Sunday, August 19, 2012

Maine Public Radio story on Belfast Cohousing

Mpbn Logo ThuBelfast Cohousing & Ecovillage has grown quickly since breaking ground in the fall. As reported last Wednesday on Maine Public Radio, nine out of 36 homes have already been completed, and the scene already resembles the "friendly and sociable" village predicted by the Bangor Daily News and featured in the BBC, WCSH TV-6, and WABI TV-5.
12belfast Coho aug Fest 1 sma
Entitled "Idealism Meets Reality," Jennifer Mitchell's MPBN story takes stock of this innovative community project.
The Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage Project started five years ago with several like-minded people and one idea. Since then, the group has incorporated, broken ground, and finished nine of the 36 planned homes. Now, the first families are starting to move in....
It certainly sounds like a community from simpler times. There's an informal jam session on the front porch featuring banjos and dulcimers and people singing--without a karaoke machine. There are kids on ponies, and even a teenager cutting grass with a non-motorized push mower.
The scene harkens back to a time of small villages scattered along rural roads. But for all its emphasis on old-fashioned simplicity, the Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage was built on some not-so-simple technology.
12belfast Coho aug Fest 55 vgaThe MPBN story was recorded on the occasion of last Sunday's Ecovillage Summer Festival, where Blais conducted workshops and tours of her solar-powered home to over a hundred visitors, including members of the Permaculture Design class sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association.

Residents told Mitchell just how efficient the homes are:
"Up there is solar hot water and photo voltaic cells," says resident Jon Ippolito. "We've turned off our grid right now. We can power it up if we want, but right now all the water coming into this house and all the electricity is powered by the sun."
Ippolito and his family are in the process of moving themselves to their brand new, super-energy efficient home on the 40-plus acre village site in Belfast. Ippolito says that they were all expecting the move to require a few adjustments--perhaps even sacrifices. So far, they've been pleasantly surprised.
"Our teenage son took the second of three showers the other day when we inaugurated the solar system, and he said 'I can't believe it's so hot!' Because of course even I thought, 'Ah, it's going to be lukewarm, it's not coming from fossil fuels. How can it be as warm as a 'real' shower?'" Ippolito says. "Well, turns out to be warm enough that I had to crank up the cold water."
In the bleak midwinter, Ippolito's home and all the others, may have to struggle a bit more to get enough of Maine's meager sun rays. But the houses, designed by Belfast based GO Logic, are unusually energy efficient. The new homeowners are expecting to be able to heat these structures with as few as 2,000 watts of electricity. That's about what it takes to run a hair dryer--or, as Ippolito quips, you can almost heat the place by doing "enough jumping jacks."
The walls are packed with 10 inches of cellulose, and the German-made windows are triple-paned. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, homes and buildings are responsible for 48 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Finding a way to not contribute to that statistic was a major goal of the development, and so far, this piece of the project seems to have been a success.
12belfast Coho aug Panorama 3 Xvga
The story goes on to explain how a village can harness the power of neighbors to solve social problems.
[Joline Blais says] one advantage to the village model, is that most problems--such as affordability--can be tackled by the entire community. She proposes that the village could consider creating a fund that would be available for cash-strapped arrivals to use.
"Where members can borrow that money and use that to pay their houses and then pay the interest to each other. So it's basically local banking," she says. "I'm happy to do that with local banks as well, but I think keeping it in the community is even better...."
According to the builders, each owner can expect to save about $50,000 in fuel costs over 20 years. Additionally, the communal lifestyle means that people can share significant expenses, such as farm equipment and transportation.
12belfast Coho aug Fest 64 smaThat's something that means a lot to Sarah Gregory Smith. "Out in Waldoboro, I can't go anywhere," she says. Smith is completely blind. She and her husband Bill will be moving to their new home at the village next spring, which she says means a lot more freedom for her. If she needs a ride somewhere, there are multiple people who can help her out.
"And I have my own skills that I can contribute in a community like this," Smith says. "Each person contributes their skills to a whole, and, you know, we make a very beautiful and multi-faceted whole...."
Both Ippolito and Blais say that the lessons learned in the back-to-the-land movement of 40 years ago are not lost on them.
"Really learning how to live together is one of the most important things that we didn't really get in the 60's when we first started our back-to-the-land movement," Blais says. "Most of my hippie friends who are kind of all around in different parts of Maine, many in this area, were telling me, 'We got the earth piece, we did farming, we did homesteading, we did canning, we did animals, but the really hard part is learning how to do this together in community.'"
They're lessons Eco-Village developers hope will benefit future generations trying to create a more sustainable way of living.
Missed the Ecovillage Summer Festival? You can also join us on Thursday 23 August for a Solar Open House at Joline and Jon's home at 78 Village Road. Specialists in active and passive solar designs--for electricity, hot water, and solar-gain home heating--will be on hand to demonstrate how these systems can cut energy bills by 90%.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Soundtrack of Home - Susie


