Just down the road from Burnsville, not quite an hour out of Asheville, on the northern edge of Pisgah National Forest, tucked between the Blue Ridge and the Black Mountains and in the shadow of Mount Mitchell, along the grassy banks of the South Toe River, there’s a little place called Celo. It’s an intentional community, the largest one in the western part of the state, and the oldest: 55 households, 85 members — artists and farmers, pacifists and professors, families and single folks — living in mostly modest homes that are scattered over a quarter of the approximately 1,100-acre property.
It’s not a commune. It’s not some hippie hideaway. It’s not religiously oriented in any formal fashion, although its members do adhere largely to the Quaker principles of equality and simplicity, unity and peace. Organized as a land trust, Celo is meant for those who want, more than anything else, to find connections to each other and to this particular piece of the earth, which they share and take care of. What it is, really, is an ongoing experiment. Because it runs on a notion that feels increasingly elusive: consensus.
The people of Celo have to find a way to get along.
Otherwise, it’ll all fall apart.
For 80 years, residents of this remote, woodsy cove have lived by consensus, both as a practical form of governance and as a kind of shared spirit. Jeff Goodman, who has lived in Celo for more than a quarter-century and teaches media literacy and science education at Appalachian State, talks about the “process” — and what this word means in daily practice: Listening. Talking. Waiting. He invokes a Quaker term, the “sense of the meeting.” He says it takes patience. “If you’re in a rush,” he says, “you’re going to get frustrated.”
These days, everything’s moving so fast. To me, this approach sounds appealing — that is, if it’s really possible to live in such a way. All the time.
So I drive along Interstate 40, get off, continue on roads that get smaller and smaller, curvier and curvier, hillier and hillier. My cell phone strains to find a signal, and then simply stops trying. I cross the Eastern Continental Divide, then the South Toe, and take a right on a dirt road and then a left on little more than a gravel path. Jeff greets me warmly at his rustic, book-filled house. Randy Raskin, proprietor of the Celo Inn, joins us, as does Jeff’s wife, Margot Atuk, after a dance class at the Celo Community Center. We eat mushroom quiche and local greens and cobbler made from a bumper crop of various berries grown on Jeff’s land, enjoying unhurried chitchat.
“It’s a very slow process,” Randy says when the topic of consensus comes up. As a concept and method, it’s actually “very conservative,” he notes. “But once we get something decided,” Jeff explains, “it actually happens.”
This is the evening of the general meeting, which happens on the first Wednesday of every month. After our meal, Jeff and I drive back along the gravel path and the dirt road to the Celo Community Center. We climb up creaky stairs to a big, open room with well-worn couches and easy chairs and spartan wooden folding chairs, all set up in a circle. “Nobody in raised seats,” Randy tells me quietly. “All on the same level.”
The chairperson of the meeting rings a little bell. “All right, everybody,” she says.
Over the next hour, three dozen or so Celo members and four trial members — people who want to be a part of this living experiment — discuss whether to grant permission for certain residents to cut down specific trees on different parts of their land. They discuss upcoming nature walks, a new program for teenagers at Camp Celo, and matters that have been hashed out already in the community’s property and finance subcommittees.
At every point on the docket, the chair opens up conversation the same way, with an invitation to participate and be heard: “Thoughts on that?”
It’s a brilliant, sunny, blue-sky afternoon, and Nancy Raskin and I meet for a walk. She walks every day, around these hills and through these woods — for exercise, but also as a kind of meditation, an extension of the closeness she feels with the land. With Randy, she runs the Celo Inn, which is evocative of an unstuffy post-and-beam European inn with a trace of the Swiss Family Robinson’s tree house, all weathered wood and pink-trim windows framed by tall hemlocks and the balm of the babbling South Toe.
For the Raskins, this is sacred ground. They got married here in the spring of 1982, scents of daffodils and forsythia in the air. They became Celo members and the innkeepers five years later. Their daughter and son were raised here, and grew up in the inn, the surrounding Celo land their playground and informal outdoor classroom.
“I would never in my life be able to put a value on the remarkable gifts that life here has offered us,” Nancy says as we set out past the community center and head up a hill into the woods, “both as a place to raise our children and as a place to have such rich relationships with our neighbors and the people with whom we share this land, and these decisions, and these choices.”
In addition to keeping up the inn and tending to guests, she also has been the community’s “codifier” for almost 20 years. Basically, she’s the recordkeeper, but it’s more than that, too. She is the walking, talking institutional knowledge of the place, her role a responsibility but also a passion. What the land trust means in material terms, she explains, is that the people of Celo are leaseholders rather than property owners. The leases for their “holdings” run 99 years — a lifetime and then some. But if and when they leave, they transfer their holding and the house on the plot back to the community. They don’t sell on the open market. It’s a complicated calculus, but the point isn’t profit.
“It’s not a fiscally wise choice, in this world, in this country,” Nancy says of choosing to live in Celo. “But I believe that it’s a very responsible choice.” What the people of Celo are saying by wanting to be members and waiting to be members, and by living their lives very pointedly here and nowhere else, is that they’re getting something from this place that’s worth more than what they could get with a more traditional financial setup.
