Released June 28, 2021
Featuring: Paul Caron and Diana Leafe Christian
In this podcast, Earthaven co-founder and village philosopher Paul Caron shares how he got involved with the other Earthaven founders, innovations in round-pole timber framing that enabled building Earthaven’s iconic Council Hall, and what the Earthaven project is all about for him.
The main thing that we’re doing and trying to show people isn’t growing organic food, it’s sharing resources, coming together as a group and deciding how to make our lives better by cooperation. This is the thing that our culture is constantly tearing down in order to sell products to more people.
Hello and welcome to the Earthaven Ecovillage podcast, where we meet people and hear ideas contributing to Earthaven Ecovillage’s living laboratory for a sustainable human future. In this episode, our host, Earthaven member and communities expert Diana Leafe Christian talks with Earthaven co-founder and village philosopher Paul Caron about the origins of Earthaven Ecovillage and the design of our iconic council hall.
Well, my name’s Paul Caron. I come from Michigan originally and I’ve moved around quite a lot. My life story is a bit complicated, but for a long time, I had making a community in mind and mostly the choices I made in my life are to that end.
OK, so first I came to this area already with starting a community in mind, and I had had been actually thinking about this for a long, long time since I was about 20. That was in the early 80s. And I moved into a community that was already formed, which was up the hill from here, and the vision there was “let’s all buy land together because it’ll be cheaper.”
But I had a different idea. Something more public and more radical. And there were several other people that were more of the page that I was, but because of the way it was set up, there wasn’t a way to actually do what I wanted to do. But we did hike around and there’s a hiking trail that comes through this land goes down the hill around and up the other side. And as we would hike through here, I was like, this place seems like the possible place for this vision and then I met people from Earthaven who were already formed as a group and they were looking for land. They didn’t own land, but they called their forming group Earthaven.
They had been through several iterations of people and had gone through lots of preparation about the vision and the agreements, which is a good idea if you want to form a community to do all that first. The worst thing to do would be to buy land and then try to figure out what you want to do.
People from the group came and looked at this land and they were somewhat unimpressed because they had seen many pieces of land and they had a pretty strict list of what they wanted and what they didn’t want. One thing that they wanted was cleared land and structures, which this completely isn’t. There was one hunting cabin with only three walls. And what they didn’t want was neighbors that drove through, which we do have. But one thing that they wanted was good bold water. That’s how real estate people talk about streams. We have really nice water here.
They had seen many pieces of land, I don’t even know how many hundreds over a four year period. And they had never found anything that was exactly right. And the group was to a point, I believe, where if they didn’t do something pretty quick, it was going to dissolve from lack of momentum and not finding that land.
Valerie Naimen, who was kind of the leader of the group, a person who had initiative and also freedom since she had real estate and didn’t have to work a job. So she pretty much led the land search and did a lot of tracking around. That’s why they were able to inspect many, many pieces of land because they had someone full time trying to find this land.
There was the community next door, some of us who were into the more what you would say, eco-spiritual persuasion. The other people were just more like mainstream work-a-job-living-in-a-house types. We started having a solstice and equinox round of gatherings that we would do consciously every solstice and equinox, a whole bunch of different people in that group. So it was like a whole weekend concentrated group ritual, you know, a party basically, and learning how to do that, not really trying to follow any particular tradition, but just putting our own ritual together. Well, just about in the middle of that whole thing, I hooked up with Valerie of the Earthaven forming group.
That ritual cycle was extremely magical and a lot of beautiful, intense experiences were had by all. Well right in the middle of that we started negotiating to buy this piece of land. We basically had to convince a group of heirs, so it wasn’t just one person, but it was a group of heirs, some of whom wanted to sell the land, some of whom wanted to keep the land. It had been on the market and then it was off the market and the older heirs wanted to sell it and the younger heirs wanted to keep it.
And so it took a while. But what happened was Valerie actually sold her house and moved into an Airstream on the border of this land on another friend’s property that bordered this land and put down an escrow and made an offer. And she did this personally.
You know, who’s in, who’s out. And also, it’s ten thousand apiece today, it’s 11 tomorrow. And this was very effective. Nine people put up money. This was September 11th of 1994. And by the end of the year, which is when we closed the deal, we had 14 people. And so we put out a big down payment and started buying this land.
So when you folks bought the land and now we have a physical Earthaven not just an idea of that name, but a real life property and people. The first thing to do was to develop the physical infrastructure, roads, bridges, footpaths, buildings, and my understanding is that you have been instrumental in this all along. You’ve been engaged in the spiritual and organizational and every other aspect of life.
