By Dawn Smith
Author Dawn Smith in the woodshop at OAEC.
When I first arrived at Occidental Arts 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 had applied for OAEC’s maintenance intern position primarily because I wanted to expand my skills in maintenance and repair and construction, which I’d learned growing up on a farm in Alberta and spending four summers doing strawbale construction. I also wanted exposure to a more holistic experience of sustainable living.
Occidental Arts and Ecology Center — OAEC
OAEC's two fruit and vegetable gardens grow over 2,500 varieties of heirloom vegetables and herbs.
While OAEC doesn’t call itself an ecovillage, it certainly seemed
like one. The community grows much of its own organic food and is partially powered by solar energy. Its residents live in small passive-solar homes and use composting toilets. Many earn a living onsite or nearby — often by teaching or administering educational programs on ecological sustainability. And OAEC has long been committed to protecting local watersheds and educating people in watershed restoration and management. These are certainly the kinds of things ecovillages do!
OAEC is an educational nonprofit affiliated with an intentional community, Sowing Circle, that occupies the same 80-acre site. The community and nonprofit were founded in 1994 by a group of friends from the San Francisco Bay Area. Now 12 community members, six children, and 10 long-term residents live onsite, along with work exchangers and interns. Their two fruit and vegetable gardens — with over 2,500 varieties of heirloom, open-pollinated annuals and over 1,000 varieties of edible, medicinal, and ornamental perennials — are the eighth oldest certified organic gardens in California and the first protected by a conservation easement so that they will remain organic in perpetuity. Through community and garden tours, plant sales, permaculture design courses and other courses in ecological sustainability, school garden teacher-training programs, and their popular Chautauqua entertainment evenings, OAEC attracts over 3,000 visitors a year.
As OAEC's maintenance intern Dawn improved her carpentry skills.
So the opportunity to expand my skills and live in an established ecologically sustainable community was too juicy to pass up. OAEC’s commitment to environmental and political activism and their love for celebration and revelry quickly made me feel at home, and I threw myself into my internship with joy. I spent long afternoons standing knee-deep in flowers and herbs while fixing fences, or cheerfully stacking wood to provide heat in the winter for the busy office and meeting room. I further developed my skills in woodworking, finish carpentry, and small-motor repair, and developed new skills in welding, natural plasters, and installing water catchment systems.
While I had clear goals for developing my physical skills, more than just building and construction was on my mind. I had read about intentional communities and ecovillages for years, and I was eager to know more about what it was actually like to live in an established community and work cooperatively with others. And although at first my interest in this was secondary, I quickly became fascinated and inspired by how OAEC’s strong organizational structure and governance processes supported their physical work.
One of Dawn's tasks involved helping install a water catchment system.
The physical arrangements for OAEC interns was rewarding too. I lived in a sweet, brightly painted renovated school bus on a rocky outcrop near the pasture. The bus had been renovated with care over the years by the previous maintenance interns, and came complete with beautiful built-in shelves, running water, a woodstove, and even a small glass chandelier. It was ample room for me, and I loved watching the peaceful fog rolling in off the coast and wrapping around my little school bus. I worked 25 hours a week and paid half the cost of my food cost each month; OAEC paid the other half. All of OAEC’s workshops were available to me — from permaculture design to how to start a successful new community. If I wanted time off to take a course or travel, I talked to my facilities manager ahead of time and arranged to make up my hours on another day.
Because it hosts many workshop and classes, OAEC was often busy and public.
Early in my internship I realized just how well the situation served the pivotal juncture in my transition to my adult work life. I was in need of role models and inspiration, and at OAEC I was surrounded by some of the top activists in California doing cutting-edge work in watershed restoration, social justice advocacy for indigenous people, plant biodiversity advocacy, and permaculture education. I quickly resolved to soak in everything I could, from attending educational slide shows in the evenings to studying how they conducted meetings.
Sometimes I was challenged by how busy and public OAEC life could be, with students and visitors everywhere, and I was grateful that my living quarters were far from the madding crowd. On a busy weekend something as simple as walking from the bathhouse to the kitchen could feel overwhelming because so many people stopped to talk to me, and those were the weekends I slipped off to the pond with sunscreen and a good book.
Living at OAEC affected Dawn profoundly.
I came away from OAEC transformed on many levels. I saw how a well-functioning intentional community can incubate and support world-changing work, and saw up close what high-level professional activism looks like. I saw that an interest in ecological sustainability would not be a passing fad of my early 20s, but a serious commitment that would impact my life's work. It was at OAEC that I began to take my own potential seriously. I saw that activism could be much more then just protesting against what you don’t want. I wanted my own activism to arise not from what I’m against, but from what I want to see, what I’m for.
In Part II, in the next issue, I'll describe my experiences as an intern at Emerald Earth Sanctuary, another ecovillage-like intentional community in Northern California.
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. To learn more about her work and adventures, check out her blog.
- What Visiting Huehuecoyotl Taught Me — May '09
- Ecovillages in Scandinavia, Part I — Jul-Aug '10
- Ecovillages in Scandinavia, Part II — This issue
- Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part I — May '09
- My Ecovillage Adventure in Quebec — Nov-Dec '09