10. Lost Valley
Saturday Sept. 17, 2005. Originally, I timed my visit so that I could participate in Lost Valley’s Community Education Week. But a few days before my departure date, they cancelled the CEW because only one other person had signed up. I came anyway, figuring that if nothing else, I’d get to see Keli and her family. And I was still curious, still trying to feel my way toward the future. Was life in a community the best future for me? Was it even a possibility?
LVEC has been around a good while now, having been founded in 1989. That’s a lot of life experience, a lot of members having come and gone over the years. Anyone who has ever tried to run a small business can imagine the intricacies of a self-governing community held together mostly by shared (or perhaps overlapping, partially-shared) ideals and visions. Ideals are all very well, and are indeed essential, but the exigencies of everyday life have a way of conflicting with them, creating sometimes painful dilemmas.
I arrive at Lost Valley at about 5 p.m. Saturday. Keli is, as she had warned she might be, engaged in the community’s annual visioning meetings. Karis is out playing with other kids. So the first people I meet are Dave and Ben. Dave looks a lot like a taller, much younger version of Paul Newman, and has a big smile and a warm, outgoing personality as well. (Is this fair? No, it isn’t, but I remind myself, life isn’t fair. (-:
And Ben? Ben is not what I had prepared for. Years before, we had been friends with a family that had an autistic child, and he and I had gotten along all right. I once took care of him for a couple of hours, though that consisted mostly of following him around being sure he didn’t hurt himself or anything else. But that was a long time ago, and I was a different person then. I couldn’t really remember interacting with him; what I remembered was more like what I remembered having been told about it.
But Ben? Ben blows me away, immediately and for good. His eyes are open to the world, and all the world’s love shines through them. They are absolutely untroubled, unclouded by doubt or irresolution, eyes such as you’d expect to see in paradise, either before the apple or after the end of the world. And he is not querulous or sullen, not downcast or impatient or desperate or any of so many things he might have been. He is happy!
Oh, he is a handful and a half, I have no doubt of it. And in the next few days I will come to see how heavy a burden his autism places on his family. And yet – and yet – there are people who would pay good money to be in the permanent presence of such outpouring uninhibited love, and they would be getting full value received.
Dave and I sit and talk, and Ben plays on his game boy, and the time passes and then it is time for supper, so we walk down to the hall where communal meals are served. At Lost Valley, each person is required to help cook one meal a week, or help clean up after two meals a week. Great deal, as for all other meals you just show up and eat. (Breakfasts are not communal.)
When the meeting finally breaks up, I get to see Keli again, for only the second time. Some years earlier, we met at The Monroe Institute, at the end of a program she had taken with a friend of mine, who introduced us. When I heard her speak of her autistic son, and what a challenge the autism was, and how she was searching for guidance in how to better help him find his way, I was interested. But I was overwhelmed when she said that although society wanted autistic children to meet its expectations “I don’t want him to be what they want him to be. I want him to be whatever he came here to be.” It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard a mother say, and I told her that she should write a book for us, which she did, Gift From My Son. But after that meeting, she and her family went from Texas to California to Australia to Texas again before winding up at this intentional community.
I get to meet Karis, wise beyond her age, but nonetheless a bouncy, mischievous nine-year-old, very involved in playing with the other kids. “They’re going feral,” Keli says, smiling. And I meet Diane, clearly the tribal leader, one of the original founders. Her calm, unruffled presence is palpable. And Bryna, a relative newcomer, already one of Keli’s close friends. And others. They all know that I am weighing my chances of fitting in there, and they’d just as soon I said yes. But I am holding back, trying not to make snap judgments, and they can feel that and they respect it.
Saturday night in the unheated guest cabin is cold! Windows wide open (for fear of dust) and not enough blankets. Long night. Subsequent nights, though, with three more wool blankets, are fine.
Sunday Sept. 18, 2005. I have breakfast with Keli’s family, and much of the day goes toward seeing what the place is like. The community sits on 87 acres, with most of the buildings in one small section of it. Diane leads the regular Sunday tour, for my benefit and that of a few other visitors and prospective members who show up. There’s a good deal to see, and the more you know about farming, the more there is to be appreciated. It’s well organized, and well thought out, and on a pretty large scale, yet managed mostly – perhaps entirely – with hand tools.
Lost Valley is into permaculture, which means growing things this year, and next year, and the year after that, in such a way that you don’t wear out the land and have to move somewhere else, the way the tobacco- or cotton-growing plantations of the old South did. They’re not into chemical (oil-produced) fertilizers, or a lot of mechanized (oil-powered) equipment, or oil-burning greenhouse heaters, either. They are out to grow their own food, and do it in a way that not only does not injure the soil, but in fact restores it.
It’s very impressive. I could imagine myself doing that work with them. I like working with wood, and have never gotten along really well with metal or motors. I like growing things, and I once built a big passive-solar greenhouse to prove that one could start seedlings, even in a northern climate, without the use of conventional or even wood-fired heating.
(On the other hand, as with any such community, there is an on-going war over purity. Vegetarians object to carnivores, and vegans object to vegetarians. I’d hate to have to fight over having potatoes and eggs, say, if I happened to want them. And suppose I wanted some of Oregon’s unbelievably delicious salmon? Sounds like a little thing, but it is just such little things that communities need to be able to resolve, and little doesn’t necessarily mean easy.)
Among the people I meet is Keli’s friend Devlin, herself autistic. Interesting. When I put my hand near hers, palm to palm but not touching, so that she can more easily intuit something, she immediately says, “whoa!” She felt the energy, without question. But then, looking at Ben, I’d say that perhaps one of the things that makes life among the half-dead so difficult for autistic people is precisely that they are very adept at experiencing energy of all kinds, pleasant and unpleasant.
Somehow I wind up mentioning my search for evidence of Smallwood. Devlin says, out of some inner knowing, that he had met John Muir on Smallwood’s way back from Oregon! I’d never considered that perhaps he returned, and so I’d never considered that here was an easy resolution to the problem of chronology that I’d had to set aside until then. Must be terrible to be autistic and thus handicapped in life. J
Where the rest of Sunday went, I can’t recall. A pleasant day, though, first to last. Yet perhaps I have already concluded that while I like the idea of a community, it isn’t what I should do. My own work is less communal – and, for that matter, less communicable – than theirs. I still don’t know where my path is, but the longer I look around, the less I can envision myself living there productively and happily.
Monday Sept. 19, 2005. Monday morning I accompany Keli as she takes Karis to her bus stop, several miles away, then we return for some breakfast. Dave makes me a toad-in-a-hole, which was something new. (Using a shot glass, he makes a hole in a piece of bread, then puts the bread in a frying pan and pours an egg into the hole. When bread and egg have cooked a while, he flips the bread and cooks it a little more, and voila! Delicious!) Breakfast is notable mainly because as I sit at the table drinking my coffee and chatting with Dave, Ben pushes his way onto my lap and sits there while he plays with his game boy. From an autistic boy, that’s a rough equivalent to having been knighted.
I spend a couple of pleasant hours preparing a garden bed with Chris, who is in charge of their extensive gardening operation, then it is lunch time, and a little after lunch my friend Michael Langevin arrives, having been five hours on the road from his home in California, and it is very good to see him. In the course of a long afternoon, he and I wander around and talk, and sit down by the pool in the river and talk, and he meets several people there including Diane and Chris, who is also the editor of their journal, “Talking Leaves.” Tuesday morning he and I head off for Crater Lake.