Training for the Straight And Narrow
Rolling along, steel wheels on gravel, the steady plodding of sod hooves, the roar of the passing traffic all but obliterated, you notice more the things moving at your own serene pace: the flow of streams, the waving of grass, the shifting of the clouds.
The process of going becomes more important than getting there. Time is measures in hoof-beats. Life takes on a richness and vitality it didn’t have before. And there’s time to think.
But it’s not such philosophy that juvenile offenders thing about as they wagon train across the country. It’s responsibility and status and discipline and punishment and comradery and complaints and sore feelings and sore behinds.
As the lead teamster snaps the reins on the backs of his mules, he remembers past mistakes, considers the possibility of jail time, reflects on the hard work it took to earn his position at the head of the train, and is glad for the opportunity to be somebody as he keeps his wagon on a straight path toward next night’s camp.
Rolling fifteen to twenty miles a day, making and breaking camp, caring for forty animals, eight wagons and 60 people is hard, demanding work. There’s the ample thunder of griping, and orders are snapping through the air like lightning. Sometimes a heavy rain of conflict chills the bones, or a thick fog of frustration subdues the spirit.
But generally the work gets done, and slow progress is made as the Vision Quest wagon train wends its way from Franklin, Pennsylvania to Bar Harbor, Maine and back. It was two months coming before it settled in for a night in H.O.M.E.’s pasture. The crew could almost smell their destination as they departed the next morning near the beginning of their two month return trip to sylvan woods of Pennsylvania.
Vision Quest is an alternative to detention and jail for juveniles from seven states, soon to include more. It began in 1972 as a residential group home and expanded into the Conestoga Wagon Line at the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration. The first train saw such success that regular forays became an essential part of their program.
In fact, youth who are referred by juvenile courts to their program, headquartered now in Tuscon, Arizona and Franklin, Pennsylvania, must go through the rigors of a wilderness camp and the wagon train before entering the group home to participate in “reality therapy” – talking straight and pulling no punches.
After learning some disciplines and a few survival skills, these kids and their rough and ready counselors pack off on one of two wagon trains. As one group pulled through Orland, another was on its way up the west coast from Tucson to Seattle.
The eastern train came equipped with a chow trailer, a water trailer, a horse trailer, a hay trailer, a latrine trailer, two fifth-wheeler trucks, and a school bus. They carried their own food and gear, four tepees, a cook, a nurse and a blacksmith. But none of that made the daily grind any too easy. Each day an advance team set up the next night’s camp while a lag team cleaned up from the last.
Scouts on horseback directed traffic ahead and behind to minimize hazards. Occasionally, however, a team will break ranks and run, as happened when firecrackers were thrown or a gawking onlooker paying more attention to the spectacle than to his own driving will swerve into a mule.
[As the resident mechanic, during my year-long volunteer time at H.O.M.E., I was delighted when a Conestoga wagon driver appeared at my shop asking if I could fabricate a new wheel brake, as the original one had been broken in one of those accidents. The wagon train was camping in our pasture that evening on their way to Bar Harbor – when I say them returning our way several days later, I asked the wagon master permission to ride along for a day and a night.]
As I rode in the lead wagon from their mud-drenched camp outside of Ellsworth to our pasture in Orland, I was both impressed and dismayed by the numbers of interested passersby causing traffic to slow to a near standstill, drivers leaning out of windows with camera shutters clicking. Trying to be unselfconscious as I found my way into many a photo album, I couldn’t help but notice the nonchalance of the young teamster next to me. Sixty days as a celebrity dulls the response.
The night in Ellsworth camp mud left boots and spirits soggy and limp, but the late afternoon sun cleared away the clouds and the lethargy and the train returned to H.O.M.E. ready for the evening chores.
The wagons circles up around the waiting tepees, and the mules and horses were put on the picket line for feed and water. Supper was served to each of the four groups (three of guys and one of gals) as they circled up with their four group leaders. Faces were washed and teeth brushed as these wayward children gradually subsided into the oblivion of a well-deserved sleep.
