I arrived for my first day on the Conservation Society Ecobus (not its actual name) wearing my Conservation Society t-shirt. I was happy and proud to finally be part of a tribe—to join something larger than myself that I could actually believe in. To me, the t-shirt symbolized this new beginning in my life, and the larger movement to which I was now dedicating myself.
Imagine my surprise when I was told to turn my t-shirt inside out.
The guides explained that by wearing t-shirts with writing on them, I and other students were serving as advertising placards, presenting images to other people in an effort to create impressions-by-association, rather than presenting our true, unbranded selves. T-shirts with writing showed inner insecurity, and furthermore, they were offensive and tiresome to look at during hikes. By turning our t-shirts inside out, we would be reclaiming our power and our integrity, instead of giving them away to societal forces by buying into something that wasn’t really us.
Not everyone agreed. While many of us had never considered this issue before, some had already sworn off corporate t-shirts but felt good about wearing environmental ones. A few people said they liked to wear t-shirts representing groups and causes they cared about, because it helped promote those causes and also was an excellent conversation-starter with others who had similar interests. But the guides and second-year students immediately became more emphatic, and the dissenting voices soon piped down. We apparently needed to agree on this. No one wanted to get off on the wrong foot. We all agreed to reverse our t-shirts, or wear plain ones.
Thus began a two-year journey during which I simultaneously gave away power and empowered myself with an expanded perspective on the world—lost my voice and aspects of my self while also discovering both. I’ve heard similar tales from others who’ve joined intensely focused, insular groups (what some label “cults,” though that is not a term that the Fellowship for Intentional Community considers useful or fair, as it’s an oversimplified, judgmental term in every case).
The questions that arise are similar among many of us, whether our experiences were in separatist Christian communities, ideologically-driven social experiments, radical environmentalist enclaves, groups guided by charismatic leaders (a category that can overlap with others), or any similarly focused community endeavors:
Were we being controlled, or had we found a new freedom in our adopted tribe? Had we lost our individuality, or gained a new sense of self? Were we simply conforming to new standards, or were we gaining the courage to resist conformity to the larger society’s norms? Were these the best times of our lives, or the worst?
The answer was often: both. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So far, I’d only flipped my t-shirt inside out.
* * *
At 20, feeling isolated, alienated, and out of harmony with the world around me, I had left my traditional liberal arts college and set off on an entirely different course. The Ecobus’ parent organization, the Conservation Society, had been a cornerstone of American environmentalism for decades, and had taken this traveling, consensus-run experiential education school, and its nine-month-long experiments in community living and outdoor learning, under its wing.
The Ecobus aimed to help its guides and students rediscover the awareness and practices needed to live in balance with ourselves, each other, and the natural world—to restore healthy individual, social, and ecological relationships. I stepped onto the bus brimming with idealism and enthusiasm (as well as some understandable fear at the newness of it all), and met the 22 people who’d be my fellow students and community-mates for most of the next year. The first lesson, about t-shirts, while unexpected, felt strangely liberating. The nuances of the issue seemed less important than the opportunity to be “in this together.” Something about the black-and-white framing of it, the radical shake-up of the default mode of being in the modern world (in which advertising was so pervasive that few questioned putting it on their bodies), comforted, even exhilarated me. The t-shirt decision solidified us as a tribe. Many more such decisions followed.
When applying to join the bus program, all of us had already consented to certain norms. We’d agreed to eat whatever was served, rather than following different diets. (Catering to individual dietary needs, we were told, would be too complicated and would also divide the group.) Dedicated meat-eaters, the guides made it clear that meat would be a regular element in the group diet. Although I’d been vegetarian for three years, I had agreed to this change in diet because I’d felt desperate for an actual group experience that would bring me back into harmony with the world and myself. There would be no alcohol, drugs, or tobacco, restrictions which were fine by me. Quite significant for many students, we had also agreed to refrain from “exclusive relationships” while on the bus—meaning not only sexual relationships, but “best friend” and confidant-type relationships. Our primary relationship was to be to the group as a whole—nothing could be said to any individual that was not OK to share with the entire group. (As those who tested this territory discovered, anything said to anyone that might raise any “issues” or indicate any personal or interpersonal tension ultimately would be aired in the whole group, by that person or by the person who caught wind of it.)
