Weaving the Community Fabric

By Liz Walker

Series: Consciously reinventing cooperative and harmonious ways of living and working together. Read about this series below.

As one of the founders of the ecovillage of Ithaca, Liz Walker has had ample experience in the processes of actually building community. Her conclusion is that weaving the social fabric takes as much dedication and work as creating the physical form.

Walking Iris

As Allegra and Sarah (aged 9 and 4) pass my house, I call them over to see something special: my walking iris has a beautiful, orchid-like bloom. “It only lasts for one day,” I explain. “You can watch it unfold its petals in the early morning, and by nighttime the flower has shrivelled up and died. When I lived downtown, it only flowered once a year. That day was so special, I would stay home from work to see it. But now that we live at EcoVillage at Ithaca, it flowers a lot. It likes the extra light it gets in my passive solar home.”

Allegra is part Hispanic and has wide brown eyes and black hair. Sarah is Jewish, and her hair is a tousled golden mane. The girls lean toward the delicate white blossom with its bright purple center. “Mmmm,” they murmur. “That smells so good!” The iris has a sweet, almost spicy fragrance, as lingering as a gardenia. It is intoxicating. I offer each of them a cutting from the mother plant.

“Why is it called a walking iris?” Allegra asks.

“Because it is really a tropical plant that grows fast and sends out shoots like a spider plant. Each new shoot puts down roots, and then that sends out more shoots – almost as if it is walking forward.”

The girls leave, and I reflect on the symbolism of the walking iris. When a walking iris sends out a new shoot, it also sends out a two to three foot-long stem, exploring new territory. If the shoot doesn’t find soil or water, then the stem develops sticky scales and gradually dies back. If the shoot finds what it needs, then the whole plant develops fully.

When I first got my plant, it flowered so rarely that I hoarded the joy of its blossoms. Later, as the plant sent out more shoots, I gave well-rooted cuttings to my best friends. Now it is thriving, and I have several large plants around the house.

I have discovered that when I plant or give away a shoot from my walking iris, I am contributing to its overall health and growth. Likewise, when I give freely of my love, my attention, my time, and even my money, I am contributing to the overall health and growth of my community. It makes me feel happy and healthy, too. Such sharing is not a sacrifice but a celebration, an act of love that has an immediate ripple effect, sending happiness back to the giver, multiplied many times. Like the walking iris, our momentary, everyday acts of kindness permeate the community with a sweet and spicy scent.

At Ecovillage at Ithaca we have set up our lives to foster connection. We share meals together several times a week, participate in work parties, and create our own on-site entertainment. We get to know and enjoy our neighbours – without ever having to drive anywhere. Overtime we’re building trust and closeness. However, we’ve learned that it takes at least as much work and dedication to weave the social fabric as it does to create the physical form of our community.

Using the Cohousing model gives us a head start on creating strong social bonds. In cohousing the buildings and site design encourage lots of interaction, while still maintaining the privacy of individual homes. The densely clustered housing, pedestrian streets, and shared gardens are augmented by a Common House where people share meals, and children play. Decisions are made by consensus, leadership is shared, and there are always plenty of ways to contribute to work projects, committees, and weekly chores. However, despite the supportive social and physical structures of cohousing, EVI Land Use Plan- three cohousing neighborhoods, 3 farms we’ve learned that it takes a special commitment to get to know each other on a deeper level — a skill that is not taught in our fast-paced culture.

In 1997, after five years of dedicated work and hundreds of meetings, our Common House was completed and all 30 households in our first neighbourhood had moved in. We had long anticipated this moment. We assumed that we would automatically feel a strong sense of community as we ate together in the Common House, landscaped the neighbourhood, or passed each other on the path. But we were wrong. We knew a lot about going to meetings together but very little about living together. Certainly we knew each other’s meeting styles intimately – who talked a lot, who had to be encouraged to share their point of view, who listened well, and who argued a point well. But in terms of really knowing what was going on in each other’s lives, the situation left a lot to be desired.

‘Deep Groups’

Building on another community’s practice, we decided to create mixed men and women’s support groups, called ‘deepening relationships groups’ or ‘deep groups’ for short. The idea was wildly popular and soon half of the adults in the community had joined, speaking to a strongly felt need for more intimacy in our lives. Each group of six to eight adults met Saturday mornings, twice a month. Everybody chipped in for shared childcare. Although each deep group developed its own creative style, they all included time for in-depth check-ins. These gave us a terrific opportunity to learn more about each other. Typically each person had five to ten minutes of uninterrupted time to talk about what was going on in his or her life. So we learned things like how someone felt about having her parents visit, what it was like to be unemployed, how someone coped with their son’s difficult behavior, and whose marriage was experiencing stress. Good ground rules ensured that all sessions were confidential, and people were respectful to each other.

