Along state spur 67E, in East-Central Ohio, is this sign:

Population: 643
Renewable fuels only, and a
little bit cleaner lifestyle!

There’s only one sign, because there’s only one road into Commoner. Walter Lessing, the owner of Commoner and the 6,000-acre watershed surrounding it, wanted it this way, so no one would ever drive through Commoner to get to somewhere else.

About twenty years ago, with the help of dozens of faculty members from Ohio State (fifty miles to the West), and Ohio University (sixty miles south), Walter set up Commoner as an intentional community, with the intention of seeing what life would be like if lived a bit differently: without the use of any fossil fuels, without roads, and without a sewer system.

My hosts, Randy Conkle and his wife, Gloria, agreed to put me up for the night, though there is a nice hotel downtown. When I pulled into the parking lot, I called Randy on his cell phone; he picked me up in his hydrogen-modified diesel concrete truck. It didn’t look like a concrete truck: eight huge fat tires on the chassis of a military amphibious vehicle. It only holds four yards of concrete: half the load of a regular truck. Randy tells me it can go anywhere, and since there are no concrete or asphalt roads here, that’s important.

“The streets are graded, with ditches and culverts, to divert the rain water, but that’s it. We call them lanes. We took Joni Mitchell’s song seriously about what not to do: pave over paradise and put in a parking lot. Yeah, we did need to put a parking lot in downtown, but it’s not paved.”

I asked him whether the concrete they used was manufactured without the use of non-renewables. He said they were working on various alternatives at the Factory, but haven’t come up with much. The Factory was the biggest building in town; I was to find out more about it later.

Randy was hauling four yards of concrete; we were driving about a mile east. I asked Randy whether it was the law in Commoner you had to face your house south. Randy said the Commoner building codes were probably stricter than most localities, but they tried to be flexible. Probably just more common sense than anything else. If your house doesn’t face south, you’re an idiot. And if your house is hard to heat, your wife will probably complain about the cold, either that or you’ll use way too much firewood. It is illegal here to use electricity to heat anything except food. We are experimenting with hydrogen furnaces, but it’s not happening yet. Since we don’t use oil, coal, natural gas, or any other non-renewables, wood heat is big. Wood furnaces also heat the water (pre-heated by solar water heaters), along with the wood cook stoves in our kitchens. We use electricity for transportation, lighting, cooking, and hydrogen production. And it takes a lot of electricity to produce the hydrogen to power these trucks.

Randy tells me about the wendellberrys: two-story two-hole outhouses popular in Commoner, named after Wendell Berry’s famous composting outhouse. Randy’s friend Sam drives around Commoner in his small electric dump truck, making the rounds, collecting partly composted human waste from those homeowners willing to share it with him.

“What does he do with it,” I ask.

Feeds it to his hogs.

Does he pay the homeowners for their crap? I ask factiously.

No, Randy says, but when the holidays come, Sam passes out sugar-cured hams to his regular customers.

Why doesn’t Commoner have a sewer system?

A ton of economical, spiritual, philosophical reasons. Why go to the expense of installing a sewer system? Why pollute water, and then have to collect it, and clean it up? Why foul the water with your own crap? Philosophically, spiritually, it’s not the right thing to do.

We’re trying to get all our ducks lined up in a row here, so we don’t do anything that needs cleaning up after. And there’s no sanitary landfill here, either, because, in the real world, there’s no such thing as trash.

It appeared the smallest town lot was about an acre, with the lots steadily increasing in size the further we drove from downtown. Having a street-less community was a welcome change from American normal. The lanes followed the contours of the terrain. The ditches seemed well-designed to handle steady downpours. Wet places needed rock, but they obviously went to a lot of effort to avoid anything like pavements.

The houses had many similarities: they all faced south, with a large vertical south wall. Also, the southern sloped roofs were a dominant feature, overhanging far enough to shade out the sunshine during the summer, but let the sun in in the winter. Just inside the Southwalls were heat sinks — heatable masses of concrete, stone, or large clear cylinders full of water. Randy said the secret was to insulate the heat sinks from the earth, to keep them from sucking the cold in.

The four yards of concrete we were carrying were going into an eight inch thick concrete floor stretching from the Southwall of a house ten feet back into the first floor living room. Along with the supporting posts down to the foundation, the job would take Randy’s last two loads of the day.

Each household, along with the chamber pots and wendellberrys, had the means of draining off the liquid wastes, which, along with the house’s grey water, went through small household purification systems, with the liquid result used for home irrigation systems. Commoner’s centralized utilities were the water system, and buried two feet below the water lines were electric lines to each household within four miles of downtown.

Randy says: We got an amphibious eight-wheeled fire truck similar to this thing, hydrants throughout the town, but people living more than four miles out have to provide for their own fire protection. We also have amphibious, hydrogen-modified four-yard dump trucks for sand, gravel, and rock.

What you saw driving into town was part of the thousand acre meadow surrounded by an eight foot hog wire fence. This is all community grazing … we’ve got herds of cows, horses, sheep and goats out there. The town limits are fenced, and in town its just sheep and goats. The sheep eat the grass, and the goats eat the weeds. Between the two of them, they get the job done. We don’t milk the sheep or shear the goats. Each household has to fence out the grazers.