And you, Paul, have also been perhaps the first and most significant person working on physical infrastructure. You build roads, you build bridges, you build buildings. So one of the rumors about Earthaven is that you were instrumental in the design of the council hall, our main meeting hall and the design of the whole community center complex. Would you tell us about that?
Yes. So the year before we bought this land, some other land was bought that borders both the community I was in, Rosy Branch Farm, and and this property that was with like minded people that were also friends of mine. And so that ritual cycle that I was saying about before we had the last installment, we did that for two years, so we had eight rituals.
The last installment was done on that other piece of land. And during that time, I started thinking about this whole community complex and I started thinking about a community building. And originally I was thinking post and beam. And mainly my vision was about using peeled poles, round poles, instead of square timbers.
And the thing is, because it’s a juvenile forest here, there’s lots of poplar trees that are about the size of a post and beam, which is about a foot thick or so. But if you cut it into a square post, they’re not big enough yet. But if you use the whole thing round, yes, it’s big enough to make structures out of. And so therefore, I started focusing on a system that would that would be able to do this.
Well, as you can imagine, making mortise and tendon joinery, etcetera on round poles is not the same as on square timber.
And so I had to invent a system. To be able to do it, repeatable cuts, where if things are square, you just measure and everything’s square. Then the other thing is that because in a round pole situation. What the system ended up being, is that the only straight line that you really have is the center line of the round pole.
So if you can put the round pole in a situation where you know where the center line is, like a lathe. then you can measure from that center line and make repeatable cuts and measure angles and do everything. And the other thing with that system is that 90 degrees is no longer a special angle. So you can make post and beam frames that aren’t all square, which is so satisfying to me because I was completely bored with square even numbers and all this, so the first idea I had was a big square timber frame and I mapped out a structural grid for it and everything.
But we had to go through a decision process, a design process to figure out what this big building was going to be our community center where meetings would be.
Well, and just like this is the thing. Valerie had done lots of research into communities and had come up with this fact that exists, which is that people who get a piece of land, if they just go start building houses and figure they’ll build the community center later, they never, never do it.
One of the main agreements that we had in the first was that we would wait to develop individual home sites until a certain amount of community infrastructure was finished. And we thought, well, a year or two we’ll build this community. But anyway, so the first thing we did was, we surveyed the land. That was the other thing. It was we won’t start building houses until we have a total site plan for the entire property, a permaculture-based site, because several of the founders were permaculture teachers and designers.
And the the intention of the community was to be a permaculture demonstration. So, anyway, what we did was we went out to Hunting Island in the fall. I think it was September or something like that, August, September, late part of the summer, early fall and Hunting Island at that time, I think it’s not that this way anymore because of the hurricanes took the beach away. But when we went there, there was a really wide beach.
And out on that beach, we basically drew in the sand a plan for a building and, you know, walked around in it, figured out how big the rooms have to be, blah, blah, blah, etc.. Well, we got back here and then we drew it all up on paper and then we started talking about it. And there was a crisis of confidence in the group because most of them were not builders and it seemed like too big. Too complex of an idea, and we got, like, paralyzed.
Well, so what happened then was in the meantime, in my mind, I had created this idea of the ultimate meeting hall. So what we were going to do with this other building was have a smaller meeting room that would do for now and some other facilities, office and stuff like that, and so then when we got to this place where we just, you know, it was kind of hard to figure out how to go forward.
Well, the thing is, we didn’t have any money. We had spent all our money buying the land. I mean, we bought this land for four hundred and twenty and sixty eight thousand dollars plus interest.
Ultimately, I think we paid about 570,000 dollars and we did this in seven years. Yes, it’s actually pretty amazing. But anyway, that’s another whole story. So when we got to this point where we couldn’t decide how to go forward, I brought forth the plan for the ultimate meeting hall, which was a round building, very simple to build, because it only had three parts. It had posts, it had beams. Some of the beams had crisscrossed, you know, diagonal knee braces and some didn’t.
And that was all. And so we cut down a lot of poplar trees and we peel the bark off of them and we made all the parts.
Oh, yeah, 13 posts, so the thing about 13 is that I was bored with even numbers and so 11 was too far, the span between. To divide a circle into 11 was about 11, 12 feet or something like that.
Well, the circle was 30 feet in diameter where the poles were that right? Thirty five, 35. And I think you have said in the past that ergonomics about how people meet in meetings is they need to be able to see each other clearly. Yeah. And so across that much span with chairs put in in from the circle of pillars is about the right amount to still identify people. But you can get the maximum amount of people around the circle.
I believe that I got this from one of the patterns in a pattern language by Chris Rog’s, right where there’s a distance beyond which you can’t recognize the facial expressions of people that well enough to have a meeting.
