Sunday, October 14, 2007


Subject talked while chopping vegetables and cooking in the small kitchen area of her urban cabin. Born 1953, Texas

I was young--in junior high and high school--during the Sixties. You’re not too conscious at that age. But I remember sitting on my parents’ bed, watching the evening news with my father. There was always an update about the Vietnam War--bloody, terrifying scenes-- and sometimes that segued into protests against the war. I didn’t have an older brother or friends who were dealing with the draft, so the war wasn’t personal to me. I remember a very low level of dissent among a small minority of people -- wearing black armbands to protest the war -- in my high school in Corpus Christi, Texas. I wasn’t part of that.

I didn’t try marijuana until my sophomore year in college so I may have been a little behind the times. I went to college at a small women’s school in Missouri and remained fairly distant from the new cultural Zeitgeist, as it swung into the 70’s. I think it takes awhile for a movement to take form--I would say the Sixties as a movement was fairly amorphous, even to itself, until the Seventies. I think the intellectual convergence started happening in the Seventies, and continues today.
When I transferred to the University of Texas in 1973, I attended one or two demonstrations before the whole protest movement shut down. They were large-scale events, maybe about Watergate, or the war. I’m not sure. I was interested in attending and observing, just as I was interested in the streakings that were taking place at the same time. People would gather spontaneously at one of the fountains at the UT campus, usually in the evening, and then, strip down and run naked through the crowd. It was fun. I didn’t personally streak. Like most, I was a voyeur.

My parents persuaded me to get a degree in business, so here I was again in a fairly conservative environment. I was the radical in that group, which indicates that a personal ideology was beginning to take shape. The first energy crisis took place in 1973, during my undergrad years. It shocked a lot of people into an awareness of limitations. Later, as a graduate student at UT in Austin, I studied community and regional planning. One day I woke up and read the paper. There was a story about a small town in the Rio Grande Valley, Crystal City. The city had a municipal power plant that supplied all the electrical energy for the town. Problem was, Crystal City couldn’t afford oil for its turbines. People were going without electricity, so they were extremely vulnerable. It really disturbed me that these low-income people were suffering. That was a Seventies kind of social consciousness, building from Sixties. As a general rule, we were much more activist back then. When something was screwed up, people tried to take action. So I went to a place on campus called the Center for Energy Studies and talked to the associate director. I said, “Somebody needs to study solar options for Crystal City and other towns like it.” She loved that idea and got a grant. In putting together the team to work on the project, she hired me. That’s how I got into energy and environmental issues.

When you’re into alternative energy, it’s solar energy, it’s the whole appropriate technology movement, and then you’re into organic gardening, and you’re starting to look at alternatives to conventional society in many arenas, including alternative forms of living, more ecological ways of living, and ways to be self-sufficient in case the doomsday scenario--smacking into the limits to growth and subsequent collapse--does occur.

Unlike the Vietnam War, my concerns in this arena were not hypothetical or detached but personal. This may have a seed of the Sixties sprouting forth. To me, the Sixties were about being a part of something larger than ourselves, concern for a greater and more idealized society than our own. Some of that concern took the form of reaction against pre-existing norms, and some of it took the form of going in completely new, creative directions. When I and others remember the Sixties with fondness, it’s because of a feeling that we were part--even if only in a very small way--of something greater than ourselves. We don’t have many opportunities to experience that in our lives. Sometimes we’re part of a team experience that’s really remarkable, and we remember those team experiences, but on a broader more collective level, it may happen only once in a generation. I feel lucky to have been on the fringes during the Sixties and smack in the middle of it during the Seventies.

The environmental issue has been a significant thread in my life ever since. It’s a concern that manifests in the way I live my life and my work--some of which has been directly involved in ecological matters and some of which has been totally unrelated, but to which I have brought an ecological ethic. If I were to take my life and try to unweave it, environmentalism would be a major strand of color in the tapestry.

For example, one of the ways it manifests is living simply. I’m trying to live a life where I’m not working all the time in order to have material goods. My priority is having time for contemplation and leisure, and purposes other than the accumulation of goods. So I live in a small cottage, about 900 square feet, a building I bought for a song in 1990. It was a shack. Slowly, over the years, I tore it apart and renovated it from the top down and the bottom up. Now, it’s a sweet little place. It’s not fancy in any way, but people walk in and have a sense of comfort and appreciate the aesthetic. It’s right in the middle of town, but I have a quarter acre with a large garden. There’s a wood stove, so I’m fairly well set up if Y2K happens. There’s a concrete pond in the back yard for water storage and an old well too.

