Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Reality Of Living In a Commune: And How It Changed My Life

A couple months ago, in the summer of 2016, I lived in an Egalitarian, anarchist commune in the Catskills of Southern New York. Although it was short-lived, the ideology and wisdom I gained stuck with me and has had a lasting effect on my life, undermining my personal insecurities as well as realizing the diversity of lifestyles that surrounds us to learning practical skills such as farming, communal planning, construction and much more. My short time at East Brook Farm has been one of the most influential experiences I've ever had. Let me set the scene for you.

It was mid-July 2016 and I had just graduated from high school. Naturally, I was excited but at the same time nervous, for I had no plan for the future set in mind yet. Before I graduated I was working at a ski resort about 30 minutes away from my hometown of Johnson, Vermont. It was a mellow gig. I drove a truck around all day listening to documentaries on my phone while occasionally taking calls to pick up cleaners or bring towels to guests. Easy right? Yes. Way too easy. In fact, I was bored out of my mind most of the time, but it was work, work that paid me $10/hour to do nothing so I stuck with it.

When I graduated I went full time with my resort job because why not right? I had nothing better to do and fresh out of high school the first thing I was told I needed was money. But I didn't want money. In fact, I hated money. All I truly wanted was to be happy and money didn't do that for me. I felt this every day I worked. I felt like I was wasting my time and with that brought more and more a sense of impending doom. That I was getting closer and closer to being trapped there forever, or at least way longer than I wanted to. I was fed up with having to work so damn much just to get by. So I started thinking of ways to get out. Not just out of this job, but out of society as a whole.

Then one day it hit me.

A few months before this moment of inspiration struck, my friend Kieth and I were camping on the tallest mountain in Vermont, Mount Mansfield.
My friend Kieth. The sun is just rising over the horizon as we make our way down the mountain. What an amazing day that was.
 We both shared a passion for alternative living and dreamed of starting a commune deep in the woods far away from society. But at the time it was just that, a dream. It didn't even cross my mind that it would actually become a reality in the near future.

The dream was simple. We would get a few close friends together, find a place in the woods that was uninhabited, build a few houses, and grow bamboo, living happily ever after. Obvious to say we had no idea what we were talking about. But that wasn't enough to stop us from trying.

So that was it. That was the way out. I quickly messaged Kieth and the planning had begun. 

Article after article, book after book, we studied our asses off and after just two weeks we came up with a plan to find state land in the woods of Vermont and plant our roots. After more research was conducted, we came to the understanding that living on state-owned land was extremely illegal. In fact, I think there's a name for it. Ever heard of squatting? That's right, we were about to build a squatter village. So we tossed that idea and discovered a much better one. We realized that what we were trying to do has been done and is being done all over the US to this day. They are called intentional communities or communes, and to live in one all we had to do was ask. We found a great online resource called Fellowship For Intentional Community or IC for short and started the search for what we thought would be our new home for the next couple of years, if not the rest of our lives. After a few days of steady hunting, we found East Brook Farm and decide to go check it out.

Instantly I started packing my stuff with the assumption that I was going to be spending the rest of my days at this place. Luckily for me, Kieth was a bit of a minimalist, only bringing with him a few pairs of clothes and his laptop. At the time I was the opposite of Kieth. My tiny Subaru was jam packed with junk, most of which I rarely, if at all, used the entire time away. The trunk was forced shut, I can barely see out of my rearview mirror, and my Adirondack chair I made in shop class is firmly strapped to the roof, we're good to go!

After 6 hours on the road, we finally made it. We left pretty early that day so by the time we got there, there was still plenty of daylight left. Pulling into the driveway we were greeted by a middle-aged man in boxer shorts. We chatted a bit while we waited for the rest of his family to get back from the swimming hole. When they arrived back at the farm, we took a tour of their homestead style property. At this point, I had never even heard of an "intentional community" let alone visited one.
The farm house. To the left is the farm and to the right is a massive valley with a total of 5 fields, a river, and a swimming hole where the kids like to go.

That night in the old farm house, I met some of the most unique individuals I've ever encountered. We ate a lovely dinner that we prepared with ingredients from their garden and chatted about their plans for the adolescent commune. They started this soon-to-be community only about a year ago and since then, Kieth and I were the only individuals to try to join them.