The men on the bus had also agreed to cut their hair so that the tops of the ears were visible, and to remove facial hair, because we didn’t want to offend some of the “resource people” we’d meet on our travels by appearing to be hippies. We’d received a list of suggested clothing to bring, and partly as a result, we ended up not only cutting our hair similarly, but dressing similarly (though the patterns on our flannel shirts showed a bit of variety).
Much of the uniformity in our living habits was dictated by our situation. Each student’s belongings needed to fit in a small cubby on the bus and a backpack on the roof. Living outdoors and camping, essential parts of the educational experience, were the only options available to us. Some of us tended to sleep in tents, others under tarps, others under the stars, but we all slept outside except in the direst weather emergencies (which occurred on perhaps two nights during my two years with the program).
* * *
I found the new experience of sleeping outside deeply satisfying. I’d grown up in a suburb of New York City, and had been camping only a few times in my life. The Ecobus took us to beautiful natural places all over the country, exposed us to environments more varied and awe-inspiring than I could ever have imagined, and put us in direct, tactile contact with the earth every night. Not every camping experience occurred in the wilderness—in fact, wilderness hikes comprised just a fraction of our time together—but whether camping in a town, on a Native American reservation, in a developed state park, at a KOA campground, or in the backcountry, we were opening ourselves up to the outdoors, becoming comfortable with the earth (rather than a building) as our home. Given the previous trajectory of my life, I probably never would have done this on my own.
Camping felt quite empowering. Not only was I less dependent on “civilization,” and able to take care of my own (minimal) shelter needs (with a little help from modern tent and tarp materials), but I shared my bedroom with the natural world, which I realized held more beauty and endurance than anything we humans can construct.
Sleeping outside together in a group of 23 people every night also offered a unique experience of community. Even when we spread out (as we often did), I felt a sense of solidarity with others that I have rarely felt in my life. For years afterward I would periodically miss that feeling—especially when I was continuing to sleep outside, as all good Ecobus students did, but no one around me was. Where were my Ecobus mates? At those times, I would miss the tribal togetherness that had us all sleeping out together, whether the weather was balmy or extreme (as it sometimes was).
Dedicating ourselves to this practice, especially when it wasn’t easy, challenged us and brought us together. If any of us had slept inside (in those rare situations where that might have been possible), it would have felt like a betrayal. In fact, sleeping outside was not only a practical matter—it was a moral statement and essential sign of our alignment. It embodied our commitment and loyalty to the group and to the earth. It was a nonnegotiable part of being an Ecobus participant. It was part of the same reassuring, black-and-white package of lifestyle choices that had us flipping our t-shirts inside out, eating whatever the group as a whole ate, refraining from couple relationships, and grooming and dressing ourselves nearly identically. It unified us as Ecobus students. It brought power to the group.
* * *
And at least once, it brought unexpected discord. On a night fairly early during my first year on the bus, we had set up camp in a state park, and many of us had chosen to sleep without tent or tarp, under the clear, star-filled sky. Part way through the night, an unanticipated rainstorm wakened us. Those without weather protection faced a choice: take their tent or tarp down from the roof of the bus and set it up in the pouring rain, or crawl under the large, roofed picnic shelter that was next to our campground. Most of the unprotected campers chose the latter course, and woke up in the morning relatively dry, grateful for the fortuitous location of that shelter.
But not everyone was so happy at this good fortune. At our morning meeting (we met, always as a whole group, for several hours on most days), one of the guides uttered the “magic words” (words that were repeated, by various people, quite frequently—and that almost always resulted in a stoppage of all other activity and a devotion of the entire group’s attention to the issue, for as long as it took to deal with it): “I have something to bring up.”
He described what had happened the previous night, and asked if the people who’d chosen to sleep under the pre-constructed shelter had anything to say for themselves: What had they been thinking? How did their choice reflect our desire to be self-reliant, to set up our own shelters? Hadn’t it been an example of taking the easy way out? Didn’t it contradict what we stood for as a group? Wasn’t this the first step on a slippery slope that would have us sleeping inside shelters built by others elsewhere as well? Had they honestly believed that this was the best choice to make? How serious were they about this program, anyway?
