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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.

The upper parcel contains the four residents' shared, two-story home along with the animal barn, while the lower parcel — separated by Rancheria Creek, which is almost entirely dry by late October — was the former summer camp. Financed chiefly by Stewart's inheritance, Groundswell is a nonprofit whose residents are also its employees, charged with improving 200 acres of mostly forested land, a pond, and a soccer field that will one day be filled with fruit trees. (They don't run every event themselves, though. While Groundswell hosted the Halloween gathering, it was technically put together by a separate organization, Calamus, although the two have much in common.) Two bridges span the creek, one for cars and another that's a wobbly rope bridge for pedestrians, and there are outbuildings, including the lodge, the double-wide trailer, and the barn.

As it happens, it was the very first property the realtor showed them, and the prior owners are still the immediate neighbors. Relations are cordial between the folks who once ran a Christian summer camp and the homosexuals next door.

"Other than wanting no nudity along the shared roads and the swimming hole they have to pass by, we have a lot of friendliness," says DeVries. "The husband, Joe, came out with his backhoe for the only alpaca that's died. It was a cute neighbor moment."

The same holds for Boonville. Mendocino County is liberal enough, but rural small towns can be suspicious of outsiders, especially men in half-drag who live together in the woods.

"I think people are more amused than anything else," DeVries says. "There's something disarming about a bunch of radical queers coming through town ... I've never gotten any sense of homophobia."

The property was an ideal fit for what the core group envisioned, but they don't consider Groundswell a "commune" in the strictest sense. With its associations of hardcore Marxism, the word "turns people off," Faire says. Instead, it's an intentional community, which DeVries defines as "any living arrangement that places intention into systems of cooperation or shared resources, or just shared life." It falls midway between a kibbutz and a co-op where everyone shares the same high regard for composting and graywater.

"You're not going to have private property on the land," DeVries says of prospective future members, meaning that Groundswell is held in common, "but you have your own space, your own economics. We'll support you, and there will be lots of shared resources to tap into, but you're not necessarily spending the same amount of money every month."

DoubleSnake considers intentional communities a culture of interdependence in opposition to the market values that late capitalism forces us to internalize.

"I love Excel spreadsheets," he says, "but I don't want my self-worth based on them. I want it to be based on whether I made a good dinner for the people I care about, and that even though I'm a flawed human being, they still support me and love me. And when I have a bad day, they're still willing to hear what's going on."

Even when not hosting 100 or more frolicking gays, Groundswell's mammalian population is fairly high for what was essentially an instant farm. Prior to the slaughter of 10 rabbits in preparation for Thanksgiving, DoubleSnake's last census tallied 102 animals: rabbits, dogs, alpacas, llamas, sheep, goats, guinea fowl, and pigs. Most of the livestock are being raised for their milk or their meat, but they aid in responsible land management as well. The free-ranging guinea fowl, for example, keep down the tick population, and the rat terrier was bred for her rodent-killing acumen. To restore the forest — which DoubleSnake suspects was clear-cut twice in its history — would ideally involve reintroducing elk and bears to the area. Until that day, it's up to the omnivorous goats to mitigate the fire risk. (That's not all. DoubleSnake lends two out to stud, noting that, "among livestock, the males tend to be the sex workers.")

Before relocating to Groundswell, he was a Berkeley high school math teacher living on a queer urban homestead called Green Faerie Farm. (A detached home with a deep yard, it no longer has animals, but its thriving garden remains a stopping point on tours of Berkeley farms.)

DeVries and Faire had been living in quasi-communal Faerie houses that can be found here and there in the Bay Area, and before that, DeVries had lived for several years on a commune in Virginia called Twin Oaks.

"It's the oldest and largest of the three communes still left in the U.S.," he said. "It's completely income-sharing and egalitarian. They make hammocks and tofu."

DeVries enjoyed his experience there, but claims Twin Oaks wasn't queer enough (and he didn't want to spend the rest of his life weaving hammocks and making tofu). He and Faire are technically employees of the nonprofit, and their day-to-day jobs include admin work, promoting Groundswell on social media, contacting groups who might want to host or present at an event, organizing fundraisers, and the like. Two of those fundraisers were held at San Francisco gay bars this fall, netting several thousand dollars.

