Living And Working In A Traditional Community

Perhaps those with dreams for new communities
can learn from the hearts of the "old ones"

One of the articles in Economics In An Intellegent Universe (IC#2)
Originally published in Spring 1983 on page 54
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

THE COMMUNITY I call home has been a very successful community for many generations. It has a sound economic basis, though perhaps too small for the community population growth, and certainly an economic system which is drastically changing as the whole country changes. People are always welcomed to move into the community, there are no guidelines of who should or shouldn’t live here. Though newcomers are welcomed and usually assisted by neighbors and new friends in settling, there is a "wait and see" period of time that prevails before a person is no longer considered a "newcomer." Purchasing land and/or a house, marrying and beginning a family after having moved here, having children in school, having a job or business within the community which contributes to the community, all add to the feeling of trust by others, a sense that this person is here to stay and is a community member.

It is a community of traditions and rituals. There are understood ways in which community members help others in times of illness, death and disasters such as housefires and floods. There is support offered for a marriage or a birthing by community members who are too new to have a personal support system or too far from their extended family. These forms of support are very matter of fact and include unquestioned financial support, when needed, though few in the community have a lot of money.

A prevalent value in the community, carried over from the "frontier" days is the value placed on individuality. People may live as they choose, may or may not become involved in community functions, may have whatever personal lifestyle and belief system they choose, as long as they don’t infringe on others’ individuality and freedom to do the same. This value allows for the community to come together to fulfill certain community needs, but also allows people privacy and independence.

It is a multi-generational community, single people and families, predominately white, a handful of gays, mainly low to middle class (the rich folks here would be lower middle class elsewhere, though I feel these terms lose meaning in small rural communities, where people are well off with owned land, raising their own food, and not as concerned with many luxuries seen as needs in urbanized areas). The selectors are environment (most folks who stay have a love of mountains, saltwater and evergreens, and a tolerance for rain), economics (as mentioned earlier, though there is a variety in the economic basis, it is limited in size, and changing drastically) and social opportunities (as in many small communities, there isn’t the variety of personal contacts a person may want).

The community is not without its struggles. Occasionally differences surface on how a school policy should be changed, where a road should go, how to raise the money for a needed community item. Without formal structure or a formal government body, the decisions, the compromises are usually made only by those who care enough over a certain issue to become involved. Often tradition prevails, though certainly change is evident and new concepts frequently accepted.

There are social groupings within the community, people drawn closer together by more sharing of common interests, values and beliefs then the community at large shares. This seems a natural phenomena of community, and rather than weakening the community, strengthens it. Many of these social groupings take the form of clubs, most of them traditional and long established clubs. The focus of these clubs usually results in carrying out a function or service in the community which the group may feel is more important than the community at large.

Recently, members of the community formed an organization which has polled and filed all community members who have skills, hobbies and interests they are willing to teach in the classroom setting or on a one-to-one basis in an apprenticeship with students. Thus educational opportunities have expanded without added expense to the school.

As I write, the sari I’ll wear at the Girl Scout gathering hangs drying by the woodstove. The troop from our community chose India as the country to represent at a "Friendship Day" gathering with other troops. One of the girls, from India, has taught all the girls how to wear saris and I have taught them how to chant. An area of the community that has needed developing is opportunities for young people. Last year I started a Girl Scout troop which was followed by a Boy Scout troop. Both troops have grown and have brought community members together for new activities. My attraction to Girl Scouts for this community was the rich feminist based program which teaches girls self-esteem, confidence and skills in all areas of life. There is a spiritual aspect to Girl Scouts and being an established, traditional, though updated organization, it appealed to all community members. By being part of a larger organization there are resources available that such a small community could not offer its young people.

There are many stories to tell of the daily life here, of neighbors helping to install my new wood stove, of all I have learned in animal husbandry from a retired dairy farmer, of the logger who cuts the firewood I buy from him exactly as I want it, of the 95-year-old man I check on when the river floods into his yard. There are wonderful stories of the community’s history, told to me by people born and raised here, people who watched "modernization" come to their community.

This is not an intentional community. It is not a new age community. There is nothing written down as the focus and goals of the community. There are people here who believe we need nuclear warfare and people who participated in the Trident submarine protest. There are people whose livelihood depends on cutting trees down and people whose philosophy and livelihood depends on planting trees. But there are more shared beliefs than differing ones. There is a high level of tolerance for the differences. There is a richness and an education to be found in the variety.

Though not intentional by current definition, there were people whose dreams, ideals and sense of adventure consciously brought them here to settle. Perhaps those original intentions have been lost to history, perhaps this will happen to many of today’s new communities. There is so much for today’s founders of new communities to learn from the old ones, the traditional ones, the ones which survived the urban/suburban population and economic shift. There is value in seeing the organic flow, the un-structured structure and flexibility of communities that seem to have "just happened."

Yet, did such communities just happen? The word that comes to mind is commitment. Though the commitment may not always have been stated, communities that work, old or new, do so because people make a commitment to the community. The folks who were born here and stayed, those who have come and stayed, all seem to have a commitment and a caring toward the community. Those who feel dissatisfied with the community, either simply don’t or can’t make that commitment. Though the community does not meet all my needs, it may be unrealistic to expect that any community can. There are many networks I am a part of which extend my life beyond community. I do however have a commitment, if only to myself, to put energy into the community and care about its present as well as its future.

Living in a community such as this reminds me of my years in shared housing. Though there would be many differences of lifestyle among "housemates," they were "family." They were the "everyday" people of one’s life, the people you ate with, did chores with, who saw you sick and tired and in every mood you had. They were not the friends you necessarily chose nor the ones you did social activities with – they were friends because they were there. Living in an older, established community is like family. You are not together by common philosophy, but quite literally by common ground, and from common ground which is fertile with community tradition and history, there grows many lush experiences and many rich friendships.

In the winter issue of IN CONTEXT there are many wonderful articles on new intentional communities of all sizes and forms, and people’s dreams and expectations of what community means in their lives. Not all of what we are calling "new" is so new. We are perhaps defining and updating the concept of community, so necessary since "community" has been nearly lost to urbanization. I invite those with dreams of the new communities to visit and learn from the hearts of the "old ones."

Penny lives in Quilcene, Washington.

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