The students offered some explanations and apologies, but by this time most people knew that genuine debate was not wanted, that acquiescence was the only safe route, the course of least damage. They promised never to do it again. Had someone felt empowered enough to challenge the guide’s assertions, they might have said:
That park shelter was built much more sustainably, using more local and durable materials, than our nylon tents and tarps made in China. The more we set up and take down those tarps and tents, especially in inclement conditions, the sooner they will wear out. The environmentally responsible choice is to make use of an existing resource rather than, for arbitrary ideological reasons, using an alternative with larger negative impacts.
The guide might well have responded that sometimes the best choices do exact environmental costs, and that in this case the purity of our camping experience, our direct contact with the earth, held more importance than the negligible wear and tear on our equipment. But that conversation never happened, and none of us actually got to make that choice. Or rather we did make it—we ran by “consensus,” after all (in unfacilitated meetings dominated by the loudest voices and without any training or formal consensus process)—but we made it under great duress. We had already given our power of choice away to those who ran the Ecobus. We already understood that we were there not to learn by making choices and seeing the results of those choices—we were there to learn by following the leaders’ choices and adopting their worldview, or at least trying to.
* * *
In the first week or two, actual multi-sided conversations, exchanges of ideas held independently by individuals on the bus, had still attempted to occur. But the pattern established by our initial t-shirt discussion asserted itself quickly: if given a chance, people might start to share their own perspectives, but the guides and second-year students quickly moved in with the “Ecobus” interpretation of whatever we were discussing. Most problems were the result of “Prejudice Against Nature.” “White-smockers” (soulless reductionist scientists, obsessed with measurements and logical arguments and cut off from the living, breathing earth) shared the blame for the plight of the planet with greedy corporations and clueless consumers. Most educational institutions (except the Ecobus) deliberately separated us from the earth in order to mold us into cogs in the machine of western civilization, which was destroying the planet and the native peoples who once lived in harmony with it. Our feelings were the voice of nature speaking through us, and they connected us with the rest of the living earth. By returning to actual, experiential connections with “Culture, Nature, and Self”—by recreating our understandings of and relationships to those, as we formed a subculture more attuned to them—we could help heal the damage the dominant culture had done.
The worldview was compelling in many ways, and I still believe that much of it has validity. I also now see other aspects of it as oversimplified, black-and-white interpretations of a nuanced, “gray” world. But during the Reagan years, that world seemed to have gone mad, as ecological concerns had been pushed to the margins (and often off the edge) of the national discourse. Corporations had seized power in Washington. The agencies responsible for our parks and wildlands had been deprived of enforcement power and taken over by corporate lackeys, and even most environmental groups had been forced to compromise until there was nothing left to give away. Our Secretary of Interior believed that the end of the world was near, and that if humans failed to use up all additional natural “resources” by that time, we would have sinned by failing to utilize the gifts that God had given us. He gleefully urged mining, drilling, and resource extraction everywhere—the more the better. In this atmosphere, the radical, often antagonistic response exemplified by the Ecobus seemed not only understandable, but justified.
Conversations would not end until all seemed to have “agreed” or at least acquiesced to the guides’ point of view—until all dissenting voices were silent. The processes of forming consensus in our day-to-day decisions and of figuring out the meanings and reasons behind the issues we discussed relied on attrition, on wearing down the will of those who may have seen things a bit differently but got tired of arguing. Ultimately, resistance to the dominant view seemed futile—an ironic twist, in that our group prided itself on resisting the worldview of the dominant culture. Perhaps, in holding strong to that resistance, we needed an unusual degree of unity—one that, if it didn’t come naturally, had to be forced or constructed.
By a month into the program each year, most students wouldn’t even bother stating an obviously alternative viewpoint—in fact, they seemed in competition with one another to articulate the “Ecobus” viewpoint first. How did we feel about the stripmine? As student after student reiterated (reinforced by the guides’ approval), it was a rape of the earth. I had also noticed how colorful and awe-inspiring the rock exposed by the mining was—I had actually enjoyed seeing it—but I didn’t dare say so. I kept quiet.
