An Earthcare and Culture-building Experiment:
Quaker Intentional Village-Canaan
Dee Duckworth, Eric Bear Ludwig, Jens Braun
Interviewed by Pamela Boyce Simms
“When I was a shepherd I stood out in the field with the ewes. I witnessed the emotional and social life of the creatures, the relationships that the sheep had with each other and with the pasture. Over time I cultivated my own relationship with the flock. I understood the creatures, the grass, the sun, and the mystical experience of oneness.
There were a lot of coyotes in the area from which I needed to protect the sheep so I decided to talk to the coyotes and make them feel welcome. I asked them if they would please not eat the sheep, and they didn’t (for years). We would hear the coyote howls at night but they never came near the flock. Different creatures have their natures which need to be respected.”
—Jens Braun, Quaker Intentional Village-Canaan (QIV)
Living in community with the natural world, with other species, and with each other is a gift worth cultivating. Strong spirit-led community is the bedrock of Quakerism and will prove increasingly essential to our thriving as climate change accelerates.
Intentional communities, groups of people trying to figure out how to live together cooperatively, offer a pathway out of an extractive, exploitative growth-economy. They cultivate wholeness through cooperation. They embrace those who are determined to self-liberate from the corrosive mainstream and commit to resilient ecological and social practices that foster the unity of people and the planet.
The Quaker Intentional Village (QIV) in East Chatham NY, composed of seven households, is an experiment in external and internal environmental resilience-building. As community pillar Jens Braun states, “Ways of being have to evolve beyond current ones. Choices about how we live are made every day. We have been trying unusual, new ways of looking at things.”
The Land Reveals Itself, and “Us”
The conversation begins with the land that sustains life. QIV members leave a chair empty which represents the land during their meetings. Land stewardship is an issue that provides ongoing opportunities for discernment. As community member Dee Duckworth puts it, “There is a dynamic tension between, a) community members’ progressive understanding of the need to ‘liberate the land,’ listen to the land, understand what we are doing to the earth, and, b) clinging to the idea of “property.”
As a group the community has adopted the practice of referring to “the land” rather than “property.” Yet there are individual members who fence off their closely held and tended property from other people as well as wildlife and pests. QIV respects, honors and holds the space for everyone’s sensibilities.
Jens speaks of how QIV’s use of communal spaces has been heavily influenced by permaculture—specifically the design principle of “concentric land use circles,” or zones in which specific creatures live and activities take place. Priority is also given to “increasing surface area” by forming high points and depressions in the land with slopes in between.
QIV land was formerly a dairy farm. It had been overcrowded with cows which depleted the pastures. So the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRCD) has helped with pasture management, and 15 years of rotational sheep grazing has gone a long way toward rebuilding the soil. The land is also under New York State forestry management, which safeguards tree and plant diversity and ensures that the best seed trees are kept as healthy as possible.
Building Resilient Internal Landscapes
“Community is total joy with lots of difficulties. I am moved to tears for the blessing of it. It has answered longings that I didn’t know that I had and transformed me in ways I didn’t know I would be transformed. Belonging is essential. We all need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. That feeling isn’t the same in more distant vague types of community. The closeness of day to day interactions creates true community.”
—Dee Duckworth, QIV
Accelerating climate change means that society will be adapting to environmental challenges in perpetuity. Truly transformational preparation for the ecological long haul starts with our internal landscapes. The trust-building that’s possible in close-knit Quaker communities such as QIV can hold the sacred space for such transformation.
“QIV is a microcosm of the larger society with regard to its commitment to Earthcare. There are people who are still entrenched in the culture of the mainstream,” remarks Dee Duckworth. Dee is committed to self-observing that has led her to separate out from that mainstream. She is downsizing and plans to move from a 1,200 sq. ft. house to a dwelling that is a fraction of that size for both spiritual and logistical reasons.
As Dee prepares for that eventuality she marvels at how much “stuff” she has collected. Letting go of excess has prompted deep introspection and the painful recognition of complicity with consumerism. Initiating and sustaining the lifestyle shifts we are called to make as we move into a carbon constrained future requires a shift in consciousness.
Involved with QIV for over six years now, Eric Bear Ludwig’s personal relationship to the earth motivated him to engage with the community. He recalls a seminal, sad moment while on a river in his native South Florida when he viscerally “felt the river’s sickness.” He gravitated to the QIV to address his deep dissatisfaction about the state of humanity’s relationship with the Earth and all life. He knew that he couldn’t make the changes he saw as being necessary as a lone individual.
Yet, while the ecological imperative is a key motivator for Bear, the trust-building inherent in QIV’s authentic and sustained immersion in intentional culture-building is what nourish him. He notes that, “Over the years community members have learned how to ‘be’ together and have grown more spacious in dealing with discomfort.” He cherishes how through Quaker process the community has built the capacity to work with dissent from which spirit can speak. The process has afforded Bear the opportunity to appreciate and trust others’ concerns about his projects, and he only wants to move forward when whatever they are holding is clear for them.
Bear, Jens, and Dee agree that Quaker values lived consciously in harmony in the Earth, and most especially in close, day to day proximity with peers generates tremendous resilience. QIV exemplifies depth of commitment to self-transformation in service to the whole.