Every summer, the Banff Centre – the arts, culture and education incubator – offers a handful of established non-fiction writers the opportunity to spend a month-long residency developing a feature story under the guidance of faculty mentors. The program encourages writers to explore new ideas in journalism and to experiment with creating a piece that might otherwise be difficult to complete.
I have journeyed home to Alaska for the past 12 summers. When I fly in late June near the solstice, sunset can last from JFK in New York to Ted Stevens International in Anchorage – it's almost as though the planet has paused for 14 hours.
I return to help build. The Barn, which stands in a clearing roughly the size of a ballpark, is a 1,300-square-metre rectangle that rises above the surrounding forest of spruce peppered with cottonwoods. I have spent much of the past two summers helping to stuff its timber-frame skeleton with straw and clay, tamping the muddy mix down into the walls with a huge wooden spatula.
It feels like cramming raw spaghetti and dirt sauce into lasagna pans. We repeat the process from the three-inch-thick floorboards to the roof's eve, 10 metres overhead.
Last summer, we'd begun the plaster – the walls' outer skin – with an even muddier blend that includes sand and requires the straw be chopped. It feels like ashen cake frosting. As I stomp out to the building site, my childhood friend David says, "She resembles an ark, doesn't she?"
He would know, having spent years at sea as captain of a yacht. Now he has come home to stay, and hopes to raise a family with Ariana, his Canadian fiancée.
David and I grew up in this intentional community – commune is the outdated term – three hours from Anchorage. For a long time, most people assumed that the wackos who build their own houses and teach their own children were stoned or brainwashed or both, too far gone to know even who among them had fathered whom. Fuelled by pop culture and the few collectives that make the 6 o'clock news, these stereotypes could scare outsiders. Their fear in turn bred fear among the feared, who then withdrew further. Until recently, most collectives hunkered down and shaded themselves from the public eye.
But now the movement is undergoing a resurgence.
Created to foster sustainable communal living, the Global Ecovillage Network marks its 20th anniversary this year and has seen its membership triple in the past decade, to nearly 1,000 communities. And even that is likely just a fraction of the actual number of ecovillages, urban co-operatives, agricultural parishes and other collectives. New settlements sprout up all the time, and many others are emerging after decades of hermitic existence.
Our community is one of them. Today, it consists of about 45 people, and many are members of the original four families who set out 30 years ago from Boston on a journey that saw them cross the continent in an attempt to leave the modern world behind.
When my parents and the three other founding couples bought this land two years later, there was nothing but evergreens and muskeg on it. Now, 10 log cabins are spread around "the block," a D-shaped loop at the centre of our 80 hectares. Also on the block is a two-hectare grain field, a garden the size of a football field with dozens of raised beds, and several greenhouses. Next to the Barn, beside the volleyball court and soccer field, stands the heart of the settlement – the Longhouse, a T-shaped building made of logs and covering more than 1,000 square metres.
It's good to go back, to be away from office deadlines – occupied instead with mud and power tools.
Each time I come home – and I do still consider it home – I look at this place, these people, and wonder: "What if I don't board the plane back to New York? Would I be happier if I just left city life for good?"
A father's troubled past
This crisp morning, my father is using a crowbar to rip out lath that hasn't been installed properly above the windows on the Barn's west wall.
"A little 'unbuilding' to start the day, Dad?" The joke is that we build to unbuild to rebuild it right.
"Measure twice, cut twice," he shoots back.
Dad is often on the site by 6 a.m. and rarely reaches the Longhouse before a chef blows the conch for dinner. (Mom sometimes finds mud and bits of hay in their bed.) He has had a hand in building everything: the cabins, sheds for tools, the sawmill and the central wood-burning heater, the blade-sharpening shack, the plumbing house, the slab-wood fences, the open-air storage units, the treehouse and dozens of birdhouses – even a hill for sledding made of scaffold and plywood.
To spearhead the Barn, he learned straw-clay building – a modern version of an ancient technique. His enthusiasm for the project, by far his biggest, makes him a de facto boss, but he'd be annoyed if someone called him that. Seeing him now – cracked boots dangling off scaffolding; long johns hoisted well past his bellybutton – it's hard to imagine how different his childhood was.