* * *
I noticed that I kept quiet a lot. Long discussions would go by and I wouldn’t say a word. Some other students wouldn’t either. Near the end of each discussion, a guide or one of the more voluble students, usually a second-year, would say, “I wonder why so-and-so [often ‘Chris’ during the first year, until I learned to prevent it by saying at least something before being called out] hasn’t said anything? What is s/he thinking? Where is s/he at with this?”
In a group that discouraged alternative or more complex viewpoints, that pressured its participants into ideological conformity, it seems little wonder that some of us clammed up rather than giving our power away by saying things we didn’t wholeheartedly believe, or that didn’t express the full picture as we saw it. Instead, we chose to give our power away by not talking. I remember a period when I had difficulty articulating anything, even in normal conversation. I felt almost as if I’d lost my voice entirely; when I did manage to squeeze something out of my voicebox, it seemed to me strained, feeble, full of tension. People often asked me to repeat it, to speak up so they could hear me. I would, but I didn’t really feel like talking. In retrospect, I’m sure my physical voice faded away because I didn’t feel safe speaking about what was really going on inside, of which I was often in denial.
And yet, in a sense, I did also find my voice during those two years. I had been trained to be polite, socialized to not “rock the boat.” I had often censored myself rather than raising difficult questions or offering potentially critical perspectives. The Ecobus turned this formula on its head. The guides encouraged us to criticize ourselves and each other, to “bring things up” whenever we saw a hypocrisy or inconsistency, to hold each other accountable to our group covenants and ecological principles. Experienced Ecobusers made it a habit of not saying “good morning” or “hi” or even, it seemed, smiling—those would distract, apparently, from the weighty business of focusing on how we each were failing to live up to our ideals. Displays of affection, casual touch, and hugging were absent from our culture, and actively discouraged by the guides; in fact, predictably, one of them blocked a proposed group hug at the beginning of my second year on the bus (such a thing had never even been proposed the first year), ensuring that the suggestion would never be repeated. A community we certainly were—but one committed to mutual challenge and confrontation rather than mutual support. The guides saw this as excellent training for challenging and confronting the people in agencies and companies who were ruining the planet—and we even got some practice with that, as we visited government offices and power plants and asked questions that made our hosts squirm.
Interestingly, the higher-ups seemed relatively immune to confrontation and challenge. Having figured out the “Ecobus way,” they were responsible for embodying and articulating it. When our bus got together with the two sister buses in the program, I noticed that the guides and students on those buses seemed to act in the same ways, have the same discussions, hold the same worldviews and opinions as our bus. In fact, all the guides seemed to hold the same philosophy and even use the same jargon as the original founder of the Ecobus program, who guided one of the buses. It turns out that all five of the non-founder guides had been proteges of the founder on the original Ecobus, and were now doing their best to spread his understandings, which had become their own.
And during the course of those two years, many of those understandings became my own as well. I found that a lot of them did make sense to me; they helped me understand and interpret the world in ways I hadn’t before. Especially in my second year, I became more outspoken on the bus. I felt that I agreed with most of the philosophy but didn’t always agree with how we were attempting to embody it.
Increasingly, I felt able to “rock the boat” when I thought it needed rocking. I challenged the meat-eating dictum on environmental grounds, and almost succeeded in converting my bus to vegetarianism on a trial basis (stopped only by a couple holdouts who were unwilling to even attempt it). I remember questioning how much time we spent driving around instead of staying in one place. I found myself able to express my perceptions of other people and their personal challenges (as well as my own), and I rediscovered my ability to write. I was no scientist, just a beginning student of ecology, and a very poor naturalist at that point in my life, but in the areas of “psychology” and “English” I got high marks from fellow Ecobusers (both figuratively, and literally, in our very awkward mutual-grading ritual at the end of each semester). I also discovered a passion for Native American culture, which led me, upon graduation, to move to a reservation I’d first visited with the Ecobus. For the next four years, I continued to follow the “Ecobus code” by sleeping outside in all but the very most inclement weather, including all through the winter. And to this day, I have continued to be influenced by the ecological and cultural perspectives I gained on the bus, although I see that they were infected by varying degrees of fundamentalism, intolerance, decidedly uncompassionate communication, pseudo-consensus, dysfunctional power dynamics, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and naivete.
