Growing Together at the Roots With My Friends
It's Monday morning in Germantown, NY. Woke up to my housemate Kaya asking me to help move the farm truck. I stumbled out of bed, pulling on my soil stained pants, big snow boots, someone's jacket cause there’s a pile of them by the door and we're always just wearing each other's clothes these days. There were half a dozen folks outside already there at the bottom of the hill by the barn, blowing steam out of their mouths and noses, getting ready to push the 1994 Ford F-350 orange diesel truck out of the mud. Kaya put it into gear and revved the engine-- wheels spinning, mud everywhere. We piled a bunch of heavy metal from the scrap pile in the back, old carpet underneath the tires, she still wouldn’t budge. Finally Erika hooked up her truck to the front and we pulled it out triumphantly, up the hill and out onto the road. Came back inside and Bobby and Patrick started making french toast and omelets in the kitchen with dumpstered veggies from the health food store in Hudson, bread from Erika's dad's bakery, and eggs from our chickens. Right now I can hear Ashley working on the goat feeding schedule and people milling about working on their various projects, our stealthy cats darting in and out of the doors, a flurry of activity all over the house. I feel so lucky on mornings like this, the taste of maple syrup in my mouth, sun shining on my face. This isn’t any kind of life that you see on TV shows or read about in glossy magazines, but I can’t imagine what I’d rather be doing than living in a house with a bunch of my friends and working outside with each other on our collective farm.
In This House That I Call Home
Since the early Fall I’ve been living on an old farm two hours north of New York City with a bunch of sweet and wonderful people. And we’re all bound together by our passion for food: planting it, tending to it, cooking it, eating it, sharing it, talking about it, reveling in the wonder of it. We’re about to put up a greenhouse, grow a whole lot of seedlings from amazing seeds, and in the early spring we’re going to till up an acre behind our pond and grow a whole lot of really good, healthy food. We have two beautiful, pregnant goats who are going to give birth sometime at the end of this month and we’ve been getting everything that needs to be ready for the new babies. We’re having barn and field work parties and tree-pruning workshops every weekend in February to reclaim what we can of the 10 acres of neglected apple orchards on the property. But really, amidst all of it, the most important thing we’re doing these days is learning how to trust each other, learning how to support each other, and learning how to work together and watch each other’s backs in a world where real trust and friendship seems harder and harder to come by.
I can’t even believe we’re really doing it sometimes. I moved into this house back in August when I was losing my mind being a city boy living in a dark room down the street from the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway and working in midtown Manhattan. I had a few sad looking tomato plants growing in pots on my windowsill and I could barely relate to my housemates. Suddenly, four months later I’m in this intense relationship with a whole pack of people, most of whom I didn’t even know four months ago and we’re living our collective dreams together, making it up as we go like it was all meant to be or something.
Communities Grow Like Forests
It just feels natural. It’s like how the those permaculture people talk about levels of succession in the forest: how after a clear-cut the first thing to grow in the woods are the pioneer species, the tough spiny sprawling plants with deep roots that create the habitat for the next layer of plants to arrive and the climate for all the right microorganisms and the mycelium to take over the soil. Then all those plants and species attract the bugs which bring the birds that come and bring with them the seeds of shrubs and bushes that grow from far away. The shrubs and bushes hold the soil and create the space for the next wave of succession, everything grows and intertwines, and eventually the climate is right and large trees to grow again once more into a healthy forest ecosystem. It’s a spontaneous process but there is a greater order to it.
There’s a similar process of succession and growth taking place in our community right now except it’s all about the people and our relationships to each other and the physical environment. Not so long ago this place was a neglected old farm. Our friend Asa bought it with the dream of hosting a community like ours. It’s not clear what’s going to happen in the long run, but we know it’s not going to get taken away from us anytime soon– we can put our love and sweat into it and it won’t just disappear into some strangers greedy hands. Which opens up a lot of possibilities.
This land has had its share of problems and rocky times since our friend bought it five years ago. Although he poured so much of his heart and hands into working on it, irresponsible college kid tenants, neglected frozen pipes, holes in the barn roof, and a decent dose of drunken circus chaos made it questionable whether this place would actually ever be a place for healthy and vibrant community. But little by little the right series of pioneers and successions arrived: a small crew of people with vision and drive, a cast of quirky characters with crazy dreams, some old biodiesel vehicles, a pond to swim in, a bunch of work parties, a 5 gallon bucket of smelly compost tea, a handful of folks with carpentry skills, a lost sheep fiasco, a broken stair and a bag of quick drying cement, some rowdy anarchists, a slapped together outhouse, an impressive house greywater system, a bed of very healthy brussel sprouts and a ton of cherry tomatoes, a pile of old travel zines, some bee boxes, a couple of bottles of homebrewed wine, three large pigs, friends visiting friends visiting friends from the city, you can paint the picture for yourself.
