I’ve been living in Sprout House now for a year, as of a few days ago. When I mention that I live in a community house, one of the first reactions I get from anyone of an older generation is a very measured “Hmm, interesting,” in a tone that says plainly that as far as they’re concerned, all such experiments are idealistic, cultish dreams, and within a few months everyone will drive each other insane and some prophecy will fail to come true and the whole thing will splinter into smithereens. Or perhaps the subtext is only that they know kids will be kids, and sooner or later we’ll all realize that a community house is no way to actually live—at which point we’ll sort ourselves into single-nuclear-family households and set about learning how to be proper adults with proper paychecks and proper attire.
But you know something? I feel better about my life living here than I ever have, and I can easily imagine living in community for the rest of my life. In fact, I’m in a slow process of imagining it right now. Not once in the year I’ve lived here have I dreamt of how great it would be to live in a big house in the suburbs with a bright green lawn and lots of space. I’ve seen that life. I grew up in a house like that in a neighborhood like that. But it only took me a few trips away—to Nana and Papaw’s house in the West Virginia hills, to the aurora-streaked northern waters of Crowduck, even to the densely neighbored streets of New York—to realize that living like that is the most effective way in existence to sever every connection that matters.
When I worked at a call center, I biked through Bloomington every day to get to work. Bloomington must be the suburb of suburbs, a massive sprawl that has its own perverted, strip-mall-based version of a downtown, and that contains the massive sub-sprawl of the Mall of America, as well as what must be half a dozen other malls, all conglomerations of asphalt shrouded in clouds of exhaust and filled with people whose greatest goals in life have something to do with fashionable clothes and power tools. The houses are equally spaced between broad lawns on roads that are artistically curved so as to give the illusion that they weren’t planned out by the exact same kind of mind that designs cattle feedlots.
This kind of life is almost inconceivable for me. I grant you: it’s possible to live in a place like that and still have an ideal or two, to be somewhat the same person as you would be elsewhere. But let’s say Misty and I shacked up to live in Bloomington and have two point five children. (This is very hard for me to imagine. Both of us would probably sooner live our lives in a destitute train of Romani wagons in Bulgaria.) The cons? We’d get everywhere by car, and pay more than a tithe of our salary to fossil fuel companies. We’d have each other for friends, and maybe two or three other interesting people in the neighborhood who we could stand. We’d buy our lives from big-box stores. Our two point five children would grow up with friends who think video games are the main reason for life. They would go to public school and be public-school-forgotten. The list of bad things goes on into infinity; I can’t think of one realm of life left unaffected. The cons of living in a community house like I do now? Well, the dishes are sometimes dirtier.
If I try to look back at my life and figure out when it was that I decided I needed to live in community, I can’t really find any one specific turning point. It was more of a logical progression, I think. I started out with the basic premise that nature is good, which I feel in the centers of my bones, and then atop that, I had the question that besets everyone eventually: How do I want to live? Of course, I want to live in the way that makes me closest to nature.
Asceticism, the obvious first answer—go live in a hole in a mountain and look out every day over a vast forest in a very spiritual sort of way—has some deep faults. A hermit goes crazy. A human mind, without another human mind to connect to, swirls around inside its skull and eventually gets tangled up in its own traces; solitude is fine for a while but in the end it takes you away from what’s outside you and farther and farther inside accreting layers of self. Not to mention that humans have no claws, fangs, or wings, not even a prehensile tail, which makes it basically impossible to get everything you need for life if you’re living all on your own. Thoreau walked back into town on weekends for dinner with his friends, and the most solitary mountain man who ever lived in modern times still bought his windows from a store.
A little more empirical knowledge of the world quickly tells you that humans since the beginning of humanity mostly lived in small communities where everyone knew each other and helped each other out so they could all survive and live well. That’s also appealing to the heart: who doesn’t want to have friends and be with people they like a lot of the time?
That same empirical knowledge equally tells you that the massive worldwide community we’ve got going on right now is failing at actually being a meaningful community, in literally every possible way. As time goes on, it really does just keep on getting clearer to me how flimsy and temporary global civilization is. I look at each component of civilized life and see the strings that hold it up and where they’re anchored, and the whole thing is reminiscent of a dish rack overloaded all the way up to the ceiling.
Take the new stadium they’re building downtown here. A dozen cranes surround it; it’s big enough to fit an entire inner-city neighborhood inside. (The Superdome in New Orleans made that point vividly in 2005.) But where does the money come from? It’s useful to look at things like this as though you were trying to finance it yourself. How long would it take you to raise the funds to add one girder to this structure? How long to get the money it takes to have the world’s largest crane brought over on train cars, erected, and manned day after day? It would take your whole life and longer. Look at the cost of the whole stadium. Spread it. It’s still costing every human more than they realize and more than they can afford, and it’s still costing the environment even more—iron ore smelted, bauxite electrolyzed, iron Bessemer-processed, plastic catalyzed and extruded, every detail in the exquisitely engineered stadium down to the lettering on the sign above the concession stand, and all of it costs resources. We can do it, but only because we have oil. St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican City is the most detailed, ornate piece of engineering the Roman Catholic Church could orchestrate, in the days before oil. It is beautiful, cavernous, and routinely full of scaffolding because it decays nearly as fast as maintenance can keep up with it. The world’s big cities are littered with stadiums that are bigger and more meticulously planned than several St Peter’s Cathedrals, and every one of them is propped up with the assumption that we’ll always be able to extort enough money from humans to extort the energy we need from the environment.
Modesty. Humans aren’t such a big deal. We are different in degree, but not in kind. We don’t need stadiums, we don’t need interstates, we don’t need Disney Worlds. In fact, we need, desperately, to not have those. And that is the reason I’m living in community. I’m trying as hard as I can to live a lifestyle that isn’t predicated on all those things. In the city that’s an impossible goal, but I’m getting as close as I can at the moment.
And I’m learning how to get closer. Last month, four of us—me, Misty, my housemate Currant, and Misty’s housemate Nicole—all went out to a cabin and discovered we had the same dream, of living in a permaculture community in the country somewhere. We’re all in the city, but we all think of it as a temporary stop-off in life. We spent an evening around a campfire learning that we’re all on the same page, the same paragraph and sentence even. And it was exciting, to say the least. In my future I can actually see the fruition of my long-held dream of living off the land. None of us are under any illusion: it’ll be hard. We don’t even know how to get land yet. But we’re practical and we’re learning as fast as we possibly can and we’re excited.
I’ll tell more about our plan for a community sometime in the future, but for now I’ll leave you with something more immediate. All four of us are heading to Colorado next week for a gathering of people who know things about living off the land and are eager to teach. We don’t know what we’ll learn, but I believe it can’t fail to be an awesome trip. We’re leaving Tuesday, and it’s eight days long, and we’ll be camping and learning the whole time, and we’ll be outside. I’m already gearing back into hitchhiker mode, and Misty’s excited to be traveling vagabond-style with me. There may not be many blogs, but I’ll keep in touch, and you’ll hear about it all eventually.