Story by Anna Smith
Photos by Genevieve Robinson
* Feature photo: Ecovillage residents Bea Haeger and Michael Rencewicz work together planting seeds for summer crops.
Drive half an hour southeast of Eugene, Oregon, miss some turn-offs, backtrack, travel through a tiny town, bounce down a pothole-ridden gravel driveway, and you will find Lost Valley, where goats and naked children roam.
The Lost Valley Educational Center and Meadowsong Ecovillage is made up of a cluster of cabins, yurts, and ramshackle fences. The ecovillage is a place where people come and go. Sharon Gifford came here for change. After a lifetime in the city, she decided that the countryside community was the place for her. Melanie Rios taught and took classes at the ecovillage for ten years and decided to make it her home for her life-after-kids. Chris Roth came for the sustainable gardening practices, and stayed for the close community atmosphere.
The ecovillage established itself in 1989, initially offering classes focused on personal growth. Since then the center has expanded its lessons to classes on sustainability, which includes a Permaculture Design Certificate program. The program focuses on harmoniously integrating humans into nature and landscape in the most sustainable way possible, and the practice is a fundamental philosophy of Meadowsong Ecovillage.
During the summer months the village’s numbers grow as students young and old fill up the two dorm halls and extra cabins. But throughout winter and into early spring, the community’s on-site population stays at around 40 members. “I know everyone here except for the ones that haven’t popped out yet,” Rios says. “We’ve got two on the way.”
March brings weak sun after Oregon’s cold winter months and the villagers begin to emerge, revisiting seasonal projects and breaking ground on new ones. Three community members, Justin Michelson, Michael Rencewicz, and Bea Haeger sow eggplant and pepper seeds to put into the greenhouses.
Haeger’s feet are bare and dirty, visible from beneath her sundress. Michelson and Rencewicz are more prepared in mud boots and pants. Michelson has lived at the ecovillage for two years and plans to start an edible perennial plant nursery. “The idea is that we could create gardens that are more like forests that take care of themselves,” he says. Ideally, he adds, the nursery’s fruiting bushes will reach peak productivity in three years. As the bushes’ productivity declines, taller trees will shade them and bear fruits and nuts of their own. The concept behind planting such crop variations is that plants in different stages of growth often complement each others’ needs, which encourages a healthier, more natural agricultural process. In addition, the crops’ constant progression requires less hands-on maintenance. The practice is a key example of permaculture ideology as farmers try to mimic nature’s natural succession patterns.
The ecovillage grows much of its own food and uses low-impact methods such as “no-till,” a sustainable practice that reduces the negative side effects mechanical tilling can have on garden soil. “The more that you till the soil, it becomes less and less fertile as the nutrients leach out and it compacts,” Michelson says.
Other practices the community uses to decrease their agricultural impact include mulching, composting, and chicken tractors. The tractors utilize the village’s large duck and chicken populations by placing the birds in large movable pens, which allows them to wander the garden and fertilize the beds with their droppings. Planting nitrogen-fixing crops, such as fava beans, in the winter also helps enrich the soil and lessen the need for chemical fertilizers. “Seed bombs” are a low-maintenance technique the ecovillage’s small group of gardeners uses to increase the speed and efficiency with which seeds are planted. The “bombs” are balls of clay and soil, with a single seed inside. Gardeners throw the balls into the garden, where they mix with the garden’s topsoil and the seeds eventually sprout.
Michelson estimates the ecovillage’s garden crops yield $10,000 in fresh produce each year. While most of the food stays in the village, some of it is distributed into Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes for neighbors. CSA programs allow local residents to “subscribe” to local farmers by receiving a weekly or monthly box of farm-fresh goods in exchange for a fee. The ecovillage will also sell produce for the first time at the farmer’s market this year in Dexter, Oregon. However, the income from these sources don’t actually provide a financial surplus for the ecovillage, but cover the costs of building materials, food, tools, and other necessities.
Sharon Gifford had never experienced such a back-to-basics lifestyle until she came to Meadowsong Ecovillage in 2011. “I wasn’t familiar with anything ‘permaculture-ish’ at all,” Gifford says. After living exclusively in cities her entire life, Gifford and her boyfriend moved to the village for a change in scenery, lifestyle, and people. Gifford’s arms clink with bangle bracelets that mingle with her frequent, high-pitched giggle. “I’ve learned more in the past ten months then I probably have in the past ten years. Things I didn’t even know existed,” she says, referring to the ecovillage’s sustainable practices and farm life.
“We have a lot of confident, hard-working people around here [who are] passionate about the world. Put them together and good things happen.”
Melanie Rios agrees that living at the ecovillage can be an enlightening and life-changing experience. She believes that, like her, many people are beginning to seek a more permanently sustainable lifestyles and in part, it’s why Lost Valley has been so successful. “I think that the world needs this kind of education, and people are waking up to that,” Rios says. “We have a lot of confident, hard-working people around here [who are] passionate about the world. Put them together and good things happen.”
The hands-on education offered by the ecovillage is illustrated in the ways its community members work together to reduce their environmental impact, aside from the basics of compost and recycling. A number of families make a living fixing up old or broken electronics. “We have a shop that takes computers out of the waste stream, repairs them, and sells them on eBay,” Rios says. They also find ways to cut down on electricity costs for recreational activities, such as building a wood-fired sauna and hot tub. Some of the village’s homes and its outdoor shower are powered by solar panels.
Such an array of opportunity offers many lifestyle options for those who choose to live at the ecovillage. Some people pay rent, while others participate in a work-trade arrangement. With just a few young children and teenagers, the ecovillage leaves education decisions up to the parents, whether they prefer to homeschool their children or commute them to nearby cities. Some villagers eat in the communal kitchen, while others make their meals in personal kitchens. Some people only stay a few weeks or months. Others stay for years.
Chris Roth chose the latter, and has lived at the village for 14 years. Roth has a long history in gardening and permaculture and chose Lost Valley to continue his learning experience. “I felt very drawn to the community here,” Roth says. “There were families, it was multi-generational, and they really focused on communication.”
Although Roth was initially interested in Lost Valley and the ecovillage for gardening and sustainability purposes, he found something else as well. “I really wasn’t bargaining for the community, but it seems to go hand in hand [with] permaculture and sustainability,” says Roth, who is a self-described introvert. “You can’t just learn those things from a book or on your own because you can’t have a sustainable culture in which people are doing everything for themselves or paying someone else to do it. You have to work together.”
Although many residents of the ecovillage cherish living among such a close-knit group, many understand that a small community lifestyle isn’t for everyone. “People who are very hooked in to entertainment and different aspects of consumer culture would really have no reason to be here,” Roth says. “It’s a more simple, spartan life then a lot of people are used to.”
“I call it rustic,” Gifford giggles.