We Spend a Lot of Time By the Woodstove in the Kitchen
You can see succession dramatically at work when the furnace gets fixed and suddenly the house is habitable for winter when it wasn’t clear that it was going to be. People gather around fire and heat. The people who’ve ended up sticking around for the winter have turned out to be really committed to turning this place into a functioning, awesome community: figuring out cleaning systems, hashing out guest policies, making real time for group emotional process, working out our collective money and financial situations, trying to figure out our general decision making process, and trying to figure out exactly just who we think we are in this world. Meanwhile we’re making sure all the people are getting fed and the animals are getting fed, we’re trying to build better relationships with our neighbors, grappling with our sketchy reliance on oil and talking about energy sustainability, dealing with whatever other dramas we have in our lives…it’s a lot of work and not very easy. We bicker about food and dishes. Sometimes we argue about larger life questions and don’t always end up in happy agreement. We try not to step on each other’s toes too much but we inevitably end up sometimes doing it anyway. We all come from different places, different backgrounds, and have different relationships to food and work and money.
Living in community with people different than us is not something we’re taught how to do well growing up in this society. But amidst it all we’re braving it, taking risks, and getting close to each other. Winter helps. We cook a lot of hot food. We spend a lot of time by the wood stove in the kitchen. We stay up late telling stories about all the trauma and drama from our childhoods . We’re a community of folks who don’t fit so well in the normal world, and that’s probably why we’re so passionate about creating something new.
It’s All About the Friends
Jay showed up the other week and was teaching us how to ice fish out of the pond, Tiger was baking apple crisp and playing fiddle all over the house. Tucker came over a couple weeks after I moved in here and helped me build a platform for my bed. Jolie came over and played guitar and sang freshly written songs. Alecia gave amazing backrubs and cooked good food. Lailye taught yoga classes. Rene and Moose painted the big upstairs bedroom. The entire Beehive Collective camped out in our living room for a week making art and strategizing the revolution. Our friends in New York City from the More Gardens! Coalilition, the Curious George Brigade, and the Bluestocking Collective have all come up to work on projects with us and eat lots of food.
We all know that once the warm weather hits we’re going to have friends visiting from all over the place and we’re going to be working out in the fields together, daily yoga classes in the living room, cooking huge meals with fresh produce, teaching classing and hosting skillshares, having dance parties in the barn. There’s nothing more exciting than working and playing together with a bunch of your favorite people.
Learning From Our Elders
We’re bunch of kids but we’re not afraid to ask for help from the older folks. We couldn’t do it without them. On Thanksgiving our house was packed full of friends and relatives -- five different people’s families showed up. A lot of them were meeting each other for the first time, swapping stories about their kids, everyone so impressed by how well things have been coming together. Bobby’s mom came down from New Hampshire and taught everyone circle dancing. Courtney’s mom spent hours in the kitchen with us baking pies. My mom and her boyfriend came and brought me a down comforter to keep warm in the middle of winter. Ashley’s parents and sister’s were around and super helpful and great.
The intentional community family connections run deep around here. Kaya and Dylan were raised as tiny ones on a big commune in Tennessee. They have lots of thoughts about what worked and didn’t work. And so do their parents. Kaya’s dad showed up the other week with a GPS tool and a chainsaw and the two of them spent the day mapping the entire farm property and cut down a bunch of the dead apple trees for our firewood. Their dad actually visited a few times over the season and had us outside working together -- felling, bucking, hauling, splitting, and stacking – getting our wood pile ready for the winter and giving us lots of hard earned advice. Then there’s a 77 year old local woman named June Munson who’s been teaching crocheting and telling good stories to some of the folks around here. It feels really good to be around young folks who have lots of respect for older folks. It just makes sense in a way and makes me feel like we might actually have a chance at sticking around.
Really Just the Beginning
So I’m not sure why I’m telling you all of this except for the fact that I’m really happy about it. I’m so excited to be working on such an amazing collective vision. There are these totally magical moments when we’re all working together outside or in the barn or in the kitchen. These moments when we’re having large group discussions and meals and people are really present with one another. These moments when we’re all dancing together at a show that we’ve all worked so hard to make happen and the music sounds so sweet and everyone looks so alive. These are moments when everyone realizes how important this all is and we’re all looking at each other with wonder and appreciation. It’s really a sight to behold. No matter how this all turns out in the end it’s going to be worth it. We’re building the path that we’re walking on, making friendships that are going to last our lifetimes.
These days I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for standing by the Hudson River in the middle of winter with my friends, just down the road from our crazy house, the sun setting over the Catskill Mountains and reflecting pink and orange and red and yellow in the chunks of ice floating in the water, watching this amazing group of people I call my community taking care of each other and playing around in the snow. It makes me feel lucky and proud, humbled and free to just be myself and know I have a crew that really has my back and will look out for me if I go through hard times. And we have packs of friends doing stuff like this all over the country: from the Albany Free School folks just North of us to Short Mountain Sanctuary in Tennessee to the Rhizome Collective in Austin to the Linnaea Farm up in British Columbia to the Victory Gardens crew in Maine. We’re all just getting wiser and more interesting as we get older, our stories more intertwined and more outlandish and more solid. And really the adventure’s just begun.
It’s not even Springtime yet.
4872 State Route 9G
Germantown, NY 12526