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Faerie Realm: An Intentional Community in Mendocino 

Wednesday, Dec 9 2015
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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.


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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