Ever since I was 14 years old I’ve been enchanted by the idea of the ‘hippy commune’ – a space as far away as possible from the hustle and bustle of modern life where a small community lives harmoniously off the land, unreliant on the planet-pillaging, profit-driven machinations of capitalism. Fast-forward nearly 17 years and I’m still not there.
I’m still here, in a normal house in London, lazily swigging bottled mineral water and nibbling on an aeroplane-imported salad. Still here, ready for yet another weekend of hurtling around busy anonymous streets and filling my lungs deep with pollution, quite probably twatted on cheap chemical-filled lager to drown out the hideousness of it all. Oh boy. Something really must be done.
I know I will never be happy until I’ve found a way of existing that doesn’t rely so heavily on a soulless modern infrastructure. I’ve already taken myself out of the rat race to an extent, eschewing office work in favour of setting up as a freelancer, but it’s far from being enough. I need to start to change the way I live beyond just the way I work. Right now I feel as if I’m trapped in a plastic hell: bombarded with identikit models on identikit adverts telling me what I’m supposed to be, forever pushing me to my knees at Mammon’s altar. I turn on the TV – because there’s nothing else to do, right? – and watch overpaid politicians thoughtlessly grandstanding on issues of life and death. I feel less and less a part of this ruthless world order with every passing day.
People call me a “hippy” and a “dreamer” as if those are bad things. I’m not ashamed of being a cliché, if that’s what I am. I wear my woollen, beaded rainbow dreadlocks and sun and flower tattoos with pride. And if you don’t like it I’ll hit you with my veggie sausage. Or, well, I would if I wasn’t a bit of a pacifist. Yes, I’m an internet troll’s dream. Did I mention that I always read the comments? However, despite my penchant for dressing like a bad LSD trip, I’m no fool. The truth is, my teenage dreams have been diluted a little over the years, as I’ve researched deeper and deeper into the reality of “intentional” communal living and how well it works. Groups set up and disband at a pretty fast rate, torn apart by internal politics, practical issues or simply people not being as committed as they originally thought and finding themselves unable to deal with the culture shock. In short, I don’t naively expect to just wander off the grid and into some kind of Utopia one day.
For the time being, I don’t even plan to wander all that far. I’m going to keep it small for now, and reestablish all those healing habits I seem to have begun to lose of late. Yesterday, I baked instead of going to the shops for a limp loaf of ready-cut branded bread. This afternoon, when I’ve got some work out of the way, I’m going to sit under a tree in my local park. Best of all, when I got up this morning I installed a programme that can block Facebook for 24 glorious hours at a time. Tomorrow, I’m going to take part in a community tree-planting initiative. It’s not quite my commune yet but these are all incredibly positive steps along the way.
I’ve also completely avoided alcohol for the past fortnight, in an effort to give myself some extra clarity of thought and really assess where I’m going with all this. Drinking is so much a part of the life of most 30-year-old Londoners and I’m no exception. In fact, my disgruntlement with my current existence is such that I am probably a lot more into my booze than the average. If I lived in the woods with some other dreadlocked fairies, growing potatoes, would I still be glugging back gallons of organic cider? Probably not. In any case, I’m aching to find out one day.
I’m heading back towards my tongue-in-cheek stereotypes, of course. Intentional communities aren’t all based in the woods. Nor are they solely populated by dreadlocked fairies. From converted scrapyards in the middle of Manchester to wooden huts with compost toilets in the Scottish highlands, communal living comes in many forms. Some communities have a guiding spiritual vision. Some – and these, as you have probably guessed, are the ones which interest me most – are heavily into exploring permaculture, which is a way of developing agricultural ecosystems so that they are as sustainable as possible. Some – shock horror – even operate from the same kind of “normal” urban houses as the one I’m sitting in now. But all are pretty much united by one thing – a realisation that the general state of human social interaction in the 21st century is a bit screwed up. Every time I get on a tube train these days I feel more and more squashed. And it’s not because of any extra passengers. Every time I play yet another round of Candy Crush, I feel more and more crushed. And it’s not because I’m losing.
It’s clear that a lot of us are stressed out by modern life. Just look at all the people on antidepressants, the suicide statistics, the endless adverts for yoga classes and massages and anything just anything to quell the horrible anxiety. It’s at this point that someone usually picks up on my mention of modern medicine and starts asking me what I’d do if I had a heart attack in my log cabin in the mountains. Well, stop right there. What I’m not suggesting is that I want to cut myself off entirely from modernity. We should definitely embrace the wonderful positive things that modern scientific discovery has brought us. But there’s a difference between knocking back a cocktail of Valium and Xanax just to sleep every night and allowing a doctor to treat a case of cancer.
So… What’s it really like to take the plunge and choose a different kind of life?
I spoke to James, who’s been living as part of an intentional farming community in Wales for the past six years. “I love being here,” he says, “but it’s definitely not all plain sailing.” Prior to arriving at the farm, James worked as an IT analyst for a bank. “I did expect it to be a bit more of a paradise on earth than it actually turned out to be, but I’m not really complaining and I’d never ever go back to my old life!” he laughs. “It beats working in the city any day. Now I’m part of a big ‘family’ and I spend half my day working on the farm and the other half working remotely as a freelance contractor, offering remote computer repair services. I’m still incredibly busy but the pace of my life has slowed, if you get what I mean. The knot I had in my stomach for almost 35 years has gone.” What are the main downsides to communal life? “The bickering is really hard to deal with,” James responds. “People have all these idealised views of how flat management structures will work like magic and everyone will feel immediately empowered but in reality it’s really difficult. Lots of people leave because they can’t cope.”
For those who are intrigued but keen to try out the lifestyle without commitment, a phenomenon called “WWOOFing” may hold the key. No relation to dogging, don’t worry: “WWOOF” stands for “Willing Workers On Organic Farms”. Hosts, many of whom live in communal set-ups, accommodate and feed volunteers in exchange for anything from a few days to a few years of labour. You can sign up and contact hosts at www.wwoof.org.uk. I’ve got a few hosts bookmarked myself and I’m planning to organise a trip in the new year. I’ll let you know how it goes…