Dad grew up in Europe and in Yonkers, outside New York, the only son of an international banker and a journalist-turned-housewife. He could relate to neither his stern immigrant father nor the community – "never mind Catholicism and the snobbery of the affluent class," he says one afternoon.
We have put down our tools for the day and are sharing a beer in the cab of a Ford F-450 dump truck – which makes a pickup look like a golf cart. The worst of it, he says, was "the grind of school and Daddy beating you if you told the truth of what you learned that day: nothing."
I've heard these stories for years, but now my father can laugh off the paralyzing multiplication drills my grandfather administered or the regular paddling Dad received at a Jesuit boarding school in England.
The day he dropped out of St. George's, a prep school for New England's elite, his mother feared the worst. She told him to pack up and leave before the patriarch's commuter train arrived that evening.
Grandfather eventually calmed down, and arranged for Dad to attend Georgetown University – where he "majored in drugs and minored in women." But when he dropped out again, his father couldn't forgive him. Only years later, after my grandfather was gone, did my family and my grandmother reunite.
Hearing these stories, I'm surprised at how funny – and philosophical – my father has become. Now, he understands his own father's heavy-handedness: "The changes in the air in the sixties made him very nervous," he says. "My failing grades were a symbol to him of losing everything good and worthy in American life."
Dad has worked hard to create this other life. It's not the kind of work most people think of as productive, the kind that involves time clocks and annual performance reviews. The truth is: He hasn't earned a wage since I was in diapers.
A nomadic existence
After leaving home, Dad found work as a roadie with a travelling women's acrobatic troupe, only to be fired when the ladies began fighting over his attentions. A series of grim gigs followed. He worked for Boston's only live-wire electrical company (which repaired circuits without turning off the power – at least one employee a year was severely burned or killed) and as a landscaper (he and a co-worker regularly drank a case of beer on the drive home). He was borderline suicidal, and self-medicating with alcohol. "There was nothing worth sticking around for," he told me.
Then, in 1981, he met my mother. She worked in the warehouse of a distributor of organic cotton futons, and he handled deliveries. One day, he gave her and a friend a ride home, circling the city to drop off the friend first, then talking Mom into going for tofu sandwiches.
Born in Colombia, she had travelled around with her mother and, at 17, had clear, walnut eyes as well as a clear sense of what she wanted out of life: to create a village. A few months later, on a windy beach outside Boston, my father proposed. They wandered a bit but, four years later, were back in the city with three children and renting a large house with other countercultural couples in the Jamaica Plain district.
Many like-minded people moved through the crowded house on Asticou Road. Some stayed. Among them was a voluble and flamboyant man – like the others in this piece, he has asked that I not give his name – who had become so alienated while growing up near San Francisco that he once spent hours in a field waiting to be picked up by extraterrestrials. His grades had been good early on, but he felt he was being trained to work against his classmates. "School was the lines of the play we learn to be able to fit into society," he tells me one afternoon last June, seated on a couch in the Longhouse.
Even so, he followed his future wife to college, where he studied literature and biology. After graduating, he and his wife moved to Boston and met those who were to found our community.
The couple started a family and ran a vegan bakery, but then sold the business, and he wound up just wandering around Boston. Some days, he'd ride the subway for hours, watching commuters come and go, in thrall, as he puts it, to money and power and reputation – "things that didn't interest me." He ended up collecting welfare and, before long, a mental-disability allowance from the federal government.
Another founder had her own troubled history. After dropping out of college, she had become an Aspen ski bum, and considered herself lost and purposeless. All she wanted to do was "go somewhere warm and drink."
I run into her in the Longhouse movie room on this visit home, the sun lighting up her greying red hair. The community's threadbare beginnings make her laugh today, and she can't quite believe they made it to Alaska. "I wanted to think a different way," she says, a trace of Minnesota still in her voice. "I didn't want the thinking that my mother had or my father had – or anybody that I knew had." Among other things, she insisted that her kids not go to school, to her "a colossal waste of time."
