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 Truth To Power: The Gathering Inn: Bed, Breakfast, And Beyond

TravelBy Carolyn Baker

Ecovillages, intentional communities, anarchist collectives, Community Supported Agriculture, bicycle culture, animal husbandry, natural building techniques, biochar, sail transport network, and the path of the peaceful spiritual warrior. And more, add away. If you are not a part of these things, or aren’t supporting them, then you are definitely part of the problem and will be left behind in today’s Consumer Age. Whether the latter is a good or bad memory, we'll see.-- Jan Lundberg

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving--Lao Tzu

If you're watching the state of the world and are up to speed on the collapse of civilization, and if you want to take a vacation or just get away for the weekend, where do you go? Do you want to hang out with folks who haven't noticed that "normal" is over and that a new paradigm is foisting itself upon us whether we welcome it or not? If that's you're only option when planning your getaway, you may lose your motivation to pursue it-unless you could escape to a place where you'd be surrounded by people who know what you know and are willing to talk about it with you. ...

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Tim Bennett and Sally Erickson, creators of the powerful documentary " What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire", now own and operate the Gathering Inn in Hancock, Vermont-a lovely bed and breakfast on 2.5 acres of gorgeous land between two stately mountains on the southern portal of the Mad River Valley of Central Vermont. In addition to a lovely setting and lots of TLC, the Gathering Inn's cook, Kathleen Byrne, creates a variety of scrumptious palette-pleasers for guests, seasoned with love and many years of culinary expertise.

Fall is has arrived in Vermont, and soon the brilliant colors of foliage season will grace our hills and valleys. It's a short season, but a perfect time for a weekend escape to the crisp, clean air and the magical, serene beauty of the Green Mountains in autumn.

I caught up with Tim and Sally a few days ago and had the privilege of spending a couple of hours asking them questions about their new venture, and a lengthy dialog ensued. It became so extensive and rich that I felt we needed to present it in two segments.

CB: What are you guys up to these days?

SE: We've done this really "crazy" thing-we've gone into debt buying an inn in Vermont in the midst of a resource crisis that will never end at a time when tourism and the hospitality business are likely to take a huge dive as we stumble over the threshold of a Second Great Depression.

CB: Well, I'm laughing at this somewhat black humor, but I'm also wondering how do you feel about that.

SE: I feel alternately really grateful and excited, and occasionally kind of terrified. We had gotten ourselves debt-free, and it was a big thing to step back into a mortgage.

CB: Well, tell me how all this came about. This is a pretty gutsy thing to do in these times. But why don't you first tell me how you ended up in Vermont?

TB: Vermont has been on our radar for years now as we started hearing about the Vermont secessionist movement and the Vermont Manifesto by Thomas Naylor. That was intriguing, and having lived for a couple of decades in the South and never having felt at home there, it was time for me to get back to the North where I was born. So as we went on our screening tours last summer and fall, we had our eyes wide open, and we spent some time in Vermont and compiled a long list of reasons why it made sense to move here. Actually, there's a way in which it felt as if Vermont decided that we had to move there, and we had to obey that. We received "marching orders" to move to Vermont, and we did, and we had to get our rational minds on board, and that's what the process has been about the last few years.

SE: When we heard about the secessionist movement in Vermont, it wasn't so much that we thought it was viable, but rather, what was impressive was the high level of discourse-that it would even be talked about and talked about with incredible thoughtfulness. For a long time I had been thinking about the scale of things-that it had gotten so huge in the United States that there was no way for any participatory democracy to happen. When the scale of things gets so big, it just invites corruption and disconnection so that people can engage in all kinds of crazy, psychopathic behavior and never be detected because the layers of government and power are so hidden that we don't even see what's going on. So the fact that Vermont was having this conversation about things like human scale just felt really inspiring and inviting.

TB: It also told us that there were people here that are involved in questioning basic assumptions, and that's what we feel like we are about most of the time-questioning the assumptions at every level of our lives in this culture. We wanted to come and do that here where other people seem to be doing that.

SE: So there were all kinds of rational reasons, but I think it just felt like an extremely good fit. There were other places in the country that we traveled to. For example, there's lots of consciousness and awareness on the West Coast and in the Southwest, but we both have families-grown children on the East Coast, and with times being as tumultuous as they are, I couldn't bring myself to consider living as far away as the West Coast and being that far away from my adult offspring.

CB: So you're living in Hancock in Central Vermont, and I'm wondering exactly how that happened. How did you end up living in an inn?

TB: While we were traveling back from Michigan in June where we had gone to Traverse City to do a screening at Michael Moore's theater, we got an email from a realtor, whom we had met last August, saying that she had found the perfect place for us which had just gotten listed. Within a couple of days of returning from Michigan, we went and checked out the inn.

SE: It was another one of those kinds of things where it just felt right-like it fit, just as Vermont felt like it fit in terms of scale. The little town of Hancock which is right next to the small town of Rochester and not far from the small towns of Warren and Waitsfield and the whole Mad River Valley-it all just felt like it fit in terms of scale. For one thing, we want to know our neighbors.