The view from the windows in my house at Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage looks like a painting: a green and gold field rolls into the treeline, beyond which is a newly mowed hayfield, neatly hemmed in by evergreens threaded with birch. It's a wildly different view than what I saw from our apartment in town: a harbor full of boats and the waters of Penobscot Bay beyond.

What's most remarkable for me is not the change in my view, however, but the change in the soundtrack. From my old bedroom, the background noise was of waves washing the beach, halyards slapping against the aluminum masts of sailboats, the occasional rumble of a truck making its way north on Route One contrasted against the distinctive cry of loons.

Since moving into our new house on the ecovillage land, I awake to a wondrous dawn chorus: bobolinks, savannah sparrows, finches, swallows, and a dozen other kinds of birds which I'm only beginning to recognize. When it's quiet, you can hear the strange low ploop-ploop-ploop call of the bittern, a relative of the heron. We were convinced it was a frog for a while, until our resident naturalist Mike Shannon let us know what it was. He also informed us that the regular chirping call that came from the woods right before a rainstorm wasn't a bird at all, but a tree frog.

At night, the sound of clinking masts and calling loons has been replaced by the wind shushing through the hayfields, the calls of owls, and at least twice now, the exhilarating howls and yips of coyotes. There is part of me that misses living near the water and finds the absence of my usual soundtrack unsettling, but I am quickly adjusting to the sounds of the fields and woods, and I am eager to learn from my neighbors all of nature's musicians that play together on my new soundtrack.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Community lost and regained - Eric

Island in Maine
I was six years old when my father bought a small island in Cushing, Maine. It was winter when he and
Mother came to look, having received a letter from the owner, Dana Herrick, who had retired from lobstering to Florida.

Jim Seavey, who fished from the nearby harbor known as the Pleasant Point "Gut," took Dad over for a look in his skiff. They had to break some ice with the oars to get ashore. Mother thought it was a crazy idea at the time, but grew to love spending all the summer on the island, she and we three kids.

We rowed everywhere, but also walked on the paths that went along the coast from house to house. The road to Fales Store, five miles up Pleasant Point Road, was not paved then. Dad drove up from Massachusetts every weekend, bringing lots of lovely fresh food from Haymarket Square. We were allowed to stay up late on Fridays, awaiting his arrival.

There was a real community then, among the houses clustered around the Gut. People looked after "those summer folk" on the island. Before a hurricane in the mid-fifties Charlie Stone rowed over. We kids ran and alerted Mom: "Charlie Stone is coming!" He was a taciturn man, single, who lived with his mother Maude across the harbor. He got out of his dory, shambled up the rocks carrying two jugs of fresh water. "It's coming on to blow. You folks might want to stay indoors." He addressed the ground just in front of my mother's feet, and put the two jugs of water down. We could feel that we were being held by this community of fishermen and their families around the harbor.

Several years ago I retired here, to live on the island in the summer, and to build a shop on the mainland hill we called "the mountain" when I was young, which has since become my winter retreat. My partner Cynthia is still wintering in Rhode Island, where I worked and we raised our family. Her ties are stronger there: she has her yoga practice group, her church and choir. She loves living on the island in the summer, but living on the end of the point in Cushing is too remote for her in the winter.

We struggled with this problem for years, until I began coming to the Belfast Cohousing group. The attraction has been strong for me: suddenly here were a group of people who wanted to live in community. Every next person I met gave me a more positive feeling.