Three watches kept vigil by the campfire during the night, and morning chores came early with a 5:30 staff meeting to initiate four new members who joined the train at Bar Harbor. The wagon master explained the importance of strict discipline mellowed by compassion. The hierarchy became apparent as orders were passed down and the buck passed up, but the staff tries to operate more as a wheel with the wagon master at the center and responsibility radiating outward to the various individuals. The hub coordinates and integrates all the functions while the spokes and staves carry the load.
The kids wake up reluctantly and often try the patience of group leaders, but a curious discipline is maintained through it all and the work proceeds in its routine disheveled way. Behavior is rewarded and punished by the doling out and reining in of responsibility and status. You have to earn a horse or a mule team or a wagon, and you can earn a long day’s walk as well.
Outgrown children trying to understand the responsibilities of adulthood and participation in a group are learning that a good horse or mule must be broken of its wild spirit before it can be trained as a member of the team. Then it deserves respect and responsibility.
Struggling adolescents are learning that they, too, are untrained creatures needing to supplant their wild oats with the staple diet which forms the bread of community.
Does it work? Do these young and budding adults stick to their contracts of discipline and return to the larger society with the wherewithal to participate in positive roles? The statistics say so. They say that 70% of the participants do not return to criminal or anti-social behaviors. That’s better than most such programs, far better than jails and detention centers.
But the faces and voices of the wagoneers say it so much more eloquently. “I’ve learned to think about what I do,” said the lead teamster as he daydreamed about the job he would find when he was done, and as he kept his wagon on a straight and true course for the next night’s camp.
An Experiment in Economic Self-Development
At the blinking yellow light atop a hill on Route One, a few miles east of Bucksport, Maine, a sign draws the attention of passing tourists and other motorists enroute to Bar Harbor and other points in the “Downeast” region of coastal Maine: “This is H.O.M.E.”
H.O.M.E. is an iconoclastic community of religious contemplatives, rural poor and myriad better-off volunteers who come for a day or a year to share in the collective work of building a society of caring and service.
It reflects some of the ethic of the Vision Quest Wagon Train, but with the emphasis on compassion and work and far less on discipline (outside of the spiritual discipline of shared poverty and good works).
“It’s a privilege to work with good people and to do good work. There is nothing to prevent me from living my conscience other than myself.” – Lucy Poulin (born 1939).
In the late fall of 1980, after being centrally involved in the development of a grass-roots, non-violent regional and national anti-nuclear power movement, I spent a year living with “sister” Lucy, Sister Marie, Sister Barbara, Sister Lucille and an Oblate priest named Norm deep in the Maine woods at a farm called Mandala and in a community called St. Francis.
We hauled water in buckets from Whiskey Spring, chopped firewood for heat, kept our outhouses clean, and scrambled to grow vegetables amidst the rocky soils.
We had a Belgian draft horse named Teddie and a Clydesdale hybrid who pulled our wagons. Both helped in the pulpwood harvesting which paid the taxes on the land we were blessed to occupy.
Every morning, we would gather at Lucy’s lakeside cabin to celebrate the mystery of the Catholic mass, led by Norm (who changed the pronouns in each day’s gospel reading to make them gender-neutral), and shared home-made whole-grain bread and cheap red wine as the symbolic body and blood of sacred community.
My weekday work was to operate the repair shop (using the woodshop building as the only suitable place – now there is a new repair shop near the shingle and saw mill buildings), fixing and maintaining the motley fleet of dilapidated cars, trucks and tractors which provided the locomotion to the community’s work. I also offered a vocational education course in auto mechanics to the young men and women studying for their GEDs at the Learning Center, as well as a course in American History using Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as its textbook.
Along with the resident cobbler, Stanley, I organized a monthly pre-order food coop, which we named Goodness Sake – and which later became a storefront coop and gathering place (see picture at end).
When it came time, in the Spring of 1981, to build the second and third house on the Covenant Community Land Trust, I volunteered to do the plumbing and wiring, and gave myself a crash course in mechanical engineering and building code requirements. I had the privilege of working with many volunteer builders, including the supervisor Phil Gray, whose monthly newspaper column was titled “I Live in the House I was Born In”.
H.O.M.E. Grew from Humble Beginnings
H.O.M.E. (Homeworkers Organized for More Employment), the community development cooperative which Lucy Poulin founded, serves a poor and rural community of 8,000 located in Orland, Maine. The H.O.M.E. co-op has offered jobs, food, temporary shelter, education and home ownership to the rural poor for the past 45 years.
