A Conversation with Adam Campbell: A Taste For Life
by Richard Whittaker , Jan 16, 2013
It was one of those bright mornings we’re blessed with so often in the Bay Area. No matter that it was mid-December. A week earlier, I’d been ambushed by Pancho Ramos Stierle and Sam Bower and told that I had to interview one of the visitors staying at Casa de Paz, Adam Campbell. Neither Sam nor Pancho twist my arm very often and when they do, I’m immediately intrigued. Both possess inspired vision—Sam is the founding director of greenmuseum.org and Pancho, a founding member of Oakland’s Casa de Paz at Canticle Farm. And both are close friends from among the servicespace.org community.
Now the morning for the interview had arrived. I found Sam and Pancho and Adam all in high spirits. But before sitting down together, I couldn’t resist a quick walk around Canticle Farm, four houses on connecting lots that stretch across a city block in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, and a great example of urban permaculture. Sam wanted to show me the latest house they had acquired. “But we have to go through the chicken coop to get there,” he told me. I take such moments as incomprehensible blessings. There is a front door, but getting to the new house from the adjoining backyards required passage through a chicken coop.
There was offbeat magic afoot, and it was picking up momentum. Bending down to get into the coop and with chickens scattering under our feet, we came to a gate in a backyard fence. And voila, we were in another world where I was startled to see two of the biggest prickly pear cactus plants I’d ever seen. One towered above a dilapidated old wooden garage. “Look at those fruit,” Sam said. We picked a ton of them and gave them away to the neighbors.” Giving away to the neighbors is one of the main activities at Canticle Farm, part of their strong community building practice.
Soon Sam and I were back in Casa de Paz with Pancho and Adam. Pancho handed me a slice of fuyu persimmon from their own trees as water for tea was reaching a boil. The energy in the room, I realize now in thinking about it, had to do with the joy of right action, of sowing the seeds of community and loving kindness. I was standing with three ahimsa warriors and feeling grateful for my good fortune.
After a while we all went upstairs to the big room to set up for the interview. No tables. No problem. We found a drum to set the recorder on. And all of the sudden, the four of us were pounding out a rhythm together. No one had to ask, “Are we having fun yet?” Finally, we got some chairs arranged and sat down, “But first we have to watch this video, hermano,” Pancho said, opening his laptop.…
Richard Whittaker: We just finished watching this beautiful little video about a group of people in Paraguay turning trash into musical instruments. And you said, Adam —
Adam Campbell: It reminds me of the irrepressibility of the human spirit. And that even in the midst of everything unraveling around us, in the end it will be beauty that saves us
RW: That’s a beautiful idea and I hope it’s true. But tell me something about yourself.
AC: Gosh, there are so many ways to tell a story. Okay. I was born in southwest Missouri in the town of Branson. The people there like to call it the country music capital of the world. I think now it has about 8,000 people. And Branson gets almost six million tourists a year. I think it’s the second biggest tour bus destination in the United States. It’s this crazy American anomaly in the hills of the Ozark Mountains next to two lakes. It’s a strange and wonderful place, really. There’s beauty and joy and wonder there. And it’s also kind of a microcosm of what I’ve seen happening all around the world. But it took me traveling around the world before I realized what I had experienced in my own hometown. I’d say that’s of people wanting an authentic cultural experience, and realizing that the modern paradigm doesn’t really provide it. So when they find a grass-rootsy, homegrown place—a group of people who have lived in a place and developed something over a long period of time—people realize its value. Unfortunately, then they often try to commodify it and destroy what was there in the first place.
AC: So for me, growing up, it was hillbilly culture in the Ozark hills much like what West Virginia represents. I wasn’t a hillbilly growing up, but I grew up surrounded by that. My parents grew up in the city, St. Louis and Kansas City, and they moved down there before all of Branson, with a capital B, happened. We were there before that and I saw this relentless development taking over. My favorite grove of trees was taken down for a Long John Silvers. The tree that I was sitting in for my senior picture, one of my favorite trees, got taken down for a parking lot for a mall.
