ONE BRILLIANT FALL morning, between garden buildings and a greenhouse, a line of eye-grabbing shares of newly harvested produce await pickup. Resembling most other Community Supported Agriculture distribution sites, each box of vegetables bears the name of a different household. But here, the garden crew that produced this food and the residents that receive it are bound together as fellow participants in an “intentional community.” Called Camphill Triform, it’s one of several such self-governing communities in Columbia County organized around the education and care of people with special needs.
In the American experience, the search for community-sometimes in utopian form-has often gone hand-in-hand with a desire to live closer to the earth. During the ferment of the 1960s, the back-to-the-land movement spawned hundreds of “communes” in the countryside. Few persisted for long, perhaps because it’s inherently challenging for people to invent new ways of living and working together from scratch. As an established movement, Camphill communities circumvent that messy task of “re-socializing” and concentrate on realizing their higher sense of purpose.
Karl Konig, a German physician (later a refugee from the Nazis), was a seeker whose quest for deeper truths led him to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the originator of Biodynamic agriculture, Waldorf education and a philosophical framework and spiritual path called Anthroposophy. Steiner’s teachings inspired Konig to invent a more enlightened way to work with children with developmental disabilities, which he implemented in the first Camphill community, established in 1939 in Scotland. A primary principle underlying the Camphill movement holds that whatever our external differences, each person possesses an intact soul and inviolable spirit that makes all equal.
Community life gives members a sense of belonging and a voice in decisions. In these settings, residents have the opportunity to feel helpful on a daily basis and find affirmation for their spiritual striving.
Columbia County represents a major hub for the Camphill movement in the U.S. Founded in 1961 by a handful of people from established Camphill communities in Europe, Camphill Village USA, in Copake-with 615 acres and a $10 million annual budget-is the country’s oldest and largest Camphill community. Its 250 residents include a hundred adults with special needs. Camphill Triform is a youth guidance community of about 90 residents, formed in 1979 in the town of Livingston, near Hudson. There are also two much newer Camphills in the county: Solaris in the city of Hudson and Camphill Ghent, a retirement community.
The Camphill movement was established primarily to enable people with special needs to lead full, dignified lives within a supportive social milieu. Community life gives members a sense of belonging and a voice in decisions. In these settings, residents have the opportunity to feel helpful on a daily basis and find affirmation for their spiritual striving. For some residents with conditions such as Down’s syndrome or autism spectrum disorders, the communities present an antidote to institutional life.
In the rural environment in northern Columbia County, agriculture is a natural and obvious focus for the Camphill communities. Farms, gardens, bakeries and other food processing workshops occupy much of the work life of many residents and significantly help to feed each community. Whether milking a cow, mucking out a barn, weaving a scarf or assembling pegs to make a wooden toy, all work at Camphill brings tangible results, and through meaningful work, each resident is able to contribute to the greater good and feel valued.
Camphill avoids alienated work by “completing the circle,” says Ben Davis, Triform’s on-site farm manager. The idea is to “give people a full sequence-putting your hands in the earth, mucking out the barn, baking bread.” The resulting “sense of vocation or accomplishment for the young people” cannot be underestimated, he stresses. His colleague, Martin Gitt, who runs Triform’s Stewardship Farm, says he has stopped focusing on people’s disabilities -rather than concentrating on deficits, he says, “We try to find the talent.”
In a slight young woman named Nastia, for example, Gitt noticed an unusual sensitivity toward animals, particularly chickens. People like Nastia, he explains, become aware that an animal is sick or hurt or that a gate was not closed properly long before anyone else observes it. “She’s probably the third person with her gifts that I’ve had,” he says. “She said she can hear when they laugh.”
Agriculture in the village is not limited to food production, however. Turtle Tree Seed, a small-scale biodynamic seed company, and the Healing Plant, a spectacular multi-acre medicinal and culinary herb and flower garden with a high-quality product line, demonstrate the potential for value-added products. These two successful ventures also absorb a lot of hand labor, a big asset in the Camphill world.
Marc Blachere, Healing Plant work master, leads a crew of people with special needs in the herb garden, where the ease or speed with which a worker learns a task is not that important, in his view. “It might be that it takes a longer time [for a person with special needs] to learn a basic skill, like picking a flower of chamomile at the right maturity,” he says, but that person might have to exert a “tremendous effort of will” to do what others may do almost unconsciously. In terms of spiritual development, that “astonishing” determination is worthy of awe, he says.
Triform executive director Meg Henderson hadn’t yet assimilated this understanding when she first arrived in the community. A recent college graduate from South Africa and admittedly “snobbish” daughter of academics, she recalls, “I was very surprised that the encounter with someone whose intellect was less than mine gave me a more true reflection of myself.”
Worldwide, the Camphill movement, which counts more than 100 communities in more than 20 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and southern Africa, has exhibited exceptional staying power. With its continued relevance as an alternative to institutional life and its grounding in teachings that speak to human needs and yearnings, it has persisted-and thrived-far longer than most other nonreligious intentional communities. In Columbia County, in fact, there is growth. Camphill Village recently launched a $15 million capital campaign to upgrade its aging infrastructure and buildings and to help build Camphill Ghent, where some of its older residents are retiring. Lacking room for expansion, Camphill Triform acquired an additional 235 acres after the property’s developer went bankrupt in 2008. Gitt is slowly converting the abandoned, overgrown fields into “unbelievable pasture,” now christened Stewardship Farm. “For once, I felt we won,” Gitt notes, “because now we are turning all the house plots into farmland.”
Though the Camphill movement is going strong, living in a Camphill community is probably not for most of us. Interdependence offers many advantages and the occasion for much joy. Yet it also demands long hours of hands-on work as well as a deep capacity for tolerance, humility and compromise, as these communities provide no separation between home and work life.
In Camphill communities, “co-workers,” who supervise, mentor, and work with the villagers, are all volunteers in the sense that they don’t receive wages or salary. Rather, the community takes care of their needs. While some come for just a year-long experience, many settle in, often raising their families and even retiring in one of these intentional communities. Seasoned co-workers serve as craft shop leaders and farm managers or take responsibility for administrative functions like admissions.
Ivan Pellaez, a young Spaniard raised in Ireland, was drawn to “take a year out” at Camphill Triform before going on to college. After barely a week as a co-worker there, he already seemed to grasp the essence of the movement. “We’re always taking, taking, receiving from other people,” he says. “This is a chance to give.”
The regular influx of young people like Pellaez, often from abroad, keeps fresh energy circulating through these communities. Having a life-changing experience with Camphill during that formative period of life also predisposes some young adults to a long-term involvement with the movement. Davis, one of the Triform farmers, is a good example. After studying biodynamics in Germany, he worked on commercial biodynamic farms there, and although he and his wife “wanted a life on the land, it can be quite lonely,” he admits. Having volunteered at a Camphill community after high school, he came to feel that without the social aspects, biodynamics was “almost incomplete.” Before moving to Triform, he and his wife spent a dozen years at a Camphill village in England, where he managed a small, raw-milk dairy.
Webster Beal and his wife also decided to return to a Camphill intentional community for a fuller existence. Beal says he considers the quality of life in Camphill Village, where he and his family have lived since 1987, “so high that it would be hard to match anywhere else.” After all these years, he still marvels at the miracle of Camphill. “If someone had told me about it, I wouldn’t have believed it were possible,” he confesses. Instead, “I saw it for myself when I went there to live.”