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This is what it's like living on a utopian island
A discussion with Nicola about Edenhope Nature Preserve.
Note from Elle: This is a guest post written by who is an ecovillage advocate and community-builder living at Edenhope Nature Preserve on the island of Espiritu Santo. The island was founded based on utopian ideals and now hosts two utopian communities: Nicola’s Edenhope Nature Preserve on one end and the crypto community Satoshi Island on the other. Here she shares the history of the island, what the community looks like now, and how she’s thinking about community building.
Visions of utopia have intoxicated European visitors to the island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, for over 400 years, which forms part of the story of how the island was given its Spanish name. When the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós arrived on the island in 1606, leading an expedition authorized by King Phillip III of Spain and supported by Pope Clement VIII, he deduced incorrectly that it formed part of the Southern Continent (that is to say, pre-colonial Australia).
While the distinctive bay on the island’s northern reaches formed a safe anchorage for his fleet for a full month, Queirós declared the island’s new name—Australia (or Austrialia) del Espíritu Santo—and deemed it an ideal location for a religious colony, ‘Nova Jerusalem,’ which would be protected by new Order of Chivalry, the Knights of the Holy Ghost, and whose aim was to convert the local population to Christianity.
However, the colony was beset by disease, food shortages, and conflicts with the islanders. Queirós himself fell ill and left the colony leaving behind his second-in-command, Luis Vaz de Torres, to hold out until help arrived. Eventually, the colony was abandoned, and Queirós died without ever realizing his dream of creating a Christian utopia.
This initial exposure to Europeans and their crazy ideas of a better world established a template, of sorts, for further attempts to build utopia on the island. In 1842, a group of Presbyterian missionaries from Scotland arrived and established a mission station—a century afterward, the island was used as an airforce base during WWII, and was colonized by France and Britain until it eventually became sovereign.
Notwithstanding the challenges posed by the terrain (to say nothing of the bureaucracy and ineffective government) the island has attracted generations of foreign investors seeking to negotiate the lease of a slice of paradise. Cate Blanchett built a secluded eco-retreat near the Mt Hope cascades; a retired property investor constructed a luxurious nudist hermitage on a private island; and in 2006, Stephen Quinto, a retired aviator and maverick entrepreneur in the field of natural immunogenics, arrived on the island with his wife Ruth.
At the time of Stephen and Ruth’s arrival on Espiritu Santo, they were already aged in their sixties, guided by a vision of building a community in which seekers of truth could congregate and live harmoniously together to contribute to the highest good for mankind. It was the goal of their exodus from the United States, where they had left a multi-million dollar colloidal silver business in the stewardship of their sons.
By the time they arrived in Vanuatu, Stephen and Ruth were already inured to the work of making impossible dreams become real. Their investment in the vision was total from the outset: after three years of patient effort, they negotiated a lease for the land with its customary land-owners, under the agreement that the site would be officially designated and registered as a Community Conservation Area under Vanuatu Law.
They built Edenhope Nature Preserve. Construction of the ecovillage and the 9km stretch of road servicing it took three years, and they made it their home in 2012. Their original development comprised seven bungalows, a communal kitchen, and an administration center, all tucked away in the seclusion of a rainforest a whole day’s travel away from Luganville. They acquired a yacht, Lightship, to make the journey to Edenhope from town.
But their ecovillage was missing the human element; to build a community requires more than basic infrastructure. The work of building roads and houses so far removed from civilization is significant, to be sure, but the project of growing a community is not a financial investment. However, the attitude of the Quintos was simple: if we build it, they will come. Both were prepared to admit that they would not live to taste the fruits of their labors.
What kept Stephen and Ruth united in their vision and determined to serve it with their wealth as a philanthropic enterprise was the thought of the children who would inherit their dream. They longed for babies to be born and to grow up in the purity of Edenhope Nature Preserve, far removed from the destructive inclinations that loom large in society; babies who would grow up to understand the sacredness of life, who would protect the earth and not fall prey to the temptations of worldly pursuits.
Though Stephen and Ruth framed their visions of utopia in a number of different ways over the years we spent in dialogue about it, their constant was to create a sanctuary for human beings to live in harmony with nature, a world apart from the machinations of society at large; a place which supported an evolutionary consciousness, in which the truth of divinity would be fulfilled through collective intention. Stephen called Edenhope “a living seminar in continuous session.”
What I learned from Ruth, in particular, was how to be at home in a dream of paradise; how to live it out, embody it, make it one’s own, because visions of utopia only assume reality through the presence of people: people who are living expressions of the utopian project. It is not easy to live on the brink of the wild; the road washes away in the yearly cyclones, the vehicles fail at inconvenient moments, people get malaria or dengue fever. Nothing is perfect, even in paradise.
But Ruth lived this way for years—nearly a decade, in sum. It requires resilience and forbearance, an inner strength to guide one through the unfathomable threats and challenges that attend life in the tropical wilderness, a world away from the security of Western institutions. Some higher authority can always be blamed or held accountable in society when things go wrong: out here, it is between you and God.
“What is the purpose of Edenhope?” Roger and I would ask Ruth.
“It is a holy place,” she would tell us, with ineffable certainty.
When Ruth’s ailing health prevented her from living at Edenhope, Roger and I set the task upon ourselves to support her vision. First of all, we had to define for ourselves what we were doing: who lives in a holy place, and what makes it holy? Is it just the presence of nature and the contemplative way of life? But what about maintaining the off-grid systems and growing the food? What about promoting ourselves online and attracting volunteers? What about philanthropy, networking, and outreach? Should we run retreats?