But it was also a beautiful growing up childhood. I look back on that with nothing but love and I realize that there was also grief and desolation, as a part of that. Going back now is really difficult. All of the sacred places I had there have been destroyed.
RW: So for the record, how old are you, Adam?
AC: I’m 35.
RW: And you said that you had to travel the world before you really understood what was taking place in Branson and going on all over the world. Can you talk just briefly about your travels?
AC: I had a public school education, Branson High School. Then I went to the University of Missouri. I went five years and got two degrees—in math and English. And I really loved my experience.
RW: You covered both ends of the spectrum.
AC: Yes. I was undecided and was taking all the courses I could. I would go through the course catalog and pick the courses that sounded really interesting. I was pushing for the development of the soul and following my wildest dreams and just letting it unfold.
RW: Where do you think your confidence came from that it would be possible to follow your dreams?
AC: I think there are three or four roads that connect, trails maybe—or maybe tributaries. That’s a nice metaphor, isn’t it?
RW: It’s good. Tributaries, very nice.
AC: I began to realize that there was cultural story all around us of what we were supposed to be doing with our lives: you’re supposed to do good in high school so you can get into a good college. Then you do good there so you can get a good job. And you get a good job so you can make a lot of money so you can retire early. And then you can finally do the things you want to do with your life before you die.
I just thought that was ridiculous, besides being insulting to the human spirit. Why not just do what I want to do now, and have that be in service to humanity?
RW: That shows you could think for yourself. Now where did that come from?
AC: I would have to attribute that to my parents. I feel like I was born into having my own spiritual teachers. Early on, at about seven or eight, I remember having this moment in church. We went to the Disciples of Christ Protestant church. We were in the belt buckle of the Bible belt down in southwest Missouri. And I remember having this realization. I felt like, well, I couldn’t send somebody to eternal damnation and punishment just because they didn’t do what I said. So would someone who was infinitely more loving and wise than I am, do that? That didn’t make any sense at all.
This was the first moment of like wait a second. So I brought that to my parents. And they just said that’s a really good question. I remember the feeling that I was allowed to ask this question, and that some questions don’t have easy answers.
RW: That’s beautiful.
AC: And then also, my parents had been on their own path out of a very conservative Christian tradition on both sides. By the time I was nine or ten, my mom had gotten around to reading Autobiography of a Yogi, which was so far from where she had started. There’s this really funny story. She was watching Donohue one day and he had this Eastern guru on the show. Donohue was trying to get him and he was able to deflect every question and give an answer that really made sense. My mom was like: this guy knows something that I don’t know. She had that moment. And the only thing she remembered from the interview, something to hold onto, was “yoga.”
In the mid-70’s in Branson, yoga was satanic. I mean really, it was! So she had this dilemma. Of course, this is a generation before the Internet. But my dad was a professor and so she had access to the college library. This was a very small liberal arts college called School of the Ozarks. So she went into the library and found a book on yoga, but she was embarrassed to actually check out the book. So she got like 12 other random books and stuck it right in the middle. And when she got home she couldn’t touch it for two weeks. She kept on walking by and she’s like—I can’t open it. If I open it, I’m going to hell.
RW: For people in these fundamentalist religions there’s a tremendous amount of fear to opening your mind just for a moment to some other possibility. I mean, that’s a real journey, don’t you think?
AC: For sure. And it’s a two-sided coin. There’s fear on one side and certainty on the other side, and both prevent us from moving into the mystery of the unknown. So either way you’re blocked off from engaging in the realm of life, the actual realm of life where the laws of the universe are immutable in a way, and also unknown to us, but we have access to it and it can flow through us.
AC: And we don’t know how it works. All I know is that my experience has told me that we’re part of something bigger than us. There’s that power that flows through me when I feel connected to it that gives me strength beyond just my own personal strength.
Pancho Ramos Stierle: And that’s how you describe the gift economy. The first time when I heard you saying that, I was like what? Are you serious? This is what gift economy means to you?
AC: Yes. So the gift gives us access to that. But that’s a major tangent.