So anyway, we designed the the circular building based on that. Anyway, so 11 was too big and too far a span between and 15 was too small, so it had to be 13 and that’s what we did.
Well, what happened, my original design had like a… So the circle of pillars goes 15 feet high and it has four feet that sticks above and then beneath. And there’s windows around the upper and then below those windows, a roof goes out to a wider circle, circular wall. But I originally thought it would go all the way around. But then in the committee that we were actually finalizing the design, someone suggested, well, wait a minute, it should have more windows on the south for solar gain.
Yeah. And so and then I was like, oh yeah. So we can just, you know, make the five sections that face toward south be… No, no. And so I call that the wings.
The outer circle of more space outside the pillars around the back, the north and west and east are the wings. Yeah.
Yeah. And actually all the time I actually was thinking of the play of the space as a theater.
Like in theater. In the round. Yeah. Like a dinner theater place where people are having dinner in the wings and looking in the actors doing their act.
Exactly. And so we haven’t done this yet. But we will, we may in your lifetime and mine. We’re going to have theater in there.
Yeah. Yeah. Anyway, so I mention this at every opportunity.
We can keep the dream alive. So we now have this beautiful, beautiful community center called the Council Hall, and it’s largely due to your planning.
Well, yeah, I did plan the thing and I supervised the construction, but I barely did any of the work. I mostly just waved my arms around.
Well, you have you had visions back then and you helped to manifest your visions with the help of the forestry co-op and before that, just general labor making the council. You have visions not just physical, but philosophical and in other ways for the future of Earthaven too. Would you share that with us?
Well, the thing about the community that I want to make clear, which I also mention at every opportunity, is that this is not just a place for us to have a nice life in the woods. It’s about it being a demonstration so that people in general can get the idea in their head that you don’t have to go on the mainstream path and just do what everybody else is doing, which seems to be unsatisfactory and seems to be what many people think is their only option because they haven’t been to a place like this or the other ecovillages out there.
And so it’s meant to be a demonstration that something else is possible. Well, the reason why we need something like this is because our mainstream culture is unsatisfactory in certain ways. Basically, the idea of happiness and success is about consumption of luxury goods. Well, this is an elite activity. You can’t have everyone consuming luxury goods. We don’t have enough earth to satisfy the number of people that we have in that way.
The other thing is it isn’t really satisfying. In other words, consumption of luxury goods satisfies you in the moment and then makes you desperate later on because you want yet more. Because what the culture is telling you is buy things, then you’ll be happy. Oh, wait, you’re not happy now. Well, just buy some more.
So, well, the thing is, it’s like people don’t have a model that suggests that there’s some other satisfaction. It’s like the idea that money doesn’t buy happiness is a well shared cliché, but people don’t think deeply about it and they don’t really believe it because they don’t act on that.
So I think what you are sharing with us is that living a satisfying life in the good company of friends on land you own and control the destiny of and you can fulfill your shared values, tends to bring more happiness than buying yet the latest toy?
Well, yeah, the idea part of our founding documents uses the the phrase “elegant simplicity.” And it basically is the satisfaction of living together, sharing resources, having a common culture which yet allows enough individuality for everyone. I mean, this is a dance that we have to do. It’s basicallythe main process that in reality is going on. That’s the dialectic between the individual and the universal.
So we are doing community activities well. We also need to balance that out with just living our lives.
Yeah, well, and for that reason, we chose not to be an income sharing commune type community.
The economic system here is called independent income. So we just have certain things that we all pay together to have done together and then the rest of our lives are whatever we want to do.
Yes, we each earn a living and save money or spend it or share it or borrow it or loan it as we wish, but we pay dues and fees to Earthaven. We take care of the roads. We take care of the tractor. We take care of the community building. And you know a lot about this. And you’ve helped shape what this place looks like.
Once you told me that everywhere you look at Earthaven, you see what could be there and what might be there in the future and what you would like to hope that could be there and that you want to help make happen.
I have visions. I have visions for every part of this land, and they’re not necessary. I mean, you know, it’s all optional. This whole thing is optional. That’s part of the point of it. We were hoping that people can see this and then look in their own lives and go, what options do I have? So it’s not like we’re trying to tell everyone how to do it. Basically, we’re just trying to tell everyone that you can do it.
And you figure out what you need to do. The other thing I say is that ecovillage needs to come to every city block. This is not a rural hippie in the woods type thing. We’re doing this because it was the easiest thing to do when we were doing it.
And, you know, it’s sharing of resources, coming together as a group and deciding how to make our lives better by cooperation.
Please visit our website at earthaven.org and sign up for our newsletter so you know what’s happening at the ecovillage. This podcast is produced by Earthaven Ecovillage School of Integrated Living in Western North Carolina. Have a great day.