What living off the grid taught me about openness

The Terra Perma community is one big, open-air experiment. Open principles are constantly under construction.
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People working together to build


A sip of maple water, drawn straight from a steel bucket in the forest is electric; it's icy crisp, not too sweet, and tastes like trees and sky distilled into light. Perched on snowshoes, sweetly freezing your butt in the sugarbush, it's like a trickle of forest energy down your throat.

Behind me, surgical tubing crisscrosses off into the woods, like an internet of trees. In a few weeks, maple-water will run through this line and into the sugar shack's big iron vats, to be heated and reduced into syrup.


Photo courtesy of Matt Thompson (CC-BY-SA)

But first, there's work to be done—the line needs repairs, trees need drilling and tapping, and there's a hefty parcel of snow to be shoveled. It's a bright winter day in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, and I'm volunteering a few clumsy hours (my first time on snowshoes) to help out.

A living lab for greener living

I came here to Terra Perma, a 150-acre nature park and eco-community, 90 minutes north of Montreal, to reset my head. I wanted to clear my mind after leaving my job of seven years to write a book and detox a bit from social media, and our current nightmare news cycle.

The more I listened and learned about Terra Perma's mission, community, and 7-year story, the more I smiled; they're actually an ideal accidental case study in open collaboration. They're working open off the grid, actively experimenting with techniques and ingredients for building a different world.

"Some people here think civil society will probably collapse in our lifetime," says Phillipe Leclerc, my guide for the day and Terra Perma's founder and chief eco-wrangler, as we trade shovelfuls of snow beside the sugar shack. "But it's an illusion to think you can just build a little paradise to take care of yourself if that happens."

"If you're surrounded by thousands of people who don't have that," Phil smiles, "they'll just come and take it from you. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, we're in it together. You have to take care of everyone else."

The "quality of life thing"

Phil sees Terra Perma as a "living laboratory," a testbed for demonstrating sustainable agriculture, green living, and eco-entrepreneurism techniques. And, crucially, for what he calls the "quality of life thing"—they want to show that a greener, more connected life is not only possible but practical.


Photo courtesy of Matt Thompson (CC-BY-SA)

"We want to show that the quality of life can be even better. We want to make it delicious."

In a sense, Terra Perma is doing with soil, people, and plants what open source software projects like Mozilla and Linux did with code: serve a transparent, passion-fueled mission that attracts like-minded collaborators to build something inspiring—growing an ecosystem together, experimenting out in the open, publicly documenting and sharing what they learn, and providing a platform for others to build off. It's part non-profit foundation, part entrepreneurism, all loosely organized through social leadership that puts human relationships at the center.

"We're in it together. You have to take care of everyone else."

Every shovel-full of snow raises fresh questions for me—about their project management philosophy, how they stay warm in winter off the grid, the merits of various open source solar and eco-housing projects, and the subtle intricacies of making your own maple syrup.

"We're pretty much the only ones in the province using sustainably-harvested wood in the boiling process," Phil says. "The other 90% of the industry uses diesel. In a way, we're trying to educate people to taste the difference. It's not just about the product—it's about the process, the story, the terroir."

Terra Perma's recipe

So how do you build a sustainable eco-community—literally from the ground up—in the Quebec wilderness? And how do you make it work with a diverse and continually shifting mix of people, from core stakeholders and casual community members to local neighbors, business partners, and curious visitors like me?

What Phil describes is an organic mix of "slow leadership," (being patient, thinking and planning in longer arcs, gradually winning people over through time); building an open platform that invites others in; freely sharing key learnings in public; and passion-fueled energy and labor that mixes volunteering, teaching and business. Three key ingredients I took away from their recipe:

  1. Ignite and tap into human passion and relationships.
  2. Teach it forward. Share what you're learning. Empower volunteers.
  3. Build an ecosystem or network, instead of just one thing.

Passion as energy

"Our single greatest resource is the passion of the people who come here," Phil says. "Without that added energy and enthusiasm, we probably couldn't survive." Passion means people are willing to sacrifice creature comforts and do things that are hard because they share in the camp's mission and spirit. And it shifts things from the traditional world of economic transactions and work into something else—part non-profit foundation, part business, part hybrid economics, where people are willing to give something away in order to get something larger back.

