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Nascent R.I. cooperative community strives for 'intentional living' in Chepachet

If it works, theirs will add to nearly 2,000 intentional communities around the country and others around the world
Bridget Dignan and Phil Edmonds are helping to build the intentional community in Chepachet. They stand next to the shared garden on the property. The Providence Journal / Kris Craig
Bridget Dignan and Phil Edmonds are helping to build the intentional community in Chepachet. They stand next to the shared garden on the property. The Providence Journal / Kris Craig

GLOCESTER, R.I. — The fledgling "intentional community" sits within a pastoral landscape in the state's northwest corner. Outside the main house, kale, bush beans and Swiss chard flourish in a recently dug garden bed. A pond and several small outbuildings dot the fields that border a patch of New England woods.

Here at a former Christmas tree farm, Jim Tull, Karina Lutz, Phil Edmonds and Bridget Dignan are working to create a small, cooperative community (in which people own shares) that strives towards sustainability, self-sufficiency and harmonious living.

If it works, theirs will add to nearly 2,000 intentional communities around the country — some established, others in formative stages — and hundreds around the world, according to the Fellowship for Intentional Community, a nonprofit "dedicated to promoting cooperative culture."

Those include eco-villages, co-housing, income-sharing communes, cooperatives and spiritual communities. For example, Sandywoods Farm co-housing community and Center for the Arts in Tiverton; the Bread and Roses Collective in Syracuse, N.Y.; the Agape Community in Ware, Mass.; SOHOLand in Malaysia; Kapievi, in the Peruvian Amazon. The nonprofit Apeiron Institute, focused on sustainability education, maintains an ecological housing model in Coventry.

The yet-unnamed Chepachet initiative arose out of a series of conversations about alternative communities, hosted by Kerry Bergin, one of Tull's former students. Though he and Lutz are principals, Bergin "was the initiator," Tull says.

Tull, activist and former co-director of Amos House, teaches global studies and philosophy at Providence College and the Community College of Rhode Island. Lutz, formerly with the nonprofit People's Power & Light and the Sierra Club, is a writer, yoga instructor and workshop facilitator. She and Tull jointly conduct workshops.

After Tull, Lutz and Bergin visited nearly three dozen potential locations over three years, Tull and Lutz bought the 33-acre farm in June. They and Dignan moved in shortly thereafter.

They will hold title until they establish the limited equity co-op. People will be able to buy into the property, live there and use designated and shared space. Others may live as "apprentices" in exchange for work.

"We have big ambitions and hopes and dreams but the living-out is yet to come," says Tull. "It’s kind of 'one foot in front of the other,' with a vision that we have."

"We recognize there are hardships and joys of living together," says Tull. "We're committed to the belief that on balance, we do better together." They are looking for a small group of "like-minded people who can all get along together," share meals and resources, yet have their own private spaces and ownership.

Edmonds, a musician with The Gnomes, social activist and Tull's friend of more than 35 years, spends several days a week at the farm.

Dignan, who knew Tull when she was a student at PC, plans to stay at least through the growing season and possibly beyond. She also works at The Good Earth organic farm and gardening center in Scituate.

Last week, Tull was busy hammering a portable chicken coop on wheels when a visitor arrived. A tour of the property included the garden, existing outbuildings, and trails through the woods.

Among the plans: small "pod" shelters, some retrofitted from existing outbuildings. Solar power, rain and grey water reuse; composting toilets — in all, a lighter footprint on the planet.

They are advertising for a market farmer who might be interested in farming much of the property, and selling crops to the public, Tull said.

Lutz said they will sell excess power generated by solar voltaics, back to the grid, through net-metering.

"We don't want to cut ourselves off from the rest of the humanity," says Lutz. "We want to be an example of a way to live together that’s more nurturing to the human soul, and sustainable."

Lutz said their "permaculture" approach involves "respecting what's growing on the property," including "what has medicinal value, and food value." She's also planning an herb garden in front of the house.

Bergin, who is entering graduate school out of state, said in a phone interview that Tull had introduced her to some readings on alternative ways of living. She convened a group of people for discussions that included intentional communities. She discovered a national network of those communities.

Though these communities differ in their makeup and approach, they are based "on what seemed to me a similar theme of cooperation rather than isolation and competition, and that really attracted me," Bergin said.

"I hope that it serves as a place for people to learn together about growing their own food and working as groups, and as a team. One of the greatest things [about the initiative] is that it's going to preserve green space. We know that land's never going to be converted into houses," she said.

Edmonds, who grew up in Ireland, divides his time between Providence, where he gardens at Southside Community Land Trust, and Chepachet, where he camps in the woods.

He says he has been involved for decades in "undertakings that are geared toward living a saner, simpler and gentler lifestyle. So wholeheartedly I support what is going on at the farm. I don’t have any material resources to help out but what I offer is physical work, from creating garden beds to chores."

He enjoys "the quality time together." And he loves "the peace of the New England woods ... and the silence."

"And even in the 50 years I have now lived here in Providence, in spring, summer and fall I have always managed to create a balance between city living and the natural world," he says. "When I am out there [in Chepachet], I always feel feel a sense of awe, which we have lost here as a culture, in our human-made world."

Dignanwho previously worked for the Olneyville Housing Corporation in Providence, volunteered full time at a nonprofit farm in West Virginia before moving back to Rhode Island.

"I had heard in the fall of 2013 that Jim and Karina and Phil were working on this idea, and I was really interested in it," she said. She's signed on, "at least for this growing season and hopefully [will] get things going."

Her current priorities: the vegetable garden, raising chickens, and "working on the trails in the woods so we can get to know the wooded part of the property more." She's involved in key decisions.

"It’s going well. I love being out here," she said.  She's enthusiastic about growing the community and helping to shape its identity.

But first things first. The former Duquette Tree Farm "needs a new name," said Tull.

That challenge often comes up at dinner hour, around the shared table.

kziner@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7375

On Twitter: @karenleez