hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Deliberate neighbors

In rural Columbia County, a Quaker group tests a new model of community



Contributing writer

Along a quiet dirt road in the foothills of the Berkshires, a half-dozen new houses have taken shape on an old farm over the past decade.

But the social norms and values of this new community aren’t what you’d expect in a typical new housing subdivision.

The Quaker Intentional Village – or QIV, as it is known -- is neither a commune nor a co-housing development. It’s more of an intentional neighborhood that’s informed by an explicitly spiritual current.

The community of seven families is guided by five core objectives -- or intentions. For them, the village setting serves as a means to increase the mindfulness and spiritual focus of their daily lives. The community also supports the desire of members to reduce their ecological footprint and curb the influence of consumerist culture.

QIV stresses strong family life as a central priority. This involves helping to raise one another’s children and, when the time comes, caring for elders.

“Everybody considers family life important, but we often compromise because of the society we live in,” said Jens Braun, one of the community’s founders.

One of the goals of the community is to support its members in overcoming obstacles to healthy family life. Articulating their intentions is a critical part of working out how to make them real, Braun explained.

Each household at QIV lives separately. Most of the member families own environmentally conscious homes that they had a part in building. There’s also a “green” modular home, the fourth one ever fabricated by a Massachusetts company.

The community’s members collectively own the 132-acre rural property and the impressive common structure they call “the farmhouse,” which they built themselves after tearing down the original 1790s house at the site – a house whose roof had fallen into the cellar.

Although environmental sustainability is an important priority at QIV, the way the community’s members relate to one another appears to be the most striking aspect of the Quaker village.

QIV resembles an old-fashioned neighborhood where the kids can wander around freely and don’t have to be driven everywhere. Children especially seem to enjoy living with their friends so near.

The multigenerational community now has 13 adults and 12 children up to the age of 18, with another baby expected soon. (One member family had to move for a job and is now renting the house they built to a prospective member family.)

“I love all the kids running around,” said Dee Duckworth, a clinical psychologist whose children are grown. “When I go into someone’s house, there will be a kid climbing all over me.”

Duckworth and her husband, Paul Nowak, a retired finish carpenter, have naturally assumed a grandparent role at QIV. When they first visited, one of the community’s founding members took them around on a tour while nursing her youngest son.

“That was one of my big draws,” Duckworth recalled.

The community runs on trust. No one talks about pulling your fair share, Duckworth said. Realizing that another member is “stretched to her max,” she said, “I want her to say ‘yes’ when she can and ‘no’ when she can’t.”

“I love the generosity,” she added. “One thing I discovered, probably the first time in my life, is that I have a sense of belonging. It’s a very deep thing for me.”

Shared space, shared values
The physical layout of the community has the express purpose of facilitating casual interactions. Rather than using separate driveways, people leave their cars in shared parking lots.

They do their laundry at the farmhouse, where they have open potluck dinners on Fridays. An intern and two long-term visitors currently live at that community building.

People bump into each other going to their cars or the school bus or getting the mail. No one fences their yard -- either actually or symbolically.

Having a community that shares common goals and values helps members to go farther at achieving those goals than they could independently.

“The composting toilet is a perfect example,” said Ellen Harris-Braun, a founding member. “I’m sort of conservative. I would never have been gutsy enough to have no-flush toilet in my house without this positive peer pressure.”

Members of the community also constantly find ways to cooperate, saving time and gasoline and reinforcing goodwill. They volunteer to pick up things for their neighbors, shuttle children around and carpool when logistics work out.

There’s also always someone willing to pitch in with childcare when a need arises.

Harris-Braun is a birthing assistant who recently became a certified professional midwife. Her husband sometimes travels for work.

“In a nuclear family, if I got called for a birth, who would come take care of my kids?” she asked. “For my 24-7 on-call lifestyle, it’s been particularly invaluable to have people to back me up.”

Global perspective
The development of QIV has its roots in the experiences of two brothers who became founding members, Jens and Eric Braun.

The Brauns grew up in South America. Their parents, American ex-patriots who have permanently settled in Ecuador, worked as missionaries for nine years and later for the Peace Corps and other development agencies.

As a “third-culture kid” – someone who spent much of his childhood in another society – Jens Braun found many things about his home country that made him uncomfortable.

Here, he said, fears over personal safety too often take precedence over spiritual growth and skill development, and strict timelines take priority over human relationships. Without public transportation, children are overly dependent on parents who are tied to their cars. Many kids can’t explain what their parents do at work, and our lives are geared too much toward the future.

After he moved to the United States for college, Braun said, studying sociology and education sharpened his misgivings about the way children typically are raised here.

Braun spent much of his career abroad employed by Save The Children in the Mideast and Latin America. He and his wife, Spee, returned to the United States when his mother-in-law was dying of cancer.

As a convert to his wife’s faith, he started thinking about intentional communities in the mid-1990s when the subject was under discussion in the Quaker meeting they belonged to in Connecticut. The idea captivated his imagination, and he was drawn to the prospect of living in greater attunement with their values.

The couple visited numerous intentional communities in the West and Southwest to research their options. Spee questioned why they’d initiate another community if they could join an existing one.

“But the Braun boys like to start things from scratch,” said Harris-Braun, who’s married to Jens’ younger brother, Eric.

They ultimately settled on Columbia County in part because of the established Quaker presence in the region. They drew a circle marking a 10-mile radius from Powell House, a Quaker conference and retreat center in Old Chatham, and began looking at properties on the market that had more than 10 acres of land.

“I felt we were led to be here, a crossroads between New York and New England,” Jens Braun said.

Defining the Quaker term “leading,” he explained, “Our responsibility is to listen to the spirit and keep our preferences at bay.”

