A Peculiar Island
I live on a peculiar island, a castaway by choice. For the last four decades, people like me — nearly 100 in all, now — have handcrafted an intentional culture and community separate from the outside world. Some find us a compelling alternative to mainstream society. No single label fully describes the beliefs of the people living in this paradoxical paradise, at once both insular and infinite. There are Christians singing in church choirs and pagans dancing naked under the full moon, living harmoniously with atheists, Jews and Buddhists. There are grand love affairs and petty animosities, epic adventures and everyday annoyances, diligent doers and dangerous dreamers. What we all agree on are the simple core values of cooperation, sharing and non-violence.
We have equal access to resources. We collectively own our 200 hectares (about 450 acres) of land, 2 dozen serious buildings (and numerous barns and sheds) and a handful of different businesses. We are egalitarian, which means we value an hour of cooking the same as computer programming, woodwork the same as marketing, bee keeping the same as tofu making, cleaning toilets the same as managing businesses, an hour is an hour. There are over 200 jobs that keep the infrastructure of the community running, with all but one — washing dishes — covered by volunteers. A state-of-the-art communal stereo system and some imagination make the single dish washing shift required of each member once a week tolerable; my kitchen-shift mates and I make a game of seeing how fast we can get through the towering pile of plates. Interestingly, after dish washing, the hardest jobs to fill are “white-collar” managerial positions; it seems that, if the pay’s the same, many people would rather do pleasant, low-stress work like weaving hammocks or harvesting spinach than sit at a computer and make decisions about how to run a business.
While our island is by design self-contained, we strive not to be self-absorbed. Each year, we support activist work to the tune of several hundred hours and several thousand dollars — from tutoring children in town to giving workshops in prisons to protesting the policies of the World Bank. While it is not possible to do political work full time on my island, there are many opportunities to be involved in actions and campaigns, for those who are so motivated, and activists receive a lot of support from the community as a whole. For example, several of us who were arrested at a recent protest were given labor credits by other community members for the time we spend in jail.
We have almost no crime. Correspondingly, we have no police or jails. Our harshest punishment is expulsion, which happens once every few years. And while the written policy on expulsion has been debated, amended and committed to thick binders over the years, what usually happens is that people choose to leave because of social pressure, well before the formal process is even initiated.
We strive to be self-sufficient. We build our own buildings, organically grow most of our own food, run our own businesses, teach our kids (though some kids also attend school in town) and create our own culture. We have no TV, a choice of conscience, not cost. Friends and family sometimes send disks, but mostly we prefer our own homegrown entertainment. This island has spawned and nurtured painters and poets, quilters and woodcarvers. We’ve had folk singers, rock bands, chanters and primal screamers. You can find, on this island, someone to teach you how to juggle, or program a computer, or deliver a newborn calf. We stage our own theater productions and provide an unusually appreciative audience for visiting performers. We have our own coffeehouses, writing groups and social clubs.
We create our own holidays. Validation Day is a distant relative of Valentine’s Day, minus the commercialism. For the month leading up to Validation Day, we are all busy making cards for everyone on the island, usually collages made from any of the dozens magazines we subscribe to, with lots of blank space inside. This blank space is filled with short messages of appreciation and affection from as many members of the community as feel inspired. It is in effect a single love letter with many authors. On Validation Day itself we have a big festive dinner and everyone grows misty-eyed reading their letters for the first time. Several people i know save their past Validation Day cards as a tonic for mild depression. Land Day celebrates and commemorates our founding, and several pagan holidays (especially Halloween and May Day) are popular and theatrically adorned.
We also take good care of ourselves with a variety of preventative methods. Our population includes herbalists, homeopaths, massage therapists, yoga teachers, and a variety of other alternative and holistic healers. Occasionally doctors, nurses or midwives live here and offer their services as well. Almost all of our young children were born at home here. The November birth of our youngest resident, Jonah Raspberry Tupelo, was a huge community event, and he was held by 30 people on the first day of his life.
Our island is not able to produce everything we need or desire. When our internal preventive health care system is not enough, we have external solutions. We go to a prestigious university medical center in a nearby city or to a local doctor who grew up in our community. We send our “trippers” to neighboring areas to shop for our villagers; such errands count towards the weekly work quota. If I want something that the community does not provide, say film for my camera, or a bar of chocolate, I write a request for it and a day or two later it somewhat magically appears in my mailbox (the cost is automatically deducted from my allowance). Many people don’t leave our island for days or even weeks at a time; others have and do traveled the world.
We are poor. Our agreement is that the village will provide all the basics: food, shelter, clothing, education, health and dental care in exchange for our members’ commitment to fulfill the work quota. Beyond this, we receive only a small allowance that works out to 2 US dollars per day. For those who smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol (which the community does not provide, except for alcohol on holidays) this can be a hardship. Saving money for travel generally requires people to work beyond their weekly quota to earn “extra money.” So if you seek to amass great personal wealth, you might want to visit us, but you would not want to live here. On the positive side, most of my fellow islanders happily get no bills in the mail.
