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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

TWIN OAKS: A Hippie Corporation

I decided to get as far away from academe and animation as possible and do something I have wanted to do for several decades.I spent three weeks as a visitor at Twin Oaks Egalitarian Community near Louisa, Virginia from June 22nd to July 12. Twin Oaks is a communal and 'egalitarian' society that was founded forty years ago by far seeing people who wanted an alternative to the modern way of life without sacrificing a reasonable standard of living. Hence its income-sharing, communal philosophy.

Oddly enough the original attitude is schizophrenically combined with a very successful pair of businesses that have to work within the outer capitalist economy. Twin Oaks makes very good hammocks and tofu products. They also do book indexing on the side. This means that like it or not, they are a corporation that keeps business hours. I heard a lot of talk about 'budget'. When I expressed bewilderment (since no money ever changes hands on the farm, it is all done with hourly labor on the trust system) it was explained that the 'labor budget' was still something that the managers had to work within. In that respect Twin Oaks was little different from a large animation studio which also has timesheets with hourly segments where you have to write down which project you were on, and balance the quotas by the end of the week. I had no trouble understanding this system. Some of the 'cos', as the members are called, were gobsmacked that they had something in common with a cartoon studio!

They have the problem of modern civilization mostly licked here. MOSTLY, because they can't give up certain things. I did not expect a Luddite community but was surprised to find DVD and video players, washers that mostly worked (I expected hand operated ones along with the electric, and greywater recycling--the latter is being discussed, apparently). There was chocolate cake nearly every night. They had austerity for a few years and coffee was rationed and is still hard to come by on the farm; but chocolate is considered essential. I have no problem with that.
The diet was largely vegetarian; meat was a hard product to come by. Chicken was a rarity since the foxes appear to get most of the pullets. Occasionally a 'beefy' was available for steak or pot roast. I didn't say no. Though I'm nominally a vegetarian, I gave some consideration: which is more environmentally sound--a cow raised on grass about a hundred feet from where I was living, or a tofu product that took a tremendous amount of electricity (which is largely supplied by a nearby nuclear plant!)? And the soybeans have to be purchased from another farm. Their soy products are superior to anything else I have tried, but they are not sold nationally.

Twin Oaks has some solar panels on all buildings, but only one part of one building is completely solar powered and thus off the grid.

Since they run the hammock and tofu business as their main income producers and deal with bulk orders, they have to make some concession to modernity so a high speed Internet connection is also a necessity. Twin Oaks is a 502 corporation. I am told they have the same tax classification as monasteries. Each full member is a sort of corporate board member with a full share in the community. There is no real seniority system after you have been there six months; you are a full member and have the same rights as someone who has been there for six years. There is no Chairman or board of directors, though there are Planners and managers.

They have a lot of problems keeping the managers in place due to high turnover (eighty per cent of the inhabitants are under the age of 30 and some of them like to travel to other communes after a year or so in place, due to itchy feet. There are two smaller communities within shouting distance and there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and labor tradeoffs. It's good that this is in place, for if you have a quarrel with someone, you can go to Acorn and work sorting seeds until things have quieted down.)

I was the only visitor over the age of twenty in the visitor group We had six visitors in the Aurora Cabin. (Each house at Twin Oaks is named after an earlier commune, and it was appopriate that I would be in one that was named for Roycroft). The other visitors were all very young people, some away from home for the first time. They apparently don't get too many people my age. I shouldn't wonder that the residents were playing Survivor and betting that I would be the first person 'off the island'. As it turns out, one of the young boys caught a chill and panicked and went home after a week, despite my assurances (and his doctor father's) that he would be all right. Personally I think that he overreacted to a stomach bug; it was not as if we were in the Australian Outback, after all. And I have been in the Australian Outback so I should know.

In the event of a serious problem there is a former member who is a doctor nearby. In the event of a REALLY serious problem the local authorities have the coordinates of Twin Oaks on a map and send in a chopper to lift you out.
But the young man disappeared the next morning.

Two other visitors elected to go to Acorn after two weeks. This left me and a young man with one wing each of the Aurora cabin, since the third visitor was living in one of the main houses with his girlfriend, who was a guest of one of the members and therefore a bit higher in the hierarchy.

Twin Oaks has great relations with the local community. There are tours all the time from high schools and social groups and outsiders in general. (The commune has a 'no nudity' law until after seven p.m., when the visitors can be expected to have left.) The swimming hole was presumably not one of the stops on the tour.

The local representative is a former 'co'! Now how nice is that.
A large black dog named Bob is a frequent visitor (he belongs to the rep) and has a sort of canine ministry without portfolio, or much else either.

