This is Part 1 of 5 of an article series detailing my recent six-week visit to five intentional communities based in the D.C./Virginia area of the United States. Here’s the link to Part 2.
My First Destination: Acorn Community – The Rebellious Teenager
The first question you are likely to hear after introducing yourself to someone new at an intentional community will be something along the lines of, “So what brought you to community?” My answer was always the same. “I’m dissatisfied with mainstream American culture, and I want to try something new.” This concept of inner satisfaction came up a lot in my discussions with members at all of the communities I visited, and I quickly found I was not alone in my disillusioned perception of American society. Even if our backgrounds of experience were in complete contrast—rural or suburban, blue collar or white collar, liberal or conservative—there was always a topic of interest that provided a common bond between us. Whether it was the pollution of the atmosphere via the excessive burning of fossil fuels, the tyranny of corporate behemoths such as Monsanto, or the faltering sustainability of the monetary economy, the opinion that something wasn’t quite right in the world was always shared. Why do we have so many problems in our society? Why does it seem like the situation is always getting worse, rather than better? Is there any hope for the human race in the future? These were the questions I was looking to answer throughout the duration of my trip, and with each new experience, each new interaction, more pieces of the puzzle began falling into place, forming a new perception of what was possible in my mind—not only for myself—but for the entire human race.
I took the Amtrak train from Baltimore, MD to Richmond, VA, and then was transported by a member of Acorn to the community plot based in Mineral, VA. When I arrived at Acorn just before dinner time, I introduced myself to a small group of friendly individuals—most of which appeared to be in their mid-twenties to early thirties—gathered on the porch of a large wooden housing building called Heartwood. Upon being briefly shown around by Acorn’s visitor manager, Thomas, I came across a full range of people from teenagers to middle-aged folks and older, although there was only one child, an infant that had been born at Acorn not too long ago. I had been told there were 30+ individuals currently present at Acorn—the majority members, the rest mixed between visitors, interns, and guests.
I was scheduled to stay at Acorn for three weeks to complete a membership visit, and I had agreed to live in a tent throughout my stay, although the first couple of days I ended up being placed in another member’s room in a trailer while she was away. I admit the room did not meet my standards of cleanliness, but I was thankful for it anyway, and I quickly realized it was going to be necessary for me to adjust to a different standard of living from my pampered suburban life back home in Baltimore if I was going to make it work there.
It was not long after I was shown my new quarters in the trailer that I was left to figure things out on my own, although I had no problem asking around whenever I needed help. Perhaps this would have been a major issue for someone else who was more shy or required more direction, but I came to find this make-your-own-way type of mentality was integral to Acorn’s anarchical social structure and laid back attitude. While there were key individuals who served as managers of particular areas throughout the community, such as the garden, seed business office, and construction site, there were no designated leaders, and that was on purpose. Acorn’s philosophy was to give its residents as much freedom to live according to their own interests as possible, and the only requirement was to meet a 42-hour a week work quota, and this could be done by completing any type of work, including cooking, cleaning, gardening, working in the seed office, helping with construction, or doing anything else that contributed to the well-being of the community.
This egalitarian mentality of equal rights and opportunities between all people of the community, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or any other characteristic was another aspect of Acorn’s social philosophy, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well everything seemed to flow. All the community tasks were displayed on a white board in Heartwood, and every Sunday during the weekly meeting the board would be passed around for completion. There were some instances when certain tasks would not get done—the task of washing the dishes being the primary culprit—but ultimately the most vital tasks required for maintaining the community’s infrastructure would get done, and the community never fell into the potential chaos that an anarchical environment could lead to.
There were times when the ultra-liberal way of life was very apparent, and while I always disliked the term “hippie commune”, most of the time it served as an appropriate label. Public nudity of both males and females was common, as well as lots of partying and debauchery among the younger folks. Tattoos, radical haircuts, armpit hair, and an extra layer of dirt were always present everywhere, but taking it all in stride was part of the experience. During the first couple days of my visit, it seemed like I was immersed in some type of reality TV show, as so much varied activity would be going on all the time.
Gradually throughout my visitor period, I found myself adjusting to the many challenges presented by the alternative community lifestyle, and soon enough living outside in a tent, using a compost toilet, attending meetings, sharing community meals (there were always vegan options much to my delight), and completing the 42-hour work quota became routine. As I entered the final week of my visitor period, it became time for me to complete the mandatory clearness process, which involves meeting with each of the community members to discuss the possibility of me joining the community as a provisional member. I found this process to be rather tiresome and in some cases unnecessary, but as I met with more and more members, I found that it served as an excellent way to get to know everyone, since it was not easy to spend time with each person as the days went by.
In the end, despite some of the hardships that came with living at Acorn, I found the people and the community as a whole to be incredibly endearing, and while I cannot say for sure at this point whether or not I will be returning there in the future (I was accepted for membership and am currently on the waiting list), I can definitely say I had a very positive experience during my visitor period, and I am glad I made the decision to go there. Amidst all the wackiness of Acorn’s alternative culture, I will never forget the love and kindness that was shown to me there, and I greatly hope that the community continues to thrive.