the first thanksgiving

This story first appeared in the late lamented LiP Magazine, and appears in Tipping the Sacred Cow: The Best of LiP Magazine.

No, really, it isn’t any trouble at all. I’m thrilled that you’re interested, because I love to tell the story of this place; I feel the story is part of its healing quality, you know, and that is why you’re here, why we’re all here. And it wasn’t always like you see it now—by no means! We had to work at it; we really had to create it from nothing, but we did it because we believed in what we were doing, and you know, when you really believe, the universe makes a way…

I think it helped that we were all, the group of us who started it, of truly like mind. We’d been meeting at conferences for years; we’d been talking and thinking and hearing about all these wonderful ideas for a different way of life, as things just kept getting worse and worse in the world, you know, the wars, and the destruction of nature, and the terrible violence in the cities, and everyone was thinking the same thing: there’s got to be a better way! We need to stop just talking about it and actually start to live it. For the sake of the planet!

So our minds were definitely starting to form a gestalt; we were all thinking along the same lines, and when we talked about it we discovered we all agreed on the basic ideas, and it was finally simply a matter of when, not if.

(Of course the other thing it turns out we all had in common, which some of the others who tried to “do” sustainable living around the same time didn’t, was investments. Which we were also savvy enough to liquidate before the Crash—that’s the “creative class” for you, I like to say!)

Now, even though we had been urban or suburban people all our lives, we knew that to create the kind of community we really wanted, we needed land. I mean, humans are really village dwellers, you know, that’s how we’re meant to live. We made such a mistake throwing away all those thousands of years of social and spiritual evolution for a life of high-rises and traffic and concrete! And I say this even though I used to love my little local café, and going to the movies or the theater, and the museums and so forth… But really, we felt the cities were a terrible mistake for humanity. Of course that mistake is evident to a lot of people now, but most of them are trapped. They don’t have the money or the education to escape, even temporarily—and we learned, once we took our rose-colored glasses off and actually started building this place, that sustainable living really requires both. Someday it may be different, it may be accessible to everyone, and of course we all pray for that day, and focus our ceremonies on the hope that humanity is moving towards that understanding, but in the meantime, we simply try to serve as an example of what is possible.

Later, of course, we’ll take the full tour, so you can see all our beautiful straw bale and cob houses, and Irv will explain the water system and the solar system—I mean the solar heating, of course—and the rest of it; it’s really quite fascinating! It required a lot of planning and outlay of resources to set it all up, and this was happening right around the time of the coup, just after the Crash, so we had to work out all sorts of exotic deals with the contractors, some of which were almost like guerrilla actions, you know, because, as you recall, everybody was being ordered to spend money in certain places in order to keep the economy going, and peoples’ bank accounts were all being frozen if there wasn’t enough activity on them, and, well, you remember! It was chaos! But we’d been predicting something like that would happen, so we were readier than most. It helps to have a financial analyst or two in your core group, let me tell you!

But you know, I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself here. People always want to know how we chose this particular place. I’d like to say we did it all by some process of divination, feng shui or whatever, but of course, if I’m honest, I have to tell you there were more practical concerns involved! You noticed the old sign on the road in from the airstrip? So you know that this is—well, was—“reservation” land. You see, during the crisis, a number of laws were suspended, for economic reasons of course; I’m sure you remember, but most people didn’t know that one of them was actually the inviolability of the Indian reservation lands! The government, even as it was falling apart, was trying to make a huge land grab. We were on the side of the tribal people, of course—they had taught us so much; they always presented at our conferences, and many of our ideas of sustainability came from them! So, through some contacts that one member of our group had with this tribe because he used to come up here to hike and fish, we offered the native people a deal. We would buy up the land, keep it out of the hands of the government, take a small piece for our community, and of course all the native people living there would retain the right to inhabitation in perpetuity—it was all in a contract, and the lawyer who drew it up was even part Native American!

We thought it was a really perfect solution. Especially because, while we had all the technological ideas of sustainable construction and solar power, and composting toilets, and bio-dynamic farming and so on, we had been city dwellers for so long—generations, in some cases—and we all had our separate careers, and our own apartments, and so we really had no idea how to actually live in community, you know! We thought we would need to learn from the ancient tribal people in our midst just to survive in this new context. So we saw having them here as really an asset for us.

Well, as it turns out, it was a much more complicated situation… There were only about ten native families left living on the land when we came here. Three of them had all their young men in prison or the National Guard. Ironically, one of the mothers told me her son was actually patrolling the city where I lived, during the riots just before the coup. The Crash and all the fighting basically cut him off from going back home, although at least he was still able to send some money… But frankly, I have never seen people living in poorer conditions than those families, and I’ve been to Africa! And the drinking! It seemed like everybody that was still there was drunk all the time! And the fighting! I almost despaired when I saw it; I said to myself, how naïve I was about these people! They’re a mess! Who knows if we can learn anything from them at all?

But you can’t push the river, as they say. The land was bought, the deed was done; we had gotten out of our city lives just in time, and couldn’t go back; now we had to make this work. We had to deal with what was there. We had to see what would come of it.

