Slices of Heaven

Joel Sternfeld’s photographs of American utopias

Since the early days of American history, so-called utopian communities have been a defining feature of our cultural landscape. Photographer Joel Sternfeld has captured 60 of them in his new book, Sweet Earth. A common theme in these societies is harmony with nature, and many have noteworthy eco-friendly features. In the following slideshow, you’ll see seven of these places, and learn about their founders’ visions.

1. Arcadia Cohousing, Carrboro, North Carolina, April 2005

The home of Giles Blunden is independent of the public power grid. The solar panels visible on his roof provide electricity and heat water. Blunden is the chief architect and founder of Arcadia Homes, a sustainable cohousing community in which all thirty-three residences have passive solar design (non-mechanical solar heating achieved through site selection and large south-facing windows) and some active solar elements (collecting the sun’s rays by appropriate technology to provide heat, mechanical power or electricity).

In addition to its solar features, Arcadia is a pedestrian-friendly community that preserved nine acres of climax hardwood forest when it was built, by clustering houses on land covered with secondary-growth pine trees. The distinctive architecture of the community derives from vernacular local millhouse structures.

In 2003 the share of all electricity produced by solar cell technology in the US was 0.07 percent—though as far back as 1979 President Jimmy Carter announced (at a press conference held on the White House roof) the goal of bringing sun, wind and other renewable resources-generated electricity to twenty percent of the US total by the year 2000. In contrast, Japan, where fossil fuels are much more expensive, generated four times the amount of solar electricity produced in the US.

As solar power approaches a cost of $2 per watt, it is becoming less expensive than commercial power. Thirty-eight states, including North Carolina, have enacted “net metering” laws that require utilities to connect residential solar panels into the grid and to compensate homeowners for any excess electricity they produce.

2. Paolo Soleri at Arcosanti, Cordes Junction, Arizona, August 2000

Throughout the twentieth century, architects have been particularly ready to offer their visions of an idealized urban future. For Le Corbusier, a “Radiant City” would be appropriate to the machine age, providing a highly efficient and organized grid to facilitate modern life. For Frank Lloyd Wright, it was critical that everyone have their own patch of earth on which to realize their individuality: thus his “Broadacre City” not only necessitated personal land to live on, but a car to get there. The Italian-born architect Paolo Soleri is far less well-known to the public than Le Corbusier or Wright, but in the Arizona desert he is quietly building what is perhaps the world’s only true prototype of a futurist city.

Arcosanti is an “Arcology,” a word used by Soleri to describe the harmonious marriage of architecture and ecology. Unlike Wright, with whom he studied, Soleri believes that it is the physical dispersal in the landscape permitted by the automobile that has led to moral and spiritual dispersal in society. By contrast, Arcosanti, planned for five thousand inhabitants, will occupy only two percent of the land normally taken up by a suburban development. Residents work no more than a ten-minute walk from their homes, eliminating the need for cars within the city—consistent with Soleri’s prophecy of the eventual extinction of the automobile. Reminiscent of the historic center of Italian cities, every aspect of Arcosanti’s design, including numerous balconies, terraces and piazzas, encourages a maximum of social interaction.

Soleri is also critical of excessive consumption of resources. To avoid wasting materials, gardens, solar heating and natural cooling move the community toward self-sufficiency.

Arcosanti has been under construction for thirty-five years, self-funded by the sale of distinctive wind chimes and bells that are forged on site. It is being built by students and volunteers—progress is at once achingly slow and surprisingly fast. Visitors will find a substantial and unusual small community of about fifty permanent residents, and significant glimpses of a city that feels ancient and futuristic as it rises.

3. City Farm, Clybourn and Cleveland Avenues, Chicago, May 2005

City Farm is a series of temporary sustainable organic farms built on vacant land leased from the city of Chicago. This site is adjacent to Cabrini Green, a housing project whose name has become synonymous with all that is wrong with public housing.