After a couple of weeks with the Cohousing community, I realized that I had been nurturing a fantasy that my harbor place at the end of Pleasant Point would revert to the community of my youth. All the fishermen have moved away: the taxes are too high. The people who live here now are mostly from other places, mostly retired. The paths between the houses have grown over. The Grange Hall has fallen into disuse. There is another future there, and it does not have the connections to the land, to the sources of spirit I find so compelling.

That's why finding Belfast Cohousing has been something of a miracle for Cynthia and me--a place we could both imagine living and loving.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A perfect ending to the day - Chuck Markowitz

Today was a particularly busy and stressful day for me in the emergency department where I work. We had instituted a new system for getting patients seen more quickly. That meant me greeting everyone immediately upon arrival, including the four ambulances that came within five minutes of each other.

I had to stay an extra hour to finish all my charting, making for an exhausting end to an especially hectic and stressful day. The hour-long drive home didn't help me relax, as I was racing to get to Belfast City Hall before they closed at 5pm in order to fill out the paperwork for a new postal address. City assessor Bob Whitely was especially helpful; he shared his impression that everyone that he had met associated with Belfast Cohousing had been so nice.

I finally arrived home, planning to have a solitary dinner of leftovers in the quiet of my new home. I was surprised to drive up and find at least eight cars parked above the houses.

I didn't see anyone about, so as I walked into my house I looked out of my large windows across to the fields and gardens. There I spotted smoke from a cooking fire, children running in the fields, and grownups sitting around a picnic table.

Within minutes I was having dinner with Nessa and Christoph, Geoff and Abby, Colleen, Karen, and a host of kids. We shared food, stories, our hopes for the future and a growing sense of our community. By the end of the evening, Christoph, Geoff, and I had mowed a soccer field requested by the children.

As the sun set and the cool wind kicked up, driving me up to my warm home, I thought about what a perfect ending this had been to a day that had been so difficult. I am really looking forward to many more evenings like this one.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dynamic governance through Sociocracy - Beth Whitman

Is there anyone out there who isn't frustrated with government?

I would guess in this day and age the almost universal answer is "no"!

At last weekend's Dynamic Governance workshop, we practiced a technique for transcending the logjams, bickering, bitterness, and then seeming oppression that often comes with governance--be it democratic, autocratic, or consensus-style. John Buck led this "sociocratic" event sponsored by Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage and the Belfast Area Transition Initiative.

The four elements that make Dynamic Governance different from other models are subtle but important for any organization that wants to get things done quickly while taking into account differing points of view.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Growing Together - Joline Blais

Cohousers plantingWhile the local food movement encourages us to shop within a hundred-mile radius, at Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage, we have the opportunity to produce hundred-yard food. If we wanted to, we could plant raspberry 'sharing' bushes between neighbors yards, spiral herbs outside our kitchen doors, alternate apple and peach trees along the driveway, and dangle grapes and kiwi from the Common House trellis. And if knowing your farmer is key to food security, being your own farmer (even for just a blueberry bush or apple tree) is even better, because then we know what it means to generate life, food and community.

To accomplish our goal for community-based food, we consulted a local guru with an international reputation in soil, crop, and forage nutrition, and an expertise in transitioning agriculture for peak oil, climate change and economic drift: Mark Fulford. At our March 11 Open House we asked Mark if we could feed our 36 households on our 42 acres. Mark told us that he has seen many communities in developing countries do this with fewer acres and poorer soil. Then he smiled and said, for you it's possible, but "there's a steep learning curve." Undaunted we asked him to walk with us over the land to show us how.

Based on an inspection of wintered-over and trampled weeds, Mark pointed out our rich Marlow soils ideal for annual vegetable gardens, our ericaceous soils suited for berry bushes, and our clay-covered glacial till that would need some amending for the highest nutrition polycultures or orchards.

