professor friends of theirs from California in the early 60's.

What sounded like a great idea over bottles of red wine and jazz in '62 was not so great it practice- buying a small, seasonal resort in northern Minnesota in 1971 in partnership, and trying to all live in the same house with three children for each couple.

My mom found out she could not share a kitchen with another, my dad quickly figured out that there was not enough income to be derived from the place to support two families nor was the physical work load being evenly distributed.

I recall us (I was 5 at the time) moving in to a 600 square foot cabin (the only one of 8 with hot running water) for the balance of the year, and my folks selling their stake to the other couple in the spring of 1973 and moving to the small acreage we hobby farmed.

As far as sharing tools on a communal basis, well as a professional mechanic it just does not work with me, things don't come back, they come back broken, or people start borrowing without asking.

Community is a wonderful thing. The "commune" part I have no interest in!

Comment by Eric Rylander Mon Jun 17 20:14:34 2013

On our homestead, we intend to build several tiny guest houses to put friends and family in when they come to visit, or to house people who come to take the classes we offer - in that way, we will sort of have the best of both worlds: Privacy during the week, company during the weekends.

Eventually, some of our nephews may move onto the land and begin working parts of it too, but that is more a succession plan than an intentional community, but if they bring their families with them - I guess it could very much work like any small family cluster/tiny town.

Cheers, Karen

Comment by Karen Tue Jun 18 08:54:20 2013

I know this is an old post, but I was recently reading 'The Good Life' by Helen and Scott Nearing, and this discussion came to mind. 'The Good Life' is a compilation of the Nearings' two shorter books 'Living the Good Life,' about their 20 years of homesteading in Vermont, and 'Continuing the Good Life,' about their next 20+ years homesteading in Maine. A majority of the book could be said to be about their experiments with commune/community building.

They quoted B.F. Skinner's 'Walden Two' for the elements that an intentional commune must have to be successful: 1. enough people to provide variety, diversity, and specialization, and 2. enough control over people joining and quitting the commune to maintain ideological purity, group identity, and group purpose. (pg. 202) They then went on to say that the independent nature of rural folk makes it difficult to establish a functional commune-type situation. (They said Vermonters in particular, but I think it probably applies to many who were raised 'in the country,' myself included.) They spent many years trying, but in the end found that they had to be content with the constant stream of urban and suburban visitors to their homesteads. They didn't address it in terms of introversion/extroversion, but I think it's fair to tentatively link introversion and independence in this case.

That is to say, I think Eric's distinction between commune and community is spot on. A high degree of extroversion is required for a commune, but introverts can do quite well in a community. There's just an optimal 'distance from neighbors' that is a function of where one falls on the introvert/extrovert continuum.

Comment by Jake Fri Aug 23 00:20:26 2013
Jake --- I have read The Good Life, but I did so before I was on my community-research kick, so I think I got different things out of it. :-) I should probably go back and reread it at some point --- I recall it being a quick and easy read. There are always so many new books to read, though!
Comment by anna Sat Aug 24 11:45:19 2013

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