Pioneers for the Planet: The High Wind Story

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The High Winds bioshelter looks out over a Wisconsin prairie. Photo: Courtesy Lisa and Belden Paulson

The High Wind bioshelter looks out over a Wisconsin prairie. Photo: Courtesy Lisa and Belden Paulson

On a windswept acreage overlooking a lush valley in mid-eastern Wisconsin, a small group of committed visionaries sowed a seed for change called High Wind, an “intentional community” that grew and blossomed in the late 1970s and 1980s. Although its life as an intentional community formally ended in 1992, the ecovillage legacy of High Wind lives on in the hearts, lives and actions of those who were touched—intimately or peripherally—by the spirit of the land and what transpired there. I recently visited with the founders, Lisa and Belden Paulson, at their solar home at the edge of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in eastern Wisconsin on the beautiful land still known as High Wind. With their help, and drawing heavily on what has already been written about the pioneering High Wind adventure, the following is an overview of that story.—Miriam Kashia

Belden Paulson shares stories from his life in Odyssey of a Practical Visionary, available from Thistlefield Books.

Belden Paulson shares stories from his life in Odyssey of a Practical Visionary, available from Thistlefield Books.

Lisa Hill and Belden Paulson met in Italy in 1952, where Belden had created an assistance center for Neapolitans bombed out in WWII. They married and went on to resettle Iron Curtain refugees on the island of Sardinia. Later, in Rome, Belden served with the United Nations to clear the refugee camps throughout Italy.

In 1962, Belden joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) and UW-Extension as a professor of political science. Building from his early, international work, he helped to organize the university’s innovative urban mission, addressing poverty and racism.

Lisa Paulson is a self-described writer, poet, and artist, spiritual seeker, and lover of nature. While living in Milwaukee and raising their two sons, Lisa immersed herself in a number of arts projects. In the early 1970s, she also helped to develop and then teach in a school that explored altered states of consciousness.

The journey through High Wind’s remarkable lifespan began 30 years ago with an ideal that grabbed the Paulsons and would not let go. The couple gave generously of their land, time, wisdom, energy, financial resources and skills to nurture a seedling evolutionary change in consciousness. They, and many others who joined the High Wind movement, literally helped invent the wheel of sustainable living.

Early Inspiration

Through Lisa’s contacts at the school for altered states of consciousness, she became interested in the renowned spiritually eclectic community in northern Scotland called Findhorn. A visit there in 1976 proved to be life changing.

Barrelhouses at Findhorn. Photo: Courtesy Findhorn

Barrelhouses at Findhorn. Photo: Courtesy Findhorn

A primary objective of Findhorn was to reestablish the connection between people and nature—people working in conscious harmony and cooperation with nature, rather than manipulating it or having dominion over it.

Lisa was motivated there by the hundreds of people talking about the urgent need to practice alternative models of living, addressing the issue of finite resources and the imperative to develop renewable sources of energy—long before most of America had even heard about this crisis or knew what sustainability meant.

Returning to the United States, Lisa vowed to bring these ideas back to Wisconsin. The Paulsons traveled to the New Alchemy Institute in Nova Scotia and Cape Cod in 1977 to see the institute’s experimental “bioshelter,” a state-of-the-art passive solar building. New Alchemy was a pioneering group focusing on renewable energy, energy-efficient construction and sustainable agriculture. Scientists there convinced the Paulsons to try something comparable in Wisconsin.

Belden says,  “I got approvals from university officials to begin lining up a series of seminars, not only for traditional students but also for the larger community. Two of our early courses were breakthroughs on subjects new to our conventional academic curricula: Planetary Survival and the Role of Alternative Communities, and New Dimensions of Governance—Images of Holistic Community. At a time when campus classes were losing enrollments, these were dramatically oversubscribed.”

Through Belden’s affiliation with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the couple co-sponsored a wide variety of educational programs that focused on “new paradigm thinking.” These credit seminars, short courses, lectures, national conferences, tours, and solar home-building workshops, attracted dedicated people and created the impetus for launching the nonprofit High Wind Association.

Intentional Community

A $25,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build their own bioshelter attracted many enthusiastic volunteers.

“When we convened a meeting in Milwaukee on a blustery evening in February 1981 to announce the grant and to seek volunteers, one hundred people showed up,” Belden says. They volunteered to help build the experimental bioshelter (a passive-solar building designed to produce, rather than consume, energy), where a family might live as well as grow and sell food from its greenhouse.

“Immediately, an experienced carpenter agreed to be lead builder for bioshelter construction, and a teacher/gardener came to grow food to support the workers,” Belden says. “Soon, a Ph.D. psychologist signed on to help run the household operation, including the kitchen.

“Suddenly, the land we owned 50 miles north of Milwaukee, whose use we quickly donated to High Wind, was humming with activity. The old turn-of-the-century farmhouse had become a ‘pressure cooker,’ with 10 residents and two dogs, soon spilling out into the big barn and renovated chicken coop,” Belden adds. “A volunteer construction gang evolved into what we came to realize was an “intentional community.”