Ecovillage Ithaca, in the 90's

I can tell you that there is nothing quite like having the undivided, supportive attention of a group of peers. The attention alone was transformative – like having a favorite friend listen to you well. It challenged me to look clearly and honestly at my own life, recognize patterns, celebrate the good things, and ask for support for the difficult times. I found it a real joy to share at this level with people whom I also saw in many other contexts and many of whom I expected to be part of my extended family for the rest of my life.

The original deep groups lasted a year, then rotated membership. After several years they seemed to disappear. Now, however, with many new members in our village, we have resurrected the idea, and once again, six years later, half of the adults are involved. The results are striking. Many people feel that it satisfies a need to be seen and accepted for who they are,and likewise to acknowledge others. These simple support groups can help people to move through transformative changes, and best of all they can be replicated anywhere. You don’t have to live in an ecovillage to create a nurturing support group.

The personal growth that may be started in a deep group, however, is augmented by living in community. I like to think that each of us is like a stone in a stream. As the stones’ rough edges tumble against each other, they gradually wear away and take on a polished, smoother finish. A similar process can happen with people in the supportive climate of our community. People bring all their unresolved issues with them when they come to EVI and inevitably come up against the group. Those individuals who take responsibility for their learning, take risks, and grow, begin to lose their sharp edges. As they confront their issues, work through them, and come to resolution, their transformation becomes obvious — they begin to glow with an inner beauty.

‘Invented Celebrations’

One of the most fulfilling aspects of our community lives is celebrating together. And it doesn’t take much to spark a party — just someone with an inspiration and the energy to organize. Add some shared food or drink and a little music, dance, or ritual and voila!

We celebrate Easter with an egg hunt and Channukah with potato latkes (cooked by the dozen). Other Jewish holidays, Christmas tree decorating, a big Thanksgiving feast (complete with the option of vegan turkey), and occasionally a Buddhist-inspired ceremony or Earth-based spirituality ritual all take the spotlight during the year. We have corn roasts in the fall and a strawberry festival on the summer solstice. Birthday parties happen year round. And we don’t stop at ordinary parties. What makes our community extraordinary is that we often invent our own celebrations, drawing from many traditions — or creating a new one. We live for these times of creative and meaningful fun. One of our favorites is ‘Guys Baking Pies’.

‘Guys Baking Pies’ August 8, 2002

Early August, and the blackberries drip off their branches. One section of the EcoVillage land had a huge blackberry bramble on it when we bought it.

The farmer who hayed the fields that year mowed a careful path around the brambles. “That’s a keeper. That’ll have good berries,” he told us. Sure enough, that bramble alone often produces many gallons of purple, juicy berries.

My partner Jared puts out an email to alert people that Saturday will be EVI’s seventh annual ‘Guys Baking Pies’ day. On Saturday Jared and a motley assortment of neighbourhood men and boys troop down to the berry patch. The wise ones wear old jeans and long-sleeved shirts, despite the 95- degree heat. The less experienced wear shorts and sandals and are soon covered with long red scratches.

The crew picks berries all afternoon then assembles pie crusts and fillings. Occasionally a woman will be asked for advice on the right texture for a piecrust or how to make a latticework crust, but mostly these men and boys know what they’re doing. Finally the pies go into the Common House ovens.

After people go home for a quick supper, the whole community (plus friends and family members) gather again at the Common House. Jared presides over a ceremony that includes the singing of songs specifically written or modified for the occasion (for instance, who will ever forget the hit, ‘When the moon hits your eye like a big berry pie, that’s cohousing …’).

People recount the major events of the past year. Jared reads a special poem he has written about berry picking.

Mouth or Bucket?

Mouth or bucket?

For a few precious hours my life simplified to this.

In the bramble I am the Buddha

my mind’s chatter banished

by senses chasing away past and future.

All else falls away as my eyes lock on

a black jewel, protected by the maze,

morphed by sun, wind and rain,

facets swelling with earth flavors …

Oh, steady now! The fingers navigate the treacherous channel

OUCH! They won’t give up their treasure easily

I acknowledge a grudging respect.

The fingertips caress it

a gentle squishiness, fully and deliciously ripe,

drops into my hand

an oral receipt for the price I’ve paid.

I study this black bulbous gift from the soil

but only for a moment:


Jared Jones (excerpted from ‘The Jewel in the Berry’)

Then it is time for the procession. About fifteen men and boys of all ages proudly parade their pies through a gauntlet of waiting admirers. Each pie maker presents his masterpiece in turn. ‘This pie has a combination of blackberries and bananas, and I’ve carved a face of a pirate on the crust,’ says one young man.