In building community—that is, the human element of community—we first had to understand for ourselves the essence of the project, its intrinsic meaning, and what it could become over time. That is, we knew that it was founded upon utopian principles, but it was up to us to establish how that could be experienced in daily life: to define, as it were, the culture of the place in response to the dreams of its founders.
For us (and this happened gradually but intuitively, as our family grew and visitors and residents succeeded over the years) it was important to preserve the sense of limitless possibility: not to foreclose the project with a particular ideology or set of beliefs, but to remain alive to the idea that community is a state of dynamic becoming. The disciplines of self-realization (meditation, prayer, devotional service) became foundational to this, and accorded well with the precept established by Ruth.
Community itself is an experience of attunement to collective needs; it is the state of being beyond yourself, in a state of communion with other people and the earth. The essence of community is an awareness of context: the ability to follow cues leading to a shared experience of Self; for one must learn, in community, how to listen so deeply to the people around you that your hearts coexist as a single, ecstatic merger.
This experience of deep connection between people, I feel, is the living pulse beneath the utopian ideals that drive community projects; it is what makes the struggles and challenges of shared life worth passing through. I have lived in spiritual communities and intentional spaces for the last decade, first in Australia and now in Vanuatu, and I have shared the journey from conflict to connection between people in an inestimable variety of contexts and situations.
The impossibility of existing permanently in a state of sacred communion is, of course, a given. People are complicated. People have a lot of needs. People drive agendas to leverage themselves in relation to others. People live out unconscious patterns of relating imprinted upon them in childhood. This is not only an indisputable fact of samsara (to couple the Buddha’s first noble truth with Satre’s maxim, ‘hell is other people’) but constitutes the lowest rung on the ladder of community dynamics: unless you are enlightened, it is fucking hard to live with people.
It is one thing to take part in a community of common interest—the relationships that grow around work, school, or a creative vocation. But it is another thing entirely to share time, space, and resources with people to whom you are related by purpose, not by family. Roger and I once read a short story called The Islanders by Idries Shah, which likens the collective journey of self-realization to building a ship and sailing it to an unknown shore; this analogy has importantly shaped our motivation and approach to the discipline of community dynamics.
I would like to point out that utopia, in my view of it, is not a social or economic design for ideal communities, but a way of life that potentiates an authentic (and subjective) understanding of collective purpose. To this end, Roger and I, and people who have lived with us over the years have taken the opportunity to experiment on ourselves about what works and what doesn’t in a vision of utopia.
For example (and this is a bone of collective contention in communities) there is the question of diet: what do people consume in a paradigm of higher consciousness? We started off vegetarian, became vegan, then raw vegan, then fruitarian, then fruitarians who ate a single meal of salad per day; we experimented with eating only what grew on the island, then only what grew in our gardens, and for a few months we ate nothing at all (ie., pranic living or ‘breatharianism’).
All of these experiments were worthwhile disciplines, because a radical change in diet provides a radical change of worldview; having consciously pushed the boundaries of what works and what doesn’t for our basic nutrition, we eventually returned to being ordinary vegetarians. But what I appreciate is that, by virtue of living in community, we can safely experiment with nutrition and explore the consequences on our own terms, for better or worse.
This is something special that community offers that regular society doesn’t: the time and space to experiment first-hand and determine the optimal conditions by which to live. It not only applies to diet but to agriculture, water management, power generation, vehicle maintenance, and many other systems that one takes for granted in a consumer culture. Instead of inheriting a system of governance from legislators, the community space invites its membership to define the terms of how decisions are made and how resources are managed. The community experience is thus driven by the experience of individual and collective agency.
Further to this, the conversations that we have about how to structure community life through a daily routine helps to build the culture of the place, the agreed-upon format of shared life. At Edenhope, we schedule group meditations every morning and evening: the effect of shared practice boosts the discipline of everybody involved and contributes to a higher level of individual practice. We also have a standing agreement that anybody who needs to fast or detox is exempt from community participation for as long as they need for healing.
In community, the quality of our relationships with people becomes defined by the infrastructure we share, the meals we cook together, the projects we collaborate on together; every single action, even raking up the leaves, becomes an expression of the collective purpose. And the unmediated presence of everyone in a single space means that when, if we are facing personal problems or challenges, there is always someone available for emotional support.
Community, as I see it, is a subjective state of consciousness; when you are in it, you know that it is real, but to outsiders or people with different ideas about how to live, a utopian project may look absurd or even fearful. Here I have most wanted to emphasize the ordinary yet miraculous level of connection that we cultivate when we choose to share our lives with other people in an intentional setting.
I am not saying that community life is perfect, because the level of interpersonal connection that community requires is simply not comfortable for most people; there are, of course, inherent risks, and I have lived out a lot of suffering through choosing this path. But the freedom engendered by living in community—to explore new ways of doing things, to explore better ways of inhabiting the world—is a freedom that has become precious to me.
I do not think it is possible to look at communities through the lens of success or failure; it is more important to ask if it is serving its purpose, and that really depends on the feelings and intentions of the people involved. Many community projects fall apart at some point, through a lack of trust or an overly idealistic approach to the use of resources, but I do not see this, necessarily, as a failure. You are always learning and growing when you choose to build community: and that is the value, I think, of the utopian pathway.
Thanks for joining me in discussion about creating utopian communities,