Is Communalism The Antidote To The Sadness Of Modern Life?


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Categories: Life Stories

In 2009, my wife, Francesca, and I set up a woodland sanctuary in Somerset with the sole purpose of offering refuge to people going through a period of crisis in their lives. We hoped to emulate a community we knew down in Dorset, a place that was a haven for those struggling with addiction, bereavement, separation, depression, penury, eating disorders, homelessness, PTSD and all the other ailments, illnesses and misfortunes that beset us in life.

It’s over five years now since we came to live in the woods and in that time there have been so many mishaps and miracles, so many characters and escapades, that it seems a lifetime ago.

Those years have been gruelling, exhilarating, exhausting, uplifting, exciting, depressing, joyful, rewarding and, always, eye-opening. The learning curve has been so steep that it has often seemed almost vertical. Human nature is constantly fascinating and over the years we’ve seen all sorts, from the very admirable to the far less so. When you have an open-door policy the whole spectrum of humanity will roll up: rough diamonds and smooth talkers, the overbearing and the underwhelming. We’ve had well over a hundred strangers living in our woodland shelter, some staying for just one night, but most for many months and a few for more than a year.

There have been misconceptions about what we’re doing. I was born and brought up in Somerset; this wasn’t some urbanite’s romantic escape to an idealised countryside. If anything, it was the opposite: an attempt to help people put an end to incessant escapism. I’ve often thought that modern life is rootless, noncommittal and excitedly distracted by fleeting highs and that part of an individual’s healing is about discovering rootedness, commitment and stability. In that sense, Francesca and I never felt we were retreating from the so-called “real world” but engaging with it more deeply: all sorts of people – troubled forces veterans, ex-offenders, victims of abuse, sex workers and so on – came to live with us and gave us insights into what life can really be like.

People generally assumed we were vegan eco-warriors who home-schooled our kids in an off-grid yurt. It’s true that we lived for years without a TV or a dishwasher and that we heat our home, and its water, with wood; it’s true that we’re concerned about the provenance of what we eat and produce a large proportion of our own food. We avoid noisy machinery as much as possible. But we live in an ordinary house made of bricks and mortar. Our kids go to local schools. We’re concerned about sustainability, but as much about the financial, emotional and psychological sort as the environmental. We’re not obsessed with self-sufficiency and are far more interested in interdependency than independence, more attracted by interaction than isolation.

We’re doing this because we believe that communalism can be an antidote to many of the sadnesses and sorrows of modern life. Not just addiction, say, or homelessness, but also the issues that lie behind those more explicit ones; problems such as loneliness or simply dismay at modern life. Communal living offers the chance to find belonging instead of rootlessness, commitment in place of impermanence and purpose rather than despair. It allows a deeply satisfying, paradoxical combination of anarchism and traditionalism, of counterculturalism and conservationism.

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