A Bird's Eye View of a Visitor Period

by Jillian Downey

Twin Oaks is an egalitarian, income-sharing community, founded 30 years ago. They have 450 or so acres of land, and an adult population of oh maybe 80, and 15 or so kids, from 2 to 16 years of age. The overall average age is I think 44. All their buildings are all named after former communities. The standard of living here is quite nice, even though the actual cash income of each member, if you try to divide it up, is low. Sharing resources really helps! TO has a 501d tax status, which is actually what monasteries are - its the closest thing to what TO is,legal and tax-wise, even though it's secular.


Their main income source continues to be the hammocks they make by hand, although they have a rapidly-growing organic tofu business and also do book indexing. It's a fascinating place to visit, to take part in the day to day life and also learn about the systems they have in place that help the community run so well. Some people call TO the "school of community", because so many people come here to learn, along with people who come to visit with an eye to joining.


I've found the people here to be an interesting mix (with an exception on one level - the population is mostly white.). But as far as interests, backgrounds, life focuses, age, political views, etc, people are very varied. There is no one unifying goal here, other than living together in community, and their basic precepts of egalitarianism and income-sharing. So there's always a lot of discussion going on, major decisions are never very easy, with so much diversity of opinion. Most of the members are very friendly toward us visitors, happy to teach us how to do the work, answer our questions, incorporate us in the daily life of their home. Which when I really think about it is something, considering how many visitors flow through this community, never to be heard from again after their three week visit. And there are some members who don't have much to do with visitors, but they do this in an unobtrusive way; I just notice that I meet or interact with a certain bunch of members a lot more.


I spend my days doing all kinds of things, and every seven days need to have made "labor quota", meaning I have to have worked 45.5 labor creditable hours. Creditable work ranges from cooking to cleaning to laundry to weaving hammocks to doing a bread baking shift to child care to taking care of someone who's ill to weeding the garden to making tofu to delivering firewood to driving into Charlottesville to pick up things people need to drilling hammock strechers to making hammock rope to canning or drying garden produce to making all kinds of cheese to milking the cows to working a shift at their sewage treatment plant to participating in a community meeting to... and it goes on and on and on.


As visitors, we also get what are called Visitor Orientations, or Oreos, for short. They are spread out over our three weeks, and they are usually an hour or two long, each one is a talk on a different aspect of living here, given by various community members. Today we had one about TOs legal status. Yesterday it was about political activism here. We've also had oreos on the membership process, on the labor system, on the health care system, on raising kids, etc. We even had one that was a three hour land walk, the forestry manager took us on a walk along some of the many paths through the woods surrounding the community, and told us some of the history of their land.


Let's see, what kinds of work have I done. I of course know how to weave hammocks now, and do that for oh maybe five to ten hours a week. The hammock shop is set up with an elaborate system where each weaving station has two hookups dangling from the ceiling where you can plug in earphones, and then over on the stereo there are buttons where you can choose the radio, the tape player, or the CD player at each hookup, so there can be three very different types of music playing, but silently! And those who want to weave socially, facing eachother across the jig and talking, can do so with no problem. :-) And there are lots of jigs outside too for nice weather weaving. I usually assist on one dinner cook a week, and everyone does one kitchen clean a week. I've also done several four-hour garden shifts (they have a beautiful organic vegetable garden).


The herb garden is labelled really well, so community members can wander along the paths and know what plants they're looking at. It's got all kinds of nooks and crannies, a tiny goldfish pond here, a bamboo grove there, a bench under an awning of greenery, and a member who's an herbalist makes all kinds of teas and tinctures for the community, and supplies fresh herbs for the cooks every day.


I've done a stretcher-oil shift, which meant rubbing linseed oil on the newly-sawed and drilled wooden hammock stretchers. I've watched various stages of cheesemaking, and I've done several food processing shifts, mostly slicing up red peppers and putting them on drying trays, to eventually be put in jars for winter use.


Non-work-creditable things I'm up to include swimming in their pond, hanging out and talking, went contradancing one night in Charlottesville, played Pictionary, going for walks to look at the stars (which are very clear here - there are no street lights), took part in the equinox holiday celebrations (which included wreath-making, tie dying, a fancy barbecued-salmon dinner, a talent show, and a dance). Time really flies here - I always seem to be up by 7 or 7:30am, and 11pm always rolls around way too fast, past which I have trouble keeping my eyes open, despite the best-laid plans to try to do some email.


I'm really enjoying the food here - its so good to know that a large portion of it comes from their land. All their garden produce is organic; they have milk and cream (and occasionally beef) from their organically fed cows, and from it make yogurt, cream cheese, and all kinds of hard cheeses; they make tofu and some tempeh too; they have honey from their bees; they have eggs and meat from their chickens; they have a bread baking shift every day; in the summers they make large quantities of salsas and sauces, pickled beets, cukes, and other veggies, to have year-round. Today at lunch we had roasted chestnuts, picked from their chestnut grove. These past two days have been classic fall days - crisp and cool and sunny, so having chestnuts fit right in with the mood.


Today was kind of a sad day for the community though. A much beloved family left today. They are moving to a community in Oregon. It really brought it home to me that a serious challenge about living in community, especially in income-sharing communities, which tend to be pretty tight-knit, is that people you become very close to do leave. You've lived as intimately as family, but are expected to just let go over and over again as people head back out again. Ouch. Of course good friends keep in touch, and old members visit, but that's so different from the close sharing that happens here.