Friday, May 2, 2014

40 Years in the Wilderness

Tomorrow, Sandhill will celebrate it's 40th anniversary. While not quite a feat of biblical proportions, it's still a big deal. 

The phrase "40 years in the wilderness" comes from the book of Numbers (while that seems an odd name for a chapter in the Good Book, think of it as a precursor to Sesame Street, "Today's religious story, boys and girls, is brought to you by the number 40… "), and recounts the wanderings of the Israelites after Charlton Heston led them in their just-in-time escape from Egypt (remember the cool trick with the Red Sea where he washed away pharaoh's army?). 

After peregrinating at length (enough to conduct the Olympics 10 times) and surviving a series of single elimination competitions with unhappy landowners whose property they'd drifted onto, the wandering Jews* finally settled in Canaan, the Promised Land. Now that's taking the long view.

* [Not to be confused with ornamental spiderworts, or the apocryphal dude who is reputed to have taunted Jesus en route to the cross and was cursed to traverse the world without respite until the Second Coming.]

Sandhill's story is a little different. We've actually been on the same piece of land the entire time, and our work has been to transform it into our version of Canaan—something we promised ourselves we'd attempt to do. The wilderness in our case has been mainstream society, with its competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial dynamics. Most Sandhillians had been wandering through that desert for decades before accreting in little regarded northeast Missouri to terraform cooperative culture.

Against long odds, we've pretty much succeeded. And that's what we're celebrating tomorrow (along with Beltane), cheered on by 75-100 of our closest friends. 

It's been an incredible journey, and is more a testament to pluck and luck than planning or clarity of vision. Trying to center our lives around "who we were with" ahead of "what we would do," we discovered along the way that we needed to learn the nuts and bolts of cooperative living from a cold start, with the result that we spent an embarrassing amount of time in the ditch (or mired axle-deep in potholes, choose your metaphor) instead of on the golden path. But every time we got stuck in the mud, we levered ourselves back onto the road and kept going.

Today—on anniversary eve—it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on some of Sandhill's major markers along the way. While the selections are somewhat arbitrary, bear with me.

1975—We lost two of the original four members, and it dawned on Annie and me that we'd have to open up our group to people we didn't already know if we were going to survive. Though that seems normal today, that was a disillusioning shock at the time. In fact, no one we knew from outside of Sandhill ever joined the community. All of our growth came from visitors attracted by the dream and our description in Communities Directory.

1977—We started making sorghum. After two year's of apprenticing with Jo Pearl & Eva Grover (septuagenarians who lived about 10 miles north of us), we bought our own mill, had stainless steel pans custom made, and started cooking Sandhill sorghum—something we're still doing 37 years later. That first year we sold a quart for $2.50 and a gallon for $9. Today we offer quarts of unadulterated sweetness at the bargain price of $12 (and you can order it online).

Even though we've never been able to balance our budget relying solely on agricultural sales, sorghum was our first community business and it became the flagship product for our deep commitment to growing (for ourselves) and selling (for the public) quality organic food. Over the years we've change sorghum cooking systems three times, but we've stayed the course. Along the way we've experienced the normal vicissitudes of farming: everything from basking in the largesse of bumper crops, to suffering through belt-tightening stinkers, where the cane was stunted by drought and the harvest was harried by an early frost.

1979 —In December we completed the paperwork to become officially recognized by the state of Missouri as Sandhill Farm, Inc. Even though we were only three people at the time (Ann Shrader, Tim Jost, and me) it became apparent that we needed the group to own the land instead of Laird & Ann.

1980 —Stan Hildebrand joined us, marking the first time we had a bona fide farmer in our number, and we gelled into a group of five that was stable for five years. During that stretch the only turnover we experienced was one person leaving for Twin Oaks (Thea Page), and another from Twin Oaks joining us (Clarissa Gyorgy). Reaching this level of grounded coherence was crucial for us a fledgling group. Up until then it was never quite clear if we were going to last.

Also that year, Sandhill joined the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, a network of secular, income-sharing communities that we're still associated with today.

1981—Ceilee was born to Annie and me. He was the first child at Sandhill, and I caught him myself in the middle of our bedroom floor on a cold, sunny morning in late January. He became the first kid born at an FEC community that was raised there until he left for college.

1986—Laird attended meetings to incorporate the Fellowship for Intentional Community, resurrecting the name from the Fellowship of Intentional Communities, a dormant network of World War II conscientious objectors who started getting together in the late '40s (after they got out of jail) to hold annual gatherings of communities in the Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic States. This represented a natural progression from the small pond of FEC communities to the much larger pool of all intentional communities.

1987—Laird traveled to Alpha Farm to take Caroline Estes' five-day consensus and facilitation training, which became the foundational piece I parlayed into a career as a group process consultant and trainer—something I continue to do and love today.

1990—We invited Geoph Kozeny to stay at Sandhill for six months while he worked on the first edition of FIC's Communities Directory. Perhaps the most notable thing about that visit was that Geoph brought with him a portable computer—an Apple Mac Plus—which represented the first slim wedge in the door that we had shut against the burgeoning electronic age. Laptops soon followed, and now we'll never get the genie back in the bottle.

