Teagan Blackburn lives in a single family house with a yard in suburban Rockland County with her two kids, dog and husband Brent “Arrow” Baker. Blackburn met Baker when he was a squatter in New York City, and they began their relationship in a converted squat in the East Village, so this set-up is novel.
“Wow, this is so comfortable,” said Blackburn, 37. “We don’t have to go around shushing everyone to get the babies to sleep,” she said. “We have so much space we find ourselves inviting all our friends from the city for the weekend. We dug up part of our yard and put up a nine-foot deer fortress.”
There’s just one thing: “It’s totally the antithesis of how we want to be living.”
Blackburn, a radical environmentalist and teacher, and Baker, 45, a former circus fire-eater and freight train-hopper who currently owns a company making biofuel out of cooking grease, are leading the Herculean effort to start an ecovillage. After a long search for land that began in New Paltz, Blackburn lighted on a 75-acre farm in Warwick. The day before we went to press, she submitted a binder and expected to be going to contract within the week. If all goes well, the group that calls itself Catalyst Community will have access to their land around the first week of June.
An ecovillage is a type of settlement that seeks to be an answer to the wasteful and destructive aspects woven into the very fabric of modern living, the kind of back-to-the-land departure from the status quo that might have been called a commune a few decades ago. Ecovillages are gaining global traction. One of the early models, EcoVillage at Ithaca, founded in 1991, is just a few hours’ drive northwest of Warwick.
At Catalyst Ecovillage, as many as 80 adults and their families will “live and demonstrate a lifestyle of deep ecology and social cohesion,” according to the mission statement. They will live in clusters of housing like domes, Earthships or tiny houses that will be fossil-fuel-free and create more energy than they will use, leaving much of the acreage open for growing food and wild space. The houses might be built using straw bales, cob, earth bags, super adobe, hempcrete, aircrete, rammed earth, recycled materials, locally sourced stone or reclaimed wood, or some combination of the above – there is no shortage of ideas out there. Some residents will be employed on-site in farm-related cottage industries like kombucha brewing, or growing algae to turn into biodiesel. They’re planning to have eldercare, a Waldorf-inspired homeschool, greenhouses, an art and dance space in the former horse barn, and a common house for shared meals.
The craziest part? It looks like it’s actually going to happen. As of press time, 20 founding members had secured two loans and pooled almost enough money to cover the down payment on the property, priced at $1,350,000 contingent on the assessment. Google Maps already has the parcel at 20-22 Taylor Road labeled as Catalyst Community Land.
About 75 percent of the Catalyst membership so far hails from the city, and nearly all the rest come from Rockland and Orange counties and north Jersey. Most are folks in their thirties who are having kids or thinking about it, a few are in their twenties (“we’re thankful to them and their strong backs,” said Blackburn) and about five are seniors.
“We have to have a good balance” of ages, said Blackburn. Respect for the life cycle is a core tenet of the community, which views the very old and very young as intrinsic members of the tribe. “It’s important that we include people in all stages of life, and also create facilities that are useful, whether you have problems with ambulating, need your unit to be all one story and as close to the common house as possible. At some point we will have members who are very young, and at some point we will all be very old.”
As of press time they were still looking for between one and four more founding families, couples or individuals to help purchase the land.
Recruiting is coming along, but it’s been harder than expected. When Blackburn first sent out an email to 50 friends to test the waters in 2012, asking what their ideal ecovillage looked like, she got back paragraphs upon paragraphs from all sorts of people.
“I realized I’m not the only one sitting on this vision,” she said. “My husband and I said, this is the way we want to be living. We don’t want to wait any more.”
She wrote a vision statement and posted it to Facebook. Within days, 100 people had joined the Catalyst group. “It was all very inspiring, but then when it came down to who’s ready to live this way now, the numbers went from 100 to 30. Other people said they had to wait for two years or longer,” she said.
A core of leaders is now working full tilt on this mission, hosting meetings in Warwick and in the city, including a couple at the Google Headquarters, where one member works (which may be why Google Maps is so sanguine about the project). The Catalyst Community Facebook page now says: “Be Advised: This is not a dreaming group people, this is a get-our-****-together-and-build-it-freakin-now group.” Smiley face. “The Earth can’t wait.”
Dirt tagged along to a meet-and-greet-and-hang-out potluck at an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Blackburn, a slight woman with blonde dreadlocks and ramrod posture, was under the weather, but for the next two hours she showed no signs of it.
A few folks at the meeting were first-timers, so as people milled about the kitchen, helping themselves to avocado on toast, pastrami and kale salad, Blackburn re-capped what had happened at the previous meeting and fielded questions. Between bites of her dinner, she passed around a copy of her “bible,” an out-of-print book published in 1995 called Rebuilding Community in America: Housing for Ecological Living, Personal Empowerment and the New Extended Family. (Blackburn mailed copies to the Warwick building inspector and a friendly Warwick planning board member.)
She paused to field a call from her husband, who’d taken a wrong turn on the way home, dictated a text to let the babysitter know he’d be late, and picked up right where she’d left off.
When one of the new guys, Fabian Norman, 36, a ponytailed computer programmer from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, asked whether a resident could “put up a shack and start a brewery,” she setshim straight nicely.
“We’re not out in Arkansas – as much as we wish we were,” she said. “We’re friendly to entrepreneurism, but it has to be in the bounds of what the planning board will allow.”
She has done this sort of thing before.
