Log cabin contemplations: hanging out at a commune

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Sacred Groves

Last week I wrote about some of the weirdness of moving back into my childhood home for a month. It’s a little different than it was when I was an isolated only child growing up here, though: my childhood home is now a commune and functioning eco-retreat type thing called Sacred Groves. At any given time, there are a mix of a half dozen to a dozen adults and children living here, walking the paths I used to haunt alone.

I have this much to say about visiting the family commune: it’s never boring. When I come to visit my mom and her partner, I never have any idea which of the dozen little structures on the land they’ll be staying in. Is mom in her school bus/shed/trailer thing? Or is she back in the Round House? Who’s sleeping in that old camper that got a deck that turned into a little room?

In addition to this, I never have any idea where I’M staying — will it be the guest room in the Round House? One of the yurts nearby? It might be the Moonlodge — but since men aren’t allowed to sleep there, that doesn’t work if Dre’s with me.

Sacred Groves

As an intentional community, Sacred Groves seem defined by almost constant shift. My mom’s partner likes to build things (I’ve joked she’s like the Sarah Winchester of Sacred Groves), and the kind of people attracted to communal hippie living can be in transitional phases — there was that weird woman who showed up with the goats for a few months. The guy who originally moved here single and eventually moved away with a wife and twin babies. Sometimes you show up and there’s a roaming pack of feral resident children beating their way through the forest or hopping endlessly on the trampoline. Sometimes (like today), Tavi and I are the only people on the land. Residents come and go.

And then of course there are the range of events that happen here — Wailing Lodges and compassionate listening and the Women’s Mystery School. On any given day, not only do you never know what residents you might see — you’ll never know who’s going to come wandering through the woods, lost between the dirt parking lot and a yurt somewhere on the south side of the property.

Since many of the events at the commune are therapeutic, you also never know what emotional state these people are going to be in. A couple weeks ago, while Tavi and I were having dinner outside the cabin, a group of women wandered by on their way to an event. My 12-pound mutt ran up to say hello, and one of the women almost started sobbing out of sheer terror.

Clearly, this woman had a dog phobia. But she was also just in a state of being highly distraught, which is TOTALLY to be expected since, I then remembered, there was an event that night — a grief workshop called a Wailing Lodge. I mean, you’re going to a wailing lodge… it’s totally to be expected that you might be in a fragile emotional state. It’s just not what I was expecting when I was hanging out in the dappled sun, having dinner at a picnic table with my toddler and worm-like dog.

Our big circle of drummers--July 3

That’s the thing about hanging out on a commune: you have to have a level of social flexibility about your space that is mind-boggling to me. These woods used to be my cedar-boughed isolation tank, the lonely Eden where I wrote my essays and read my magazines. And suddenly it’s half summer camp, half transitional housing, half B&B, half group-home, and half hostel. And, yes — that adds to up more than a whole, because the uses of the space at any given time are like Venn diagram of functions. This yurt is the guest yurt, but there’s a woman who does massage therapy in there one afternoon a week.

If it sounds overwhelming, that’s because it can be! I went home for Christmas last year, walking into complete chaos of six kids making gingerbread yurts… and limping out vomiting 24 hours later with a wicked case of Rotavirus that swept through the entire community, thanks in part to the open baskets of soiled toilet paper next to the toilets. (My mom thinks flushing toilet paper is hard on the septic system, so they use family cloth and ask people not to flush any used toilet paper — which is great, but you know, sometimes leads to everyone barfing.)

Just as often, however, it can be an amazing, warm, loving space — the line goes, “There are no single parents at Sacred Groves — and no only children.” It’s communal, it’s friendly, it’s tribal, it’s the opposite of what I truly do believe is the pretty broken nuclear family housing option. And it’s pretty insane some of the amazing people I’ve met when I swing by to visit my mom — who else brings the toddler home to see grandma, and gets to chat with a pair of local folk singer-songwriters drinking tea with their guitars around the kitchen table in the Round House? It’s pretty amazing to say hello to random people who’ve swung by from all over the world. It can be a scene! Seriously.

Or sometimes it’s not — this week my mom and her partner are at their OTHER commune, a non-profit Summer Camp/Burial Grounds in Eastern Washington where my mother serves on the board of directors.

Trail signs to show the way

But when everyone’s on the land, it’s amazing to live the way families used to… to get from the log cabin where we’re staying to the Round House (where we can sometimes find my mother), we walk about three minutes through the ferns, cross another path, and then down a trail that winds through cedar and maple trees, past little signs noting “MEADOW –>” and random little altars built into the trees. “Feather,” Tavi always likes to note when we walk by the altar that my mom built when my grandmother passed away a few years ago. We go through a deer fence, and emerge out into the hot sun of the Round House’s permaculture garden, past the rabbit hutch, and into the house.

medicine wheel garden from west deck

This is what living in community can mean… your family a walk through the woods. I’m curious about communities in America that live like this — I guess you could call them family compounds? Because while certainly I’m seeing how Pacific Northwestern hippie lesbians like my mom have created an extended family community, I’m sure there are others. Mormons, Appalachian families… maybe immigrants with extended families in rural areas? Working class families in trailer parks? I’m sure all sorts of communities live this way, but not many of the subcultures I know well. Who wants to enlighten me?

The meadow looks so green these days!

Comments on Log cabin contemplations: hanging out at a commune

  1. My dad is always talking about having a family compound out in rural chester county near our favorite farms. There will be lots of cats running around, we would have large gardens for growing food and we would each have our little corner of it. As we’re all renters with little money this is a far-off if not impossible venture, but we can dream.

  2. I’ve been to a couple places in northern Wisconsin like this. They both involved a deliberate attempt to revive Ojibwe traditions and practices (though only one actually involved Ojibwe people, which is a separate issue). I don’t know how widespread the phenomenon is, though.