Founded and managed by Ken Dunn, a native Kansan with a family background in farming and a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago, City Farm begins by leasing vacant lots, cleaning them and then putting down a protective clay barrier to prevent leaching of any toxic materials contained in the site. Fresh soil is then brought in and fertilized with discarded trimmings from restaurants and grass clippings that would normally go to landfill. Unemployed and homeless people are invited to apply for apprenticeships and jobs on these sites, as the land is planted with heirloom tomatoes, beets, carrots, potatoes, gourmet lettuces, herbs and melons. When the crop comes in, produce is sold to some of the city’s most stylish restaurants: Frontera Grill, Scoozi, Mod and the Ritz-Carlton. Chefs rave about the quality of the handpicked heirloom tomatoes, often harvested just hours before their use.

Proceeds from these sales are used, in part, to allow for the additional sale of City Farm produce to neighborhood residents at much lower prices. In deciding which crops to plant, neighborhood tastes are taken into account.

When the land is sold, City Farm rolls up the compost, soil and fencing, and relocates. The city of Chicago currently has about eighty thousand vacant lots.

4. Rabbi Chaim Adelman at Eretz HaChaim, Sunderland, Massachusetts, October 2004

Eretz HaChaim (Hebrew for “the living land”) is a kosher, organic communal farm, founded in 2002 by Ultra-Orthodox Jews under the leadership of Rabbi Chaim Adelman. The commune, still in formation as of this writing, owns seventy acres of land.

Following an early Jewish rule that presages modern sustainable farming practice, every seventh year they will let their land lie fallow. In accordance with the Torah, the “corners” of their fields will be left to the poor—if no poor show up to glean, the produce from the corners will be donated to charity. As Orthodox Jews they cannot milk cows on Saturdays, so gentiles will perform the task on that day. Their kosher organic chickens will not be fed grain during Passover. The community plans to be self-sufficient, with a synagogue, schools, a ritual bath and a swimming pool (the Talmud, a body of Torah interpretation, says that children must be taught to swim).

Eretz HaChaim is part of a larger return to a Jewish farming tradition. Sweet Whisper Farm in Readsboro, Vermont, specializes in organic education and maple syrup harvested using horse-drawn wagons. Mitzva Farms in Waukon, Iowa, produces Yetta’s Chedda, A Bis’l Swiss’l and Mazel Rella.

5. New Buffalo Bed and Breakfast, Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, August 1995

Hundreds of communes were established in America in the late 1960s, but nowhere were they as concentrated as in the northern New Mexico town of Taos. Within a few years, at least twenty-five communities were founded, including the Hog Farm (which provided security at the Woodstock Festival), Morningstar East (established by a group fleeing violence against them in California), the Lama Foundation (a spiritual retreat that still survives despite a 1996 wildfire, which destroyed nearly all its buildings except the central dome), and the Family (a group marriage of fifty adults, most of whom lived in one house with one upstairs bathroom—and many toothbrushes around the sink).

The exemplar of the Taos communal scene was New Buffalo, founded in 1967 by a group of people fascinated with Native American culture, on land donated by a wealthy young man intent on giving away his inheritance. The name “New Buffalo” was chosen because the founders wanted the commune to function as the buffalo had for Native Americans—provider of everything.

New Buffalo was an agrarian commune, simultaneously struggling with living off the land and coping with the instability of large numbers of short- and long-term visitors passing through. Timothy Miller points out in The 60s Communes that this conflict between openness and providing for newcomers may have been the central paradox of 1960s communalism: the more successful a commune became, the more attractive it grew to outsiders. The difficult decision to screen outsiders, and the means of initiating them into the daily practices and ethos of the group, often determined the fate of a commune. New Buffalo managed to survive in some form for nearly two decades, despite what has been termed the “Hippie-Chicano War”: vandalism, and in some cases brutal violence, were directed at the Taos communes by members of the local population who resented much about the communards, including their ability to buy land or get up and leave if things got tough.