RW: We need to talk about the gift economy, for sure. But I really appreciated your story that in Branson yoga was satanic.
AC: Yes. You can imagine in that world the possibility of opening up that book could be a sin that’s unpardonable, that you’re going to drop through the trapdoor to hell which you’ll never escape from. What a metaphysical realm to be vying against!
RW: Absolutely. So you had been bequeathed some tremendous gifts from your parents, as all of us have been.
AC: Right, which I honor very much. So by time I was reaching junior high level I began to ask even more questions. Like the Bhagavad Gita and Dhammapada and the Bible were all right next to each other on the bookshelf. And we were still going to church every week, too.
AC: So a friend comes over to visit my mom one day and sees the yoga book on the table. “Oh, you’re interested in yoga?” And she’s like, “Oh, no. I have no idea what that book is.” And he says, “Oh, before you read that, you should talk to Bob Hubbard because there are a lot of dangers in yoga.”
Bob was part of a singing group called The Foggy River Boys, and before that, the Jordanaires, the back-up singers for Elvis Presley, and he was a respected elder in the community. So she nervously calls him up and does the dial, hang-up thing. Because what’s she going to say to him? She doesn’t know.
So finally she dials one day and he picks up, “Hello.” Dead silence. “Hello?” And finally she’s like, “Hi Bob. This is Pat Campbell. You don’t know me but, umm, we have a mutual friend who says you know about yoga.” And she’s mumbling. He says, “What do you want to know?” And then she said it just came out of her: she just said “the Truth.” There was this long pause and he goes, “Then I can help you.”
AC: So they started this group called the Friends of God. They would read different kinds of books which, at the time, were kind of edgy and they started diving into the mystics and the metaphysical world. So by the time I was 12, I remember telling my mom, “I want to be a mystic when I grow up. I want to do God’s work.” So I think that atmosphere had a lot of influence on me.
Pancho: To this day.
AC: To this day. And it’s funny, I was on the phone with them and they say, “Adam, how did you get so interested in nonviolence?” I was like, “That’s your guys fault. You’re the people who told me about Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Jesus. They are supposed to be my mentors and heroes and they were not passive, compliant people who were just kind of lying down and letting the state roll over them. They were leading campaigns of radical love. And that leads us into resistance in the empire at some point or another, unfortunately. I don’t have a desire to interfere, I just have a desire to live into the principles that I feel called to live into.
I would love to be in the world where Peter Maurin said it’s easy to be good. But I think it’s actually almost impossible to be good in our culture. That’s another conversation. One of the moments that really got me on the path I’m on came from realizing that we have absolutely no information about, or access to, generally speaking, where the stuff is coming from in our lives to meet our human needs. Where is our food coming from? Where is our shelter coming from? Whose building is it? Where is our water coming from? We actually have no idea. The average person doesn’t have a clue, which is just a reality.
We don’t know where it goes when we’re done with it, which means we’re complicit in supporting all kinds of systems of which we have no knowledge. So I have no idea who is growing my food or how they’re being treated and what they’re being affected by. All of those relationships are severed. So, if I was going to boil down Jesus’ message that was taught in my Protestant church, it was just to be a good person. And that’s what I wanted to do. Then I realized it was actually impossible for me to be a good person in this culture. Because I didn’t know what effect I was having on the people who were supporting my livelihood. I was getting zero feedback on the people who were growing my food for me or building my shelter for me. I actually didn’t know.
If I kick Sam in the shins, I’m going to get really quick feedback on whether that was a good decision or not.
AC: I can know, and so I can modify. In our culture today we have opacity, zero feedback. So we just move into this way of being, which is fundamentally irresponsible and immoral. We don’t even know it. We’re ignorant of our own immorality and complicity in an irresponsible system, which I think is devastating—because I think people really want to be good.
That fills me with sadness and grief, actually. Only recently I’ve realized that an incredibly important and imperative part of our healing in this culture is grieving the fact that we’ve all been complicit in these systems without our asking for it. You know? Without our knowledge of it, in some way. And we’re in it. There’s not a viable alternative. This goes back to my story earlier of realizing this cultural story, which I wasn’t interested in. So okay, I just won’t live that story.
