The Commune and the Virus
Rural perspectives on coronavirus and the post-pandemic future
|Inhabit||May 10, 2020||6|
We’ve read a lot about coronavirus from those stuck in cities, holed up in apartments as governments decree the latest measures and services grow scarce. We’ve heard less from those in the countryside about their experiences since the pandemic began.
Over the last two weeks, we’ve called a handful of friends across the country to see how they’re faring, what their collective response to the pandemic has been, and their thoughts on what coronavirus means for the months and years to come.
The respondents to this informal survey are educators, farmers, organizers, artists, and more who are involved with everything from rural collectives and land projects to small farms and wilderness and craft schools. They spoke to us from bayous in the Deep South, from the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, from the ancient Appalachians, from Midwestern farmland, and from patchwork New England.
Strap in, because this is a long piece. We’ve condensed and arranged responses according to six themes:
Food & Farming
The Rural Divide
Visions & Desires
The accounts presented here are not exhaustive, nor are they necessarily representative beyond the experiences of those we spoke with. But taken together, common lines of thought emerge, insights glean and ricochet off each other, and some tentative conclusions begin to take shape.
Names and other identifying details have been changed to protect privacy. Our thanks to all those who participated in this experiment.
What are some challenges you face living in a rural community during the pandemic? What particular difficulties is your area experiencing?
Astra (Upstate New York): Because of the way information travels, density, and this deeply independent sense that can permeate rural areas, for a long time there was this sense that this was not a reality. It seemed like in grocery stores or in other places, if you did wear a mask or something people would kind of give you a look. Because we don’t have the same visuals of sirens going off all the time, deserted streets, the reality can feel further away and can cause people to have a sense of safety that is not real.
Healthcare is definitely a huge challenge around here. The closest testing place within our state is almost an hour away. For folks who don’t have a car – which is already a huge challenge in the area where we live – you’re unable to get tested. If you’re experiencing symptoms, many people don’t have friends who are offering themselves up to drive you to the testing center. That’s been an issue with one of our friends who had symptoms but doesn’t have transportation and couldn’t find anybody to take them to get tested.
Also, the bandwidth up here. It seems like a small, simple thing, but many people here still do not have internet, or very high-quality internet. So these things that are keeping us together more often now, like videocalls or being able to connect with people virtually, are really not accessible for a lot of people, or virtually impossible, because of the lack of access to the internet in rural areas.
Ray (Deep South): I think [the virus] is really starting to spike in the last week or so. There’s been a big increase in cases, deaths as well. The parishes surrounding us are pretty small so if you compare the death counts to New Orleans it doesn’t seem as high, but it’s definitely a concern here. I haven’t really kept up with the numbers, but I do know that people here are not taking it very seriously. Everybody’s talking about it, everybody knows it’s a big thing, but when you actually go to the hardware store or the feed store, not only is it like a fifth of the people or less who are wearing masks, but people are looking at you weird [if you have one on]. It is varying a little bit. I went to a different part of Louisiana I’d never been to before. Out there it’s equally rural and small town, but people seemed to have more masks. So I don’t know what’s going on. The area I’m in is very heavily Trump country. I think that is probably the main reason for it, honestly. They’re too macho for their masks.
M.S. (New England): The greatest challenges are that in this place there’s already such a divide between rich and poor. A certain segment of the economy is really stressing out about loss of income, especially for the summer tourist season. The main thing that people are freaking out about is money and being stuck inside. Of course, there’s the same shit that’s happening everywhere. There’s a large aging population in Maine – this is like second-tier Florida as far as retirement goes – so you have a lot of poor people in nursing homes, nursing home deaths. The same things we’re seeing having to do with meat packing plants. We are already on the fringes of food distribution, so everything is already overpriced. The potential disruptions to any supply chains could hit a place like this a lot harder, because it’s a hinterland.
Vera (Midwest): The answer to that is two-fold. On one hand, we have rural communities who are already experiencing decades of loss in general. That loss is of their rural institutions, of things like grocery stores and doctor’s offices. Right now COVID is hitting rural communities that are already facing major hospital closures, for example. That’s especially prevalent in Southern rural communities. The other part of the answer is that farmers are being impacted because of disruptions to food supply chains, especially in situations where farmers are growing food to supply restaurants or institutions such as universities or large workplaces. That combines to make a really desperate moment in agricultural history, in rural history. Farmers in rural communities are getting hit while they’re already low, while things are already desperate.
Walter (Pacific Northwest): Because [the land] is off-grid, there’s barely cell reception up there, there’s no internet. So a lot of the tools and coping mechanisms that people are using in Olympia and in other cities to adjust to the new COVID reality, like videocalls and being online all the time, aren’t really applicable and don’t really translate. It’s also a really different temporality. The people who are living [on the land] have continued on. They’re all laid off from their work so they have a lot of time to work on projects, which is great, but I think those of us who are involved in the project [but] who are in the city have been so caught up by the really fast newscycle and all of the organizing taking place online. It’s been harder to coexist on the same timescale. I think our realities feel a lot more different now, split between the city and the land, than they did before all of this started.
