Tuesday 30 August 2011

Commune Living

There are, of course, a squillion films and documentaries I've enjoyed and found inspirational for a variety of reasons. But one I saw last night specifically specifically brought my mind to some issues that I keep coming back to. These issues resonate throught my life and interests, which is why I feel this film in particular is worth flagging up here on my little ol' blog. The film was called 'Commune', a documentary released in 2005 about a real group of people who decided to experiment living together on a ranch in 1968. Black Bear ranch is situated in what was (I'm assuming still is?) effectively the wilderness north of San Francisco, and is still used for that purpose today. The documentary looks at a range of individuals who founded and/or lived there, their reasons for doing so, their experiences of it and the paths their lives have taken in the thirty-odd years since they left. I found it fascinating viewing and would recommend it if the subject of communes in anyway grabs you.

I can't fully explain why, but I've had an interest in communes, and in particular the 1960s/70s alternative lifestyles since I was a young teenager. My dad has an awesome pamplet he picked up in the 1960s advertising one, I'll take some photos of it one day and share it on here. I've always been fully fascinated by it, even before I really developed any understanding of issues like consumerism and sustainability. I guess it's in part a reflection of my desire to investigate alternatives to the dull and largely lifeless middle class suburban town I grew up in (sorry folks). But as I grew up and began to investigate the politics and social climate of the West during the twentieth century (particularly post-Second World War), I began to sense much of the frustrations and anger that lead so many to react against the governments and establishment. Obviously, I really respect people who protested against the injustices and concerns of the era, but I hold an even deeper respect for the individuals, groups, couples and families who chose to actually attempt to develop a whole new way of living, one that was largely as kind to the earth as it was meant to be toward each other.

The alternative societies of the 60s/70s communes were in many ways a logical development from an earlier counter-culture group: the Beats. Another firm fascination of mine, the Beat generation/Beatniks also explored and expressed different ideologies to that of the mainstream, but did so laregly through intellectual and artistic development and expression. From what I understand, the founders of the communes shared much of the Beats' frustration towards social repression and mainstream expectations, but channelled that frustration into more practical, physical responses. Experimenting with how to live, how to interact with each other and how to provide for ones own needs seems to me to really be the natural conclusion to the widespread dissatisfaction felt by dissatisfied free and alternative thinkers.

To be honest, there are some aspects to the Black Bear commune experience that hold little interest for me, the spirituality aspect being one. And there are clearly many ways in which those early communal living attempts failed. With hindsight, as awesome and valueable as it clearly was, Black Bear and the other communes didn't really create an imitable blue print for modern living. But Black Bear ranch and other communes are still in existance today, albeit without quite the freshness and 'journey into the unknown' that fuelled the founders. Many of the current occupants of Black Bear and other contemporary communal living experiments are, I'd imagine, drawn to that way of life for similar reasons to those early pioneers. Argueably, many of the repressive and damaging aspects of mainstream society are still present and just as abhorent, if not more so. Maybe the current occupants are just as idealistic and optimistic about the effect their endeavours can have on the future. If anything, the effects rabid globalisation, mass production and consumption have had on the ecological health of planet and the mental health of its inhabitants provide even more reasons for finding alternative ways to live which are lighter on the land and ourselves.

Personally, I couldn't see myself swapping my current living situation to move into a commune like Black Bear. Maybe that is because I am too much a product of my culture, or because really deep down I am as comfortable, normal and unimaginative as my current living situation. But I value my privacy, personal space, freedom for self-directed personal development and aesthetic life too much. It is possible that the value I place on those commodities is a product of my conditioning as a member of western society and that I could learn to reassess their value when confronted with the possibility of attaining different shared experiences. I don't know. I have researched alternative and shared living options around the area I live, but although many of them seem to have some really interest aspects, none really appeal in the fundamental way I would require them to.

I will continue to look into alternative ways of living. But if pressed, currently I think I'd prefer to share my direct homelife with friends and family rather than a wider community of individuals. However, there are definately some specific aspects of the 'Commune' model that I would like to adopt and/or develop in my life:
  • The loss of 'community' is something that many modern day UK dwellers lament, and like many I welcome the creation and nurture of a new sense of community. With a nation of transient, nomadic flat-renters, developing community with neighbours can be tricky so a reassessment of the term may be required. Personally I have been putting my time and energy into the creative/crafting community, both the international online one, and my local in-the-flesh one.

  • There is no doubt that modern life, in particular the never ending cycle of product consumption and status acquisition, has dramatic negative effects on mental health. The communes are a fascinating, if extreme, experiment in creating a new focus of importance to living. I've written about consumerism before, and my journey towards changing my relationship to the things I own and how I acquire them, but I need to do more research into this area (particularly into economics) to develop my knowledge and thoughts further.