From the start, the parents refused to exercise much control over their children. Early on, this led to conflict with the world around them. Our neighbours in Boston called child-protection agencies many times and for many reasons – the seven-year-old boy in home-sewn clothes who shoplifted a Snickers bar; the toddler who shoved a fork into an electrical outlet, mangling his thumb. My mother – who still had the baby face and high voice of a girl – fed us seaweed soup on the porch, pushing the blue-collar Irish around us out of their comfort zone.
The founders were staunchly vegan, a diet many doctors at the time thought of as borderline child abuse. Whenever a physician told Mom that I had low iron, or scolded her to feed her kids milk, she was unable to sleep, afraid the state would take us from her.
Up the Alaska-Canada Highway
In October, 1985, when I was 3, the founders left the unwelcoming cityscape and headed west. We spent that winter in northern California at a vacant summer camp, but had to leave come June when the kids returned. Three months later, we were living in a campground on the outskirts of Seattle; landlords slammed doors in our faces when they saw all the children. Winter was coming again, but the founders decided to keep going north – to Alaska. They knew no one in the "last frontier."
The former ski bum was younger than I am now, and had five kids. I ask if she had ever had second thoughts. "I was afraid to go, and I was afraid to stay," she replies. "I knew this was the only shot we had – as individuals, and certainly as a group."
In September, 1986, they drove up the Alaska-Canada Highway through British Columbia and Yukon in search of a place to put down roots, come what may. "There were no leaders and no followers, no vertical relationships," she says. They weren't even particularly fond of one another. But they shared a dream: to begin a new society and to use "nature as a picture of what life could be."
After they reached Anchorage, the men scouted for land from Hope to Homer, Fairbanks to Valdez. On the brackish south Alaskan shore, they found five level acres several miles from the nearest paved road. For $300 down, the owner threw in a path, which he bulldozed 100 metres into the woods.
The men put up tepees. "When I walked in, there was a dirt floor and a fire pit," the ex-Aspenite recalls. It was home, and far off the highway.
The last frontier has long offered solitude and an opportunity to moult. It also has oil, which offers some financial security even for those who don't own oil fields – in the form of the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), a state-issued cheque, usually for about $1,000, given annually to every resident. The founders didn't know about the dividend before heading north, but it proved indispensable. In Alaska, a state with many idealists and loners, they found both a homeland and a means to build.
Just two years earlier, people who lived far away and spoke a different language had done much the same.
The Canadian connection
An exceptionally lean man pours grape-sized onions into pails in a field that is edged by swaying oaks and by maples that every year bleed sap into tubes and buckets. This is Quebec's Eastern Townships and another home for dreamers – La Cité Écologique, where my friend David's fiancée grew up. (The two met on GreenSingles.com, a dating site for ecologically minded people.)
It began as a summer camp whose kids didn't want to return home to public school. Humouring them, the camp counsellor, Ariana's father, conspired with his charges to sway their parents; before winter struck, some 30 families had quit jobs, and pooled enough money to purchase a large parcel of land a few hours east of Montreal. Some 30 years later, it ranks as one of the oldest of Canada's ecovillages.
La Cité runs several green businesses: an organic farm, a factory that makes bamboo and hemp workout clothes, and an import company that hocks spiritual knick-knacks. But at the heart of the community beats a public school which, combined with La Cité's businesses, offers a practical education much like the hands-on learning I got in Alaska.
The spirit here is similar to that of my childhood. The intimacy of family – of shared meals, classrooms and electrical bills – extends to dozens beyond family lines.
In the field, the lanky farmer waves his hands and tries valiantly to communicate to me in broken English – three bulbs, three inches into the ground, over an acre. The whole community repeats this routine of bulbs and dirt. Kids chase each another. Grandparents tell stories and laugh. Later, we drink beer and play volleyball before heading to the communal kitchen to make late-night pizzas.
David and Ariana went back and forth on deciding which community to make their home, but settled on Alaska in the end. She had already been lamenting the decision to let La Cité residents start their own businesses (as long as they make a financial contribution to the community as a whole). The individualism, she says, has created haves and have-nots. "Our goal ... was to keep the young people," Ariana says – too many were leaving to seek their fortunes. "It's good in a way, but it just makes the community more materialistic."
