November 16, 2018
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This family takes off-the-grid to the extreme

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Isla Hughes, 6, shows her drawing to her sister Etta Hughes, 11, and parents Ethan Hughes, 48, and Sarah Wilcox-Hughes, 42, at their new home in Belfast on Monday.

When Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox-Hughes and their daughters Etta, 11, and Isla, 6, moved from rural Missouri to an off-grid house on Edgecomb Road in Belfast this summer, they had a work crew remove the solar panels that powered up the home’s electrical system.

The workers, understandably confused, thought the family was going to hook back up to the electric power grid and urged them to reconsider, Ethan Hughes recalled with a smile. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

The family embraces the kind of simple life that might have been more familiar to people 200 years ago than today. Instead of electricity, they light their nights with candles. They cook and heat their home with a wood stove, keep food cool in a root cellar, use an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing, and travel from place to place via bicycle and public transportation instead of car.

But this simple home, where the quiet of an autumn day isn’t broken by the hum of a motor or the pings and whirrs of a computer, is rich in other things, they said.

“Limitation creates abundance,” Ethan Hughes said. “That’s what we’re not taught in a consumer society.”

They call their home and project the Possibility Alliance.

Possibility Alliance

After spending a year living in France in a small, spiritual commune called the Community of the Ark, where residents and visitors strived to create a nonviolent social order, Hughes and Wilcox-Hughes were inspired to bring the concept to the United States. They started the Possibility Alliance in 2007 on land they found in La Plata, Missouri.

They planned to welcome all kinds of visitors to their home to show them a different way of living, but they didn’t think that many would want to come — perhaps 200 each year. But then people started coming and didn’t stop.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Some of the dairy goats the Wilcox-Hughes’ family brought with them from Missouri to their new home in Belfast.

“We didn’t think that many people would be into post-petroleum living, with no [electronic] screens,” Ethan Hughes said. “But people were coming from all over the country and the world, to see what it would be like to live that way. We had so many visitors. Some came for two days and stayed for two years.”

Visitors were guests and did not need to pay to come to the homestead, though some did choose to make financial gifts to the project, the couple said.

They averaged about 1,500 visitors each year, with permanent residents numbering as many as 14 adults and children. People visited because of a curiosity about the lifestyle, they said, but also because they were interested in civil disobedience training, which also was offered at the Alliance. The project had a service arm, called the Superheroes, who would head out in costumes on their bicycles to do service projects, including helping to rebuild parts of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Kitchen equipment and vegetables hang from the ceiling at the Wilcox-Hughes’ home in Belfast.

At first, some of the neighbors wondered if the group was some kind of “weird cult,” or strange religious group. But over time, the suspicion abated. Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox-Hughes, who identify quite a bit with peace-seeking Quakers, said that the cults they are aware of claim to have all the answers. They do not.

Just as in the French spiritual commune, the Possibility Alliance has several important elements. The first is self-transformation, he said, where people work on the fears and greed inside of them. The second part is to create the world around them that reflects what they want to see.

“To build something better than what we have now,” Ethan Hughes explained. “The third part is, with love, hopefully, to stand up and change what you can, and take a risk for what you believe in.”

In Missouri, Possibility Alliance never quite integrated into La Plata the way they had imagined. Missourians were kind, but still called them the “bike people,” Sarah Wilcox-Hughes said. They had plenty of visitors, but not enough members to create the critical mass they wanted. And their progressive ideals were something of a curiosity in a county where many of their neighbors were evangelical Christians, and where seven out of eight people voted for President Donald Trump. They felt isolated, and were ready for a change.

“We were just needing to be in a place where we didn’t have to do everything — where we could plug into the culture,” Sarah Wilcox-Hughes said.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Sarah Wilcox-Hughes, 42, slats home-made goat cheese at her small house in Belfast.

So they decided to move, and sold some of their 100 acre farm in Missouri to others in the community at a price that was less than the market value. Several of the families have joined forces to form the Bear Creek Community Land Trust on the land, and are still working on how they will be organized, Sarah Wilcox-Hughes said.

As the family searched for a new place to settle down, above all they wanted to be close to the ocean. So the family came to the coast of Maine two years ago on a scouting trip, and checked out communities from Damariscotta to Bar Harbor. But Belfast is the place that stood out.

Life outside the box

Once in Maine, they settled into the small house set back amid 10 acres of fields and forest, located just a short bike ride from both the center of town and the Concord Trailways bus stop — important for picking up the visitors they hope will be coming in from out-of-town. They purchased the house and land thanks to a private, no-interest $100,000 loan, given by a friend, that they will pay back at their own pace, Ethan Hughes said.

