Commusings: From Mother Earth to Lover Earth by Jake Laub

Mar 20, 2021

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 Hello Commune Community,

Have you ever fantasized about living off the grid? Growing your own food and cooking all your meals? Consuming fewer resources and generating minimal waste? Or just living simply so there’s more time for what makes life worthwhile?

Maybe this daydream drifts into your consciousness while you crawl down the highway with your oat milk cappuccino in the cup holder — only to vanish in a haze of self-imposed busy-ness? 

Of course, I am asking myself these questions as much as I am asking you. 

My business partner and co-founder, Jake, also had this whimsy. But, unlike most of us, he took the off-ramp. Jake operates a sizable chunk of Commune from a yurt on our property in the Santa Monica mountains. 

Jake, in many ways, serves as the conscience of Commune (and me), embodying the values of a sustainable life through his works and actions. He influences my decisions daily, and I hope you enjoy his story and find the same inspiration. 

Always here at [email protected].

In love, include me,
Jeff

• • •

Jeff and I were finishing our first property visit to what is now Commune Topanga when the real estate agent said, “You know, there’s one more area I should show you, but it’s kind of overgrown.” 

We had blown by the offshoot when we drove in — a decade of sagebrush narrowed the dirt road to a thin trail, but we scratched our way uphill in spite of the July heat. At the top, the path abruptly flattened into a lovely nook shaded by an old oak tree. 

Surveying the thigh-high dried grass, Jeff joked, “Jake, this is where you can build your yurt!” We all laughed and moved on, but like a peach pit thrown casually into the bushes, the seed was planted.

By the time the lease on my Hollywood apartment ended six months later, that seed had turned into a sapling. A yurt spot awaited me. Evidently, it was time to build myself a yurt.

And in that moment, without realizing it, I stepped off the pavement of my old life and onto a wild path of awakening.

• • •

I grew up with a set of assumptions for obtaining my primary needs: Food comes from the grocery store and the light switch turns on the lights. If the plumbing breaks you call the plumber and if you want to build a house you hire a contractor. Meanwhile, you get a job to pay the bills for these services, and when you get tired of working, hopefully you’ve saved enough to book a ticket somewhere exotic and relax.

If you’ve really got your act together, you squirrel away even more money so your future kids can pay a college to require them to read textbooks (while you are still working), and also so when you eventually retire and become too frail to go to the bathroom, you can pay a different set of strangers to do that specialized job (while your kids are now working). And if considering all that is too overwhelming, you can hire a psychiatrist to listen to your problems.

But I am walking ahead of my headlamp, here.

At first, ordering a yurt fell solidly within my realm of competence. Google search, read reviews, call customer service, pay with a credit card, coordinate shipping logistics. Click, click, tap, ding, success. 

Then, on a particularly misty Monday in March, a truck deposited all 1857 pounds of my new house at the bottom of the aforementioned steep dirt road and drove away. The 64-page assembly manual mentioned hard hats and looked significantly more complicated than Ikea furniture.

I started making more calls, this time to friends. In the end, 14 generous souls of all ages gathered on March 3, 2019, for what is now in my calendar as Yurthday. Just like a traditional barn raising, there was a step that required three people to simultaneously lift the rafters and central compression ring to establish the integrity of the roof. It took all day, a few trips to the hardware store, an extra order of bagels, and we only shouted at each other once when the top cover almost slid off. But we did it.

That night, lying on a futon on the bare yurt floor, my partner Julia and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Like caterpillars with daring dreams, we had woven our own cocoon of pine lathe and wire, and could sense a metamorphosis melting our bones. 

Acrobatic friends are a yurt-building bonus.

After 12 hours, almost done.

• • •

The next morning I opened my eyes to plumes of breath. The thermometer resting on my bedtime book read 38 degrees. It turns out there is no central heating in off-grid yurts, nor light switches or plumbing. My left turn off the highway of traditional housing had also left me outside the realm of specialists and utilities I could pay to solve my problems. My relationship with my needs had radically shifted.

For the next 12 months, Julia and I had no external source of power other than a 100-watt solar panel and battery. We built a foot-pump sink and carried water uphill from the nearest hose in 3-gallon jugs. When we turned on the hot water boiler the lights dimmed, and if either of us accidentally turned on the boiler and blender the whole yurt went dark and we had to wait 30 minutes for the battery to cool down. 

What a pain in the butt, but also — what is an inconvenience if not a convenient reminder to slow down and notice the moments that normally whiz by? More specifically, what a miraculous insight to literally soak up the sun and see it animate my appliances. What a revelation to wash dishes with more than a passing relationship to each drop of water.

In Commune’s new permaculture course, Warren Brush talks about bringing your energy consumption as close to “realtime sunlight” as possible. For example, burning firewood from a small tree in your fireplace represents the release of 5 to 50 years of stored sunlight energy (depending on the age of the tree). But how many trees had to be compressed for millions of years in the belly of the earth to give you one gallon of gasoline to power your car? According to a study at the University of Utah, the answer is 98 tons of prehistoric, buried plant material. That's 196,000 pounds of stored ancient sunlight, or the equivalent of four long tractor-trailers loaded with tree trunks. Per gallon.

Our culture makes it so easy to forget how deeply interconnected we are with the energy of the earth. Every layer of new technology (and in that I include social technologies such as money) interposes itself between the raw reality of what sustains us. We continually disempower ourselves from directly providing for our basic necessities. Instead, we outsource to specialists who in turn rely on a global supply chain of subcontractors and suppliers and sub-sub-contractors until the miner who mined the metal for my car or the lumberjack who cut the trees for the beams of my yurt are obscured by more than six degrees of separation.