* * *
When I tell people about my times on the bus, they have one of two reactions: “That sounds amazing!” “That sounds awful!” Often the same person says both things during the course of the conversation; the order of the statements depends only on which parts of the story I happen to tell first.
Our group had experiences in natural ecosystems, on Native American reservations, in other land-based subcultures (from communities of Mennonite farmers to Appalachian mountain dwellers to remote Sierra Nevada homesteaders) that affected many of us profoundly, and permanently expanded our ideas about the world and its possibilities. We also witnessed power plants, mines, chicken factories, and environmental devastation; we spent time with policy makers and wild food foragers, folklorists and archaeologists, activists and conservationists. We all picked up musical instruments, sang together (learning songs particular to each region of the country we visited), and held our own contra-dances. We eschewed consumerism, mass media, and electronic entertainment of all sorts (although laptop computers and cell phones didn’t yet exist, we would likely have boycotted those too). In their absence, we created, however awkwardly, our own culture and lives together during those years.
We talked and formed community. Were we always speaking our full truth, and was it a community of equals? No, and no. We each gained some inner power, and lost some inner power, by joining this tribe. Fortunately, most of us still had many decades ahead of us to continue to figure out how best to speak about our feelings (which we’d been told were the most important things, nature’s way of expressing itself through us); how to relate most effectively with others (by being more compassionate, and less judgmental, than we’d been on the bus); how to connect most fully with the earth (for me, it wasn’t riding around in a bus and camping, but rather gardening and immersing myself in local ecosystems in place-based intentional communities); how to distinguish between choices that were truly ours and choices that we made under pressure; and how to integrate everything we’d experienced on the bus in ways that empowered rather than disempowered us.
* * *
An intense, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week world unto itself, the Ecobus asked for total commitment from its participants. Was it a “cult”? In the sense that most people mean it, maybe it was. But the ease with which that label can apply to many aspects of it proves to me the uselessness of that label. I learned and grew through my time on the Ecobus in ways that I value to this day. My experience on the bus made unique contributions to my life, both through its “positive” and “negative” lessons, influencing everything I’ve done since. And it left me with many memories (most more comical than troubling in retrospect, and many of them beautiful) that continue to inspire me, or at least provide good fodder for conversation. You haven’t heard the half of them.
But here are a few more: there was the night we were drenched by the municipal sprinklers set on “automatic” in the town park; the frigid winter evenings sitting in a circle around a non-campfire talking about how cold we were, but how the act of enduring extreme low temperatures was more aligned with nature than building a fire; the hike along Baxter State Park’s narrow Knife Edge, during which several of us had uncontrollable bowel ailments...and the welcome we felt at southwestern pueblo dances; the quiet of a backcountry canoe trip; the transcendent beauty of the song of the canyon wren; the glimpses we offered each other into our own complex, tender inner worlds, in which the answers were seldom quite as easy as those offered by any single worldview, no matter how comprehensive. And there were the many times when we got past the words and I felt, on a much deeper, more tactile level, that we were indeed part of the earth, living in community with one another in ways that were not forced, finding our power from sources more fundamental and enduring than the relatively insignificant human power dynamics of the day.
About the t-shirts: I now wear them right-side out...except when I choose not to.
Postscript: In the decades following my two years on the Ecobus, the program evolved considerably. A new generation of leaders replaced the original guides, introducing new ideas, a much greater emphasis on diversity (in everything from thought to diet), increased bioregional focus, and more compassionate communication. Yet there were also tradeoffs; latter-year students, who could enroll on a single bus for only a semester at a time (a shortened and more-expensive one at that), by most reports experienced less intensity, less unity, less commitment, fewer contra-dances danced, and fewer folk songs learned. Regrettably, financial and organizational challenges eventually forced the cessation of the Ecobus program. It is sorely missed and still mourned by many of its alumni, from every era.