The rest of us eagerly await the moment when we can dig in. We have 15 beautiful pies to choose from, along with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and tofutti (a vegan ice cream). We sit at long tables and compare notes on our purple teeth and tongues. (Did you know that only wild blackberries dye your mouth? Commercial berries have somehow had this characteristic bred out.) We eat and grin wild purple grins at each other, enjoying another successful ‘Guys Baking Pies’ day.

Times of Crisis

Our community has learned a lot about living, working, and celebrating together; about communicating effectively; and about resolving conflicts. But I think we really shine when we’re celebrating an important milestone or when we’re supporting someone through a crisis. We are a large group, and milestones and crises happen with surprising frequency. People graduate, get married, birth babies, lose jobs, experience breakups, or lose their parents.

As we witness each other’s lives, we find in ourselves a larger capacity for loving and giving than we knew existed. We grow larger as human beings.

What we do at EVI is not new. People have lived in close-knit communities for thousands of years, whether in Australian aboriginal groups or small New England town. The basis of our success, as with theirs, rests in strong relationships between people. We are reweaving the web of our togetherness as we learn to create a culture of deep caring and sustainability. The pain or joy that one person experiences reverberates through all of us, calling forth a deep response.

Sometimes our members face a medical crisis. Julia, for instance, recently suffered a serious accident. The mother of two young boys, Julia has epilepsy. When her husband Rod came home one day, he found her at the foot of their stairs, unconscious and with a cracked skull.

Julia was airlifted to a hospital specializing in neurosurgery. The surgeon who operated on her said that he had never before removed such a big blood clot from a living human being. Internal bleeding had severely compressed Julia’s brain, and it was likely she would die or at least suffer permanent mental or physical impairment.

Our community mobilized an outpouring of love and support. We held silent prayer vigils every night. Someone accompanied Rod to the hospital (over an hour away) every day. Others cooked dinners for the family, ferried the boys to and from school, or provided after-school care. One neighbour offered to clean the family’s house and wash the daily dishes. We made up a photo-board — covered with pictures of Julia, her family, and friends — signed it with our get-will wishes and took it to the hospital for her. We visited regularly. People gave her massages, took her flowers and videos, or played soothing music for her. Almost everyone helped out in some special way. To the amazement of her doctors, Julia got out of the hospital just two weeks after the accident. She seemed to have recovered her full range of motion and, although she still felt disoriented, her mind was sharp. Her recovery was truly a miracle — one that Julia ascribed, at least in part, to all the loving care from the community.

The basis of our success, as with theirs, rests in strong relationships between people. We are reweaving the web of our togetherness as we learn to create a culture of deep caring and sustainability.

Our community’s caring — whether we are giving or receiving it — is to be treasured. It creates a safety net that, unfortunately, is not available to most of our society. We know that help will be there for us during the most traumatic moments of our lives. I like to think of it as ‘community life insurance’.

Weaving the fabric of community takes dedication and time. It involves clear communication and goals, shared leadership, working, resolving conflicts and making decisions together. In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, it involves creating a soulful space to allow each other to breathe and grow, to celebrate, and to move through difficult times with love and support. At its best, living in community can help us to become the more generous, expanded human beings we are meant to be, and to feel a deep sense of belonging to something infinitely larger than our selves.

This piece is excerpted in part from Liz Walker’s book, EcoVillage at Ithaca, Pioneering a Sustainable Culture (New Society Publishers, 2005).

Many of us feel that our current social system is no longer sustainable, and that more compassionate and just ways of organising are possible, but what are the alternatives? In trying to Design for Sustainability we seek to consciously reinvent cooperative and harmonious ways of living and working together, honing in on aspects such as group development, leadership, conflict resolution, decision-making, creativity, social justice, and communication.

Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability offers you an opportunity to learn practical effective ways to create the change we all seek in your community. The Social Design dimension of the course starts on 23rd October 2017 and there are a limited amount of places left for this year, so sign up now.

If you wish to join the full Design for Sustainability course, sign up before 21st August to get your early bird 20% discount!

This series of excerpts from the Social Key, a collection of articles collated in the book ‘Beyond You and Me — Inspiration and Wisdom for Building Community, offer background material to the curriculum of the Social Design dimension of both Gaia Education’s face-to-face EDE and our online GEDS programmes. This series highlights some classic articles from that compendium. Enjoy!

This article features in Beyond You and Me, the first volume of Gaia Education’s ‘Four Keys to Sustainable Communities’ series (officially endorsed by UNESCO). The book is available for purchase here and on Gaia Education’s online shop:

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