My Intentional Community and the Law

Coexisting with authority in order to live your own life on your own terms.

| Spring 2016

  • Owl
    Sometimes the solution to a seemingly impossible problem comes in a completely unexpected form.
    Photo by Flickr/USFWS_PacificSW
  • Mountain and Trees
    Just because there is a legal definition or requirement doesn’t mean you have to live by it, especially if you live in an unconventional way.
    Photo by Flickr/Jon Nelson

  • Owl
  • Mountain and Trees

Right up front, I confess I am a bit of a scofflaw at heart. If I can do it myself, I’d rather do it in a good way that makes sense in the situation than have to apply some one-size-fits-all solution to a unique situation. And living in community is unique, to be sure; anyone who does knows what I am talking about.

In 1968, as a student at San Francisco State College, I came to know a local guru named Stephen Gaskin. He offered a thing called “Monday Night Class” in his living room in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, near where I lived. This was at the height of the Hippie era, with hundreds of communes, cults, and conspiracies flowering in the City. It was at one of his talks where he said (in essence): when you live around dinosaurs, and you know they’re existentially unsustainable, your best survival strategy is to neither fight with them nor live under them. Why? If you fight a giant, cold-blooded body that’s bigger than you with lots of teeth, you don’t stand a chance. And when that unsustainable body inevitably falls, you don’t want to be under it, for obvious reasons. Better to just do your own thing, live your life by your terms, and not attract too much attention.

It was a useful metaphor for countercultural colleagues collaborating on a collective vision beyond normative institutions of the day, during that particular Age of Aquarius (think War on Drugs, the Draft, Viet Nam, Sexual Revolution, Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, Stonewall, Kent State, City and Country Communes, etc.). Stephen eventually led an exodus of a hundred hippie vehicles, out of the City on an odyssey, all the way from the coast of California to the establishment of The Farm in Tennessee. This became a truly successful intentional community that lived by its own rules while maintaining relationships with “authorities” on an as-needed and need-to-know basis.

So what is authority? For the purposes of this essay, there are three definitions. One: authority is “The Man,” a person or institution with power to enforce compliance to rules established by other authorities; two: authority is a person or institution with acknowledged expertise in a particular subject; and three: authority is a knowing that comes from within, when you know what is right for you and you make a commitment to manifest just that, no matter what. To be really successful managing the imprecise zone that characterizes intentional community and the law, we need to know how to identify and work successfully with all three kinds of authority. Sometimes that is not so easy, but always it is an experiment in the laboratory that is your own life.

Consider a few sketches and skeletons from my community’s closet.

Early on in the development of our community at Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center (near Detroit, Oregon), one of the county inspectors was up looking at some installation we’d just done. He told me, “Every code started as an obituary,” i.e., the laws are there to protect human health and safety, and each code was formulated to address some danger that caused the death of someone some time ago. I pointed out that some codes appear more the result of successful lobbying by interest groups who stand to make a profit, e.g., product manufacturers and contractors. The discussion/debate ended up in the philosophical territory of Spirit vs. Letter of the Law.

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