Much of that passion ties back to exploring, teaching, and sharing innovative new expertise, specifically around adapting local eco-building and growing techniques. Terra Perma is like one big open-air experiment; something new is constantly under construction.

"How do you build a sustainable eco-community—literally from the ground up—in the Quebec wilderness?"

As Phil and I head back to camp for lunch, he walks me through a new 1000-square-foot mixed-use "greenhouse" in progress—complete with a composting "worm canal" that will help generate heat in winter, and walls lined with 500-gallon aquaponic tanks that can purify water, house fish and double as insulation.

Using techniques like these, combining organic growing areas with adjoining human living space, Phil estimates they can cut their energy needs by as much as 80%. (In other words: slash energy costs by living next to the same space that grows your food.)


Photo courtesy of Matt Thompson (CC-BY-SA)

Terra Perma openly shares key learnings and results from experiments like these through their videos, website, and school. "That also means being honest about failures," Phil says. "As opposed to: 'we're perfect and have it all figured out.'"

Teach it forward and empower volunteers

Similar to open hardware projects like WikiSpeed or the Open Building Institute, Terra Perma often teaches people by putting them to work. They use hands-on workshops and "build party"-style events as both learning opportunities and low-cost co-operative labor; people get hands-on training in artisanal maple syrup production, for example, by assisting the camp with artisanal maple syrup production. Win-win.

But as Phil is quick to point out: working with volunteers isn't easy or "free." As we sit down to lunch in the common area earthship, Sam, Elan, and Phil run through the practicalities of feeding, sleeping and organizing the 10 maple volunteers arriving the next morning. Terra Perma puts a big emphasis on buddy-systems and mentoring in small groups so that volunteers like these can get up to speed quickly and have a good experience.

Build an ecosystem around you

Phil calls it the "vertical" and "horizontal." The maple syrup, for example, doesn't just deliver a single commodity product or revenue; it delivers a host of activity and value around it as well—volunteer events, classes, and workshops, eco-cottage bookings, a pop-up restaurant in the city, etc.

"Building and sustaining that network of people isn't easy."

"It's about ‘stacking' all that activity and value together as a whole, versus just a single commercial commodity," Phil says. In the same way, permaculture uses complementary plants to nourish each other, Terra Perma's patchwork quilt of mini-businesses (from a farmer's market to shiatsu specialist to part-time goat shepherdess / social media manager) all feed into each other as well.

"The hardest part is the human relationships," Phil says. Building and sustaining that network of people isn't easy; camp members don't always get along, and you can see how those tensions would get amplified by the close quarters here.

Watching Phil work, you can tell he does a lot of listening. The general organizing vibe feels like a fuzzy form of agile, with flexible planning and an endless backlog of potential work, but no central "project manager," scrum board or tracking software—just a kind of informal social leadership that efficiency experts would probably call nuts, but that Terra Permans would probably just call being decent and getting stuff done.

"You're constantly testing team buy-in," Phil says. "Who wants to commit three hours to this idea, and who doesn't? You want to ensure the work never gets too many layers removed from the person who cares the most." That also means focusing on doing less work wherever possible. As with all projects, it's easy for construction builds here to end up taking more time and money than expected.

Hard work

Terra Perma is hard work. As Samantha, one of the handful of community members now living here year-round, explains to me over shared dinner in the common area after sunset: living off the grid takes a huge commitment. There's no easy way to take a shower here in winter, or do laundry. "A lot of people come, but they don't always stay," she says.

Knowing that makes everything they've already built here all the more inspiring. There's a whiff of something revolutionary as you walk past the kids' playground. Being here, as I say goodnight to Phil and Sam after dinner and step out of the earthship into the wide winter night, I'm freshly aware of human community and civilization, its necessity and fragility. How it's born out of both love and basic survival.

Safely tucked into my "strawbale cottage" down the road, piled under a mountain of blankets, that thought—that we're all in it together—feels both daunting and good. I haven't looked at my phone all day. Switching off my flashlight, I sink into a cushion of chilly quiet, smiling at the gentle ache in my back from the snow-shovelling. There's no heat, but Terra Perma feels warmer.

An earlier version of this article appeared at WorkOpen.org.

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Matt Thompson (@OpenMatt) is the Director of Program Management at the Mozilla Foundation. He's currently working on an interview series and open book in progress called Working Open, gathering strategies, hacks and case studies about inspired teamwork and collaboration.

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