What makes a commune work?
Friday, November 9th, 2012 |

ByANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent


Sonoma County’s past is filled with “intentional communities” (aka communes) and still continues to spawn them.

It has welcomed them all, from the founding of Fountain Grove in the 1800s to Morningstar Ranch, which turned county authorities upside down in the late 1960s, to Wheeler Ranch, which was invaded in the 1970s by police invasions with night helicopters and guns.

Yet despite past problems, many intentional communities have thrived in the balmy climes near the coast, and even second generations have decided to live in extended families.

We asked a few people familiar with the concept to tell us what works, what doesn’t and what advice they have for others interested in communal living.

Adam Wolpert of the Sowing Circle, which co-exists with Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, teaches workshops in making intentional communities succeed. Author Salli Rasberry lived in one in the west county for eight years as her daughter grew up, Laurel Brodie for 23 years. Ramon Sender was the first resident at Morningstar and has become the chronicler of that experiment in open land.

What are the advantages of living in an intentional community?

Wolpert: It’s practical. Sharing resources and the work of life means everyone gets to enjoy a higher standard of living than if they did it as a nuclear family.

It is easier and more fun to share work. Psychologically and spiritually, it is a profound practice. It accelerates self-awareness. You have to be more civil, tolerant, communicate better. The stakes are high.

Rasberry: For us, the focus at first was on our children and the land itself. I lived in a teepee off the grid. My daughter had brothers and sisters she wouldn’t have had otherwise. We started our own school.

Having to get along and respect 12 or 15 people who might not agree with you was intense and important. I felt like I grew up. Even though I no longer live on the land, I am still bound to the people. They are my cousins, and I have complete confidence as they age they will care for each other.

Brodie: I can’t even imagine living in the isolation of a nuclear family. There’s no way one person could care for a 15-acre orchard, for example. Together we could. The fact that most of our kids want to come back here and raise their families speaks of its success. The proof is in the pudding.

Sender: I think humans naturally want to live in a village, a tribe. An urban culture is not natural. And it makes sense for the planet. Why should a number of nuclear families have their own cars, own appliances when several of them can share efficiently?

Society is trying to break us into the smallest possible consuming unit so we will consume more. It doesn’t make sense, and more people are into sharing under all sorts of labels such as co-housing.

What makes one work and another fail?

Wolpert: Shared values are the most important thing. The connections cannot be superficial. One valuable thing our workshops can do is make it clear to some people that is isn’t for them

For some, taking down a fence between neighbors, raising a few chickens and occasional shared meals with neighbors is enough. Sometimes an IC doesn’t fail, it simply runs its course. It filled needs, and needs change

What makes one really fail is failing relationships. A community is a group of people coming together with an agreement of democratic values, respect and transparency. If those things fail, it fails

In our workshops we nest participants in the community for five days and nights, not just impart information. They eat together every night, work together every day

Rasberry: I left because my own community had grown larger. The community didn’t fail. I think one reason for its success is because from the start they were involved in the larger community, joined the fire department, for example.

Everyone had their own dwelling, and we only came together for important rituals, like the holidays and family occasions like weddings, births and such. It’s still a big part of my life.

Brodie: Each woman has her own bathroom and kitchen, although we eat communally Monday through Thursday. The community meets once a month to assign chores, discuss maintenance, establish boundaries. We basically feel what’s better for the whole is more important than what’s better for one.

We sometimes have long meetings because we are determined to reach consensus on our common values. Money, power and sex are very big dynamics. If there are discrepancies, problems arise and failure is possible.

Sender: At Morningstar, it started out simply. Mostly those of us there wanted to have a quiet place to live. Then the Diggers approached Lou Gottlieb, who owned the land, about bringing people up (from the city that) they were trying to “rescue.” Lou could not say no to anyone.

They scraped people off the streets and bused them up to dry out. I tried to offer yoga lessons and meditation classes to give some structure to it. Once, someone pulled a gun on me. What happened was the gentle people and the families left.

Morningstar fell apart, but at least four other ICs were born out of it that have survived and are still providing a wonderful life for the residents.