Forgot your password?

We just sent you an email, containing instructions for how to reset your password.

Sign in

  • [This is a short story with multiple episodes. The seed of this one is That Gathering Sound.]

    Dining at the common house, we sat with Marjorie and her life partner Jim, a skinny guy with an engaging manner and a countenance fresher than his years. Pete used to be a building contractor; Marjorie graduated from business school and worked for several nonprofits before helping to found Wellconomy. They both have kids from former marriages who are working or in school.

    As curious as we were about the community's backstory, we had to take turns asking questions because they were so interested in our life story. It isn't often that people want to know all about you. Most people prefer to talk about themselves or everyday trivia. So we opened up to them.

    They learned that Annie was a medical researcher who, when her university grants ran out, had to freelance as a lab tech, that I was a social worker, laid off by the state, and that we were both assessing where to go and what to do next. We told them that living in Bruce's cabin – idyllic as it is – made it impossible to find work, and we wanted to move on as soon as we could. And of course, Iris needed a school to attend.

    I did manage to ask Marjorie "Where does your group's name, Wellconomy, come from? It could connote many things." She told me the designation was multifaceted. "We are restoring economic health for our members, the communities we touch and the environment, by providing an alternative to the exploitative world of finance. Every day, we demonstrate that one can add greater value by cooperative effort than by high-stakes financial gambling." Made sense to me.

    After a dessert of apple crisp, dishes got bussed, chairs got moved around, and the business meeting began. Iris asked to be excused to wander around with a boy about her age she had befriended who wanted to show her his favorite places. I gave my assent and told her to come back before it got dark.

    It was dark when Iris returned, but we were so exhausted we didn't chastise her for staying out late. Pete showed us to our beds in a house trailer on the edge of the village. We had clean sheets but the water wasn't hooked up, so we needed to use the bathroom in the common house. But it beat lying on the ground in a tent.

    For my part, I slept soundly on the thin foam mattress in our trailer. Still, I woke up on the floor, on which either I had tossed or Annie had pushed me (my punishment for snoring). It was around 5 AM and the dawn chorus was in full swing, so I got dressed and went outside in search of coffee.

    I made a beeline for the common house and found the coffeemaker on a side table, set to detonate at 6 AM. I hastened it by fiddling with its controls, and impatiently waited for it to brew. Armed with a decent cup o' Joe, I went outside to tour the premises.

    The village had four u-shaped clusters of about five living units each arcing behind the common house. Ringing them were other houses, which seemed to contain apartments. All were made of wood, finished with unpainted shingles. Other structures appeared to be workshops of some sort. Farther off were some sheds, a chicken coop, and a good-sized barn, which stood next to a field. The barn and some of the other structures had solar panels on their roofs.

    I walked over to the barn and went in, and was greeted with the smell of fresh hay and manure. Down at the other end I saw some stables occupied by horses. In between were stalls where about ten cows were tethered. At one stall, a man was bent down milking a heifer. When I said hello, he sat up and waved to me.

    "Hi there," he said. "Saw you last night. Did you rest well?" I assured him I did, with gratitude. He introduced himself as Jim, saying it was his turn to do milking. He told me that they sell most of the milk to a co-op, which in turn sends some of it back to the group as butter and cheese.

    When I asked Jim about how big the farm operation was and much work it had taken to establish, I learned that it was a working farm that had been in the former owner's family for 150 years, but he had gotten to old alone to tend it. When Wellconomy bought it, the members spent the first season clearing saplings from pastures, repairing walls and fences and fixing up the barn and the outbuildings. No farming – just a lot of cutting, chopping, composting and chipping.

    "C'mon," Jim said, getting up. I'll give you a little tour." We went out the back of the barn and walked down a lane. Wire fences on both sides kept the cows from wandering into vegetable gardens. Tomatoes, beans, greens, peppers, corn, potatoes and root crops occupied neat rows. Blueberries and raspberries adorned the outer fences.

    We strolled through a gate into a large pasture, with a hayfield and some other crops beyond, sloping down gently toward the Quartic River in the distance. "All told," Jim said, "we have about 80 acres under cultivation, including the orchards. The village takes up about 10 more, and the rest – I think it's maybe 150 more acres – is forest, about half of it managed. So there's room to grow. Let's go up here now. I'll show you the windmill site."

    We turned right and went up hill where a silver mast poked above the trees. "We call that thing 'the well-con-folly,' remarked Jim. "It's supposed to satisfy our energy needs. We do need it. The hydro generator does well, but in the summer there isn't enough stream flow to make all the power we need. So we contracted to build this wind tower, but the company got behind and then went bust." "Yeah," I said, "Marjorie mentioned that the project was sort of becalmed."

    "Why don't you bring in an electric line from the highway," I asked. "You're already digging a trench you could put it in." I had stumbled across the telephone cable trench on my way to get coffee an hour ago. Almost fell into it and broke my leg, in fact.

    "It's just our ideology. We want to be green and self-sufficient," he answered. "There are easier ways to do lots of things, but they end up putting you at the mercy of the life-suckers." By that, I reckoned he meant the energy industry and the financial system.

    Plangent peals from the big gong in the village echoed across the field. "That would be breakfast," said Jim. So we turned around and starting walking back toward the village. I decided to change the subject. "So, do you get many visitors here, either expected or not?"

    Jim told me that two or three guests trickle in a month, alone or in small groups. Some are prospective members, others are reporters, and a few represent small groups that want to launch their own alternative communities.

    "We had an unexpected one a few days back," Jim said. He was different. A Hispanic looking guy, who walked in late one afternoon. Said his car had broken down on the highway and when he spied our mailbox he wandered down our drive to get help."

    "And of course, you all were watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the time," I joshed.

    Jim didn't get the allusion and just went on. "I told him it was late and I was busy, but he could stay the night and in the morning I would look at his car and tow it to town if need be. So he did that. We put him up in your trailer, in fact. In the morning he was nowhere to be found. I drove up and down the highway, but never did see a vehicle parked there. Nobody had any idea who he was."

    We arrived at the common house, where I reunited with my family and went in to eat. Seeing Annie and Iris reminded me that we probably had important decisions to make today.

    Continued in That Unexpected Sound

    [The original seed of this series is On Sustainable Power, May 31, 2012.
    To identify all the stories in the series, click the tag That Sound beneath the map.]

    @image: Camp chef in central Oregon ringing the dinner gong (1936). Photograph by Arthur Rothstein from
    @audio: Zen temple bell from soundbible .com fiddled with by the author in Audacity.
    • Share

    Connected stories:


Collections let you gather your favorite stories into shareable groups.

To collect stories, please become a Citizen.

    Copy and paste this embed code into your web page:

    px wide
    px tall
    Send this story to a friend:
    Would you like to send another?

      To retell stories, please .

        Sprouting stories lets you respond with a story of your own — like telling stories ’round a campfire.

        To sprout stories, please .

            Better browser, please.

            To view Cowbird, please use the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer.