By Van Andruss –
In the April/May issue of TheGreenGazette, I wrote an idealistic article titled, “Calling for a Re-birth of the Social Imagination.” The story below is a follow up of that article in an effort to provide at least one simple example of what I had in mind.
They were young people, eight of them, except for one older fellow in his 50s, and they were hustling back and forth from the house to the old Ford passenger van, toting boxes of books, lengths of metal pipe for the woodstove, and a big cooler stuffed with food to see them through the weekend. There was laughter, jokes, the excitement of departure. The plan was to leave the city hours ago, but there was much to do and they would not reach the commune until after dark. It didn’t really matter. It was normal to be late.
Only five could fit into the “Blue Van” that was backed into the driveway, its double doors opened wide. Soon the available storage space was filled. No. One last item: a wooden chair for the kitchen table, jammed in upside down.
This was a period of transition. The back-to-the-land settlers had pooled their money – it was mostly Marie’s money inherited from her Uncle David – and they’d bought an enchanted piece of land dotted with Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs beside a rushing river in the dry Interior. They could hardly wait to make the move permanent, but there were leftover obligations to be met. It would be at least another year before they could leave the city for good.
You might wonder how they’d reached this point. What led up to this getaway?
Four students at Simon Fraser University had met in Phillip’s anthropology seminar. They became friends and developed a habit of gathering at Phillip and Jan’s house on Friday nights for potlucks and lengthy conversation in the living room around the fireplace. Other students, attracted by this hub of interest, were invited or dropped by to slouch on worn-out stuffed chairs and a long bedraggled couch.
The subject of anthropology taught them that humans had lived in small societies – cultures – for thousands of years before empires came along to invade their homelands. They saw that the present massive form of society was a recent creation, lacking the thorough integration of true cultures. Contemporary people were suffering from incoherence, from fragmentation in their everyday lives. Especially in the current technological society, familiar places had been overwhelmed by “development,” their scattered pieces refitted into the paradigm of the Machine. Even if they were not conscious of it, people yearned for the loss of wholeness that cultures had once provided.
Community and culture were leading ideas in the conversation circle. Over time, the possibility arose of forming themselves, with their own persons, into the seed of a new culture. Not a spontaneous culture, like ancient tribal form – an impossibility – but an invented culture.
Sifting through the details of their experience, they pictured the world of commerce and industry as a train going nowhere, rattling along without wisdom or purpose. They wanted off. They resolved to start their lives anew and they could see nothing to prevent them from doing so.
It was obvious the enterprise had to start small, at the level of an extended family, which they called their “chosen family.” They would create for themselves a domestic situation within which to cultivate their ideal. They started by moving into the old prospector’s cabin that already existed on the property. Two rooms—a kitchen and a living room. A wood stove was already installed.
The cabin would be their common space. For bedrooms and privacy, there was a wooded flat about a quarter kilometre upriver. Here they would put up tipis and find themselves beyond the sound of traffic on the gravel road that ran by the gate.
Canvas had been sewn for two tipis. On this trip they planned to cut suitable jack pines for poles. They believed that people who saw the beauty of their settlement would join them. They were already getting in touch with a commune outside of Quesnel.
A grand lodge could be built on the broad flat high above the river, a site already cleared by a former homestead during the gold rush era. They were granted irrigation rights on a nearby creek tumbling out of the mountains, and they had fenced off a small stony plot that would be their first garden. Using cast-off canvas, they set up a sweat lodge beside the river and nothing gave them more pleasure than playing out that earth-centred ceremony, leaping into the cold water and afterwards circling naked around the fire. Now that practical affairs were in order, all they had to do was get along!
Phillip had tried to form a small, independent society 20 years earlier. He knew that the greatest challenge was adjusting to each other’s long-standing habits. Their differences would cause friction. Several things were in their favour. Working together consciously, they had reached agreement around a single worldview, which they called, affectionately, the View. Whenever they got out of touch, they could gather around this set of ideas to recall what they believed and what they stood for.
They were an unusually philosophical bunch. Calling themselves a “hearth group” commune, they believed they could handle their problems through discussion. To be better equipped, however, Marie and Edna had taken courses in facilitation and conflict resolution (which turned out to be indispensable).
So now, after the flurry of packing up, the travellers hugged their friends, said their good-byes, and piled into the Blue Van. Phillip and Jan sat in the front, Jan in the driver’s seat. The engine started with a roar, the gears clanked, and they were off, while in the back seat, Max rolled a joint to celebrate their journey, bound for the New Beginning.
Van is editor of the magazine Lived Experience. He enjoys the bioregional life and community in historic Moha outside of Lillooet, BC.