What kinds of mutual aid initiatives are taking place in your community? How are people collectively responding to the myriad challenges of the crisis?
Kelly (New England): The biggest thing has been people organizing around getting their basic needs met. There’s a system for mostly younger people to get groceries and prescriptions for the older people on our road. In our area, it’s people walking by and checking in more often. Because everyone walks around here, you actually get to see your neighbors. It’s pretty lucky. Even from a distance, you can see how they’re holding up. In town, there’s a bigger network. There’s been a pretty big effort to make sure everyone still gets those basic needs met. There’s funds for people to buy groceries. There’s a huge list of volunteers who are doing grocery and prescription runs. There was just a free food give-away out of the elementary school.
Vera (Midwest): The main thing is a sort of brigade of supply deliveries to people. People can post online, on social media, and say they need something. Usually there’s a pretty quick turnaround between the moment they post that and the moment it shows up at their door. That’s a mix of people volunteering to drive the supplies, or in some cases people volunteering to purchase the thing that’s needed. In other cases people have something lying around that another person needs more at that moment, and they pass it onto someone who can do delivery. At this point, that process has become nearly county-wide. There was a really intentional push to extend that possibility into rural areas, although it started out in more of a small town.
Bucky (Southern Appalachia): [Our road] is its own mutual aid network. It’s our cohort of folks and then a bunch of older folks, so we’re all in really close touch with those older folks. [A friend] and I were over shoveling shit for our neighbor. We’re all working together a lot more than usual, which is nice. In the beginning [of the pandemic], we were asking neighbors Do you need anything, can I go grocery shopping for you? And they were like, Why the hell would you ask me that? And now there’s two big mutual aid projects that are happening. [One of the groups] partnered with a restaurant in town. They’re making hundreds of meals every week and handing those out. All of the meals that aren’t getting handed out are coming to a fridge at [our school]. We have an outdoor communal fridge, so throughout the week our neighbors can stop by that fridge and pick up food. It’s been really sweet. [The other mutual aid group] has a food bank which has been happening every Saturday for the past two months. There was almost nobody coming, so the volunteers were just bringing home all of the food. Our county just got its first confirmed cases this past week, so last Saturday was the first time there were more than five or ten individuals coming to the food bank. They ran out of food within hours. What we’ve been thinking this whole time is that it’s really good we’re prepared, because we’re just on a slightly slower timeline. That has definitely been the case. As it’s hitting closer to home, these networks are getting way more calls.
Astra (Upstate New York): We’ve been organizing around healthwork. We’ve been hosting virtual webinars, interviews, and things like that to get information out. It has been a wild turn of events to be hosting things online. We also have a friend who’s helped to establish a regional mutual aid mask-making network which has been really incredible. In a matter of weeks, as these critical materials are completely unavailable in hospitals and for frontline workers, or for grocery workers and all types of people, or just individuals who are at higher risk, there’s a mask-making network regionally that’s making hundreds of masks. I’m talking about eight-year-olds sewing masks. I’m talking about eighty-year-olds sewing masks. They’ve been able to find each other online and are now making masks for local homeless shelters, local prisons, individuals. They’re sending masks to hospitals in New York City. That’s been really amazing to see – people who weren’t necessarily part of a political movement or didn’t even know each other before are now meeting on a daily basis to talk about how to get masks out, how to build supply chains. That has been completely incredible to see. It really is unbelievable, yet at the same time I’m faced with the question: Why is an eight-year-old right now making a mask for a person in a hospital? That is insane and beautiful at the same time.
Walter (Pacific Northwest): I think both within town and [on the land], there’s two scales at which people are operating. There’s the immediate circle of comrades and friends. People are paying more attention and taking more care of each other, or trying to, and trying to share resources freely and widely between themselves. And then there are the more public mutual aid initiatives. I think people in both places are involved on both of those scales.
Certainly within town, there’s a bunch of mutual aid initiatives. A couple different programs have sprung up distributing food. There’s herbal medicine making and distribution going on, and just general chore- and task-sharing. There’s a lot of energy going towards food infrastructure right now, which is really great. Lots of people are putting pretty massive gardens in and talking about how to expand unused sections of land on their property into substantial farms. There’s a couple of high schools that have farm programs. The schools are shut down but they’ve converted the entire farm and garden systems into massive food growing operations that are plugging into both the local food bank and also some of the autonomous mutual aid efforts. That’s been really inspiring to see.