1991—Sandhill representatives went on local radio to speak against the first Gulf War. This was a highly unpopular thing to do and tested our local relations (would we get a brick through the window?) even though we were being true to our pacifist ideals. Fortunately our 17 years of careful spadework building personal connections in the local community proved strong enough to withstand the strain, and no bad thing happened. Whew.

1994—The community started bringing in outside facilitators for our annual winter retreat. It was a major milestone admitting that we could benefit from outside assistance. Our first guest facilitator was Mildred Gordon from Ganas in Staten Island, who brought along her deft touch at navigating emotional distress and interpersonal tensions

1995—Stan became trained as an organic inspector, starting down a path that has defined much of his last two decades and created an income stream that developed into the linchpin of the community's finances. It has turned out that inspecting farms pays much better than farming.

1996—FIC acquired an old 12x60 house trailer and set it up on Sandhill's property to become the Fellowship's continental headquarters. Though the trailer hasn't gotten any younger (or better looking), we're still using it today.
1997—Dancing Rabbit bought land three miles away. Attracted by affordable property values, minimal zoning, and neighbors who wanted them, the founding group took over the old Petitjean place. Today Dancing Rabbit is by far the larger and better-known group, strengthening immeasurably the foundation for our beachhead of cooperative culture. Today our combined population (counting Sandhill, Dancing Rabbit, Red Earth, and the outliers living in Rutledge who want to be near us) approaches 100 and we almost certainly have the largest number of communitarians as a percentage of registered voters of any county in the US—somewhere in the vicinity of three percent.

1998—We began experimenting with having summer interns. Lindsey Jones was our first (affectionately knows as Miss Lindsey or ML), and she later became a member. Today it's automatic that we interview interns to join us during the growing season (April-October), and they are a well-integrated part of our life, but it all started with ML.

1999—In September of that year, Ceilee went to college (Amherst), my daughter, Jo, went to Quaker boarding school (The Arthur Morgan School in Celo NC) for 7th grade, and Ann departed for Virginia. I suffered the dispersal of all of my immediate family at once and it took me months to recover.

2001—This was the year of too many interns. After a few years of stellar results, we figured if a little was good then perhaps a lot would be great. We were wrong. After being inundated by the dynamics of trying to manage eight at once, we learned to keep the number of interns lower than that of the members. Today our rule of thumb is no more than three at a time, which is far easier to integrate into the flow of life on the farm.

2005—Red Earth Farms was launched on 76 acres adjoining Dancing Rabbit. Now we were the tri-communities. Today REF has close to 20 members and Sandhill, while still the oldest community, is now the smallest of the three.

2007—Laird & Ma'ikwe got married at Sky Island, 2000 feet above Albuquerque in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, overlooking New Mexico's capital. Stan came from Sandhill, Tony came from Dancing Rabbit, and Alyson came from Red Earth. Ceilee was best man and in charge of the bar; Jo was in charge of the wedding feast. We had originally hoped to have the wedding at Sandhill but the community was concerned that managing the crowd for a multi-day wedding might be overwhelming, so we switched to Plan B. In the end, the wedding lasted for four days and we had 175 guests, so maybe the community's caution was justified.

Later that year I started this blog. While the primary goal was to bang the drum for FIC, it morphed into being more of a journal written by a community networker, and some significant fraction of my entries have been reflections on my experiences as a homesteader and the member of agricultural income-sharing community.

2013—We started construction on a high tunnel greenhouse to expand our growing season on a commercial scale. This represented a deepening of our agricultural commitment, and was an initiative of the younger generation of members—the folks who are taking over from Stan and me.

Let My Person Go
Poignantly, this will probably be my last time celebrating Sandhill's anniversary as a member. This past year I needed to make a choice between my marriage to Ma'ikwe and my marriage to Sandhill and I've been on a leave of absence from Sandhill since Thanksgiving, living with my wife on a trial basis. (I know it's a bit odd that I haven't attempted that sooner than seven years into my vows, but I was really wanting to avoid facing the fork in the road in front of me, and Ma'ikwe and I got married with no agreement in place about where we'd live, or even if we'd live in the same time zone.) 

I love Ma'ikwe and I love my community and it sucks that I can't have both. But life goes on. The future for Sandhill was always going to be without me (eventually), and I've worked hard over the last 10 years to make sure that there was nothing that the community needed that only I could do. Just last month I passed along the last of those duties: filing Sandhill's taxes. I've done it every year since we incorporated in 1979, and this year I coached while Joe filled out the forms. Next year he's on his own.

Ma'ikwe and I are doing well (living together at Moon Lodge, the house she built at Dancing Rabbit) and unless our dynamics go down the rabbit hole (so to speak), I expect to give up my membership at Sandhill before the end of the year. While there is deep sadness in me about this, it is the right choice. No place can replace Sandhill in my heart, yet neither do I want to start over looking for a partner. 

I am thinking of it as retiring from active life in community to focus more on relationship, writing, and teaching. I still have plenty of work to do; I'm just going to divide it among fewer spheres of activity, hopefully with the outcome that I'll do all of the remaining things more thoroughly.

Taking the above all together, tomorrow is going to be pretty special.

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