Heathcote Community

Freeland, Maryland
May 2005

Heathcote Community, Freeland, Md., May 2005

Heathcote Community, Freeland, Md., May 2005

Credit: Joel Sternfeld


When Ralph Borsodi founded the School of Living in the 1930s, the terms “permaculture” or “sustainability” did not exist. Borsodi was simply a philosophical man whose life led him to believe that a return to the land was the cure for all that ailed civilization.

His background might have predisposed him to think this way: His father had written the introduction to Bolton Hall's A Little Land and a Living, a book which led to the founding of Little Lander colonies in California. But the real impetus occurred in the early 1920s when the house in which he and his wife were living was sold, and they found themselves without a home. They moved to the country and began homesteading. As he acquired the skills necessary to live in the country with self-reliance, Borsodi began to work on his ideas, producing treatises such as This Ugly Civilization and Flight from the City. His writings influenced many, including Helen and Scott Nearing who moved to the country a few years later and whose own writings also encourage self-reliant, agricultural life.

The School of Living was founded to teach the pragmatics of small-scale subsistence farming and living, such as carpentry, organic gardening, and food storage. Self-sufficiency was at the core of his belief system, but he also considered the broader aspects of modern society and was particularly concerned about the overuse of nonrenewable resources—a topic of great importance today.

After World War II, Borsodi's mission was taken up by Mildred Loomis. In 1965, under her leadership, the School of Living purchased a 150-year-old gristmill in Maryland to serve as the center of a community where the pursuit of personal and spiritual growth could be interwoven with a lifestyle respectful of the land.

Heathcote, as it was named, has thrived, and in accordance with its communal belief that we live on a planet in crisis, it practices and teaches permaculture. A contraction of the words “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture,” permaculture is a philosophy that informs an approach to planning, building, and maintaining sustainable systems, the ultimate expression of which is a sustainable community. Nature itself is the model for permaculture; close observation and working in concert with the natural world are at the heart of this thinking.

The long foreground of Heathcote—from Borsodi's personal transformation to Mildred Loomis's assumption of leadership; from Heathcote's formation as a 1960s commune to its present role as a center of permaculture—offers a model of communal evolution.

Prairie Crossing

Grayslake, Illinois
May 2005

Prairie Crossing, Grayslake, Ill., May 2005

Prairie Crossing, Grayslake, Ill., May 2005

Credit: Joel Sternfeld

Six weeks before this photograph was made the lawn was on fire—in a controlled burn. At Prairie Crossing, homeowners are encouraged to integrate native plantings and restored prairie into their landscaping and to recreate the true natural cycle of the prairie by burning it periodically.

Prairie Crossing is a privately funded community, founded by Vicky and George Ranney and Dorothy and Gaylord Donnelly when a large parcel of farmland threatened by high-density development became available for purchase. They decided to use the land in a manner that was consonant with the rural character of the area. Funds generated from the sale of homes in the community have gone toward restoring surrounding prairie: 60 percent of the 677-acre site is protected open space, including 165 acres of restored prairie and 20 acres of restored wetlands. Sixteen acres of old hedgerows—tough trees planted in columns to act as a wind block—have been preserved at Prairie Crossing, not only for their historic interest but also because they function as a wildlife corridor.

Hardier and more sustainable native plants require less water and maintenance than conventional flora, and serve an important function in cleansing storm water as it flows into local lakes. Prairie Crossing's Lake Aldo Leopold has water of such high quality that it was selected as a site for breeding endangered species of fish.

Besides its commitment to environmental protection and enhancement, many other aspects of the community's development plan—an on-site organic farm, a regional trail open to the public for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing, and a policy favoring economic and racial diversity—serve to indicate that private development can not only be responsible, it can take a proactive role in saving and preserving endangered landscapes and promoting societal good. In the words of Vicky Ranney, “You couldn't save all the land you needed to if you depended on the government.”