[Out on the land], there’s actually several land projects within kind of a thirty minute radius around there. Some of which have been there for many years, some of which are newer. There is already a kind of loose network there. People have also been doing some food and medicine distribution. That has looked more farmstand style – just leaving stuff out and letting people know, rather than doing deliveries. I’m on a Signal thread for the area and I’ll get messages every now and then. Someone’s like, Okay, made a bunch of a medicine and there’s all this medicine on the farmstand, or We just harvested all these vegetables and they’re ready to go, just come pick them up. That’s been a cool, informal thing to see happen.
How has coronavirus affected local and regional small farmers? For those who grow food, how has it affected your practices and your plans for the upcoming season?
Kelly (New England): The core of my days isn’t that different. Farming goes on, the spring and the seasons still change, plants still need planting and the soil is ready to be worked. Our farm is so community oriented and held up by so many different people. The unfortunate side of all this is that now we’ve had to limit who can be on the farm. It’s only full-time employees. Even among us, we’re doing more distancing, more disinfecting, less eating out of each other’s bowls or sharing coffee as we used to.
In terms of how we’re mobilizing for what we see coming in the next few months, we’ve had a huge increase in people signing up for our CSAs. We’ve also been able to get funding through some of the COVID relief grants and so far are able to provide nineteen free CSA shares. Which is a huge amount – it’s actually a huge impact. That’s nineteen families that will have all their vegetable needs and some of their starch needs met for six months of this coming year. That feels pretty exciting. Logistically, we’re scrambling to figure out how that distribution will happen. We have every inch of the farm planned to be planted this year because we are anticipating such demand. Some people working part-time have lost their other jobs, so now we have more full-time farmers we’re also trying to fund. We’re really expanding this year.
A lot of farms who were geared towards markets and restaurants are struggling right now. I feel pretty lucky that we’ve always been more geared towards CSAs, because now that’s what people want and what is possible. I know a few farms who are struggling who do massive amounts of one crop for a restaurant or wholesale. They are trying to imagine what they’re going to do with that. It’s not something that direct-to-consumer marketing is really going to move. People are struggling to figure out how to have crews work safely together. A lot of farmers don’t get paid that much, so they’re living with roommates, they’re living with large groups of people, and then also coming to work on the farm together. How to balance everyone’s safety when they’re coming from all these different households and working in close proximity? It’s hard to wear a mask for nine hours when you’re sweating.
John (Southern Appalachia): I currently have a farmshare, a regular CSA. The way that’s designed is to pay for all the operations. I have a monthly budget to keep the business open, which I’m thankful for, but also to pay myself to go to a restaurant or a farmer’s market with all the extra stuff. Right now, neither of those places are really doing much. There’s kind of a farmer’s market chain where some of their markets are open in Atlanta, but that isn’t who I sell at. My market’s closed right now. I’m trying to do this whole online sales thing – it’s a little tough.
The flipside of that is there’s more interest and an opportunity for this farm to move into a more mutual aid or educational direction. What’s happening with the brooder that we’re going to be building, there’s going to be some volunteers come help build it. I’ll be able to provide layer chicks to people, hopefully either free or at cost. That’s sort of the dream there with the brooder. There’s pieces of the farm that are big enough, that are suitable, that I’d like to set up local supply chains for those types of purposes. That’s one reason why I focus on heirloom, because of the ability to be your own breeder – either working with plants or animals. You’re a little more self-reliant.
I kind of cut my teeth, as far as autonomous agriculture goes, in Atlanta. I try to stay in touch with those connections. One of the things is trying to bridge the urban-rural gap. There’s been a lot of talk about food sovereignty, with all the food rotting in the fields or processing plants closing. In trying to design for food sovereignty systems within the city limits, even a city like Atlanta that has a lot of green space, it’s really challenging when you get to the calorie and protein areas. I was on a call with a few urban farmers and they seem to agree that’s what’s at stake, cause generally those areas require more land or larger acreages. Coordinating that over a few hundred quarter acre plots would be really difficult. So there’s challenges like that. It’s pretty clear that unless those roles and relationships in society change, the rural and the urban are going to need each other. It does make you question what is urban, what is rural. Are these functions very effective anymore?
I have a concern about supply chains that are pretty much never going to close, and the potential of [the virus] spreading through those. Food being one of them – just imagine the outcome of when it finally gets to the farms that produce the vast majority of our food. Those of us who do small farms and try to do low-input, permaculture, agroecology, these types of things – they’re really small scale and they don’t represent a very large percentage of the regional food supply. I’ve seen the numbers nationwide and it’s something like one hundred thousand farms, out of two million, account for three quarters of the nation’s agricultural output. Some crazy statistic like that. From a global economic perspective, that’s a lot larger than many countries’ entire economy, what they’re worth. So we're not just talking about food, this might just disrupt… It might be even global, because there’s just a lot of money that will be lost if they start shutting down. You already see it with the Tyson closures, same thing with a lot of the feed companies.
