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Back to the future: in Oregon and other states, the land dyke movement continues to flourish.

Ni Aodagain was just 28 years old when she arrived at OWL Farm in July of 1985, carrying a 2-year-old on one hip and a backpack with all her worldly possessions on the other. She had left academia in New Orleans, visited the jungles of Costa Rica and passed through a lesbian community in Tucson, Ariz. before landing at this 147-acre lesbian sanctuary in Oregon. "I joined the women's land movement 25 years ago to be able to live intimately with the Earth," says Aodagain. "Instead of the pursuit of individual materialist goals, I joined those members of my generation who were seeking a meaningful lifestyle based on forming communal living arrangements, which would be sustained by living off the land. The reality was exhilarating, powerful, painful and ever-changing. It beat the alternative hands down:"

Not far away in southern Oregon, Bethroot Gwynn lives at Fly Away Home, a women's land she founded in 1976. "Two of us began this land and still live here, now in separate households. We share the large vegetable garden and the work involved with other common areas. In the early '80s, first one, then another woman came to live here, and we were a family of four:' Gwynn will turn 70 in just a few months and like a lot of the lesbians who went back to the land in the last 30 years, she is still there--still splitting firewood, still growing fruits and vegetables.

What was once a small cluster of environmentalists in the U.S. is now part of a much larger movement, and there's no denying that lesbians have always been at the forefront of it. In fact, when it comes to addressing environmental issues in America, a lesbian--Nancy Sutley--is one of the most powerful people out there as chairwoman of President Obama's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Among her top priorities is greening the U.S. government, the country's single largest user of energy.

One of the hottest green trends today--what experts are telling us is crucial--is the need to create sustainable intentional communities, something queer women understood decades ago when they combined lesbian-feminist politics with ecological principles, fostering greater awareness of both environmental issues and women's stewardship of the Earth.

According to Dr. Jane Dickie, a professor of psychology and the director of the Women's Studies Department at Hope College in Michigan, "Groups of women, particularly lesbian separatists, have formed communities that are often very much in tune with today's green movements."

As early as the 1970s, many women who were part of the counterculture, back-to-the-land movement here and in Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand embraced a form of lesbian separatism that combined feminist ecology and female empowerment. Land trusts were set up by lesbian homesteaders. These "land dykes" (as many called themselves) grew their own organic food, found low-impact methods to supply their homes and equipment with energy (solar, water, wind) and bartered with local farmers and other self-supporting craftsters, artists and homesteaders.


Lesbians have always thrived at caring for wild spaces. The explorer Ann Bancroft, for example, led the first all-women's expedition to the Antarctic in 1992, and packed out all the trash generated by her trip and the garbage left behind by other male explorers.

An affinity for living sustainably on the land was once considered women's mere fondness for nature, but in the 1980s it morphed into what the author Greta Gaard calls "ecofeminist political engagement" as lesbians reconceived the woman-nature connection. Gaard writes in Lesbian Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, "Ecofeminists believe that the subordination of women is fundamental to militarism and capitalism and intimately connected to the subordination of nature, people of color, animals and the erotic."

As Sandia Bear notes in Out in All Directions: The Almanac of Gay and Lesbian America, "For some women, the experience of living on the land ... allowed them to participate in a natural cycle quite different from city life. One governed by the sun. The moon. The seasons. ... Then there was the land itself: what we gave to it, what it taught us. ... It was about reclaiming an ancient bond. It was about community; it was about home."


Now, in 2011, you might imagine that women's lands were a thing of the past. A 2009 New York Times article that focuses on Alapine, a lesbian community in the southern Appalachian Mountains in Alabama, talks about the "fading patchwork" of lesbian separatist communities, while noting that about 100 communities still exist in the United States. With, two young women, Jesse Landstrom and Sara Gulbrandsen, are documenting the growth and decline of a once-thriving lesbian community in the mountains near Tucson, where rammed earth buildings have given way to mobile homes. But even there, the women, and the community, still persist.

"Women's lands still exist", agrees Bethroot Gwynn. "What's past tense is the occasional phenomenon on women's lands of large groups of women coining together to live collectively. [But] most land groups have always been small in terms of resident members. Two to three in many places. What was often true back then was a swirl of visitors and temporary residents. It was a movement, and some settled in:"

Today, there are women living on and caretaking lands in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Maine, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin--and in Australia, Britain, Mexico, Canada, Scotland, France, Sweden, Wales and New Zealand. Historically, nowhere has the land dyke movement been stronger than in Oregon, where a thriving hive of women still exists.