When the Brauns were seeking a site, they discussed the idea of buying multiple houses in a neighborhood in the village of Chatham. That would have reduced the need for driving – and fuel consumption. But they opted for rural living because agriculture was important to most members.

One couple in the community runs their two cars on used vegetable oil, which they process at a filtering station they built with a neighbor six miles away.

Growing food is a prominent activity at QIV. Soon after the two original families – the Braun brothers and their wives -- acquired the land in 2000, Jens Braun planted 80 fruit trees. He is also the community’s main shepherd.

Nowak, whose wife calls him a “maniacal gardener,” also raises a few pigs on pasture every summer. To avoid feeding them genetically engineered crops like corn and soybeans, he grows pumpkins, turnips, peas and mangels (a type of beet used as livestock feed) and buys local oats.

Another family keeps horses, turkeys and chickens, and most of the families also tend their own vegetable gardens and young fruit trees.

Making decisions
In an intentional community, the stakes are potentially high whenever choices need to be made and conflicts worked through. Often communities try to achieve consensus in an attempt to be inclusive, but the results can leave all sides somewhat dissatisfied.

Kristin Scheible and her husband live at QIV with their three children. Scheible said she and her husband, Pat, experienced the consensus process for two years when they lived in a cooperative at Harvard University.

“In trying to find the middle ground, sometimes you settle for mediocrity,” Scheible explained. “My experience is you never really sink into issues deeply enough.”

Scheible, an assistant professor of religion at Bard College whose specialty is Buddhist studies, explained that the Quaker process for making decisions goes beyond consensus – to unity. It entails searching for the spirit’s answer to the quandary at hand.

This doesn’t happen quickly. Committees explore and consider issues and present recommendations at the community’s monthly business meeting. They don’t reach decisions until proposals “season” over time.

This slow, deliberative approach seems to strengthen the group and reduce the occasion for misunderstanding.

“I feel when decisions are made, the whole community has been part of it in such a deep way,” Braun said.

So although the community doesn’t require its families to be members of the Religious Society of Friends, it does expect members to participate in the Quaker decision-making process.

Financial decisions are often difficult because of all the emotional baggage that gets wrapped up with the subject of money.

“In some ways, we handle it beautifully,” Duckworth said.

She said she’s pleased to see the community grappling seriously with how to accommodate potential members who cannot afford the buy-in fees and might not be able to build a house. Annual dues, which pay for property taxes and the farmhouse, are already adjusted do reflect income differences within the group.

“We’re all highly educated, privileged white folks,” Duckworth pointed out. Increasing the community’s diversity, she said, would align with the group’s values.

Navigating zoning laws
The different skill sets among member families has served the community well. Jens Braun, for example, is recognized as the community’s visionary, while Spee brings expertise as a highly skilled facilitator who knows how to organize groups toward a goal.

Many of the members are self-employed or work from home. Kinship relationships among the first member families provide another source of glue. In addition to the Braun brothers and their families, another early member is Spee’s cousin.

It took nearly a decade to get from the purchase of the hilly property to a full-fledged community with all of the houses completed and occupied. One of the Braun families moved there soon after they bought the property around the start of the new millennium. But it took several years of planning before the group won approval from the town of Canaan in 2005 to build more houses.

The Quaker Intentional Village Project was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2001. The group originally wanted to cluster all its houses around the common house, but the town’s zoning ordinance required them to create separate lots for each house. Even though the land is owned collectively, the town required a separate lot of 3 to 5 acres for each new house.

In a creative compromise, the community’s founders carved out their five permitted lots in an unusual configuration so that their homes could be close to the common house.

The county insisted they install raised leach fields and sand filters because of the site’s heavy soils. Even one home’s use of a composting toilet did not change this costly requirement.

“Our house kit, which included everything down to the nails, cost less than the leach field” for two houses, Schieble recalled.

The group built their community farmhouse using traditional materials and methods. The structure is timber framed -- a dozen members learned the technique in a two-week workshop the community sponsored -- and has walls made of wood chips and a slurry of clay called slip that they prepared in a cement mixer.

The air space between the chips acts as insulation in the walls, which are more than a foot thick.

Leaving the suburbs behind
Duckworth and Nowak were certain that the community was right for them when they visited at an open house nearly 10 years ago.

Duckworth had picked up a QIV brochure at the New York Yearly Meeting, a tri-state Quaker gathering that covers New York and parts of Connecticut and New Jersey. But she was reluctant to broach the subject with her husband, as she didn’t think he’d be open to moving.

Finally she left the brochure on his place setting so he’d find it at breakfast. To her delight, he scribbled her a note that read, “Let’s do it.”

The couple went to Canaan and soon applied for membership. After being accepted – this took a while, as the community goes through a “clearness” process to make these decisions -- they sold their house in New Jersey and bought another in the vicinity of the community. This allowed them to participate in the day-to-day life of the nascent community until they were finally able, a couple years ago, to move into the house Nowak had built.

One thing propelling the two to Canaan was the hyper-suburbia surrounding their former half-acre oasis in Bergen County, N.J.

“I could stand out my back door and, without moving my eyes, count 10 houses,” Duckworth said. “It was way too much.”

But to move, Nowak had to leave behind the animal and plant preserve his family’s stewardship had created over six decades. His father had been an early adherent of Rodale’s organic gardening methods, and over time these practices had resulted in two feet of rich topsoil loose enough to plant with his bare hands.

Selling the property brought about its destruction by developers. It was, he said, a grievous loss.

At QIV, however, Nowak said he has found “the best life for me -- the way I think we were intended to live in nature.”

Affectionately known as Captain Catastrophe by other members, because of his hardnosed views about climate chaos, peak oil and the like, the 67-year-old sees his mission as doing the best he can to create lifeboats.

“That’s my gift to humanity and also my gift to myself,” he said.


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