Because we share things, we enjoy a basically middle-class lifestyle despite our poverty. Our 17 shared vehicles get us everywhere we wish to go (in contrast, the average group of 100 US Americans owns and operates 77 cars). We have canoes, a hot tub, a small fleet of golf carts to help our elderly get around campus, a dozen computers hooked to the internet, collectively owned musical instruments, a weight room, a pond we built for swimming, a retreat cabin, two sweat lodges, a teepee, a large yurt, and a respectable little library (books, CDs and videos). One of my favorite institutions is commie clothes, which is like a giant thrift shop except everything is free. If your jeans finally wear through and you need a new pair, you can find them in commie; if you need respectable dressy clothes to attend your cousin’s college graduation, you’re sure to find something there that will work.
We eat fantastically. Our garden produces an astonishing bounty of fresh, organic vegetables, and we get milk and cheese and yogurt from our own dairy. All the resources in our huge pantry are available to everyone, so you can make yourself whatever you want to eat whenever you want – but the meals served twice a day in our main dining hall are so good that cooking for oneself seems a bit silly. Our current cook staff is headed by the former manager of a fancy French restaurant, and all of the cooks cheerfully compete to lay out mouth-watering feasts.
My island has no currency. Nothing is for sale. What is consumed is offered to all in a fair way; what is durable is shared. The famous white bike system from Amsterdam is alive and well on my island: if you see a bike and you need one, you take it, with the tacit understanding that you don’t ride downhill if you didn’t bring a bike up.
We have created a level of faith in each other which permits us to live without locks and restricted areas. Therefore virtually no one carries wallets or keys; these are icons of a failed society. I don’t miss them; or my wristwatch, which I have retired also, due to our peculiar relationship with time. Our weeks start on Friday and end on Thursday, the clocks across campus are in generally in minor disagreement. We are closer in time culture to the “manana” [later] attitude of the South than the New York Minute [snap of the fingers]. There is virtually no respect for the concept of weekends and people schedule their own time off, often choosing to work just a little bit everyday. We are not an especially punctual group. There is much more emphasis on getting it done right than getting it done fast.
We are self-selecting. You cannot simply move to our island tomorrow, and strangers who just drop in are politely asked to leave. You need to write us first and link up with one of the regularly scheduled three-week visits, or just take our Saturday tour. During the three-week visit, we orient you to our culture, and more importantly, it gives both you and us a chance to live and work together. Then we ask visitors to go away for a 10 days to a month and think about whether they really want to live in our slightly odd and extraordinary village. During this time we think about you as well, and while we accept most people interested in living with us, we do ask some to visit again in the future, and others we decide will not be happy or will not fit in our community. The average stay in my village is about 8 years. People leave because of changes in relationships, a desire to return to the “real world”, employment opportunities and a host of other unique reasons.
We live lightly on the land. We heat our buildings with sustainably harvested wood from our mostly undeveloped land. Most buildings have a solar hot water preheating system and half of the newest residential building is off the grid completely, using only electricity provided by the sun, with residents agreeing to keep consumption low and use efficient appliances. We sort our waste into over a dozen different categories and reuse and recycle fiercely. The food we don’t grow we buy in bulk, which cuts down on packaging. We have our own sewage treatment plant, which runs at well-above state required standards and are planning a constructed wetlands. We have 20% the carbon foot print of our mainstream counterparts.
My island is landlocked, though a lazy river passes through, beckoning us in the sultry Virginia summers, when the watermelons are sweet and heavy in the garden and the rope hammocks we make invite us to nap beneath the towering shade trees. Washington, D.C. is just over two hours northwest by car; but by mindset, it might as well be two oceans, two continents, two galaxies away. You can find out more on our website www.twinoaks.org or by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org or snail mailing Twin Oaks Community Visitor Program, 138 Twin Oaks Road Box i, Louisa VA 23093.
The author, Paxus Calta was abandoned by his wolf parents and raised by liberals in the suburbs of Boston. He has hitchhiked on sailboats across the Pacific, danced atop Russian tanks before Yeltsin made it fashionable, smuggled Tibetan monks across the Himalayas, worked on the North Slope of Alaska and fought nuclear power plants in eastern Europe. He teaches a class on how to design revolutions at an alternative high school. He has been arrested for crimes of conscience in 12 countries on three continents and is the co-dad of Willow born on Valentines Day 2002. He suffers from terminal immodesty and an inflamed funny bone. He has lived at Twin Oaks since 1998.
Mala edited this piece significantly.
[This was written in 2004 for an academic journal.]