Ticks, poison ivy, and other hazards of fieldwork in communities

Fieldwork conducted in rural communes presents issues that one doesn’t encounter in other settings. I’ve already gotten poison ivy on more than one occasion (communities mark poison ivy spaces, but it jumps on me somehow). Tick checks are also essential. When I was staying with some groups in the Midwest, I learned of a variety of tick bite (Alpha-Gal) that renders you allergic to red meat. This was particularly problematic for the family I stayed with, as they raised goats and sheep for food and sale, and all had become susceptible. Living life outdoors, which had seemed quite pastoral until that point,  became suddenly less appealing to me.

One of the creatures who shared his sleeping space with me.

Other elements of the land trust community were more pleasant, although no less unusual.

Although there are five farms/families, there are no roads. Mowed areas, not quite visible at first, serve as walkways and property boundaries through the pastures that make up this community. The official type is “community land trust.” Members don’t own land, but lease it for 99 years. Although one who moved in now might be able to get improved land with buildings, most moved onto their land with no buildings, and created everything – barns, cob houses, pens, farms – once they got here. Most families live off grid, using wood for heat and growing and eating organic meals.

The founders’ dream for this community was to create a new variety: the  “permaculture farm” (as distinct from the permaculture created in the much smaller footprint of an ecovillage, an example of which is nearby). I ask this same founder if they succeeded, and she remarks, “Google Earth shows that the earth here looks better than it did when we started. Greener.”

This is roughing it – true homesteading. The family I stayed with had a large red barn and a smaller, two-room house (with cob oven, gas stove, and running, although not potable, water), and an outhouse. But most life is lived outdoors, with the animals (two dogs, ten goats, six sheep, geese, chickens, and three horses) far outnumbering the people (father, mother, and three children under seven, including a newborn, who does not usually wear a diaper). This is subsistence living – real farming, often for people who’ve never done it. The groups all seem to be making enough money to survive on their needs – somewhere in the range of $10,000 – $15,000 a year – but people are working, often telecommuting on laptops, and also farming and building, so it can be a difficult life.

On the plus side, there are wide-open spaces for children to play and explore, alongside the livestock and nature. There are many opportunities for experiential learning – with children there is constant chatter, about everything that is happening around them, from docking the rams to whatever is is that is afflicting the horses’ eyes.

People are more isolated here. I get the sense that families left the nearby ecovillage, despite its own smallness, because it is too closed in – perhaps too much process, too much community. There are communal work parties along with some shared fundamental values, but each farm operates under its own personal visions and choices. Among the groups here are monogamous couples with children, some solo homesteaders, and a group who is income-sharing. They are on good, but not overly friendly, terms with each other, and don’t seem to engage in the frequent communal events and celebrations that some of the other communities do. At least one resident is not too happy about visitors, or trespassing off the mowed paths. There are some concerns about each others’ dogs, livestock getting into fruit trees, that sort of thing. Maybe good mowed paths aren’t quite enough to make good neighbors.

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