RW: That story. So what is the cultural story, again?
AC: The cultural story is do good in high school so you can do good in college. So you can get a good job. So you can make money. So you can retire early. So you can do the things you want to do before you die.
RW: Okay. Exactly.
AC: Which is dumb. I want to live out the alternative. So I began to look around. What’s the alternative? And there wasn’t an alternative, at least growing up in Branson, Missouri. If you’re lucky enough to be able to go to college, you go to college. If you’re not, then you don’t. You do whatever else you can do. So I went to college, which I loved. But the whole time I was looking around. I had this different understanding of how I want to be moving in my life, but I had no idea what it would look like.
And I’m having these debates with my friends who think that a degree is a pragmatic direction to get a good job. Right? I wasn’t interested in getting a job—except I did apply for the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile job, which I didn’t get. And then I graduated.
RW: Should we stop and hear more about that?
AC: It’s not really worth the tangent. Well, you get to drive around in this silly thing; you’re autonomous. Kids love you. And you get to have a good time. Joseph Campbell said, “We never lead the life that we expect or imagine.” And sometimes I give great thanks for that. All the times I’ve been on unexpected detours have been incredible gifts.
RW: That’s a beautiful statement.
AC: Yes. So I graduate and I have this intuitive feeling—first, that I don’t actually know what I’m going to be doing with my life. And second, that I’m missing half of my education. I realize I don’t have any experience of what’s happening in the world—or the experience of myself in the world, which are both fundamentally important.
So I decided to go experience the world. I wanted to go to as foreign a place as I could imagine just to see what would happen, to see what would come out of me. So I went to Nepal and Tibet. I figured that would shake me up a little bit. And then I kind of figured it out from there.
RW: Now how long were you there?
AC: I was there for two months and then I went to Thailand and Cambodia for two months. Then I went to South Africa for two months. And then I went to Greece. I was only flying into Greece to go to the Middle East, but I got caught in Greece, and you know, adventures happen. So I was there for two months and then I went to Morocco for a month. And that was a little bit shy of a year. Then I went back and visited friends on the East Coast and eventually made my way, completing the circuit, back home to Missouri.
RW: When I talked to Peter Kingsley, he said that in whatever place you’re in, there’s a way of thinking. It’s just in the air, and that you’re constrained by that place’s way of thinking. Does that make sense to you?
AC: Yes. I feel like that’s undeniable. You can experience that by going from house to house down the street. And that expands to the culture, as well. And it’s true that it constrains your thinking. I mean it gives you a certain set of lenses with which to look at the world. And there is the ability to completely shift that by going to Thailand, for instance, which operates very differently—or South Africa—from what I was used to in Missouri.
And I don’t think constraint is a bad thing. It’s necessary to give us form and to move us into action. I think it was Stravinsky who, when he got composer’s block, he would limit himself to four notes. Then creativity would come out of him. So I think we’re in this actually constant balance between resisting the constraints put on us by our culture and having the deep appreciation and gratitude that there are constraints—because then we don’t have to make infinite choices every day. So I think both are in play all the time.
RW: How did you get here to Canticle Farm?
AC: I’ll take the short answer on that one. I was living at the Possibility Alliance, which is the community in northeast Missouri where I live now. And I came out to a wedding in Oregon.
RW: Maybe you should say a little bit about the Possibility Alliance before we go on.
AC: We’re an intentional community. Every person living there would probably describe it in a subtly different way and I’m not the spokesperson. It’s still forming and a really interesting project.
RW: How many people are involved in it roughly?
Adam: There are six or seven full-time members there. And then this coming year there are going to be seven to eight apprentices. Then we’ve been getting about 1500 visitors a year.
RW: When visitors come, what does that mean—a visit to the Possibility Alliance?
AC: It could just mean swinging by for the day to get our three-hour tour. Or it could be living with us for two weeks as kind of a more official visitor session. Or with some people it might work out that they stay a little bit longer. Some people just stay for a few days.