Historically, many intentional communities have disbanded because of disagreements about money. But some have avoided the financial pitfalls of their early hippie predecessors.
Intentional communities are each unique, but a certain earnest idealism, a hope for what the world could be, and a determination to play a part in its transition, shines through every communard I've ever met. My mother says one has to be both desperate and visionary to start down her path.
Winter in a tepee
It still hadn't snowed a month after we arrived in the woods in the fall of 1987, but each morning we cracked the frozen puddles in the paths between the tepees. One afternoon at a diner in town, Evan Macik heard a few founders discussing how to survive the winter. A logger who yells even when his chainsaw is off, he claimed that building with logs was the easiest thing in the world. He brought them to see a cabin that, he said, a one-armed homesteader had put up in three days.
They gave Mr. Macik half of their first PFD payments to bring them some logs, only to discover that, when he said September, he really meant March.
"So – winter in Alaska with two layers of cotton between us?" one founder asked.
"Well, we'll see," another replied.
That Christmas, after waking my two younger sisters and baby brother to unwrap presents, I stepped outside. More than two metres of snow would fall that winter – almost seven feet. Snow berms around our tepee village towered over my head. I had decided to show my haul – a dump truck and some action figures from the Salvation Army – to my best friend, whose tepee, maybe 30 feet away, glowed like a lampshade in the still-dark morning. But I was not welcome; his family wasn't celebrating Christmas (the founders wavered on such traditions; some years we observed Thanksgiving and Easter, other years full moons and solstices).
"Go home," said the man of the tent. I scurried away in Mom's Arctic army boots – but slipped where seepage from a faucet had turned the path into a rink. Hearing me scream, my father jumped out with a hatchet and flashlight, ready to wrestle a winter bear in his red one-piece pyjamas.
As he picked me up, he said, "Oopsie." I hurt myself a lot as we ran through the woods like feral children; Oopsie would be my nickname for a decade.
A month after my spill, we were hiding under heavy sleeping bags at the back of the tepee, playing cards, when Dad said, "War." We had both slapped down jacks, so I dealt my last three cards and then waited for him to do the same. But he didn't move, even when I said, "Hurry up, Dad." Instead, he just stared at the tepee wall.
Like all the founders, Dad has been officially diagnosed with a mental-health disorder – in his case, paranoid schizophrenia. As well as payments from the state oil fund, they receive monthly disability cheques. A community motivated in more or less equal parts by an inability to function in the outside world and a determination to get away from it ended up living off its avails.
Finally, the spell broke, Dad flipped over the six of hearts – and won. "Let's go again," he said.
A is for adzuki
The following spring, Mr. Macik delivered the logs he had promised six months earlier. We kids helped our mothers debark them with drawknives – steel blades as long as my six-year-old arm, with perpendicular handles attached to either end.
The men stacked courses as if playing with giant Lincoln Logs. We built six cabins that year, chipping off ice to finish the one for the last family – who moved in on Dec. 22. A few sheets of plastic tarp covered the windows to shield us from minus-30 cold.
Within weeks, one woman had delivered her sixth child. And then Mom's fifth – my brother Alex – came along. The mothers set futons at the foot of barrel stoves and nursed newborns under duvets. The temperature didn't break zero for another month.
That winter, Mom began teaching us how to read. She was 25, had spent most of her adult life pregnant or nursing, and kept her most prized (inanimate) possessions in a manila envelope above the sewing machine. The day the schooling started, she brought it down and showed us poems she had written as a teenager, as well as our first primer, A is for Adzuki, which as a precocious 12-year-old she had written with her mother.
"A is for adzuki, small and red," she read aloud. "B is for burdock …" I caught on quickly. In that first year, I remember painstakingly sounding out brand names. I was just as happy taking 20 minutes to master the word "Mitsubishi" as I was using the company's laser-disc player to watch Star Wars.
My parents taught us what they felt was needed, but they didn't insist we learn much beyond arithmetic and basic English usage. Instead, they talked – discussing everything with each other, with us, and with the other families – building new values from the ground up. We were rarely made to study if we didn't want to. Because I loved to read, I read a lot; others didn't.