To walk gently on the earth,

To know the spirit within,

To hear our fellow beings,

To invoke the light of wisdom, and

To build the future now.

 (High Wind Credo)

High Wind was an amazing—albeit sometimes chaotic—experiment, a pioneering organization in multiple arenas:

  • Sustainable living in harmony with the earth
  • Community by consensus
  • Conflict resolution in practice
  • Container for personal growth
  • Experimental use of sources of food and energy
  • Spiritual values woven into everyday life
  • Education about a more responsible and meaningful way of living

Inevitable Evolution

The High Wind archives list the following characteristics of a sustainable world, a world that the volunteers were dedicated to creating:

  • A population that is stable in size and in balance with its natural support systems
  • An energy system that does not raise the level of greenhouse gases and disrupt the Earth’s climate
  • A level of human material demand that does not exceed the sustainable yield of soil, forests, grassland, and fisheries or systematically destroy the other species with which we share the planet

The High Wind community flourished for over twelve years, with up to twenty-two innovative, hardworking group of dedicated residents at a time, several of whom built their own solar homes on the land. The purpose of High Wind was to demonstrate a new way to think and to live, to show the practicality of renewable energy, to work with the land as an integral ecosystem and, at the same time, to co-sponsor education on these issues with the university. Construction, organic farming, educational programming, and living closely together consumed a lot of the residents’ energy.

“Because High Wind had been receiving more and more publicity and was listed in community directories worldwide,” Lisa says, “increasing numbers of visitors and seekers were showing up on our doorstep and clamoring for programs on all sorts of topics. This put huge stress on our small residential community, which was already under strain. The simplified, peaceful life we had envisioned and were dedicated to creating and demonstrating had somehow slipped away from us.

“So in May of 1991, the High Wind Board, along with the residents, made the momentous decision to let go of our identity as an intentional community. We decided to think of ourselves, instead, as an ‘ecological neighborhood’ of good friends who still shared the basic High Wind values, but without the heavy obligation to educate and to be a public model.

“We gave ourselves breathing room to exercise our individuality, pursue our personal interests and projects, and enjoy the privacy that wasn’t possible when we functioned more as a group.”

The Plymouth Institute

Though the formal community had dissolved, the mission continued to evolve and expand with ongoing programs through a new High Wind offshoot, Plymouth Institute, located on adjacent property purchased in 1991. The ecologically rich, 144-acre site contained 19 artesian wells, wetlands, more than 30 ponds, a fish hatchery, conference center, and cedar chalets.

Plymouth Institute was operated through a consortium of environmental designers, eco-developers, inventors, educators and artists, working to develop demonstration programs in sustainable living and development.

Lisa says, “With lots of fresh energy and enthusiasm, we obtained a grant from the Milwaukee Public Schools to bring 700 inner-city, middle-school kids up to the land over the next several years. The young people had a unique opportunity not only to experience being out in the countryside, but to be introduced to the important aspects of solar energy, aquaculture, organic farming, and nature study. They stayed for two to four days at a time, sleeping in our big High Wind barn.”

At the same time, a former High Wind community couple started what was probably the first subscription farming initiative in the Midwest on 25 acres they bought from High Wind; currently, they feed over 800 families in the greater Milwaukee area. Through the years, they collaborated closely with both High Wind and Plymouth Institute, offering hands-on learning experiences for their educational programs.

Plymouth Institute was committed to programs that illustrated the importance of the three U.N.-mandated “E’s” of a sustainable world:

  • Environment: Human impact does not exceed the carrying capacity of the natural environment.
  • Economics: People have opportunities to meet their essential economic needs and to pursue a lifestyle that is ecologically sensitive rather than destructive.
  • Equity: Society is free of conflict, all humans know peace, and all people are treated justly.

The Paulsons and their associates planned an impressive array of projects involving research, development, and demonstration at Plymouth Institute. Partnerships evolved with the Milwaukee Public Schools, the University of Wisconsin, and the President’s Council for Sustainable Development.

“However, many of the initiatives we were trying to develop at Plymouth Institute, such as innovative scientific and architectural experiments that would evolve into small business ventures, proved not to be feasible,” says Lisa. “We weren’t business people, we were educators.

The Paulsons' solar home, in the High Wind ecovillage. Photo: Courtesy Lisa Paulson

The Paulsons' solar home, in the High Wind ecovillage. Photo: Courtesy Lisa Paulson

“Even our nationally admired plan to create a world-class ecovillage with state-of-the-art technologies was shot down by our local township. The idea of clustering homes, sharing wells, constructing a biological waste treatment system, renewable energy schemes, holding open land in common, were all considered too far-out. ‘Communists!’ shouted someone in a town meeting.

