ODYSSEY: High Wind – ongoing phases – Part I

by Lisa Paulson

Recapping what you last wrote about High Wind, you described how the community was conceived – in a rush of idealism in the late 1970s, a time when a few people were beginning to question the long-accepted beliefs and ways of mainstream culture. How they worried about the endangered ecological systems. How they were listening to the ominous rumbles that all might not be well with the generally accepted economic model of growth and competition. While this minority was picking up subtle warning signs that priorities and values were skewing, you noted that most people tended to look the other way; they jumped on the consumerist train that promised the moon: a bigger house, fancier gadgets, jobs that would pay for all this. They thought scientists would surely be able to invent ways out of environmental and energy problems, and that experts could assure an ongoing, healthy economy. Both you and Bel have explained in these columns how the High Wind experiment came into being specifically to address these crises, and how the community grew and flourished.

Q: What happened with High Wind eventually? What is going on now?

A. Thirty-five years ago, the little group that started High Wind had seen the trouble looming for the planet, for our civilization. We believed there were ways to address the trends, or at least to start the ball rolling. We decided to create a small demonstration by changing the way we ourselves thought and lived and acted.

Those of us who came to initiate the High Wind community – with its experimental “bioshelter” and solar homes, its example of a simplified, low-consumption lifestyle, and its innovative educational offerings, discovered two things.

First, we found that there was a real hunger out there for our prescient, future-oriented ideas. People were coming from frenetic urban lives to soak up the healing ambience of High Wind’s 128 peaceful acres southwest of Plymouth. They came to hear about a new awareness that had to do with making sure that not only people, but also all life forms on earth must be respected and protected if all of us are to thrive and, indeed, even survive.

Visitors began to hear about High Wind in the nearby metropolitan areas, and then across the country, and even overseas. Growing numbers came to learn and to dialogue about the impending dangers and to brainstorm with us.

The second thing we noticed: At the same time that we were attracting these potential cultural game changers, we were also gaining visibility in our local area. High Wind was a bunch of heterogeneous, mostly young folks in their 20s and 30s (Bel and I were nearly a generation older) – a demographic that stood out by itself in the midst of a traditional farming township. We were advocating a novel kind of home construction employing renewable energy, and radical ways of growing healthy food. We urged restraint in spending habits when most people around us were going in the opposite direction. We were seen as different, a bit strange, and even a threat to a comfortable, familiar way of life. Bear in mind that this was the 1980s, when the economy was booming and before it was generally known that the environment was degrading in alarming ways.

During the 12 years when High Wind was a close, residential enclave – until the early 1990s – crowds were showing up on our doorstep clamoring for programs on every sort of topic, or petitioning to join the community. It was a time of high energy for all of us living at High Wind as our offerings grew exponentially, and we ourselves were clarifying ways to innovate and conserve. As individuals we acquired new skill sets, not least of which was how to work together effectively in close quarters. Our visitors were telling us that even if they couldn’t emulate the more aware, responsible lifestyle they saw us taking a stab at, just the fact that we were here, bringing fresh ideas to light, was important and inspiring. Many of them did take the ideas, and they reported back on insights they’d gained and major shifts they were incorporating into their lives.

At the same time that our guest programs were burgeoning and the numbers of supporters multiplying, this caused increasing strain on our small residential group. As unpaid volunteers, the members had to handle not only their ballooning day-to-day obligations, but also had to figure out how to personally stay afloat financially.

We knew that we’d bought into uphill struggles, but felt that because we were breaking new ground, pioneering new concepts – including new societal patterns and standards that called for radical shifts in habits and lifestyles –we had to accept that all this came with the territory.

The result, though, was that members became overloaded and burned out. The simplified, tranquil life we had envisioned and were dedicated to creating and demonstrating, was somehow slipping away.

With this reality, in May 1991 the High Wind board, along with the residents, took a look at what was happening, and made the decision to let go of our identity as an intentional community. The tight-knit group that had adhered to a rhythm of working, living, eating, and strategizing together opted to relax the intensity and pressure this was causing. We decided to think of ourselves, instead, as an “ecological neighborhood” of good friends who still shared the basic High Wind values, but where the heavy, constant obligations were eliminated. We gave ourselves breathing room to exercise our individuality, pursue personal interests and projects, and to enjoy the privacy that wasn’t possible before. Those of us who had built our own solar houses continued to contribute time and resources to help maintain the public buildings, to pay the bills, and to plug into the larger vision by interacting with our broader constituency.

Jan Masaros, living in her geodesic dome, used her extensive computer skills to help me lay out our journal, Windwatch. David Lagerman kept an eye on the upkeep of the buildings with their quirky technologies that only he understood, and continued to invent energy-efficient devices. Don Mueller continued to cut the trails through our meadows and woods. Bel continued organizing educational programs, often co-sponsored with the university, and I spent time networking and meeting with those on our wavelength who made contact.

We recognized that our 128 acres fell logically into four areas of use: residential (for private homes and personal enterprises); education (programs and retreats in the public buildings – the bioshelter and farmhouse/barn complex); farming (what became Springdale Farm – probably the first CSA in the Midwest – where, currently, some 800 families receive naturally grown food on a subscription basis on 25 acres that former community members Peter and Bernadette Seely bought from High Wind); and conservation (land we set aside to keep wild).

In 1992, an energetic new group of educators from Wisconsin and Illinois, including Bel and me, purchased the adjacent Silver Springs trout farm, an ecological treasure of springs and artesian wells that we vowed to save from development. We created a new entity – Plymouth Institute, and soon obtained a grant from the Milwaukee Public School System to bring 700 inner-city middle school kids up to the land over the next several years. The young people had a unique opportunity not only to experience being out in the countryside, but were introduced to the important aspects of solar energy, aquaculture, organic farming and nature study. They stayed for up to four days at a time, sleeping in our big High Wind barn. A highlight of this program: The colonel commanding the Wisconsin Air National Guard brought his team of instructors to High Wind, pitched tents for kids and guardsmen (and women), and taught survival skills in our woods. Their stay culminated when the regional general landed in our field in a huge Blackhawk helicopter, met by kids waving flags they had designed and marching proudly in short-order drill. We (peace-loving High Wind!) had been skeptical about bringing in the military, but it proved to be one of our most successful programs ever.

The teaching was superb and the kids ate it up. (This part of our history, including the plan to create Spring Ledge, a state-of-the-art ecological village, was described by Bel in an earlier column.)


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