Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Celo Community



The first time I went to visit the sister and brother in-law at their home outside Asheville, I drove alone, as my wife who as already there. It was a long arduous drive through mountain roads, in the dark as I had lost the race with the sinking sun. I felt like I was in the back of beyond, far far away from a civilized place when I finally drove up through the bushes to their cabin in Celo:


Even by the light of day their hand built home has a Hansel and Gretel air to it, perched on a knob in the middle of the North Carolina mountains and woods.
I remember stumbling in, out of the cool autumnal night and being greeted by a wood paneled room, a fireplace, a stove and a massive old fashioned kitchen all apparently pumping out heat simultaneously. They took my bags and then an unaccustomed sound rang out, like a clarion call. "You have a phone out here?" I asked incredulously as I struggled to acknowledge where I actually was. That I had called them at the phone many times previously did not occur to me till everyone had stopped laughing. "And we have wine too," my brother in law the connoisseur, reminded me as he poured.Celebrating Hanukkah there this month seemed particularly appropriate in light of the exceptional cold hitting much of the nation, and not sparing western North Carolina. We lit candles this year with especial meaning as the wind howled down the mountains and through the trees giving us the impression we were about to be run down by a truck. When we retreated to our electrically warmed room at the Celo Inn, just off Highway 80, we could hear the wind howling and the rain pounding on the roof, making the place feel like a tent. The elements ravage this part of the world. It's the style around here this German fairy tale architecture, all gables and wooden beams, and at this time of year dead looking deciduous trees. Another guest at the Inn admitted it was her first visit and I encouraged her to come up from Florida in the summer when it is glorious in green. "It's just another kind of beauty," the Innkeeper remarked when I talked about how alive the trees are in summer. So it is another kind of beauty, but I just like green better than dead:
The winding mountain roads around here are lined with leafless trees this time of year......as is the Little Toe River, which runs through the valley:Celo (pronounced: See-low) is a corrupted version of the Italian or Spanish for "heaven," cielo, and for those that seek mountain living it is just that. For those of us pantywaists who think 70 degrees Fahrenheit (27C) is cold, Celo is a nice place to visit, particularly during the three weeks of summer when temperatures go above 80 F and cause the locals to sweat and curse their way through a heatwave. These are people who revel in their ex-urban toughness, who love plaid and wool and mountains hemming them in:From my in-laws front yard one can see Mount Mitchell, reported on elsewhere in this blog as the highest point in the eastern United States:My brother-in-law and his wife are among the oldest members of Celo Community, founded decades ago as a form of communal living in the 1960s style. It is sometimes referred to as a Quaker community but it is not. What it is, is a bunch of land owned in common and the people who ask to join are sponsored and voted in (or out) at community meetings. Home plans are also agreed to by the community by consensus votes and transfer of homes by sale or inheritance also have to garner the community's consensus. It is a laborious and cumbersome way to live, in my opinion, but it suits some people very well. My brother-in-law tells me numbers are up and as far as I can gather there are almost half a hundred families living in Celo Community these days. They are growing vegetables and raising animals:The style of most homes in the area are rural mountain cabins, home to artists and artisans, painters and recluses and gregarious people and tough people in shirt sleeves when it's freezing cold:Celo is not easy to find, it's not a tourist attraction though the community does have a little gift shop and food co-op on Highway 80 close by the Little Toe River. Access to the community is across a bridge next to the Inn:One of the two great institutions of Celo is across the bridge:
When my sister-in-law the physician worked there it was a little wooden house and now they have built this magnificent brick structure. Back in the old days before roads, communications and cell phones (which still mostly don't work around here), the health center was a blessing to the locals who lived in Appalachian isolation, and the clinic still serves a profound community need. One road heads off in front of the clinic all paved and modern:The other, all gravel and dirt and pot holed and wet, turns into the main body of the community, the communal land:And off that winding "main road" that the State wants to modernize and widen and pave with all offsets and sidewalks and stuff that the residents are leery of, there are side roads and paths......with cryptic signs and odd sign posts:And the road winds past open spaces backing into mountain valleys that North Carolinians mysteriously call "coves" as though they had some long lost nautical flavor:The main road through the community branches off past more of these little houses, whose occupants are all known to my family members. It's a bit disconcerting when out walking to get a casual wave from a complete stranger. The fact that one is there at all, is an indicator of belonging in some way, and if I were asked, I'd say I'm with my brother-in-law and they would nod and tell me to take greetings to him. Try that on a street corner anywhere in the USA: This is quite the other world compared to the rushing suburban scene just forty minutes away in Asheville to the southeast. Celo Community has been struggling with self sufficiency in the diet, and my brother in law is excited by the numbers of people seeking refuge in this organic world especially as farming is coming back to Celo as the outside economy offers less income. However so are the deer increasing in numbers and they enjoy snacking on people's vegetable gardens. And because this a consensus driven community they have been debating for four months whether or not to allow hunters to cull deer that are all over the mountains and after an entire hunting season of debate they reached no conclusions. People outside the community mark their turf with these bald signs:Along the line where my Quaker brother-in-laws' garden backs up against the outside world he made up these signs:He was brought up to be polite. I took the dog for a walk, that and updating my blog were easy ways to get away from the pressure cooker of the organizational chaos of ten more or less related people celebrating a holiday. Mason who lives in Asheville with Nephew #1, likes the woods obviously:The centerpiece of Celo Community is the school, which when I think about it gives this whole farming, mountain, alternative living enterprise, a rather domestic flavor. However the back to the land movement here, which seems suddenly less eccentric and more needed as our national economy continues to fail in spectacular fashion, is in fact devoted to the proper raising of children. My wife a woman not driven by a desire to have kids, turned down the opportunity to homestead here decades ago, but for couples seeking those much touted anti- urban values Celo offers land, security in a physical sense (no gates needed) and most importantly the sort of school where ending a sentence with "please" is an instilled value:You have a school with youngsters being taught not just to read and write but how to get along in these unremarkable school buildings, the focus of much attention at community meetings:That spirit of easy going tolerance is exemplified by the Volkswagen bus parked under a shelter nearby. It's not running and hasn't been running for years, as long as I remember. It just sits there. My brother in law said he spoke to the owner recently who, with some embarrassment explained it was a restoration project (the perfect non conformist symbol of course!) and he hadn't quite "got around to it."Procrastination drives me nuts, especially when I see it in myself, and that alone is a good explanation for why I would never do well in Celo. In Celo though, procrastination is just another way of saying that the wheel of life goes around and when it's the right time it will get done, and until then there are lots of other things to occupy our minds and bodies. Celo's way of doing things may one day have to be mass marketed to the unemployed, the foreclosed and the aimless in our new world order, where the discredited free market gives way to shared living. I wonder how we will take to it en masse, the concept of living mindfully?