TB: It came to make sense to us to put ourselves on the edge of a village. The phrase "be on the edge of a village" kept coming to us. When we looked at more rural places far off the main road, it just didn't feel right-they felt too remote and isolated. The inn is right on the edge of a little village and right on a main state highway. There's something about that that feels really good in terms of going into the future. It's a place where life is happening on human scale and where we can join in that.

SE: And as for "why an inn?" we had the option of just getting a little house on a small piece of land, but there was something that didn't feel big enough about that. It's like the movie "What A Way To Go" and having a conversation at the end of a screening-people can wake up and have breakfast with us, and if they want, they can continue the conversation with us. But we want to go into the conversation in deep and profound ways. To just have a house that didn't have any sense of a public place or purpose or interface--that didn't feel big enough. So when we walked into the inn it felt like "this fits; this is right." It was really very intuitive, and we realized that this was a way that we could open ourselves up to continuing the conversation but on a very intimate and local scale, both with our local community and with people who come to stay at the inn. The first thing in the morning, a person can have coffee with us, and we can talk about the state of the world in quiet, thoughtful ways. Something really felt right about that.

TB: One of the best things about the inn is that it only comes with 2.5 acres of property. So we will never be tempted to do the "do it yourself" survivalist thing because there's not enough land. We are forced by that structure and by being on the edge of the village to develop relationships with everyone else in the valley to get what we need and to provide them with what they need. So it will naturally compel us to create not only our little community at the inn but to find ourselves in this larger community. An inn by its very nature is a place of outreach, as Sally was just talking about, so we can end up becoming in Richard Heinberg's terms, more of a preservationist community than a survivalist community. We can become a place that reaches out, makes itself useful in the wider community, and in doing so find whatever security is available to have in these days.

CB: So it doesn't sound to me like it's going to be the traditional "eco-village" establishment.

SE: No, as Tim said, it's too small to begin with although we did have Chuck Marsh, a permaculturist, come and stay with us for a week to help us put a lot of thought into how to make the 2.5 acres provide some of our food, how we can incorporate sheep, chickens, and maybe rabbits to give back to the earth and improve the soil.

One of the things we said in our mission statement was that we're striving to follow the most basic of ecological principles which is that you give back more than you take. Anything that is going to sustain itself over the long term has to give back more than it takes. If that's possible, we want to do that. So while we're not going to be an ecovillage, we want to align with ecological principles.

TB: We've also both been involved with intentional communities for a couple of decades and have founded and lived in them and have learned a great deal in terms of what works and what doesn't work and what things are vitally important to the community. One thing we've learned is that bigger is not better when it comes to creating an intimate community of people making decisions and living together. So right now, we're starting very small and moving very slowly, and we expect that "small" and "slow" will be bywords as we continue. But that small unit has to build a set of relationships with the larger community.

SE: Another focus we've taken is supporting the localvore movement that's happening not only in our valley but in Vermont as a whole. We've already established relationships with a couple of local providers of food, and if we're going to be an ecovillage, it's going to be an ecovillage of the whole valley, not just of our property. That all fits in with the idea of scale-small but not too small, small but embedded in a larger community which is embedded in a 100-mile radius which perhaps could meet most of our needs.

TB: The fact that I'm buying and running an inn comes as a complete surprise to me. I didn't see that one coming. It's a huge amount of work, and there's a huge amount of stress related to doing something new and hard, but there's so many ways in which it's perfect. We can take this place, and we can run it both as a bed and breakfast, but also it becomes a place where we can hold workshops and retreats and dialog circles and all sorts of things. That's what I'm most excited about.

CB: I'd like to ask you a little bit more about the dialog circles and community building. Can you explain what happens in those groups?

SE: We're proceeding in developing the dialog work from a not very popular notion which is that intrinsic to most human beings is the ability to communicate which means to both speak and listen in such a way that a rather formless group can actually tap into a deeper intelligence.

Our experience of most workshops and trainings is that there's a lot of structure and an identified teacher or leader, and while there's absolutely benefit that happens from those structured trainings, we're challenging the basic structure of hierarchy that the culture of empire is based on by convening groups that empower the group as a whole to step into leadership rather than having an identified teacher or leader. So while we start out a workshop or circle with Tim and I as identified facilitators, mostly the facilitator's job is pointing to a map that says this is what groups do if they're allowed to and empowered to.

Groups will go through a series of stages, and it's predictable and happens consistently, and so long as the group hangs with it with good intent long enough, by the end, people have the experience of having tapped into something deeper than simply the individual ego. And it seems to us that if we are, in fact, to embrace the notion that Einstein talked about that the only way of solving a problem is to come at it from a different level of consciousness from which it was initiated, people need to learn how to do that. The culture of empire is rampant with the individual ego and the dominance of it, and dialog seems to take the best of what was probably tribal consciousness, as well as the highly individuated direction that our culture has taken, and kind of integrate the two so the individual is not lost, but yet it can find a deep connection with the group as a whole and then a deeper source of wisdom through that connection.


Part Two


Carolyn Baker, Ph.D. is author of a forthcoming book, COMING OUT FROM CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISM: Affirming Life, Love and The Sacred. Her recent book, U.S. HISTORY UNCENSORED: What Your High School Textbook Didn't Tell You, is available at her website: http://www.carolynbaker.net
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[18 September 2008]

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