Twenty miles out of Asheville, North Carolina, down a winding mountain road, lies Earthaven, an intentional community devoted to permaculture and living “off grid”. With our limited time, we skipped Biltmore and spent the 45 minute drive fighting about the meaning of self-sufficiency and the proposition of building a community out in the wood as a means of sustainability. “How can this possibly be sustainable?…look at how long it take to drive to Asheville for groceries!”
Marjorie recently quit her full-time job to spend more time working and living at Earthaven. She seemed most comfortable speaking about the spiritual and healing aspects of the community, though could have a good laugh the difficulty at times of the four hour meetings spent coming to the consensus for all decisions.
I thought my primary questions would be about the technology used to get off-grid. In fact, I have seen more sophisticated systems for living off-grid on RVs. Marjorie pointed out that most folks don’t have the money to invest in current technology, and they are trying out simpler, passive systems using low-end technology. In fact, it seemed to me that there were little interest in technology solutions. Much effort has been spent in learning how to use natural building materials. The folks in Earthaven basically live in complicated mud huts.
What immediately became more compelling to me was the community aspect and the mixed economy of Earthaven. How do you become a member? What does joint ownership of the land, but long-term leasing of building sites mean besides the inability to get a construction mortgage? How does the community deal with wildly different economic backgrounds? How do decisions get made if a good number of folks only live there part time? How are taxes divided up? If my neighbor builds a $200,000 house with wood-burning hot water heaters, in comparison to my little single room dwelling and community shower?
Clearly everyone in the community needs greenbacks. To get them nearly everyone has to work outside…What is that like? How do you justify being one with the earth mother when you have to drive at least 30 minutes to work. It was the contradictions of a community struggling with the contradictions and perhaps, turning away from the ugliness of politics and economy in search of a spiritual connection that intrigued me most
My question on leaving Earthaven was this was still the same: Why there? Why hassle carving out a community in a logged over scrub forest? Why not rehabilitate one of the many dreary and dying communities that dot the Southern landscape (not that this differs much from the decayed mill towns of New England or logging towns of Washington). If support could be gained from the county permit boards, no small feat, re-farming and rebuilding using permaculture techniques might be a way to re-energize and educate the community around it in a way that Earthaven never will.
We left Earthaven and spent most of the day arguing about it. That’s fine. It made the drive down to Mobile go faster. On the way we made a few other stops, each with their own models of living.
Warren Wilson College is a small liberal arts college close to Asheville. Students there are required to join work teams, and they work to keep tuition low by growing their own food on the college farm and dairy. It’s closer to the Earthaven model, then let’s say Harvard, but still hardly a permaculture. Still, these kids are learning a hands-on responsibility and connection to their food source that most folks have lost.
Tuskegee is a town a band of well-meaning liberal types could probably get a hold of cheaply. It is a dreary remnant of town, though famous for the Tuskegee Institute. The Institute is best known for the work of George Washington Carver, and his educational work to help the poor farmers of Alabama. With the roving lab, and a mix of science, application, and fun, the Institute was everywhere in Alabama before World War 2. The folks are Earthaven are certainly working on outreach, but then when the kids we spoke with at Warren Wilson, all of 20 miles away have heard of them, are studying ecology, but have not been there and seem skeptical, how much are they succeeding? Perhaps, a more intense “Institute” approach, and one tied to a existing historical place could be more effective than what the folks at Earthaven are doing.
Asheville to Tuskegee