RW: So when they are there, what do they do?
AC: So they’re attracted, generally speaking, to visit us because we are a 110-acre farm in northeast Missouri. We’re very much inspired by Gandhi and integral nonviolence—and the idea that there is a three-tiered system for integral nonviolence. First, there is personal and spiritual transformation and ridding ourselves of violence and becoming full vessels of love. Then there is the second tier: constructing the world we actually want to see. And then, often, actually doing that leads us, as I said before, straight into the face of the modern paradigm. So often there will be political action and activism based around that, which is the third tier. That’s Gandhi’s view. I don’t want to get too far off tangent. So what we’re doing is an integral nonviolence land-based project. We are living without electricity and without petroleum, as much as possible. So we’re doing kind of a radical bio-regional and local project based around becoming full vessels of love and working for the uplifting of all beings.
RW: Are you off the grid? Do you have solar panels, and things like that?
AC: Well, we have zero electricity. There’s no electricity on any of the 110 acres at all.
RW: Really? Wow.
AC: None. Not even batteries. Well, actually we have bike lights. As we say upfront when people first come to visit, we’re an experiment. We’re trying something that, at least in the United States, hasn’t really been tried in at least the last 100 years. So we’re doing the best we can and every day we’re failing at it—and getting better at it. Anybody who comes is part of that experiment. And we invite their feedback. We don’t have cars so we’re biking around.
RW: When you’re on the street.
AC: Yeah. And we’re completely free of judgment about that. There is no dogma in any of this. We’re just having a great time trying to live out a different way of being that we feel like is a fundamentally better way to live, because it’s more connected. It’s more responsible. It’s more healthy. It’s more vibrant. It’s more participatory, and it’s more fun. And people who come give us the feedback that this is really true.
RW: I’ve never met anybody until today who is living without electricity.
Sam Bower: And no dinosaur juice.
AC: And as little petroleum as possible. Yes.
RW: So when the sun goes down, it gets dark. Then what do you do for light? Candles or?
AC: We make our own candles out of a mix of beeswax that comes from a local bee place, apiary. I just call it the bee place. The industrial food system is so crazy, right?—the way that they fatten animals up on purpose. They’re feeding ruminants corn, which of course, don’t eat corn, at least that much. Then the first thing that supermarkets do when they get the meat is cut the fat off and it gets thrown away!
So we go to the local supermarket to get their trash fat and we render that into lard. Then we can mix it with beeswax.
RW: Well, that’s amazing.
AC: Can I say one more thing about light? [yes] I’ve experienced myself feeling very different. I think this is really interesting. Jerry Mander wrote a book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. And one of his points is that the body ingests light. Like we turn sunlight into vitamin D. So the light that hits us affects us in very particular ways. And science has shown this to be true about circadian rhythms and things like this. In the world of the city there is artificial light everywhere, whether that’s from screens or whether that’s from lights that get turned on in the daytime or at nighttime. And between the natural light that I’m around at the Possibility Alliance, just from the sun and from fire, what I’ve experienced is that I feel more like a mammal.
That might sound kind of funny, but an hour-and-a-half after the sun goes down, regardless of what time of year it is, it starts to feel like midnight. And all of us, it’s like wow, we’re starting to get a little tired. In the wintertime, of course, the sun goes down about 4:30 so we’ll stay up with candles for a while, reading or just chatting or maybe playing some games or something. But my body moves into a different rhythm.
I get surprised when it’s no big deal for people to stay up until 12:30 around here with the lights on. I do it too when I come back in the city. And I realize my body is acting in a totally different way than it normally does.
It feels very different to be sitting next to candlelight and writing a letter after dark than it does to be sitting in front of a computer screen after dark. I know that after two hours in front of a computer screen, I feel gross regardless of the content that has been put through the screen into my brain. Just the feeling of it, it’s like I have to go shake it off. I need to get outside. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. So I just want to say that the feeling, the physiological experience, not just the aesthetic experience, is very different.
RW: I wanted to ask what have you learned from this radical shift in your relationship with light? It’s exactly what you’re talking about.