I could not 'garden', as farming is called here, because of my bad knees. After a week I found stuff I could do. I cooked a lot of meals. It is no harder to cook for a hundred people than for one; all you need is the right equipment and materials. The kitchen tools looked like what Buster Keaton used in THE NAVIGATOR (and some were probably the same vintage.) They had industrial stoves in the kitchen and some really great equipment, including a 'buffalo chopper' that I believe COULD chop the entire buffalo without breaking a sweat. I was scared of this thing at first until it was demonstrated that it was a lot safer than a home Cuisinart. I also did some light gardening on a seed patch that grew stock for the Acorn commune (this had to be kept separate from the farm, since they were 'heirloom seeds' that could not cross pollinate with others.) And I helped make a lot of hammocks. Over a hundred tied off, by my own count (with a 'bowline knot'--useful skill to know.)

I also saw chicks hatch, innumerable butterflies and bees in the gorgeous herb gardens and the smaller gardens that decorated the entire community, thanks to the loving efforts of some expert herbalists and gardeners. There have been no fertilizers other than natural compost or pesticide sprays used on this land for forty years and it made me wonder why anyone would bother with them when things were obviously going so well without chemicals.
Pest control was mostly done with squashing 'em. I soaked broccoli well to eliminate potato bugs, and got one mosquito bite per day. Worth it though. There were marvels to see. The hummingbird moth was called a 'lobster tail moth' down there. It's only the second one I have seen in my life.

They have cows and chickens but no other farm animals. I learned a lot about both creatures--they have more complex lives than most of us give them credit for.
It is something to hold a newhatched baby chick in your hands. They are way cute--and come in the most amazing colors. Some were striped, some were pure black, all were up and running within hours of coming out of the egg. But cute or not, they were someone's chicken dinner in a few month's time. It's the way things are on a farm.
Cows had a slightly better time of it, but the 'beefies', or young steers, had three years to play around before they were taken behind the barn and shot, then processed. Their mothers were treated similarly after they ceased giving milk.
No one really got acquainted with the 'beefies', and so there were no emotional ties to sever when it came time for them to go, but it was harder when one had to kill a cow that had a name, that one had probably milked for years. It's what is done on a farm. Life and death are both daily occurrences there. You learn to respect both.
An injured goose that one co had tried to nurse back to health for three weeks was eventually put out of her misery and used to bait a trap to catch the fox or coyote that had given her the original injuries.

A tiny stray kitten named Olive loved to swing in the hammocks and swear at passers by. She eventually let me scratch her head and was generally becoming more domesticated. Probably the rest of her family was eaten by raccoons or foxes, since she was defensive toward anything canid. This tiny cat, who could not have weighed more than five pounds, attacked three of the much larger four dogs on sight, except for the 18 year old nearly-blind bitch who looked great but did not have much of her sprightly personality any more. Good diet means the dogs and cats live a long time. There is a long waiting list for pet owners to bring a furball down with them.

I missed my Gizmo girl. The neighbours took good care of her, but I still missed not having the furball in bed every night, purring. You get used to things like that.

It is ironic that Twin Oaks makes its living on a highly processed food (tofu) and a luxury item (hammocks) sold to the same leisure society they left. They are completely bound to the timing and rules of the capitalist system, which means you really CAN'T pick your working hours there. Twin Oaks is in a symbiotic relationship with it though certainly not on a horrible scale. Here, an overdrawn account is a Labor Hole (not enough work put into the communal business.)

Will Twin Oaks survive if the market for this luxury item drops out with an economic downturn? Of course. They survived losing sixty per cent of their outside income when Pier One Imports dropped them two years ago. They grow sixty per cent of their food, including raising beef and dairy cattle, have their own water source onsite, and with some economies they can get by. "At least," one co said to me "until the neighbours show up with guns."

Another long time resident told me that they only reason Twin Oaks survived for forty years was that they had Pier One underwriting their enterprise. They are just only getting back on their feet after being dropped as a supplier...and Pier One is apparently trying to talk to them again. Developments may be coming up in a few months' time.

On the whole they have a good life at Twin Oaks. They eat like kings and live on a higher standard than about 90 per cent of the planet. Quite a few people there did not find regular employment in the outside world or did not want to climb the ladders in their current jobs. As for the social scene, that's for another letter.

I enjoyed waking up to birdsong, listening to the sounds of birds and the rain (when it came,) and seeing marvels like a black snake climbing a tree as easy as water flowing, if water flowed uphill.
It was a good exercise in simple living. "The earth is trying to rid it self, by all available means, from the cancer that is humanity!" one Co said to a group of younger people. "I have always attempted to be a benign tumour," I replied.

And I got a totally undeserved rapturous welcome from Gizmo when I finally did get home. Cats, like cows and chickens, have a deeper interior life than we give them credit for.

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