“The result was that we were forced to sell this property in 1998, holding out until most of it was acquired by the Department of Natural Resources—an outcome that relieved and pleased us all.

“Plymouth Institute was formally dissolved, and our attention reverted to our flagship, High Wind. Because High Wind had always focused primarily on spreading its ideas through education, the Board next created the High Wind Retreat and Learning Center to encompass experiences that would strengthen our central purposes on all fronts: spiritual, community-building, appropriate technology, and innovative curricula. The staff running the Center was independent of the new eco-neighborhood arrangement we had settled into comfortably, although some of the neighborhood folks chose to be involved.”

Ripples Still Spread

“Eventually,” Lisa says, “we realized that we didn’t have the energy to continue with the intensity these public programs required. Also, in more recent years we had mainly been renting our buildings to outside groups for their own retreats and programs.

Lisa Paulson's book is available for puchase through Thistlefield Books.

Lisa Paulson's book is available for puchase through Thistlefield Books.

“In 2001, the Board made the radical decision to sell our public buildings at High Wind. Tired at last of simply maintaining and renovating the physical plant, we started looking for suitable buyers who held the same general values as High Wind, and who would respect and cherish the land as we did.

“It was our great good fortune to find two Buddhist groups, both of whom had been sponsoring retreats and bringing meditation classes to High Wind for years, and who knew and loved the property.

“A Tibetan Shambhala group from Milwaukee bought the bioshelter, renaming it ‘Windhorse.’ Japanese Zen practitioners from Chicago became owners of the original farmhouse/barn/chicken coop complex, calling themselves ‘Bright Dawn.’ ”

With cash in hand from these sales, High Wind created a foundation to make small grants throughout the region. “It was a real switch for us,” says Lisa, “since, for nearly 30 years, we had always had our hand out looking for donations.

“We’ve given grants to a local children’s camp, the Interfaith Council of Milwaukee, nature programs for the Milwaukee Public Schools through the Urban Ecology Center, and several small businesses and churches agreeing to implement sustainable initiatives.

“Meanwhile, those still living at High Wind (some 20 residents, full or part-time—about the same number as lived here in the peak community days), continue to coexist gracefully, sharing occasional potlucks, books, DVDs, good conversation, walks in the woods, in-house concerts. A number of us connect actively in the local Plymouth community, as well as in Milwaukee.

Lisa Paulson tells the story of High Wind in her beautifully illustrated book, available from Thistlefield Books.

Lisa Paulson tells the story of High Wind in her beautifully illustrated book, available from Thistlefield Books.

“With our personal responsibility for day-to-day activities and welfare of High Wind eliminated or greatly reduced, Bel and I have been freed up to write retrospective accounts of our lives and our involvement with High Wind from our different perspectives.

“My first book, in 2008, Voices From a Sacred Land: Images and Evocations, draws on the intimate experiences of all of us High Wind residents living in close proximity to nature through the seasons and years.

“Then Bel wrote his memoir in 2009: Odyssey of a Practical Visionary, detailing adventures from resettling refugees after WWII in Italy, to tackling inner-city problems, and broadening his role as political science professor to pioneering in the field of ‘futures studies.’ His book looks at long-range solutions for a world in crisis, and includes a detailed account of High Wind’s evolution.

“My second book came out in late 2010: An Unconventional Journey: The Story of High Wind, from Vision to Community to Eco-Neighborhood. It covers my own life journey that led to our founding of High Wind, complete with many photos of our life and activities as the community evolved from the late 1970s.”


Founders, Lisa and Belden Paulson, at High Wind. Photo: Courtesy Lisa Paulson

Founders, Lisa and Belden Paulson, at High Wind. Photo: Courtesy Lisa Paulson

To many of us in the 1980s, High Wind was a life-changing, transformative opportunity to witness and be a part of what I can only describe as a daring and passionate experiment in spiritual, ecological, and social wholeness.

There are literally thousands of groups today working to promote conscious living on the planet, in balance with nature. It is no small task to recreate one’s inner and outer life, but it is what we must do to save our world and ourselves.

When you follow the birth and evolution of High Wind, you may well marvel at the subsequent changes in consciousness in our country during the short years since the start of the noble High Wind experiment. You may also recognize the distance we have yet to travel as the climate-change clock keeps ticking and precious resources dwindle. Perhaps the story of High Wind will be an inspiration for what is possible.

“It’s our hope that the questions about the direction of our culture that High Wind, among others, has posed, and which we’ve spoken and written about,” says Lisa, “will be recognized and addressed as the country slips into what we can imagine will be an era of unprecedented challenges.

“But we’re a country with a history of rising to great challenges, and eventually should be able to adjust to the profound changes in our thinking and lifestyles that will be required. What’s needed in enormous degree,” Lisa adds, “is understanding and foresight, will and daring, compassion and spirit.”

Miriam Kashia

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet, Green Living

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