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The Best Things I Learned as an Ecovillage Intern, Part II

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By Dawn Smith

Author Dawn Smith, in plaid shirt (left), came to Emerald Earth as a building intern for their new community building.
(March 2011)

When I first became an ecovillage intern at Occidental Art and Ecology Center (OAEC) in Northern California at the age of 24, I had no idea how profoundly my life was about to change. (I described my experiences there in Part I of this article, in the November/December 2010 issue.) In fact, being an intern at OAEC was how I began to take my own potential seriously. I saw that activism could be much more then just protesting against what I didn’t want. I wanted my activism to arise not from what I’m against, but from what I want to see happen in the world — what I’m for.

So, because of this newfound determination to express what I advocate and support, a year later I applied as to Emerald Earth Sanctuary, another ecologically sustainable community in Northern California.

Dawn (left) showing visitors around Emerald Earth.
Emerald Earth is a small rural intentional community tucked away in the hills of the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, California. Their 189 acres is mostly mixed redwood and hardwood forest, but also includes open, south-facing meadows with large oak trees, two springs, a pond, and a seasonal creek. Emerald Earth became a nonprofit 22 years ago, but the most recent wave of full time members living on the land began 12 years ago. The summer I was there they had nine full members, two children, and 10 work traders.

The garden and barn at Emerald Earth.
Like OAEC, Emerald Earth doesn’t call itself an ecovillage, yet its values and practices seem identical to those of most ecovillages. For example, Emerald Earth values “sustainable living, simplicity, social and environmental justice, and reverence for the Earth and all living things.” Their mission is “to develop and demonstrate a model of living in harmony with the land and with each other (and) . . . to develop a spiritual connection to the Earth through ritual, song, and seasonal celebrations.” Community members live in small, passive solar natural-built homes of cob, strawbale, slipstraw, with round-pole timberframe, adobe floors, and natural plasters. They teach workshops in all these natural building techniques, as well as permaculture design. The community is entirely off the grid, using solar and hydro-electricity.

Emerald Earth’s work trade program was composed of two phases. First an initial building team of four people including myself arrived early in the summer to begin construction and create an organizational structure for the rest of the season. A few months later three more builders arrived to provide an extra boost to the team as our tasks became more labour- intensive.

The original community building, where Emerald Earth members and interns enjoyed common meals.
My arrangements for living at Emerald Earth were simple, functional, and beautiful. I had a large canvas tent on a platform near the smaller, older community building. The door to my tent opened into a second-growth redwood forest and the pond beyond. I paid my own food costs for the first two months of the summer, and after this initial period of orientation and assessment, Emerald Earth paid my food costs for the rest of the season. Community members shared two bathing spaces: a small shower in the old common house, and a beautiful large shower and tub in a the bathhouse. To this day Emerald Earth’s bathhouse is one of the most beautiful I have ever used. It is large and curved, decorated with delicate tile work and surrounded by plants. After working all day and taking a long sauna, bathing by candlelight in this beautiful space was an otherworldly healing experience. We seven construction work traders worked on the new community building 35 hours a week. We had Friday afternoons off for personal time or yoga classes, although occasionally we adjusted our work schedule to escape the parching California midday heat or to rest after an intensive weekend work party.

Timberframing the new community building.
Emerald Earth hosted regular dance parties on the building site to celebrate each major stage of construction, and these parties became a beautiful opportunity for us to share our work and celebrate our construction progress with the rest of the community. Community members and friends who lived nearby would trickle up the hill to the work site where we danced under the stars. These evenings remain as some of my fondest memories of my work trade at Emerald Earth. I saw how important it was for the Emerald Earth members who were not involved in the physical construction of the building but highly invested in the project to have a way to periodically express their commitment to the new building.

I was surprised by how readily the Emerald Earth residents opened their lives and their community to support our large building team. Perhaps the close bonds between members and work traders was due to the physical remoteness of the area — we were all each other’s primary social life. I was moved by the intimacy of the community and how quickly I felt at home there.

The whole building crew — community members and interns.
I came into my own as a builder during my summer at Emerald Earth, leaving with a better sense of who I was as a person and what my natural work in the world would be. My job began as a construction worker but I felt an increasing draw towards project management. I began to take on partial management roles, including facilitating meetings and managing work flow. In this work trade arrangement I realized how much I enjoy facilitating the progress of work on a job site and troubleshooting bumpy problems such as restoring electric power onsite or hunting down construction drawings for the next wall to frame.

I encourage everyone interested in living in an ecovillage or ecologically sustainable intentional community to pursue an internship as an important way to learn more about ecovillages or “test drive” potential membership. Nothing can compare to a real-world adventure!

If you’re considering an ecovillage internship I advise you to take time to deeply reflect on what you want out of the experience, and choose mindfully. Do you value flexibility and fun, a joyful summer of service, a job training program, or facilitation and community-building skills? If it’s important to you to know up-front where your money goes, how much responsibility or independence you will have, or how easily your schedule can flex, say so when you first apply. It’s much better to turn down a situation that is less than perfect for you than to spend your whole summer visit trying to unravel unmet needs. Internship programs work best when both the host community and the intern are aware of their own and each others’ expectations — clear and timely communication is foundational to the intern-ecovillage relationship.

Dawn (center, baseball cap) gained clarity and vision for her own future in community.
I emerged from my internships at both OAEC and Emerald Earth with new clarity and vision for my future. I feel at home in community and in the field of natural building, and interning in these communities has been key in developing that sense of ownership and belonging. I am asking myself new questions as a leader and a teacher now that I’m no longer an intern. What are my strengths and weakness as a leader in community and in building? How can I best honour what my teachers have taught me in building and move it forward into the 21st century? Having benefited from the hard work of the activists, teachers, and builders who’ve gone before me, where will my work lead me next? I don't know just yet, but the answers feel strong, clear, and just around the bend.

Born in northern Alberta, Canada, in recent years Dawn Smith has been studying and practicing natural building and community facilitation at OAEC and Emerald Earth in California, and O.U.R. Ecovillage and Roberts Creek Cohousing in British Columbia. In Part I of this article Dawn described her adventures at OAEC community in Northern California.To learn more about Dawn’s work and adventures, check out her blog.

In Part I of this article Dawn described her intern experiences at OAEC, another ecovillage-like intentional community in Northern California.

Related articles:

The Best Things I Learned as an Ecovillage Intern, Part I
What Visiting Huehuecoyotl Taught Me — May '09
Ecovillage Tour: Our College Class Visits Dancing Rabbit — May '10
Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part I — May '09

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    Earthaven Ecovillage, US
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    GEN's EDE Program; Village Design Institute, US
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    Canadian Cohousing Network; Cranberry Commons Cohousing, Canada
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    The 60s Communes; Professor of Religion, University of Kansas, US
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