Lucy, the eighth of eleven children, grew up in a poor family in Fairfield Center, Maine. Her widowed mother imparted a strong work ethic to the Poulin children. “We worked to survive,” recalls Lucy, “waking up early for the chores of the farm, hauling water for the cows, and chopping and burning wood for our heat.” Lucy worked at a chicken factory and a paper mill and tended her mother’s farm from the age of 13. She and her brother Michael (who won an equestrian bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992) began a riding academy to earn more money for the farm. In 1957, Lucy joined a Carmelite order; seven years later, the order assigned her to a Carmelite group in Bucksport, Maine. “I was doing a lot of work with local poor people and I had no real training and no college degree. Slowly, some projects, like a knitting and weaving outlet developed out of our various needs. That was the beginning of my work in Orland.”
Lucy champions what she calls “self-development economics”. In 1970, she created H.O.M.E. as a cooperative to help local home-crafters sell their goods. Now located on 23 acres of land, the co-op expanded into a free health clinic, a soup kitchen, a food bank, and five homeless shelters. It is also a learning center with daycare, literacy and General Education Degree tutoring, alternative high school and college-level programs, and job and craft training. It has pottery, leather and weaving shops, a greenhouse and a farmer’s market, a sawmill and a shingle mill, and a service that delivers free firewood to the elderly. H.O.M.E. also has created a land trust of 700 acres for the construction of low-income housing. By 1998, construction had been completed on 30 homes and had begun on 20 more. Each year, as many as 750 volunteers help H.O.M.E. build houses, provide health services, chop firewood and do repairs. And every year, more than 8,500 people receive employment or other services from the H.O.M.E. community.
Lucy has organized a cultural exchange between Orland and the Guatemalan town of San Juan Comalapa Chimaltenango. Each year, Lucy travels to Guatemala with a group from the U.S. who contribute a little money and a lot of hard work to support a community house, a weaving co-op, and a medical clinic which Lucy helped to organize in the town.
“The main thing is that there is dignity in the exchange,” Lucy says. “It’s so easy to go down there and take; that’s why we structure the exchange to be a home stay and work visit so that we live with the families, work for them, and get to know them.”
In 1994, Maine granted H.O.M.E. a large land grant for low-income housing throughout the state. Lucy created a half dozen land trusts through which cooperative houses and communities are built.
With her hectic schedule and full life, Lucy says her biggest challenge is to try to be a loving human being and to live with others harmoniously. “I gather my strength from the life I lead. It’s a privilege to live with extraordinarily good people, to plant gardens and build houses and teach others how to live on a farm. Farm life gives life to everyone.” For support, she says, “I slow down, pray the rosary, talk to others in my community, and spend time with the animals – the ducks, geese, Pyrenese dogs, goats and horses.” Her adopted son Jimmy, who was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, is also a source of inspiration. “Having a son is like a miracle.”
Lucy Poulin’s welcoming spirit characterizes her life and work. Eddie, a neighbor, was known for his prejudice and intimidating displays of violence. Lucy invited him to join the H.O.M.E. community because she’d rather have him “inside shooting out instead of outside shooting in”. He took a job as a sawyer in the sawmill and eventually flourished as a member of the community. “Alienation creates the anger we see in this world.” Her community is named after St. Francis because, Lucy explains, “it just fits who and what we are. St. Francis emphasized a simple life, the wonder of animals, and the acceptance and welcoming of everyone.”
“Many things occur to people when they see H.O.M.E. When you see that complex on Route One, it’s large and impressive. But you need to remember that it was built by people who had no professional credentials, who were often too young, or too old, or too unskilled. Many people studying it have said that to run it you need professionals. A famous management consultant studied us once for several days and, at the end, he said his experience proved we couldn’t exist – that if the government or a philanthropy ran H.O.M.E. it would cost millions of dollars.
“But H.O.M.E. hasn’t grown that way. It has grown out of needs that people have had and that other people have seen and said, ‘Let’s do something about it.’ … That seems to have worked, and that seems to be what we ought to do: respond to people.”
– Lucy Poulin, H.O.M.E.’s founder
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page
For a more complete history, philosophy and description of the Community Land Trust, see: Earth as a Sacred Trust.