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Planning for the New Tribe
By Chuck Marsh

The following article originally appeared in The Permaculture Activist November 1996, #35 which had the theme of Village Design. Copies of this and other issues are available from the Activist (see Back Issues). Chuck is a cofounder of Earthaven Ecovillage, a Permaculture teacher, consultant, nurseryman, and designer, and a cultural evolutionary who thoroughly enjoys dancing and drumming on the edge. Check out Chuck's Useful Plants Nursery at Earthaven Ecovillage in NC.

Beginning about 1992, I became involved with a small group of people, collectively known as Earthaven, who sought to create a new ecovillage in the mountains of western North Carolina. We knew that permaculture would be the foundation for our work and would help us to shape the land, but we also knew that we had to create a new way of living with each other and the earth if we were to succeed. This call to visionary, even spiritual work would require us to dance at culture's edge with nature, for we were undertaking a piece of the work that theologian Thomas Berry called, "reinventing the human at the species level." There appeared no other way forward.

The Vision of Earthaven

Earthaven Village is envisioned as a permaculture-based eco-spiritual community that will learn and demonstrate the skills and technologies of a viable village culture appropriate to our historical moment and our bioregional context (the southern Appalachian mountains). We believe that education by example is the most powerful tool we have for effecting positive social change. Within this context, there are a number of supporting goals that we hope will help us to realize our vision.

We think that this culture we are creating will balance the integrity of the individual and our need for privacy with the synergy of the community and our need to connect with each other at many levels daily. In order to minimize our human impact on the land, we expect to develop compact and integrated garden neighborhoods of efficient solar homes made from locally abundant resources: wood, clay, stone, and straw. We plan to build our energy-conserving economy on solar-, water-, and plant-based systems. We expect to live off-the-grid. We aim to reserve and restore our agriculturally suitable lands as commons so that we can ultimately provide most of our own food.

We want to reduce our dependence on the automobile and discourage commuter lifestyles by creating a viable local economy so that we can work where we live and live where we play. We plan to restore and care for our waters so that they leave our land cleaner than when they entered. We intend to restore biodiversity and health to our forests and to create a sanctuary for native, endangered, and useful plants and animals.

Centered within and primary to all of these goals is the creation of a nonprofit learning center for sharing our experience and teaching people how to create for themselves successful, sustainable communities. We will focus our educational programs on permaculture and village design, earth-friendly building systems, restoration ecology, ecological agriculture, the healing and creative arts, group process work, and skills for a new tribal culture.

It will take a while to bring all this to fruition, but we have begun. Indeed, if we do not act now, how will we be able to answer to future generations? (continued below)

Choosing the Land

Once we had agreed upon a vision, we needed to find land on which to create it. Permaculture kicked into action at Earthaven as soon as we began that search. We had to get clear about what we needed and why if we were to thread our way through the maze of real estate offerings that faced us. We inspected hundreds of properties; finally, after two years of looking for a suitable village site within an hour of Asheville, the hub city of the NC mountains, twelve pioneers purchased 325 acres south of Black Mountain. It was not an ideal site, but the cofounders of Earthaven felt the property had the potential to be developed into a viable small village community.

The Earthaven land was attractive for a number of reasons. It shares common boundaries with two other intentional communities, Full Circle and Rosey Branch, whose members are supportive of our efforts. The presence of new settlers in an otherwise depopulating rural area helps us to integrate socially with longtime residents. We are not the first new faces on the block.

Located near Asheville/Black Mountain and connected to the Buncombe County metropolitan grid by local telephone service, mail, and good roads, our property nevertheless lies mostly within rural Rutherford County, not populous Buncombe. This means that we are governed by less stringent building and development ordinances, and that our tax rates are lower than they would be 100 yards farther north. This significantly lowers our cost of development and permits us greater flexibility in meeting our ecological aims.

Abundant clean water was high on our list of determining factors in selecting land, and we are blessed with it: our rainfall averages around 60 inches per year and is fairly evenly spread through the seasons.

Another major consideration was the suitability of the land for agriculture. The terrain at Earthaven is quite complex and consists basically of three joined valleys with their attendant flood plains, bottom lands, lower terraced slopes, and steeper ridge slopes and tops. A relatively large portion of the land is usable.

Though uninhabited for the past two generations (55-60 years), the land we bought was once the site of a small farming community. Our oldest living neighbor has described fields of wheat, barley, and melons growing where now a young forest covers the land. A post office stood at the confluence of our two major creeks, so we know that settlement in the area was fairly dense. That population filled even the small side valleys-quite steep slopes appear to have been cultivated, with consequent loss of soils.

Before white settlers came to the mountains, local legend and archaeological evidence suggests the area had been the site of a native village, perhaps of the Catawba tribe. Early coach roads from the Piedmont up to Asheville went through our valley. These historical indicators point to the reasonable prospects for subsistence living. Our once-fertile and well-watered valleys were chosen as homesteads by people who had only human and animal power to make their livings. We can also be confident that having lain fallow and in forest for the entire chemical agriculture period, our land has never been poisoned.