Vera (Midwest): There’s been really quick organization around new models of farmers markets, very similar to a CSA model. People can order online and then receive their food through a drive-through pick-up. That’s been organized by a lot of people who overlap with the mutual aid world and so far has received a lot of support. It’s an adaptation both on the part of the people who would normally organize the market and on the farmers’ parts, who are having to do a new way of selling their food and making sure that it gets into people’s hands, onto their plates, and into their stomachs.
Farmers are adapting in different ways across the country. There’s this kind of similar model of taking food that might for various legal reasons might not be able to be sold, because maybe they had an agreement with a restaurant or university that was the purchaser, but the purchaser has now backed out and the farmer is still stuck with this legal agreement. Some farmers are opting to donate that food to various food drives, to people who can donate it to people in need right now. That’s a movement that’s picking up. There’s both autonomous groups who are organizing that with farmers and there are these large national organizations that are putting that together.
M.S. (New England): [We have] a permaculture forest garden setup on about a quarter of the land. Our long-term plans were to turn it into a blueberry farm and a hazelnut orchard, which we’re still doing. But with all the coronavirus stuff, we’ve shifted to growing more annuals – specifically lots of potatoes, kale, and tomatoes. We’re also experimenting with lentils and other kinds of perennial vegetables. At the same time, [we’re] trying to propagate as many trees as we can, from hazelnuts to pawpaws to walnuts. Sort of, I don’t know, [trying to] get good at that kind of stuff. Right now we’re just growing for ourselves. We plan on doing a farmstand this summer. Our long-term goal is to do commercial things with this space, do a small vegan food company or something. But right now it’s just feeding us – and barely even that, [the project] is so new.
Ray (Deep South): We’ve been staying very busy. It’s been a lot of work to keep up with the stuff we were already planning on doing, and have been really trying to increase our production of plants. We’ve been working hard to plant more annuals than we normally would, and also to propagate more plants and to start a lot more seedlings than we normally would. We’re giving them away in New Orleans via a new food autonomy and gardening commons project that’s just started. It's a problem we’ve had for a long time – producing a little bit of a surplus, but not enough surplus that it’s made sense to find good ways to distribute it. And now we’re able to tap into these existing mutual aid networks to distribute our stuff in the city without us having to do anything except drop it off.
It was already our goal to make as much food as we could. But the mode that we were in previously was… For example, I bought twenty avocado trees. The plan was to plant ten of them and resell ten of them. We got them wholesale so it’s very cheap. Then the pandemic started and they weren’t really selling, so it was just like I’m going to plant them all here. We’re also going to spend more time weeding and doing that extra level of care required to grow annuals. We’re really trying to step up that stuff because there’s going to be a tremendous need for it.
How has the pandemic played out along the urban-rural divide? Do you expect to see more folks leaving cities in the future?
Ray (Deep South): There was already some kind of trend pushing in that direction, with gentrification and the cost of living outpacing wages and a lot more people eventually being like Fuck it, I can’t afford to stay here anymore. I think this is going to accelerate that a lot. We’re also maybe going to see some disturbing trends, like the very wealthy seeing the value of that and having their own flight from the cities, or at least desire to establish themselves in rural places and have their compounds or whatever. I think it’s absolutely the general direction, especially if the restructuring of the economy leaves a lot of people out. A lot of people previously had service jobs that are just not coming back. If the government doesn’t figure out some sort of UBI or if the restructuring doesn’t shuffle everybody into an Amazon warehouse or something like that, I think there will be a lot of movement to get out of the cities.
Kelly (New England): I think it’s planted the seed for a lot of people to start thinking about leaving urban spaces more permanently. But I think that kind of mobility has a lot of privilege behind it, in terms of what sorts of jobs enable that movement. I think that a lot of people will have to go back to the city, or stay in the city. I see jobs declining everywhere and rural places were already hard to find work in. But I do think it probably will cause a new influx of people, moving back towards ideas of rural communism, maybe even just out of necessity – that’s how you can survive, if you're able to grow your own food.
Vera (Midwest): I think that’s a question worth posing, especially in larger cities. I’m not proximate to a large city, so it’s hard to tell whether people are leaving, what the sort of temperature is on whether people will stay or go. As someone from a small town, we have some anticipation that this is the kind of place people might come to. Impacts could range from more pressure on the real estate market, which already suffers from a very low rate of affordable housing, to more pressure on food systems. Maybe that would turn out to be a good thing for small farmers, but we have no way of knowing right now. The contours of life, especially in Midwestern small towns and rural areas, could change if people start coming here from New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles, and start viewing this as a more viable place to live.