By the mid 1990s, the ownership of New Buffalo had reverted to Rick Klein, the young man who’d given the land away many years before. He transformed it into New Buffalo Bed and Breakfast. At last account, it was for sale.

6. New Elm Springs Colony, Ethan, South Dakota, July 2005

In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia. A year later, Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg. And in 1525 at a meeting in Zurich, the early Anabaptists repudiated infant baptism in favor of “true Christian” adult baptism. Among this most radical wing of the Protestant Reformation were the Hutterites, a sect which took its name from Jacob Hutter, an early leader. They believed strongly in pacifism, communal ownership of all goods and the separation of church and state.

For the next century, under the protection of Moravian nobles, the Hutterites grew prosperous and their numbers swelled to perhaps thirty thousand. But the sect, which throughout its history has been persecuted for its distinctive beliefs, was expelled from Moravia in 1622. After a century and a half of migration, they began to settle in Russia with a promise of exemption from military duty. When this privilege was withdrawn in 1871 they left, and a few years later settled in South Dakota.

Despite the hardships of their early years on the prairie, the Hutterites’ numbers grew steadily until World War I. As pacifists, their young men resisted service but, with no conscientious objector laws in place, draft-eligible males were arrested. When two of them were tortured to death while in custody, the Hutterites hastily moved to Canada, under another promise of exemption from active duty.

During the dark days of the Great Depression, the state of South Dakota was in desperate need of tax revenue, and the highly successful Hutterites, whose colonies refused any form of state aid, were invited to reoccupy their former lands. Today, forty thousand Hutterites can be found throughout the western United States and Canada, where their remarkably successful communities adopt whatever modern technology they find useful, and live according to beliefs first embraced in 1525.

7. Albert Bates next to a Dry Composting Toilet at the Farm Ecovillage Training Center, Summertown, Tennessee, April 2005.

Between 1981 and 1985, the Farm went through a period of crisis. Distrust of leadership, lack of adherence on the part of new members to the founding philosophy, agricultural reversals and large debts nearly brought an end to the experiment.

However, a reorganization in 1983 stabilized the situation. The communal form gave way to a cooperative system in which every member had to pay a hundred-dollars-a-month “rent”— the resident population fell from fourteen hundred to three hundred people. Households of fifty gave way to single-family homes. Common money and business holdings ceased, replaced by personal incomes and bank accounts.

Nevertheless, idealism persists. Members may choose to belong to the Second Foundation, the Farm’s alternative communal economy. Plenty, “the hippie peace corps,” is still active in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and the Native American nations. Its bus with relief supplies was one of the first to enter New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And throughout both the Farm’s first and second incarnations, its midwifery program has remained highly respected across the nation. Women doctors, as well as women from all walks of life, come to the Farm’s Midwifery Center to give birth—outcome statistics for more than two thousand deliveries are amongst the best in the nation.

The idealism of the second phase of the Farm’s development is most evident in the Ecovillage Training Center, led by Albert Bates. Bates is a lawyer who left New York City in 1972 and hiked down the Appalachian Trail to join the Farm shortly after it began. Author of more than ten books, in the early days he established the Natural Rights Center, an environmental public interest law firm, and in more recent times he has created the Ecovillage Training Center, where courses in natural building, rainwater catchment, organic gardening, biofuel creation and permaculture are offered. It is a key site in the emerging global ecovillage movement.

The compost toilet pictured is a hybrid of many building techniques. It was erected during a three-day workshop and is still under construction. The living roof is made from a salvaged satellite dish covered with rubber, carpet scraps, straw and turf.


The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.

Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.

A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.

Fast visuals/ words make slow emotions extinct.

Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys emotional circuits.

A fast (large) society cannot feel pain / remorse / empathy.

A fast (large) society will always be cruel to Animals/ Trees/ Air/ Water/ Land and to Itself.

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