Maybe Leif sensed my nervousness about the commune. At the end of our tour, he stopped just outside the entrance of the common house. “Adrienne, I don’t know why you’ve come here.”
I started to answer, but he held up a slender hand. “You don’t have to tell me,” he said. The smile in his gray beard was small and almost pursed with tenderness, an expression I didn’t remember from the younger Leif. “I am just glad you’re here. I’ve missed you.”
“Oh,” I said. “Thanks.”
He waited a moment, and I supposed he was expecting me to add that I’d missed him, too. But it wasn’t exactly true, not in the sense that people usually mean it, and I couldn’t bring the words into my mouth. Instead we stood looking awkwardly at each other until he finally led the way into the building.
A crowd was filling the dining room. Corinne dished out the vegetarian chili that had been simmering earlier. Along with that, we ate cornbread and a green salad harvested from the community garden. Everyone joined hands and briefly thanked “The Creator” for the food.
Then Leif introduced me to the community’s founders, John and Margaret Fisk. They were thin and weathered people, both about 70, both dressed in white buckskins – not in the fringed and tasseled style of country western musicians, but simply, almost crudely cut and sewn.
John Fisk’s light blue eyes fixed me with a hard glittering look as he shook my hand, then he excused himself and headed back to the kitchen.
I never spoke to him again. Margaret had a softer look; cottony hair fluffed halfway down her back, and crows’ feet scored her sunburned face. She was gently touching people on the arm when they stopped behind her chair to say hello. When the crowd had passed she turned and smiled at me. “Have you ever been to a far-out hippie commune like this before?”
The question was obviously meant to disarm me, and in fact it helped that she could see how the community looked to an outsider. I wondered what she already knew about me and the reasons for my visit. “No. In fact before I heard about Leif, I didn’t think anything like this existed anymore.”
She chuckled. “Actually, there are probably more intentional communities now than there were in the sixties. We just stay out of the headlines nowadays.
Margaret liked to talk and pretty soon she had filled me in on Selu’s history. The Fisks had started out with a group household in Boston in the sixties, then got caught up in the back-to-the-land movement and moved to North Carolina where land was relatively cheap.
Because so many of the anything-goes rural communes had foundered, the Fisks based their experiment on an aboriginal Cherokee village. After all, they figured, the Indians had sustained themselves for thousands of years in these same North Carolina mountains. Not only did they know how to live off the land, the Cherokees governed more or less by consensus, had rituals that connected people and nature and allowed homosexuality and multiple partners, all of which sounded good to the Fisks and their friends.
Technical problems cropped up pretty quickly, though. There are laws about hunting nowadays — and many of the people attracted to the community were vegetarians — which right away meant departing from the Cherokee diet. Also there were no neighboring tribes to trade with.
So Selu (which took its name from the Cherokee god who provided corn) has always depended on the supermarket 17 miles down the road. When the Fisks’ personal fortune ran out, they finally asked everyone in the community to get a job outside. That meant giving up the ideal of self-sufficiency.
And once the wall was breached, the hole kept getting wider. Exotic vegetables were added to the native ones in the garden. Mud-and-wattle was fine for summer but chilly in winter and if you had a wood stove, you might as well have a gas one.
“We’re constantly debating these things,” Margaret said. “How much technology is too much? How much outside income should an individual keep, and how much should go to the community? Our last big fight was about composting toilets. Everybody hates digging out the outhouses. But some people thought we should try to build our own composting toilets, some people thought we should buy them, and some people wanted to set up a septic tank.”
To me, the whole argument sounded batty. “You’ve got electricity,” I said, pointing to the lights in the ceiling. “Why not sewage pipes?”
Margaret laughed. “You see?” She got up and took my plate and hers to the kitchen.