Walter (Pacific Northwest): Seattle had a lot of cases. It was the first epicenter but it was controlled pretty quickly. New York is obviously a really different story. I’m curious whether that experience changes people’s relations to urban space on a city-to-city basis and makes it a lot less appealing, or does end up driving some kind of wave outside of the cities. I imagine that taking place on a medium-term scale, both as coronavirus comes back around next winter but also as the economic repercussions continue to fall out and people in cities can no longer live there, which has already been the case here. We’ve seen so many people leaving Seattle for the last several years and now people are leaving Olympia as it gets too expensive. I’m curious to see what will happen. If people do drift more towards rural areas, I hope we can reimagine how we can live together and not recreate suburban America in the countryside.
One thing I’m really curious to watch is how the pandemic starts to affect rural areas of the country over the next year, which largely were spared from the worst. Obviously part of that has to do with concentration of population, but I also think part of it is just chance and luck. I’m curious to see what happens in South Dakota or these other places where they’re trying to restart all of these meatpacking plants or start factories up again, and whether that in the medium-term will change the political composition. The right has really laid claim to the rural US for so long. So far, the polarization that’s happened during the pandemic has perfectly mirrored that, where the people who take it seriously are mapped almost one-to-one with urban areas, which are mapped almost one-to-one with liberal elites in the imagination of the right. And the places where people don’t believe in it haven’t been hit as hard. So there’s a lot of confirmation bias happening right now and it’s entrenching people more. I’m curious to see whether that changes when or if rural areas get hit harder.
M.S. (New England): Absolutely, it seems like that’s what people are predicting. That’s what realtors are thinking. So it would make sense. The thing that keeps occurring to me is how I came out here thinking I’d be able to build long-term around economic collapse and global warming. That I could do a slow approach, looking at a municipal [level], looking at whatever’s possible. But instead, this happens instantly. And it’s not the sort of threat anyone had thought about. That’s kind of how this shit happens. In many ways, it’s reaffirmed the vision to get the fuck out of the city. [My partner] really wanted to move back to the city. Once the pandemic hit, it was like Nope, we’re fucking staying put. There’s nowhere better to be right now.
Bucky (Southern Appalachia): I feel like it’s still too early to tell. I feel so lucky that I am not only living rurally, but feel very at home living rurally. I was amazed when I was talking to [another rural friend] last week that so many people have moved up there, which is incredibly cool and sweet and exciting. Early on in all of this, I said on a call that the school was getting tons of calls of people being like, I think I need to come there. That has totally stopped, but I am curious to see what will happen. I got an email from a friend who runs an incredibly robust, super beloved business in Asheville, and she was like, I’m drowning. I think we’re going to lose a lot of what’s special. It’s hard for me to say these things because I don’t actually want them to be true. I don’t know what will happen. My greatest fear is that this won’t be big enough to shake us out of this incredibly destructive paradigm. What’s special will die, the rich will thrive, and everybody else will be forgotten. I hope this is big enough that it will actually create an incredibly surprising outcome that we can’t imagine yet.
John (Southern Appalachia): I haven’t personally had anyone ask to move out here or anything specific like that, but I think overall more people are interested in at least what you could call country living, ways to homestead where they’re at. Globally, I don’t think that the urban environment is a very productive one, socially or environmentally. That’s just my opinion. I haven’t always had that opinion, but that’s what it is now. As a whole, I think that people wanting to move away from cities is a good move. There’s probably going to be some friction, but to ease it I think it’s important for anyone who is going to consider that move, to go and let the land talk to you. You’re going into an area where people typically aren’t as mobile. Their families have stayed here for many generations. You may not agree with some of their ways, but just that alone – that they’ve been here – should tell you that they’re going to be reliable. And hopefully yall will change each other. There’s been this disconnect for so long. It’s kind of like a family reunion. Think of it that way, rather than bugging out.
How has the pandemic altered your assumptions and priorities about organizing in a rural context? Has it made you revisit the vision of what you’re working towards?
Ray (Deep South): I have been thinking not just about our own context, but about a sort of sister project in New Mexico. In that case, the overall nature of the project is less about food production. That location is also far more remote – you drive so long just to go to the grocery, you go so long to go to the nearest city that’s more than just a gas station. Out there, we are really struggling to imagine what is going to be different after this. It’s a beautiful place, it’s in the mountains, it’s a nice place to be. But it’s not really possible to produce a lot of food there because of the elevation and how dry it is. We had imagined it as a gathering space and having a lot of value as bringing people in to have gatherings, meetings, a place to be. There’s different things we can build there. In this context, we’re like, is this ever going to be possible again? Or is this going to pass and people are once again going to be looking for that sort of thing? Right now it doesn’t seem possible.
