Another Perspective

In the Garden of Walden

A libertarian walks into a commune...

By 7.21.08

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Daniel eyed me curiously across the laundry room. He had just installed a new washer and I was helping him remove the fine layer of dust particles that lined every surface of the room.

To lighten the load, we had been interrogating each other for at least an hour about such hifalutin notions as: What was the proper role of the state? What is and is not voluntary? What about market failure?

He labeled me an anarcho-syndicalist. I wasn't sure what he meant. He explained that anyone who believed in a free society and thought that it could be attained through small, individually governed communities was an anarcho-syndicalist.

He left out one important part that's sort of a deal breaker. Communities in an anarcho-syndicalist world are communist. Profit is theft.

I wonder now how I survived my visit to Twin Oaks without being shot.

TWIN OAKS COMMUNITY is a member of the Federation for Intentional Communities. Founded in 1967 as a behaviorist community based loosely upon B. F. Skinner's Walden Two, Twin Oaks currently exists as an egalitarian community of "cooperation, sharing, nonviolence, equality, and ecology."

Long gone are many of Skinner's ideas. They were tried and found wanting, though some of their aftereffects remain. The term "meta" still replaces "mother" in many old children's books, reminding the community of their failed attempt at communal childrearing.

The community has also given birth to new ideas, and watched them go down in flames. Their attempt to equalize sex by giving labor credits to women who would appease the needs of their peers surprisingly did not lead to community-wide prostitution. There were no takers.

As one communard put it, how would you feel if you needed community support to get lucky? I would add: on a commune.

THE EVOLUTION OF rules and regulations continue. Throughout my five weeks spent on site at Twin Oaks Intentional Community I would see many interesting things on the O & I (Opinions and Ideas) board. Forty-one years of communal living apparently leads to many opinions and ideas that need to be openly discussed.

Should members detract from overpopulation by having fewer children? Should we eat more or less meat? Should we take fewer trips to town? Should we raise geese? Should rough sex be banned, and how about branding? Throw 100 people together on a rural farm in Virginia and they are bound to disagree on all of these issues -- publicly.

Somehow, Twin Oaks has managed to outlive the wave of communal love, much of which didn't survive the '70s. Perhaps this is because it breaks many stereotypes of community living.

The word commune comes with various mental images: free love, dreadlocks, playing guitar, dancing naked by the May Pole, lazing the days away in a whirlwind of hippiedom and freedom.

Twin Oaks is a bit different than that. There is a small subset of vocal free love advocates, but the more common relationship type is monogamy. A few people have dreadlocks, but not many. Only two people wore their birthday suits to the May Day celebration.

And freewheeling hippiedom and freedom? Forget about it. There are labor assignors, room assignors, planners, and area managers. Everything is managed and regulated.

THIS WAS MADE crystal clear at my first orientation meeting, when my visitor liaison handed me a labor sheet. Written on the top right hand corner: Labor Quota: 43.4. As in 43.4 hours. Little did I know at the time that this flimsy piece of paper was to dictate my very existence for five weeks.

I had read on the website that the communards were expected to contribute labor to the farm and been aware that it was called a farm. But for some reason or another, when I saw several "gardening" shifts on my labor sheet the connection didn't immediately snap into place. I suddenly found myself shoveling compost over rows and rows of lentils. Then I got it. These people actually farm the farm.

Farming wasn't the only task I was to be assigned as a Twin Oaks visitor. I learned how to make hammocks, mix cement, and use various wood chopping, straitening and de-moisturizing machines.

None of these things were done at my leisure. As a visitor the majority of my labor was assigned for me. They told me when to be where and they were pretty serious about it.

Three of us were assigned a 7AM tofu shift one morning. One of us was five minutes late. It wasn't a pretty picture.

Visitor periods at Twin Oaks last three weeks. Upon the fourth week of my adventure my name changed from Erin V to Erin G (for guest). I still had a labor sheet, but the assignor was more lenient with my shifts. I never "gardened" again.

Members have the same luxury. There are several shifts that everyone is expected to contribute to, such as tofu and hammock production, but once members find their niche they can often move into more fulfilling work.

Long-term members are not spending 43.4 hours a week on menial labor unless they want to. Given time, a member could fill their labor schedule with various team meetings, have a few community sponsored kids and spend the majority of their time talking to people and playing with children.

That certainly beats "gardening" in my book.

OF COURSE, tastes differ. Some people at Twin Oaks like the gardening shift. Even after they realize it's really farming. These people, however, do not make up for the new members who would rather be involved in positions that only open up every so often.

Newer members often get stuck with the menial labor -- all the work that I was doing. They either burn out and leave or stay until the jobs they really want open up. In this way Twin Oaks survives. They need a constant supply of new people, thus their three-week visitor program. They have 12 a year. Without this program and the new members it generates the commune would surely fail

Twin Oakers recognize this fact and openly discuss it. During the third week visitors are given a new members orientation. Our liaison, Ezra, explained that it had taken years to finally fall into his position as a book indexer. Ezra had wanted the job since the beginning of his membership but the slots had always been full.

I could hear the frustration in his voice, waiting and waiting to be trained and get the position. He explained that for most people it doesn't take nearly as long. It all depends on what you want to do and when the person currently doing it wants to give it up. Could take a month, could take years. No one is ever fired from a job at Twin Oaks.

DANIEL RECENTLY moved to California with his wife, Ivy, who moved to Twin Oaks at 18. Ivy spent two years as a communard. She met Daniel, and they got married and eventually decided to move on. She will be a freshman at Mills College this fall.

Being a member without being a lifer was a great experience for Ivy. "I think it's really shaped my life," she says. "I learned more than I ever thought I would."

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About the Author

Erin Wildermuth is a graduate student at the London School of Economics.