"There's a lot of optimism for what the project can hold," DeVries says. "Some of the response is 'Oh, I thought those places all died out in the '60s,' but one of the advantages we have is we can work off the successful models that are out there."

Groundswell hosts periodic work weekends that are meant to spread the word and get likeminded people to come for a few days — mostly but not exclusively from the Bay Area — and contribute to the project's viability. (The free food and lodging certainly help.) I went up for the first time in late August, joining two dozen or so people in moving footbridges, cleaning the goat pens, sledgehammering the cement foundation of a long-gone outdoor oven, and generally aiding the site's transition from defunct camp to fully functioning retreat center.

Temperatures crept into the 90s during the afternoons, and the lackadaisical vibe was more like a rental summerhouse than a chain gang, anchored around communal meals and plenty of downtime in the shade.

Easygoing or not, Groundswell is going to be a long-term project ("probably more than one lifetime," DeVries says) and is still in its infancy.

"We're going to start drawing up our master plan soon," Faire says. "We're working on what we want to do for the retreat center, the nonprofit having just started. Now we can fundraise for things like hot tubs and redoing the bathhouse, maintenance that costs a lot of money. We're going to be redoing our septic line for sure, and the floor of the kitchen to bring it up to code."

One non-resident who's spent a great deal of time at Groundswell is Jason Patten, who worked at Groundswell in its prior incarnation as a camp. He met Faire and DeVries at Saratoga Springs, another gay retreat in Lake County, when "something in the universe lined up."

"There's a lot that can be done by people who, at least in this moment, don't want to be residents," Patten says. "I don't think it quote-unquote belongs to the people who live there. They certainly have strong feelings about it, and it's important to honor that when we step in and ask how we can help, but I'm hoping there's going to be a movement. Not to pull out of the cities entirely, but that these oases will spring up where people might want to live for awhile."

Ultimately, complete self-sufficiency is impossible — they'll never grow their own coffee, for one — but the idea is to build sufficient infrastructure to house a community of 15 to 25 full-time residents, each of whom will own an equal financial stake in Groundswell while maintaining some degree of financial independence. They'll continue to rent out the retreat center (the former camp lodge) to various groups, continue to host gatherings, and supplement their income by selling goat cheese and other products.

"It'll make living costs go down," Faire said, "so that we're not so dependent on the industrialized systems that we don't really appreciate."

It's a sunny vision — and who on the corporate hamster wheel hasn't fantasized about life in the country? — but not without an ominous undertone here and there. Between California's drought and the news that the earth has officially warmed one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the threat of ecological disaster looms. Eco-hippies and gun-hoarding doomsday preppers aren't entirely at odds, and while I was at the August work weekend, someone mentioned overhearing a Boonville resident talk, idly perhaps, about cutting off Highway 128 to thwart an exodus of panicked Bay Area residents fleeing some hypothetical catastrophe.

"We've thought about it," Faire said. "What would happen if civilization ended and we were out here? I think people would end up getting a lot more protective. We have an abundance of land you can plant and live on, but you also don't want droves of people to come in and ransack everything. I imagine it would be chaotic."

Self-sufficiency in the face of a changing climate may shadow Groundswell for a long time, but in the short-term, there are other difficulties. Communal living arrangements have often suffered from a freeloader problem, as sanctuaries can draw people seeking asylum from the mainstream for any number of reasons, and who may be completely unable (or possibly unwilling) to contribute to a fledgling community's economic survival.

Groundswell is explicitly not a sanctuary. As it's still in an embryonic phase, it lacks the resources to care for people, but that's not the only reason.

Sanctuaries are "very tricky to hold when you're also trying to do a very specific venture like a retreat center," Faire says. "We're very clear about that with people."

Drew Bourn and his husband Douglas Furr are academics and current Green Faerie Farm residents who believe in the middle ground between full-time residency and driving somewhere two or three weekends a year. Bourn lived for a time at Short Mountain, a well-known commune in Tennessee, and notes that "a lot of people bought land around the sanctuary as opposed to moving to it," and their proximity helps to sustain it.

One advantage that Groundswell has is that it has essentially overcome a major hurdle simply by already existing.

"You need to put down a big chunk of money at the beginning and have everyone be prepared to disengage," Bourn says. "A group of people all need to be prepared to leave, in a sense, the outside world."

"There are people who are committed to that vision and to each other," Furr adds. "It's very welcoming and open."

Open, yes, but because Groundswell is not desperate for fresh blood, its current members can afford to take things slowly with respect to admitting newbies.

"One thing we've seen other communities do is draw in people too quickly and become full-consensus, decision-making members right off the bat," DeVries says. "It's hard to know that everybody shares the same values. Something I think we've been doing really well is setting clear expectations of what you'll be participating in."

A yearlong process, almost like a nun's novitiate, will precede any future resident's taking on an equal financial stake in Groundswell, and there's also the need to have a diversified economic base.

"Right now, we're open to the skills that people want to bring, but they have to have some skill set that adds to the community: cooking, plumbing, farming, carpentry. It'd be really hard if you wanted to come up here right now to just be an artist and paint murals on different buildings."

Another challenge is considerably more mundane. Groundswell's natural springs produce clear, tasty water even after four years of drought, but nobody's eager to see what happens after another rain-free winter. DoubleSnake is hoping for El Niño to recharge Mendocino's groundwater, but he's relieved that the region doesn't depend on the Sierra snowpack. Additionally, a well draws from a separate aquifer from the spring, the pond serves as an emergency backup, and in years when Rancheria Creek is full enough, Groundswell has irrigation rights, which means the disused soccer field might one day be an orchard. Water security, a comfort in the California of today and perhaps a rarity in California a generation from now, might be the best guarantor of Groundswell's longevity.

One difficulty with alternative spiritual paths is that even among articulate people, the lack of sacred texts or priestly castes can lead to circular verbiage. Like-minded people intuitively grasp one another's meanings, but to outsiders, things can sound hazy to the point of incomprehensibility. Halloween presents a special circumstance, but even on an ordinary Tuesday, Faerie spirituality leans toward the mystical and pagan. Religious dogma, so often damaging to LGBT people in their youth, is out, but much of Faerie culture is structured around ritual, from holding hands in a circle before a meal to creek-side hallucinogenic tea parties.

DeVries is "solidly agnostic," focusing on transcendence in the physical domain, through sex, physical labor, or meditative walks in nature.

"Our main focus is around queer spirit," he says, "of non-patriarchy, non-heteronormativity. We want to be spokespeople for how being queer is not only an okay thing, but an amazing, beautiful, and essential thing. And we should be celebrating that spirit of otherness and embracing it."

Dr. Manifesto, the tarot reader (whose real name is Sam Zoranovich) considers Faeries to have "an ambivalent relationship with urban settings. A lot of us live in the city and try to get out into the country as much as possible." Having served on various boards, co-organized the Faerie Freedom Village at S.F. Pride, and lived in communitarian houses like San Francisco's Feyboy Mansion, he is more involved than most.

Halloween "was the most mellow, the most peaceful, and low-intensity gathering that I've been to at Groundswell," he says, contrasting it with the more intense party for Beltane, the May Day festival that augurs the beginning of summer. "It was the hardest gathering to leave that I've ever been to. Coming back was so difficult. I got to experience so much of my most authentic self, and now I'm burdened with figuring out how to incorporate more of that in the rest of my life here."

For his part, DoubleSnake considers his approach one of "embodied spirituality," centered on the here and now, as opposed to a Protestant ethic of working to escape a broken world of suffering. This rings doubly true for him as a queer man reared in the church, and as a disabled person. DoubleSnake has syndactyly (a genetic condition meaning "without fingers") and was born with only thumbs on his hands. It doesn't stop him from being Groundswell's most outdoorsy resident, lifting 120-pound bales of hay.

"It takes me twice as long to milk a goat than a 10-fingered person, and I'm no good at chin-ups," he says. "But in many ways, I can pass, in that my disability doesn't stop me from having access to parts of the world, but I experience the world as a disabled person because people react to my difference."