[Socializing] is going to be very strange. I think those of us who have any kind of large outdoor space we’re doing something to take care of – even if it’s not rural, even if it’s just like a big lot in the city or something – I think we should really think about how we can [prepare for that]. I forget where it’s written, but I remember reading about the idea that the downfall of cybernetics, the downfall of this whole internet life that we’re living, is going to be the poverty of its actual experience, how it just sucks. There’s going to be a moment when there’s any kind of relaxation of these norms that – not because the government’s trying to force us all back to work, but because it actually feels safe – I think in that moment, the kind of connections that can be made in real life, in real space, are going to be really important. We should be ready to invite people in. Maybe try to find ways to do it safely before and build up to those moments.
M.S. (New England): What brought us here, I think, was on one hand seeing models of other communes where people were participating in radical struggles but didn’t find themselves living in these crazy alienating cities. That to me felt like a true thing, because of how I’ve seen gentrification impact movement work and organizing. I feel like in [the city], the ground we were fighting for didn’t feel solid, so I wanted to try to do something more based around land, building power where there was more space, more freedom, and the ability to create the means of survival on our own. Part of that was visiting communes in France, where you just see endless greenhouses and gardens.
My work out here so far has been trying to network and get to know other radical farmers. The main project we had been working towards was getting some land from a local land trust to do a summer grain co-op, where we would grow oats, wheat, potatoes, and root vegetables as a group once a month and then split them up in the winter. Develop more replicable, working-class cooperative models of food autonomy. But our unveiling meeting happened a week after quarantine and the shelter-in-place orders were called. We tried to do it on Zoom – shit was whack. You can’t organize like that. So the energy for that project has sort of stalled, been redirected into other things, conversations have evolved to other things like that. But it has really impacted my organizing. The thing is, nobody wants to get together. Even if you talk about doing social distancing, come over and let’s talk – people don’t even want to do that. People like radicals and academics or whoever, people who are looking at how deadly and what a threat this virus is, the people who should be getting together don’t want to.
Walter (Pacific Northwest): We’ve envisioned [the land] in a lot of different ways. I think everyone has a slightly different relation to it and wants a slightly different thing out of it. But we all definitely want it to feel like a resource for a much larger network or milieu, rather than just a place for us to retire to. A lot of our process around it has been a combination of trying to develop actual relationships with the land and get to know it, trying to take our process of planning, laying things out, and building slowly. It’s us also trying to involve other people in a lot of the steps along the way, to try to get buy-in from our larger community and make it feel like a resource. That part has been harder since coronavirus, cause we can’t have work parties or have people come up and hang out there.
I don’t know if [the overall vision has] shifted very much, largely because a lot of our vision going in was trying to develop communes and rural resources and infrastructure for climate chaos and climate collapse, trying to build a world that we can survive together in. It’s always been oriented towards crisis a little bit, just maybe not quite as quickly or as soon as we anticipated.
Vera (Midwest): In some ways, it’s a reminder for everyone to keep doing what they’re already doing. I don’t know that people are doing anything wildly differently than they were doing before, but all of a sudden the things people have been preparing for and building up – from food systems to cheaper ways of providing housing for people – the stakes have become clear about why we’re doing this and why it’s important. This is probably one of a few pandemics we will experience in our lifetime. When we adopt that lens and see clearly that there are more crises to come, all of a sudden what we do to survive COVID is what we do for survival in general.
Bucky (Southern Appalachia): I think all of us are feeling massively privileged to be here. So much of how we’ve already been living has already been in a post-apocalyptic context. So there hasn’t been much reframing at all for how we’ve been orienting, which feels really lucky. There’s this two-fold piece where there’s definitely the inherent privilege of where we happen to be, and there’s a lot of feelings to be had about all of that. There’s also the gratitude that we’ve been working on this project for the past several years that was primed for this condition. I think we all thought of it as a theoretical. There are people who have moved through this space who have been more prepper-oriented and thought of it as more of a reality. But I think, for the most part, it was just this context for us to frame the experiment of the school. So we feel so prepared.
I think we’re so early in a massive paradigm shift, but my initial hits are feeling really affirmed that this is what we’ve chosen to build. Sometimes it can feel hard, within the context of the old world, to have a rural school that’s based in embodiment. That’s been a huge question that we’ve had throughout COVID. This space requires embodiment. We’re not gonna be hosting Zoom classes. What does that mean if people can’t come together for a really long time? We’ve been wanting to be a free school for a long time – that’s a huge thing that we’re all now working towards manifesting, so that when we reopen we will be a free school. We’re going back to our initial values, which we’ve never strayed very far from, and it’s nice to look back at them and see that they’re still core ways that we’re working with now. As soon as togetherness feels truly safe and possible, we want to be able to just fling open our doors for two weeks of wild experimentation. And be able to facilitate and host in the best way that we can, so people can come and have a very freeing experience of what it is to build a new world.
