Adder, a pale young man with long blond hair, meets me in the garden. He is the designated host for my visit to Twin Oaks. He apologizes for having childcare responsibilities tonight, but promises to show me around in the morning. For now, Adder, shoeless in a woman’s thin skirt, points me to a small guesthouse, where I find my name on a card taped to the door of one of four rooms. Each room, like each of the buildings at Twin Oaks, is named after a former utopian community. My door reads “Walden Two.”
The sparsely furnished room, like the food I will eat at Twin Oaks, is free—I have been asked only to do a little work during my stay as recompense for the hospitality. There’s a set of bunk beds, a small table, and a chest of drawers in the room. I settle into the lower bunk and pull from my suitcase a copy of B. F. Skinner’s utopian novel, Walden Two. In 1967, eight friends, mostly graduate students, read this book by the founder of behavioral psychology and decided to bring that fiction to life. Altogether, their assets added up to $2,000; they had a benefactor who was willing to lease them 123 acres of forest and farmland in Louisa and a parent willing to float them a loan for the mortgage. The small group moved into the lot’s only structure, a small farmhouse, and began planting a garden.
“Some of us were happy,” one of them, Kat Kinkade, remembered 26 years later in her history of Twin Oaks, Is It Utopia Yet? “Central to my own happiness was my conviction that there was no task on earth more important, or certainly more interesting, than the building of an egalitarian community.” While Kinkade left Twin Oaks at times to visit or help create other intentional communities, she always returned to the region, and after succumbing to bone cancer in 2008, she was buried in the small cemetery at Twin Oaks, beneath a circle of quartz stones.
Twin Oaks hardly ever dips below or swells above 100 members: Right now there are 93 adults and seven children. Each permanent member is voted in after a six-month trial period. With community feedback, a team of three men and three women makes the final decision for acceptance.
The one thing Twin Oaks has retained from Walden Two is what the novel calls a planner-manager form of governing. The three planners serve a limited term and are responsible for the community’s long-range decision making. The managers are those in charge of specific areas of work, from the farm to the kitchen to the various manufacturing operations at Twin Oaks. They oversee all daily decisions, and are responsible for decisions that affect the whole community.
To an outsider, it might seem that the planners wield considerable power in a community that espouses complete egalitarianism. The reality, says Adder, a planner himself right now, is that most members take on the role rather hesitantly. (In fact, there are currently only two planners because no one has come forward to be the third.) Something like Plato’s reluctant philosopher-kings, the planners don’t really want power—there is, after all, really nothing to be gained from it at Twin Oaks—and are serving only at the request of the community. Once a planner is nominated, members offer input about the candidate for 10 days, and then a “veto box” is set out. If less than 20 percent of the community votes no (which I sense is almost always the case), a new planner is elected.