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Book Review

Circles of Strength:
Community Alternatives to Alienation

by Helen Forsey

Reviewed by:
Denise Syd Fredrickson

Once there was a tabloid called The New Catalyst. It began as a quarterly magazine in 1985, largely serving the Northwest U.S./Cascadia bioregion. It's aim was "to act as a catalyst among the diverse strands of the alternative movement." The New Catalyst Bioregional Series came about in 1990, when the editorial collective decided to focus on articles of relevance to a continental audience, and publish twice a year in book form. Circles of Strength is the fifth volume in this series. Unfortunately, I was not able to read each of the previous volumes, but every title spells out key themes of interest to anarchists and ecologically-minded folks, examining issues of power and control. For instance, for those who advocate more decentralized, local control, see Putting Power in its Place: Create Community Control!, volume #3.

This volume of essays and interviews was edited by Helen Forsey, a seasoned activist and communitarian. I met Forsey in the Fall of 1989 when she was living at Dandelion Community in Ontario, Canada, which at the time was one of the member communities in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. I have seen her work to bring communities of theory and activism together with residential cooperative living, where otherwise the two may not have met. Communities of intentionality exist where people do not choose to live together, and Helen has been an active part in each, choosing not to forsake one variety for the other, and has applied her skills and determination to positively influence changes, and meet the inevitable challenges that arise in various kinds of communities.

The foreword to this lovely, compact booklet, grounded in practice and reflection on real life experiences, is written by Judith Plant, who grabs the reader's attention gracefully, getting to the heart of our struggles with community: the individual vs. group identity, where often times, "in spite of enthusiasm, the group cannot agree long enough to stay together" (p. xi). There are sixteen pieces in all, and a few sidebar snippets which complement the other works.

As Helen says in her introduction, there are women and men writing from experience here, "who are committed to building, not a refuge from the 'real world,' but a home base for carrying on the continuing struggle" (Forsey, p. 9). These personal anecdotes are useful for anyone who struggles to put more of their political theories into practice.

There are three main sections in the book: Part One is called Crisis and Rediscovery; Part Two, Difficulties, Dilemmas, and the Search for Balance; and Part Three is From Vision to Reality: The Current Evolutionary Challenge. I found myself more absorbed by the personalities, histories, and the unique settings I was drawn into than I found myself paying attention to the sequential sections. For instance, a member of the Dominican Sisters contributes a beautiful, reflective, nature-loving piece; a homesteader in Ontario writes about how easy it can be to sabotage one's self--and takes a second look at how to use resources as a revolutionary (Trickey, p. 26). Neither one is focused on crisis, in my opinion, and both occur in the first section.

Margo Adair and Sharon Howell address the concept of freedom defined as "no social responsibilities" as quite hollow. They weave in words about alienation and mistrust, and tap into my initial impetus to seriously look into the concepts of anarchism, and most intriguing, social anarchism or "anarchism as communalism," as one of my teachers liked to say. I enjoy their view of community being essential for meaningful collective action, where "we experience the real freedom to explore different ideas and ways of being which are necessary to survive hardship and secure the future" (p. 38). They remind me of the difference between alliances and coalitions, one definition being: the latter is a connection where the issue is of most importance, the former is a bond where people are committed to people, and the person's needs and styles are of importance beyond any single issue.

Gardens were a recurring element in several essays, often being praised as an excellent place for learning. Ira Wallace recalled having a garden when she lived with her grandparents as a child. That garden planted seeds in her--though little did she know it, until she went off to college and realized she missed it! Now I know Ira's life to be interconnected with gardens, and I think I understand a little bit more, after reading the interview Helen has transcribed for us, about why Ira sees so plainly what needs to be done when anybody starts talking about what they'd like to see happen. She knows somebody better have some doing energy for it. For she, like Rachel E. Bagby, are attuned to how a garden grows, and "see it dies if you don't take care of it" (Bagby, p. 114).

Tribalism is a concept reflected upon by two people of aboriginal societies, in another interview conducted by Helen. They recommend getting rid of private property and nation-states, adding that "human life is not necessarily here to stay. So it's time for a radical change, there's no time for anything else" (p. 48).

I think my favorite piece is "Community as Crucible--a conversation with Laird Sandhill." It speaks plainly about the hidden exploitations implicit in everyday activities we take part in. Laird's community tries to use technology that they can maintain themselves, and keep those "issues of production and consumption more directly in front of [them]" (p. 76). Another way is the practice of burying their garbage on their own land. That makes one think about what to buy, reuse or recycle pretty thoroughly. Laird also talks about incorporating emotive input into community business meetings, getting to have good meetings. Because he has key roles in networking and publications related to the intentional communities movement, and has experience of nearly twenty years in a rural, income-sharing community, I respect his summaries and evaluations.

Even though I've read most of Sonia Johnson's books, and enjoyed her writing, I found many questions unanswered when reading the essay written by her and Jean Tait, from an all-womyn's community. For one, I found the need to be "free of addictions" an ideal that some communities may choose to work toward, but not a critical attribute of all intentional communities. Also, I wondered what is the difference between a rule and a community agreement? Does anarchy mean no rules? (p.88). Is self-rule purely based on the individual human being, or can it mean decisions made by groups, often with general shared values, local resource control and mutual cooperation? I was challenged by some statements describing life in their community such as:

You do what you want to do all the time, and in doing so, there are goods and services created, and everybody gives and takes. And nobody keeps track; nobody has to be in charge of anything or anybody but themselves. (p. 88)

Whether in a group of five, fifty or 100, I have had the experience that it takes some focalizing of energy, some commitment toward a role or responsibility to carry out something, especially something the majority of a community considers a basic service which they greatly desire to be done consistently, or a utility or structure they want to maintain well. I don't know how Tait's Wildfire "works" because I've not seen it firsthand. I do agree with them that the need to voice one's wants and needs to others is greater by far in community than living with just one or a few other people. At least try community, they say, and make it be whatever you want or dream it to be. I like that they're going for passion, and relying on themselves to do what comes naturally to them; I just wonder if they have community meetings to decide things together. If not, then maybe they are depriving themselves of the magical workings of building consensus. If they do make community agreements, have any of them found that the commitment to follow through was not always their pleasure? On the aspect of individuality vs. plurality, I would put the Wildfire women at the far end of individualistic attitudes. I would love to hear from anyone who has lived there or visited. I tend to feel that class and privilege issues have not been completely addressed here, but perhaps with all the rules they are breaking, inequality of origins has become moot.

I will not attempt to describe each essay, but I heartily enjoyed the book overall. I definitely agree with Judith Plant in her description of these essays as "substantive," rather than promises of utopia. There is a variety of people heard from here, ones you may relate to, surely some you will be inspired by.



Circles of Strength: Community Alternatives to Alienation. edited by Helen Forsey. 144 pp. New Society Publishers, 1993. $9.95 paper.

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