"People have perceptions that I must be suffering with the hands that I have," he adds. "But the quality of my life is not limited by what I physically cannot do. Even in my crippled body, I experience spirituality."

And it is DoubleSnake who, when the time comes, handles the slaughter of livestock. He describes the shift from being the animals' primary caretaker to taking their lives as being "really hard," but reconnecting urbanites to their food heartens him. After some pre-screening, he allows people to participate in the act of slaughter, encouraging onlookers to touch the goat in the moments before its death. (Jason Patten, the former camp counselor, was present for the killing of the Thanksgiving rabbits, and received the skulls.)

"I thank the animals for their life," DoubleSnake says. "I promise them to do my best to be a good steward for their relatives that are remaining, and I ask their forgiveness. I also feel like 150 years ago, slaughtering animals wouldn't be controversial. People are so alienated from where meat comes from."

"But," he adds, "if being witness to slaughtering animals made someone a vegetarian, then I think that would be an excellent result of raising their consciousness."

The haunted house is open. This being almost exclusively a group of queer-identified males, the people who put it together invested some serious elbow grease into decorating. It looks like they raided the entire contents of a Jo-Ann Fabric to sew the ghouls and glue the demons together, and, gentle hippies or not, the prevailing response seems to be ironic remove. Nobody's scared, but everyone's cooing over the art direction.

The dance party starts in the half of the barn that isn't full of fake spider webs and eerie lighting. There are cushions to flop down on, and bowls of punch. The sweeter of the two is a natural aphrodisiac made with yohimbe bark and a dozen other herbs, while a bitter potion contains a longer list of extracts from potentially psychoactive plants, including — as I read only after ingesting it — salvia.

Many people have been in a state of low-grade intoxication since arriving, but now that it's Halloween night, things are really ramping up. Groundswell's policy on substances is enlightened but by no means anarchic: "Discovery through substance is the choice of each individual and can be fun when people respect boundaries. Boundary: no meth." But here, activities that by necessity have a surreptitious cast in a club take on ritual aspects. People share what they've got with a hug or a kiss, shaking their bodies in anticipation of what's next.

By this point, there's glitter everywhere. As a substance, glitter is subject to its own rules of entropy. It seems like it can neither be created nor destroyed; it merely is, and it's highly transferable. The dance party lasts for hours. People come and go, stepping outside when they get too hot, creeping close to the bonfire when they get too cold, slipping away to get naughty, convening and reconvening in little groups. Phone use is somewhat contrary to the spirit of things — and hookup apps are strongly discouraged — but the glow of iPhone flashlights on the zigzagging paths reveals how crucial technology is, even here.

Halloween fell on a Saturday, and it was also the night the clocks changed. Trite though it sounds, time seemed to lose all meaning.

As it happened, the morning of Sunday, Nov. 1 was drizzly in Mendocino. After the bacchanalia of the night before, the change was startling: We seemed to gain an hour and lose a season. But a drippy, fresh-smelling redwood forest is a lovely environment to wake up in.

It's arguably surprising that LGBT people haven't created more visible, viable institutions wholly unlike the nuclear family. In particular, the end of life is a lonely time for all kinds of people, and for individuals with no children, many of whom have been cut off from their biological families, it seems logical that they would have created alternative structures for growing old together. By gutting a generation in its prime, the AIDS crisis robbed queer communities of their vitality, but communities such as Groundswell often imploded on their own.

"There have been things like this for decades," Drew Bourn says. "There have been many intentional communities in Mendocino County and Sonoma County. Some were queer, some were lesbian, and not a lot of them are around anymore. There are challenges around being able to work together."

A hunger for an alternative — something not unlike The Golden Girls, only bigger, with more goat-milking, and sarongs instead of shoulder pads — may resonate with only a small segment of the LGBT community, but it is real. Life on a farm will never be easy or monetarily enriching, but life in San Francisco is becoming financially impossible, and if Groundswell is indeed better suited to California's new climate, the alternative may be the inevitable. As Jason Patten puts it, "Never being able to blend in meant I didn't subscribe to the mainstream, anyway."


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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