Kelly (New England): There is an idea I learned in reading about Fannie Lou Hamer. A big part of her conception of the Freedom Farm in Mississippi was that if you grow your own food you can’t be pushed around quite as much. I think that though our circumstances are super different up here, there is a certain amount of comfort in knowing that survival is possible. No matter how much our tech overlords use this opportunity to completely put a stranglehold on supply chains, even more than they already have. I also think rural areas have always been sources of life for other urban or para-urban areas. I get caught up in all the inadequacies of it, even more than any kind of hopeful Oh, I feel secure because I live in a rural area. It’s sometimes scary that I know just how much even here we’re reliant on tons of outside inputs. Yes, we produce a ton of our own food and medicine. Beyond us, we’re producing for at least a hundred families. But any kind of larger scale than that and we’re just completely inadequate. There’s a sense that, if you’re thinking on a family scale or just a tiny commune, a rural area’s a better bet, but that kind of thinking doesn’t work anymore. We’re also networked and dependent on a system. If anything, I think this pandemic needs more conversations between people in different environments and more concerted effort, and less any sort of – Well, I live in a rural area and I’m okay, come join me if you want to. I think we actually need a solution that goes beyond that and that involves many different fields, beyond just agriculture.
Astra (Upstate New York): I feel like we were just beginning to form questions about what it means to be here collectively and what we want to build here. We’ve taken a slow approach of really getting to know this place before making big decisions, whether that’s shifting what the land looks like or what we build here. This experience of being in the midst of a pandemic has really cemented some of the reasons why we’ve ended up here.
I think it’s easy to want to tend towards self-sufficiency, not quite homesteading but like Oh, we’re going to be able to meet our basic needs. There’s a tilt to me that leans into that around food, but also is pushing back. It’s not just like, Oh, I’m starting all these seeds because I want to have a garden and not go to the grocery store. How can I plant a garden that will create abundance for other people? I’ve always loved this idea or intention when I do plan my garden, not just for myself but of feeding visitors and others. I think those “others” have grown in number in my head. How do I envision what it means to plant something and who is that for? I think we’re going to be left reeling, as we pass the surges and these residual cases, with the question of what it means to be here right now. These ways of living are clearly not working and are not really meant to sustain people. What can this place offer, not just for those who are here now but for those who we don’t even know, who will be here one day in the future?
At the core of it is this question: how do we care for ourselves and how do we care for others? That’s a question that has been really embedded in the politics and the decision-making we have been trying to work through. Sometimes this question of care can feel so real and so tangible. Other times it’s very hard to pin down what care looks like. And it’s fucking hard, you know, what it means to take care of somebody in recovery, or somebody struggling with depression, or just somebody raising a child. Our sense of being here is so deeply connected to other people. I think we’ve learned through the pandemic what isolation means. How do we build that life in common?
While we currently live amid a desperate situation, what do you think are some positive trends happening right now? What are some potential post-pandemic futures you could imagine based on those?
Astra (Upstate New York): Something I’ve been thinking a lot about through all this is my sister who is pregnant right now. I have a hard time wrapping my head around what that experience must be like. I hope some of the shifts that might come out of this, in this kind of phoenix way, [is that] this way of promising people they are essential, when truly they are being treated as dispensable, becomes a reality that people deeply understand. And [during] this “pause,” really trying to think and reimagine something beyond just going back to normal. We need a different way of being. The most promising hope I have is that through these mutual aid networks, [there’s] this very clear way of seeing that the only people here to save us are each other – the people showing up to get us groceries, the people showing up to make masks, the people showing up to get funds to people who are undocumented or otherwise would have absolutely no access to the federal government’s money. We are the ones who are going to save ourselves. I hope we can continue building on the momentum we have now. I’m really excited to see all the ways that can grow and blossom in ways that we couldn't even imagine right now.
Bucky (Southern Appalachia): I’m really trying to hold onto the perspective of We just don’t know yet. Because the statistics or the logic at this point looks so fucking bleak and awful, and I’m not ready to accept that. Seeing the way that mutual aid has affected rural populations that have been pretty skeptical of folks like us, and are starting to see… It was a huge deal that a bunch of EMS workers came to the [mutual aid] pantry last week, wanting to give people info and asking if there were ways for us to work together. That’s never happened before – it’s been like, who are those punk kids, go get a fucking job. Little things like that make me feel like in these small contexts, in our microexperiences, we might be able to start working together in ways that haven’t been possible yet. If that is the seed that can be planted, that can grow, that seems incredibly promising to me. Because so much of what has happened in our context over the past ten or twenty years has just continued to create more disparate circumstances for people that are actually in the same circumstance.