During what was a key decade, 1974 to 1984, Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove and a collective of volunteers in Oregon published Womanspirit magazine, which combined spirituality and ecological feminism and served to unify the political agenda at the many women's communities in the region. Maize, a country living magazine still published today, and Womanspirit were sustaining and influential, says Aodagain. "Without Womanspirit, I am not sure the women's land movement in Oregon would have happened in the same way, or grown to be what it is."

Although lesbian separatism was founded on essentialist constructions of gender and nature, Dr. Catriona Sandilands, the author of The Good-Natured Feminist: Ecofeminism and the Quest for Democracy, says, "The Oregon communities have developed, over time, a blend of lesbian principles and local environmental knowledge. This has produced a complex tradition of lesbian ecopolitical resistance"

In Oregon, those women's communities included Cabbage Land (originally a mixed-gender community), Fishpond, OWL, Rainbow's Other End, Rootworks, Fly Away Home, WomanShare, Rainbow's End, Steppingwoods and We' Moon Healing Ground. And guess what: They're all still there--and many of them are still welcome visiting women and new residents.

"Yes, this is a thriving lesbian network in Oregon," says Gwynn, "by now involving scores of women who live in the cities and small towns, as well as those who make their home in the country, whether or not they live on land identified as 'women's land.'"


Perhaps the most famous of the women's lands in the United States is the Oregon Women's Land Trust (known worldwide as OWL). Many of the major lesbian artists (writers, musicians, visual artists) who are now in their 40s, 50s and 60s made a stopover at OWL at some point in their careers. Ironically, today it is the only women's land in Oregon that doesn't have permanent residents on it. "But there is a very committed group of women who govern her, caring for her as they can, with weekend gatherings, quarterly meetings where decisions are made, and future visioning," says A6dagain. "One of the major objectives of OWL is to hold land in perpetuity. Sometimes it means a thriving women's community living together on the land, as happened in the '80s when I lived there, or it is that the land is there and available for visits by women, but the land itself is always and ever protected from exploitation and destruction."

Unfortunately, protecting the land from exploitation is becoming tougher these days. The women who manage the OWL Trust have been fighting the installation of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline, a project that would use eminent domain to condemn part of their property, clear-cut about seven acres and plant pipes for LNG (an energy source as dirty as coal). The local community and even conservative politicos have been fighting the battle for years, but litigation is far from over.

"This [pipeline] would be devastating for our land and the over 200 miles it would go through in southern Oregon," says OWL board member Katie Brandt.

LNG pipelines aren't the only threat to women's lands these days. Changing emotional landscapes have already helped to dwindle the number of visitors. Elizabeth Clare, a poet, essayist and activist, wrote of a trip she took to OWL and WomanShare in Oregon in the book Queerly Classed: "I certainly don't believe that I can cure my sense of disjunction with a simple move to the Oregon mountains, where I could live at OWL or WomanShare and shop at Myrtle Creek. Rather than a relocation to the Oregon mountains, I want a redistribution of economic resources so that wherever we live--in the backwoods, the suburbs, or the city--there is enough to eat; warm, dry houses for everyone; true universal access to health care and education."

But what is the future of women's lands if young lesbians today don't have much desire to live in women-only space? Or live off the grid? Kristen Brandt, a 56-year-old Eugene, Ore., townie who lived at OWL for two years in the 2000s and misses it every day, says, "Not so many younger lesbians have that desire to get away from the world of men, it seems, and make something of their own."

Nevertheless, young queer women--many who eschew the lesbian label--are creating their own forms of ecological feminism in intentional rural communities and urban co-housing experiences. Not far from Gwynn's Fly Away Home is an organic farm called Gypsy Cafe, where women are living and building. It is, says Gwynn, "a hubbub of activity. Only women live there, younger than the most of us first-generation country dykes, but they do not identify [it] as women's land or women-only space."

Gypsy Cafe might reflect a natural progression from the lesbian communities that have existed for 30 years in Oregon to the sustainable communities that queer women are building anew today--mixed gender lands, urban co-housing, even suburban LGBT retirement facilities. A queer ecovillage is being formed in Gainesville, Fla., a self-described "farm and wilderness based ecocommunity for LGBTQI and Native two-spirit people with an emphasis on creating a majority female-centered space." Like many early women's land pioneers, the founders envision a "multi-racial, multi-generational, affirmatively anti-racist, anti-sexist" space, but they also want to combat transphobia and make spaces for all families--even those with men.