We wanted to be as self-reliant as possible so instead of sleeping in the house we set up camp across the river on the outskirts of a field that overlooked the beautiful surrounding landscape.

For some reason the local coyotes seemed to be very attracted to us, investigating the odd smells of our tent nearly every night, so we decided to move to a different location, this time on the other side of the river and closer to the house.
As you can see, we had quite the setup.
Every morning I awoke to this gorgeous view of the valley.

No day was ordinary. A magnitude of problems arose daily, both within myself and on the commune. The community vehicle breaking down, wild animals eating the crops, the chickens getting out of the fences, these drawbacks happened often and with all the normal work and chores on our plate, they were annoying, to say the least.
There was a mixture of chickens and ducks at the commune. Thier shelter (on the right) was jerry-rigged with wheels and skis to allow for mobility.

We learned about permaculture and animal husbandry from the farmer, compost science and medicinal herbal supplements from the farmer's wife, and selective hearing from their talkative 6-year-old son. We were even given a free lesson in blacksmithing by their neighbor and taught about raising rabbits by the other.
Here you can see the garden. It is quite a lot of work for just 2 people.
They had a wide array of agriculture from kale and eggplant to medicinal herbs and even bees.

They taught us so much that week but something was happening to me, something I've never experienced before. It wasn't a good feeling either. I felt like I was slowly losing my mind.

Every day it got worst. A cloud developed above my head and it followed me everywhere I went. I was depressed, lonely, and mostly, homesick. I missed my family, my dogs, and well, my stuff. You never really appreciate something quite as much as you do after you've lost it. I've never experienced this level of sadness before. I just wanted to cry, but, I fought back the tears and kept going until I convinced myself of a lousy excuse to leave the commune and go back "home". I took frequent lonely walks in the woods to think, and boy did I think, sometimes for hours. But my weak mind won and I soon found myself driving back to my hometown of Johnson, Vermont.

I rejoiced when I got home and it wasn't until later when I actually started to analyze the situation that I realized I had very deeply-rooted emotional problems, and I didn't like that. The intensity of my mental breakdown and how easily it was triggered scared me, so I decided to discipline myself. No, I didn't make myself sit in the corner for 10 minutes, but I did start reading. In fact, I was reading so much that I had to sacrifice my television time so I could read before bed! The books I was reading all had a common theme, mental discipline, or mental development rather. Coincidentally the first book I read when I started this regimen was Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. It was a fictional novel about the journey of a restless young man that was searching for peace of mind and I could definitely relate to him.
Giant honeycomb from the bee harvest.

Now, I've always been into self-improvement, that being one of the main reasons for going to East Brook, but I never considered myself religious and for the most part I still don't, but after I read "Siddhartha" I found myself deeply interested in Buddhism. I must clarify here that Buddhism is barely considered a religion. To those that actually practice it, it's more of a philosophy. In fact, the well-known Buddhist teach Thich Nhat Hanh stated even people that practice Christianity, Islam, Jewidism, Hinduism, and other religions can practice Buddhism as well without it interfering with their beliefs because it is simply a method for attaining happiness and no faith is required.

Buddhism has changed my life in ways I'd never imagined possible. It has taught me so much about myself that even my mother didn't know. But Buddhism isn't the only subject that has helped me. There are far more bits of knowledge that have helped me towards my goal of self-love, but it would take a book to write about all of them. I am now a happy and mentally healthy young man with the confidence to do anything I set my mind to and all this self-improvement stems from my impulsive decision to move to New York.
I found peace in this flower.

A few months ago I was extremely disappointed in myself for failing at East Brook. Fast forward to now, I'm very grateful for my experience and supposed "failure" at East Brook Farm and I see clearly the necessity of it, for if I didn't go through it I wouldn't have learned the vital lessons that made me into the happy and ambitious person I am today.

So next time you have a sporadic idea to venture beyond your self-inflicted limits, go for it because not all impulsive decisions are bad. In fact, some of them can lead you to very beautiful places.

1 comment:

  1. I got homesick at your age, too. It's hard to get out there on your own and have everything be unfamiliar. And, then you learn from it! I love your advice in the last paragraph!