  3. While I don’t live in a commune, the idea of being able to just walk through the woods to see your family is a very familiar concept to me. And you mentioned Appalachia, so here I am! 🙂

    My family, at least a large portion of the extended family, still lives in a town settled by one of our ancestors around 1800. Which means that I grew up with my grandmother right across the road, cousins next door, and aunts & uncles just a short walk away. I can’t imagine any better way to live, and it was especially nice to have so much family nearby because I was the youngest person the extended family. I might not have had friends and playmates my age, but I didn’t need them.

    It’s just the sort of thing us Appalachians do, I guess. My aunt and cousins still live here, but my mom and her brother have houses in the same road a state away now. And my uncle has bought & sold houses on their road to others from our town. Maybe it’s partly the fear of the unknown that us hillbillies have, but I think it’s a great way to build community.

  4. Thank you Ariel! I’ve been toying with the commune idea for several years now that I’ve moved into a rural area. I’m 44 and my next ‘milestone’ bday will be 50. GAH! I just ended my 3rd marriage and sorta feel like if I don’t find my true soulmate by the time I turn 50 at least I will have my family and close, like minded friends VERY close to me. We are looking at building treehouses (of course without harming the tree).

    Anyway, thank you again. This article solidifies that I this IS the life I would like to live and now I’m going forward with the plans!


  5. Two of my three sisters live on the same block in the middle sized Indiana town we grew up in. They’re also just three blocks away from our parents and one of them lives in the house my late grandfather built himself, with the help of his father. It’s also the same town where my family has lived for six generations now. I’m not sure I could stand to live in a smallish Indiana town again, but I do sometimes get jealous of my two sisters for that sense of connection and community I just don’t get here in my near west suburb of Chicago. And they have dinner together all the time and babysit for each other and share tools back and forth. It can be pretty awesome.

  6. I could just keep reading about this commune forever. It sounds like an incredible place. My happy place these days is your description of your moms commune. Thanks for sharing.

  7. It’s not really a compound, but my father’s side of the family all live within a 5-mile radius of each other. My dad grew up in San Antonio, but his parents moved back to his mother’s childhood home in Louisville, Mississippi (a very rural, very small town about 2 hours northeast of Jackson) while Dad was in college. I spent all of my summers and Christmas vacations there. And while they don’t live on the same property, my grandmother, her 7 siblings, all their children and grandchildren go to the same church, eat weekly meals together, share chores and gardening duties, and share carpools to the hospital and big city shopping trips. My grandmother talks to her sisters every day, usually in person. Her pantry is filled with the bounty of her sister’s garden, and her sisters’ fridge is filled with meals she’s cooked from their gardens. My grandfather mows their lawns because he’s the one with a tractor. Cousins are raised by mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, and spoiled by fathers, grandfathers, and uncles. At least half of the church shares a surname.

    Louisville is definitely rural and is definitely working-class. My family has worked for the whole of their lives, and most of them continue to work, even though they’re in their 80s. But they’ve never felt poor or broken down to me (though many certainly are, and the things that tend to accompany poverty (addiction, broken families, etc.) certainly do exist)). They always had food to share, they always saved room in the church pew for me and for other people.

    It could get stifling, though. My grandfather, who married into this family still wishes sometimes for a larger, more diverse community. It’s hard to have any personal privacy. If you’re getting a divorce, people not only know about it, they talk about it, they judge you for it, and you hear about it all the time. You can’t escape from anything.

  8. This was an interesting read! I often wonder if people join cults because they really want to be immersed in communal living. I recently watched a documentary on the WBC and as abhorant as I found them I have to admit I did like how they built their homes on the same city block and opened up their backyards into one huge open space.
    My friend’s entire extended family lives in houses all on the same subdivision which makes it really easy to watch each others’ children when someone wants to run errands or go on an appointment, etc.

  9. Communal living sounds extremely cool to me, if you’re living with the right people.

    However, you make a very, very good argument against “family cloths” – especially when your “family” is that big. If it’s brown. flush it down, y’all! Eeeuggh.

  10. I think it’s quite common here in the Appalachians. Back in the day, all kin used to move out and build a cabin somewhere on the homestead so they could still work the land. I actually grew up within a two minutes walk from my uncle, grandmother and great grandmother. I’ve since moved across town, but I do miss living so close to family. Eventually, I’d love to get a bit of land and have an extended family group set up.

  11. It’s not a commune, but I live in a float home village. I have never before felt the type of community that I feel living here. I just recently had a baby girl, and it’s as if she now has a tonne of new “aunties” and “uncles” on the dock. It also has a feeling of transience too, as it is frequented by tourists daily. You are always meeting new people from all over the world.

  12. I lived like this, in the sense of family being a short walk away – but not in any other sense, really.

    My mum grew up on a farm in upstate NY, and when her parents retired from farming, they split the land up between their 5 kids. So our house was on the old potato field, my uncle lives in the old farm house, another uncle in the cow pasture, an auntie in the chicken area, and so on. Oh, and we had a great grandmother up the road, great aunties around the corner, and several cousins and second cousins on the same street.

    I guess it was similar to your description, in that there is often something going on, though it was more bogan – snowmobiles, monster trucks, mudding up the creek down the hill, BBQs, and that sort of thing. The nice thing was always having cousins around to play with, and plenty of forest out the back that connected all of our places.

  13. Hi Ariel,
    I loved reading about your thoughts about commune living. I think it’s a really interesting way of life. I like your points of view, and this has given me much food for thought. I featured your article on my blog, in a post called Five Fabulous Fings on Friday (it was one of my favourites, you see!)

    You can have a peek here, if you wish:

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, thoughts and ideas.

    Katie. xxx

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