In this down economy, it's no surprise that friends are shacking up, but a larger movement has begun to grow in the last decade, concurrent with the maturing of the back-to-the-landers: Queer co-housing. Today, in urban areas--which, admittedly, attract a great percentage of lesbian and bisexual women, for at least part of their lives--are awash with lesbian-led co-housing, many of the occupants espousing a modern form of queer ecofeminism that reclaims urban greenery and allows female empowerment without separatism (or having to rough it in rural areas).

Darcy Totten, 30, is one of the young queer women who are espousing the beauty of co-housing. She lives in Sacramento, Calif., with her partner, the performer Jasper James, and two roommates. Totten, who works for a local television station, inherited her mother's home on the American River. "It was far too large for two people, so we opened it up to renters. We currently have two roommates and often host any number of traveling queer artists that we know from New York, San Francisco and Texas who might be passing though".

People come and stay, she says, contribute to the house in some way, and move on when they are ready." It never made any sense to us to have so much space if we weren't going to use it for the people we love."

Totten's house has a huge garden in the backyard and she and her housemates are thinking of turning it into an urban farm. The collective reuses all their home-improvement materials and tries to make as small an ecological footprint as possible. Totten, who has lived in a number of co-housing situations in New York and San Francisco, tends to think of her current space as "the antidote to women's land. I've never been very comfortable in entirely single gender space," she explains. "Variety is the spice of our queer lives, and I enjoy communities that cross a range of sex, gender, race, ethnicities, political viewpoints and ages, as well as occupations. Our current home ... is comprised of four female bodies, one two-spirit identity, two regular gay male guests, one librarian, one person over 50 and three in their 30s, two professionals, one artist, one yoga teacher, one white woman and three mixed race ... individuals, and any number of guests including men, heterosexuals, Republicans, Democrats and anarchists, and people of every religion."

For women like Totten, living in an urban area doesn't mean they can't connect with the land. It may mean they need to work harder to defend urban green spaces or to work in community gardens to grow vegetables with their neighbors--even if they're Republicans.


"It is important that the myth be debunked that this movement happened," says Aodagain." It is still happening."

One thing Aodagain is surely right about: "Whether a woman is a 30-year resident on one of the many lands that fall between Grants Pass and Portland, Ore., a summer visitor who comes for two weeks every third year, or a `townie' who comes to a musical concert, women identify themselves as members of this community because of the power of the relationships that have been established among us."

As the buzz about sustainable intentional communities is only getting louder, Aodagain recently attended a national communities conference, and found that "our lands were the longest lasting communities in the country. We are now seen as the progenitors of a movement, which is expanding out to encompass other communities"

Though the environmental movement owes these lesbian feminists a great deal for their pioneering ways, they are, as always, humble. "I think it's like the hundredth monkey concept;' says Bethroot Gwynn. "Everyone everywhere is becoming conscious of living with a lighter footprint, caring for the earth. We, and the other back-to-the-landers, just got there first."


Feeling inspired to go separatist? Several women-serving communities in Oregon welcome visitors.


Cabbage Lane: 80 acres of forest with a focus on building year-round campsites, maintaining the access roads and restoring water system.

Copperland: A 40-acre hilltop with 360-degree mountain view. Guest rooms for women visitors. are available.

Fly Away Home: A 40-acre forested hillside with a cabin available for women visitors to work on current land projects. 541-643-0614

OWL Farm: A 147 majestic forest space surrounded by meadows, cabins, gardens and fruit trees. Visitors welcome for hikes, camping or use of cabins.

Rainbow's End: 57 acres of woods, meadows, wildlife, beautiful views and camping.

Raven Song: 45 acres of meadows, forest and wildlife. Women are encouraged to visit and give a helping hand.

Rootworks: Seven acres of forested mountainside, three secluded cabins and three lovely gardens, welcomes women travelers.

Steppingwoods: 137 acres of wooded women's land, perfect for women's concerts and meditation retreats. Tenting, RV site and a small straw bale house are available to visitors.

We'Moon Land: 52 acres located one hour southeast of Portland featuring old growth forests, creek, meadows, organic garden, rustic dwellings, main house.

WomanShare: A 23-acre women's land nestled in foothills. Open to travelers, visitors, potential residents, retreats. Private cabins, shared kitchen, bathhouse, hot tub and composting outhouse. 541-862-2807


Shewolf's Directory of Wimmin's Lands:

Maize Magazine:

Queers in Community:
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Author:Anderson-Minshall, Diane
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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