So we started out meeting with the families, just to try to make friends, you know, and letting them know, in spite of our reservations—no pun intended!—that we really respected their culture and wanted to learn about it. The response we got initially was, I have to say, somewhat mercenary. It was basically: “that’s great, but what can you do for us?” And we had to explain again, well, we’re letting you stay here, remember? And we’ll pay for what we need, just like we always used to pay the presenters at our conferences—quite well, actually…

It was a terribly slow process. We hit a lot of walls just trying to find out who were the right people in the tribe to talk to; one person would tell us one thing, and somebody else another; it got really tiring. We couldn’t find anyone who was interested in helping us with spiritual knowledge, or ancient wisdom, or anything like that. Everybody we talked to just wanted to complain to us about something somebody else in the tribe had done, and tell us not to give them any money! I think at some point the light dawned on me that what we were learning about village life was exactly the opposite of what we wanted to learn: we were learning about deviousness, and manipulation, and resentment and backstabbing—it was horrible!

Then the first winter came, and suddenly things changed. With what was going on after the coup, I don’t think we realized how totally cut off we were going to be, and the builders still hadn’t built much, and were working out a lot of kinks in terms of the techniques they were trying that, of course, no one anticipated at the time. That was when, in an odd sort of way, the Indians really came to our rescue. I mean, they had learned to survive with nothing for so long! When our truck broke down in sub-zero weather, one of the women—the women, mind you! fixed it just like that. When our stores froze because we hadn’t dug the root cellar properly, we found out they had a whole garage full of macaroni and cheese and other army surplus stuff, that their kids in the Guard had been sort of appropriating and bringing home on leave—in truckloads! It wasn’t the organic produce we’d been hoping to be living on all winter, but it was food! (I mixed sundried tomatoes in with the macaroni and cheese and got to quite like it!)

And then there was the Dramatic Rescue, as I call it, when five of our little group of pioneers went ice fishing and totally miscalculated the depth of the ice! My goddess! These two old men we’d never seen doing anything but sitting in front of their broken-down trailer drinking beer appeared from nowhere and got them all out before they had time to feel the cold, as my husband said. And never said a word the whole time, just disappeared after they’d built a fire and dried them out and dropped them off back at our log house. And meanwhile their grandsons pulled enough fish out of the hole in the lake to feed us all dinner that night!

There must have been a dozen other little incidents like that that winter. We got through, miraculously! And we were very grateful to them, of course, and tried to pay each time they helped us, and they wouldn’t take anything, so we didn’t know what else to do.

But I think in the end we realized that we’d been on the wrong track with the idea that we could learn about community from the native people. Because what we saw was that the community only kicked in when you were on the verge of real catastrophe. Then everybody put aside their grievances and suspicions and helped out. Once we learned that, we saw there was really nothing else they could teach us. It made more sense to focus on trying to follow our sustainability plan and manage our assets well so that this place could give us all a good income. That was something we did know how to do. I mean, it seems obvious perhaps, but who wants to live on the verge of catastrophe all the time? Our aim was to be sustainable and comfortable.

After that winter, things slowly improved every year. We learned from our mistakes, believe me! By the time the national situation stabilized enough, with the whole GovCorp reorganization, martial law was lifted so people could travel, and money was circulating again, we were ready to open the retreat center. Within a few years we could bring in spiritual teachers from all over the world; we’ve had Maoris, Bushmen, Mayans—although of course the amount of fighting going on in all these different parts of the world, and the restriction of flights because of the Climate Laws makes that a very expensive process! But such wisdom is really a priceless commodity, and our guests realize this, and know how fortunate they are to be able to afford it.

Anyway, that was when we finally figured out how to work out a mutually beneficial relationship with the native people here. We needed staff, to take care of the guests; they needed jobs. At first, we said, we could only pay very little, but as things picked up there would be good jobs, and more jobs—tending the biodynamic gardens, and repairing the lodge, keeping the vehicles running! And so on. And laundry of course, there’s always a lot of laundry! Being a laundress here is skilled labor! We sun dry everything; there’s a real art to the way our sheets are done that you will experience for yourself…

In the last couple of years things have really taken off for us, particularly since GovCorp liquidated the old national parks, and set up the Extraction Zones there, so that people have had to come to private reserves like this even to experience nature, much less natural living! Well, it soon became obvious that we really needed more land to expand the resort, so we said to the families: look, most of you are living on the grounds already, let’s just acknowledge the reality of the situation; if you let us build on the land your few old trailers are still on, we’ll take care of it, we’ve shown we know the real value of it, after all, and you can live in beautiful, sustainable houses that we’ll build for you, (although not in exactly the same spot, of course, so you’re not on top of the guests) and you can just work for us to pay them off! No strings attached! How about that?

A few individuals balked at this, and mentioned wanting to look at the contract again, but most of the people recognized a good deal when they saw one. There wasn’t much choice, really, and we could have been much less generous if we’d wanted to; they knew what it was like in the outside world… One or two of the men ran off, grumbling about how they wouldn’t take it lying down, and we should watch out because they had fought in the Mid-East Wars, and knew about armed resistance, and all this very primitive talk, frankly. That was a brief scare; we did purchase a few guns and keep them around the place after that, but we’ve never had any problems, and we’ve never seen them again from that day to this. Which just goes to show, this land is truly blessed!

So that’s our story. I hope I haven’t tired you out—I know how dreary that flight over the Wasteland is. So sad, to think of all that land poisoned by one reactor in a single incident. At least it makes you truly appreciate havens like this one, yes? And that is what we are here for. To make sure you get the healing and renovation you need during your time with us. Just leave all your worries behind! You’re in the Running Brook house, I believe? You just follow that path over the little bridge. I’ll have Akwesane bring your bags.


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