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Faerie Realm: An Intentional Community in Mendocino 

Wednesday, Dec 9 2015
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Dr. Manifesto cuts the tarot deck twice before arranging the weathered, Art Nouveau cards on the floor. Skeptical but intrigued, I study his face for signs of someone free associating, but if it's a performance, he's well-rehearsed. It's just after dinner on Halloween night. I'm sitting on a ratty rug in a room where shoes are not permitted. As we wait for the unveiling of a makeshift haunted house in a barn on the other side of the property — and for a dance party to begin — people kill time in any number of ways: They drink from magnums of donated wine, raid the drag closet for neon leggings, get high in the smoking section outside, or prognosticate the future.

This is the lodge at Groundswell, an "intentional community" at the northern end of the Anderson Valley, 30 miles from the coast and a half hour drive from Ukiah. Last year, four queer men from the Bay Area bought the 200-acre property, formerly a children's camp, with the ambition of turning it into a refuge of sorts, a place for cooperative living that benefits the wider queer community beyond those who merely live there. In a short time, Groundswell has attracted notice from all over the country, particularlyin and around San Francisco, only a few hours to the south.

As the affordability crisis reshapes the configuration of this city, people are being forced to re-evaluate what they want out of life and what they can attain, and to many gay-identified San Franciscans, a queer eco-village holds a growing appeal over the tenuousness of renting in one of America's most expensive markets. However evocative of the 1970s a hippie commune sounds, it offers a tantalizing model for future living.

While the lodge has wall hangings and shrines more closely associated with pagan spirituality than arts-and-crafts, Groundswell's transformation into a queer and environmental retreat center is still in its early stages. The sleeping quarters, for instance, are eight or so rustic cabins with no furnishings besides stiff bunk beds that sleep eight. And the overtaxed septic system has backed up and flooded, so all 130 adults here for a weekend gathering have to share two toilets in a past-its-prime double-wide trailer uphill from the cluster of cabins.

If you don't mind forgoing a shower for 72 hours, it's a lovely place to be: quiet, hilly, and surrounded by redwoods. Late October mornings are chilly, but there's coffee by 7 a.m., and someone's always awake. (Some were up at first light; others hadn't gone to bed yet.) Everyone has a volunteer shift, but apart from the hustling kitchen crews, the work ethic is decidedly relaxed. (You might set silverware and refill the water cooler, or sit idly at the registration table because everyone has already checked in, and then head to the pond for some sun.)

Pumpkin carving duty is highly sought after, and the lucky ones who get it did a bang-up job covering a table on the deck with elaborate jack-o'-lanterns. One pumpkin looks like an anglerfish with razor teeth, while another reads "FUCK" in block letters. On duty or off, everyone's encouraged to pick up M.O.O.P (matter out of place) and generally contribute to an atmosphere of mutual caring and responsibility, for the site and for one another.

Abutting Highway 128 between Yorkville and Boonville, Groundswell isn't entirely isolated. There's even cell phone reception in the right spots. If you're a city mouse, this might as well be a hitherto-unexplored nook of the Lost Coast. Still, it's not the geographical seclusion that draws queer men away from the gayest metropolis on earth. It's the suspension of oppressive social norms, like rigid gender codes or the American tendency to work long hours solely for the accumulation of stuff. A working farm and an experiment in communal living, Groundswell combines a back-to-the-land spirit with a rejection that queer people should assimilate into an increasingly welcoming society. Although it's barely one year old and so far has only a handful of full-time residents, it may yet prosper where so many utopias have failed.

And, as one frequent attendee notes, you can skinny-dip in the pond.

Founded by four Radical Faeries, Groundswell is a natural extension of rural Northern California's gay history. The Faeries are a loose association of queer-identified individuals founded decades ago by activist Harry Hay after his Communist beliefs forced his resignation from the Mattachine Society, a gay rights organization he had founded in 1950. As with many subcultures, the Radical Faeries' you-know-it-when-you-see-it ethos is tricky to define, but in general it attracts mostly male-bodied individuals who grew up feeling very different from everybody around them — the kind who were bullied for their mannerisms, or who were never in the closet because their outré faggotry gave them no choice to be. While the idea of doctrinal beliefs is anathema, a few shared beliefs and traits unite the Faeries: hedonism, free expression, an appreciation for nature, and an explicit rejection of the idea that queerness is just heterosexuality with different genitals. Makers, Burners, hippies: the Faeries overlap with them all, and bring their own uniquely wry campiness to the mix. Most subscribe to pagan or pantheistic spiritual systems, and many adopt Faerie names — mostly puns ("Pepto Dismal"), or references to nature ("Luna") — at the gatherings, if not for general use. As with drag queens, this can sometimes get people in trouble with Facebook, which permits only real, legal names. (In this story, I use people's Faerie names, unless given explicit permission and encouragement to do otherwise.)

The full-time residents are William Stewart, Kyle DeVries, Kevin Faircloth (Faire), and DoubleSnake (Jim Montgomery), who range in age from late 20s to 50s. Two other people were initially involved in Groundswell, but subsequently parted ways and requested not to be named in this article.

Initial discussions took place in late 2013 as the core group hammered out its vision of an intergenerational community dedicated to sustaining the land, and they purchased the acreage in two segments, beginning in August 2014.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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