Right now, the main force of my energy is directed at writing. I write environmental/ecological pieces for magazines. I’ve also spent a couple of years working on an essay that reframes the environmental crisis from a pro-humanity framework. I think the underside of the environmental crisis is that it has bred in many of us activists and foot soldiers in the movement a lack of faith in humanity, a sort of disdain for humanity because the language in the environmental movement has been cast in terms of a second great fall from grace or as another manifestation of original sin. We believe humans are the cause of the problem and don’t have what it takes to solve it.

But going back to the Seventies…As the decade progressed, I found myself getting involved in other issues too. Feminist and lesbian politics, collective and cooperative households, organic gardening. I loved living in collective households, and they worked pretty well. Certainly as well as any romantic relationship works, in terms of expansions and contractions, the good times and the not-so-good ones. Since the early 90s, I’ve been active in the co-housing movement, trying to launch two different groups in the Fayetteville area.

Co-housing takes the cooperative/collective/commune model and brings it into our times. You own your own home, which you can buy or sell at your pleasure. So you’ve got autonomy and privacy and flexibility. But you also have community because cohousing is a group of people who are designing, planning, and building an intentional community from the group up and later managing it themselves. It’s really a neighborhood. Physically, it looks like a planned unit development or PUD and it’s usually designed from a very ecological standpoint. The scale varies quite a bit. Cohousing runs from eight units to hundreds of units--an eco-village. In addition to owning a house, you have an undivided interest in community property--the common house and other community features. Generally, the common house has a large kitchen and is a place where people can gather for meals. It may also have child care facilities, maybe a workout room, a laundry, so you don’t have to have a laundry in every individual house. And sometimes they have guest rooms, so you don’t have to build your own home as large. The idea is to also share meals several times a week so you don’t have to cook every evening. Beyond the common house, they may be other community assets--a workshop, community gardens, a softball field-- anything you want to have, even a swimming pool.

The idea came from Denmark in the 70s, when low-income families were trying to figure out how they were going to get home after work, put dinner on the table, and take care of the kids too. They invented co-housing, and it’s been very successful in Denmark. There it’s practiced in a high-density apartment format. People who come to co-housing tend to be social innovators who live and work at the margins, or beyond the margins, of society. They are also more educated and more politically active than the average person.

In terms of spirituality, I’ve been exposed to pantheism, transcendental meditation, goddess-based religions--ideas and practices that burgeoned in the Sixties. These and especially experiences with Nature led me to a universalist view, as opposed to a limited or Christ-centric view of spirituality. Nature is a very important part of my spirituality. Sometimes its a way of getting out of the mind, feeling more connected to the web of existence. Sometimes it’s a joyous aesthetic experience. When I lived in Alaska for 14 months, I had profound spiritual experiences of encountering spirit within the old growth forests. Right now, I’m a member of the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers because their universalist theology matches mine. The theology is pretty straightforward. It’s basically about living our values. For Quakers, these values or testimonies are equality, simplicity, integrity, and peace. What could be more Sixties than that?


Raines said...

Thanks for sharing this person's comments about cohousing.

I've been involved in creating/living in cohousing neighborhoods here in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past decade, and involved in the national movement leadership, and I'm curious about whether this person has taken further steps to create cohousing during that time... I know some intentional community activists in the Fayetteville area, and a mailing list for Northwest Arkansas community.

Chuck Durrett, who helped bring cohousing from Denmark to the U.S., notes that when you get beyond 34 units or so, it gets hard to know your neighbors as well, so larger ecovillages like the one in Ithaca, N.Y. are broken into smaller neighborhoods; the largest single cohousing neighborhood I know of has 66 units. The one I live in has just 15 and feels small, where it's hard to get the work done when people participate less for whatever personal reasons.

As to the history, my recent understanding is that the Denmark folks creating cohousing were inspired by U.S. communes and coops.

While the original movement has been called "communes for Dentists" since the market-rate housing it creates can indeed start or become expensive, but the movement has been taking great strides to incorporate affordability, through creative strategies like silent second mortgages, Habitat for Humanity partnerships, and the like.

The big recent growth area for the movement has been in senior cohousing (sometimes called "elder cohousing"), people co-creating neighborhoods that support aging-in-place and taking care of each other to maintain independence and stay out of nursing homes. I'm working on helping people in this process.

Will you be publishing these stories in print? It seems like you've got a book here. Perhaps with your own stories thrown in the mix. Thanks for sharing these!

Raines Cohen, Cohousing Coach
Planning for Sustainable Communities
Berkeley, CA

A Messenger said...

Thanks Raines for your comment and favorable opinion regarding these interviews. I continue to seek a publisher!