“It’s the spirit of community. It is the access to, and the responsibility for, these acres,” Nancy says, the pine needles on the path crunching under our feet. We stop at a pond to catch our breath and admire rattlesnake ferns and pennywort in the meadow. With the Black Mountains over our shoulders, we listen to the quiet for a moment. “It is the belief in the consensus process,” she adds, her disposition gentle and mindful, “and how we, as a group, are so much wiser than any individuals among us in making decisions about how things should be.”
• • •
Celo started in the late 1930s because enough people thought things weren’t working anymore. The Depression had wrecked lives. People had worked and worked, for money and for stuff, and for what? The dissatisfaction that led to Celo wasn’t exclusively economic. Founder Arthur Morgan, an engineer, university president, and self-described “practical idealist,” believed that “the way to build a new world was to build it on a small scale.”
“Today, as in the ancient past,” he wrote in 1940, “the small community is the home, the refigure, the seed bed, of some of the finest qualities of civilization.”
The families who were the members of the community at Celo, Morgan urged, were to search for the “meaning of living.” In the years immediately after World War II, Celo grew with conscientious objectors, at first mainly a handful of people who considered themselves outcasts from mainstream American society. But from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, membership dipped, throwing into question the continued viability of the community. After Vietnam, though, thanks to a new population of the disillusioned, the peace-seeking, the back-to-the-landers, membership climbed steadily — through the malaise of the 1970s, the excesses of the 1980s, and ever since. Celo typically takes in two new membership households a year. The waiting list is long.
As Nancy and I make our way past the occasional, half-hidden house of a member, I ask her, “What is the biggest number of a group that could realistically operate by consensus?”
“Depends entirely on the group,” she says. “That is one of the concerns about whether or not we need to increase membership. How many people can actually engage in this process?”
But life is life. And it always ends the same way. And there is no shortage of flannel and fleece and gray and white hair in that room with circular seating on the second floor of the community center. And so, later, I get together with trial members Matt Riley, who’s 31, and Gabriel Onofrio, 38, who have both taken up residence nearby. Gabriel is waiting to join the community with his partner, Alba, and their young daughter. Another generation.
We gather at the small, simply furnished house that Matt fixed up himself, drinking red wine and brown liquor and talking about Celo. “I feel drawn here,” says Matt, who’s from Kansas and went to college in Ohio before moving to Asheville to find farming work. “I feel like there’s sort of a divine presence for me here.” Matt has been a trial member of Celo for 12 months; Gabriel and Alba for about 14 months. (Gabriel’s parents have been longtime members.) Idealistic and seeking a simpler, more pared-down existence, they’re running from hustle-bustle jobs, the issues and the ills of the modern world — but they’re running toward something, too.
“I really wanted a sense of belonging,” Matt says.
“A real connection,” Gabriel adds.
And consensus, they agree, is a big part of that.
“Consensus,” Matt says, “requires that if one of us is dissenting, or refusing to step aside, we can’t just move on. We have to say, ‘Well, OK, here’s what we’re thinking,’ and describe it to you, and you’re kind of pulling everybody along. You’re not abandoning anybody.”
“We’re trying to get to a common place all together,” Gabriel explains.
The bigger that room, though, the harder it gets.
“But it’s possible,” Matt says. “It’s possible.”
And it’s so worth the effort, he believes. It has to be.
After a year, Celo welcomes him as a full-fledged member. Randy and Nancy make him a rosemary pound cake to celebrate. Gabriel and Alba and their daughter are up next. The future.
• • •
My last morning in Celo, I’m out on the holding of Ray Brommer, watching 10 members help clear alders and weeds from a mountain fen. Wearing boots and gloves, and wielding clippers and shears, they drag out branches, while leaving the azaleas and roses growing strong and abundant in the wetlands. And it all doubles as a birthday party.
Ray is turning 70. It’s an anniversary of sorts, too. “On my birthday 38 years ago,” he begins, “I was on a hike in the Black Mountains,” with the clerk of the community’s Arthur Morgan School. “He said, ‘We need a science teacher.’” One thing led to another, and Ray’s life changed. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he says, “except that, every once in a while, you find yourself someplace, and it feels like home.”
Now, he wears a floppy canvas hat and stands on a small deck overlooking the fen. A fen, he explains, is kind of like a bog, but different in an important way: A bog collects water. A fen has water that runs through it. A fen is more alive.
I watch Gabriel’s smiley, talkative, bright-eyed daughter as she lugs branches into a pile. An orange cat named Rocky paws at the bundles. The morning air is filled with sounds of cooperative chatter as these neighbors help Ray care for his land. Which is to say their land. Which is to say our land.
“On the one hand, why care?” Ray says with a shrug. “But it’s like you’ve inherited something that’s rare. And so we’re just trying to preserve it.”
Sometimes, on his deck, he just sits still and stares out at the fen. He sees deer, bear, birds. “Something wonderful doesn’t happen every time,” he says, “but you have to show up if you want to see things.”
With the work complete, at least for one morning, Ray and these other members of Celo move to his porch for the party, where there are greens from his neighbors’ gardens, fried tofu, homemade hummus, crackers, and cookies. But before they eat, they stand to give thanks for this food, and for this place.
Someone says, as they always do, “Let’s circle up.”