The choice of a forested rather than a cleared site committed us to "landscaping by removal." While we acquired timber resources, we have also assumed significant energy costs in developing the land. Our bottom lands and hillsides are currently in the secondary stages of forest succession (mature pines, black locust, yellow poplar and other pioneer tree species are nurturing younger saplings of the dominant hardwood species of our region-red and white oak, maple, beech, and hemlock-which over the next 20 years will replace them). Managing this succession will necessitate careful timber harvest as we clear land for dwellings and agriculture. Our intention is that through sensitive forestry and careful placement of the human elements, we can improve both the diversity and productivity of the land while leaving most of the forest cover intact.

Ethics and Finance

Consistent with our ethics of self-reliance and our aim of demonstrating accessible alternatives to conventional development, we have chosen not to seek bank financing but instead to finance the project privately through the sale of leased site holdings and memberships, and the development of a member-owned investment cooperative, called Earthshares. While this decision has limited our development capital somewhat, it has also freed us to build the village as we choose, while learning to make the most of the human and natural resources that we do have. This process inherently fosters creative solutions, community- and self-empowerment, and the development of consciously interdependent relationships.

The Importance of Design

How well Earthaven succeeds in manifesting our vision of a new village culture will be determined by the quality of the work we do as both social and permaculture designers. Most community failures stem from inadequate design, either social or physical. Design takes time, but upfront investment in good design will more than pay for itself in the long-term health of the community and its members. Design and planning are highly complex disciplines that are most often relegated to professionals. This can be disempowering to those directly affected by the decisions. Community-based design and planning, on the other hand, while a much slower and occasionally frustrating process, has the distinct advantage of investing the participants in an outcome that is more likely to meet their real needs.

The role of the Earthaven design team, led by myself and Peter Bane, is to facilitate and guide the community's co-design process. Our main approach has been to train community members in permaculture principles and practices. We are also providing the community with our accumulated experience in permaculture design and planning, landscape analysis and assessment, and patterning.

Designing human settlements involves all the basic principles of permaculture. These include designing for redundancy, placement for beneficial relationships, multifunctional elements, the use of biological and locally available resources, and zone, sector, and slope analysis for energy conservation. Community design also demands recognition of another very important principle-design for conviviality.

Conviviality and Privacy

Design for conviviality means optimizing the quality of human interactions. Among other things this involves balancing our need to connect with our need for privacy and personal space. Many of us have been so traumatized by the fast pace of modern life that we feel we need lots of space around us to protect us from a harsh and dangerous world. I find that one of the greatest challenges at Earthaven is to find ways to meet people's privacy needs while keeping our homesites compact and not sprawled all over the landscape. We have not yet reached consensus on how to achieve this most gracefully. However, we are experimenting with compact settlement and cooperative living in our campground and first neighborhood-what we call our neo-tribal village-as a means of extending our experience and transforming our attitudes.

Designing for conviviality also involves placing our access ways and buildings in patterns that allow for, and in fact encourage, quality human interactions as we go about our daily activities. In good design, conviviality happens spontaneously among the inhabitants of the settlement because the physical spaces are "tuned" to the wisdom of our bodies. Buildings create positive outdoor spaces; entrances are prominent and transitions are marked by gateways; paths meander and cross; places to sit or to tarry are frequent, people feel safe to sleep in public or to make love in the woods. Permaculture design should nourish not only the earth and our bodies, but also the individual's soul and the group soul.

Adaptive Design

I have discovered over the years that good design has a complex and nonlinear nature; it is truly an evolutionary, living process. It helps me to embrace the complexity and nonlinear nature of the process. Once we begin to think ecologically, we discover many similarities between the way ecosystems function and the way the design process works. For example, we can model our energy dynamics after the feedback loops in ecosystems. After a project has been designed, it is inevitably changed during the building process in response to the needs of the moment and the real world (feedback). Upon completion the project is tested, observed, and undergoes redesign to improve its functioning within the environment (adaptation).

We have already experienced this in the building of huts. We set criteria for height of buildings at 12 feet, but then discovered that everyone wanted variances from the rule in order to build a second story on their buildings. Vertical design is of course more cost-efficient, as our members were telling us, so we modified the design of the guidelines to permit taller buildings. Feedback allowed us to improve the design.

Design: What we have done

Design and planning involve both logical and intuitive processes. There is an order to good planning which can be

taught, and there is an art to the unfolding of landscape potentials which can perhaps only be suggested or demonstrated. Together the many steps in village planning should serve as tools and methodologies for meeting a community's goals.

Good maps are essential for good planning. Shortly after we purchased the Earthaven property we contracted for a boundary survey of the land and arranged with an aerial cartography firm to fly the land and generate high resolution aerial photographs for us. (Aerial photography work needs to be done in the winter or early spring before the trees leaf out and obscure the ground.) The photos were then digitized and with the help of permaculture friends and professional cartographers we developed a detailed contour map of the property.

