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Faerie Realm: An Intentional Community in Mendocino 

Wednesday, Dec 9 2015
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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.


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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