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Virginia Commune Continues to Draw Members

Walk the gravel path from the cow pasture, past the dairy barn and vast garden planted with rows of vegetables, through the woods to the dining hall and beyond to the living quarters, and you'll encounter very few people. It's hard to believe that 100 people live here. Twin Oaks is, above all, tranquil.

"A lot of people come here looking for utopia," says Russ McGee. Although he says he doesn't believe the Virginia farm is a paradise, he has no regrets about what he left behind nearly seven years ago when he moved here.

"There is a certain commitment to simplicity," McGee says. "You can't have a lot of the travel or cultural entertainments in your life, but nevertheless, there is a great richness and connectedness to this life."

There is also a connectedness to the land. Nearly all of the food members eat is grown and raised here, says Valerie, a member for 17 years. "All summer long we are eating our own vegetables," she says. "We dry and can and freeze a lot, so even in the winter we are eating a lot of the food we produced." There are also chickens and cows on the farm. "We get eggs and milk and meat from them."

Very different from mainstream American life

Life at Twin Oaks is very different than most Americans are used to. Notices are posted on billboards and clipboards instead of Facebook and Twitter. And, because members live in dormitory-style buildings that house 10 to 20, there is less privacy. But Arthen, who left his job as an executive chef two years ago, says one of the reasons he moved to Twin Oaks was to get closer to people.

"I worked out in the world for 25 years and lived next to somebody for four years and never even knew who they were," he says. "Now I live with 90 people and I know them all. It's like living in a little village."

A village where everything is free, says Valerie."We get housing. We get health care. We get food. We get clothing. Plus we get $75 dollars a month for extras that the community doesn't provide."

Members don't pay any fee to join Twin Oaks, and if they have assets, they don't have to relinquish them. What keeps this community going, and has kept it going since it was founded in 1967, is work.

"Basically the agreement is you work here 42 hours [a week] and the community covers all of your costs," says Paxus Calta.

Members can choose what work they want to do, Calta says. There is a lot that needs to be done to support the community. "Pretty much all of the aspects of daily living that we can get away with doing here we do. We fix our own cars. We build our own buildings. We educate our own kids."

Capitalism in the commune

In addition, Twin Oaks runs two businesses where members can spend their 42 work hours: constructing hammocks and making tofu. The success of those enterprises is another reason Twin Oaks has survived, because they provide cash to purchase things like insurance and automobiles. The community owns 17 cars, which, like everything else here, are shared.

Sharing, along with other practices, such as hanging laundry out to air dry, using solar power to heat water and burning wood harvested from the farm to heat buildings, makes Twin Oaks more eco-friendly than most American communities, says Calta.

"We consume 66 percent less electricity, seventy-five percent less gasoline, 88 percent less solid waste goes into the landfill," he says. "It comes from this sharing thing. That kind of lifestyle lends itself to a reduced ecological impact."

It's a lifestyle that is, in essence, based on communism, but Keenan Dakota, a member for 25 years, says there is an irony to Twin Oaks: "this communal society is training future capitalists."

Dakota says most members who leave Twin Oaks become entrepreneurs, running small businesses. "Ex-members have started a thrift shop. They have started a tofu business. They have even become stockbrokers."

Right now there is a waiting list of people who want to move to Twin Oaks, because the community is at capacity. But there is talk of starting a sister community nearby. That was done before in 1993, when Acorn was established. Although it only has 14 members, the heirloom seed business it runs is thriving.