M.S. (New England): A lot of the stuff you see people talking shit about on social media – you know, people learning to bake with sourdough, ferment, plant a vegetable garden, build a table – all that energy, let’s see that keep going. [But] it’s actually hard for me to be hopeful that politically any good will come out of this. A month and a half ago, Universal Basic Income and the end of America felt very possible, felt like two very strong possibilities. And now neither of them do. I should say, the end of the United States of America still feels more possible than ever. I think [the crisis] further highlights the vulnerabilities of our system, of how civilization is a thin veneer over the real world. It only takes a little nick in its ankles, then all of a sudden we can’t find toilet paper and hand sanitizer in the stores, or you can’t go to the doctor when you have a dislocated jaw. But I really don’t see a lot of good. It’s hard to think something positive politically will come out of this, honestly. But who knows? We see these mass strikes. It’s a very confusing time.
Vera (Midwest): I think climate organizers, especially the youth behind the Climate Strike across the world, have been saying now for years that what we would need is a global halt to the economy. That things have to slow down. That we have to be carbon neutral. In some ways, before COVID, that was a really beautiful imaginary. It was a thing we held in our minds as a possibility, as a necessary possibility. COVID has shown us that it’s totally possible. And that it could be done with greater joy than social distancing allows us. The interest of our local government, our state government, and our federal government have never been in favor of the health of the planet, in the way they’re in fear of the collapse of the economy. I think that really drives home for us what’s possible in the most beautiful sense. We have the potential to take what was a positive imaginary and make it real for the climate, make it real for the ability to grow our own food, and make it real for the ability for us and our neighbors to provide housing for each other. COVID showed us what was possible. It showed us what it takes to come together. Now we have to keep that in mind, because crises are going to continue to come. We’re more ready now than we’ve ever been, but we have to keep getting ready.
John (Southern Appalachia): The positive impact this is having on our atmosphere, or at least the initial numbers, look good for what needs to happen to make this planet at least survivable in the future. It’s still going to be hell, but a lot of us are already used to that. That’s one for sure.
Another one is potentially a resurgence in, depending on the area you’re in, what you could call the home economy or cottage industry. People become producers at home, begin developing independent economies that can be more communal in nature and more informal, or credit-based. “Moneyless systems” is what some people are looking at. Having more time at home. Atlanta is a commuter city. People will be in their cars for an hour, maybe two or three hours daily. Going back to the labor movement – “eight hours for what we will” – well, we actually have time for that “what we will.” Turn your hobby into something that will benefit you and your friends, neighbors, and family. Something you’re not going to burn out by trying to make it a business. Support each other materially with resources that are available. I like to call it agrarian anarchism, or something like that. Make things and share. I think that’s a really viable possibility. A lot of people are grouping up together to take these stimulus checks and use it as capital for these sort of systems, or economies if you will. Investing in things like the brooder and the meat processing room I’m building here that’s going to benefit more than just me. People are viewing this as an opportunity to really break away.
Ray (Deep South): As someone who’s been working on trying to spread gardening, food forests, food autonomy, and sharing the skills of knowing how to grow food and getting away from this disturbing thing of like one or two percent of the population as responsible for everybody else’s food… I think even if none of us did any organizing whatsoever, much less attempt to seize the moment or scale up our efforts to help people grow their own food, there would still be a really meaningful shift for growing more food. I think the real struggle is going to be to do whatever possible to emphasize collective forms of that. Not only because it’s the world we want to see, but also because individualistic forms of food production are insane and inefficient. And the absolute wrong way to approach an ecosystem or a watershed or even just making enough for everybody.
Walter (Pacific Northwest): A lot of people are having this experience, many for the first time ever, of just not having to do anything. Not having to go to work. Trying to figure out what to do with their time and what interests them. How to stay busy. I think that’s really amazing. At the same time, either through temporary government programs like the unemployment benefits or through mutual aid networks, they’re maybe discovering or experiencing the material reproduction of their lives and their necessities being separated from the wage-form. I think that sets an amazing precedent to be like, No, actually, we could all just take care of each other without the economy – and it might be nicer! I’m really curious to see what happens when we transition from this moment of the severe pandemic to the protracted depression that we’re entering, when again no one will have work, or lots of people will be out of work. Money will become a less useful tool for people if they just don’t have access to it. So we’ll have to figure out other ways to get our needs met. There’s a lot of promising possibilities there, as well as just the proliferation of mutual aid networks. [There was] such a huge blossoming in the early days of the crisis and I think it’s amazing that it’s the default now. I’m curious to see how that informs future disasters in different parts of the country as well.
Everyone on a pretty incredible scale is adjusting their habits and behaviors. This is something we’re constantly told is impossible, that we can’t just change our habits, right? That we can’t just do things a little bit differently. Because people are set in their ways, or because the economy decides, or for whatever reason. And we’re having this brief moment where it is clear that if the stakes are high enough, we can all just change our behavior. I think that is a really powerful experience, that if we’re able to translate that to things like climate change or just the way we experience everyday life, to be like Actually… If we all decide we can wear masks and social distance, and that just becomes normal overnight for hundreds of millions of people across the world, what other things can we just decide – if the stakes are high enough and we’re thinking about them correctly?