But we all pretty much absorbed the same life skills. By 12, I could fell, limb and buck a spruce tree with a chainsaw; raise a tepee; fertilize, weed and harvest a greenhouse; balance a communal budget and pay bills; drive a tractor; sew a pair of pants; change a diaper; mill rough-cut lumber, sand it down and build a table; place a wholesale food order for 40 people; can a gallon of salmonberries; and return a snot-nosed toddler to the right home down an icy road on a pitch-black winter afternoon.
Kids were given spending money. But when your parents are not only the gastronomic Gestapo but also poor, the snack options at the supermarket are limited. We were not allowed sugar, animal products or any chemical-sounding ingredients, so I always made a beeline to the bulk section for healthy (and cheap) peanuts and raisins.
Somehow, despite our poverty, the elders scraped together enough cash or air miles to send teenagers abroad to see foreign cultures as a part of our education. With the same friends, I both hiked the nearby Chugach Mountains and wandered the distant alleyways and hillsides of Katmandu, Santiago, Phnom Penh and Lisbon. We came back with stories about hairy bus rides through steep mountain passes and about poverty like we'd never imagined.
The founders had faith that we'd pick up all we needed to thrive in their universe. They were less concerned, however, with our success "out in the world." Each of us met the local board of education's basic
threshold for homeschooling outcomes, but I suspect some would have needed remedial classes to get into college. I found my way there at 22. The discipline and structure of school were exactly what I needed after a lifetime of running in the woods.
How babies are born
On July 4, 1991, I was nine and getting ready to head down to the beach to watch the Independence Day fireworks when my mother's water broke. Her sixth child was on its way.
That evening, while most of the community watched the fireworks, our family stayed home, anxious to see if it was a boy or a girl. Dad hovered nearby but after an hour went outside and started levelling the gravel driveway. He could never stand still for long. When the baby's head finally crowned, I ran to let him know, and he said, "Great – come tell me when you see its chin."
Mom instructed us to get ready. Katie, then seven, fetched a large bowl with warm water. I ran to the sewing machine for scissors and rubbing alcohol from the medicine cabinet. Soon after Dad came inside, Lauden was born. He was round and pinkish, like midnight sunlight shining on the cabin's peeled log exterior.
Since giving birth to me at 18 in a fourth-floor walkup in San Francisco, Mom has had no serious problems with home births. Only one child, her 10th, has arrived in a hospital – she wanted to show her daughters that wherever they decided to give birth was perfectly fine.
She didn't enjoy the experience, though. The next time her water broke, on a sunny June day, she huddled on the muskeg behind our house, alone. She was 37 and, apart from the baby bump, as skinny as the young, northern spruce all around her. Without people fussing, she could relax completely for the easiest and least painful of her 13 deliveries. Afterward, she walked out of the woods. On one arm was a stack of bowls abandoned by berry-picking kids; on the other was a newborn in a blanket.
Communality, and quiet
The Longhouse, as the heart of the community, is a source of laughter, clanking pots and pans, and guitar chords. A home theatre occupies one wing of the ground floor. The other is the kitchen, where crews prepare communal meals using a wood-fired stove and two gas ranges. The three sinks are commercial-grade stainless steel and the counters have butcher-block tops. The building's loft houses the office, library and sewing area, while wooden shelves and calico dividers partition the basement into small dens for sleep and privacy. You learn to use headphones or just tune out neighbours' tiffs and nocturnal noises.
Every morning, residents of all ages gather in the movie room, many clutching mugs of steaming tea. Daily meetings are how the community finds common ground, explores issues and makes decisions. They begin with silence – sometimes 20 seconds, sometimes 20 minutes – until someone chooses to start the conversation. No subject is deemed too mundane or personal. People may discuss carpooling and composting schedules, or a personal glimpse into infinity.
One morning on my visit home last summer, a founder and I are sitting in the cabin where he raised eight kids after his wife passed away. Half of them now live outside the state; the others live at the Longhouse, where two of his girls have started families of their own. In the centre of the cabin is a drawing table with architectural plans for a serpentine staircase he's building in the Barn. His bookshelf is lined with titles on mathematical theory and Eastern philosophy. Tacked to a corkboard is a question, each letter scissored from a half-sheet of paper: "What then?"