When a friend asked her son where milk came from, he said, “the Internet.” Given that the milk arrived via Amazon grocery delivery, in his world, he was right.

Yet, how strange to be so disconnected from these life-giving forces. And while cursing the overheated solar battery, how crisply aware I became with how distant I still am from the root of so much that sustains me. After all, don’t ask me where the lithium for that battery came from. Or the cotton of my clothes. But at least my awareness is deepening and taking form. Just as the koshas in the yogic tradition describe the nested sheaths of body and soul to be peeled away on the journey toward the authentic self, so too am I unraveling layers upon layers of disconnection. 

• • • 

Our lone solar panel.

The foot pump sink in all its glory. 

• • • 

I was raised in a household with a stolid, 1990s view of environmentalism. My mother’s first job out of college was working for our small town waste management company (i.e. “the dump”) to promote their brand new recycling program. Even after her career moved on, she would visit my elementary school classroom annually to teach the 3 R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle. Separate your paper and plastic. Wash your yogurt container so it can become “sustainable clothing,” which can then be donated to Goodwill until eventually it’s too worn to be worn and is thrown away.

In this environmental worldview, entropy was the landfill. Everything was heading there eventually, and the best a nature-loving, upstanding citizen of the modern world could do was slow down the flow. Sustainability was keeping as much out of the dump for as long as possible.

Thus, for a while, I convinced myself I didn’t want to have children because if the highest environmental good I could hope to achieve was reducing consumption, then bringing another human into the world effectively canceled all my green karma. 

This is not only a deeply depressing viewpoint, but also, I now realize, false, hurtful, and unproductive.

While I was undergoing my initiation into yurt living, Charles Eisenstein came to teach here at Commune Topanga. In a discussion one night at dinner he said, “We have to shift our ecological understanding from Mother Earth to Lover Earth.”

What an epiphany inside a transformational year in my life!

With Mother Earth we suckled at the teat and then cried for more, and as we grew up the allowance wasn’t enough so we slipped 20s out of her wallet when she was in the other room, and took the keys to drive the car, and ate the fridge clean while leaving the dishes in the sink. And even as we were dazzled and distracted by the latest iPhone and Taylor Swift album, deep down we loved her for all of it in part because we didn’t understand the pain it caused her.

But now we are growing up, and it feels silly to ask for the same rent checks we got while we were poor college students, and when we arrive on the weekend to discover a home-cooked meal waiting, we find ourselves saying, “Please rest easy, I’ll clean the kitchen.” And doing so is a joy.

And just as all mothers give birth to sons and daughters who grow up into lithe, young beauties, one day we arrive home, open the door, and realize our Mother Earth is gone, and in her place we have invited into our home a tender, Lover Earth.

At that moment we also realize that, with our opposable thumbs and flexible brains, in spite of our power to destroy her, we were designed to be her lover.

What does this lover need? To listen to what she truly loves and dedicate ourselves to feeding and surrounding her with those things. To recognize she thrives on biodiversity and mutual interdependence and enmesh ourselves in the web of life rather than denying our place in it. To offer effort and attention as gifts and to rejoice when that care is returned in the caress of sun and rain. To be humble, and gentle, and strong, all in their rightful place. To know that she also wants us to be fully alive, and our ability to appreciate her beauty in every biological sense we possess is proof. And above all, to be grateful. Because out of gratitude comes love.

Love asks us to draw closer, which, when it comes to Lover Earth, means drawing closer to the sources of energy that sustain us. Closer to the water, and the sun, and the trees, and the birds that make small sounds in the underbrush as they scratch for bugs and aerate the soil. 

Learn about your watershed so when you go home and open the faucet you can more fully acknowledge the gift of life flowing forth. Grow a garden, or at least a pot of mint on your windowsill to remind you how the sun becomes your sustenance. Find out where your power comes from and, with that knowledge, choose wisely based on your options. 

When your eyes begin to open to the gaping rift between our modern versus indigenous relationship to nature, it is easy to feel your actions are insignificant. That the layers upon layers of disconnection are just too thick, and there’s nothing you can do under the overwhelming weight of our collective consumptive narrative. 

Don’t let it be all or nothing. You are a living being inside of this living whole. There's always a “next best step” you can take in your own life. 

And each step closer to Lover Earth leads to others, because to be a lover takes two.

To be that lover is already within you. 

I’ll end with a favorite passage from Kahlil Gibran:

     Would that you could live on the fragrance of the earth, and like an air plant be sustained by the light.

     But since you must kill to eat, and rob the newly born of its mother’s milk to quench your thirst, let it then be an act of worship.

     And let your board stand an altar on which the pure and the innocent of forest and plain are sacrificed for that which is purer and still more innocent in man.

• • •

P.S. Thank you to all the amazing teachers at Quail Springs Permaculture for sharing so much wisdom in your Commune course Principles of Permaculture. Much of this essay is inspired by your words. I highly recommend watching Warren Brush’s free 1-hour Commune master class, The Ancient Roots of Regenerative Agriculture at onecommune.com/roots.

P.P.S. Click here for a video tour of yurt life.

Jake Laub is a writer-photographer-dancer and a co-founder of Commune. You are likely to find him building with mud, flailing around the garden, making soup out of whatever is left in the fridge, and fermenting anything remaining after the soup.

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