Do people pay for grazing?

The Council figures out how much to charge the different herders. Apart from this, there’s a fenced thousand acres planted in field crops, and the remaining two thousand unfenced acreage is mostly forested, and includes two 160 acre lakes.

What’s your relationship with state and federal governments?

We collect and forward the 20% state and federal sales taxes, though we also have a strong bartering economy here. We’re quite happy the IRS was shut down. When a person signs a lease — Walter maintains title to everything here — he offers people hundred year leases at extremely moderate terms, but by signing a lease you agree to abide by the city council decisions in all civil and misdemeanor situations; all felonies are taken care of by the county sheriff’s office in Zanesville.

Randy hustles back to the concrete yard to pick up the second four yards. “Randy, what’s the deal with these two foot square, some sort of solar panels I see on all the southern-sloped roofs?

That’s what our factory makes most of. They’re fifty year, interlocking solar panels which function as roofing, on anything that’s at least a 3:12 slope. They’ve made and sold over a million of these so far. The average homestead here produces about half their own electricity.

Besides that, how does the town generate electricity?

Fifteen percent wind, 35% solar, 50% hydro. These two big lakes we’ve got up the hill, we push water back and forth between them. We pump water up into the upper lake to store power when we’ve got extra; then run it down when we need the electricity. We only lose 10% efficiency doing this. Also, out of town to the east, we’ve got ten twenty thousand gallon liquid hydrogen storage tanks. When we’ve got extra power, we use hydrolysis to make hydrogen, and store it up there.

I bet there’s not too many people living up around the tank!

Yeah, there’s lightning rods all over the tanks, and they’re in the middle of our biggest forest reserve. Incidentally, we’ve inventoried, numbered, and labeled all trees over 150 years old… there’s 471 of them. The rules are you can’t cut any living tree down over 12 inches in diameter without permission. Any dead trees you can cut up and use, however, except for these 471 older trees– these you need permits to cut up, whether they’re alive or dead. And anything that’s usable for building material or furniture has to be used as such.

So Randy, my next question is, how do you cut trees without using gasoline?

Some people use two-man saws; but what we use most they also produce at the factory: hotwire-saws. You super-heat a wire electrically, then draw it through the tree trunk. We hesitated producing these at first, because it allows tree bandits to operate without the noise of a chain saw, but it turned out they’d already been making these in Europe, so we didn’t worry about it.

We delivered the second concrete load, returned the truck to the yard, and headed out toward Randy’s place riding in the town’s most ubiquitous vehicle: an electric three-wheeled bicycle, with me riding in sort of a rumble seat.

Randy and Gloria’s place was four miles straight west, forty acres on the edge of the Commoner Utility District. For the center of his farm operation, Randy had bought and moved in a large old Amish barn. On the near end he had half a dozen Scottish Highland longhorn cows; in the middle were four Alpacas, and at the far end were Abe and Joseph, a pair of Clydesdales, and four quarter horses. Randy loved working with Abe and Joseph.

“They used to say you couldn’t run a team anymore when you couldn’t carry the weight of the leather harnesses, especially when they got soaked with sweat,” Randy told me, “but nowadays, the nylon harnesses are a lot lighter.”

When we fed the Alpacas, I noticed, in order to conserve the expensive feed additives, Randy used one tiny eight ounce plastic cup for all three additives: limiting the size of the serving container eliminates the danger of over-feeding.

In his machine shop Randy showed me his latest purchase: a traditional Amish buggy from a family in the next county. Coming up the porch steps, I noticed the largest doggie door I’d ever seen, shortly before becoming engulfed by three of the largest dogs I’d ever seen: huge shaggy slobbering Newfoundlands. Once inside, the kitchen floor was soon covered by the three lounging canine giants: Randy and Gloria rescued the dogs from owners no longer able to take care of them.

Upstairs, it was obvious this couple were also loom rescuers: the large north bedroom was filled with three enormous working looms.

After dinner, I tried to get Randy and Gloria to talk about the advantages of living in a renewables-only community, where fossil fuels weren’t in the picture, but I didn’t get clear or startling answers.

“It’s not like you suddenly get the urge to pull up to the pump and spend hundreds of bucks buying gasoline,” Randy says, “or you get the urge to take a really long shower using coal-heated hot water.… It’s just that we no longer have to think about questionable energy use. Before, it bothered me to pull up to the pump and buy gas; I always had the feeling I was ripping off something, somehow cheating. We don’t have those negative feelings anymore.”

In the morning, Randy microwaved me a bowl of oatmeal, telling me he’d lost 60 pounds over six months, mostly just by eating oatmeal for breakfast.

It being Sunday, I rode in to church with them in their one-horse Amish buggy. I noticed the sign on the church just said “CHURCH”. Gloria said: “The four churches in town all have only this name, because, if you think about it, everybody believes there’s only one God, and each person has a special relationship with this Being they call God, so, sort of logically, everyone’s God turns out to be this same Being. So we decided to name all the churches the same.”

Gloria’s fifteen-minute organ prelude before the service began was quite soothing and meditational. After the service, I thanked Randy and Gloria, and, with considerable regret, walked to the downtown Commoner parking lot, fired up my gas-powered auto, and slowly left town.