Blackburn, originally from Ohio, is a veteran not only of teaching and activism, but also of nurturing group cohesion. After majoring in women’s studies and experiential education, she was gearing up for a career doing trust building exercises – ropes courses, mostly – with groups and businesses. Then an organic vegetable growing internship at a 300-acre women’s farm in Ohio, called Grailville, reset her course. She got into sustainable agriculture, and would go on to work on labeling GMOs and educating kids about gardening, eventually landing gigs with Heifer International and then Food Bank NYC, before she stepped back to have kids. It was also Grailville, where she lived in an intergenerational women’s house called Pneumos (“breath of the earth”) that she fell in love with communal living.
“The richness of that community life, having that rhythm of daily life shared with others, was really part of my formative years,” she said. “I get so much out of living this way. No television, no internet to speak of.” After working in the garden most of the day, the women would spend the evening doing things together like baking, painting, playing guitar, reading their own poetry, debating politics, going on night hikes or skinny dipping in the creek.
“It wasn’t like, let’s put on Jeopardy and watch the evening news,” Blackburn laughed. “It was beautiful, but it was also kind of fleeting.”
Even with Blackburn’s group-oriented background, communication has emerged as one of the first sticking points. “You know that they’re always going to come. No matter how well things are going, they’re going to come,” she said, when Dirt asked about the snags inherent in trying to build a utopia. “I had three members say, we feel like we’re not getting updated often enough. One lives in Brooklyn, one lives on the Upper West Side, and one lives in Illinois. And I live in Rockland. It’s hard. When you’re all living together – that should solve that particular problem.”
Communication is hard enough in a marriage, it occurs to this onlooker; living with dozens of other adults is going to take selflessness, patience and work.
Group dynamics, however, are not among the concerns for Claire Gabelmann, 67, a Warwickian who is “99 percent sure” she’ll be among Catalyst’s future residents. “I’m the kind of person who can get along with others,” she said.
Gabelmann’s kids are grown and she’s ready to downsize. But as for a next step, everything she thought of didn’t work. “The thought of living in senior housing or something like that wasn’t appealing. I thought even of Florida, but that’s just not for me.”
The model of a civic soul, Gabelmann has piled up five awards this year alone for community service from groups like the Lion’s Club. “I have so many connections here. I did not want to move away from Warwick because it’s my best place I’ve ever lived in my life,” she said.
After going to a Catalyst meeting, Gabelmann saw her future. “I see myself helping with the organic farming, and cooking the vegetables, because I love to cook, and I love to cook for groups of people. I do it all the time for events. They were so appreciative of that skill that I have. I can sew, I had a sewing business years ago making baby quilts. I have my commercial sewing machine still and lots of fabrics. People were excited about that. They want to have a sewing room in the community center.”
“We don’t all need individual everything,” Gabelmann said. “All my gardening supplies, sewing supplies, all my books. I don’t want to get rid of all that stuff, but I want to share it.”
“It’s all good. I’m so into it. The more I get to know the people, the more I’m totally impressed by them and like them.” Every time she comes home from a meeting, she Googles things like biodiesel or biodynamic farming. “At my age I am learning so much,” she said. “It will keep me young.”
This way of life is “absolutely not for everybody,” Gabelmann said. Would she have wanted to raise her kids this way? She’s not sure, although she can see that for some people, this is exactly how they want their kids to grow up – and she’s excited about having little ones around. “All I know is for me, right now, it’s perfect.”
Gabelmann’s concerns are exactly two. The first reservation she had was about the price of the structures – she wants to downsize financially, too. But since the group has started looked at domes that cost just $7,000 to build, it’s clear that there will be affordable options.
Her only remaining worry is the planning board, “that they’ll get it, what we’re trying to do, that it’s good for the environment and Warwick and the people. Hopefully they’ll be into something like this.”
Blackburn reports that her one meeting with the board was encouraging, and the Catalyst folks are ardent about stressing that they are open to compromise. Still, there are many question marks to be worked out, and in terms of laxness, Warwick is not New Mexico.
“We’re totally taking a risk,” said Blackburn. What if we can’t do all of the things we want to do on the land? What if we can’t afford to pay back all the loans? But we’re taking the risk together, and as more people see we are fearlessly starting this endeavor, they’ll want to join us. I’ve been saying that to myself: You have to be courageous, to have a vision and to dare to try to manifest it into reality. So we’re looking for more people who can be courageous that way. It would almost be paionful to people like us to not try.”
Donna Roberts, 57, is in a similar boat as Gabelmann. Her younger son is in college – majoring, it happens, in urban planning with a minor in sustainability -- and now she’s living alone in a three-bedroom house in the village of Warwick, and she’s got her nose to the grindstone working to pay the bills. She’d been dreaming about an off-the-grid community, but from what she’d found online, she figured she’d have to go to Colorado or California. She found one in Costa Rica, but it was “really, really off the grid.”
“I’m not ready to give up my bathroom,” she laughed. “I don’t want to be walking outside to a community outhouse.”
At the Costa Rica community, “nobody’s putting on high heels once in awhile and watching a play.” When Dirt spoke to her, Roberts had just found out about Catalyst and hadn’t yet been to a meeting. “I know nothing,” she said. “It’s like a dangling carrot.”
Even knowing nothing, she was elated at the thought of living simply and lightly, around likeminded people, without having to leave “my little Warwick.” She was ready to put her house on the market and jump right in – provided it was okay if she still went to the movies sometimes.
“I’m not going there planning on never shaving again,” she said. “That’s not happening.”
Interested? Next Warwick meetings are Thurs. March 5 & Thurs. March 26 at Conscious Fork, 6:30-8:30 p.m. catalystecovillage.org.