After walking the land, Mark presented a slide show for visitors in which he outlined some strategies for reconnecting people and food. You begin with "a fearless moral inventory of your fridge." What are you eating, why, and what do you really need to grow? On the other hand, he cautioned "the struggle against nature is costly." So perhaps eating melons in January is possible, but takes lots of time, energy and money to accomplish. Whereas in Maine, eating kale in December requires only dropping a few seeds in where the September squash is harvested. Listen, he advised, "the crop will teach you." And he suggested that the overall goal of food production is to "move energy in beneficial patterns."

Mark was clear about encouraging the entire community to support farmers, learn permaculture skills, develop food processing and cooking skills, and also encourage each member to pursue his and her own relationship to the land and to food, from a family berry patch to a community orchard. He also cautioned against selling off our natural wealth by producing food for the market outside of our community. "That's how small CSAs lose their wealth, they sell off their natural capital for money." When asked for an alternative, he replied that for individuals and for communities "the kitchen garden is the model of design and money changes hands. That's how communities feed themselves in the rest of the world." Maybe the benefit here is not just economic or ecological, but also cultural.

As Japanese polyculture pioneer Masanobu Fukuoka reminds us: "The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings." Maybe that's a steep learning curve if we're all alone, but by growing together, perhaps we can make the arduous climb feel much more like a pleasant afternoon hike.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Some lessons from downsizing - Bill Smith

Sarah and I will be moving in to our new co-housing home this fall! Right now, we are living in the house we built during the past ten summers. It has been a rare treat to live in this house in the woods, right next to a tidal salt-water inlet. But our real sights are firmly set on moving to Belfast. And we know that, before it happens, we need to do some downsizing.

This won't be our first time. In fact, last spring we sold our house in Salem, Massachusetts (where we lived for 32 years) to move to our self-built house in coastal Maine. Here are some of the things we learned:

Start early. We decided to have a sidewalk sale. It's amazing how much stuff one (or two) collects living in the same place for 32 years: two bowling balls that came with the house, a tandem bike that we rode all around New England years ago, six chairs in need of repair, 200 books, a half-size guitar, duplicate pots, unused pans, two perfectly good garden hoses... But, it was an easy way to get started--not too hard, socially satisfying and marginally profitable - kind of like doing warm-ups before a run. Interestingly, the only items that attracted very little interest were the books. So, we made a cover for them and put up a sign that said "FREE"... worked like a charm. Over the course of the next few days people stopped by, browsed a bit and went away with three or four books. It felt as though our books had found good homes.

Give things to organizations that can use them. In our case, we donated lots of clothes and some furniture to a mission store that was only a few blocks from our house. Then, we found a book-donation place--home for 50 or so more books.

Think of the people you know. I had a hammer dulcimer that was one more than I needed. My friend, Jen, had always talked about learning to play one. So, I offered it to her and she took it with pleasure. Sarah had a wonderful (and quite extensive) stamp collection from her childhood. One of our relatives would be thrilled to have it, right? No thanks. Apparently, stamp collections are not big interests among today's youth. But, we ran across our quirky and erudite friend, Chris, one evening on the streets of Salem. "Stamp collection? Sure! When can I come by to get it?" This sort of thing happened often over the course of the next few months. Instead of feeling bad about losing items, we felt great to know that our friends were going to enjoy some of our treasures.

If you build it... Shortly before moving, Sarah and I invested in a mattress that we hated. It turned out to be so heavy that we could barely lift it to make the bed! No way were we going to bring that monster with us. On the other hand, who wants a used mattress, even if it is almost new? Enter two old friends who were moving to Maine for one year. They just stopped in on their way north. They were all set with a rented place, but they needed some household items, most notably...a mattress. Sarah and I could barely contain our excitement! In a half hour it was on top of their Joad-like truck and on its way.

Bring things with you in a smaller form. We had a huge collection of CDs that took up a lot of room and was usually in disarray. Sarah gave me an Ipod for Christmas and it gave me an idea. I put all 4,000 songs on the Ipod, kept the discs and threw away all the packaging. All the CD's now fit in three neat albums! Now I would like to give them away. Next, the records are going on the Ipod--should be fun.

Mostly, downsizing has been a satisfying, at times sad and reflective, process. We are about to launch into another round. I hope it goes as well as the last one. And, I hope it is the last one for a good, long time.