“Already, through people’s generosity, we’ve been able to pay back $10,000,” he said.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Ethan Hughes, 48, his wife Sarah Wilcox-Hughes, 42, and their daughters Etta Hughes, 11, and Isla Hughes, 6, moved to their new home in Belfast four months ago.

After just four months, the homestead doesn’t yet have all the gardens they need or all the outbuildings they would like, but it’s coming along. The goats have settled in and the chickens contentedly scratch around the land. Inside, the afternoon light slants across bookshelves, an old upright piano and the animated faces of Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox-Hughes as they talk about their lives and their journey to Maine. They’re looking forward to the winter, with its long, dark nights and cold days, as a chance to rest and reflect on what’s next.

“We are actually so excited about it,” Ethan Hughes said. “We’re actually in that rhythm that all the other mammals in Maine are in and we love it. You’re supposed to recharge and reflect and go deep.”

The family knows they will need to be creative as they figure out their life in Maine. They intentionally live far below the poverty line so that they do not need to pay income tax, or “war tax” as Ethan Hughes calls it. They get money through financial donations to their project and, on occasion, by charging small sums of money for the permaculture and other homesteading classes they have offered. And they intentionally position themselves far out of the mainstream of American capitalist society: for example, if the girls clamor to go to see a movie, their parents will offer to take them to twice as many community theater offerings instead.

As well, the Hughes family tries to operate within the gift economy, where things are not bought, sold or bartered, but rather given with no expectation of an immediate reward.

“Somehow life is provided for,” Sarah Wilcox-Hughes said. “Ethan has a really amazing magic with finances. Our friend says that people give Ethan money because he gives it away.”

People want to support the nonprofit, and by extension the family, because they see the good work that is getting done, the couple said.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Ethan Hughes, 48, talks about his family’s small house in Belfast.

“Instead of just writing a check to some nebulous nonprofit, most of our supporters are friends who have visited us,” Ethan Hughes said. “They call and say, ‘What’s going on?’ … It’s relational first and economics second. It’s a flip on capitalism.”

It also helps with budgeting that their fixed expenses are quite low, they said. They have no electric bills, student loan debts, internet or cable bills, car payments, insurance bills, Netflix bills or cell phone bills. They do have a monthly bill for their land line telephone, seemingly one of their only concessions to modern life. For health care, they are working toward joining a medical cost sharing group that will be an alternative to traditional insurance. They did retroactively seek Medicaid after Etta’s birth, when Sarah Wilcox-Hughes had a life-threatening blood clot, and the resulting care cost $17,000.

“We committed to pay back what we took in that time to help people in need,” Ethan Hughes said, adding that they are no longer insured through Medicaid.

“We don’t have insurance, but we have dozens of people who would help us if we needed it,” Ethan Hughes said. “Even when we don’t have money.”

Bringing activism to Maine

In Maine, as the family starts over with the Possibility Alliance, which at this point has just the four of them, they are figuring out how they will best make a difference locally. A priority for them was to give some of the money from the sale of their Missouri farm to indigenous-led efforts here in Maine.

“We’re hoping to lead by example, imagining a world where every nonprofit and organization is starting to return resources, whether it’s time or money, and how that could have a bigger effect on healing,” Ethan Hughes said.

The project does not have its own nonprofit tax status but it operates as one under the umbrella of the Penn Valley Quaker meeting group in Kansas City, Missouri. Of future donations received by the Possibility Alliance, 15 percent will be given to Maine-Wabanaki REACH, which advances Wabanaki self-determination. An additional 5 percent will be shared with people of color and other Native American groups, Ethan Hughes said, describing the 20 percent as a “tithe.”

“The tithe is not a gift. It’s returning what was stolen,” he said. “It’s an imperfect and small beginning, but we’re going to begin, nonetheless.”

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Sarah Wilcox-Hughes, 42, huggs the family dog Cosmos in the front yard of their small house in Belfast.

The family is enjoying getting to know their new community in other ways, too. Ethan Hughes quickly joined the fight over the proposed land-based salmon farm in Belfast, siding, loudly, with project opponents. Their daughters are attending the private Mill School in Freedom, which offers classes three days a week, to supplement homeschooling. They can afford the tuition there because Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox-Hughes work on the campus in exchange for a tuition discount. The school administration is also working with their financial reality, they said.

Being activists and living outside of the mainstream is not always easy or comfortable. The family is not militant about all of their ideals, for example accepting the offer of rides for their children or for themselves if they need to go long distances. But they practice what they preach as much as they can. When they officially open the doors of the Possibility Alliance in Belfast in the spring, for classes, guests and more, they hope they will have many visitors. And they believe those people will leave with a new perspective.

To reach the Possibility Alliance, call 338-5719

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