"Really early on in life, I became aware that it all had to be one thing," he says. "That whatever it is that made all this, is it."
He grew up in a Boston bedroom community he calls "absolutely average" – white, Irish-Catholic, traditional. He felt stymied, and by 1965, after a year of studying architecture, had dropped out of Notre Dame, "fundamentally interested in something other than what my so-called talents could point to." He recognized kindred spirits in the group that had gathered in Boston. They didn't want simply to "talk about this stuff in coffee shops," or "practise one thing but preach another."
As we talk, a moose and two brick-red calves come to snack from the birdfeeder outside his window. "You can have these wonderful, highfalutin ideas, but how to have that actually become your experience requires quietness," he says, after shooting a few photos. "The quietness of how reality is, like the quietness of the woods."
Building more than a barn
A few days later, I sit with Dad in the dump truck, talking about the early days. "Those were crude times," he says. "We were very trial and error-ish."
Sometimes, I feel like I was raised a lab rat. But there's little doubt that, had they not gone to Alaska, my father would probably be dead by the bottle and Mom would be a miserable suburbanite, dependent on antidepressants to stave off the deep sense of alienation she felt as a girl. They and their companions had to build a refuge.
And their building has never stopped. Once the massive Barn is finally finished, it will house a raft of services: shops devoted to carpentry, welding and mechanics; an art studio with a pottery wheel and kiln; a space for yoga and dance; and a rock-climbing wall (if my brothers get their way).
But the Barn's greatest value, I believe, has come from its construction – which has allowed members of the second generation to claim the community, physically and emotionally, as their own.
More than half of my peers have stayed and started families: They refuse to trade the deep sense of belonging for a career and the hectic pace of modern life. They will not end up leaving home.
Connor, 19, with a tangle of red hair, is the eighth of my 12 younger siblings. He has never lived anywhere else, and plans – as I still did at his age – to raise his family right where he is. But more than me, Connor is enamoured with many aspects of the simple life – he has a penchant for fermenting and farming.
Only one of his seven older siblings currently lives at home. The rest of us are scattered across the lower 48. But we return. If we didn't, Mom's heart would crack, again and again.
A new beginning
A week after we finished the Longhouse in 2002, I moved to Seattle with three other young people from the community. We were going to become a big rock band. Over the ensuing years, I drifted out of bar bands and into college classrooms. I moved to Texas and then New York.
At times, especially since landing in New York in 2010, I've had to balance school with as many as four jobs. As my father did in his 20s, I have worked a series of low-paying gigs: assistant carpenter, nanny for a little boy with two moms, pedicab driver, personal vegan chef, administrative assistant, and the thankless gamut of restaurant and bar work. But I've managed to return home for at least a few weeks every summer for the job I've enjoyed most: sloshing muddy spaghetti.
If my parents could write this story, it would end with me tiring of New York, and, like my friend David, going home for good.
I have one tattoo etched on each of my arms – a heart for my mother; a hammer for my father. When I first showed them to Mom five years ago, she scowled. "Just don't cover your whole body – that's gross." Then, with a hint of a smile, she asked to see the heart again.
Despite her protests, I see that I need to get six more tattoos – one for every founder. They don't always agree with my decision to embrace what they left behind, but each is like a parent to me. Still, when I go home each summer, for me the dream I shared with my extended family has faded a little more.
Nowadays, I live in a community of eight million strangers. As I enter my building, one of them exits the elevator. The Dogman has buzzed hair the colour of rain clouds and wears a sleeveless shirt that looks like it would better fit his young twins – who both have hair like their father's.
Only three dogs pull the Dogman along today, each with a toothier snout and nastier snarl than the last. I smile and say hello, holding the door open. He nods. He's as strange as anyone I grew up with in Alaska, but I don't know the Dogman's name, and he doesn't know mine.
Perhaps one day someone will introduce us.
Emrys Eller is a student at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this story, it was incorrectly stated that the Globe and Mail is a partner with the Banff Centre.