  • Finding ways to live happily whilst easing the strain our planet is currently under is certainly something I feel everybody should devote more time and brain-space to. The self-sufficiency endeavours and skills-pooling part of living on communes is possibily the most interesting aspect as far as I'm concerned. Linked to this, the recent resurgence of interest in 'homesteading' shows lots of people must currently be following this train of thought. I certainly plan to grow more of my own food in the future and would love to try things like preserving and home-brewing.
Your thoughts, as always, are most welcome...


sapotesews said...

I live in an extremely lightweight shared housing situation - a small housing co-op, in which the residents live in separate apartments but share a yard and co-manage the complex. I have to say the hardest thing about it is handling finances - honestly most of the people who've moved out have done it on bad terms because of money issues. I can't say I think it's a successful system as much besides a learning experience, but I'm grateful for the savings.

MrsC (Maryanne) said...

As you know I livein an apartment complex based around an old factory -there are 15 homes, most owner occupcied, and we don't hang out much. but they are nice people. I often say that if I winned the lottery, I'd buy the whole lot outright, and ell or rent to people who are like minded, although at least two of the apartments would be converted into sewing studio space for working, teaching and sharing. So I guess like you in my heart of hearts I long for some kind of cimmunal living but not to the degree that those 60's ones did.
personal and private space, and shared space. Perhaps we are closet village people?! ;-)
I think that building community is very important too, and making those communities based upon shared interests across a wider urban environment is a brilliant way to do it. We have a smallish scale one, and we have a closed Facebook group where we keep in touch and organise meet ups etc, but members have been recruited from conversations at craft events, in fabric shops etc. It is growing slowly but surely. Our local pub is huge and has weekly knitting circles and other coomunity based evetns in its various spaces. So cool! Good luck with the inquiry, which is really what it is, and finding ways to fulfil on your generous outlook :)

Mary said...

It's so late where I am now, and I want to reply coherently. I'll come back to this post in the morning. I have some ideas, and would love to share them.

Kathryn said...

Great post. I was reading a fascinating article recently about research into social ties and how strong relationships are correlated with longer life. Can't find it now, but there's a similar one in the New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/health/21well.html - on why strong friendships are incredibly good for your health.

I guess a commune is a way to turn friends into family - to engineer your own supportive social environment in a world that doesn't value those relationships as highly.

My friend lived in a commune in San Francisco a few years ago, he had some great stories about it... They had a communal clothes pile and complicated house meetings and voting systems. Really interesting.

Roobeedoo said...

Diggersanddreamers dot org is a good starting point for more info on UK communal living schemes etc.

Roobeedoo said...

Sorry - I meant:

sonia said...

I'm fascinated by communes too. We had one up here in the 60s and I know some people who were raised in it, but they never seem to want to talk about it so I don't think it was a very good experience. We still have small ones in the surrounding towns (I live in a pretty crunchy/liberal area, thank God), but I think they're more about co-existing intimately and are definitely not as large.

Mary said...

Okay, I'm back to reply. Having grown up in the late 60s and early 70s, communes were part of my life. I never participated or lived in one, but did stay with friends etc in that setting. I found it interesting but not for me at that time. There was an element of earnestness which took the fun out of it for me and also a "true believer" mentality in some of the more forceful members.

However, I think a communal situation would fit me just fine NOW, as I approach 60. I need help with the yard :-) I do think the idea of a multigenerational commune would be a blessing to many and may help some in financial straits.

Bunnykins said...

Love the concept of communal living, but the prospect of my doing it is about as welcome as being drafted into the army. I value my alone time, my privacy and my opinions. I'm not really that hard to get along with (maybe), but I don't like the idea of having to always go along with a group's consensus decision when my heart and mind are going in another direction. I'll take MrsC's type of community any day over a commune as it offers the best of both privacy and community.

badmomgoodmom said...

I lived in a student cooperative of 130 students at UC Berkeley for three years. It was a mostly positive experience and I am very glad I did it.

I learned so much about patience, building consensus and compromise. I also learned about recycling, fixing things, sharing space and possessions, and household work.

It saved me so much money, I was able to graduate with more savings than debt. Moreover, it gave me friends who don't measure success by how much money they earn.

It wasn't Shangri-la. I learned that some of the people who shouted the loudest about communal living put the least effort into their required workshifts. ;-)

Even though I do not live communally today, I find that I still seek out friends who are community-oriented people who balance making with consuming.

I live in an urban-infill townhouse in Los Angeles. We have about 20,000 people in 1 square mile! The lessons of getting along with others come in handy when living at this density.

You can see pix of my neighborhood and our "pale green" life here.

Riley C said...

You live in Brighton right? There are actually quite a lot of housing co-ops based there. Pop along to the Cowley Club and ask around or mebbe contact Radical Routes (a UK wide network of co-ops working for social change) http://www.radicalroutes.org.uk/contact-us.html

I live in a housing co-op with 15 other people and I love it! We're city based but we've got some pretty productive gardens and our homes are as low impact as we can make them. What really makes it great though is the people, the sense of community, the feeling of having a supportive base and network from which to take on the world :)

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