While we were waiting for the map work to be completed, we spent many days walking the land and familiarizing ourselves with its complex terrain. On these land walks we identified springs and stream courses, flood plains, old roadbeds, plant communities, evidence of past land use, erosion gullies, agriculturally suitable lands, sacred or high earth energy sites, usable and accessible slopes, pond sites, south-facing slopes, potential home and business sites, and possible choices for locating the village center. During this time, Peter and I gave several weekend workshops to community members on permaculture and brainstormed about the location and design of the village center.

Once we had the contour maps in hand, we ground-checked them for accuracy, made the necessary revisions, and got our mapmakers to correct the data. We now had a good quality map that would prove valuable throughout our planning work. With a working map and the experience gained from several seasons of observation on the ground, we were ready for the next phase of site design: identifying and overlaying the key components of the village onto their most suitable locations. On the broad scale, these components were:
* sacred sites
* land to remain in forest due to slope, aspect, or inaccessibility
* agricultural or horticultural fields or terraces
* orchard sites
* roads or access ways
* the village center
* the neo-tribal village and campground
* business sites
* the education center and healing center sites
* pond and hydro sites
* the neighborhoods

We are still refining the design details of many of these locations and determining the
methods and timing of their development.

Choosing homesites

Based on solar and road access, the design team has identified nine neighborhood clusters and flagged nearly 60 house sites. The community is about to engage in a series of neighborhood design sessions in which members will decide who they want to be neighbors with, where they want to live, and what they want their neighborhood to look and feel like. This co-design process is a radical departure from the usual approach of having the lots laid out by the developer and just picking a site. For co-design to work, it will be incumbent on each member to stretch beyond her/his own self interest, and to make decisions for the benefit of the greater whole.

The First Earthaven Common Kitchen

Patterns of Settlement

As we have gone about the work of building Earthaven village from the ground up, mostly with hand labor and simple tools, it has become apparent that we have been following the archetypal flow of human settlement from times past. The first order pattern is a temporary camp. The first year on the land we developed our campground with very primitive facilities and camped in tents. The second order pattern of settlement is to create fixed dwellings: simple huts and gardens in the forest. At the end of our first summer the first hut began to go up, even while its builders lived next to it in a tent. The third order pattern of human settlement is the growth of a hamlet of clustered houses. Our second year on the land has seen the beginning of what we call our neo-tribal village, located on the south facing slope adjacent to our campground. As larger and more permanent dwellings, workshops, and buildings for community functions as well as more refined agricultural processes are built, a village takes shape. This is the fourth order pattern in a sequence which extends through town, city, and metropolis. We expect to see the emergence of the village stage over the next year or two and to spend the next ten years or so elaborating it. We don't know what cities will look like in 21st-century America, but we don't foresee Earthaven reaching that order of magnitude. That's where things seem to be falling apart today. At Earthaven we hope to match the consciously chosen limit of our growth to the optimum carrying capacity of our land.

Tommy's traditional timber framed "tool shed" is seen here with it's rammed slip-straw and mortared aluminum can walls. He's done a beautiful job with the interior wall finish, which is a mud plaster. Tom is our resident earth plaster guru.

The Tribal Village

As noted above, Earthaven is developing a first cluster of small dwellings. The goal of this neo-tribal village, or hamlet within the village, is to experiment on a small scale with the earth friendly building techniques and compact settlement patterns that we hope will serve us in the development of our permanent homes and neighborhoods. The idea is to try many different systems by building small huts or bungalows with footprints of no more than 300 square feet, so that we can gain proficiency at using locally available and inexpensive natural materials including straw, clay, stone, and timber off our land. We have buildings going up using post-and-beam timber framing, pole beam, rough-cut green wood conventional framing, straw bale, clay/straw slip form, cob, wattle-and-daub, and earth-coupled clay floor construction methods. This summer we built a large capacity composting outhouse and are currently completing a central kitchen/dining and bath building to serve the hut dwellers so that none of the huts will require their own plumbing, kitchens, or bathrooms.

In the same way that permaculture first tested plants and garden systems, we are trying out lots of ideas, making numerous small mistakes, and learning from them so we don't repeat them on a larger and more costly scale.

Another function of the neo-tribal village is to create ways for more community members to get to the land and have some infrastructure support while they build their permanent dwellings. We have established limited occupancy times in huts to encourage people to move on to building permanent dwellings, thus in time freeing up the huts for the next wave of village settlers. Ultimately we expect that the huts will convert to intern housing or lodging for guests or educational program participants, incorporating succession and multifunctionality into the design. The neo-tribal village, like Earthaven itself, is designed with enough flexibility to grow, change and evolve over time to meet the community's changing needs.

Earthaven is very much a work in progress, a constantly evolving attempt to more deeply inoculate permaculture and ecovillage culture into our bioregion. We're working away in the belly of the beast of western "civilization" to find our way home in the company of kindred yet diverse spirits. We welcome your help to further the good work. Consider joining us if you feel called to do so. Come visit and lend a hand if you're traveling our way. Be sure to let us know you're coming well in advance. For more information, you can write us at Earthaven, PO Box 1107, Black Mountain, NC 28711 or send email to:


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